Government plunging people into 'misery' with benefits policy, says UN official

Prof. Philip Alston Credit: ITN

By Kris Jepson

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston, has criticised the government over its Universal Credit benefits system, which he said has "plunged people into misery and despair".

Speaking at the end of a 12 day tour of British city's, including Newcastle, Prof. Alston said the new benefits policies, which the Government say incentivise paid work, equate to "a punitive, mean-spirited, and callous approach".

He added "If a new minister was interested, if a new Government wereinterested, the harshness could be changed overnight and for very little money."

The government said it "completely disagrees" with the analysis.

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During his fact finding visit to Newcastle last Wednesday, Professor Alston visited the country's largest food bank and spoke to people living on the breadline.

He claimed that the government no longer offers people living in poverty a safety net, saying "the state does not have your back any longer, You are on your own. As Margaret Thatcher famously said 'there's no such thing as society'".

He said the poverty he witnessed in the North East was stark.

A new study has just been released, commissioned by Gateshead Council and conducted by Newcastle University and Teesside University, which supports many of Prof. Alston's findings.

According to Prof. Alston's report, approximately 14 million people in the UK are living in poverty, with 1.5 million classed as destitute, and unable to afford basic essentials.

He also warned that Brexit will leave people in poverty in an even more precarious situation.

He said "the impact of Brexit on the British people has not been examined as it should be" adding "those in lower income groups are really going to suffer".

A Department for Works & Pensions Spokesperson said "We completely disagree with this analysis. With this Government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now one million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010.

“Universal Credit is supporting people into work faster, but we are listening to feedback and have made numerous improvements to the system including ensuring 2.4 million households will be up to £630 better off a year as a result of raising the work allowance.

“We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it.”