Poverty in the UK: The world is listening, but is the government?

Koldo Casla and Wanda Wyporska

This article was published first in Open Democracy

The UN has heard shocking findings about the level of UK poverty – but the response from government has been confused.

Last Friday, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, presented his report on UK poverty in front of the UN Human Rights Council.

Fourteen million people in poverty, one and a half million of them in destitution, proliferation of food banks, rising homelessness and rough sleeping, stagnant social mobility, closure of libraries and of bus lines in rural areas, local government funding cuts… In parts of our country more than half of the children are growing up in poverty. If you are a woman born in a deprived area you can expect to die younger than you would have done ten years ago. The poor have borne the cost of unfair taxes and social security cuts introduced since 2010.

All this, despite historically high employment levels. The conclusion is both clear and bitter: Cuts to public services do not work, and simply hurt far too many people. If the Government had meant to harm the British social fabric on purpose, their masterplan would not have had to look substantially different from what we have seen over the past decade.

The world’s fifth largest economy must do much better than this. But Friday was not about Mr Alston’s report. It was about the Government’s response. It is time neither for complacency nor histrionics. As pointed out by fifty UK civil society leaders in an open letter published last week, the Government needs to come up with far more responsible and constructive feedback than what they have been offering recently.

The UN Special Rapporteur came to monitor compliance with international human rights treaties that are binding upon the UK, and it is a general principle in international law that countries must act “in good faith” to comply with international treaties they have voluntarily subscribed to.

When Mr Alston made his report public on 22 May, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, said it was “biased”, “barely believable” and “a completely inaccurate picture of” the Government’s approach to tackling poverty.

A few days later, the Government added in its official response to the United Nations: “We regret the inflammatory language and overtly political tone of this report, and strongly refute the claim that the design and delivery of welfare reforms, including Universal Credit (UC), are deliberately punitive”.

Last Friday the UK delegation in Geneva simply referred to this written response, with no more comment (min 31:58).

However, only last month ago something rather odd happened at a in a parliamentary committee of one parliamentary committee. A senior civil servant acknowledged: “We did a fact check of the Special Rapporteur report, he made a lot of good points, a lot of it was factually correct; (…) in terms of the facts, austerity, cuts to local government funding (…) all of those things were really good points.” An opposition MP could not believe what he was hearing and turned to the visibly uncomfortable Minister, who added: “It was more the tone and some of the language used which I thought was unnecessary, but of course there are areas in there that I will be working with officials on”. So much for a biasedinaccurate and barely believable report.

A few days earlier, in early June, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said on BBC: “I don’t accept the UN Rapporteur’s report at all. I think that’s nonsense. Look around you. That’s not what we see in this country”. Poverty, deprivation and social exclusion are, of course, not the sort of things he sees from his windows in Downing Street. And that may be part of the problem. It would be helpful for the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and other Cabinet members to take a walk around the country and meet the people trapped in poverty, with no choice, with no freedom, the people that are most affected by the policies they have been implementing.

Those who spoke with Mr Alston in November were not under the illusion that their living conditions were going to improve massively as a result of his presence or his subsequent report. They thanked him for having come to them, instead of expecting it to happen the other way around. It was as if they were not used to that sort of deference from people of authority.

We did not expect the Government to U-turn in Geneva after a decade of ideological austerity. But it is an opportunity for a new Prime Minister. Not everything is about resources, and there’s something the Government could do right now. Get out and talk to people. Certain decisions would not have been adopted if the relevant ministers had spoken with those that are struggling the most in our society. For example, we are convinced the digitalisation of social services would never have been signed off. It is unrealistic to take for granted the confidence and the digital literacy of vast numbers of potential claimants of Universal Credit. “Digital by default” is simply unfit for purpose, and it would not have taken them long to realise that if they had made the effort.

Mr Alston concludes in his report that “key elements of the post-war ‘Beveridge social contract’ are being overturned” in contemporary Britain. Over 600,000 copies of Beveridge’s report were sold when it was published in the early 1940s. We wonder how many people will have downloaded Alston’s report for the UN in 2019; the world record number of submissions from all around the country, the media coverage and above all the testimonies of people that met with him give us reasons to be optimistic. We are witnessing an unstoppable movement to end poverty, fight inequality, preserve public services and champion human rights. Poor people, whether in work, unable to work or unable to find work that pays, deserve to be heard. Mr Alston’s verdict is out. It’s the Government’s turn now. The world is listening.

Continue reading “Poverty in the UK: The world is listening, but is the government?”

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Philip Alston’s Austerity Report Must Be A Turning Point For Social Justice In Britain

Koldo Casla & Daniel Willis

Published in The Huffington Post first.

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.

Continue reading “Philip Alston’s Austerity Report Must Be A Turning Point For Social Justice In Britain”

The socio-economic duty: A powerful idea hidden in plain sight in the Equality Act

This article was published in Oxford Human Rights Blog.

Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 asks public authorities to actively consider the way in which their policies and their most strategic decisions can increase or decrease inequalities. I am talking about the socio-economic duty. However, successive governments since 2010 have failed to commence it, to bring it to life in technical terms, which means that public authorities are not technically bound by Section 1. Continue reading “The socio-economic duty: A powerful idea hidden in plain sight in the Equality Act”

Sustainable Development Goals in the UK: Not as rosy as the Government wants you to believe

Koldo Casla and Imogen Richmond-Bishop

This article was published first in Open Democracy.

In 2015, all 193 United Nations (UN) member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address the global challenges of our time, including human rights, inequality, poverty and climate change.

All countries, rich and poor, are expected to meet the SDGs. This July the UK Government is voluntarily reporting at the UN in New York on its progress on the implementation of the Goals. Whilst we have yet to see the final report, the Government has made public the preparatory Emerging Findings.

