As the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights ends his fact finding mission to the UK, Quakers in Bury St Edmunds would like to draw attention to some of his findings.
Professor Philip Alston began his fact-finding mission on 6 November and spent 12 days travelling to Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Essex, Glasgow, Jaywick, London and Newcastle.
He visited foodbanks and community groups, talking with MPs, academics, local officials and families in hardship. His final report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council next year, found that the UK government has inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies.
Finding that about 14 million people, (a fifth of the population), live in poverty and 1.5 million are destitute, being unable to afford basic essentials , Alston was critical of cuts and reforms introduced in the past few years “that have brought misery and torn at the social fabric”.
“Changes to taxes and benefits have taken the highest toll on those least able to bear it” said Alston, pointing out that the costs of austerity are falling disproportionately on the poor, women, ethnic minorities, children, single parents, asylum seekers and people with disabilities.
Focusing on Universal Credit, the Special Rapporteur found it a good idea in principle but one which was “fast falling into universal discredit”, and called for it to be overhauled, describing it as “gratuitously punitive in its effects” . Draconian sanctions and long payment delays were driving claimants into hardship, depression and despair, said Professor Alston. Its insistence upon the ‘digital-by-default’ approach excluded people without internet access or computer skills. “We are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm”, Alston said.
Deep cuts in council funding, together with the rapidly rising demand for social care, meant many local authorities were only providing basic services and this had led to the closure of libraries, parks and youth clubs. This was “damaging the fabric” of British society and eroding its sense of community.
Alston reports that the government is in a state of denial about the impact of austerity policies on those in poverty. Indeed, it seems already to have dismissed his findings saying it “completely disagreed” with his analysis, citing citing figures and statistics at odds with the experiences encountered by the Special Rapporteur.
As a faith body with a Testimony to equality, this deeply concerns the Society of Friends. A respected and eminent lawyer has taken a great deal of time and care in listening to people who are often ignored and has done what no politician of any party has yet done: placed their lived experience on the record.
The Society of Friends asks faith bodies, and all people of good faith, to read Professor Alston’s interim report, to reflect upon it, and to engage with their elected representatives. The people with whom Philip Alston has been speaking during his visit are fellow citizens. Many of them are living in misery and real despair. Every one of them is “unique, precious, a child of God. ” Politicians cannot be allowed to sweep them aside in a cloud of statistics and selective figures.