At Britain’s busiest food bank in Newcastle’s west end people loaded carrier bags with desperately needed groceries as unemployed Michael Hunter, 20, took his chance to spell out to one of the world’s leading experts in extreme poverty and human rights just how tight money can get in the UK today.
Previous destinations for Philip Alston, the United Nations rapporteur on the issue, have included Ghana, Saudi Arabia, China and Mauritania. But now his lens is trained on Britain, the fifth richest country in the world, and he listened as Hunter explained an absurdity of the government’s much-criticised universal credit welfare programme.
Users have to go online to keep their financial lifeline open, but computers need electricity – and with universal credit leaving a £465 monthly budget to stretch across the three people in Michael’s family (about £5 each a day), they can barely afford it with the meter ticking.
“I have to be quick doing my universal credit because I am that scared of losing the electric,” he said. Alston mentally logged the situation, ahead of a report ruling on whether Britain is meeting its international obligations not to increase inequality. But it was not just the computer that was too expensive to power.
“I am hungry sometimes,” Michael said. “I’m scared to eat sometimes in case we run out of food.”
“Universal credit has punched us in the face,” said his mother, Denise, 57. “Before much longer people will turn to crime. People will smash the windows to get what they want. This is going to cause riots.”
The Hunters’ story was just one of a long list of stark insights into life in poverty delivered by the people of Newcastle to Alston during his trip to uncover what austerity is doing to the people of the UK and “to investigate government efforts to eradicate poverty”.
Last year his no-holds-barred UN report into the impact of Trump-era policies on the US brought a stinging reaction from the White House. The odds are that Alston will say the UK is far from doing enough to meet its obligations. In 1976 the UK ratified the UN covenant on economic, social and cultural rights agreeing that policy changes in times of economic crisis must not be discriminatory, must mitigate, not increase, inequalities and that disadvantaged people must not be disproportionately affected.
But first he must gather evidence, and Newcastle is a good place to start. It was the first city to introduce the new all-in-one universal credit (UC ) welfare payment. The council says central government cuts and rising demand for services mean 60% is being wiped from its spending power between 2010 and 2020.
Once a place thriving with mines, metal works and engineering plants, more than a fifth of the city’s 270,000 population now live in the most deprived 10% of wards in England and Wales in terms of income, work, education, health, housing and crime. One in five households have no one in them aged over 16 earning money and child poverty is 50% higher than the national average, according to a briefing complied by the council for Alston.
But it is the individual stories that stand out. At Citizens Advice in the city centre Alston met Sharon Morton, who hasn’t had hot water or heating for a year and washes her body using a technique to minimise spending on boiled water.
“I wash in what I call a birdbath – a little hot water in a basin and have a spruce down,” she said. “To keep warm I wrap up in layers and layers. I never thought I would be 48 and in this position.”
Tracey Whitenstall, a mother of three, said that because of a 10-week delay in getting UC payments, she couldn’t afford her son’s bus fare and lunch money and so didn’t send him to school for several weeks as he was preparing for his GSCEs. As a result his grades slipped.
“It was the worst, him missing out on education,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.
There was Thushara Chandrasiri, who has a disabled right hand and was told by a disability benefits assessor that he could now work and was refusing him benefits.
“What I found disgusting was that when I said I had the condition a long time, they said you should be used to it by now,” he said. “Because I am right handed they said ‘you’ve got a left hand, use it’.”
They regaled Alston with stories about the frustration of dealing with the UC system, how messages they post on online journals take days to be answered. They explained how an anonymous figure, known only as “the decision maker” was often cited in correspondence, but they never knew who this was.
Alston is not ready to draw conclusions, but his concern was clear. Outside the food bank, which featured in Ken Loach’s austerity feature film I, Daniel Blake, he said: “When you have rates of maybe a third of children living in poverty and you have a food bank clientele at a place like this that is growing and growing and growing, you have issues here. Is the situation in the UK as good as it could be?”
The Labour leader of the city council, Nick Forbes, also briefed Alston on his anger at cuts and then told the Guardian of the “pain and misery” of universal credit.
“We had people coming to us who hadn’t eaten for several days,” he said. “It angers me beyond belief that the government has simply failed to listen to warnings that are supposed to come from a pilot [study].”
In Newcastle, UC has caused a spike in demand for short-term help to pay rent and electricity, the council claims. The council’s emergency housing payments budget – £100,000 in 2012 – is expected to hit £1m this year. The number of people needing emergency money for power is running at a rate 30 times higher than in 2016, before the rollout of UC began in earnest.
In response to Alston’s visit the Department for Work and Pensions said the UK government was “committed to upholding the rule of law and rules-based international systems” and insisted that on an absolute measure of poverty a million fewer people and children were living in hardship compared with 2010.
At the day drew to a close, Alston drove out to North Shields and spoke to residents at the Meadow Well estate, scene of riots in 1991 driven in part by poverty. Things had got better since then, but are getting worse again now, he heard.
Some people have to work five zero-hours jobs to make ends meet, said Phil McGrath, chief executive of the Cedarwood Trust community centre. The trust is encouraging residents to engage in local and national politics to have their voice heard. It is paying off with some people who have never voted turning out at the last general election, he said.
Mike Burgess, who runs the Phoenix Detached Youth Project, told Alston how 18 publicly funded youth workers in the area in 2011 had dwindled to zero today. He described how a young man he worked with was in hospital for months after having a kidney removed. The jobcentre said he had to get back to work or face being sanctioned (losing benefits). He went to work in pain, but his employer realised and said he was not fit.
“There’s no safety net for my lad or people with mental health problems,” he said.
And that is the hidden cost facing many at the sharpest end of austerity in Newcastle.
“In the last two or three weeks we have seen a massive increase in numbers of people with mental health issues and people with breakdown,” said McGrath, blaming benefit sanctions and a lack of social and mental health workers to catch people. “People are just being ground down.”