UN report: Austerity drive has had 'tragic social consequences' for UK

Alan McGuinness, political reporter

An "ideological" drive for austerity has had "tragic social consequences" and resulted in the UK violating its human rights obligations, the UN has claimed.

UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston said that although the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, one-fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017.

Mr Alston, an Australian international law scholar, said in a report that the Conservative government's austerity drive since 2010 had led to the "systematic immiseration (sic) of millions".

But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) responded by saying the report was a "barely believable documentation of Britain" that presented a "completely inaccurate picture" of the government's approach to tackling poverty.

Mr Alston visited the UK in November and his final report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council next month.

In it, he said the "glue that has held British society together" has been replaced by a "harsh and uncaring ethos".

"The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities' budgets, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres, and sold off public spaces and buildings," Mr Alston said.

"The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.

"A booming economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda."

The report makes a number of recommendations to the government.

It calls on Downing Street to reverse a number of what it says are "particularly regressive" measures, like the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and reduction in housing benefit.

Mr Alston also said local government funding should be restored to give social protection and tackle poverty.

Looking at the overall picture, he said the government's policies since 2010 amount to a "clear violation" of the country's human rights obligations.

"Considering the significant resources available in the country and the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have resulted in significantly worse outcomes, the policies pursued since 2010 amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the country's human rights obligations," Mr Alston said.

Responding to the criticism, the DWP said it was spending £95bn annually on welfare and the state pension system that supports people into retirement.

A spokeswoman said: "The UN's own data shows the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live, and other countries have come here to find out more about how we support people to improve their lives.

"Therefore this is a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here.

"It paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty.

"All the evidence shows that full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life, which is why our welfare reforms are focused on supporting people into employment and we introduced the national living wage, so people earn more in work."

Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood said the report should be a "source of shame" for the government.

She added: "This report is a shocking indictment of the brutal cuts to social security introduced by Conservative-led governments since 2010 and the deeply flawed, punitive system that they have created.

"The government attacked the initial report in November as being 'political' and brushed it aside. It must now end this state of denial, listen to the evidence and take urgent action to tackle the profound injustices in our society."