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“An indispensable element of my mission”: UN poverty envoy hears stories of poverty and discrimination in East London

Written by Kate Garner |

Continuing his investigation into the impact of austerity in the UK, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on poverty and human rights, heard moving testimonies from local people and organisations in Newham as they described their experiences of poverty and discrimination in the capital.

Over the past week, Alston has visited different parts of the UK to gather evidence about the effects of austerity, poverty and inequality in communities around the country. He has traveled to some of the UK’s poorest places – including Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle and Essex – to speak to those directly affected.

Newham, a borough in the Inner East of London, and one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the UK, has experienced significant problems with poverty and inequality. According to the Trust for London, over 35% of employees in the borough are low-paid, the highest percentage in London, and the poverty rate is ten percentage points higher than the London average. Last year, the End Child Poverty coalition found that over 36,780 children in Newham were living below the poverty line.

It was in this context that Alston’s testimonial gathering session took place. Newham’s former public hall, a Grade II listed building with links to East London’s suffragette and labour movements, was a fitting location for the event; activists such as Sylvia Pankhurst, Will Thorne and James Keir Hardie all had their voices heard here.

Several themes resurfaced throughout the session: inadequate housing and homelessness, the fear and stress of living in poverty and debt, and the ‘hostile environment’ provided by a welfare system rigged against those who need it most, when they need it most.

We heard from the London Renters Union, a member-led, campaigning group, who talked of widespread discrimination in access to housing within the east London borough. Caritas Anchor House, a homelessness charity claimed that one in 25 people – or 13,607 people – in Newham are currently homeless, the highest rate in Britain. The Magpie Project, which provides practical support and advice to local mothers and children under five in temporary or insecure accommodation, said that they had recorded 2,000 under fives as homeless..

Universal Credit, the supposed reform of the benefits system, rolling together benefits into one monthly payment, was criticised at length. Inclusion London, which promotes equality for the city’s deaf and disabled, claimed that local people were forced into using foodbanks, unable to pay for fuel and rent and pushed further into debt as a consequence of the system. Disabled People Against Cuts highlighted the inaccessible technologies associated with the system and the welfare system as a whole.

The UK government’s austerity measures have negatively impacted all age groups in the city. Joanne, from BackTo60, a group supporting women affected by an increase in the state pension age, spoke of elderly clients forced to live in their cars after being unable to pay their bills. A recent survey by the group reported that a high proportion of respondents felt suicidal, had attempted to take their lives, or had self-harmed as a result of their financial difficulties. Poverty effects the young in different yet equally destructive ways; the fifteen-year old young mayor for Lewisham, Adam Abdullah, spoke of the increase in knife crime in his borough, and its links to deprivation, social inequality and institutional racism.

Some of the most moving testimonies came from individuals directly experiencing poverty, many of whom were women.  As a result of austerity measures, they described being driven into sex work, forced to endure domestic abuse and denied the ability to bring up their children in a safe and secure environment.

Dorothy, a former nurse, described fleeing to Ireland with her two children to escape her abusive husband, only to face numerous barriers to legal assistance and legal processes – spending on legal aid has shrunk by more than £1bn in five years – once she felt safe enough to return to the UK. Another survivor of domestic violence talked of the ‘state sponsored emotional abuse’ she experienced after her two children were removed from her care and separated from each other.

Women talked of being ‘made more vulnerable by the state’, noting that the Universal Credit system in particular facilitates economic abuse against women and perpetuates inequality. To claim benefits, cohabiting couples are required to register a single bank account. It’s this requirement that puts women’s safety at risk, working as an additional barrier to survivors’ ability to escape abuse in all its forms.

Those with no recourse to public funds, particularly refugee and migrant women, remain disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation. Thre current conditionality regime of the UK benefits system is petty and bureaucratic, impacting vulnerable clients the most and leaving them distressed, poor and reliant on food banks.

The testimonies prompted Rokhsana Fiaz, the newly elected Mayor of Newham, to apologise on behalf of her council for the harrowing experiences heard during the session. Thanking the individuals and organisations for “speaking their truths”, she confessed that her council required “a huge amount of change”.

“I can change nothing,” said Alston, in reference to UK government policy in his closing words. “But what I can do is produce a report detailing the issues you have raised here with me today. I only hope it can help galvanise the policies in place to ensure and protect human dignity in this country.”

Indeed part of Alston’s UN mandate, detailed on the Special Rapporteur’s website,  is to “study the impact of discrimination and to pay particular attention to the situation of women, children and other vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities living in extreme poverty”.  The UK ratified the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights in 1976, agreeing that policy changes in times of economic crisis must not be discriminatory, and must mitigate where possibile inequalities. Yet after listening to today’s testimonies, one thing is clear; austerity policies and and welfare cuts are causing poverty and inequality in this country, with the vulnerable and disadvantaged groups hit hardest.

The Special Rapporteur released an initial report on his findings on the 16th of November, before preparing an interim report on how far the UK government is meeting its human rights obligations under international human rights law. Alston is well-known and widely respected for refusing to shy away from the facts when carrying out his investigations. Let’s hope he continues to do so.


*Kate Garner is a part-time student on the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights. She works for the Rory Peck Trust, a London-based international organisation supporting freelance journalists and their families in crisis worldwide.