A ‘Harsh & Uncaring’ UK – The Alston Report

While we have all been obsessing over Brexit (still on course to happen on October 31st 2019) and some politicians have been worrying over their career prospects , Professor Philip Alston has published his final report on poverty in the UK.

Philip Alston

Philip Alston is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

If it was not already shocking that such a report was being compiled it is even more so when you read it. No wonder the Brexit fiasco has been such a timely distraction for the UK Government and political parties.

Professor Alston lays the blame for the appalling levels of poverty in the UK firmly with the austerity agenda driven by successive UK Governments since 2010 – so that’s both Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs who in a coalition pact went about destroying the ‘social safety‘ net of the UK’s welfare system.

The aim of the report is:

to report to the Human Rights Council on the extent to which the Government’s policies and programmes relating to extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations and to offer constructive recommendations to the Government and other stakeholders.

14 million people in the UK are today living in poverty that’s 1/5 of the population. And of that number 1.5 million cannot even afford the basics to survive. This is a UK state, which despite being the 5th largest economy in the world, is not just failing its people, it is destroying the very fabric of society.

  • foodbanks
  • homelessness
  • life expectancy falling
  • legal aid system failing
  • people with severe  disabilities denied benefits

Local authorities in England, who once could help by providing essential services, have had their funding cut by so much that they can no longer do so.

The bottom line 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.

There are positives to Alston’s report but those are about the people who are trying to cope with the situation they have been placed in through no fault of their own but through the implementation of deliberate Government policies which hit the poorest hardest.

Alston refers to the people at a local level who he ‘witnessed‘ –  those with  ‘tremendous resilience, strength and generosity‘ . He  ‘heard stories of deeply compassionate work coaches, local officials and volunteers; neighbours supporting one another; councils seeking creative solutions; and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services.’

In Scotland and Northern Ireland Alston notes that the administrations there are trying to mitigate the worst effects of successive UK Government policies. This unfortunately is merely tinkering with a system which has a more worrying agenda.

Social Re-Engineering

According to Alston the austerity agenda is not about sorting out the UK economy it  is radical ‘social re-engineering’:

a dramatic restructuring of the relationship between people and the State

The workhouses of Dickens have returned to the ‘land fit for heroes’.

 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.

60% of people who are living in poverty are in employment – low wages, high heating costs, food costs, rising rents and zero hours contract all are factors. In addition to this 2.8 million people are in poverty in families where all adults work full-time – the working poor

And apart from the moral outrage that this should instil in you – none of it makes any sense because economically ‘£1 in every £5 spent on public services goes to repair what poverty has done to people’s lives’.

Single parents, women, people with a disability, children, are all the hardest hit by a system designed to punish you for asking for help. Over the next 2 years 41% of children in the UK will be living in poverty.

There is only so much that can be done to stem the rising tide of poverty and destitution from the unrelenting drive from  successive UK Governments.


Northern Ireland and Scotland have/are putting in measures to alleviate the worst of the effects spending £125 million a year just on this.

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.

Professor Alston singles out the work being done in Scotland and in particular the recommendations made by the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership and the commitment to incorporate the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scottish law –  ‘these steps will make a huge difference’.


The report makes recommendations for the UK Government to address the issues raised:

  1. Introduce a single, multidimensional measure of poverty;
  2. Systematically measure food security;
  3. Request the National Audit Office to assess the cumulative social impact of tax and spending decisions since 2010, especially on vulnerable groups, with a view to identifying what would be required to restore an effective social safety net;
  4. Reverse particularly regressive measures such as the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap and the reduction of the Housing Benefit, including for underoccupied social rented housing;
  5. Restore local government funding needed to provide critical social protection and tackle poverty at the community level, and take varying needs of communities and differing tax bases into account in the ongoing Fair Funding Review;
  6. Initiate an independent review of the efficacy of changes to welfare conditionality and sanctions introduced since 2012 by the Department of Work and Pensions;
  7. Train Department staff to use more constructive and less punitive approaches to encouraging compliance;
  8. Eliminate the five-week delay in receiving initial UC benefits;
  9. Ensure that the benefit truly works for individuals, including by facilitating alternative payment arrangements and reviewing the monthly assessment practices;
  10. Review and remedy the systematic disadvantage inflicted by current policies on women, as well as on children, persons with disabilities, older persons and ethnic minorities;
  11. Re-evaluate privatization policies to ensure that the approach adopted achieves the best outcomes for the citizenry rather than for the corporate sector; transport, especially in rural areas, should be considered an essential service and the Government should ensure that all areas are adequately and affordably served

Oh and if you think Brexit had been forgotten about:

If Brexit proceeds, it is likely to have a major adverse impact on the most vulnerable.

The full report can be read here: Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human

And if you are thinking ‘I’m alright Jack’ – think on: poverty is only 1 pay cheque, 1 serious illness, 1 accident, away from all of us.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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