The politics of poverty: choices and rights

Written by Jenni Davidson on 18 December 2018 in Inside Politics

A rights-based approach to poverty would compel the Scottish Government to act, but why wait?

A rough sleeper at Christmas - Image credit: Holyrood

Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, fixes this Holyrood reporter with what might be called a Paddington ‘hard stare’ – if Paddington had rather piercing blue eyes – when asked whether it was usual for someone looking at extreme poverty to visit a country like the United Kingdom.

He doesn’t “only go to disaster areas”, he replies.

“The suggestion that serious poverty exists only in the south [developing countries] is really mistaken, apart from anything else, and it means that human rights would be all about just looking at countries that have no money.

“But we know from long experience that there are a lot of developed countries where there’s very high poverty rates,” Alston explains.

“And in some ways it makes it more important, because when I go to a developing country, they can say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have any money, just can’t do it, we’d love to’, whereas a rich country like the UK or the United States clearly has the money, whatever they say.

“It is a question of whether the political will is there to start eliminating poverty.”

Political will is a theme that runs throughout the initial conclusions presented by Alston following his visit to the UK, in which he took evidence from a wide range of people, from politicians to those with current and past experience of the benefits system and living in poverty.

Universal Credit came in for particular criticism in his report. He highlighted the impact of austerity and the rollout of Universal Credit on the poor, the disabled, women, children and ethnic minorities.

He noted, too, the alarming rise in foodbank use, debts due to delays in first payments, people forced to choose between paying rent and feeding their children, and the rise in suicides necessitating appointing a dedicated UK minister.

His conclusions were beyond blunt, comparing the UK Government’s two-child limit on benefits to China’s one-child policy and he suggested that if a group of misogynists had got together to design a welfare system “they wouldn’t have come up with something much different” from the current UK one.

For anyone to be living in poverty in the UK is a “political choice”.

Douglas Hamilton, chair of the Poverty and Inequality Commission, tells Holyrood he was “slightly surprised”, but positively so, by the tone of Alston’s “damning” comments.

Hamilton says: “I think to have that type of language, I mean, to talk about being ‘punitive’, ‘mean spirited’, ‘callous’, it’s very direct, and I think to have that from somebody coming from outside of the country, who is coming to visit for a short time and to be given that impression, I think will hopefully help the UK Government to take a step back and really think about the approach they’re taking with this, because they seem to have to failed to do so up until now.”

The UN special rapporteur cannot force any government to address the issue he raises – his report is merely there to hold a mirror up to that nation and ask if it is happy with what it sees.

“My powers are zero,” Alston laughs, when asked by Holyrood whether he can compel action.

“My report is only as strong as the recommendations in it and the extent to which they resonate… In other words, if people look at the report and say, ‘Pfft, idiot didn’t understand anything’, the report will sink like a stone.

“If they look at it and say, ‘Actually, there’s stuff in here, it’s true we should be doing more,’ then it will have an impact.

“It’s never direct. No government ever has stood up and said, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realise what the special rapporteur said. We’re going to change our policies.’ That’s not how it works.

“But I can reinforce those who are calling for change. I can legitimise those who are feeling marginalised and neglected.

“And I can give some impetus to ideas that might already have some support in government and elsewhere”.

While there seems little sign that the UK Government is listening so far, the Scottish Government could be expected to take more action, given its rhetoric on poverty.

Hamilton says: “I would be really disappointed if the Scottish Government response to this is purely to use it as another kind of backing for criticising Westminster measures.

“They need to do that, but they need to take a step back still and reflect on what it means for them and what actions they can take to respond to this.”

He points out that the context in which the Scottish Government is acting now is very different, with its new tax and welfare powers, and “now it’s actually about making different political choices, because the [Scottish] Government has the power to make those different choices”.

“And I think that was another thing that was very clear from the rapporteur’s [report], these are political choices that have been made.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. These are deliberate decisions that have been made and I think that has to be reflected back to the Scottish Government to say, now it’s up to you to make different political choices.”

A “mind shift” is needed now, Hamilton says, in recognising that it’s “not good enough anymore” for the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament just to call on Westminster to make changes.

They need to make progress towards their own commitments which, unlike the UK Government, do include taking action to eradicate poverty.

Hamilton says: “Take the Child Poverty Act, that was 100 per cent of MSPs, full house, in terms of every MSP from every party voted for those targets, and that means that they are committed to making different choices.

“We said this to the rapporteur, in terms of everything the Westminster government has done, the only thing you can say that’s fair to them is that’s what they said they would do.

“And they were voted in as a government, we knew that was going to happen.

“They’ve stuck to their promises in relation to it. They’ve never made any promises to end poverty. They never made any promises to make a more generous benefit system. Whereas the Scottish Parliament have made those promises.

“They’ve made those promises in terms of parties, they’ve made those promises in terms of their election manifestos, the parliament as a whole has made those promises in relation to the Child Poverty Act, so now it is incumbent on them to follow those through and to make sure they’re putting the money in and developing the policies to actually make the changes, which they have the powers now to do.”

Currently, there are seriously high levels of poverty in Scotland, with a million Scots living in poverty, including 230,000 children.

