The preliminary report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston, appeared on November 16th. It has been the subject of my three previous blogs (numbers 13-15) and in this present one, I consider some of the responses.
a) The press conference – who was there?
On the day he presented his report (16th Nov. 2018), Philip Alston gave a press conference which has now been put up on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AlstonUNSR/videos/207369616828528/?__tn__=-R)
During the first half, he spoke about his findings, in the second half there were questions from, inter alia, the Independent, Guardian, New Statesman, Sky news and Financial Times.
Running alongside this podcast are many comments from those watching. People said that they had only known about the SR’s report through social media, not through the usual TV channels or newspapers, and asked why the BBC appeared not to be present at the press conference. All were very supportive of the UN report, thanked Alston, and one even proposed him for PM! It was widely recognised that the government would either deny or ignore the report. There were a number of commentators who focused on particular issues, especially around the cuts in benefits for disabled people. Others were women in their fifties who have recently had their pension age raised at short notice and now find themselves in poverty. One said that she had been recommended to take an apprenticeship!
The publication of the report raised a Twitter storm:
• The first of these says: ‘This government has blood on their hands…thank you for your thorough and honest appraisal. Unfortunately this will not be shown on TV, it may get a passing mention but then it will be swept under the carpet.’
• Another adds ‘Let’s face it – this government are treating the furore around Mays Brexit ‘deal’ as a good day to bury bad news’ while a third asks why the BBC is not covering this report.
Here is a small sample of the remaining hundreds of tweets:
• Philip Alston, thank you for your honesty in reporting the terrible levels of poverty and the lack of concern and political will shown by the British Government. I am so thankful that there is an independent and non-biased organisation that can report the truth.
• This important investigation should be splashed over the media, sadly it won’t! Many believe what this Government and media feed them, they should read this.
• Thank you @Alston_UNSR for making your findings clear, transparent, unequivocal and hard hitting. It’s excruciating to read. Even though what’s happening is plain to see, we’ve carried on relatively regardless. Now it is up to us UK citizens to tackle our #willfulblindness
• I have chronic illness aggravated by medical errors that I can’t afford to take to court. I’m a lone parent and last week signed a no resuscitation order because when Universal Credit comes to my city, I would be better dead than fighting even for food for my son.
• Dear Professor Alston. Thank you so much for your careful report. I am a GP in Plymouth &see the misery the Tory cuts cause my patients every day. Sadly our new DWP minister, Amber Rudd, &all other Tory MPs have denied everything & belittled your qualifications.
• Now this is a subject that deserves to shut down the bridges of London and be shouted daily behind outdoor newscasters, Brexit is used as a smokescreen to hide the immense suffering of our fellow citizens
The government reaction: shoot the messenger
• The newly appointed Minister for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, described the language of the report as ‘extraordinarily political’ and its tone as ‘highly inappropriate’. An article in the New Statesman by Anoosh Chakelian points out that ‘when you only care about the messaging, you’ve lost the argument’.
• A DWP spokesperson was quoted in a number of reports as saying that it completely disagreed with Professor Alston’s analysis: “With this government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now 1million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010”.
• On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show there was a discussion of the UN report by a panel which included the junior Brexit Minister Kwasi Kwarteng who entirely dismissed the report, said he ‘didn’t know who this man is (Alston)’. When confronted on the programme with the case of a brain-damaged teenager about to lose her home because of Universal Credit he merely said ‘it was a sad story’ while maintaining that the economy was in fine shape.
• The junior Work and Pensions minister Justin Tomlinson told a committee of MPs that families suffering from poverty might take in lodgers to alleviate their problems.
The mass media coverage
The BBC news channels did of course cover the report but they also made it the subject of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Moral Maze’, broadcast on 18th November, with a panel comprising Melanie Philips (columnist on The Times), Michael Portillo (former Tory cabinet minister), Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts – RSA), Giles Fraser (described as ‘priest and polemicist’). Their initial comments on the UN report were unsurprising:
• Melanie Philips: I don’t recognise this picture of UK. Exaggerates in a disgraceful way in order to make a political attack on this country which the UN has no business doing. Another reason why UN is a moral disgrace
• Giles Fraser: I have bags in the back of my study for those who come knocking at my door, increasing numbers in last 5-6 years. It is a picture I entirely recognise
• Michael Portillo. Britain does not have extreme poverty nor are the rights of poor people being violated. In a democracy with a raucous free press, we hardly need intervention from the UN
• Matthew Tennant: one of the indicators of the high levels of poverty comes from asking people what they consider to be essential. We do have a big issue of poverty and also lack of awareness so the UN has done us a service
In short, then, a ‘balanced’ set of views, with the report (and the UN) being stoutly defended by some of the witnesses called such as Helen Barnard, Deputy director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and Natalie Samarasinghe, the UNA-UK’s Executive Director.
Alston’s report was also covered by most of the TV news channels, although some gave it more time than others. Channel Four had been following Alston during the 12 days he toured the UK, and it interviewed Alston on his preliminary report, as well as carrying a piece from its social affairs editor Jackie Long.
Most of the broadsheets (e.g. Times, Independent, Financial Times) also carried the story as did the Evening Standard, while the Guardian produced numerous reports before, during and after Alston’s visit and the publication of the report. The Telegraph highlighted the SR’s contention that the UK’s welfare system has a deep gender divide: “If you got a group of misogynists together in a room and said ‘how can we make a system that works for men but not women?’ they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what’s in place.” Alston noted the single household payments meant that women were not often able to control the family income, putting them at greater risk of domestic violence.
The Continental Telegraph on the other hand headlined its article with ‘The lie in the UN Rapporteur’s UK Poverty Report’ and dismissed it entirely.
The UN report was also covered by foreign-based news media. On November 21st, the New Yorker published a long article, while the Huffington Post focused on the Kwasi Kwarteng story. Al-Jazeera also carried the story in some detail and concluded by quoting Kartik Raj, a researcher for Human Rights Watch: “The government needs to sit up and pay attention to what he (Alston) has said at this crucial time, not hope that his recommendations get buried in the nonstop rolling news coverage of Brexit.” Raj was right of course, since coverage of Brexit is wall to wall but this is not the only reason.
Alas, there has been little follow-up, although coincidentally, a report which came out at almost the same time written by academics for the UK Equalities Commission (an all-party group) (https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/is-britain-fairer-2018-pre-lay.pdf) makes many of the same points. As of course have many previous reports by third sector organisations and academics, as I’ve pointed out before in earlier blogs. A number of newspapers noted that this was the fifth visit by a UN special rapporteur since the Tories came to power in 2010, and all of their reports had been ‘buried’.