And not all that glitters is gold. Continue reading “Sustainable Development Goals in the UK: Not as rosy as the Government wants you to believe”

Britain’s cuts to social security breach international human rights law. It is time to invest in a fair future

downloadThis article was published in Open Democracy.

In accordance with international human rights law, countries must take concrete steps to the maximum of their available resources to fulfil economic and social rights progressively. This includes the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living.

In case of serious economic difficulties, countries can slow down, halt and even reverse some of the progress, but those measures must be time-limited, objectively necessary and proportionate, adopted after meaningful engagement with those most affected by them, they cannot be discriminatory, must mitigate inequalities and ensure that the rights of the most disadvantaged people are not disproportionately affected. These are the requirements of the human right principle of non-retrogression.

A briefing recently written by the social rights NGO Just Fair for the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee shows that tax and social security cuts since 2010 have not met the mentioned requirements of non-retrogression and therefore breach the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living. This means that the UK is infringing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Articles 9 and 11) and the European Social Charter (Articles 12 and 13), both of which have been voluntarily subscribed to by the UK. Brexit will not change that.

The briefing is supported by 15 local and national groups working on fair taxation, community engagement, workers’ rights, child poverty, equality and food security: Caritas Anchor House, Unison, Women’s Budget Group, Back To 60, Equality and Diversity Forum, Community Links, Sustain, Fair Play South West, Race On The Agenda, Taxpayers Against Poverty, Research for Action, Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Tax Justice UK, The Equality Trust, and 4 in 10.

Tax and social security policies since 2010 have not been justifiable in terms of the goals they were meant to achieve (a), they have not been proportionate (b) and the effects have been discriminatory (c). The weight of local government funding cuts has fallen on people at risk of harm, discrimination and disadvantage (d), and benefit sanctions have been harmful and largely ineffective (e). Continue reading “Britain’s cuts to social security breach international human rights law. It is time to invest in a fair future”

Poverty in Britain: The power of the United Nations is in your hands

0_IBP_NEC_071118food_bank_09JPGKoldo Casla

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. Continue reading “Poverty in Britain: The power of the United Nations is in your hands”

The UN Envoy Has Listened To Britons In Poverty – Now The Government Must Listen To Him

The Special Rapporteur hears from people affected by poverty in Newham - C Bassam Khawaja 2018This article was published first in Huffington Post

I saw Philip Alston in action and the gratitude people showed – these people’s experiences must not be ignored

A few months ago, the government reluctantly accepted a request from an independent expert that provides special advice to the United Nations. His name is Philip Alston and his mandate is extreme poverty and human rights. He wanted to visit the UK to monitor the effects of specific policy decisions on poverty. He was particularly interested in measures like universal credit, benefit sanctions, local government funding cut… and Brexit, of course.

Alston and his team spent the last two weeks in the UK. He visited Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Essex and London. He met with civil society groups, frontline council workers, government officials, MPs, academics and –by far the most important thing of all- with many people with direct experience of living in poverty.

Just like when he went to the US last year, Alston has been received with hostility by grumpy white men. “Poverty in Britain? Who are the UN and this foreigner to meddle with our business?” Alston has seen it before. No surprises there. Archives are full of similarly wrathful headlines from nationalistic and isolationist commentators and politicians all over the world. Human rights defenders know it too well. We must be doing something right.

Yes, poverty in Britain. Written evidence I put together for Alston on behalf of Newcastle University and Newcastle City Council explains why he went there. Newcastle was the first city with a fully rolled-out universal credit. Nearly three in ten children live in low-income families, compared to two in ten in England. Fuel poverty is also above the mean: Over 14% of households live in fuel poor homes, 11% in England. Newcastle also has the dubious distinction of hosting the busiest food bank in Britain. The City Council reports that public spending cuts from government since 2011 amount to £254million.

New research in Gateshead and Newcastle by my colleagues Mandy Cheetham (Teesside University), Suzanne Moffatt and Michelle Addison (Institute of Health & Society, Newcastle University) demonstrates that universal credit is affecting claimant’s mental health till unbearable limits. 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 twelve – to receive their first payment. Deductions for advance payments and rent arrears put people in front of the impossible choice between heating their home or putting food on the table.

I saw Alston in action in Newcastle. He listened attentively and respectfully to hardworking families that depend on the foodbank to stay afloat. He met with people who can’t figure out how to muddle through the website to claim benefits. The ‘digital by default’ policy pushes them to Citizens Advice in the City Library, from where they walk for one hour to the West End Food Bank, back to the website, and the wheel keeps on rolling down the slope.

People thanked him for having come to them – instead of expecting it to happen the other way around. It’s like they are not used to that sort of deference. I witnessed sincere appreciation in Newham, East London, in an event organised by Just Fair and Community Links. A crowd of 80 housing activists, child poverty charity workers, survivors of misogynistic violence, people with disabilities, mothers with children spoke up when an open microphone was handed to them. “We’re really glad you’re here”, one person told him, to general approval.

The final report will be out in June. I look forward to reading it and using it extensively. We shall wait and see what’s in it. For now, the preliminary conclusions presented today make clear that tax and social security cuts since 2010 are incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations, and that rampant income and wealth inequalities suggest that public authorities are not making use of all available resources to ensure an adequate standard of living for everyone.

In or out of the EU, Alston’s account should be a Dickensian story, not a cover letter for 21st Century Global Britain. The UN envoy has listened carefully. Now it’s time for the government to act.

Koldo Casla

Photograph: Just Fair and Community Links event in Newham, East London. 12 Nov 2018 (c) Bassam Khawaja 2018