This article was published in Newcastle’s Chronicle
A week ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, presented his preliminary report on UK poverty.
Not a UN official, Alston was appointed by the Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental UN body the UK is a member of, as an independent advisor to monitor poverty and human rights globally.
The Special Rapporteur visits countries and makes recommendations as part of his mandate. He requires an invitation from the government and he only visits two countries per year.
Alston and his team spent months reading a record number of written submissions from UK-based academics, civil society and individuals. No other mission from a UN independent expert had generated so much interest anywhere in the world.
I saw Alston in action in Newcastle and in London. I bear witness to the fact that he had an acute understanding of the issues prior to his arrival. He had done all the necessary research, but he needed to hear what poverty, inequality and austerity felt like on the ground. And so he did.
For two weeks, Alston and his four-member team listened carefully. They visited Cardiff, Bristol, Newcastle, North Shields, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Essex and London, in this particular order.
In Newcastle, Alston talked to people that are doing what society expects of them – they are working, often in several jobs – and yet they are deprived of a living wage. He met with people desperately seeking advice about benefits from staff and volunteers of Citizens Advice, and households for whom the West End Foodbank is the only means of survival.
A New York Times reporter was with him in Newcastle. He extensively covered that part of the fact-finding mission and provided a compelling answer to the following headline: “UN’s expert on ‘extreme poverty’ is investigating Britain. Why?”
Written evidence I put together for the Special Rapporteur on behalf of Newcastle University and Newcastle City Council explains why he came here. Newcastle was the first city with a fully rolled-out universal credit. Nearly three in ten children live in low-income families. Over 14% of households live in fuel poor homes. This means that one in seven households in our city have to choose between warming up their home or putting food on the table for dinner.
New research from Newcastle University and Teesside University shows that people being moved to universal credit, especially those with disabilities and health conditions, are forced to wait an average of seven and a half weeks –sometimes 12 – to receive their first payment. As pointed out by the Special Rapporteur in his report, this waiting period “pushes many who may already be in crisis into debt, rent arrears, and serious hardship, requiring them to sacrifice food or heat”.
Despite the evidence, angry commentators have faked outrage because of Alston’s presence in the country. They say they take issue with the UN meddling in our business.
They appear to ignore that for decades the British Foreign Office has significantly contributed to build the international human rights diplomatic machinery this Special Rapporteur is part of. It would be bizarre and anachronistic to claim the UK should be somehow above the system.
Unfortunately, Cabinet members have responded defensively as well. In her first intervention in the Commons as the new DWP secretary, Amber Rudd discredited the report as “disappointing”, “extraordinarily political” and “wholly inappropriate”. The junior Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng said he did not know “who this UN man is”. This UN man was producing ground-breaking research on socio-economic rights in the early 1980s. Mr Kwarteng was in primary school in the early 1980s.
Instead of attacking the author, this report should be an opportunity to pause and think about the sort of country we want to live in.
For example, writing about the government’s “digital by default” approach to social security, Alston wonders “why some of the most vulnerable and those with poor digital literacy had to go first in what amounts to a nationwide digital experiment”. Digital assistance has been outsourced to underfunded public libraries and civil society.
In Newcastle alone, the City Library digitally assisted nearly 2,000 people between August 2017 and September 2018. Nationally one in three universal credit claims fail the application process, and DWP has no estimate of the number of people who do not even attempt to apply due to digital exclusion.
The decency of a society is measured by the living conditions of those at the bottom. There are 1.5 million destitute people in this country. That’s the whole of Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool together: Is this the level of compassion and fairness the fifth largest economy wants to be known for?
In his last Budget statement, the Chancellor could have ended the benefit freeze, and instead chose to change the income tax thresholds in a way that benefits particularly those who are better off. Choice is the keyword here. The UK has the means to end poverty and reduce inequalities. It is a matter of political choice not to do so.
Alston’s Dickensian report is damning but – sorry to break the news to you – it is also toothless on its own. Its impact or lack thereof depends on us: civil society, researchers and campaigners. This is an opportunity to bring the local and the global together. It is not an overstatement to say that the power of the United Nations lies with us.
It is time for a Social Rights Alliance in England that can start right here in the North East. We can learn from insightful examples of community-led monitoring and advocacy of social rights from Belfast to Buenos Aires, from Cork to Nairobi. Communities in Newcastle and around the country can find in Alston’s report a powerful lever to hold public authorities accountable and to urge them to change course at once.
The independent UN envoy has been listening; now it’s time for us to make the change happen.