UK austerity policies causing great pain and misery

The UK government’s austerity policies, which have led to sustained and widespread cuts in social support, “amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the country’s human rights obligations”, a UN rights expert has said.

by Kanaga Raja

GENEVA: The policies of austerity introduced by the government of the United Kingdom back in 2010 continue largely unabated despite the tragic social consequences, with 14 million people living in poverty, rising homelessness and falling life expectancy for certain groups.

This is one of the main conclusions highlighted by Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, in a report released on 22 May.

The Special Rapporteur undertook a mission to the UK on 5-16 November 2018, and his full report is now before the forty-first session of the UN Human Rights Council, which takes place from 24 June to 12 July.

In the report, the rights expert said that although the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, one-fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, and 1.5 million of them experienced destitution in 2017. Close to 40% of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021, he added.

“Food banks have proliferated; homelessness and rough sleeping have increased greatly; tens of thousands of poor families must live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks; life expectancy is falling for certain groups; and the legal aid system has been decimated.”

Alston said that the social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to budgets of local authorities, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres, and sold off public spaces and buildings.

The bottom line, said the Special Rapporteur, is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.

“The results of the austerity experiment are crystal clear,” said Alston. “There are 14 million people living in poverty, record levels of hunger and homelessness, falling life expectancy for some groups, ever fewer community services, and greatly reduced policing, while access to the courts for lower-income groups has been dramatically rolled back by cuts to legal aid.”

“The imposition of austerity was an ideological project designed to radically reshape the relationship between the Government and the citizenry,” said the Special Rapporteur.

“UK standards of well-being have descended precipitately in a remarkably short period of time, as a result of deliberate policy choices made when many other options were available.”

“The Government’s ‘work not welfare’ mantra conveys the message that individuals and families can seek charity but that the State will no longer provide the basic social safety net to which all political parties had been committed since 1945,” said Alston.

“It is hard to imagine a recipe better designed to exacerbate inequality and poverty and to undermine the life prospects of many millions,” he said. “But in response to this social calamity, the Government has doubled down on its policies.”

He said: “The endlessly repeated response that there are more people in employment than ever before overlooks inconvenient facts: largely as a result of slashed government spending on services, close to 40 percent of children are predicted to be living in poverty two years from now; 16 percent of people over 65 live in relative poverty; and millions of those who are in-work are dependent upon various forms of charity to cope.”

“Given the significant resources available in the country, the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have caused so much pain and misery, amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the United Kingdom’s human rights obligations,” said Alston.

“The Government should restore local government funding to ensure that crucial social protection can help people escape poverty, reverse particularly regressive measures such as the benefits cap and two-child limit, and audit the impact of tax and spending decisions on different groups.”

Rising poverty

In his report, the Special Rapporteur said the UK is a leading centre of global finance, boasts a “fundamentally strong” economy and currently enjoys record low levels of unemployment. But despite such prosperity, one-fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty. Four million of those are more than 50% below the poverty line and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017, unable to afford basic essentials.

Following drastic changes in government economic policy beginning in 2010, the two preceding decades of progress in tackling child and pensioner poverty have begun to unravel and poverty is again on the rise. Relative child poverty rates are expected to increase by 7% between 2015 and 2021 and overall child poverty rates to reach close to 40%. “For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain would not just be a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster rolled into one,” said the rights expert.

“But statistics alone cannot capture the full picture of poverty in the United Kingdom, much of it the direct result of government policies. Official denials notwithstanding, it is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes.”

Alston said that government reforms have often denied benefits to people with severe disabilities and pushed them into unsuitable work, single mothers struggling to cope in very difficult circumstances have been left far worse off, care for those with mental illnesses has deteriorated dramatically, and teachers’ real salaries have been slashed. The number of emergency admissions to hospitals of homeless people (“of no fixed abode”) increased sevenfold between 2008-09 and 2017-18.

In the past, the worst casualties of these “reforms” would have received at least minimal protection from the broader social safety net. But austerity policies have deliberately gutted local authorities and thereby effectively eliminated many social services, reduced policing services to skeletal proportions, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres, and sold off public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres.

“It is hardly surprising that civil society has reported unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation, prompting the Government to appoint a Minister for Suicide Prevention,” said Alston.

The Special Rapporteur however noted some positive developments as well. The 2018 budget introduced several changes to the government’s flagship benefits programme, Universal Credit (UC), including a welcome increase in work allowances, as a consequence of which an estimated 2.4 million households will be better off in 2019, and some 200,000 people will rise out of poverty. And the introduction of a minimum wage has helped reduce low pay.

