UN rapporteur starts UK tour to examine impact of austerity

Philip Alston to meet MPs and families in hardship before publishing interim report
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A United Nations special investigator is launching a two-week inquiry into rising levels of poverty and hardship across the UK, saying he hopes the government is ready for proper dialogue over the human consequences of austerity cuts.

Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, is to embark on a tour of some of the UK’s poorest town and cities on Monday, visiting food banks and community groups and meeting MPs, government officials, academics and families in hardship.

Alston, who has a reputation as a fearless, plain-speaking critic, will gather evidence on the impact of universal credit, welfare changes, local government cuts, and rising living costs before publishing an interim report on his findings before he leaves the UK in mid-November.

“I think the UK is at a crossroads, partly because of Brexit, and partly because of the comments made by the prime minister and the chancellor in terms of austerity [being over],” he said. “My hope is that there is a real possibility for a dialogue about future policy direction.”

He is scheduled to visit Glasgow, Barking, Oxford, Belfast, Newham in east London, Newcastle upon Tyne and Cardiff. He will also travel to Jaywick Sands in Essex, the UK’s most deprived neighbourhood, which last week was used in an political advert for the Republican party in the US midterm elections as an example of extreme social decay.


His inquiry will assess whether government policies introduced in recent years breach international human rights standards to which the UK is a signatory, including the rights to food, housing and decent living standards. He will also try to assess the impact of Brexit on poverty.

“The United Kingdom is one of the richest countries in the world, but millions of people are still living in poverty there,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said it was “committed to upholding the rule of law and rules-based international systems”. It insisted that on an absolute measure of poverty a million fewer people and children were living in hardship compared with 2010.

Alston has received nearly 300 submissions from charities, poverty experts and individuals living on the breadline – a record for a UN poverty audit – and said they “make clear many people are really struggling to make ends meet”.

The visit comes at a time of rising political concern about the effects of years of public spending cuts. Last month Theresa May pledged to end a decade of austerity, in part a response to increasing public disquiet over the rollout of universal credit, rising homelessness and destitution, and relentless cuts to social care, council services, schools, police and prisons.

Alston said it was important to track the human rights consequences of the UK government’s economic decisions. “Policies of austerity are commonly executed only in response to requirements by the International Monetary Fund or an external source,” he said. “They haven’t been adopted by governments as a concerted and deliberate economic policy.”

Ministers will be braced for criticism from Alston, although his recommendations are not binding. His presence in the UK is likely to provoke outrage from right-wing media and politicians. Five years ago criticisms of the bedroom tax after a visit by the UN’s then housing rights envoy, Raquel Rolnik, were aggressively dismissed by ministers as a “misleading Marxist diatribe”.

Alston sparked a furious reaction from Donald Trump’s administration earlier this year when he published a withering inquiry report accusing the US president of pursuing policies that deliberately forced millions of Americans into financial ruin while lavishing vast riches on the super-wealthy.

He described policies introduced or proposed by Trump – including cuts to food stamps, social housing subsidies, and healthcare – as “a systematic attack on America’s welfare program that is undermining the social safety net for those who can’t cope on their own”.

The UK government formally accepted Alston’s request for an official visit in December 2017, but it is not yet clear which – if any – UK government minister he will meet. He is scheduled to meet Welsh and Scottish ministers in Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said Alston’s tour would reveal an affluent country with a growing child poverty crisis. “It is important to shine a light on child poverty in the UK and there is plenty of evidence to keep him busy during his stay,” she said.

However, the number of people in relative poverty, which defines people as in poverty if their household income falls below 60% of the UK median, were about the same in 2016-17 as the year before – at 10.4 million, according to the House of Commons library. Child poverty was at a 13-year low in 2010 but has subsequently increased. More than 4 million children currently live below the breadline, a number that could rise to 5.2 million by 2021, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Food banks and an increase in rough sleeping on the streets of Britain have made rising destitution more visible. Destitution is extreme poverty defined as a regular lack of food, adequate clothing and shelter. About 1.5 million people, including 350,000 children, experienced destitution in 2017, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.


Robert Booth and Patrick Butler

The GuardianTramp

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