The UN poverty report: a scathing attack on relentless austerity

Rising homelessness is one of the most visible signs of Britain's every-expanding poverty problem. Source: Garry Knight (via Flickr)
A UN envoy has revealed the harsh impact of poverty in Britain - but the government still isn't listening

By Alys Hewitt

In a week where headlines were awash with the chaos of Brexit, November 16th saw the release of a scathing report by the UN revealing the harsh realities of acute poverty in Britain, which condemns the ‘punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous’ policies of successive governments that have allowed it to happen. Inflammatory language this may be, but the report exposes the blatant absence of compassion in our politics, painting a bleak portrait of a Britain ravaged by austerity, where homelessness and reliance on food banks is soaring. It highlights a social problem of vast proportions, which our government has consistently ignored in favour of their own interests.

In the report Phillip Alston, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, uses his experiences of travelling around Britain to draw attention to the ‘great misery’ experienced by ordinary people under a decade of austerity. He cites the fact that 14 million people (around a fifth of the population) are living in poverty, with 1.5 million of those being in a position where they are unable to afford basic essentials such as food, clothing, housing or heating. This poverty disproportionately falls upon women, children, disabled people and ethnic minorities.

Predictably, its publication has been met with denial and defensiveness from those in government; on Monday, new Work and Pensions secretary Amber Rudd criticised the report on the basis of its ‘extraordinary political’ and ‘wholly inappropriate’ language. But poverty is political – especially when its proliferation is made possible with decisions made by those in power. There is little point to covering up these revelations with neutral and detached language, as this is something that profoundly affects the lives of ordinary people. Politicians are so far removed from the reality of what is happening across the UK, from the consequences of their calculated decisions – that sometimes emotive language is the only way to have an impact and generate real understanding and sympathy. In this case, it is almost impossible to separate emotion from the experiences of those who have suffered most at the hands of government cuts.

This preoccupation with the language of the report, rather than the actual questions it poses about the nature of austerity, speaks volumes, and highlights precisely why we need this type of investigation in the first place. Ministers should listen – both to the report and the people they govern. The fact that it took the UN to engage with and give a platform to those in poverty is symbolic of the continuous neglect and feeling that the government are letting down those who need state help the most.

The report may be for now buried under the avalanche of news surrounding Brexit, but it arguably could not have come at a more poignant time – with ministers fleeing the mess they have created and an increasingly divided, disordered Cabinet, it is clear that we are living in the age of self-interest. Brexit is, and has always been, more about individual egos than what’s actually best for the UK’s worse-off. There therefore needs to be sustained pressure on the government after we leave the EU to prioritise the welfare of its citizens; Alston points out that during this uncertain period it is Britain’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged that will ‘take the biggest hit’.

We can only hope that Alston’s words have set a warning and a precedent for change in British society. Now more than ever we need a more compassionate and considerate kind of politics, which acts on rather than ignores the plights of the country’s poorest. The current policy of austerity is failing, and it is shameful that we needed a UN envoy to spell this out.

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