But these developments have not stemmed the overall direction of the tide. The country’s most respected charities, its leading think-tanks, its parliamentary committees, independent authorities like the National Audit Office and many others have all drawn attention to the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well-off.

The Special Rapporteur said that he met with people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless, who have sold sex for money or shelter; children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future; young people who feel gangs are the only way out of destitution; and persons with disabilities who are being told they need to go back to work – against their doctor’s orders – or lose support.

State of denial

In the face of these problems, he said, the government has remained determinedly in a state of denial. While local authorities throughout England and Wales are outsourcing or abandoning services, and devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are frantically trying to “mitigate” or counteract the worst features of the government’s policies, ministers insist that all is well and running according to plan.

Despite some reluctant policy tweaks, there has been a deeply ingrained resistance to change. Most of the political debate around social well-being in the UK has focused only on the government’s explicit goals, the rights expert noted. They include a focus on employment, a quest for greater efficiency and cost savings, a determination to simplify an excessively complicated benefits system, a desire to increase the uptake of benefits by those entitled to them, removing the “welfare cliff” that deterred beneficiaries from seeking work and a desire to provide more skills training.

But in the area of poverty-related policy, the evidence suggests that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering – a dramatic restructuring of the relationship between people and the state.

Successive governments have brought revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it. Key elements of the post-war “Beveridge social contract” are being overturned. In the process, some good outcomes have certainly been achieved, but great misery has been inflicted unnecessarily.

The government has made no secret of its determination to change the value system to focus more on individual responsibility, to place major limits on government support and to pursue a single-minded focus on getting people into employment.

Many aspects of this programme are legitimate matters for political contestation, but it is the mentality informing many of the reforms that has brought the most misery and wrought the most harm to the fabric of British society. British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping, and elevate the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest economic levels of British society, said Alston.

“It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens, rather than seeking to respond creatively and compassionately to the real needs of those facing widespread economic insecurity in an age of deep and rapid transformation brought about by automation, zero-hour contracts and rapidly growing inequality.”


There is a striking and almost complete disconnect between the picture painted by the government, and what people across the country told the Special Rapporteur, he said. People said they had to choose either to eat or heat their homes. Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food and sending it home because teachers know their students will otherwise go hungry.

And 2.5 million people in the UK survive with incomes no more than 10% above the poverty line – just one crisis away from falling into poverty.

In England, homelessness rose 60% between 2011 and 2017, and rough sleeping rose 165% from 2010 to 2018. The charity Shelter estimates that 320,000 people in Britain are now homeless, and recent research by Crisis suggests that 24,000 people are sleeping rough or on public transportation – more than twice government estimates. Almost 600 people died homeless in England and Wales in 2017 alone, a 24% increase in the past five years. There were 1.2 million people on the social housing waiting list in 2017, but less than 6,000 homes were built that year.

And 2.5 million households in England, or 11% of the population, experienced fuel poverty in 2016. Food bank use increased almost fourfold between 2012-13 and 2017-18, and there are now over 2,000 food banks in the UK, up from just 29 at the height of the financial crisis.

Life expectancy rates have stalled, and the gap in life expectancy between the most deprived and most affluent communities increased steadily from 2001 to 2016 and is now 7.9 years for women and 9.7 years for men.

The government says work is the solution to poverty and points to record employment rates as evidence that the country is going in the right direction. But the fact that a fifth of the population live in poverty, despite record employment levels, makes clear that employment alone does not keep people out of poverty. Four million workers live in poverty, an increase of more than half a million in the last five years. In-work poverty is rising faster than employment and is higher than at any time in the last 20 years, driven by rising poverty among working parents.

Erosion of social services

The Special Rapporteur said the UK should be proud of its historically strong safety net. “Yet, it has been systematically and starkly eroded, particularly since 2010, significantly compromising its ability to help people escape poverty.”

Alston said he heard time and again about important public programmes being pared down, the loss of institutions that previously protected vulnerable people, social care services at a breaking point, and local government and devolved administrations stretched far too thin.

“Considering the significant resources available in the country and the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have resulted in significantly worse outcomes, the policies pursued since 2010 amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the country’s human rights obligations.”

The ideological rather than economic motivation for the cutbacks is demonstrated by the fact that the UK spends £78 billion per year to reduce or alleviate poverty, quite apart from the cost of benefits; £1 in every £5 spent on public services goes to repair what poverty has done to people’s lives.

