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”

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

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”

Economic and social rights in the UK in 2016: A whole year under the UN spotlight… and more is coming

downloadThis article was published first by Housing Rights Watch

After nearly two years of evidence gathering and interaction with civil society and government officials, last June the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued its Concluding Observations on the extent to which UK authorities have been complying with international law on these rights.

To the government’s sorrow, the picture was bleak, but the report also included 60 very specific recommendations. For example, the Committee recommends making economic and social rights enforceable in court, just like civil and political rights are, without regressive changes to the Human Rights Act 1998. Authorities must adopt measures to address the deficit of affordable housing, particularly rental housing. The UK should review its fiscal policy to make sure that taxes provide the necessary resources to satisfy economic and social rights. The government must also enact Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that authorities have socio-economic equality in due regard when designing and implementing their policies. Decisive measures must be taken to eliminate the gender pay gap, and reduce the use of temporary and precarious forms of employment, such as “zero hour contracts”.  The Committee also expressed serious worries about the negative impact of welfare reforms introduced since 2012, in particular benefit cuts and freezes, the use of sanctions, and the disconnect between state benefits and costs of living.

These findings can only be explained if one factors austerity into the equation. The Committee expressed serious concerns about “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups”. The Committee had seen the link between austerity and human rights retrogression before in the Czech Republic (2014), Slovenia (2014), Romania (2014), Portugal (2014) and Spain (2012). The connection had also been noted by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (2013).

2016 was a busy year for the UK government. The Committee on the Rights of the Child published its Concluding Observations in June, and so did the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in October. In September, the UN made public a joint letter sent to the UK government some months earlier by the Special Rapporteurs on Housing, on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on Extreme Poverty, and on the Right to Food, with specific questions about the compatibility of welfare reforms with international human rights obligations of the UK, and the report of the inquiry of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was published in October. This Committee stressed a series of concerns about the negative impact of austerity-led welfare reforms on the rights of people with disabilities.

UN human rights oversight does not end here. Every five years or so, countries are grilled for three hours in the UN Human Rights Council in what is known as the “Universal Periodic Review”. Next turn for the UK will be May 2017. We don’t know what sort of recommendations the UK will receive from other countries, but many organisations and coalitions, including Just Fair, have already made some suggestions. The joint report produced by the British Institute of Human Rights gathered information from 175 organisations, including Just Fair.

Ok, so the UN has spoken categorically, and more is surely coming in mid-2017. But what now?

The UK has voluntarily assumed the commitment to bring to live the rights proclaimed in international treaties. International human rights mechanisms provide advocacy opportunities, but they are only as effective as civil society makes them to be. Organisations and society at large must hold the government to account and demand policies that fulfil the human rights promise.

As soon as she entered into office, PM Theresa May promised that her government would “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.” For now, however, apart from some minimal announcements in the Autumn statement in November, the government has not changed course from the austerity path initiated by Cameron and Osborne. The government has not reacted to the report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in its response to the inquiry report of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government ignored entirely the criticism of the deliberate and unjustified retrogressive measures of recent years.

Even in turbulent waters, there is room for good news. Following the lead of Scotland (since 2012) and Wales (since 2015), a bill is currently being discussed in Westminster Parliament that would create a new duty to prevent homelessness for all eligible applicants threatened with homelessness in England, which would stop councils turning non-vulnerable single people away without any assistance at all. In November, the Supreme Court ruled on the human rights compliance of the so-called “bedroom tax” (or “spare room subsidy”), which essentially means the lowering of housing benefit for those living in social housing that is deemed to have spare bedrooms. The Court ruled that disabled adults who cannot share a room with another person should not have their spare room subsidy removed, and also that treating children and adults differently in this regard would breach Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on private and family life, and non-discrimination. The Scottish government is considering legalising the right to food in accordance with international human rights standards, and has also announced its intention to introduce a new socioeconomic equality duty on public authorities in 2017.

Brexit has taken the UK to an unchartered territory. We don’t know when and how the UK will leave the European Union, and we don’t know the effect that this may have for human rights in general, and economic and social rights in particular. But it is fair to say that the UK is not heading out in order to protect and promote economic and social rights better. At times of enormous political and social uncertainty, in Just Fair we will continue using the international human rights machinery in defence of human rights for all.

Koldo Casla

Policy, Research and Training Officer, Just Fair

Order versus Justice in the selection of the next UN Secretary General

aban2The battle to replace Ban Ki-moon has begun. A recent article by Colum Lynch (@columlynch) in Foreign Policy speaks about the race, the likely competitors and the interests at play. The author explains how the most powerful countries tend to prefer contestants from nations with little weight in international politics. He also talks about the strategies previous nominees have followed, and foresees that the next Secretary General may come from Eastern Europe, notwithstanding the quiet movements of certain players from Latin America to Australia and the ongoing EU-Russia tensions. Not in vain, the UN Secretary General is appointed by the General Assembly, on the recommendation of the Security Council (Art. 97 of the UN Charter), where vetoes are always an option.

This time some people are committed to change the way the Secretary General gets chosen. A number of civil society organisations are campaigning under the platform #1for7billion (@1for7billion), calling for a “process that meets the higher standards of transparency and accountability that UN Member States and civil society have been demanding for years, (…) a process that provides meaningful involvement from all Member States, appropriate input from civil society, and that matches that of other high-level international appointments”. They demand transparency and citizens’ active participation. They oppose the business as usual that has ruled the nomination since 1945. They want 1-for-7-billion, not 1-for-193-mostly-15-really-5. Continue reading “Order versus Justice in the selection of the next UN Secretary General”