Friday, November 09, 2018

UN listens to the poor

Previous destinations for Philip Alston, the United Nations rapporteur on the issue, have included Ghana, Saudi Arabia, China and Mauritania. But now his lens is trained on Britain, the fifth richest country in the world. He must gather evidence, and Newcastle is a good place to start. It was the first city to introduce the new all-in-one universal credit (UC ) welfare payment. The council says central government cuts and rising demand for services mean 60% is being wiped from its spending power between 2010 and 2020.  More than a fifth of the city’s 270,000 population now live in the most deprived 10% of wards in England and Wales in terms of income, work, education, health, housing and crime. One in five households have no one in them aged over 16 earning money and child poverty is 50% higher than the national average, according to a briefing complied by the council for Alston.

At Britain's busiest food-bank he heard from people direct.

“I am hungry sometimes,” Michael said. “I’m scared to eat sometimes in case we run out of food.”
“Universal credit has punched us in the face,” said his mother, Denise, 57. “Before much longer people will turn to crime. People will smash the windows to get what they want. This is going to cause riots.”
At Citizens Advice in the city centre, Alston met Sharon Morton, who hasn’t had hot water or heating for a year and washes her body using a technique to minimise spending on boiled water.
“I wash in what I call a birdbath – a little hot water in a basin and have a spruce down,” she said. “To keep warm I wrap up in layers and layers. I never thought I would be 48 and in this position.”
Tracey Whitenstall, a mother of three, said that because of a 10-week delay in getting UC payments, she couldn’t afford her son’s bus fare and lunch money and so didn’t send him to school for several weeks as he was preparing for his GSCEs. As a result his grades slipped.
“It was the worst, him missing out on education,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.
There was Thushara Chandrasiri, who has a disabled right hand and was told by a disability benefits assessor that he could now work and was refusing him benefits.
“What I found disgusting was that when I said I had the condition a long time, they said you should be used to it by now,” he said. “Because I am right handed they said" 
 Outside the food bank, Alston said: “When you have rates of maybe a third of children living in poverty and you have a food bank clientele at a place like this that is growing and growing and growing, you have issues here. Is the situation in the UK as good as it could be?”
Alston drove out to North Shields and spoke to residents at the Meadow Well estate. Some people have to work five zero-hours jobs to make ends meet, said Phil McGrath, chief executive of the Cedarwood Trust community centre. 
“In the last two or three weeks we have seen a massive increase in numbers of people with mental health issues and people with breakdown,” said McGrath, blaming benefit sanctions and a lack of social and mental health workers to catch people. “People are just being ground down.”
Mike Burgess, who runs the Phoenix Detached Youth Project, told Alston how 18 publicly funded youth workers in the area in 2011 had dwindled to zero today. He described how a young man he worked with was in hospital for months after having a kidney removed. The jobcentre said he had to get back to work or face being sanctioned (losing benefits). He went to work in pain, but his employer realised and said he was not fit.
“There’s no safety net for my lad or people with mental health problems,” he said.

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