The DWP is accused of running a “digital and sanitised” version of a 19th-century workhouse in a damning United Nations report on UK poverty.
Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, said successive Tory-led governments have deliberately removed much of the “glue” that has held British society together since the Second World War and replaced it with a “harsh and uncaring” ethos.
“British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping,” Alston said.
Accused of being in denial over the impact of its policies, the government denied the report’s findings, citing stats showing the UK is “one of the happiest places in the world to live”.
And, as advanced in a statement, the DWP believes itself to be an international example of welfare administration.
The report – published in full for presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next month – bluntly warns that unless austerity is ended the UK’s poor face lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
And the “tragic distraction” of Brexit will only make a bad situation worse.
“It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th-century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens,” said Alston.
The report slams the government’s austerity programme, with criticisms of “shocking” rises in the use of food banks and rough sleeping, falling life expectancy for some, the “decimation” of legal aid, the denial of benefits to the severely disabled, falling teachers’ salaries in real terms, and the impoverishment of single mothers and people with mental illness.
Alston said austerity had “deliberately gutted” local authorities, shrinking library, youth, police and park services to the extent that it was not surprising there were “unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation”.
There was some praise for ministers for increases in work allowances under the Universal Credit (UC) welfare system and supporting the national minimum wage, but Alston said these measures had not stopped the “dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well-off”.
He recommended ministers reverse local government funding cuts, scrap the benefits cap, eliminate the five-week delay in receiving initial universal credit benefits, and rethink the privatisation of services such as including rural transport.
But instead, says Alston, ministers maintain a state of denial about the impact of ‘welfare reform’ policies, including the rollout of UC, since 2010.
Government, Alston said, had enabled the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population” and warned that worse could be yet to come for the most vulnerable, who face “a major adverse impact” if Brexit proceeds.
He said leaving the EU was “a tragic distraction from the social and economic policies shaping a Britain that it’s hard to believe any political parties really want”.
The full report follows the release of initial findings in November last year, in which Alston branded child poverty in Britain “not just a disgrace but a social calamity and an economic disaster”.
The government, he says, has refused to debate the issues raised and instead deployed “window dressing to minimise political fallout” by insisting the country is enjoying record lows in absolute poverty, children in workless households and low unemployment.
But to Alston, the “endlessly repeated” mantra about rising employment overlooks that “close to 40% of children are predicted to be living in poverty two years from now, 16% 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”.
There is, Alston says, an “almost complete disconnect” between what ministers and the public saw, with the impact of austerity obvious to anyone who opened their eyes.
“Thomas Hobbes observed long ago, such an approach condemns the least well-off to lives that are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’,” said Alston.
“As the British social contract slowly evaporates, Hobbes’ prediction risks becoming the new reality,” he said.
DWP Secretary of State Amber Rudd is reported to be considering a complaint to the UN about the report, despite Alston working for several months with a team of legal scholars and staff from the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights researching austerity in the UK.
According to footnotes from the report they analysed the government’s own official data, information from three ministries as well as the Scottish and Welsh governments, the National Audit Office and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
They examined reports from outside organisations including the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the OECD and received more than 300 written submissions.
Labour said the report should be “a source of shame” to ministers and urged them to “end their state of denial”.
Shadow work and pensions secretary, Margaret Greenwood, said: “This report is a shocking indictment of the brutal cuts to social security introduced by Conservative-led governments since 2010 and the deeply flawed, punitive system that they have created,” said Shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood.
Alston’s conclusions are also backed by groups with years of experience examining poverty in the UK.
Campbell Robb, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said the report builds on its own evidence.
“There can be no moral justification for failing to act on this report,” he said.
Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group said Alston had “exposed the government’s refusal to acknowledge the scale of child poverty in the UK”.
“We can reduce child poverty in the UK – we’ve done it before,” she said. “But it will require a willingness from government to first see the problem and then to deliver a strategy for solving it,” she said.