The UN report into poverty in the UK perfectly described facts that we see every day – of communities fighting to cope with austerity realities. But that message struggles to cut through to higher levels of a government still trying to get to grips with Brexit and who will be moving into No 10.
That was underlined yet again by last week’s response to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights’ report after he presented his findings to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. This was the government’s chance to formally respond to Philip Alston’s scathing criticism of the Universal Credit roll-out and a “punitive and mean-spirited approach” to the poor. It was an eight-page refusal to accept the information presenting. Instead, complaints about Dr Alston’s “inflammatory language and overtly political tone” were front and centre of the government written response.
Fascinating. After calling @Alston_UNSR's report 'barely believable,' disparaging our tone, and reportedly considering a formal complaint, when it took the floor to formally respond at #HRC41, the UK government appears to have pointed to its written response and dropped the mic.
— Rebecca Riddell (@rebecca_riddell) June 28, 2019
This has moved on from the Department for Work and Pensions’ initial “barely believable” rebuttal and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s claims he “can’t see” the poverty described following the UN expert’s 12-day tour of the UK in November.
Elsewhere within the response, the recommendation of a new poverty measurement has been accepted while the UK government maintains that Universal Credit is “working”.
But the opportunity to say more was reduced to a disappointing one-minute response from the UK’s Human Rights Ambassador Rita French. In her short statement, she referred the council members and all observer delegations to the written statement already supplied.
The move was described as “dropping the mic” by Dr Alston’s assistant Rebecca Riddell as it brought the curtain down on a campaign of hostility to the Special Rapporteur’s findings.
However, the issue of “language and tone” has continued to rear its head even if that is progress following the initial claims that the report was “barely believable”.
TODAY: @Alston_UNSR will present his reports on climate change, the UK & Laos to the UN Human Rights Council. He's schedule to present between 11am and 4pm Geneva, but HRC meetings are subject to change and our best guess is not before 1pm. Watch here: https://t.co/hPFUfEGuNf
— Rebecca Riddell (@rebecca_riddell) June 28, 2019
“I think there has been a change in PR message and, to me, if I had to choose between evidence and tone then the evidence is what matters,” social rights charity Just Fair’s policy director Koldo Casla tells The Big Issue.
It’s not the first time that a UN Special Rapporteur has been met with a dismissive attitude by the post-2010 administration in the UK, according to Nottingham University human rights professor Aoife Nolan.
Take, for example, the 2013 visit by housing expert Raquel Rolnik, who then-Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps claimed had not been invited. This is not the case. The UK maintains a standing invitation to UN experts. Shapps also asked: “How it is that a woman from Brazil has come over, a country that has 50 million in inadequate housing?”
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Tendayi Achiume’s racism report, released in June, also struggled to make an impact.
But all three reports shared a fundamental message: post-2010 austerity has had a devastating impact on the most vulnerable in the country and it is not consistent with human rights.
“While we haven’t seen Alston’s work lead to an immediate commitment to overhaul Universal Credit, it has led to a response,” said Prof Nolan. “It has galvanised human rights and poverty campaigners, and it has left people in poverty feeling more empowered. It has created a noise that politicians haven’t been able to ignore. You don’t change things in a day but you build up momentum. It has been an important stepping system towards a more socially just society.”
Dr Alston’s report could still play a part in the next general election – Jeremy Corbyn has spoken out about the report multiple times and it may well figure heavily on a future campaign trail.
And it has already inspired local activism, according to Koldo Casla. He has been inspired by Dr Alston’s visit to Newcastle to set up a Social Rights Alliance in the North East of England.
The group brings together everyone from a foodbank user to charities to work with councils on a more equality-based social security system.
Casla says: “There are more and more people who normally haven’t used the language of human rights but they are slowly becoming campaigners.”
But for this report to have an impact nationally as the country stumbles towards an October 31 EU exit, it is up to us all to ensure policymakers can see the reality on Britain’s streets.
Human Rights Watch’s Kartik Raj – whose Right to Food report ran parallel to Dr Alston’s investigation – told us why it is crucial that the UK pays attention to international experts to ensure social justice for all.