Philip Alston has come and gone. Now who will be the change-makers?

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Nicola Browne

20178-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity

In the wake of an excoriating report on austerity in Britain by Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Nicola Browne argues that just as the groups most affected by the government’s ‘harsh and arbitrary’ policies were put at the heart of Alston’s fact-finding visit, so too should they be at the forefront of making sure his recommendations become reality. 

In September 2013, Brazilian architect Raquel Rolnik found herself sitting in the crowded offices of a trade union in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Like Alston, Rolnik was a UN Special Rapporteur, and she was on an official visit to the UK to examine the government’s performance in meeting its international commitment to the human right to adequate housing.

Participation and the Practice of Rights, the civil society organisation where I worked at the time, had been at the helm of arranging the Northern Ireland leg of Rolnik’s trip. During the course of her visit, she met with a wide range of people and groups, from government ministers and housing charities to the people at the sharp end: those facing homelessness and inadequate housing.

Rolnik also visited members of the Equality Can’t Wait housing group in North Belfast, many of whom lived in damp, cold and overcrowded high rise social housing. One young woman told Rolnik of living in a hostel for the homeless – officially temporary accommodation – not for weeks, but for years. At the root of these problems, Rolnik heard repeatedly, lay the decades-long failure on the part of government to build enough sufficient social housing where it was needed, and to address the longstanding inequality in access to housing that disproportionately affected the city’s Catholic community.

Country visits such as these were an intrinsic part of Rolnik’s mandate in her unpaid UN role as Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. While most of those she interviewed in the UK were keen to talk, the official reception for her findings was far less welcoming. In response to her comprehensive and critical report, one Conservative MP called her a “loopy Brazilian leftie”, prompting Rolnik to note that in no other country had she received such a hostile response.

The UK government’s reaction was hardly a surprise. As campaigners know, naming something as a human rights issue that is worthy of international concern is a direct challenge to those with power who are accustomed to dictating policies that preserve both the status quo and the narrative accompanying it. Almost without fail, the first response is to attack the messenger in order to discredit the message.

Back in the Belfast office full of trade unionists, human rights workers and academics, Rolnik spoke to us about the report she intended to submit following her visit. What she said stayed with me: she told us she would write about what she had found, but that on its own it would have no impact. Nothing would change, Rolnik said, unless her recommendations were taken up and used by people campaigning locally.

Fast forward five years and the UK has just received, equally ungraciously, a report on another official UN visit, this time by Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. His trip was noteworthy for the amount of time he took to meet and listen to people directly affected by the UK government’s austerity policies. Alston observed that the UK government was in “a state of denial” about the extent of poverty in the country, and the impact of “harsh and arbitrary” policies. Amber Rudd, the work and pensions minister, rather proved his point when she said his findings had no credibility, owing to the “extraordinary political nature of his language”.

As with Rolnik’s visit, once again those with power acted on instinct to attack the individual in order to avoid having to engage with his findings.

The real question, of course, is what happens now. As Aiofe Nolan has pointed out, the gap between the international human rights commitments the UK has signed up to and the reality on the ground is vast. Part of the answer lies in the need to legislate for economic and social rights including health, housing and social security – all of which were left out of the UK’s Human Rights Act of 1998. The impact and culture shift that such a change would bring would be momentous. However, history shows us that the law alone is never enough to truly deliver on human rights.

In 2013, Raquel Rolnik’s recommendation that government “put in place additional efforts to address challenges to overcome persistent inequalities in housing in North Belfast” was seized on by Equality Can’t Wait’s campaigners, who promptly moved to lobby their local political representatives. Using their personal testimonies, official statistics and data obtained from government under the Freedom of Information Act, and the validation of a UN representative, Equality Can’t Wait called on them to implement her findings. Their efforts moved the issue from the margins to the mainstream, and from one perceived as local and “sectarianized” to one that ultimately drew the support of 49 MLAs, members of Northern Ireland’s devolved Legislative Assembly, across the political spectrum.

Will Philip Alston’s visit bring about change on the ground in austerity Britain? Both in 2013 and over the past few weeks, the government’s hostile response makes it clear that those in power have to be compelled to implement change.

Alston’s visit was praised for the priority he placed on hearing from people on the ground who were directly affected by poverty and economic inequality. His approach should set the tone for what comes next: the importance of putting those same people at the forefront of the solution.

Those pushed to the margins by austerity policies must fight to move front and centre to ensure that Alston’s recommendations are implemented, and to make their rights real. People with direct experience of poverty are those of us with the most skin in this game.

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Nicola Browne is a 2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. A human rights activist with 18 years of experience in NGOs and academia, she is the former director of policy for the Participation and the Practice of Rights project (PPR), in Belfast, Northern Ireland.