Glasgow students visit UN to spread the word on UK child poverty

Ten-year-olds join special rapporteur to present damning report to human rights council

It was not a typical class outing. Ben, Brooke, Advi and Charlie packed their school ties and made the 1,800-mile round trip from their primary school in Glasgow’s East End to the grand halls of the United Nations human rights council.

The 10-year-olds were in Geneva this week to chase up what the grownups were doing to tackle poverty in the UK. They had a date with Philip Alston – the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights who last November visited Avenue End school, which serves one of the poorest parts of Britain, as part of his investigation into the UK.

Children there had told him about hunger and the shame of poverty, about not being able to afford trainers, TV or food and about foodbanks. Alston kept them in mind when he drafted his damning report, which he presented on Friday to hundreds of diplomats from around the world. He told them the UK was facing “a national poverty crisis”.

But before he spoke the children had questions and ideas.

“Why do you have the meetings when kids aren’t here?” asked Brooke, having noticed the hundreds of smartly dressed adults, but no children, milling around.

“That’s a good question,” said Alston, momentarily stumped. “We should have more kids coming here to tell us what they are thinking about. A lot of what governments do makes a lot of difference to your lives.”

Alston asked them what people could do to help child poverty. “Just give them someone to talk to,” said Ben. “Be friends with them,” added Advi. They had raised one of the aspects of child poverty missed this week in Geneva, but often felt keenly by children: loneliness.

“It’s great that you have come,” said Alston. “I really appreciate it.”

Alston then took them into one of the grand congress chambers where they posed for a photograph in the seats normally reserved for dignitaries.

When Alston delivered his report he told a packed UNHRC his belief that economic and social insecurity in the UK was “rampant” and that austerity had left the UK “a more fractured and less compassionate society”.

He said: “The country that had pioneered the modern welfare state after world war two changed course dramatically,. Funding for welfare, for local government services, for children, for education, for youth, for legal aid, for the poor and for policing were slashed.”

Alston attacked the chancellor, Philip Hammond, for describing his assessment of UK poverty “nonsense” and cited a senior civil servant at the Department for Work and Pensions who last week told parliament it was accurate.

“Fourteen million people living in poverty, more than 1.5 million destitute, record levels of hunger and homelessness, falling life expectancy for some groups, one in three children across the country living in poverty,” Alston said. “The greatest tragedy is the situation could be completely transformed in a short time.”

The UK government hit back, albeit in a written statement, attacking “the inflammatory language and overtly political tone of this report”.

We “strongly refute the claim that the design and delivery of welfare reforms, including universal credit, are deliberately punitive”, it said. “Tackling poverty will always be a priority for this government.”

However, the government did not repeat its previous claim that his report was “barely believable” and “completely inaccurate”.

Instead, in a 66-point defence of its changes to welfare, council funding and privatisation, the government said record employment had overwhelmingly benefited the poorest UK households. It said austerity measures were necessary after the 2008 financial crisis and highlighted next year’s planned end to the benefits freeze. It said it was fair to limit some benefits to two children and that the £20,000 national benefit cap was supported by 73% of the UK public.

The Avenue End children were already on their way back to Glasgow when the government’s response came. But they were unlikely to have been impressed. Asked about ministers’ previous dismissal of Alston’s report, Ben promised they would “keep pushing”.

Brooke said: “They should listen. We will keep on … until they do something about it.”


Robert Booth in Geneva

The GuardianTramp

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