The United Nations rapporteur visiting the UK to assess the state of extreme poverty and human rights in the country has concluded that ministers are “pleading ignorance” to the crisis point reached thanks to austerity, saying that many of the policies which greatly and negatively affect the poorest people in the UK “could be changed overnight,” for little cost and effort.
In a press conference, Philip Alston identified the UK’s benefits system as a primary cause for concern in terms of poverty and human rights, noting that the deep cuts made to the benefits system to allow the money to be redistributed have not made as many savings as had been hoped by the government.
Alston said that austerity breached four separate UN human rights agreements regarding women, children, disabled people, and economic and social rights. He said: “If you got a group of misogynists in a room and said how can we make this system work for men and not for women they would not have come up with too many ideas that are not already in place.”
In spite of Alston’s assessment, the government said that it “completely disagreed” with his conclusions.
“Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so,” he said, noting that the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are spending as much as £125m per year mitigating governmental policies, such as the case in the SNP’s changes to the Universal Credit system in Scotland which make fundamental changes to the governmental system, allowing for more control and flexibility over benefits for Scots.
In a scathing assessment of Universal Credit, Alston noted that the system is driven by a desire for the government to let claimants know that they are totally on their own, with the “unwelcoming” system reminding claimants that they are lucky to get anything, in what one MP told him was a military-style “command and control” approach.
He also called the five to 12 week waiting period for benefits “unnecessary and almost gratuitous,” the single house payment “extremely problematic” to women, and the consequences of sanctions “grim,” noting that the government could change them overnight for very little money, should they have the desire to do so. However, he said that the system in place exists as there is no motivation to create a “more compassionate” system, but an ideological one which makes people fearful.
Alston will present his report to the UN next week.Get your copy of UNITE Magazine
Image: Flickr/UN Geneva