Mitigating austerity ‘not sustainable’ for devolved governments, says UN

Steps taken by devolved administrations to mitigate the worst impacts of UK austerity “come at a price” and are “not sustainable”, according to a report commissioned by the UN.

On Wednesday, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, published his findings following an investigation into poverty across the UK.

Prof Alston visited the UK in November and toured towns and cities across the country before outlining his preliminary findings.

He described it at the time as an “outrage” that devolved administrations were having to spend resources to shield people from UK Government policies.

In his final report, Prof Alston concluded that the Scottish Government had “reached the limit” for what it can afford to mitigate.

He wrote: “Devolved administrations have tried to mitigate the worst impacts of austerity, despite experiencing significant reductions in block grant funding and constitutional limits on their ability to raise revenue.

“Scotland and Northern Ireland each report spending some £125 million per year to protect people from the worst impacts of austerity and, unlike the United Kingdom Government, the three devolved administrations all provide welfare funds for emergencies and hardships.

“But mitigation comes at a price, and is not sustainable. The Scottish Government said it had reached the limit of what it can afford to mitigate, because every pound spent on offsetting cuts means reducing vital services.

“The mitigation package in Northern Ireland runs out in 2020, leaving vulnerable people facing a “cliff edge” scenario.

“For devolved administrations to have to spend resources to shield people from Government policies is a powerful indictment.”

Philip Alston
Philip Alston met children in Scotland during his visit to the UK in November (UN/PA)

Prof Alston described Scottish Government schemes for addressing poverty, including the Fairer Scotland Action Plan and the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan, as “ambitious”, and called the establishment of a new social security system “promising”.

Noting that the system aims to make benefits equally accessible, he indicated it is “too soon to say whether these steps – and Scotland’s new powers of taxation – will make a difference for people in poverty”.

He added: “If the compelling recommendations made by the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership are adopted, and if the Scottish Government acts swiftly on its commitment to incorporate the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scottish law, these steps will make a huge difference.”

Prof Alston also indicated that the UK has violated its human rights obligations through sustained and widespread cuts to social support, and said policies of austerity introduced in 2010 “continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences”.

The Department for Work and Pensions branded the report a “barely believable documentation of Britain” and said it painted a “completely inaccurate picture” of its approach to tackling poverty.

The report calls on the UK Government to reverse “particularly regressive” measures such as the benefit freeze, the two-child limit, the benefit cap, and reduction in housing benefit.

It also recommends restoring local government funding to provide social protection and tackle poverty.

Prof Alston said the policies pursued since 2010 amounted to a clear violation of the UK’s human rights obligations.

He added: “Considering the significant resources available in the country and the sustained and widespread cuts to social support, which have resulted in significantly worse outcomes, the policies pursued since 2010 amount to retrogressive measures in clear violation of the country’s human rights obligations.”

The DWP said it was spending £95 billion a year on welfare and maintains a state pension system that supports people into retirement.

A spokeswoman added: “The UN’s own data shows the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live, and other countries have come here to find out more about how we support people to improve their lives.

“Therefore this is a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here. It paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty.

“All the evidence shows that full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life, which is why our welfare reforms are focused on supporting people into employment and we introduced the National Living Wage, so people earn more in work.”

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