The politics of poverty: the UN’s damning verdict on UK austerity

… poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget … but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.

That was the damning verdict of Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, at the end of his 11 day visit to the UK. His report paints a depressingly desperate picture of poverty in the UK and some of the findings require repeating here:

  • Child poverty is expected to rise up to 40% by 2022
  • In-work poverty is increasingly common and nearly 60% of those in poverty in the UK are in families where someone works
  • Nearly half of those in poverty, 6.9 million people, are from families in which someone has a disability
  • England has seen a 60% increase in homelessness since 2010 with rough sleeping up 134% and up to 2,000 food banks in the UK.

The conclusion of the report was clear, the government’s policies had directly led to a drop in living standards and increase in poverty. The Special Rapporteur believes the driving force of the policies has been social re-engineering which has replaced compassion with ‘a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach.’

However, the report’s comments on government policies reveals a conflict inherent in treating poverty as a political issue. If it is accepted that poverty results from political choices, then the question arises as to who is best placed to hold politicians to account for their choices. NGOs, charities, opposition political parties, civic organisations and the judiciary perform this role rather well, as do voters when they elect their politicians. As such, it is questionable that an unelected UN expert should be doing the same.

To the extent that the Special Rapporteur’s role only goes so far as amplifying the conclusions of NGOs and other organisations, his is a welcome intervention. However, his conclusions about the internal political choices of a sovereign state are problematic. Take Brexit as an example, the Special Rapporteur rightly acknowledges that this was the sovereign choice of the UK population but argues that people need protection from its impacts.

What he does not highlight is whether  those living in poverty who voted for Brexit in greater numbers consider government policy on Brexit as it stands to be wrong because it is hurting them. This is a political question and one which boils down to what type of Brexit deal the UK needs, if one at all. Equally, other legitimate means of scrutinising government policy are provided by the UK’s judicial system which enable parties, including NGOs to bring judicial reviews into government actions forcing the government and local authorities to reconsider steps that are deemed to be beyond their democratic mandate. 

A related issue arising from the politics of poverty is that solutions will vary for each country depending on the policies implemented by the government. That means that while human rights may be universal, solutions to poverty as a human rights issue are not universal and have to be tailored to the internal situation of each country. This places power in the hands of those in elected office and results in cultural and political differences to tackling poverty.

The Special Rapporteur’s visit was a welcome amplifier of genuine concerns about increasing poverty in the UK, whatever the causes. However, his decision to define poverty in political terms risks dividing public opinion on the causes and solutions. Additionally, it undermines the democratic mandate of elected officials, be that in relation to deficit reduction and austerity or Brexit. Accordingly, the Special Rapporteur’s brief is tricky–to be effective, it requires him to highlight the causes of poverty and recommend solutions without dividing the public on political grounds. My view is that defining poverty in terms of political choices does more to divide public opinion than it does to unify the public in coming up with solutions.

Separately, the Special Rapporteur has been accused of not focusing his efforts on regions of the world where extreme poverty is a much bigger issue. The irony of those criticisms is that precisely because poverty is not expected to be a big issue in the UK, the Special Rapporteur has arguably achieved more in highlighting the plight of much of the UK population. With a robust rule of law, a free press and a political system open to scrutiny, criticism of poverty in the UK is likely to be taken on board and measures put in place to tackle it.

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