‘He Gave Us A Voice’: The UN Poverty Envoy’s UK Visit, Two Years On

By Aaron Walawalkar, News and Digital Editor 23 Nov 2020
Economic, Equality
Former UN special rapporteur Philip Alston visits Bollo Brook Youth Centre members in London. Credit: Jon Sack

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“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Those were the characteristics the UN’s former poverty envoy, Philip Alston, warned would come to define the lives of Britain’s least well off people following his 2018 visit to the UK.

Two years on – as the coronavirus cuts lives short, wreaks economic ruin, and keeps many of us largely within our homes – his warning may now read more like a prophecy.

Over two weeks spent working 14-hour days, Alston spoke to people affected by poverty across the UK’s four nations, as well as with academics, civil society representatives, and government officials. 

Among those to have their voices heard were members of west London’s Bollo Brook Youth Centre, which serves some of the capital’s poorest and most vulnerable children. 

“Our youth centre is in a portacabin. It’s surrounded by luxury flats … that go for millions [of pounds],” one member told the former special rapporteur, pointing out the area’s stark wealth disparities. “This is what young people have to look around [at] all the time.” 

“I have been in a lot of temporary accommodation … ranging from actual housing, private renting, hostels and I’ve actually been homeless for a long period of time,” another added.  

“Housing is the main source of stability for humans,” said a third. “So when stability is taken away or disrupted, it affects your mental health, it affects your social life, your education.” 

On Monday 23 November, EachOther and the Equality Trust released an animated video to mark how young Britons affected by inequality made their voices heard. Artist Jon Sack created illustrations for this project in collaboration with EachOther’s creative director Dr Sarah Wishart.

In his 21-page 2019 final report, Alston gave a damning indictment of the austerity measures introduced in 2010 by the coalition government and which, by 2018, had continued “largely unabated despite the tragic social consequences”.

It highlighted the disproportionate impact of welfare cuts on women and people from minority ethnicity backgrounds. It projected that child poverty in the UK – which rose to 30% in 2018-19 – would reach close to 40% by 2021. It spoke of the impact of cuts to legal aid leaving poorer people “unable to effectively claim and enforce their rights”. And it compared the Department for Work and Pensions’ welfare system to a “digital and sanitised version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens”.

Amber Rudd, then work and pensions secretary, rejected Alston’s findings and lodged a complaint with the UN. At the time, a DWP spokeswoman told EachOther  the report was a “barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here. It paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty”.

For Zahra Alipour, a Bollo Brook Youth Centre member who met with Alston, Rudd’s reaction was unacceptable.

“I read that report and it was like reading about my life,” the 20-year-old, who has experienced homelessness, told EachOther. “How could you just brush so many people under the carpet?”

Bollo Brook Youth Centre members in London speak to the former UN poverty envoy. Credit: Jon Sack

How has the picture changed two years on?

The Bollo Brook centre has been relocated from its temporary cabin to a permanent building at the foot of a luxury tower block. In December last year, there were fears another move could on be the cards after flat dwellers reportedly petitioned for the centre to be replaced with a coffee shop – but this demand has now been quelled, EachOther understands.  

But while the Bollo Brook’s future seems secure, the national picture for youth centres looks bleak.

Earlier this month the National Youth Agency warned one in four youth centres would be unable to meet their running costs by Christmas 2020. It is calling for an urgent package of funding and support for local authorities and youth charities, and for young people’s voices to be heard in the decision-making and response to Covid-19. 

“Youth work transforms young people’s lives,” said NYA chief executive Leigh Middleton. 

“Never has this been more important, through the pandemic and the challenges of the global recession. By not taking immediate action, we risk a lost year for our young people, for which we all will pay the price.” 

His comments echo those made by a Bollo Brook member to Alston two years ago. He said greater investment  in youth centres could help address inequality by offering stability to young people who may lack it due to household or financial problems. 

An illustration of young man who met UN special rapporteur Philip Alston when he visited a west London youth centre. Credit: Jon Sack

As for the 12 recommendations outlined in Alston’s report – some gains have been made, while others remain unfulfilled. 

After calling on the government to systematically measure food poverty, alongside calls from campaigners, the DWP last year added questions on food insecurity to its Family Resources Survey. 

The freeze on working-age benefit payments, such as universal credit and job seekers allowance, was brought to an end in April. 

However other “particularly regressive” welfare measures, such as the two-child limit remain. As does the five-week delay for those claiming Universal Credit, which has swollen to more than 3.4 million people amid the pandemic, according to official figures.


In a July 2019 article, Alston acknowledged the strengths and limitations of his former role as UN special rapporteur on poverty and human rights. 

“As an experienced human rights expert, I can monitor, report, and reach conclusions as to a country’s compliance with its international legal obligations,” he writes.

“But no government is obligated to act on my findings, and there are strong limits to what I can do once my report has been presented. Ultimately, impact depends on the extent to which the analysis resonates with the various stakeholders in the country concerned.”

This brings Alston back to question of what the role of the UN special rapporteur should be in the first place. 

“A ‘UN report’ carries a certain weight,” he wrote. “ It can bolster the work of reformers within government and parliament, as well as lending additional credibility to the work of advocacy groups.

“It brings the attention of the international community, and it should provide an incentive for more sustained government attention to some of the challenges.”

In this regard, his report was cited in more than 3,000 articles by UK and international press. Meanwhile, at least 15 MPs pressed ministers on issues of poverty, citing the report’s findings, in the days following his press conference. 

“Too often, officials and policymakers are happy to remain ignorant of the immense challenges that families and individuals face, of the harms and indignities that accompany unemployment and low-pay, and of the actual wishes of poor people for pragmatic, systemic change,” Alston added.

The impact of having been given a platform appears to resonate deeply with Alipour. 

“It opened so many doors for me. I have done so many podcasts and articles [since],” she said, on her meeting with Alston. 

“He gave us a voice.”

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The Equality Trust
The Equality Trust

The Equality Trust works to improve the quality of life in the UK by reducing economic and social inequality.

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Artist Jon Sack created all the illustrations we animated into this film.