Sign outside Wisbech food bank in Cambridgeshire, UK

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

The United Nations expert on poverty and human rights has warned that the UK government is inflicting “unnecessary misery” on people living in poverty. Professor Philip Alston’s preliminary findings of his 11-day visit to the country found the government’s approach to welfare support over the last decade “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous.”

Some have sought to dismiss Alston’s findings as a “shocking rant” based on only a brief visit. But anyone who engaged with his team, as I did, will know this is not true.  

It’s far more likely that Alston’s comments have caused outrage because they are devastatingly close to the mark. Alston says, for instance, that the UK’s new ‘universal credit’ welfare system has caused unnecessary destitution and hunger—despite the UK being the world’s fifth richest nation—with women, children, people with disabilities, asylum-seekers and migrants, and people in rural areas most affected.

Human Rights Watch is preparing its own research, to be published next year, on the increased reliance on food banks in deprived areas of England. I have seen first-hand how families – often single parent households – have been left with nothing or very little to eat because of insufficient or drastically changed welfare payments. Parents are forced to rely on food handouts, or else they and their kids go hungry.

The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank network, has documented yearly increases in use of their services, and links this to changes in the welfare system. And food banks run by independent charities also continue to multiply. This falls far short of the UK government’s commitment to protect the social and economic rights of everyone in the country.

Some of the responses to Alston’s findings have been predictable. The government leads with bald denial, which seems to be its kneejerk response to criticism of welfare changes. Some media have questioned the UN’s right to lecture the UK on this issue when there are poorer countries in the world.

But this should not be a race to the bottom. The UK government should properly examine how its policy choices – whether deliberately or through neglect – are affecting the human rights of people living in poverty. After all, for many people wondering if they can afford to feed their children their dinner, poverty is achingly real.