Residents of deprived Newham describe domestic abuse and hunger to Philip Alston
Women in London have told the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty they are bearing the brunt of government welfare cuts, and described how austerity has left infants homeless and exacerbated problems including overcrowded housing and domestic violence.
More than a dozen women addressed Philip Alston at a highly charged meeting in Newham, east London, and urged him to tackle British ministers over the disproportionate effects on women of eight years of spending cuts.
A group including many immigrants told the human rights lawyer that as a result of austerity measures, some had been driven to sell sex, some had faced increased domestic abuse and others had been denied the ability to bring up their children properly.
One woman with a baby strapped to her back spoke through tears about how she fled domestic violence only to be made to wait for 20 hours at a social security office where she became so hungry she had to drink her child’s milk.
Alston arrived in one of the poorest boroughs in the capital on the eighth day of his tour of the UK, in which he has been examining extreme poverty, austerity, welfare changes and the impact of Brexit.
Reducing poverty was one of the specific legacy goals of the 2012 Olympic Games, which Newham helped host. Between 2010 and 2015, the borough rose out of the 20 most deprived neighbourhoods in England, but local activists say this improvement was not spread evenly across the borough, with areas directly around the sporting venues enjoying increased prosperity while others suffered.
Last year, child poverty in the borough was the third worst in the UK behind Tower Hamlets and Manchester. After housing costs, 43% of children were living below the poverty line, according to analysis of official figures by the charity End Child Poverty.
Among those who addressed Alston was Jane Williams of the Magpie Project. Her organisation has helped 215 of the estimated 2,000 homeless families with children under five who live in the borough. Williams said children had nowhere to play or be potty-trained, mothers could not sleep as several children shared a room, and some were spending one-third of their incomes on milk formula.
She read out testimony from one of the projects’ clients: “They have taken everything from me but my body. What do they want me to do? Do they want me to sell my body?”
Trinity*, a mother of a nine-year-old, told Alston: “A lot of women are forced into poverty and into prostitution. I have been destitute and homeless from one place to another.” She said she survived an attempted rape and had boiling water poured on her when she resisted.
Paula Peters, from Disabled People Against Cuts, described the difficulty of a a 54-year-old carer in accessing universal credit, including seven attempts to fill out online forms, as well as needing to borrow money to eat and at one point not eating for a week.
Another woman’s benefits were sanctioned, Peters said, “because she didn’t look happy” at a meeting with the welfare officer.
Another woman unfurled a banner in front of Alston with the names and photos of dozens of people said to have died as a result of benefit sanctions and austerity.
Alston told the group: “It will be interesting to me to ascertain the extent to which the authorities are really aware of the sort of issues you presented, the extent to which they have tracked those impacts of those policies.”
Alston will spend the rest of this week in London having meetings with Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, and John Glen, the economic secretary to the Treasury, as well as officials at departments including the Department for Exiting the European Union.
He will then draft a report to be delivered at a press conference on Friday. It will examine how the UK government, councils and devolved assemblies have been handling extreme poverty, the impacts of austerity policies and the roll-out of universal credit.
Alston is also expected to address Brexit and whether it might deepen poverty in some areas of the country, and will look at how the increasing reliance on computers to deliver welfare and even make judgments about benefit decisions using algorithms will affect people.
Several women described how universal credit could “facilitate economic abuse” between men and women, because it is normally paid in a single payment. Requesting split payments in violent households could escalate abuse, one woman said.
A mother of two who gave her name as Doris said she had lived in 40 places in the past decade as a result of welfare insecurity. “I have said to my sons: if you could come back as a woman, would you? They said no way, not the way you’ve been been treated,” she said.
*Trinity was one of the women from our centre at the hearing, she is a member of the All African Women’s Group.