By Giovanna Coi
A new report by Professor Philip Ashton, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human rights, offers damning evidence on the effects of prolonged austerity in the UK.
The report was commissioned by the Human Rights Council in Geneva and is the result of a two-week fact-finding mission in the UK. Professor Ashton argues that poverty is the result of a “political choice” carried out by successive governments since 2010.
According to him, austerity has been driven by a commitment to “radical social re-engineering”, underpinned by a value system which emphasises individual responsibility and looks at employment as the key to end poverty.
Advocates of austerity cite positive results. This approach, however, has also caused considerable damage to poorer households with vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minorities or people with disabilities, being disproportionately affected. As a result of extensive cuts to the welfare system, social support and local authorities, 14 million people live in poverty in the UK, and 1.5 million are destitute (meaning that they live on less than £70 per week). The figures come from the Social Metrics Commission. Currently, no official measures of poverty exist for the UK as a whole.
Universal Credit claimants may wait up to 12 weeks to receive the benefit and are increasingly resorting to food banks and charities, due to a social security system dubbed as “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous”. Since 2010, homelessness has grown by 60% and rough sleeping is up to 134%.
Faced with dwindling resources and increasing social demands, local authorities lack support from central government. Local welfare assistance schemes – which cover emergency needs – have been slashed by 72.5%. Cuts to public services disrupt the social fabric and deprive local communities of essential services, such as access to computers or support in filing online claims to Universal Credit.
Devolved administrations have been trying to shelter people from the adverse effects of government policies. Whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland have been able to provide emergency hardship funding, the Welsh government has struggled to devise adequate protection measures, as the power over social security benefits is not devolved. With one in four people living in relative poverty, Wales is particularly vulnerable to the effects of austerity.
The government has rejected the allegations put forward by the UN report. Amber Rudd, the newly appointed Work and Pensions Secretary, stated she was “disappointed” by the “political” language of the inquiry, despite conceding there are ongoing issues with Universal Credit. Under growing pressure from critics, the cabinet has increased funding for work allowances by £1.7 billion in the 2018 Budget. Around 2.4 million households could benefit from this measure. It has also extended the transition period to July 2023, as more categories will be brought under Universal Credit.
If austerity is really coming to an end, the question is: will that be enough? Critics argue the current system is unsustainable and would be severely strained in the event of an economic downturn. Less well-off households would take the brunt of a new recession, and many of them, the UN report warns, are just one crisis away from destitution.