‘As Thomas Hobbes observed long ago, such an approach condemns the least well off to lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. As the British social contract slowly evaporates, Hobbes’ prediction risks becoming the new reality.’
This startling conclusion comes from the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights’ report on his fact finding visit to the UK and Northern Ireland in 2018.  His conclusions were also influenced by over 300 written submissions. In Phillip Alston’s one page summary and 19 page report he is scathing about the impact of the UK’s political approach as four million out of our 15 million population ‘are more than 50 per cent below the poverty line and 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017, unable to afford basic essentials.’ Despite being ‘the world’s fifth largest economy, high employment and a budget surplus have not reversed austerity, a policy pursued more as an ideological than an economic agenda.’ Well that’s clear!
The profound damage to individual economic and social rights hits whole communities too as ‘The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers shrunk community and youth centres and sold off public spaces and buildings.’ Now politicians and public servants urgently need to focus on progressively improving the minimum core of human rights, such as the right to food, to an adequate standard of living, to a warm home. Importantly the voices of civil society need to become stronger and more strategically effective in holding politicians to account and set out what deliberate steps they will take to fix economic inequalities, undo the harshness in the welfare system and end unfairness in access to public services.
The report acknowledges that ‘Scotland, despite having the lowest poverty rates in the United Kingdom, has the lowest life expectancy and pockets of profound poverty. Scotland and Northern Ireland each report spending some £125 million per year to protect people from the worst impacts of austerity and, unlike the United Kingdom Government, the three devolved administrations all provide welfare funds for emergencies and hardships.’
In terms of remedial strategies, the report states that ‘Scotland has recently put in place ambitious schemes for addressing poverty, including the Fairer Scotland Action Plan and the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan. It has also used newly devolved powers to establish a promising social security system, guided by the principles of dignity and social security as a human right and co-designed with claimants on the basis of evidence…’ Although it is ‘too soon to say whether these steps’ will make a difference, he raises major issues for concern as ‘it is clear that there is still a real accountability gap which can and should be addressed. The Social Security (Scotland) Act of 2018 provides no redress for violations of the right to social security. But if the compelling recommendations made by the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership are adopted, and if the Scottish Government acts swiftly on its commitment to incorporate the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scottish law, these steps will make a huge difference.’
Alston’s report reminds us too that it is the least powerful who are disproportionally impacted by layers of political choices such as women, children, disabled people, older people, ethnic minorities and asylum seekers. Fixing social and economic equality must happen in tandem with respecting other human rights such as civil, political and cultural rights.
It is important that we listen to the messenger rather than shoot him down. Understanding that we are all entitled to be treated with dignity and respect and that makes society fair is a basic fact but has now become a big lesson requiring immediate attention.
The purpose of Alston’s visit is to report to the Human Rights Council in June 2019 on the extent to which the Government’s policies and programmes relating to extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations and to offer constructive recommendations to the Government and other stakeholders. There are 11 specific recommendations including to ‘Restore local government funding needed to provide critical social protection and tackle poverty at the community level and take varying needs of communities and differing tax bases into account…’. I am sure we can all think of quite a few more immediate actions!
As GCVS is a stakeholder in the process, the newly formed Human Rights Defenders’ Network serves as an excellent vehicle to drill down on the recommendations, and work with all those who want to make Scotland a rights respecting society. The more civil society organisations that join together the stronger and more effective we become and with the opportunity to deliver 47 human rights recommendations in Scotland arising from two separate official reports then there has never been a better time to forge ahead with positive, practical solutions.
Professor Alston’s full report is available on the UN website: Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
Carole Ewart is a public policy and human rights consultant and is working with GCVS to build capacity on applying human rights law and policy. For more information on the work of GCVS and its Human Rights Defenders Network contact Lynn Williams firstname.lastname@example.org