Will the UK listen to the UN’s damning indictment of austerity?

Steve Topple fears not. After all, we’ve been here before...

Credit: Tom Parsons/Unsplashed

A ‘social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one’. The government is ‘determinedly in a state of denial’, engaging in ‘radical social re-engineering’ that has inflicted ‘great misery… unnecessarily’.

This is not a commentary on a repressive regime or a developing country. They are the words of the United Nations, aimed directly at the UK government. But the most terrifying thing about this narrative? That it will likely fall on deaf ears, because we have been here before – and not just once.

The media has widely reported that the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston has been investigating the impact of austerity on British society, specifically on poverty. On 16 November he gave a withering assessment. Alston pinned the blame for spiralling poverty squarely on austerity and the Conservative Party, savaging it and its effects as a ‘political choice’. He pointedly noted that:

‘The state does not have your back any longer. You are on your own.’

But what most of the press missed was the context to Alston’s visit and his report: that it will be the fifth UN investigation into the UK since June 2016.

First came the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2009. It was ‘seriously’ and ‘deeply’ concerned about the impact of austerity. Then, the UN Human Rights Committee issued similar warnings in 2013. But it was two reports by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2017 that were most damning. It concluded that, due to austerity and welfare ‘reforms’, successive UK governments had committed grave and ‘systematic’ violations of disabled people’s human rights.

The chair of the committee went as far as to use the phrase ‘human catastrophe’. She noted how the government had effectively tried to cover its tracks, through ‘misused statistics’ a ‘smoke screen of statements’ and questions left unanswered.

The government’s response to these staggering criticisms? To firstly stall, and then to shrug its shoulders. In fact, it poured quite astonishing levels of scorn on the UNCRPD. Now, it appears to be doing the same with Alston. Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions accused Alston of using ‘inappropriate’ and ‘political’ language in the report.

This approach to the UN will leave some unsurprised. But what’s of concern is this cavalier attitude almost mimics the US response.

When Alston visited the US in 2017 his report was equally as, if not in some respects more, scathing. Yet, like its UK counterparts, the US administration dismissed Alston’s findings; accusing him of being ‘inaccurate, inflammatory and irresponsible’.

Contrast UK and US attitudes with a country like China’s. It berated Alston for raising the case of a high-profile political prisoner. But it also responded to his, admittedly somewhat less critical, report by calling it ‘objective and fair’.

So why is authoritarian, human-rights abusing China responding more positively to Alston than the UK and US?

It’s one of two options. Either our own authoritarian, corporatist governments are so wedded to the Victorian-era belief that impoverished people who can’t help themselves out of their situation deserve to be there that compassion from an esteemed outsider is offensive to them. Or, it’s because Alston’s high-profile, publicly damning visit risks busting wide open their nefarious, rapidly failing agenda and dismantles the notion that Western society is one of  equality and a brand of democracy that should be spread across the world. I think it’s probably a bit of both.

Meanwhile, the reality of all this is people’s lives hang in the balance. In the UK, 14 million people live in poverty; 1.5 million are destitute; rough sleeping has risen 169 per cent since 2010; between 2014 to 2017, on average 10 people reliant on the welfare state died each day when the government told them they should be moving towards work. The ‘human catastrophe’ is very real.

The Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty wrote of Alston’s visit:

‘This UN inquiry could prove one of the most significant events in British civil society this decade, for one simple reason: for once, poor people get to speak their own truth to power.’

The trouble with this is that poor people have been speaking ‘truth to power’ for years. I’ve been there when police manhandled disabled people in parliament for screaming about human rights abuses. I was privy to the detail of their complaints to the UNCRPD that brought about its original investigation. We’ve been here so many times it makes me weep. The problem has been that hardly anyone was listening.

Will Alston’s visit now make the UK government open its ears? I doubt it, and for many it will be too little, too late. But his report and the ones before it may represent the unravelling of the government’s neoliberal agenda.

The weight of evidence pointing to the UK government being an out-of-control, corporatist monster is growing. But it also points to a larger, systemic problem with Western societies, their corporate capitalist structures and poor treatment of their citizens.

So now, it’s up to activists and concerned citizens to use this devastating catalogue of shame as a catalyst for change. The frantic thrashing of government and a system which is patently failing is an opportunity for us all to pull society back from the brink.