The UN report on extreme poverty in the UK - what next?

By Bernadette Meaden
November 17, 2018

On 15 November 2018, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee announced an inquiry, to “consider how effectively our welfare system works to protect against hardship and chronic deprivation.” They might as well stand in front of the ashes of a burnt out building and wonder if the smoke alarm is still working.

The very next day, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights delivered his report on the UK. It was an incisive and searing critique of the government’s callous and brutal approach which would have made any humane government sick with shame.

Unfortunately, we haven’t had a humane government for quite a while, and as if to prove Professor Alston’s point that Ministers are in denial and unconcerned about the misery they are causing, Ministers denied the truth of the report. Their determination not to see what is happening in the country they govern is nothing if not resolute.

As the Special Rapporteur said, “it is the mentality that has informed many of the reforms that has brought the most misery and wrought the most harm to the fabric of British society.  British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instil discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society.”

So what now? Where do we go from here?

Well, the Work and Pensions Committee should, surely, cancel its own inquiry, accept the UN report in full, and apply all its energies to forcing the government to accept its recommendations. The Committee has taken several years, and more than one inquiry, to only recently conclude that applying benefit sanctions to sick and disabled people is ‘harmful and counterproductive’ and call on the government to ‘urgently reassess’ its regime. It took Philip Alston two weeks to see that the regime is harsh, arbitrary, draconian, and grim. 

Unfortunately, some organisations which work on these issues have either broadly accepted the government's punitive agenda, or failed to fundamentally challenge it and focused on details. Extracting minor concessions may be quite an achievement given the ideological fundamentalism of the politicians they're dealing with, but unfortunately this may have inadvertently served to give cruelty a veneer of reasonableness and acceptability. 

Every individual, organisation, church, trade union, or group which has the slightest interest in society, fairness, or justice, should now accept the fact that what we are dealing with is a government, and a set of policies, deliberately inflicting unnecessary suffering on our most disadvantaged neighbours. It is institutionalised bullying of the cruellest kind, and we cannot use half measures to oppose it. No longer can we ask for small changes, to mitigate the pain – the deliberate infliction of pain must stop.

Meanwhile, people go hungry, lose homes, and contemplate suicide because they are being made to feel that their continuing existence is something in which society no longer has any interest, or any stake.

During his tour of the UK, Philip Alston was asked by a reporter from Unity News, (video) “Could you advise people what they should do if the UK government sweeps this UN report under the carpet, like they did with the last one about disabled rights?"   

Professor Alston replied, “Well…I think the government can only sweep things under the carpet if people let them do that, so hopefully the report will be interesting, hopefully the government will want to talk about it - but most importantly, civil society and others should insist that they do focus on the issues.”

This UN report should become an essential tool for anyone who makes any claim to take an interest in social justice in the UK. The lies, the spin, the unconcern, the callousness, the sheer brutality of government policy is here exposed, and politicians should be confronted with it at every turn. They might want to sweep it under the carpet – it is our duty not to allow them to do so.

Here is part of the Special Rapporteur's conclusion, and his recommendations.


The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.


The UK should introduce a single measure of poverty and measure food security.

The government should initiate an expert assessment of the cumulative impact of tax and spending decisions since 2010 and prioritise the reversal of particularly regressive measures, including the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and the reduction of the housing benefit for under-occupied social rented housing.

It should ensure local governments have the funds needed to tackle poverty at the community level, and take varying needs and tax bases into account in the ongoing Fair Funding Review.

The Department of Work and Pensions should conduct an independent review of the effectiveness of reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions introduced since 2012, and should immediately instruct its staff to explore more constructive and less punitive approaches to encouraging compliance.

The five week delay in receiving benefits under Universal Credit should be eliminated, separate payments should be made to different household members, and weekly or fortnightly payments should be facilitated.

Transport, especially in rural areas, should be considered an essential service, equivalent to water and electricity, and the government should regulate the sector to the extent necessary to ensure that people living in rural areas are adequately served. Abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.

As the country moves toward Brexit, the Government should adopt policies designed to ensure that the brunt of the resulting economic burden is not borne by its most vulnerable citizens.

* If you are in distress and need to talk to somebody, you can call the Samaritans free at any time, from any phone on 116 123.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.