The People We Want to Look After

Aoife Nolan

Last Friday, Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, finished his visit to the UK. In his end-of-mission statement, he savaged the government’s performance on poverty. Key concerns included shortcomings in the functioning of universal credit, the dismantling of the broader social security net through wide-ranging cuts to services, and the disproportionate impact of fiscal austerity on socially vulnerable groups.

Alston’s preliminary findings (there is a full report to come) were based on hundreds of submissions he received before his visit, trips to all four parts of the UK, and extensive discussions with civil society groups, officials from local authorities, national and devolved governments, politicians, and people living in poverty. He spoke of parents who told him they have to choose between eating and heating their homes, or eating and feeding their children; of schools collecting food and sending it home because teachers know their pupils will otherwise go hungry; of people who are ‘just one crisis away from of falling into poverty through no fault of their own’. Addressing Brexit, Alston said that ‘while people in a democracy are entitled to prioritise sovereignty through such a vote, it is imperative for steps to be taken to protect the most vulnerable.’

Alston’s mission has received unprecedented attention, both in terms of a visit from a UN special rapporteur to the UK and of public discussion of poverty as a human rights issue. The BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Mail, the Mirror – welcoming or not, they all covered the visit.

Criticism of the UK’s record on poverty and human rights isn’t new, however. Since 2010, the country has been lambasted on poverty, austerity and welfare reform by various UN treaty-monitoring bodies.

In 2013, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women urged the UK to mitigate the impact of austerity measures on women.

In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern about the high level of child poverty in the UK, the role of welfare reform in relation to that poverty, and shortcomings in government efforts to tackle it.

Again in 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was critical of the disproportionate, adverse impact that austerity measures were having on disadvantaged and marginalised people, as well as of state policy failures in terms of addressing poverty.

Three months later, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination criticised the impact of legal aid reforms and the introduction of employment tribunal fees on members of ethnic minorities.

A year later, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities criticised austerity measures that had resulted in ‘severe economic constraints’ – i.e. poverty – among people with disabilities and their families.

Each time, the UK responded to the relevant committee in one way or another. But there has been no meaningful change in its approach to fiscal austerity or anti-poverty efforts.

Alston isn’t the first special rapporteur to visit the UK and raise poverty or austerity-related questions and criticisms: seven of the eight other UN special procedures that have visited the UK since 2010 – looking at housing, the right to peaceful assembly, toxic waste, truth, racism, and violence against women and people of African descent – have found fault with the government's performance.

Their statements and reports have been met with a mixture of governmental indifference and anger. Raquel Rolnik’s 2013 visit as the UN special rapporteur on housing was a particular low. The chairman of the Conservative Party claimed that Rolnik hadn’t been invited, and queried – in a potent mix of racism and sexism – ‘how it is that a woman from Brazil has come over, a country that has 50 million in inadequate housing’, to report on conditions in Britain. The Mail described Rolnik as a Marxist practitioner of witchcraft.

The British government has long resisted addressing human rights concerns about the post-2010 austerity agenda, and welfare reform in particular. When it comes to poverty, there is a huge and visible gap between what the UK has signed up to in terms of human rights and what it does in practice – even in the face of reasoned, expert criticism in the context of processes with which it has agreed to engage.

Alston’s preliminary findings generated a predictably aggressive political reaction. Some of it was defensive sounding-off by politicians who fail (or claim to fail) to understand the role of the rapporteur and the nature and purpose of the investigation. Kwasi Kwarteng MP, faced on The Andrew Marr Show with a report of a girl born severely disabled from vCJD who is at risk of losing her home under universal credit, said: ‘I don't know who this UN man is.’

But Amber Rudd used her first appearance in the House of Commons as work and pensions secretary to condemn 'the extraordinary, political nature’ of Alston's language, which, she argued, ‘discredited a lot of what he was saying’. She insisted that the government looks forward to ‘working with experts’ to ‘make sure we get the right outcome for the people who we want to look after’.

Alston’s final report will be published in the spring. His preliminary findings conclude:

As the country moves toward Brexit, the government should adopt policies designed to ensure that the brunt of the resulting economic burden is not borne by its most vulnerable citizens.

There is no evidence so far that the government intends to do anything of the kind.