Social Justice

Parliament holds first 2019 debate on Philip Alston's UN poverty report

Amber Rudd didn’t turn up – but her replacement Justin Tomlinson indicated a softer government approach to the damning report after “political language” accusations

UN Alston

The first parliamentary debate on Professor Philip Alston’s UN poverty report finally took place early this week, led by South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck.

The half-hour-long discussion, held at 10pm on Monday, was an adjournment debate crammed into the schedule as MPs returned to work after Christmas. There were just 14 MPs present.

“The human cost is one we are seeing being borne out in our streets, where homeless people are dying, where people suffering from terminal illnesses, disabilities and mental health difficulties are being wrongly declared fit for work,” said Lewell-Buck on Monday night.

Amber Rudd, who had so robustly defended Universal Credit after UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Prof Alston’s stinging criticism in November, did not attend the debate, instead opting to send Work and Pensions under-secretary Justin Tomlinson.

However, Tomlinson indicated a change of approach for the government after Rudd had been so critical of the “political language” used by Alston initially.

He said: “What I am saying is that we will consider the report seriously. We obviously do not agree with all the points, but Professor Alston has highlighted some important views and opinions to which we should rightly be looking to respond.”

Lewell-Buck’s speech cited stories hardship with Universal Credit and foodbanks and questioned the government’s will to help the poorest in the country. Prof Alston had done the same in his hour-long press conference last year, insisting that “the government has remained in a state of denial – poverty is a political choice”.

Lewell-Buck said: “I used to be proud to live in a country where people, when in need through no fault of their own, were able to receive help from the welfare state in their darkest hours, but since 2010 that safety net has been eroded and ripped away so that work is no longer a route out of poverty.”

Labour MP Liz McInnes also pointed out that the US has halted co-operation with UN Special Rapporteurs and insisted that it would “shame us to share the disdain” if the UK followed in the footsteps of the Trump administration by rejecting Dr Alston’s recommendations.

The final report on UK poverty will be delivered by Prof Alston next year with the UK government required to respond in public.

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