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UN Expresses Concern At UK Austerity

Updated: Jul 31, 2019

A Political Commentary By Ben Dolbear

Philip Alston is, according to the United Nations, the current Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and last November, embarked on a twelve-day fact-finding tour of Great Britain, examining the impact of government policies such as Universal Credit, leaving the European Union, and ideological austerity, on communities up and down the country. His findings were damning, accusing the British government of breaking its human rights obligations and ignoring how Brexit would likely affect the worse off. Whilst, before his visit, Alston acknowledged that in the UK, one of the richest nations on Earth, ‘millions of people are still living in poverty’, his post-examination conclusions nevertheless convey feelings of shock and agitation, citing numerous UN conventions (including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) which are, according to him, ‘not at all satisfied by existing British policies’. 

In government, newly appointed Work & Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd dismissed the findings as ‘extraordinarily political [in] nature’, describing the tone as ‘highly inappropriate’, whilst her ex-cabinet colleague Esther McVey defended the benefits of Universal Credit for the vast majority (93%) of claimants. As the government remains resilient against attacks on their record on poverty, Philip Alston’s report, which will be published in June and will include 300 pieces of evidence from individuals and organisations adversely affected by poverty, will inevitably pile yet more pressure onto Theresa May and the Conservatives to act on the national epidemic of homelessness.

And it is difficult for the government to formulate any distance between the implementation of their policies and what many have argued are the direct consequence of those choices. Last month, the credibility of Prime Minister Theresa May’s bold conference assertion that ‘austerity is over’, was brought into disrepute by the Office for National Statistics, who reported that deaths among homeless people had risen by 24% over the past five years. These figures clearly present an image of urgent national crisis, especially when it is considered that over half of reported deaths came as a result of drug abuse, liver disease, or suicide. But they also serve to reflect the brutal fact that, in a reluctant admission by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, the number of people sleeping on Britain’s streets has continued to climb, without fail, in each of the seven consecutive years since 2010. 

But whilst academics have been eager to explore the many potential causes for the tragic global phenomenon of homelessness for decades, with US psychologist Alice Baum offering population explosion, rise in substance abuse problems, and mental illness as possible catalysts for rough sleeping as early as 1993, it has, from a present-day British perspective, proven difficult to extricate from responsibility the most recent string of Conservative governments, who have implemented policies such as devastating welfare reforms, which have, according to Homeless Link, exacerbated youth homelessness to a crippling degree. And whilst ministers, including Housing Secretary James Brokenshire, who recently claimed that government policy had nothing to do with the rise in rough sleeping, continue to blame homelessness on factors such as the spread of psychoactive drugs like spice, the UN's investigation is beginning to shed light on another side to the story of austerity in modern day Britain. | Tru.🌱

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Baum, A. S., & Burnes, D. W. (1993). A nation in denial: The truth about homelessness. Boulder, CO, US: Westview Press.


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