UN special rapporteur Philip Alston, pictured in 2010, said the UK's situation was "not just a disgrace, but a social calamity."
London CNN  — 

Government austerity policies and the dismantling of the social safety net have entrenched poverty and inflicted unnecessary misery on the poorest people in the United Kingdom, a damning report by a UN human rights expert said Friday.

Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, described the situation – in the fifth richest country in the world – as “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”

Alston visited nine towns and cities on a 12-day trip around the UK, during which he gathered 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.

Some 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty, his report said. Of those, 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials, it said, citing figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Social Metrics Commission and Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

After years of progress, poverty is increasing again, the report said, with child poverty predicted to rise by 7% between 2015 and 2022. Meanwhile, homelessness has increased by 60% since 2010, when a Conservative-led coalition government came to power, and the use of food banks is on the rise.

Alston added that Brexit, now only four months away, “poses particular risks for people in poverty, but the government appears to be treating this as an afterthought.”

Almost all studies have shown that the UK economy will be worse off after Brexit – or the country’s scheduled departure from the European Union (EU) in March 2019 – the news release said. More people will be driven into poverty by inflation, lower wages and rising prices unless the government takes action to shield those most vulnerable and replaces current EU funding for combating poverty, it added.

Political crisis

Alston’s report was released as Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is embroiled in a political crisis over the draft Brexit deal struck with the EU this week.

As May battles to face down rebellion within her Conservative Party, critics have accused the government of losing focus on the real concerns of the British people.

Challenged over the issue Thursday in Parliament, May said: “Absolute poverty is in fact at a low, and we have seen in the figures that came out earlier this week that real wages have been growing faster recently than at any time in the past decade.” The Prime Minister also argued that striking good trade deals after Brexit would improve the British people’s fortunes.

In response to the UN report a government spokeswoman said: “We completely disagree with this analysis. With this government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now one million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010 … We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it.”

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’ worth of public spending.

The result, according to Alston, has been to undermine the capacity of benefits to loosen the grip of poverty and a significant reduction in funding for public services which help those most in need.

“During my visit I have spoken with people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter, children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future,” Alston said.

Meanwhile, he said, the government has “remained in a state of denial” and shown a “determined resistance to change” in response to the real problems people are reporting.

“Government policies have inflicted great misery unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are locked into a cycle of poverty from which many will have great difficulty escaping,” Alston concluded.

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 research 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.

CNN’s Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.