The expert met with a wide range of groups across all four UK nations, including those hardest hit by austerity measures and welfare changes, as well as government ministers.
Alston highlighted the shocking levels of poverty now being experienced by the most vulnerable in British society. A fifth of the population – 14 million people – live in poverty, nearly 60% of whom live in families where someone works, and 2.8 million of whom live in families where all adults work full-time.
This is clear evidence, he says, that just being in employment is not enough to lift people out of poverty. Indeed, families in which two parents work full-time at the National Minimum Wage still fall 11% short of the money they need to raise a child, and one in six people referred to food banks is employed.
For those at the sharpest end of the poverty crisis (four million people are more than 50% below the poverty line and 1.5 million are destitute), the situation is dire. Homelessness has increased by 60% since 2010, rough sleeping has risen by 134% and there are four times more people using food banks now than there were in 2012.
Among the worst hit were children. It is estimated that the proportion of young people growing up in poverty will rocket to 40% by 2022.
”For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one,” Alston said.
Throughout the report, he was clear that the shocking levels of poverty in the UK are no accident, but rather are the result of a deliberate programme of “social re-engineering”, through which “key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned”.
Although austerity measures have been “sold” to the British public as a necessary evil in a time of recession, Alston rejected the idea that the government’s policies were legitimately designed to save money.
”In the area of poverty-related policy, the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering,” he said.
”Successive governments have brought revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum levels of fairness and social justice to the British people, and especially in the values underpinning it.”
”The government has made no secret of its determination to change the value system to focus more on individual responsibility, to place major limits on government support, and to pursue a single-minded, and some have claimed simple-minded, focus on getting people into employment at all costs,” he explained.
Alston pointed to evidence that many of the so-called ‘cost-saving’ measures the government has imposed have actually been offset by enormous additional outgoings, for instance through the need to provide emergency services to those left most vulnerable by what he described as a “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach” to poverty.
In finding the root causes of the poverty epidemic, he pointed to cuts to key services, draconian benefit reforms, and a wrong-headed approach to employment.
”Low wages, insecure jobs, and zero hour contracts mean that even at record unemployment there are still 14 million people in poverty,” he said, emphasising that “being in employment does not magically overcome poverty”.
Permeating the report were stories of government Ministers out of touch with the reality of the situation for low-income people.
”Ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan,” Alston said, recalling that one Minister shrugged off the significance of the fourfold increase in food bank usage by referring to the existence of foodbanks in other countries, others were “were almost entirely dismissive” of the major issues arising from the roll out of Universal Credit, and that the impact of the UK’s exit from the EU on those currently on poverty was treated as an “afterthought”.
”The country’s most respected charitable groups, its leading think tanks, its parliamentary committees, independent authorities like the National Audit Office, and many others, have all drawn attention to the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well off in this country. But through it all, one actor has stubbornly resisted seeing the situation for what it is. The government has remained determinedly in a state of denial,” he wrote.
Concluding that “poverty is a political choice”, he said the “good news” is that he believes the problems currently afflicting the poor could be “readily solved” if they are acknowledged and counteracted.
He suggested that the UK’s exit from the EU “present[s] an opportunity to take stock of the current situation and reimagine what this country should represent and how it protects its people”.
”The legislative recognition of social rights should be a central part of that reimagining. And social inclusion, rather than increasing marginalization of the working poor and those unable to work, should be the guiding principle of social policy,” he continued.
“As the country moves toward Brexit, the Government should adopt policies designed to ensure that the brunt of the resulting economic burden is not borne by its most vulnerable citizens.”