UK violating its human rights obligations finds UN poverty expert

Tue,21 May 2019
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The UK has violated its human rights obligations through sustained and widespread cuts to social support, says Professor Philip Alston the UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty said today.

Professor Alston’s report comes a day after Human Rights Watch published also published a report, Nothing Left in the Cupboards: Austerity, Welfare Cuts, and the Right to Food in the UK, that examines how cuts to the welfare system, have left many families with children in England going hungry and dependent on food aid from charities. It finds that the UK Government is failing to meet its duty under human rights law to ensure the right to adequate food.

In his final report on the impact of austerity in the UK, the UN Rapporteur accuses the Government since 2010 of being in a state of denial about the impact of its austerity and welfare reform policies.  Professor Alston holds that the UK's welfare safety net has been "deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos", and that tragically austerity policies “continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences”.

The report highlights the “shocking” rises in the use of food banks and rough sleeping, falling life expectancy for some, the “decimation” of legal aid, the denial of benefits to profoundly disabled people, falling teachers’ salaries in real terms and the impoverishment of single mothers and people experiencing mental ill health.

While Professor Alston acknowledges there have been increases in work allowances under universal credit and supporting the national minimum wage he says that these measures had had not stopped the “dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well-off”.

In terms of disabled people, the report says that Nearly half of those in poverty, 6.9 million people, are from families include a disabled person. Disabled people are more likely to be in poverty, and are more likely to be unemployed, in insecure employment, or economically inactive. They have also been some of the hardest hit from austerity measures. Duet to tax and welfare reforms since 2010, some families that include a disabled person are projected to lose £11,000 on average by 2021/22, more than 30% of their annual net income.

Professor. Alston adds that disabled people told me again and again about “benefits assessments that were superficial and dismissive, and that led to findings that contradicted the advice of their doctor.” He also recounts hearing from people choosing between heating their homes or eating, children turning up to school with empty stomachs, increased homelessness and food bank use, and "story after story" of people who had considered or attempted suicide.

Among the UN Rapporteur’s recommendations are that:

  • the UK should introduce a single measure of poverty and measure food security;
  • the Government should initiate an expert assessment of the cumulative impact of tax and spending decisions since 2010 and prioritize the reversal of the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and the bedroom tax;
  • the DWP should conduct an independent review of the effectiveness of reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions introduced since 2012; and
  • the five-week delay in receiving benefits under Universal Credit should be eliminated, separate payments should be made to different household members, and weekly or fortnightly payments should be facilitated.

Responding to the UN report, a DWP spokesperson said it was a completely inaccurate picture of its approach to tackling poverty: “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”.

And Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd is reported to be lodging a formal complaint with the UN about the report on the grounds that Professor Alston is politically biased and did not do enough research.

DR UK’s Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser said:

“The DWP’s response to this significant UN Report is glib and insulting.

Given the large number of previous similar reports by organsiations such as Human Rights Watch, the EHRC, the Joseph Rowntree Trust, the Trussell Trust and others, it beggars belief that the Work and Pensions Secretary would consider a formal UN complaint let alone that it would be successful.

Disabled people will recognise all too well the UN report's damning findings.

It is disabled people that have been hardest hit by welfare reforms with families with a disabled member more likely to be in receipt of social security benefits. Major welfare reforms have included the introduction of Universal Credit which has no disability element, PIP that is deliberately designed to reduce disability benefit expenditure by 20%, greater benefit conditionality, and benefit sanctions.

DR UK therefore strongly supports the recommendations of today’s UN report.”

The Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights is available @