Posted by Zehrah Hasan on 30 May 2019

Last week the UN published a damning indictment of the effects of austerity policy and its impact on extreme poverty and human rights.

On Wednesday 22 May, a report by UN inspector Professor Philip Alston said austerity in the UK has resulted in “rapidly growing inequality”.

In the UK last year, one fifth of the population were living in poverty – with 1.5 million experiencing destitution and 24,000 families recorded as homeless in just three months.  

At Liberty we have long fought against the human rights violations that go hand in hand with poverty. Here are five things the Government must do to ensure people’s basic rights are upheld in the UK.


Alston’s report found homelessness rose 60 per cent from 2011 to 2017 - while rough sleeping increased by an astonishing 165 per cent from 2010 to 2018. Yet local authorities are criminalising homelessness, rough sleeping and other activities which result from extreme poverty through Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs).

Since 2014, PSPOs have allowed local authorities to target particular non-criminal activities taking place within a specified area.

These broad, discretionary and discriminatory orders criminalise poverty while failing to tackle its root causes. Liberty will continue to oppose this violation of human rights.


In the UK right now asylum seekers have no right to work while their applications are being processed – leaving them with no way to support themselves and at great risk of falling into destitution.

Alston’s report criticised this policy and called destitution a “design characteristic” of the asylum system. The Government’s strategy of “forced destitution” should no longer be used to try to deter people from seeking refuge in the UK. Not only does evidence show this approach is ineffective, it’s also inhuman and degrading.

The hostile environment has also pushed many migrants into hardship and poverty. Invasive data-sharing schemes between public authorities and the Home Office have turned police officers,  teachers, doctors and nurses into border guards - effectively barring undocumented migrants and people with insecure immigration status from accessing basic public services. We must dismantle the hostile environment so everyone can access vital support, without discrimination.


Alston’s report acknowledged that “recent policies have too often perpetuated rather than tackled the gendered aspects of poverty”. This is drawn into particularly sharp relief when considering the impact of Government policy on survivors of domestic abuse.

Cuts to local authorities since 2010 have decimated refuges and support services for survivors - with the brunt borne by specialist services for women with complex needs. Now, 60 per cent of all refuge referrals are turned away – rising to 80 per cent for women of colour. This leaves survivors of domestic abuse with the impossible choice between becoming destitute, or staying with the abuser.

This is compounded for migrant survivors of domestic abuse. Many people in the UK have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ as a condition attached to their immigration status or as a result of being undocumented. This means many survivors of domestic abuse cannot access refuges and support services. This two-tier system of safety undermines migrant women’s fundamental human rights by putting them at risk of destitution, further violence, exploitation and death.


The UK’s legal aid system has been dramatically reduced since 2012, with the number of civil legal aid cases declining by 82 per cent between 2010/11 and 2017/18. This prevents people from accessing justice and, as Alston’s report states, “[exacerbates] extreme poverty, since justiciable problems that could have been resolved with legal representation go unaddressed”.

It is vital we have a legal system that is accessible to everyone who needs it. This includes access to free legal advice and representation for those who cannot afford it, as well as for cases in the public interest - to hold the powerful to account.


Alston’s report calls out the impact of poverty on disabled people. Nearly half of those in poverty are from families in which someone has a disability. The shrinking of the safety net, described by Alston in the report, has had a damaging impact on the rights of disabled people, who are discriminated against through education, employment and wider public services. It is clear that progress of human rights for those with disabilities has stalled.

A recent independent review of the Mental Health Act showed this legislation to be out of step with modern human rights and called for reform. With an increase in the numbers of people being detained under mental health and capacity legislation, and the fact black people are four times more likely to be detained, reform cannot come soon enough.   


The Government’s response to this report – and others like it – showed a complete disregard for international human rights bodies. This makes the recent appointment of the UK’s first International Human Rights Ambassador empty and insincere.

We believe the Government must listen to the criticisms and recommendations of international human rights experts. But more importantly it must listen to the voices of the millions of people across the country living in poverty every day. Only then can it truly work towards a system that respects and upholds everyone’s rights.

Zehrah Hasan Liberty

Zehrah Hasan

Advocacy Assistant