Third sector cannot go on plugging gaps in public services

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Sheghley Ogilvie says a UN expert’s scathing summary of poverty in the UK should act as a wake-up call for those in power

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23rd May 2019 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

In a scathing denunciation of austerity Britain, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, has condemned the UK Government for adopting a range of policies that fail the most vulnerable and are incompatible with human rights.

In his final report on extreme poverty and human rights in the UK, the rapporteur stressed that austerity in the UK was driven not from economic necessity but to justify ideologically driven poverty-related policy. Poverty, he said, is a political choice.

The reality of Universal Credit, food insecurity, cuts to council budgets, and the myth of work as a solution to poverty, are all too familiar to organisations across the voluntary sector who are increasingly plugging the gaps in public services and a social security system that fails to provide an adequate safety net. The voluntary sector, he said, had done an admirable job, but is not and cannot be a substitute for government’s failing to fulfil human rights obligations.

Devolved administrations, he acknowledged, have tried to mitigate some of the worst impacts of Westminster austerity policy. In Scotland initiatives that aim to address poverty, such as the Fairer Scotland Action Plan and the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan, were recognised as ambitious and Scotland’s new social security system as promising.

Sheghley Ogilvie

Sheghley Ogilvie

The absence of a robust reference to international standards human rights standards in the Social Security (Scotland) Act did not, however, go unnoticed and was described by the rapporteur as a significant accountability gap.

While Scotland may have the lowest poverty rates in the United Kingdom, with over one million people in Scotland living in poverty after housing costs in 2015/18, this is perhaps not a record to be proud of. Like the special rapporteur, colleagues across the third sector recognise that the Scottish Government, like other devolved administrations, have experienced significant reductions in block grant funding. Similarly, there are constitutional limits on the government’s ability to raise revenue. Despite this the Scottish Government can and should do more to recognise and realise rights.

There can be no doubt that at a UK level urgent action is needed to halt and improve Universal Credit, scrap the benefit cap, and appeal the two-child limit.

The Scottish Government must go further to create a co-ordinated vision to tackle poverty and inequality, realise rights, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Only last year, despite the very real poverty experienced by communities across Scotland, the Scottish Government failed to spend European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF) monies in real terms due to poor management. As a result, the European Commission have decommitted and asked for the return of millions of pounds that could have made a difference to the lives of people and communities across Scotland.

Action could also be taken to incentivise and strengthen the Scottish Business Pledge, requiring all businesses to commit to the pledge, or as a minimum the Living Wage, to receive public contracts.

Similarly, Fair Start Scotland could be redesigned to create person-centred rights-based services, rather than focusing solely on getting people into work as quickly as possible.

Introducing a universal basic income or a minimum income guarantee, are also avenues that the Scottish Government can and should explore [we recognise that the Scottish Government plan to support some basic income pilots]. We must also recognise and value other contributions to society, carers, volunteers, learners, or activists, and adequately support those in these roles.

There is also an urgent need to top- up the incomes of Scotland's poorest people, families, and communities to fulfil their right to an adequate standard of living. We appreciate that policies, processes, and systems, must be introduced to achieve this. However, that the new Income Supplement will not be introduced until 2022 at the earliest, is disappointing at best.

The UK and Scotland are among the most economically developed nations in the world. Despite this, people and communities across our society battle with hunger, struggle to pay their bills, and are trapped in long-term, poverty that will impact their health, wellbeing, and life chances. We must recognise that poverty is not inevitable, it is a failure of government to fulfil the rights of their citizens and for that both the UK and the Scottish Governments must be held to account.

SCVO’s full response to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights can be found here.

Sheghley Ogilvie is public affairs officer at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO)