14 million people in the UK – a fifth of the population – live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. “In the fifth richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one,” says Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.
His report following a 12-day tour of the UK makes for difficult reading and is critical of austerity and other government policies that have exarcerbated poverty and impact hardest on the poorest.
On launching the report, Alston said the UK government has inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies and could be in breach of four UN human rights agreements around women, children, people with disabilities, and economic and social rights.
He also had a view on how the ‘digital by default’ approach to services – including access to benefits such as Universal Credit – has created an online barrier between people with poor digital literacy and their legal entitlements. The move to digital needs to go beyond simple cost-cutting, to improve people’s access to essential services rather than excluding those most in need of those services.