Tory austerity and benefit changes are destroying the lives of vulnerable people in Britain for ideological reasons, a United Nations (UN) official has said.
UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston met with people affected by Tory austerity and cuts during a two-week tour of Britain. In delivering his preliminary findings on Friday he said Tory ministers are in a “state of denial” over the devastating impact of their attacks.
“The ministers told me things are going well,” said Alston. “They don’t see any big problems.
“It’s not the story I heard in my travels through Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and in quite a few cities in England. What I saw is a lot of misery. A lot of people feel the system is failing them. They feel the system is there just to punish them.”
The first thing that Department for Work and Pensions secretary Amber Rudd did after being appointed to the post last week was attack the report.
She complained about its “political” language and claimed this “discredited” the report.
Alston said many people felt the motivation for the Tory attacks on benefits was austerity. He said the implication is that there is no choice as savings have to be made.
“The truth is, there haven’t been a great many savings from what I can see,” he said. “Instead the motivation is very clearly an ideological one.”
Alston singled out the Tories’ hated Universal Credit (UC) for criticism, although he said it was one part of a bigger picture. He said UC is “driven by the desire to get across the simple set of messages. 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’.
“The government’s place is not to be assisting people. The government’s place is an absolute last emergency order.”
He said that this meant the system should be “as unwelcoming as possible”.
“People who need benefits should be reminded constantly that they are lucky to get anything, that nothing will be made easy,” he said.
“Sanctions should be harsh, should be immediate, should be painful. And yet all of the evidence that I’ve seen shows that sanctions are usually counter-productive.
“That they impose immense hardships on people who might have been five minutes later for an appointment.”
Alston said Tory policies were part of the “dismantling of a broader social safety net”. He described how cuts to council budgets have slashed services that people have come to rely on and expect. Places people could go – such as community centres and libraries – are being closed down.
Access to social workers and other support is harder for people to get.
“I met the leader of Newcastle council,” said Alston. “He tells me we’ve been reduced to emergency service provision.
“I meet the economic assistant to the treasury, they say, ‘It’s fine. These councils have got a lot of money, they can take the cuts, they’re doing well’.
“It ignores the damage that is being done to the fabric of British society.”
Alston said child poverty rates in Britain are “staggering and predicted to go up significantly”.
He added, “If a new minister was interested, the harshness and worst aspects of these policies could be changed overnight and for very little money.
“Ministers have an overriding set of objectives to cut welfare system, cut expenditures. They’re looking at that bottom line.”
Alston’s report comes after research published yesterday showed that UC has caused some claimants to kill themselves.
Public health researchers commissioned by Gateshead council found high levels of anxiety and depression associated with UC, as well as physical problems and social isolation. It said UC is actively creating poverty and is not fit for purpose.
One claimant said, “When you feel like, ‘I can’t feed myself, I can’t pay my electric bill, I can’t pay my rent,’ well, all you can feel is the world collapsing around you. It does a lot of damage, physically and mentally. There were points where I did think about ending my life.”
Universal Credit: desperate people treated with cruelty
Claimants forced onto Universal Credit (UC) face a nightmare system of bureaucracy, confusion, delays, sanctions and debt.
Thomas was recently told to apply for UC after being made redundant. He told Socialist Worker, “There’s an interminable going round in circles when you apply for UC. You’re told to ring a number, then you get a message saying it’s changed.
“The system seems to force you to the back of the queue at all times .
“I’ve got an interview on 22 November. That’s three weeks after being made redundant. I’ve paid my national insurance contributions – it’s not my fault I lost my job.”
Thomas said the system leaves vulnerable people in desperate situations. “I’m lucky as my wife’s a teacher, so I’ve got a safety net,” he explained.
“But when I was at the Job Centre, there was a young lad in the chair next to me who had epilepsy. They’d sanctioned him. He was asking how will I manage, and they just said you’ll have to go online.
“Somebody else I know has a brain tumour in remission. He’s had major surgery but he’s been deemed fit to work under UC. They’re saying you’re OK to work but no one will employ him because he has a tumour and has fits.”