The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is in the UK on an official UN mission. He is meeting with civil society groups, academics, public authorities and above all with people living in poverty and dealing with the consequences of years of austerity.
Alston, an independent expert from Australia, is seeking evidence on poverty, inequality and the effect of austerity on local government funding.
This official UN visit takes place at a critical juncture for the 66m people living on these islands. With Brexit’s bridge to nowhere in sight, Britons have been promised “the end of austerity” by their prime minister. However, think tanks such as the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies agree that the recent budget from the chancellor of the exchequer is far from an end to austerity, and that uncertainty about the future relationship with the EU leaves all financial prospects up in the air.
Alston and his UN team are visiting Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Essex, Glasgow, London – and Newcastle.
Why the north-east
My colleagues and I entered a written submission to the special rapporteur ahead of his visit. In it we showed that the north-east of England is one of the regions with the highest number of deprived areas in the whole of the UK. Newcastle is the 53rd most deprived English local authority, out of 326. More than 20% of Newcastle’s population live in areas that are among the 10% most deprived in the country. That is 65,000 people.
Newcastle is also the first city where all those in receipt of benefits have moved on to the new Universal Credit system, which brings all welfare support into a single benefit. Levels of child poverty are above the national average. Nearly three in ten children live in low-income families, compared to two in ten in England overall. Fuel poverty is also above the mean: over 14% of households live in fuel poor homes in Newcastle and other parts of the north-east, compared to an average of 11% in England. Newcastle has the dubious distinction of hosting the largest foodbank in Britain.
Poverty and inequality go hand-in-hand. Regional disparities are unusually high for European standards and social mobility in the UK was labelled a “postcode lottery” by the very statutory body in charge of monitoring it. There is a widening gap between Newcastle’s highest and lowest earners. Since 2010, the top 20% of earners have seen their wages grow while those of the bottom 20% have seen a decline in real wages.
Newcastle is also experiencing the damaging effects of austerity’s cuts to local government funding. Newcastle City Council reports that reductions to public spending since 2011 amount to £254m, and by 2020 this is expected to increase to £283m. According to the National Audit Office, government funding for local authorities in England fell in real terms by 49% between 2010 and 2018.
The damaging effects of local government funding cuts are disproportionately distributed in society, with minority ethnic groups more likely to live in deprived areas. Local spending cuts have also reduced local services many women rely on, such as social care, public transport and services for children.
Poverty as a human rights issue
The UN’s mission to the UK – the second one to a wealthy country after the US in December 2017 – has created remarkable interest within civil society, with record numbers of written submissions from charities, community groups and citizens.
Alston and the UN team will have already read the data and the analysis. They are visiting Newcastle to hear what poverty, inequality and austerity feel like on the ground. They will talk to workers who are deprived of a living wage, people desperately seeking advice about benefits from staff and volunteers of Citizens Advice, and households for whom a foodbank is the only means of survival.
Alston and his team will learn about the unfairness of society, but they will also hear stories of change and determination. Both in Newcastle and up and down the country, grassroots campaigners are working together to build a just society that safeguards socio-economic rights for everyone.
Alston will present his preliminary conclusions in mid-November, and a final report will be presented in front of the UN Human Rights Council in 2019. Other international human rights bodies have already made clear that welfare reforms since 2010 are incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations. Inequality levels suggest that public authorities are not making use of all available resources to ensure an adequate standard of living for everyone.
Years of austerity and rampant inequality make poverty a serious human rights concern in one of the wealthiest countries on earth. In or out of the European Union, that is simply not an acceptable cover letter for Global Britain.