The British government’s austerity campaign is “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” and has caused “great misery” not for any economic requirement but to satisfy a political aim of social re-engineering, the United Nations’ poverty envoy has said.
UN special rapporteur on poverty, Philip Alston, submitted his damning 24 page report at the end of a two-week countrywide investigation, in which Unite Community members assisted.
In a devastating rebuke of the Tories’ austerity driven policies, Alston said that despite being the globe’s fifth biggest economy, the UK’s levels of child poverty are “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”.
Alston pointed to research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that shows around 14m people – 20 per cent the population – are living in poverty, while 1.5m are destitute and unable to support themselves in anyway.
He also cited estimates that child poverty could increase by 7 per cent in the seven years to 2022 and could even reach a rate of 40 per cent.
The human rights lawyer said that in the UK “poverty is a political choice”, even though “it is patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty.”
Alston singled out Chancellor Philip Hammond’s tax giveaway to the rich in this month’s budget as an example of the government’s skewed priorities.
He said, “Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so.”
Alston visited towns and cities across the UK, including the country’s poorest town, Jaywick in Essex, where he attended a meeting organised in conjunction with local Unite Community branches.
Unite Community Clacton branch chairman Rick Grogan spoke of the type of accounts Alston heard from people during his visit to Jaywick.
He said, “We were assisting one family who had to move out of their home during the summer and live on the beach at night because they had rats running across their beds – they’d been on to the landlord for months.
“When the council finally went in to have a look, the home wasn’t even fit for human habitation. We managed to get that sorted and get the house refurbished, but slum landlords are a real problem here.”
Grogan said although poverty was particularly acute in Jaywick, which he described as a tight knit and supportive community, it is also an issue in the surrounding areas.
“People are falling through the cracks and Universal Credit is making things worse. It was rolled out in this area in summer and even since then we’ve been seeing the effects. When it goes out across the country it is going make poverty much much worse. The entire system is disaster,” he said.
Grogan explained that the root causes of poverty are multi-faceted and complex and include a lack of adequate housing, a failing education system and the dismantling of the social safety net.
However he was clear at where the blame lies.
He said, “It’s the government from top to bottom. They have failed us and they need replacing urgently.”
The UN rapporteur was just as damning in his assessment of growing poverty in the UK.
He said, “It’s obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in food banks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the government to appoint a minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation.”
Alston said parts of the Universal Credit system are “Orwellian” and that it was “fast falling into universal discredit”.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said, “The Tories’ austerity has always been a political choice. It was no accident that those who have paid the heaviest price for the cuts to our services and longest slump in wages in two centuries were the poor and the vulnerable.
“But while the emphatic conclusions of the UN cannot be avoided or denied yet even more cuts are on the way, making a nonsense of the PM’s claim that `austerity is over’.
“A government that has brought so much harm to so many people is not government for the people. They should get out of the way and let the business of healing our country be done by a government that puts the people first.”