UK ‘in violation of international law’ over poverty levels, says UN envoy
Poverty levels in the UK are “simply not acceptable” and the government is violating international law, the United Nations’ poverty envoy has said ahead of a visit to the country this week, when he will urge ministers to increase welfare spending.
Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, cited research showing universal credit payments of £85 a week for single adults over 25 were “grossly insufficient” and described the UK’s main welfare system as “a leaking bucket”.
In an interview with the Guardian five years after his predecessor, Philip Alston, angered the Conservative government by accusing it of the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population”, the Belgian lawyer risked a fresh confrontation by saying: “Things have got worse.”
The government hit back, insisting that it had not broken international law, that absolute poverty had fallen since the Conservatives took power, and that it was helping thousands into jobs.
De Schutter said: “It’s simply not acceptable that we have more than a fifth of the population in a rich country such as the UK at risk of poverty today,” referring to government data showing that 14.4 million people lived in relative poverty in 2021-22 – a million more than the previous year. “The policies in place are not working or not protecting people in poverty, and much more needs to be done for these people to be protected.”
De Schutter said the UK had signed an international covenant that created a duty to provide a level of social protection which ensured an adequate standard of living but that it was being broken, with welfare payments falling behind costs for the poorest people.
“If you look at the price of housing, electricity, the very high levels of inflation for food items over the past couple of years, I believe that the £85 a week for adults is too low to protect people from poverty, and that is in violation of article nine of the international covenant on economic, social [and cultural] rights. That is what human rights law says.”
He said increasing universal credit would be “the single most important step that the UK could meet towards meeting its international obligations”.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in 2022 3.8 million people experienced destitution (struggling to afford to meet their most basic physical needs to stay warm, dry, clean and fed). This included about 1 million children. It was almost two and a half times the number of people in 2017.
A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to protecting the most vulnerable, and in 2021-22 there were 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2009-10. Households are at least £6,000 a year better off in full-time work than out of work on benefits, and since 2010 there are almost 700,000 fewer children growing up in workless households, transforming their life chances.”
Absolute poverty is fixed in real terms, while relative poverty measures household incomes below 60% of the median average in that year.
“To help more people out of poverty through work, we are investing £3.5bn to help thousands into jobs and grow the economy as we bear down on inflation, and we have committed to increasing the national living wage,” the government spokesperson said.
De Schutter stressed that the UK was not alone among developed nations in sliding back on how it tackles poverty.
“One common realisation is that we need to stop thinking that economic growth will lift all boats,” he said. “We’ve seen in most OECD countries that growth of GDP has been going hand in hand with increasing inequalities and a failure to reduce levels of both relative and absolute poverty.
“So we should stop focusing on creating the macroeconomic conditions that will stimulate growth and focus instead on providing support to low-income households providing access to work for all people, including people who have low levels of qualification and creating a much more inclusive economy rather than one that creates wealth for the elites and particularly for the shareholders of the largest corporations”.
De Schutter’s remarks follow Alston’s damning report into poverty in the UK, which he published after a two-week research visit in 2018. Alston, an internationally respected human rights lawyer, said “much of the glue that has held British society together since the second world war has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”.
“The warning signals that Philip Alston gave five years ago were not acted upon,” said De Schutter. “There’s a huge gap, which is increasingly troubling, between the kinds of indicators the government chooses to assess its progress on one hand, and the lived experience of people living in poverty.”