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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

UN envoy: Brexit will drive more into poverty

The British government is inflicting "unnecessary misery" on its poor, a controversial UN investigator has said

A street in Jaywick, east England. PA via AP
A street in Jaywick, east England. PA via AP

A UN envoy has warned that Brexit will push more people into the poverty in a damning report on Friday in which he accused the British government of inflicting “unnecessary misery” on the poorest in society.

Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said the UK’s impending exit from the European Union would have serious consequences for those living in poverty.

Mr Alston was speaking at the end of a 12-day fact-finding tour of the UK meeting people affected by poverty, volunteers, front line workers as well as officials from a range of political parties in local, devolved and UK Governments.

In the UK, 14 million people live in poverty, four million of those are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line while 1.5 million are destitute. Citing statistics from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, he said child poverty was set to rise seven per cent between 2015 and 2022. “In the fifth richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one,” Mr Alston said.

In his 24-page statement, the UN investigator said whatever the outcome of Brexit, continued uncertainty would persist, having a deep impact on Britain’s economy. He said research from charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had shown that if the government did not adjust benefits to account for rising inflation after Brexit, almost 900,000 more people could fall into poverty.

“In my meetings with the government, it was clear to me that the impact of Brexit on people in poverty is an afterthought, to be dealt with through manipulations of fiscal policy after the event, if at all,” he said.

Having visited nine towns and cities in the UK including Newcastle, Belfast, London, Oxford and Glasgow, he said he had spoken with people dependant on food banks for their next meal, homeless people, people who have sold sex for money or shelter and children in poverty “growing up unsure of their future”.

Concluding that poverty is a “political choice” in the UK, he said the government should act now to ensure the most vulnerable do not bear the brunt of the economic burden of Brexit.

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Mr Alston met with government officials on Friday morning to discuss his findings. His report will be presented to the UN human rights council in Geneva in 2019.

Reacting to the report, a spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "We completely disagree with this analysis."

Mr Alston, who is also a law professor at New York University, has previously conducted similar investigations in Ghana, Mauritania, China and the United States.

In the US, he found that President Donald Trump’s administration was forcing millions of Americans into poverty while financially helping some of the richest in the country.

The probe sparked an angry response from Nikki Haley, then US ambassador to the UN, who described the report as “misleading and politically motivated”.