A toxic mix of Brexit and punitive welfare reform is ramping up extreme poverty in the UK.
UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has said making minor adjustments to the social security system will not help those in need, and Brexit is likely to make things worse for the poor.
The independent expert delivered a damning interim report on poverty in the UK at the end of last year, having toured some of the country's poorest regions.
And members of civil society in Scotland gained the chance to discuss the findings with the international human rights lawyer in a webinar on Thursday afternoon (14 February), hosted by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO).
The session focused on the rapporteur’s interim findings following his visit to the UK in November 2018.
In the initial report, Alston said that poor people no longer feel they are getting the support that they used to get from those in power and concluded that austerity measures have resulted in very little savings being made.
The rapporteur told the meeting that his final report will be submitted to the UK government shortly, but warned he had been constricted in his content by strict word limits.
Widespread media coverage around the initial findings means that Westminster will not be able to ignore the levels of poverty highlighted - but it is too soon to tell if this will result in meaningful action, Professor Alston said.
He added that he had not been surprised by the UK government’s response to his interim report, but hoped that it would act as a catalyst for change.
He said: “It is certainly better than nothing to have some sort of tinkering with the system, but of course what the report is really seeking is a deeper rethinking of the system. It remains to be seen whether this will happen.”
The rapporteur added that there have been no developments in the last few months to suggest that Brexit will improve things for those who face poverty.
“Nothing that has happened since my report in regards to Brexit that makes the situation any more optimistic,” he said.
“I think we must assume that the consequences for people living in poverty will be particularly bad. If GDP falls to the extent the Treasury and others are fairly confidently predicting then there will be a whole new set of people who will suddenly be plunged into increased economic insecurity.
“And they will thus start to discover to the weaknesses that now exist in the overall social protection scheme.”
The New York University professor highlighted that he was independent in his findings - having not been paid for his work and having no career ambitions from it.
Questions faced by the rapporteur included what effect UK welfare policies have had on women and the disabled, and around the issue of food poverty for older people.
SCVO chief executive Anna Fowlie thanked the rapporteur for taking the time to hear from the third sector.
She said: “This afternoon’s session was thought provoking and shows the desire amongst Scotland’s third sector to understand what is driving poverty in Scotland.
“Professor Alston’s initial findings rightly attracted a high level of attention, with his study highlighting with great clarity the devastating poverty that millions of people in the UK face. He found that the welfare system is actively compounding or even exacerbating poverty and inequality.
“As the rapporteur stated, these issues cannot be ignored. We will work with our members to ensure that support is there for the vulnerable and to give them a strong voice.”
More than 40 representatives from the Scottish third sector joined the webinar, and a recording of the session can be watched on YouTube.