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

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Reality of poverty in Newcastle: UN examines effect of austerity

IMG_9322-Edit-Edit-Edit_xlargeThis article was published in The Conversation

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is in the UK on an official UN mission. He is meeting with civil society groups, academics, public authorities and above all with people living in poverty and dealing with the consequences of years of austerity.

Alston, an independent expert from Australia, is seeking evidence on poverty, inequality and the effect of austerity on local government funding.

This official UN visit takes place at a critical juncture for the 66m people living on these islands. With Brexit’s bridge to nowhere in sight, Britons have been promised “the end of austerity” by their prime minister. However, think tanks such as the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies agree that the recent budget from the chancellor of the exchequer is far from an end to austerity, and that uncertainty about the future relationship with the EU leaves all financial prospects up in the air.

Alston and his UN team are visiting Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Essex, Glasgow, London – and Newcastle. Continue reading “Reality of poverty in Newcastle: UN examines effect of austerity”

Renting rights: what England can learn from fairer systems around the world

downloadThis article was published first in The Conversation.

Record numbers of families now rent privately in Britain. Twice as many middle-aged people rent their homes compared to 2008, and it has been estimated that about one-third of millennials will rent for their whole life.

Renting the house you live in has its advantages as it gives you greater freedom of movement and saves you other costs: insurance, service charge, deposit, mortgage interest, to name a few. Yet, for most people, renting privately is not really a matter of choice. It is the result of stagnant wages and the fact that house values rise much faster than the economy.

Britain is becoming a country of (reluctant) tenants. But the law does not keep the balance fairly between landlord’s interests and tenant’s rights. Continue reading “Renting rights: what England can learn from fairer systems around the world”

Could the socio-economic duty be a way to reduce inequalities in the UK?

SDG-10This piece was published in UKSSD blog. (Image credited to UKSSD)

The UK Government committed to reducing inequalities through Sustainable Development Goal 10. Three years later things aren’t on track but is the socio-economic duty the solution we need? Koldo Casla from Just Fair explains. 

By signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, among other things, the UK Government committed to reducing inequalities.

The SDGs, with their 17 Goals and 169 Targets, set the world on a trajectory where we have eradicated poverty, reduced inequalities, halted the loss of biodiversity and combatted catastrophic climate change. Some call them an action plan for the world. But as our chapter on SDG 10 in Measuring up shows, three years later the UK’s chances of hitting the targets on reducing inequalities by 2030 are not looking too good.

Three reasons why the UK will struggle to reduce inequalities

  1. Between one in five and one in four people earn less than 60% of the median income in the UK. This has barely changed since 2010, and things are not likely to improve as income inequality is projected to rise in the coming years.
  1. Although wealth inequality (the ownership of assets, including property) contracted between 1997 and 2007, it is now going up as a result of the decreased access to home ownership and because land values are growing faster than the economy. The richest 1,000 people are wealthier than the poorest 40% of households.
  1. Tax and social security cuts introduced since 2012 have had a particularly severe effect on people on low incomes. Black and ethnic minority households, families with at least one disabled member, and lone parents (who are overwhelmingly women) have suffered disproportionately. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as a result of the tax and welfare reforms households in the bottom 20-30 per cent have lost more than twice as much as those in the top 20 per cent. At this pace, in four years from now 1.5 million more children will live in poverty.

The UK has a strong legal framework to prevent discrimination, we just need to use it Continue reading “Could the socio-economic duty be a way to reduce inequalities in the UK?”

Why human rights campaigning needs to change more than just its framing

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This article was published in Open Democracy UK

The problem is not how we speak – it’s who we are.

Human rights campaigning in the UK, where I am writing this from, is shifting from finger pointing to emotional appeals. In this post-factual world of fake news, trolls and bots, simply uncovering human rights violations no longer works as effectively as it used to. A new approach is needed because connecting with people’s hearts is more urgent than ever.

One persuasively articulated new approach is that not everyone is the same – and thus, framing is crucial. This approach notes how some people support human rights messages whatever the package they come in, whilst others will always oppose human rights. And some, possibly the majority, do not have anything against the idea of human rights or against their champions, but remain sceptical or distant, or simply have not cared enough to make up their minds yet. This third group should be human rights’ target audience because they will tip the scales in one direction or the other. This tribe has a cracking name that matches their super heroic responsibility: The ‘persuadables’.

To reach out to the persuadables human rights groups are urged by the re-framers to change the conversation. Based on neuroscience and cognitive linguistics, campaigners must communicate hope over fear, they must tell stories that speak to emotions and humanity. Facts and figures are useful with your loyal friends. Feelings work better with the persuadables, or so says the theory.

I admire the zeal to reassess what works and what doesn’t. It is good news that the sector is paying more attention to public opinion here and abroad.

But I think we risk hitting a target by missing the point. Continue reading “Why human rights campaigning needs to change more than just its framing”

International rights are only as good as the national mechanisms that protect them

PA-7018580-1600x900This article was published in Open Democracy UK.

In June 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reproached the UK Government its failure to reconcile austerity with international human rights law. The Committee made 60 recommendations in areas such as housing, equality law, social security and public health.

According to international law, the Government must comply with international obligations and engage with international human rights bodies in good faith.

However, in February 2017 the Ministry of Justice announced that it did not intend to report before June 2021 on the implementation (or lack thereof) of the UN’s recommendations.

Slightly over a year later, it is encouraging to see that the Ministry of Justice will be represented at a high level today in an event co-organised by Just Fair and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to examine precisely what progress the UK has made in relation to economic and social rights since the UN’s report of 2016. Continue reading “International rights are only as good as the national mechanisms that protect them”

The government are ignoring their obligation to measure inequality – parliament must compel them to do so

Screen-Shot-2018-01-05-at-16.07.10-440x292This article was published in Labour List.

The UK is one of the most economically unequal countries in the developed world, and tax, public spending and social security policies in the austerity years only worsened the problem.

Since 2010, the Labour Party has examined the impact of tax and social benefits on different groups. The model developed by Yvette Cooper shows that the savings have come from services predominantly used by women, causing them to bear the brunt of such cuts to the tune of 86%.

While the Government fails to conduct the necessary impact assessments, others are providing evidence of the disproportionate effect that some policies are having on women, children, persons with disabilities or BAME families.

Last November, for example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission demonstrated that the costs of tax, public spending and social security cuts have been borne overwhelmingly by the poor. While everyone has lost some money after the reforms, not everyone has lost the same.

Net cash losses for the bottom 40% have been about £1,500 per year, while for the top 20% the average cash loss has been £200. On average, BAME households have paid a higher price than white households. Families with at least one member with a disability have bit hit particularly hard. Single parent households, more than 80% of whom are headed by women, have suffered disproportionately. In fact, women have been more negatively affected by tax and welfare reforms in all income brackets.

In light of this dire reality, 126 Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs have called for an immediate equality assessment of all government policies.

In particular, Labour has tabled an amendment to the Finance (No. 2) Bill 2017 to require the Chancellor to review the equality impact of the Budget, including the way in which tax changes and benefit cuts affect households at different income levels.

We welcome this initiative. We desperately need policies that are both transparent and effective in ensuring real equality and an adequate standard of living for everyone.

The good news is that we already have the necessary tool in the statute books: the Socio-economic Duty. Continue reading “The government are ignoring their obligation to measure inequality – parliament must compel them to do so”