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No expectations? Expert compares UK welfare policy to age of Dickens

The Special Rapporteur meets with a pastor in Clacton
The Special Rapporteur meets with a pastor in Clacton Copyright Bassam Khawaja
Copyright Bassam Khawaja
By Lauren Chadwick
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In a scathing UN report on poverty in the UK, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said one-fifth of the UK's population was living in poverty.


The UN's poverty and human rights expert compared conservative welfare policies to a "digital and sanitised" version of the 19th-century workhouses made famous by Charles Dickens, in a damning report on poverty in the United Kingdom.

It's the world's fifth largest economy, and yet one-fifth of its population lives in poverty, said the report. That's 14 million people of which four million are more than 50% below the poverty line.

In two years from now, it continued, close to 40% of children will be living in poverty. Meanwhile, 16% of people over 65 live in relative poverty.

"British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping, and elevate the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest economic levels of British society," said the report.

"It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitised version of the nineteenth-century workhouse made infamous by Charles Dickens."

"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," Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and poverty, said in his final report summarising findings from a two-week mission to the UK completed in November 2018.

UK standards of well-being have lowered "in a remarkably short period of time", Alston, an Australian lawyer based in New York, said.

He called Brexit "a tragic distraction" from the social economic policies that are shaping Britain, stating that if Brexit proceeds, it's likely to negatively impact the most vulnerable.

He blamed the government's austerity cuts including benefits reductions, merging of benefits into a Universal Credit, and cutting local funding. He said the UK should reverse the benefits freeze, caps, two-child limit, and restore local government funding.

"It's hard to imagine a recipe better designed to exacerbate inequality and poverty and to undermine the life prospects of many millions," Alston said of the government's welfare cuts.

The UN report follows a similarly damning report that was released on Monday by the non-profit Human Rights Watch, which said that the UK's austerity policies had increased food poverty in the country.

Alston doubled down on his critique of the policies, stating that the government's policies would condemn the poor to lives that were, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," quoting English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

The UK Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) responded that they take tackling poverty seriously and spend £95 billion a year on welfare.

"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," a DWP spokesman told Euronews.

"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," the government spokesperson said, a statement that is directly refuted by the UN report.

The UN report said that the fact that a fifth of the population lives in poverty despite record employment levels shows that "employment alone does not keep people out of poverty."

Indeed almost 60% of those in poverty were families where someone works, the report found.

The UN said there was a "striking disconnect" between what the UK government said and what people in the UK told Alston. The report is set to be discussed at the UN Human Rights Council's 41st session in late June.

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