Koldo Casla & Daniel Willis
Professor Alston said “austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so”. We need a radical change to establish the sort of society we want to become.
This morning sees the publication of the final report on poverty in the UK by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston. This report is the result of a thorough investigation into the causes and consequences of poverty, homelessness and health inequalities, with a record number of submissions from civil society and individuals.
A central part of the evidence-gathering was a two-week mission last November, when Professor Alston travelled up and down the country to meet with job centre staff, foodbank volunteers, government officials, academics, local authorities… but above all, with those whose everyday lives are shaped by poverty.
And that was, in our opinion, Professor Alston’s most significant contribution: the way he conducted his mission. He listened attentively and respectfully to lone mothers, Universal Credit claimants and struggling families trapped in the false choice between heating their home or putting food on the table.
“The only meaningful way to redress inequalities is to involve the people with direct experience of poverty in the decision-making process; they are tired of seeing others make decisions on their behalf.” – Tracey Herrington, Thrive Teesside, a charity that supports people with low incomes to change their communities.
Community Links and Just Fair co-organised an open mic event in Newham, East London, where Alston got the chance to hear first-hand testimonies from people that know too well what poverty feels like. Over 100 people came together to hear what happens when council spending on social services is cut by a third or more, when someone caps your benefits, when they deny your access to public funds, when they sanction you. Many of those who shared their testimony were women from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background and/or lone mothers, who have been disproportionately affected by ‘welfare reforms’ and austerity policies.
“We support BAME women to secure work and find their voice on important social issues. It’s a slap in the face when the very system that’s supposed to support you into work is negatively impacting your life chances.” – Venu Dhupa, Community Links.
People in Newham, in Newcastle, in Glasgow and elsewhere thanked Professor Alston for having come to them, instead of expecting it to happen the other way around. For many of them it appeared cathartic and empowering to be heard by someone of authority, for perhaps the first time in their lives. We were, and still are, immensely grateful for their contributions.
“Mr Alston dignified 50s women who had been shunned and humiliated by misogynist policy makers.” – Joanne Welch, from Back to 60, fighting for the rights of women born in the 1950s who lost their pensions as a result of discriminatory pension reform.
“Mr Alston spotlighted the appalling toll that policy decisions are having on women we work with, mums and under-fives in temporary accommodation in Newham; this report gives hope to those suffering, and our mums will be emboldened to continue to raise their voices.” – Jane Williams, Magpie Project.
Sceptical voices cast doubt on the need for a UN mission on poverty in the UK, when surely there must be other places around the world where the situation is comparably worse. Since they are asking, in parts of our country more than half of children are growing up in poverty, and impoverished areas are seeing the greatest rises in child poverty. The cumulative effect of tax and social security changes since 2010 will result in lone parents (nine of ten of which are women) losing one fifth of their income by 2022. And official data shows that life expectancy for women born in deprived areas has declined in recent years, something both shocking and utterly unacceptable in the world’s fifth largest economy.
As Philip Alston said to us: “Even a little consultation can go a long way towards producing policies that address real needs and that work. I learned a great deal from those who told their stories in Newham; it would be great if policy-makers were to do the same.”
In recent years, grassroots organisations have reported growing concerns that government policy is eroding human rights, making it increasingly difficult for low-income households to feed themselves, heat their homes and maintain good mental health.
“Poverty needs to be understood in human rights terms. Policies should be checked to make sure they pass a do-no-harm test.” – Tom Croft, from the anti-poverty solidarity movement ATD Fourth World.
We now have the report from the Special Rapporteur, full of insightful conclusions and useful recommendations. The report will be presented in front of the UN Human Rights Council next month, when the government will have to respond.
The report is not legally binding on the UK. The response will be the government’s, but the power of the UN will be yours, ours, as it will depend on what we all do with it.
We need a radical change to establish the sort of society we want to become. The past decade (and earlier) has seen community resilience, wellbeing and social rights undermined by austerity policies and welfare cuts. This small state programme, antithetical to the vision of Beveridge and others, has remade British society and denied many the chance to thrive. As observed by Professor Alston: “austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so”.
His report is an opportunity to establish our own new vision and to renew our commitments to real equality and social rights for all. Others did it before in the direst of circumstances. We can do it again.