THE Twitter profile of Professor Philip Alston is headlined: “Poverty is a political choice.”

The Australian academic at the New York University School of Law is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. This is a post he has held, without pay, since 2014.

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This week he produced an excoriating 20-page report on poverty in the United Kingdom. Its summary findings are stark, sobering, saddening and diminish us all. It condenses into a short few sentences a summation of the biggest challenge facing our society and a governing system that is in flames.

They are worth quoting at length: “Although the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth-largest economy, one-fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, and 1.5m of them experienced destitution in 2017. Policies of austerity introduced in 2010 continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences.

“Close to 40% of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021. Food banks have proliferated; homelessness and rough sleeping have increased greatly; tens of thousands of poor families must live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks; life expectancy is falling for certain groups; and the legal aid system has been decimated”.

Alston then criticises drastic cuts to local budgets that have eliminated many services. He concludes: “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. A booming economy, high employment and a Budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda.”

It is only a short report but each page carries eye-watering perspectives and conclusions: “Destitution appears to be a design characteristic of the asylum system.”

Almost half of the families in poverty include someone with a disability; families with two adults working full-time on the minimum wage still fall 11% short of the income judged adequate to raise a child; one-and-a-half-million more children falling into poverty in the 10 years to 2022.

Gender inevitably plays a part, especially for single parents 90% of whom are women. “It should shock the conscience that since 2011, life expectancy has stalled for women in the most deprived half of English communities, and actually fallen for women in the poorest 20% of the population.”

Shock the conscience indeed. This is a dire position for the UK have reached. The devolved administrations are trying to mitigate the worst excesses, but Alston points out budget limitations make this non-sustainable.

The politics of Britain is broken. As a result, our society is breaking. The level of discord is growing and the inequalities and poverty will only get worse and worse. Brexit has provided an angry, heated, hollering lightning rod for so much seething. But it is no solution it will only accelerate pain.

The underlying challenges of demographics are hard enough. Policy – as the UN report points out – has made matters worse. Future challenges will nuclear charge the problem further as society and our economy transitions through technological revolutions that could leave millions of jobs, communities and industry structurally redundant.

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In order to address the problem, our political system needs to be completely transformed. The report makes a further and very strong case for independence, of course. Far better to have a government we elect every time, focused on our own solutions to the realities of the UK today and the pending enormity of the changes coming down the line. However, independence is only a necessary but not sufficient means to a better end. A bargain must be struck among ourselves. About what we want our society to be. Our shocked consciences will not be resolved by scapegoating anyone. This is about our collective choices.

Of course, in a democracy the parties will compete with ideas on how to manage this crisis, but the evidence of modern history is that small countries are better able to reach agreement about the national priorities and the plan and strategy to achieve them. Some decisions can be taken quickly, such as improving our immigration policy and system.

Others will take much longer-term effort, not least in bearing risk in investing in the people in the hardest-hit communities to give them a chance of being fully contributing economic citizens in their lives.

This column argued two weeks ago that a Fund For Future Generations should be capitalised now and help fund the projects working to transform life chances in communities across Scotland that may work, may fail but will take long-term risk-bearing effort to try. That is just one relatively small example. We need to have far bigger ideas about what a modern 21st-century taxation and benefit system will require to do for Scotland. Not just to mitigate the worst excesses of policies inherited from or delivered by Westminster. Not either to make incremental change, but to fundamentally address both the crisis we can observe now and the tidal wave that is coming with the technological revolution.

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All of the transformations of history have lifted the tide of wellbeing globally. But the proceeds have always been unevenly distributed by gender, geography and generation. More importantly, the transitions have destroyed lives and communities because they haven’t been handled well by effective and enlightened public policy and governing institutions. Millions have been left behind each time. The next transformation must learn the lessons of history and lessons of analyses like Alston’s today.

The official government response was to say the UN’s own data put the UK 15th on the list of the happiest places to live. “This is a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here. It paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty,” a spokesman said.

So, there you have it, “Fake News”. That ring a bell? Who do you think might have this one right? Professor Sir Angus Deaton; the Nuffield Foundation; the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. All of them who think poverty and inequalities are an urgent UK crisis? Or the spokesperson for the government which is held in the lowest regard domestically or internationally of any UK Government ever?