The government should use Brexit to ensure councils are adequately funded to help tackle poverty, according to the United Nations’ extreme poverty and human rights rapporteur.
Professor Philip Alston said the government’s commitment to “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity measures have inflicted “great misery” on some of the most vulnerable people in society. However, the government had “remained determinedly in a state of denial” about increasing poverty.
While the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, Professor Alston said a fifth of the population (14 million people) is now living in poverty. He said it “seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty”.
Following a two-week visit his report, published last week, said: “This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in foodbanks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the government to appoint a minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation.
“And local authorities, especially in England, which perform vital roles in providing a real social safety net have been gutted by a series of government policies. Libraries have closed in record numbers, community and youth centres have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres have been sold off.”
Professor Alston said experts were predicting the number of children living poverty will significantly rise in the future.
“For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one,” said Professor Alston.
He said “many of the public places and institutions that previously brought communities together” had been “steadily dismantled or undermined” by austerity. While he noted “the Treasury and the government constantly repeat the refrain that fiscal policy must ‘avoid burdening the next generation’,” Professor Alston said: “The problem is that the next generation’s prospects are already being grievously undermined by the systematic dismantling of social protection policies since 2010.”
He said Brexit negotiations should “present an opportunity to take stock of the current situation and reimagine what this country should represent and how it protects its people”, adding: “It should ensure local governments have the funds needed to tackle poverty at the community level, and take varying needs and tax bases into account in the ongoing fair funding review.”
Professor Alston also said transport in rural areas “should be considered an essential service, equivalent to water and electricity, and the government should regulate the sector to the extent necessary to ensure that people living in rural areas are adequately served. Abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.”
On universal credit, Professor Alston said the welfare reforms had “almost certainly cost the country far more than their proponents will admit” and that any financial benefits “extracted from the benefits system since 2010 have been offset by the additional resources required to fund emergency services by families and the community, by local government, by doctors and hospital accident and emergency centres, and even by the ever shrinking and under-funded police force.”
Despite all of the problems, Professor Alston said he had “seen tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity, with neighbours supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services”.