Brexit is just the latest way the UK government is inflicting “unnecessary misery” on the poor

“Heading for an alienated society.”
“Heading for an alienated society.”
Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The UK is the fifth-richest country in the world. And yet more than 14 million people—one-fifth of the UK’s population—live in poverty (pdf). There is something so troubling about the current state of Britain’s society that the government has appointed both a minister for loneliness and a minister for suicide prevention.

What is the UK doing wrong? According to a scathing new report from Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, the Conservative government’s austerity program has inflicted “unnecessary misery” on poor people. ”British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach,” Alston said in the report.

Alston, an independent investigator for the UN, recently spent two weeks traveling around the UK to learn about how low-income people have been impacted by the government’s social and spending policies over the past eight years. He’ll report his findings to the UN’s Human Rights Council Next year. And not only does he find that austerity has needlessly hurt the poor, he says that Brexit is bound to compound the damage—a consequence that Alston says the government is treating as an afterthought.

Since 2010, the governing Conservative party has been committed to austerity. Politicians argued that cuts to spending and social benefits were necessary to get the nation out of recession in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

But as even the International Monetary Fund admits, austerity doesn’t work. The UK’s program has already been exposed as a politically-motivated exercise to shrink the size of the state against good economic judgement. Alston’s report confirms this “radical social re-engineering” and firmly condemns the government’s policies for entrenching poverty. The cumulative damage is so bad that Alston believes the UK is in breach of several human rights conventions, such as those protecting children, women, and people with disabilities, as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. “There are quite a number of provisions that are not at all satisfied by British policies,” Alston said. 

Nearly a third of UK children are currently living in poverty, a figure Alston says “is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.” Austerity has cut local council budgets by 49% and led to benefit cuts that Alston describes as “draconian.” Libraries, youth centers, other public spaces, and legal aid have had their funding slashed. Homelessness is rising in the UK, and the number of food banks is rapidly growing. In the 12 months leading up to March 2018, Trussell Trust, a nationwide supplier of food banks, said it had given out 1.3 million emergency packages of food and supplies—a 13% increase on the year before.

Benefit cuts and changes have also had a disproportionately negative effect on women. Alston heard stories from women whose poverty meant that they struggled to escape domestic violence, were forced into prostitution, or couldn’t afford to properly care for their children.

Meanwhile, a major plank of the Conservatives’ policy—Universal Credit, which combines six social benefits under one system—has characteristics that are harsh, unnecessary, and gratuitous, Alston said. He pinpointed the five-week waiting period to receive payments, which can force people into more debt and despair as they wait for aid. In addition, Alston said the UK’s policy that limits benefits to no more than two children per family is “in the same ballpark” as China’s one-child policy for the way it punishes larger families and encourages controls over the size of poor families. In all, austerity is behind a “dismantling of the broader social safety net,” Alston said at a press conference in London on Nov. 16. It will take more than a minister for loneliness to stitch back the country back together.

The special rapporteur often spends time in developing countries, but told The New York Times that Britain was an important case study on the impact of austerity. Alston also visited the US at the end of last year and concluded that with political will, poverty could be eliminated there. “The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice,” Alston wrote in his preliminary report. “Austerity could easily have spared the poor.”

Yet the British government, according to report, has “remained determinedly in a state of denial.” Alston said officials told him that local councils were doing fine. “It’s a totally mechanical, economic analysis that ignores the damage that I think is being done to the fabric of British society,” Alston said in response to that.

The UN’s report is in direct contrast to the narrative offered by the Conservative government: Austerity was such a success that it can now, finally, end. “I can report to the British people that their hard work is paying off and the era of austerity finally coming to an end,” chancellor Philip Hammond said last month announcing the latest budget. Political leaders have chosen to focus on record low rates of unemployment and a recent acceleration in wage growth. They’re pitching the UK as a high-tech economy that can be a leader in artificial intelligence.

In response to the UN report, the Department for Work and Pension—which is on its sixth head since 2010 and is responsible for providing welfare—said it completely disagreed with Alston’s findings. It said the government had made policy changes that had led to higher incomes, lower inequality, and fewer people living in “absolute poverty.” That said, Amber Rudd, the newly appointed head of the DWP, said that Universal Credit would be improved and that the government would need to listen to concerns about its rollout.

(It’s also worth noting that the government uses several measures for poverty, which have been criticized by advocates for cherry-picking numbers that don’t give a comprehensive picture. An alternative measure was created by the Social Metrics Commission.)

These aggregate statistics and tech-based policies, while notable, disguise inequality and in-work poverty. Data show that nearly 60% of people in poverty live in a household where someone works, meaning that low employment rates are not necessarily a sign of reduced poverty. Not only hasn’t austerity worked, it’s also certainly not over—though it has been provisionally lessened.

Now, with Brexit looming, the UK’s divorce from the European Union is expected to leave Brits economically worse off. Already, the UK’s pace of economic growth is among the slowest in the G7 (paywall) and estimated to be 2% lower than if the Brexit vote had gone the other way. Household income has grown just 0.1% since the middle of 2016, compared to an average of 3.2% for all seven rich nations.

Alston notes there is distressing little discussion about the impact that Brexit will have on poor people, who will bear the brunt of the economic fallout. “To the extent that most commentators think that the Brexit vote itself had an element of economic alienation, of insecurity underpinning it, Brexit it going to make that worse,” Alston said.

Alston recommends that the British government formally improve their measures of poverty and create official measures of both homelessness and food insecurity. As well as formally declaring the end of austerity, the report says the UK should reverse the impact of its cuts by ending the benefit freeze, undoing the two-child limit, and revamping housing benefits that have been cut. But for now, he said, the UK is “heading to an alienated society,” in which the economic divide between the upper and lower class will only grow more entrenched.