“By treating work as a panacea for poverty while dismantling the social safety net, the Government has created a highly combustible situation that will have dire consequences, especially if and when there is prolonged economic contraction,” said Alston.

He also said that benefits reductions since 2010 have saved money for the government but undermined the capacity of beneficiaries to escape from the grip of poverty.

Legal aid has also been dramatically reduced in England and Wales since 2012. The LASPO Act (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act) made most housing, family and benefits cases ineligible for aid; ratcheted up eligibility criteria; and replaced many face-to-face advice services with telephone lines. Consequently, the number of civil legal aid cases declined by a staggering 82% between 2010-11 and 2017-18.

As a result, many poor people are unable to effectively claim and enforce their rights, have lost access to critical support, and some have even reportedly lost custody of their children. Lack of access to legal aid also exacerbates extreme poverty, since justiciable problems that could have been resolved with legal representation go unaddressed.

According to the Special Rapporteur, in 2010, the government pledged to radically change public services by cutting funding to local authorities in England. As a result, the National Audit Office estimates that local governments in England saw a 49% real-term reduction in government funding allocations from 2010-11 to 2017-18, at the same time that demand for key social services was rising. This has had extremely negative consequences for critical social services, since English local authorities have extensive social care responsibilities, limited authority and ability to raise their own revenue, and are obligated to balance their books.

As a result, local governments have reduced services, shuttered many public facilities and transferred a greater share of service costs to users, who are often the least able to pay. More than 500 children’s centres closed between 2010 and 2018, and between 2010 and 2016 more than 340 libraries closed and 8,000 library jobs were lost.

Abandoned to the private sector

Alston noted that the UK was a pioneer in privatizing previously public services across a wide range of sectors. In 2018, the National Audit Office concluded that the private finance initiative model had proved to be more expensive and less efficient than public financing in providing hospitals, schools and other public infrastructure. Studies of the results of privatization in sectors such as water, energy and public transportation suggest that prices have been raised excessively while access for low-income households has been restricted and capital investments have been inadequate.

The Special Rapporteur said he heard a great many complaints from people in rural areas that the privatization and deregulation of public transport outside London had made trains unaffordable and led to many bus routes being cut. The resulting isolation and inability to afford basic transport had serious negative consequences in terms of access to jobs, schools, healthcare and community engagement.

Local authorities have often simply abandoned their responsibilities by relegating key services to the private sector and failing to take any regulatory measures to ensure basic service provision.

“Abandoning people to the private market in relation to services that affect every dimension of their basic well-being, without guaranteeing their access to minimum standards, is incompatible with human rights requirements,” said the rights expert.

The Special Rapporteur also highlighted the shortcomings of the Universal Credit programme. Social support should be a route out of poverty, and UC should be a key part of that process. Consolidating six different benefits into one makes good sense in principle. But many aspects of the design and ongoing rollout of the scheme raise grave concerns about the adequacy of the country’s flagship benefits programme, he said.

The Special Rapporteur said he heard countless stories of severe hardships suffered under UC. These reports are corroborated by an increasing body of research that suggests UC is being implemented in ways that negatively impact claimants’ mental health, finances and work prospects. Where UC has fully rolled out, food bank demand has increased, a link belatedly acknowledged by the Work and Pensions Secretary in February 2019.

“Local authorities, devolved administrations and the voluntary sector described their preparations for the rollout of UC as if they were preparing for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic. They have expended significant money and energy to protect people from what is supposed to be a support system.”

The Special Rapporteur also highlighted that women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, persons with disabilities and members of other historically marginalized groups face disproportionately higher risks of poverty.

He further said that devolved administrations have tried to mitigate the worst impacts of austerity, despite experiencing significant reductions in block grant funding and constitutional limits on their ability to raise revenue. Scotland and Northern Ireland each report spending some £125 million per year to protect people from the worst impacts of austerity, and unlike the UK government, the three devolved administrations all provide welfare funds for emergencies and hardships.

But mitigation comes at a price, and is not sustainable. The Scottish government said it had reached the limit of what it can afford to mitigate, because every pound spent on offsetting cuts means reducing vital services. The mitigation package in Northern Ireland runs out in 2020, leaving vulnerable people facing a “cliff edge” scenario.

For devolved administrations to have to spend resources to shield people from government policies is a powerful indictment, said Alston. (SUNS8915)  

Third World Economics, Issue No. 682, 1-15 February 2019, pp11-14