“At Britain’s busiest food bank in Newcastle’s west end people loaded carrier bags with desperately needed groceries as unemployed Michael Hunter, 20, took his chance to spell out to one of the world’s leading experts in extreme poverty and human rights just how tight money can get in the UK today.
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, and he listened as Hunter explained an absurdity of the government’s much-criticised universal credit welfare programme.
Users have to go online to keep their financial lifeline open, but computers need electricity – and with universal credit leaving a £465 monthly budget to stretch the three people in Michael’s family (about £5 each a day), they can barely afford it with the meter ticking.
I have to be quick doing my universal credit because I am that scared of losing the electric,” he said. Alston mentally logged the situation, ahead of a report ruling on whether Britain is meeting its international obligations not to increase inequality. But it was not just the computer that was too expensive to power.
“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.”
The Hunters’ story was just one of a long list of stark insights into life in poverty delivered by the people of Newcastle to Alston during his trip to uncover what austerity is doing to the people of the UK and “to investigate government efforts to eradicate poverty”.
Last year his no-holds-barred UN report into the impact of Trump-era policies on the US brought a stinging reaction from the White House. The odds are that Alston will say the UK is far from doing enough to meet its obligations. In 1976 the UK ratified the UN covenant on economic, social and cultural rights agreeing that policy changes in times of economic crisis must not be discriminatory, must mitigate, not increase, inequalities and that disadvantaged people must not be disproportionately affected.
But first 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. …
Some people have to work five zero-hours jobs to make ends meet, said Phil McGrath, chief executive of the Cedarwood Trust community centre. The trust is encouraging residents to engage in local and national politics to have their voice heard. It is paying off with some people who have never voted turning out at the last general election, he said.
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.
And that is the hidden cost facing many at the sharpest end of austerity in Newcastle.
“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.”