UN Committee “seriously concerned” about the impact of austerity on human rights
30 June 2016
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has published a damning report on the UK’s implementation of economic, social and cultural rights. The report is available here (under “Concluding Observations”).
The CESCR monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), an international treaty to which the UK is a party. State parties are required to submit regular reports to the Committee outlining the legislative, judicial, policy and other measures they have taken to implement the rights set out in the treaty. The Committee may also take into account evidence from “Civil Society Organisations” (Amnesty International and Just Fair were among those who made submissions in respect of the UK). The Committee then addresses its concerns and recommendations to the State party in the form of “concluding observations”.
The Committee’s last report on the UK was back in 2009, so this was its first opportunity to review the austerity measures put in place since 2010.
It’s fair to say that the UK did not come off well. With regard to austerity, the Committee was:
“…seriously concerned about the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups.”
On social security, the report states:
“The Committee is deeply concerned about the various changes in the entitlements to, and cuts in, social benefits, introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act of 2016, such as the reduction of the household benefit cap, the removal of the spare-room subsidy (bedroom tax), the four year freeze on certain benefits and the reduction in child tax credits. The Committee is particularly concerned about the adverse impact of these changes and cuts on the enjoyment of the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, including women, children, persons with disabilities, low-income families and families with two or more children. The Committee also is concerned about the extent to which the State party has made use of sanctions in relation to social security benefits and the absence of due process and access to justice for those affected by the use of sanctions.”
And it will come as no great surprise to the legal profession that:
“The Committee is concerned that the reforms to the legal aid system and the introduction of employment tribunal fees have restricted access to justice, in areas such as employment, housing, education and social welfare benefits.”
Other concerns raised by the Committee include:
- Unemployment, which, despite a rise in the employment rate, continues to disproportionately affect people with disabilities, young people and people belonging to ethnic, religious or other minorities.
- The high incidence of part-time work, precarious self-employment, temporary employment and the use of zero hour contracts, particularly affecting women.
- The “persistent discrimination” suffered by migrant workers.
- The challenges faced by asylum seekers due to restrictions in accessing employment and the insufficient level of support provided through the daily allowance.
- The national minimum wage, which the Committee was concerned “is not sufficient to ensure a decent standard of living in the State party, particularly in London, and does not apply for workers under the age of 25”.
- The increased risk of poverty for people with disabilities, people belonging to ethnic, religious or other minorities, single-parent families and families with children.
- The persistent critical situation in terms of availability, affordability and accessibility of adequate housing, in part as a result of cuts in state benefits.
- The significant rise in homelessness, affecting mostly single persons, families with children, victims of domestic violence, persons with disabilities and asylum-seekers.
- The increasing levels of food insecurity, malnutrition, including obesity, and the lack of adequate measures to reduce the reliance on food banks.
- Discrimination in accessing health care services against refugees, asylum-seekers, refused asylum-seekers and Travellers.
- Significant inequalities in educational attainment, especially for children belonging to ethnic, religious or other minorities and children from low-income families which has the effect of limiting social mobility.
- Increasing university fees, which affect the equal access to higher education.
- The criminalisation of termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland, which disproportionately affects women from low-income families who cannot travel to other parts of the United Kingdom.
Sadly, it seems unlikely that very much will change as a result. The Government is not bound to implement the recommendations made by the Committee, which can do little more than remind state parties of their existing international obligations. The UK is not a party to the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR, which allows individuals to complain to the Committee that their rights have been violated. As far as legal action is concerned, economic, social and cultural rights are generally much harder for individuals to enforce than civil and political ones. Unlike the rights contained in the ECHR and (for now) at least some of those in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the rights in the ICESCR are not enforceable in UK domestic courts. However, the report may at least provide further ammunition for those campaigning against austerity, or otherwise challenging the policies it criticises.