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Rory Stewart, Tory Party leadership contender, contrasts poverty in the UK with Nigeria

11 June 2019

Rory Stewart, one of the 10 candidates battling to replace Theresa May as the Leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister of the UK, who formally launched his bid for the leadership of the party this evening, also spoke in the afternoon in his capacity as the UK’s international development secretary (minister) during a debate in the House of Commons on “sustainable development goals”.

Stewart was asked by Labour Party MP Kerry McCarthy: ‘The Secretary of State will know that the UN special rapporteur described the levels of poverty in the UK recently as “systemic” and “tragic”—I think those were the words—and that seems to have been rather glibly dismissed by some of his colleagues. Of the five goals on which the UK is focusing when it comes to the voluntary national review, why is goal 2—ending hunger—not in there when we know that the extent of food poverty, particularly childhood food poverty, in this country is so extreme?’

The minister replied: ‘That is a good challenge, which I think will come up again and again in these debates and in the response to the reviews. We have significant problems in our country—people will refer to, for example, food banks. I recently had a conversation that got to the heart of the matter with a Nigerian pastor who has just begun his ministry in Croydon. He was reflecting on his experience of poverty in Britain and in Nigeria. He said that there was definitely poverty in both contexts, but that it was very different. His brother had just died in hospital in Nigeria because he was unable to access basic healthcare. Of course, in Croydon, he deals with people who have significant problems, particularly with income. He talked about women who are struggling to afford sanitary products and about food banks. However, he also said that it was worth bearing in mind that those people have completely free access to healthcare and education, a water supply and shelter, so we come back time and again to the relationship between absolute and relative poverty.’

Instructively, Stewart didn’t offer a way out for the poor in his country and chose to contrast poverty in the UK with Nigeria. He seemed to be saying, with the help of the Nigerian pastor, that poverty in the UK is tolerable because it is “relative poverty” and they are better off than poor folks in Nigeria, who have to endure “absolute poverty”.

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