UN envoy blasts UK government for ‘great misery’ of austerity

Successive UK governments over the past decade have inflicted “great misery” on millions of Britons with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies, according to the United Nations’ poverty envoy.

The critical remarks on Friday came amid deep political turmoil in the UK over its looming departure from the European Union – or Brexit, as it is widely known – and growing economic worries over the prospect of a disorderly exit from the bloc.

In a damning report, Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, lambasted poverty rates in Britain’s age of austerity as a “social calamity and an economic disaster”.

“Fourteen million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50 percent below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials,” Alston said, citing figures from the UK-based Social Metrics Commission and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation charity.

“The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so,” he added.

Austerity-era Britain

Over the past eight years, consecutive governments led by the country’s Conservative party have enforced widespread austerity measures as part of efforts to reduce Britain’s national debt levels in the wake of the the financial sector’s implosion in 2008.

The protracted British strategy of budget cutting – although not as draconian as in other EU countries, such as crisis-hit Greece – has seen funding for local authorities and public services slashed and welfare provisions dramatically cut back. According to the Local Government Association, between 2010 and 2020, local councils in the country will have lost 60p ($0.77) out of every £1 ($1.28) the government had provided for services.

“Libraries have closed in record numbers, community and youth centers have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centers have been sold
off,” Alston said in his 24-page report.

But in recent months, the government has been cautiously signalling a “light at the end of the tunnel” for the country’s public finances, pointing to declining debt levels and the continuous drop of the budget deficit – from almost 9.9 percent in 2009-2010 to 1.9 percent this year – amid the increased focus on spending cuts. 

In late October, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said in his annual budget speech – his last before Brexit – that “the era of austerity is finally coming to an end”.

Hammond’s October 29 announcement came three weeks after earlier claims by Prime Minister Theresa May that austerity was “over” and “better days” were ahead.

But critics have pointed to the shutting down of public institutions, soaring homelessness rates, rising food bank use and projected rises in poverty rates as evidence of the austerity programmes devastating social implications.

In his report, Alston accused authorities of remaining “determinedly in a state of denial” over the impact of their fiscal approach.

“The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities,” he said.

“In the area of poverty-related policy, the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering,” he added.

Government pushback

In response to a request for comment on Alston’s report, the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) quoted an unnamed government spokesperson as saying that it “completely” disagreed with the envoy’s analysis.

“With this government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now one million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010,” the spokesperson cited by DWP said.

“We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it,” the spokesperson added.

Also on Friday, May, who has come under intense public scrutiny and parliamentary pressure over her draft Brexit deal, announced the appointment of a new government minister to head the negotiations with Brussels. Stephen Barclay was named Brexit secretary, replacing Dominic Raab who was one of the several ministers to quit on Thursday over the proposed withdrawal agreement.

The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, nearly three years after 52 percent of Britons voted in favour of ending the country’s 43-year membership of the 28-member bloc during a deeply divisive referendum.

Kartik Raj, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, called on the UK’s leaders to heed the UN envoy’s report despite the ongoing political unrest.

“Professor Alston’s excoriating analysis of the UK government’s failures to tackle poverty makes for devastating reading,” Raj said.

“The government needs to sit up and pay attention to what he has said at this crucial time, not hope that his recommendations get buried in the nonstop rolling news coverage of Brexit,” he added.

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