UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Visits the UK

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, visits the UK this week to inquire into rising levels of poverty and hardship across the UK. Poverty is the biggest human rights issue facing children in Scotland. Between 2014 and 2017, around 19% of Scotland’s population were living in relative poverty after housing costs.  Children are disproportionately likely to be affected, with 24% of them living in poverty.[1] This number increases to around 30% for children with disabilities,[2] or children who live in a family with a disabled adult.[3]

Why is the Special Rapporteur’s visit important?

Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the UN to conduct fact-finding missions to countries on a specific topic. Professor Alston’s visit will consider the links between austerity policies and poverty, and the obstacles these can create for individuals trying to exercise their rights. The remit of Professor Alston’s inquiry is broad and allows a light to be shone on a range of issues including child poverty, benefits reforms, access to education, social exclusion and Brexit.

Crucially, the Special Rapporteur’s visit aims to build a meaningful dialogue between governments (UK, devolved and local), international organisations, civil society and those with lived experience to identify problems and steps which should be taken as a matter of urgency. Following his visit, Professor Alston will produce a final report containing official recommendations to the UK. Organisations like Together and our members are influencing this process by making written submissions and giving oral evidence. Together has produced a written submission for the visit and met with Professor Alston on Thursday 8th November 2018. Together will be joined by members at a second meeting with Alston on 9th November 2018, convened by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland. This meeting will follow on from a meeting at which the Special Rapporteur will be speaking directly with children and young people, allowing him to concentrate specifically on child poverty and its impact on rights under the UN Convention on the Right of the Child (UNCRC).

The scale of the inquiry is vast, with almost 300 submissions being received by the Special Rapporteur before his arrival in the UK.

A voice for children and young people?

Child poverty is one of the specific focuses of the Special Rapporteur’s visit. It is crucial that he hears directly from children affected by poverty as part of this investigation. Poverty has a significant impact on children’s lives and can act as a barrier to the full enjoyment of their rights under the UNCRC. These rights include the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to food, education and housing. Poverty is the leading cause of inequalities in children’s development, including educational attainment.[4] It significantly affects children’s social and emotional wellbeing, with children experiencing poverty more likely to be solitary and play alone, four times more likely to fight with and bully other children, and less likely to talk to someone at home about their worries.[5]

Children continue to express disbelief and frustration that so many families are living in poverty. They strongly believe that governments have a responsibility to protect children’s rights and involve them in efforts to tackle poverty.[6] Children and young people are emphatic that their rights must not be negatively affected due to the current political climate:

“Rights are more important now than ever, don’t let the political climate erode them” [7]

A substantial majority of children believe that governments should be spending more money to tackle poverty and end its cycle by improving opportunities, increasing jobs and addressing its social impacts.[8] During the 2016 review of the UK by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, children and young people cited poverty as a serious concern and called for governments to raise it up their list of priorities. The Special Rapporteur’s visit this week provides an opportunity to reflect on the steps taken at UK and Scottish level to progress the UN Committee’s recommendations from the 2016 Review and set out what further steps must be taken as a matter of urgency. Hearing directly from children and young people will ensure that Professor Alston’s final recommendations reflect the most important issues for children and young people, and provide a valuable advocacy tool for them in their role as Human Rights Defenders.

“The views of young people must be heard, we want to participate and have our voices heard on the issues that affect us”[9]

Incorporating the UNCRC to tackle child poverty

It’s clear that the UK Government’s welfare reforms have failed to consider children’s human rights with the result that they are disproportionately affected by poverty. This trend will continue until such time as rights-based legislation and child-centred policymaking are systematically adopted by governments. Taking a rights-based approach across a broad range of issues – such as housing, health, education and family support – can help prevent, mitigate and alleviate the impact of poverty and ensure that the rights of children are protected, respected and fulfilled. Under devolution, the Scottish Government has power over many areas that can help prevent and mitigate child poverty. Incorporation of the UNCRC into UK and Scots law would embed this approach – ensuring that children’s human rights are fully considered when laws and policies are created or changed.

Children themselves are calling for laws and systems to be put in place that will make a meaningful difference to people’s lives and reduce the number of children living in poverty.[10]  There is a strong case for the incorporation of the UNCRC into domestic law to ensure that children’s rights are considered throughout the policy-making process and are seen as binding in the courts. Incorporation would also ensure a rights-based approach to public budgeting and thorough impact assessments as part of this approach.

Together and members will be meeting Professor Alston this afternoon. We are keen for UNCRC incorporation to feature in Professor Alston’s final report and recommendations and will be making our case for its inclusion.  A call from the Special Rapporteur to incorporate would add momentum to the Scottish Government’s own commitment to incorporate the principles of the UNCRC.[11] This commitment must be progressed as a matter of urgency, given the current parliamentary majority in favour of incorporation, and the loss of rights as a result of Brexit. Movement in Scotland to incorporate the UNCRC may also have the wider benefit of encouraging UK-wide progress, benefiting millions of children.

  • The Special Rapporteur will announce his preliminary observations and recommendations at a press conference on 16th November 2018, 12 noon.
  • His final written report will follow in June 2019.

Further reading


[1] Scottish Government (2017) Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland 2014-17 

[2] Contact a Family (2014).  Counting the Costs.

[3] Barnardo’s (2016). What causes child poverty?

[4] Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2014).  Closing the attainment gap in Scottish education; Treanor, M. (2012). Impacts of poverty on children and young people. Scottish Child Care and Protection Network (SCCPN), Stirling. 

[5] Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2016).  Growing up in poverty detrimental to children’s friendships and family life.

[6] Scottish Youth Parliament (2015) It’s not a choice, p. 8.

[7] Article in 12 Scotland (201

8) I Witness: The Concluding Observations, p. 63

[8] Scottish Youth Parliament (2015) p. 28.

[9] Article 12 in Scotland (2018)  p. 63

[10] Children’s Parliament (2018) The Weight on Our Shoulders 

[11] Scottish Government, Programme for Government 2018- 19 

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