The United Nations has launched an investigation into extreme levels of poverty in one of the richest countries in the world: the United Kingdom.
Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, starts a two-week fact-finding mission Monday, visiting some of the country’s poorest towns and cities to examine the effects of austerity measures on rising levels of hardship.
Alston, known for his no-holds-barred critiques, will gather evidence on the impact that changes to welfare benefits and local government funding as well as the rising costs of living have had on British families.
“The Government has made significant changes to social protection in the past decade, and I will be looking closely at the impact that has had on people living in poverty and their realization of basic rights,” Alston said in a statement.
“I have received hundreds of submissions that make clear many people are really struggling to make ends meet.”
Alston has heard from nearly 300 people affected by poverty, civil society groups, academics and government officials – more than before any other country visit.
CNN reported in September that nearly 4 million children in the UK were living in households that struggle to afford fruit, vegetables and other foods conducive to healthy living, according to a report by the Food Foundation.
The long-term policy of austerity in the UK has also had a disproportionate impact on women, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
It has been nearly a decade since then-Prime Minister David Cameron committed to cut excessive government spending, declaring in 2009 that “the age of irresponsibility” was “giving way to the age of austerity.”
In 2010, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Conservative-led coalition government announced its plan to drag the UK out from under piles of public debt by ditching thousands of government jobs, slashing welfare benefits and cutting billions of pounds’ worth of public spending.
The move set in motion an experiment, testing whether it was possible for a nation to slice spending without derailing its economic recovery.
Alston’s inquiry will look at how that gamble has panned out for millions of British people.
In addition to the government’s austerity measures, Alston will also probe the implications on poverty of Britain’s planned exit from the European Union.
The UN special rapporteur conducted a similar investigation in the United States last year, after which he reported that poor Americans were becoming more destitute under President Donald Trump’s administration.