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Government censured for response to UN report on extreme poverty in the UK

11 January 2019


A homeless man dressed as Father Christmas on the pavement in Oxford Street, London, last month

A homeless man dressed as Father Christmas on the pavement in Oxford Street, London, last month

THE Government’s “disdainful” response to the recent United Nations report on extreme levels of poverty in the UK, including the surge in the use of foodbanks, is “shameful”, MPs said this week.

After a visit to the UK in November, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, expressed his dismay that one-fifth of the population in the UK, 14 million people, were living in poverty — half of whom were below the breadline (Comment, 23 November).

In his report, he described “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”.

This was “patently unjust and contrary to British values”, given that the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, he said. Brexit and government reforms such as Universal Credit had, he concluded, “almost certainly cost the country far more than their proponents will admit”.

The Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, at the time, criticised the report for its “extraordinary political nature” (News, 23 November).

In a debate held in the House of Commons on Monday night, MPs described the Government’s response to the UN report as “shameful” — and levels of child poverty and its treatment of disabled people as “unacceptable”. There are about 4.5 million children living in poverty in the UK.

The Labour MP for South Shields, Emma Lewell-Buck, who led the debate, said: “Unlike the Government, who have treated Professor Alston’s well-evidenced and thorough statement with complete and utter disdain, I want to personally thank him for his conviction in passionately highlighting the absolute shame, degradation, and harm that this Government are inflicting on those they govern, which has led to 14 million people living in poverty.”

Universal Credit should have simplified payments and motivated people into work, she said. “Crucially, however, it was never designed to get support to those who needed it in a timely and efficient manner. . . It was about creating a hostile environment, and demonising and dehumanising benefit claimants.”

The Democratic Union Party MP for Strangford, Northern Ireland, Jim Shannon, agreed. In his constituency, the Trussell Trust reported a 20-per-cent increase in foodbank use over Christmas, he said, “because of debts due to delays in first Universal Credit payments, leading to people being forced to choose between paying rent and feeding their children”.

December is the busiest month for the trust. In December 2017, its network provided almost 160,000 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, of which more than 65,600 went to children. This represented a 49-per-cent increase on the monthly average that year.

The charity expected a further rise last month, but has not yet collated the figures.

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Justin Tomlinson, responded that the Government had spoken to Professor Alston and would “consider seriously” his report; but he also suggested that it had not focused enough on the “good work” of staff and volunteers.

Mr Tomlinson said that the richest fifth of the UK population were “£800 less well off under this Government”, and the poorest were £400 better off. He acknowledged that more work had to be done to decrease the price of food and use of foodbanks.

On Tuesday, the Conservative MP Heidi Allen and the now independent MP Frank Field announced the launch of a follow-up inquiry into the “extent and causes of chronic poverty” in England. It would “refresh” the findings of a cross-party inquiry conducted five years ago, an announcement read.

Ms Allen said: “Our inquiries through the Work and Pensions Select Committee, and projects we are implementing with Feeding Britain provide us with regular insights into poverty. The focus of these visits is to expose the nature of this poverty in its entirety, understand what causes it, and, most importantly, identify what needs to be done to address it.”

Mr Field said that the purpose was to discover “how the soft underbelly of our society — the other England — can be strengthened so that none of our fellow citizens are pushed into destitution”.

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