Benefit sanctions create fear and misery, UN envoy says

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By VIEW editor Brian Pelan

The UN rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights today said he could not disagree with people who said the benefits system in the United kingdom was “inhuman and cruel”.

Philip Alston was speaking at a press conference in London where he announced his preliminary findings on the impact of austerity, Universal Credit and food banks in the UK after his 12-day visit to a number of cities and towns, including Belfast.

Mr Alston said: “A fifth of the population (14 million people) in the fifth largest economy are living in poverty.

Four million of those are living below the poverty line. And one and half million are destitute.

The child poverty rates are staggering and are predicted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and others to go up significantly over the next couple of years.

I found in my discussions with government ministers that there was a state of denial. The ministers who I met told me that things were going well and are happy with the way their policies are playing out.

But it’s not the story I heard through my travels in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and quite a few cities in England.

What I saw in food banks, schools, community centres, job centres and libraries was a lot of misery. A lot of people who feel that the system is failing them.

The motivation for all this is an ideological one. The message seems to be that the State doesn’t have your back any longer. You are on your own. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘There is no such thing as society’.

What goes along with that is a sense that we should make the system as unwelcoming as possible. Sanctions should be harsh, should be immediate, should be painful.

VIEW editor Brian Pelan, left, with Philip Alston

But all the evidence I have seen is that sanctions create fear and loathing among claimants. They impose immense hardships on people who may have been five minutes late for an appointment.”

He also said that the fallout from Brexit will leave people worse off economically. “People on low incomes, if present policies are maintained, will bear the brunt of the economic fallout from Brexit. I think it is imperative that that issue should be brought much higher up the agenda.”

He also said that the impact of the introduction of Universal Credit had been “harsh and almost gratuitous”.

People who are completely unable to cope go to a benefits office, go through the process of applying, succeed, and are told, ‘Good, you’ve got nothing, you’re really in desperate straights, go away and maybe in five weeks if you’re lucky, although it might be 12 weeks, we’ll give you some money.’ The person is then plunged into misery and despair, they’re plunged into a circle of having to beg from family and community.”

He also talked about how women on low incomes are particularly hit, especially lone parents.

• Mr Alston’s statement at today’s press conference can be read here –

• His full report on his findings will be published next year. 

• Read VIEW’s issue on austerity; STORIES FROM THE FRONTLINE –

• Sign up to receive regular issues of VIEW and updates on our digital training courses –


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