‘Who helps the poor?’ UN en­voy meets chil­dren liv­ing in poverty in Scot­land

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Robert Booth Libby Brooks

The UN rap­por­teur on ex­treme poverty and hu­man rights sat with chil­dren on a bench in one of Glas­gow’s most de­prived ar­eas and posed a ques­tion: “Who should help poor peo­ple?”

“The rich peo­ple,” Soroush, one of the chil­dren, shot back. “It’s un­fair to have peo­ple earn­ing bil­lions of pounds and have other peo­ple liv­ing on ben­e­fits.”

It was per­haps the frank­est an­swer Philip Al­ston re­ceived on a two-day visit to Scot­land, where a mil­lion live in rel­a­tive poverty, in­clud­ing one in five chil­dren.

Af­ter an itin­er­ary dom­i­nated by meet­ings with politi­cians and char­i­ties, the hu­man rights ex­pert ended his week at Av­enue End School, which serves some of the most de­prived neigh­bour­hoods in Scot­land. In places such as Craigend and Ruc­hazie about 30% of the adults are on ben­e­fits and life ex­pectancy for men is about a decade less than in the af­flu­ent south of the city.

The chil­dren were asked to jot down what be­ing poor might mean for a per­son. John, 12, said: “He can­not af­ford meals. He can­not buy train­ers.”

John’s fam­ily re­lied on food banks for two years and for a long time he only took bread and but­ter to school for lunch. “I got hun­gry be­cause I was smelling the other food,” he said. “I had to take my eyes away from it. The most un­fair thing is the gov­ern­ment knows fam­i­lies are go­ing through hard times but they de­cide not to do any­thing about it.”

Al­ston wants to know why that is. How­ever, the Scot­tish leg of his UK tour, be­fore he gives his ver­dict on how the UK gov­ern­ment is han­dling poverty, was dom­i­nated by an­other big ques­tion: should poverty be made il­le­gal?

Al­ston has cam­paigned for that ap­proach for decades, so was heart­ened to meet the Scot­tish first min­is­ter, Nicola Stur­geon, who plans to make ad­e­quate hous­ing, food and wel­fare a le­gal hu­man right in Scot­land. That would mark a dra­matic split from the UK gov­ern­ment, which in 1976 signed a UN treaty agree­ing to pro­tect eco­nomic and so­cial rights, but has proved hos­tile to en­shrin­ing it in law.

Sup­port­ers of the idea ar­gue that if breaches of eco­nomic and so­cial rights are il­le­gal the bal­ance in so­ci­ety could change. Ev­ery branch

of gov­ern­ment would more care­fully con­sider how it shares re­sources and en­sure ba­sic needs are al­ways met, they ar­gue. It al­ready hap­pens in Ger­many and Swe­den.

“When you see how aus­ter­ity has panned out in this coun­try and you see peo­ple in cri­sis far more of­ten, that for me is a fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights is­sue,” said Ju­dith Robert­son, chair of the Scot­tish Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion.

Alex Thorn­burn, a dis­abled man who has en­dured poverty, told Al­ston at a meet­ing in Ed­in­burgh that aus­ter­ity poli­cies “have sanc­tioned, stig­ma­tised and de­hu­man­ised mil­lions”. Ex­tend­ing hu­man rights pro­tec­tions to wel­fare could change that, its ad­vo­cates hope. Ob­jec­tors say it could give rise to costly new obli­ga­tions, which would re­quire big changes to pub­lic fi­nances and that it would give sovereignty over key pol­icy is­sues to an in­ter­na­tional body.

Cit­i­zens Ad­vice pro­vided Al­ston with un­pub­lished fig­ures sug­gest­ing 21% of 2,700 peo­ple who re­sponded to an un­weighted open sur­vey had gone a whole day with­out eat­ing and 40% ad­mit­ted run­ning out of food.

Bill Scott, the pol­icy di­rec­tor for In­clu­sion Scot­land, a group for dis­abled peo­ple, told him about a woman who had chronic phys­i­cal and men­tal health prob­lems who said she had sex for money af­ter her ben­e­fit was stopped fol­low­ing a work ca­pa­bil­ity as­sess­ment. She had not eaten for nearly a week but was deeply ashamed. “She couldn’t live with her­self,” he said.

While Al­ston met Stur­geon, Karen Reid, 35, a sin­gle mother of four in the de­prived Pil­ton neigh­bour­hood – close to af­flu­ent Stock­bridge and the elite Fettes Col­lege pub­lic school – told the Guardian how she last worked nine years ago, strug­gled with de­pres­sion and once drank so heav­ily she suf­fered per­ma­nent nerve dam­age to her hands and feet. Her dis­abil­ity al­lowance has been stopped, cost­ing her £600 a month.

Even if eco­nomic and so­cial rights are en­shrined in Scot­tish law, Scots would still be un­able to chal­lenge in­fringe­ments in­volv­ing the loom­ing roll­out of uni­ver­sal credit be­cause it is a UK-wide pol­icy.

Holy­rood is only in charge of 15% of wel­fare spend­ing in Scot­land and has not been able to mit­i­gate the ma­jor­ity of cuts. UK-wide wel­fare cuts will have cost Scots £3.7bn, by 2020/21, the Holy­rood ad­min­is­tra­tion reck­ons.

Aileen Camp­bell, the Scot­tish gov­ern­ment com­mu­ni­ties sec­re­tary, said she fears the pro­gramme will deepen poverty un­less Holy­rood spends mil­lions to off­set the ef­fects.

“We have asked [West­min­ster] to halt it,” she said. “Don’t roll it out when it is a frag­ile, crum­bling sys­tem that is not go­ing to work.”

Scot­land has al­ready started tak­ing steps to­wards treat­ing poverty dif­fer­ently but many ac­tivists re­main frus­trated that the Holy­rood gov­ern­ment is not go­ing fast or far enough.

An act passed ear­lier this year recog­nised so­cial se­cu­rity as a hu­man right and at­tempts to ad­dress the hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment faced by wel­fare re­cip­i­ents. In Scot­land uni­ver­sal credit pay­ments can now be split to pro­tect women’s fi­nan­cial au­ton­omy, the pri­vate sec­tor will not be al­lowed to carry out dis­abil­ity as­sess­ments and there will be no se­cu­rity guards in the new so­cial se­cu­rity agency of­fices.

Peter Kelly, of the Poverty Al­liance, be­lieves the Scot­tish gov­ern­ment is se­ri­ous, “us­ing the lan­guage of hu­man rights is re­ally im­por­tant and we don’t think it’s just warm words”.

Al­ston is in Belfast to­day be­fore fin­ish­ing his tour in Es­sex and Lon­don.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MURDO MA­CLEOD/GUARDIAN

Philip Al­ston with pupils from Av­enue End pri­mary school in Ruc­hazie, Glas­gow

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