TFN reporter Gareth Jones analyses UN rapporteur Philip Alston's findings on poverty in modern Britain
“British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and callous approach …”
This quote pretty much sums up Philip Alston’s views on recent welfare reforms introduced by the UK Government.
The UN rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights did not hold back in a press conference summing up his findings from a two-week visit touring some of the UK’s poorest areas. His visit was sparked by the huge amount of people living below the poverty line in Britain, around 14 million people. For context, previous tours Alston has taken in recent years include Mauritania, Ghana and Venezuela.
And the human rights expert was quick to criticise the UK Government’s role in failing to address the widening gap between rich and poor. He said that austerity was a choice, an ideological move aimed at making the population less reliant on the government for support.
And things are going to get worse, perhaps unsurprisingly. The most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society will take the biggest hit from Brexit, Alston said. Universal Credit is driving communities across Britain into further hardship, desperation and despair. Amongst those identified as worst affected by recent welfare changes include women, ethnic minorities, children, single parents, asylum seekers and people with disabilities.
Alston did take time to mention steps being taken in Scotland to address poverty, describing them as ambitious but adding it is too soon to deem what effect they will have. It will be interesting to read his full findings from his visit, especially in relation to Scotland, which will be presented to the UN human rights council in Geneva next year.
Perhaps most worryingly, when confronted by the independent expert those in power seem to deny or ignore their role in fuelling poverty. "In my meetings with the government, it was clear to me that the impact of Brexit on people in poverty is an afterthought," he said. Recently departed work and pensions secretary Esther McVey refused to acknowledge the effect that single household payments have on those living at risk of domestic abuse – Alston claiming she highlighted that 93% of the population have joint bank accounts, “so what’s the problem?”
And the denials continued after the initial findings were revealed. Treasury Minister Mel Stride MP told Channel Four News that contrary to the report claiming austerity has inflicted great misery in Britain, the country now has “a million people fewer in absolute poverty”. The report was described as “disproportionate” with a “strong push to make sure poverty is reduced” at the heart of government.
In this country, we love nothing more than poking fun at and criticising what’s going on America just now. But a similar report by Alston described "cruel" reforms by the Trump administration as a systematic attack on welfare. Sound familiar?
Brexit understandably dominates the headlines in the media, and will continue to do so over the coming weeks, months and perhaps even years. But as journalists it is important not to forget the effect that it is likely to have on the poorest people in society, and to continue to highlight the plight of those who face a life of depravation. Politicians from all parties must be held to account, and not be allowed to ignore those who are struggling to find a voice amongst all the rabble.