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UK Government Has Changed Its Tune on Poverty

Parliament Debate Sees Government Climbdown on UN Poverty Expert’s Damning Findings

Staff at the Goodwin Hub in Hull make up parcels for members of a low-cost food pantry scheme. © 2018 Kartik Raj/Human Rights Watch

Just weeks after the United Nations’ poverty and human rights expert gave a damning assessment on poverty in the UK, the government appears to have ended its “complete disagreement” with his conclusions – for now.

In a late night debate in UK parliament this week, junior welfare minister Justin Tomlinson said that while the government does not agree with some of Professor Philip Alston's interim findings, it would give them “serious consideration.” Tomlinson also outlined efforts to improve advice services and support for social welfare claimants who have to turn to food banks to feed themselves and their families.

His remarks are a welcome change from the government’s initial reaction to Alston’s assessment following his team’s 12-day visit in November 2018, when the UN team concluded that the government’s flagship welfare reform program and “drastic cuts to social support” have “inflicted unnecessary misery,” including destitution and hunger. The UK Work and Pensions Secretary accused the UN expert of “extraordinarily political language,” with little focus on the substance of his observations. But Alston’s findings echo what I have heard in deprived communities in the UK where people rely increasingly on food aid to get by. Mothers responsible for young families – and dependent on welfare – talked of going hungry to make sure their kids could eat.

But if the government really wants to improve living standards for the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people, policy changes are needed. Engaging productively with forthcoming efforts in Parliament to improve how authorities measure food insecurity, to help address growing hunger, would be another useful step. The government should also make public its plans for research into links between welfare reform and growing food poverty.

It’s good the government finally says it is willing, under pressure from parliamentarians concerned by growing poverty, to consider criticism of its record. An open ear, and a pause for thought, are welcome first steps. But those going hungry deserve more; they need to see concrete change.

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