9 months since the Special Rapporteur's visit: has anything changed?

9 months since the Special Rapporteur's visit: has anything changed?

An adult and young person together

In November 2018, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, visited the North East as part of his investigation into the changes that austerity made to the social safety net in the UK. The Special Rapporteur's visit was a fact-finding mission: to try to understand what the actions of successive governments had done to attempt to eradicate poverty.

UN Special Rapporteurs are independent human rights experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, and must report to them on an annual basis, clarifying their findings over the previous year. Each Special Rapporteur has their own unique mandate, and must be invited by a country in order to undertake any investigation. The UK has issued a 'standing invitation' to Special Rapporteurs, meaning it will always accept requests by Special Rapporteurs to visit the country. With Alston's visit in November, he was concerned with three things in particular: the changes that austerity has brought on, the move to a 'digital by default' social welfare system, and the roll-out of Universal Credit. As the trial area for Universal Credit, the North East was high on Alston's agenda to visit.

Before the visit, the Special Rapporteur released a call for submissions of evidence from organisations, charities, research institutions and individuals on the realities of extreme poverty in the UK. Over 300 submissions of evidence were made, including many from the North East, such as by Newcastle City Council, the Durham Law School, and the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University. These submissions highlighted the reality of living under austerity, and coping with Universal Credit - showing that welfare reforms have hit hardest in older industrial areas, such as the North East. Other submissions - such as that by the End Child Poverty Coalition - highlighted how important breakfast clubs are to children and. young people in poverty and how damaging poor housing can be to a child's health and social life.

The Special Rapporteur visited the UK for two weeks, travelling all over each of the nations. During his time in the North East, he met with Newcastle City Council, researchers at Newcastle University, visited a Jobcentre and spent time in a food bank in the West End, amongst other things. People told Alston of the reality of austerity: being scared to eat in case they run out of food, wearing layers upon layers to try to stay warm, and missing GCSE exams because of being unable to afford bus fares. Alston's visit reaffirms what we have all known for a while: not only is austerity not working, but it is making people's lives painful, miserable, and difficult.

At the end of Alston's visit, he held a press conference in London to summarise some of his key findings at this stage (the text of which can be found here). The Special Rapporteur explained that the situation is no less than "a social calamity and an economic disaster". Child poverty is rising and current estimates place as high as 40% of children to be in poverty. Yet moving on from statistics, Alston showed that the cost of austerity is deeply human. Disproportionately, austerity has affected those who already have it hardest: "the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities". The claims of the government to be moving towards a 'digital-by-default' social welfare system are destroying what little safety net is left: in Newcastle alone, the City Library has had to assist nearly 2000 people with applications for Universal Credit. Alston also highlighted that Brexit poses further dangers to people already in precarious or vulnerable situations, with the fall in the value of the pound already raising the cost of living. Where the social safety net is already disappearing, Brexit could ensure it is ripped away entirely - especially if the European Charter of Fundamental Rights no longer applies in the UK after Brexit.

In a time of great uncertainty, Alston's visit pointed out clear markers of a system failing to support the most vulnerable. Now, several months on, there have still been no major changes, and no positive steps are on the horizon. At the North East Child Poverty Commission, we have always stood proudly against the roll out of the austerity program. We need to act now.


The full report of the UN Special Rapporteur can be found here.

For more information about the purpose of Special Rapporteurs, click here.

For more of the Special Rapporteur's report on his visit to the UK, click here.


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