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Inequality and poverty in Britain

December 2018: A UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty visited the UK. His preliminary report points to extreme levels of child poverty in the UK and that a fifth of the British population is living in poverty despite rising employment levels, economic growth, and pockets of high wealth levels. His findings identify poor skill levels amongst workers, weak infrastructures, lack of affordable housing, and the centralisation of political and commercial power in London as main impact factors on poverty in Britain.

Information

The UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston visited Britain and will present his findings to the UN Human Rights Council 2019 in Geneva. Special rapporteurs for extreme poverty are mandated to visit countries with high levels of deprivation and Alston’s visit to the UK is the second visit of a rapporteur to Western Europe this century, with the first one being to Ireland in 2011. His preliminary report points to extreme levels of child poverty in the UK and that a fifth of the British population is living in poverty despite rising employment levels, economic growth, and pockets of high wealth levels. He uses a measure of relative poverty that looks at the percentage of people living with less than 55 per cent of the median income and taking into account costs such as childcare, housing, debt, and disability. This contrasts the government’s measurement of absolute poverty that led to the rejection of the rapporteur’s finding by the UK government. The rapporteur further identifies delays of 5–12 weeks before payment of Universal Credit and changes in the welfare system to be disproportionately affecting women and leading to an increase in domestic violence. He links reductions in welfare payments, housing subsidies for families and disabled people, youth, and children services, and funding for local authorities to a stark increase in distributed food parcels and working families living in poverty. He further points out that the rate of homelessness in Britain increased by 60 per cent since 2010 and the number of rough sleepers increased by 130 per cent. These findings support data released by Eurostat in June 2018 that identified the most deprived and affluent regions in Northern Europe. Nine out of ten of the most deprived regions were in the UK while Inner London was listed as the most affluent region.

Implications and opportunities

The report points towards a disconnect between public and government perception of poverty and inequality in the UK. His findings raise concern for the impact that Brexit might have on deprived regions, alienating pockets of society and the potential of increasing hostilities amongst the British populations. It identifies that an ideological shift from social security to austerity influences the levels of poverty in Britain and recommends addressing poor skill levels amongst worker, weak infrastructures, lack of affordable housing, and the centralisation of political and commercial power in London as main impact factors.


Sources

The New York Times. U.N.’s Expert on “Extreme Poverty” is Investigating Britain. Why? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/13/world/europe/un-extreme-poverty-britain-austerity.html

OHCHR. (2018). Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Retrieved from https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Poverty/EOM_GB_16Nov2018.pdf

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