UN rights expert slams UK welfare spending cuts

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BERLIN (AP) — A U.N. human rights expert on Wednesday sharpened his criticism of cuts to social support in Britain, pointing to "record levels of hunger and homelessness" in the country and describing recent changes as window-dressing.

Philip Alston, the U.N. Human Rights Council-appointed expert on poverty, visited Britain in November and was critical at the time of British policy. Releasing a new report in Geneva, he said there are 14 million people — one-fifth of the population — living in poverty, and cited increases in homelessness and food banks.

"The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos," he wrote.

Alston said the government has acted on some issues he raised previously, delaying the rollout of a new welfare program known as Universal Credit and improving it. But, he added, despite a booming economy and "for all the talk that austerity is over, massive disinvestment in the social safety net continues unabated."

Britain's Conservative-led government enacted spending cuts in welfare as part of austerity programs to balance the books after the 2008 financial crisis. In October, Prime Minister Theresa May declared that the end is nigh for austerity.

"It is difficult to see recent changes as more than window dressing to minimize political fallout," Alston said. "The situation demands a new vision that embodies British compassion and places social rights and economic security front and center."

His report also raised concern over the potential impact of Britain's exit from the European Union.

It said that "if Brexit proceeds, it is likely to have a major adverse impact on the most vulnerable." However, it also argued that "Brexit presents an opportunity to reimagine what the United Kingdom stands for," including social inclusion and legislative recognition of social rights.

The U.K.'s Department for Work and Pensions rejected the report's findings, calling it a "barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here." It said it painted a "completely inaccurate picture" of the government's approach to tackling poverty.

It said that "our welfare reforms are focused on supporting people into employment."

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