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By Bishop of Leeds
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Damning UN report compares Tory welfare regime to Victorian workhouses

4 min read

A damning UN report has compared the controversial Tory welfare regime to the infamous Victorian workhouses of the 19th Century.

UN extreme poverty and human rights expert Philip Alston said the glue holding Britain together had been "deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos".

He slammed the "ideological" cuts to public services since the Tories came to power in 2010 and lamented their "tragic social consequences" in his final report on UK poverty for the global body.

And he said the lives of the least well off were condemned to be “nasty, brutish and short” under Government policies.

But the Government shot back that the report was "barely believeable" and "completely inaccurate". 

The Australian lawyer gathered evidence during a two-week trip to towns and cities in the UK in November, and received more than 300 written submissions.

He found that despite the UK position as the fifth largest global economy, 14 million people live in poverty and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017.

Those who met with Prof Alston included people dependant on food banks, those who had sold sex for money or shelter, and young people who feel gangs are the “only way out of destitution”.

In his scathing assessment, he said the cuts to public services, local authorities and benefits since 2010 had led to the "systematic" impoverishment of people across the country.

He said: "British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping.

"And elevate the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest economic levels of British society.

"It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens, rather than seeking to respond creatively and compassionately to the real needs of those facing widespread economic insecurity in an age of deep and rapid transformation brought about by automation, zero-hour contracts and rapidly growing inequality."

He also slammed the Government for remaining “determinedly in a state of denial” over its policies, arguing that despite some “reluctant policy tweaks” ministers insisted all was still running according to plan.


A Government spokesperson said: “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,” a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said.

“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.”

But Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood accused the Government of being in "denial".

She added: “This report is a shocking indictment of the brutal cuts to social security introduced by Conservative-led governments since 2010 and the deeply flawed, punitive system that they have created.

“The evidence it sets out should be a source of shame to this government, from people being driven into debt due to the wait for Universal Credit, through to those at risk of destitution because of the draconian sanctions regime.

“The sharp increase in food bank use tells us that the social security system has lost its way and is failing to protect people from poverty.

“The government attacked the initial report in November as being ‘political’ and brushed it aside. It must now end this state of denial, listen to the evidence and take urgent action to tackle the profound injustices in our society.”


The report laid out a number of recommendations, including to re-evalute privatisation policies and to reverse "regressive measures" such as the benefit cap, housing benefit reduction and two-child welfare limit.

It also urged the Government to restore local government funding and use Brexit to re-imagine what the UK stands for.

Prof Alston concluded: “The philosophy underpinning the British welfare system has changed radically since 2010. The initial rationales for reform were to reduce overall expenditures and to promote employment as the principal 'cure' for poverty.

“But when large-scale poverty persisted despite a booming economy and very high levels of employment, the Government chose not to adjust course.

“Instead, it doubled down on a parallel agenda to reduce benefits by every means available…

 “As Thomas Hobbes observed long ago, such an approach condemns the least well off to lives that are 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short'.

“As the British social contract slowly evaporates, Hobbes’ prediction risks becoming the new reality.”

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