The extent of extreme poverty in the UK and how it breaches our human rights was formally reported to the 41st session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on the 28th June . It is now up to civil society, as well as our National Human Rights Institutions, to get politicians to act quickly and adopt measures which deliver the 11 recommendations from the robust report of Professor Phillip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. Clearly there is much to be done given the levels of poverty in Glasgow which needs to be spelled out as civil society influences two current opportunities on funding for human rights work.
The fact that such a visit to the UK was necessary given that we are the world’s fifth largest economy initially alarmed some, but commentators quickly conceded that the evidence of 14 million people in poverty, 1.5 million in destitution, one in every two children are poor, reduced life expectancy in some areas, vast numbers of ‘in work poor’ and huge dependency on food banks proved an endemic problem.
Globally the reasons for the visit were analysed, and the New York Times pointed out that it would ‘assess why about a fifth of Britons remain in poverty despite rising employment levels, economic growth and pockets of enormous wealth.’ Understanding the back story to traditional economic indicators was also a motivation for the Governor of the Bank of England to visit GCVS in June [Read the event report]. Globally financial institutions and politicians need to rethink how they define economic success as we can delude ourselves that everything is ok when in fact too many individuals and families are tiny steps away from severe economic distress which can shatter a country’s economic ‘success’ overnight. Therefore, the collective impact of poverty is of interest, whether or not there is any empathy or concern for those who are poor despite being employed for 50 hours per week, suffer a punitive social security system or caring responsibilities mean they scrimp by.
The publication of Professor Alston’s written report, in May 2019, evidenced why UK poverty was the direct result of a deliberate policy by successive governments . Therefore, to fix the reasons for poverty and to deliver on current human rights obligations requires the current government to change course. The UK government reacted by adopting the ‘fake news’ approach to the robustly researched report which relied on evidence from official research and data such as from the National Audit Office and the EHRC.
Of course, the UK has form on this type of behaviour as it was annoyed with the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing in 2013. When she returned to the UK in 2019, it was clear that the problem had got far worse so there is a lesson that we cannot let another UN human rights report go to waste.
At the UN session last week, the UK Government had the opportunity to formally respond at the UN and it was assumed they would just repeat the (baseless) criticisms. Surprising when the UK Government’s representative spoke she opted to simply refer to the UK’s written response, which is available for us all to read: Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – Comments by the State (PDF) Be warned it is boring, misses the point and tries to hide the fact that the UK is so embarrassed it is already taking positive action because, as the DWP reported to a House of Commons Committee, when ‘fact checked’ Professor Alston’s report is right.
So, what forced the very public change of tactic? Clearly the UK Government’s diplomatic common sense overtook its embarrassment at being exposed as a purveyor of poverty. The UK’s statement followed that of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic which, according to Amnesty International, has serious human rights problems including ‘the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remain severely restricted, and the state exercise strict control over media and civil society.’ This critical assessment provided useful context as the Lao government representative complained that Professor Alston’s report on his country was based on information from ‘hostile NGOs’. Lao copied the UK government’s previous tactics and blamed the messenger, sought to distract and denied the problems. It would be hugely embarrassing if the UK then went on to do the same at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council.
Now that the formal process of reporting and responding is over, we in civil society have been charged by Professor Alston to use the report to secure change. Can we do that in Glasgow and work collectively and strategically? As the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of the Scottish Parliament has recommended that public authorities should be looking at how it can fund civil society to engage with the UN process, it is important we make the case for funding to local authorities and other key agencies such as health boards. Let’s hope that the UN becomes a guiding and a driving force in Scotland for making sure that the world’s fifth largest economy works for everyone.
Additionally, the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee is ‘undertaking an inquiry into third sector funding to deliver national equalities and human rights priorities and outcomes. This recognises the third sector has a vital role to play in progressing national outcomes.’ Submissions are due by 23rd August and there needs to be input either individually or collectively, despite the summer holidays. Civil society needs money to build capacity and knowledge on human rights as well as fund strategies which deliver for people and communities. Contact Lynn Williams if you want to get involved. email@example.com
Carole Ewart is a public policy and human rights consultant who is working with GCVS on promoting and mainstreaming human rights across sectors.
 Watch the session on the UN TV service at http://webtv.un.org/search/clustered-id-sr-on-poverty-sr-on-idps-14th-meeting-41st-regular-session-human-rights-council-/6053551884001/?term=&lan=English&cat=Meetings%2FEvents&sort=date&page=2
 NYT, 13th November 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/13/world/europe/un-extreme-poverty-britain-austerity.html
 Article in The Independent 28th March 2019 https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/un-special-adviser-housing-poverty-uk-increase-housing-crisis-a8843741.html
 Recommendation 14 in Equalities and Human Rights Committee Report ‘ Getting Rights Right: Human Rights and the Scottish Parliament’, 6th Report, 2018 (Session 5), Summary of Key Recommendations available at https://sp-bpr-en-prod-cdnep.azureedge.net/published/EHRiC/2018/11/26/Getting-Rights-Right–Human-Rights-and-the-Scottish-Parliament-3/EHRiCS052018R6Rev.pdf