Ministers are in a "state of denial" about poverty, a UN expert, Philip Alston, special rapporteur on extreme poverty, said and despite being in one of the world's richest countries he had encountered "misery". Among experts in the media, think tanks, Parliament and organisations such as the National Audit Office, Prof Alston said there was "close to unanimity" that Britain was not doing enough to combat poverty. However, he explained, "Ministers with whom I met told me that things are going well that they don't see any big problems and they are happy with the way their policies are playing out," Prof Alston said.
The approach to benefits was "punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous", Prof Alston said. He gave the example of "draconian sanctions" which shut people out from the benefits system for weeks or months at a time, sometimes for minor infringements such as missing an appointment. Onthe two-child limit for benefit claimants, Prof Alston compared this limit to China's notorious one-child policy and said it was "a perfect way to punish families".
Levels of child poverty are "staggering" and 1.5 million people were destitute at some point in 2017. He said he witnessed "a lot of misery, a lot of people who feel the system is failing them, a lot of people who feel the system is really just there to punish them".
Welfare changes have disproportionately affected women, especially single parents, he said. "If you got a group of misogynists in a room, and said guys, how can we make this system work for men and not for women, they wouldn't have come up with too many other ideas than what's already in place."
He also warned that the poor would "bear the brunt" of the expected impact of Brexit on the UK economy, and said the fall in the value of the pound had already cost low-income families £400 a year. "In my meetings with the government, it was clear to me that the impact of Brexit on people in poverty is an afterthought," he said.
Quoting figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, he said that more than 1.5 million people were destitute at some point in 2017, meaning they lived on less than £70 a week or went without essentials such as housing, food, clothing or heating.
It is a measure of "relative poverty", meaning it looks at the percentage of people living with less than 55% of the median income, taking into account costs such as childcare, housing, debt and disability
The government prefers the measure of "absolute poverty". This counts the number of people in households with less than 60% of the median income as it was in 2010/11, so it shows how living standards of low-income households have changed over time. By that measure, the government says there are a million fewer people in absolute poverty than there were in 2010.
It is not the first time the UK has been criticised by UN special rapporteurs, who are independent human rights experts appointed for fact-finding and monitoring missions around the world. In 2014, urban planning expert Raquel Rolnik said the "bedroom tax", which meant social housing tenants with spare rooms had to pay more rent or move somewhere smaller, undermined the right to adequate housing. On that occasion, ministers said her report was a "misleading Marxist diatribe" and made an official complaint to the UN.