Charities back UN envoy’s warning on further UK austerity

UN rapporteur’s concern is ‘wake-up call’ for Sunak government considering cuts to benefits

Frontline charities have backed a United Nations envoy’s warning that a new wave of austerity would deepen already high levels of poverty and hunger in the UK and break international commitments.

Food banks and campaigners for elderly and disabled people were joined by the Labour chair of the work and pensions select committee and the leader of the Liberal Democrats in supporting the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty, who urged Rishi Sunak to reject deep spending cuts in this month’s budget.

Olivier De Schutter said he was “extremely troubled” by likely multibillion-pound spending cuts – including possible real-terms reductions in welfare payments – as Sunak and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, consider spending cuts and tax rises to fill an estimated £40bn hole in the public finances.

The Treasury responded by saying “our number one priority is economic stability and maintaining confidence that the UK is a country that pays its way” but that “the most vulnerable will be prioritised”.

The Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, said: “These UN warnings show just how stark the situation is for our country.” He said millions of pensioners and struggling families were in fear of how they would make ends meet, and added: “Rishi Sunak must show that this government has some heart somewhere and confirm now that benefits and pensions will be uprated in line with inflation.”

Stephen Timms, the chair of the House of Commons work and pensions committee, said: “[De Schutter] is right to warn about where we could be heading this winter. This year we have seen a very, very large real-terms fall in the value of social security benefits. The current headline level of benefits [for a single unemployed adult without housing costs] is the lowest in real terms since 1982-83.

“If they don’t [increase benefits in line with inflation], it is going to be grim and we will see the kind of thing the UN envoy is warning about.”

Several senior Conservatives, including Sajid Javid and Damian Green, have also called for an inflation-level benefits boost as political pressure grows on Sunak to raise taxes on the wealthiest people and companies, including through windfall taxes on energy firms.

The Trussell Trust network of 1,300 food bank centres saw a 46% increase in demand for food parcels in August and September compared with the same period last year.

Sabine Goodwin, the chief executive of the Independent Food Aid Network, which also represents food banks, said De Schutter’s comments were a wake-up call. “It’s unconscionable that the government is considering real-term cuts to benefits just as food aid providers are running out of options to cope with the tsunami of need coming their way,” she said.

Kamran Mallick, the chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “Disabled people are turning off vital health equipment, skipping meals and not purchasing medication because we can no longer afford to meet our everyday costs. We urge government to immediately increase benefits in line with inflation, make additional payments to meet the extra costs of disability and protect spending on vital public services.”

Malnutrition is a growing risk for older people, according to Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK. She said: “Mr De Schutter’s warning is well founded in that, if the UK government fails to raise the state pension and benefits in line with inflation, it will plunge many older people … into a genuinely desperate situation.”

The charity recently found that one in 10 over-60s who pay for social care have stopped it or cut it back or expect to do so soon, because it has become unaffordable.

De Schutter’s claim that a new wave of austerity would be in breach of the UK’s obligations as a party to the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights was endorsed by some lawyers.

“The cuts come as the UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights launches a review into the UK’s performance, and austerity may well constitute a breach of its international treaty obligation and would be strongly criticised,” said Dr Koldo Casla, the director of the Human Rights Centre Clinic at the University of Essex.


Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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