The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, carried out an official fact-finding mission to the UK from 6–16 November 2018. At a press conference on 16 November, he released a damning 24-page statement presenting his findings and recommendations.
The statement spells out what many of us, including human rights lawyers and organisations as well as those affected, have known for a long time, namely that the driving force behind UK poverty-related policy ‘has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering’, systematically overturning the post-war Beveridge social contract, thereby unnecessarily inflicting ‘great misery … especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalised, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping’.
Professor Alston laments that ‘British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society’.
He addresses in detail the risk of the ‘systematic’ dismantling and digitalisation of the welfare state, the shortcomings of universal credit, the likely devastating consequences of Brexit for the most vulnerable (including through the loss of EU funds) and the ‘dramatic reductions in the availability of legal aid’, which have ‘overwhelmingly affected the poor and people with disabilities’. He highlights the situation of asylum-seekers prohibited from working and stresses that ‘[d]estitution is built into the asylum system’.
Professor Alston criticises the government’s determined ‘state of denial’ and ‘resistance to change’, even though many of the problems identified ‘could readily be solved’ if it were willing to implement his recommendations.
The government’s response has been telling: the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd MP, has sought to discredit Professor Alston by criticising his language as ‘extraordinarily political’ and ‘wholly inappropriate’1Hansard HC Debates vol 649 col 553, 19 November 2018.
without taking issue with his detailed factual findings. Rather than vowing to address the human rights violations he has identified, the government has chosen to take the internationally irresponsible step of attempting to undermine the mandate of the rapporteur as a whole.
Professor Alston’s reply (via Twitter
on 21 November) is frank:
The UK gov’t has a set of talking points about poverty & employment that 1) don’t address poverty 2) use carefully chosen & misleading statistics to paint a rosy picture 3) ignore the horrible situation in which a large number of Britons live. That’s not the way to find solutions.
It is once again both refreshing and vital to have a UN body call the government’s bluff on its narrative on poverty as an unavoidable consequence of austerity ‘needed to save the country from bankruptcy’ (as Professor Alston describes the government’s justification in his statement) and spell out what extreme poverty really is, namely a human rights violation that the government is under an obligation to rectify as a matter of urgency.