The number of children who are homeless has increased for the past four years, while foodbank use has continued to rise and rise.

A recent report published by Citizens Advice Scotland found that 21 per cent of respondents had gone a whole day without eating because they did not have enough money for food and 23 per cent had had to skip meals so that their children could eat.

Meanwhile, CAS also found that a quarter of Scots are still living in fuel poverty.

Experts have repeatedly recommended a £5 a week increase in child benefit to lift children out of poverty, but that has not been implemented.

The Poverty and Inequality Commission recently called for poorer families to be given extra cash for food during school holidays.

But there is no compulsion on either the UK or Scottish governments to act because of a lack of basic human rights legislation around poverty.

A recent report produced on behalf of the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) highlighted that while the UK, including Scotland, is strong on political and civil rights, it has failed to incorporate human rights treaty commitments on social, economic and cultural rights into law.

This “accountability gap” in Scotland was also raised by the UN rapporteur.

Judith Robertson of the SHRC explains: “In the UK, and Scotland by dint of that, we have strong human rights laws in relation to our civil and political rights, but that does not extend to our economic, social and cultural rights as citizens.

“So they are not ‘justiciable’, is the term used by the legal community – they’re not in domestic law of our country – and so nobody can hold any government, UK, Scottish, any government or any party acting on behalf of the government, to account for whether or not they have delivered in relation to the human rights treaties that the government has signed up to.

“So that is what we describe as an accountability gap. So while we can test our right to privacy, we can say our rights have been breached in relation to some kind of privacy breach and we can take that to a court, we can have that conversation and that decision can be made, that can be adjudicated, that’s a right that we have at the moment.

“We can’t do that in relation to social security. To say my right has been breached around the right to social security, it must be adequate, accessible and of a certain quality, it has to be available to me and if I, from my perspective, see that my rights are not being upheld, then there’s nowhere I can go with that, other than the complaints procedure that exists within the social security system – if indeed it exists.”

But it’s not just about the ability to challenge a breach in court, Robertson says, but also to set a minimum acceptable level and to prevent policy being enacted in the first place that would be in breach of social and economic rights.

For example, the ‘bedroom tax’ is unlikely to have got past legislation on social rights. It also prevents regression, meaning cuts to benefits would likely be in breach of human rights.

But Robertson adds: “But human rights is not just about the bottom, it’s about opening up the top.

“It’s also about aspiring to make it better – that’s the standard against which we will not fall below, but we also recognise that, and this is particular to the treaties in relation to economic and social rights, what they describe as the ‘concept of progressive realisation’, that you can take steps to improve the situation and that you should always take progressive steps.”

It’s for each country to decide what the baseline below which no one should be allowed to fall looks like for them, Alston and Robertson both say.

“Have a conversation. Have a debate in Scotland about what that minimum core would look like, what’s the bottom, and then what steps are we going to take to increase from the bottom, make it better for everybody,” Robertson says.

“Now for me, that’s not a political decision. It is ultimately a political decision, clearly, but it’s a standard against which, as a society, we can agree that isn’t what we want our citizens to be having to deal with.

“Dignity, respect, they are quantifiable, in that we know when they don’t exist, so we know what to do to make the conditions exist to make them exist.

“To make those conditions, people being able to live in dignity and respect, I don’t think it’s that difficult, actually. I just think we’ve never had the conversation on those terms.”

However, it is a conversation that Scotland looks set to have. Last week, the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership brought forward its recommendations on how to make Scotland a leader in building a rights-based society, which include creating a new Scottish human rights act.

As well as the existing political and civil rights covered by the UK Human Rights Act, the Scottish act would include these missing economic, social and cultural rights: the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing, adequate food and the right to protection against poverty and social exclusion, and a right to social security.

Last week, Nicola Sturgeon confirmed the establishment of a taskforce to carry that work forward in 2019 and with regards to embedding social and economic rights in a statutory framework, she said that “any government that claims to be progressive has a duty to think deeply and to act ambitiously on how we give the right to a decent standard of living the same status as rights to free speech, association or religion”.

“Today’s report provides a thoughtful and authoritative view on how we can achieve that in Scotland and as a result of that, I believe it will improve people’s lives here in Scotland and help Scotland to demonstrate true international leadership,” she added.

Making social rights part of Scots law could be a game-changer in lifting people out of poverty. It could compel the Scottish Government to act, even if the issue was caused by Westminster policies.

But it could act now and is choosing not to do so. That children go to school hungry and Scottish people are using foodbanks is a political choice.

Why wait for the human rights legislation to compel it to act on poverty?

If, as the First Minister says, she wants Scotland to be a “beacon for others” in terms of human rights, there are some clear pointers where she will need to begin.

Hamilton tells Holyrood that since the Poverty and Inequality Commission started, one of its key asks has been a call for honesty in the debate around tackling poverty. 

“And I think part of that honesty is recognising that the powers are there and they are choosing not to use them at this particular time – and that’s the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Government I’m talking about.

“That’s not to deny the good things they’re doing, and there have been, they’re referenced within the rapporteur’s statement, in terms of the mitigation that has been taking place, but that is still different from an active commitment to going further than that and taking the action to tackle poverty and inequality, which they’ve said they would do.”

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