04:17 - Source: CNN
Activists: Child poverty on the rise
London CNN —  

A United Nations report on poverty in the United Kingdom has painted a damning picture of a nation where “compassion” for the poorest has been replaced with a “mean-spirited” approach reminiscent of the 19th century workhouses made infamous by Charles Dickens.

The final in a series of reports from the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, said the Conservative government remained in a “state of denial” about the 14 million people living on the breadline, continuing its almost decade-long austerity measures “despite the tragic social consequences.”

The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, yet one-fifth of its population lives in poverty, found the report. Almost 40% of children are predicted to be living in poverty in the next two-and-a-half years, it added.

The report follows a two-week fact-finding mission around the UK in November, during which Alston visited nine towns and two cities, speaking to families about the impact of changes to welfare benefits and local government funding.

He discovered people forced to choose between eating meals or heating their homes; children showing up at school with empty stomachs, and teachers taking it on themselves to collect and send food home with the hungry pupils.

Alston said drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets had also killed off many social services – libraries have been closed in record numbers, community and youth centers shrunk, and public spaces and buildings sold off.

“The bottom line is that 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,” said Alston.

Age of austerity

It has been nearly a decade since then-Prime Minister David Cameron committed to cut 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’ of public spending.

But even as the economy recovered in recent years, the government refused to change course. Instead, it “doubled down” on its agenda to “reduce benefits by every means available,” said Alston.

This included “constant reductions in benefit levels, ever-more-demanding conditions, harsher penalties, depersonalization, stigmatization, and virtually eliminating the option of using the legal system to vindicate rights,” he said.

It’s an approach that condemns the least well-off to lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” he added.

The government hit back at Alston’s report, calling it 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,” said the statement from the Department for Work and Pensions. “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.”

Brexit presents a ‘great opportunity’

The report comes as Prime Minister May – and indeed the entire government – focuses its energies on ongoing Brexit negotiations.

The turmoil in Westminster has already hit the UK economy, with businesses moving operations to the continent or stalling reinvestment.

The pain has also been felt by households. The pound plunged 15% against the dollar after the 2016 vote, pushing the price of imported goods higher. That spurred inflation and contributed to a decline in the value of people’s paychecks.

But amid the doom and gloom, Brexit also presents an “opportunity to reimagine what the United Kingdom stands for,” said Alston.

He said “social inclusion, rather than increasing marginalization of the working poor and those unable to work, should be the guiding principle of social policy.”

CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark contributed to this report