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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

UN envoy warns poverty in Britain is a political choice

World’s fifth richest country under spotlight of controversial UN investigator

A street in Jaywick, east England. PA via AP
A street in Jaywick, east England. PA via AP

A UN envoy has questioned the fairness of the British economy and said its government could do more to help the poorest in society during a nationwide tour looking at equality in one of the richest countries in the world.

During a visit to Clacton and Jaywick on the Essex coastline, Philip Alston said that a government in a wealthy country allowing its people to slip below the poverty line was “a political choice”.

Mr Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, is in the middle of a 12-day trip around the UK, listening to people’s testimonies of hardship.

"The [British] Government has made significant changes to social protection in the past decade, and I will be looking closely at the impact that has had on people living in poverty and their realisation of basic rights," Mr Alston said in a statement before the visit.

"I have received hundreds of submissions that make clear many people are really struggling to make ends meet."

His investigation began days after Britain’s finance minister announced that the era of austerity, a fiscal policy introduced in 2010 which limited public spending, cut benefits and dropped thousands of government jobs, was “coming to an end”.

But residents in the seaside village of Jaywick told The Guardian that changes to Britain’s welfare system had left them dependent on food banks.

Once a popular holiday destination for 1930's Londoners escaping the city, Jaywick has been named the most deprived area in the UK twice in the last decade.

A photograph of the neighbourhood was featured in a campaign advertisement by a Donald Trump-backed Illinois congressional candidate as an example of an impoverished area, with the caption: “Only you can stop this from becoming reality!”

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In response, Jaywick’s parliamentary representative Giles Watling wrote a letter to the Illinois Republican Party inviting Dr Nick Stella, who subsequently lost to Democrat Bill Foster, to visit the village.

Conservative MP Mr Watling described Jaywick as “on the up”. But recent media coverage as a result of the Republican advertisement has shone a light on the day to day struggles of its residents.

Britain’s government, which accepted Mr Alston’s request for an official visit last year, has no obligation to implement any of his recommendations.

However, neck and neck in the polls with the Labour Party and its socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn, ministers will be cautious about publicly disparaging the UN envoy’s findings.

During a visit to Edinburgh last week, Mr Alston met with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Conservative Party’s main opposition in Scotland, the SNP. A dominant force in politics north of Hadrian’s Wall, Ms Sturgeon’s anti-austerity message has proved popular in Scotland, where almost 20 per cent of the population live in poverty.

Mr Alston’s previously conducted similar investigations in Ghana, Mauritania, China and the United States. In the US, he found that President Donald Trump’s administration was forcing millions of Americans into poverty while financially helping some of the richest in the country. The probe sparked an angry response from Nikki Haley, then US ambassador to the UN, who described the report as “misleading and politically motivated”.