This piece was published in UKSSD blog. (Image credited to UKSSD)
The UK Government committed to reducing inequalities through Sustainable Development Goal 10. Three years later things aren’t on track but is the socio-economic duty the solution we need? Koldo Casla from Just Fair explains.
The SDGs, with their 17 Goals and 169 Targets, set the world on a trajectory where we have eradicated poverty, reduced inequalities, halted the loss of biodiversity and combatted catastrophic climate change. Some call them an action plan for the world. But as our chapter on SDG 10 in Measuring up shows, three years later the UK’s chances of hitting the targets on reducing inequalities by 2030 are not looking too good.
Three reasons why the UK will struggle to reduce inequalities
Between one in five and one in four people earn less than 60% of the median income in the UK. This has barely changed since 2010, and things are not likely to improve as income inequality is projected to rise in the coming years.
Although wealth inequality (the ownership of assets, including property) contracted between 1997 and 2007, it is now going up as a result of the decreased access to home ownership and because land values are growing faster than the economy. The richest 1,000 people are wealthier than the poorest 40% of households.
Tax and social security cuts introduced since 2012 have had a particularly severe effect on people on low incomes. Black and ethnic minority households, families with at least one disabled member, and lone parents (who are overwhelmingly women) have suffered disproportionately. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as a result of the tax and welfare reforms households in the bottom 20-30 per cent have lost more than twice as much as those in the top 20 per cent. At this pace, in four years from now 1.5 million more children will live in poverty.
This piece was published in the blog of the Center for Economic and Social Rights as an ‘Opera Story’.
In this guest blog, Koldo and Imogen share some thoughts on OPERA, CESR’s economic, social and cultural rights monitoring framework—how it can be used to understand human rights situations in a national context, the potential pitfalls of using quantitative information for human rights advocacy and the importance of a human element in such work.
In our view, OPERA is the most developed framework to monitor the fulfilment of socioeconomic rights. We want to share one initiative and three takeaways related to OPERA.
First, the initiative. In partnership with Nourish Scotland, Just Fair, the Institute of Health and Society of Newcastle University, and the Baring Foundation, Sustain is building a network to enhance the right to food in Britain. The OPERA framework is helping us generate a snapshot of the enjoyment and progressive implementation of the right to food in our country, a picture that we need to paint in order to advocate for the change we want to see in society.
Using OPERA, our work has not only identified gaps in policy and legislation, but also gaps in data collection. National data collection is necessary to measure progress or retrogression of rights. However, unlike many other countries in the Global North and despite public pressure, the UK government does not measure household food insecurity on a national scale. However, independent research has supported claims that recent tax and welfare reforms have caused an increase in poverty and destitution, including food insecurity.
Not everyone is affected equally by policy changes. Disaggregated studies indicate that the prevalence of malnutrition upon admission to hospital was highest in women over 65, and people with disabilities and mental health issues are among the most likely to be accessing emergency food aid.
Another gap OPERA helped identify was the lack of open and active participation in the development of policy and legislation. Organised civil society is bridging this gap through projects like the Food Power Programme, which highlights the importance of involving experienced experts to develop effective long-term solutions to tackle food poverty.
Report shows how government and local authorities are failing thousands of vulnerable kids in Britain by shoving them into B&Bs and forgetting all about them.
There are over 120,000 homeless children in England.
And while children’s housing rights are proclaimed in a number of international treaties endorsed by the UK, human rights acquire true meaning when statistics and international standards give way to life experience.
In June 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reproached the UK Government its failure to reconcile austerity with international human rights law. The Committee made 60 recommendations in areas such as housing, equality law, social security and public health.
According to international law, the Government must comply with international obligations and engage with international human rights bodies in good faith.
However, in February 2017 the Ministry of Justice announced that it did not intend to report before June 2021 on the implementation (or lack thereof) of the UN’s recommendations.
The UK is one of the most economically unequal countries in the developed world, and tax, public spending and social security policies in the austerity years only worsened the problem.
Since 2010, the Labour Party has examined the impact of tax and social benefits on different groups. The model developed by Yvette Cooper shows that the savings have come from services predominantly used by women, causing them to bear the brunt of such cuts to the tune of 86%.
While the Government fails to conduct the necessary impact assessments, others are providing evidence of the disproportionate effect that some policies are having on women, children, persons with disabilities or BAME families.
Last November, for example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission demonstrated that the costs of tax, public spending and social security cuts have been borne overwhelmingly by the poor. While everyone has lost some money after the reforms, not everyone has lost the same.
Net cash losses for the bottom 40% have been about £1,500 per year, while for the top 20% the average cash loss has been £200. On average, BAME households have paid a higher price than white households. Families with at least one member with a disability have bit hit particularly hard. Single parent households, more than 80% of whom are headed by women, have suffered disproportionately. In fact, women have been more negatively affected by tax and welfare reforms in all income brackets.
In light of this dire reality, 126 Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs have called for an immediate equality assessment of all government policies.
In particular, Labour has tabled an amendment to the Finance (No. 2) Bill 2017 to require the Chancellor to review the equality impact of the Budget, including the way in which tax changes and benefit cuts affect households at different income levels.
We welcome this initiative. We desperately need policies that are both transparent and effective in ensuring real equality and an adequate standard of living for everyone.
Regardless of what you think of the UK’s relationship with the European Union, you should consider this: the EU (Withdrawal) Bill currently passing through the British parliament puts some important social rights at risk.
International treaties are legally binding for countries that voluntarily sign and ratify them. The UK and 165 other countries have done so in the case of the ICESCR. However, the UK has not yet incorporated the ICESCR into its domestic legal system. As a result of that, social rights remain relevant in the political discourse but, by and large, legally toothless.
However, people living in the UK do enjoy a number of social rights as a result of the UK’s membership of the European Union.
British laws protecting workers from discrimination and protecting their maternity leave rights, for example, come from EU directives. The European Court of Justice has developed some of these rights on equal pay for equal work and equal access to state pensions. Workers are also entitled to compensation if their EU labour rights are breached.
The UK supreme court drew on EU law when it insisted that employers have to give spouses in same-sex marriages the same pension rights as heterosexual couples. The same court also concluded that employment tribunal fees (charging people for taking action against their employers for unfair treatment) made access to justice practically impossible or excessively difficult for too many people, and that breached EU law as well. The High Court of England and Wales echoed the right to health recognised in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights when it ruled to keep plain packaging for cigarettes.
All these steps were directly or indirectly the result of the UK being an EU member state. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill puts many of these rights at risk. In its current form the bill will erase the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and all the protections that come with it. These protections will no longer apply to British citizens and other residents after Brexit day.
As the Conservative MP and former attorney general Dominic Grieve recently argued in parliament, the problem of the EU
(Withdrawal) Bill is that equality or environmental policies, for example, will no longer enjoy the legal protection that EU membership gives them. British authorities will therefore be free to lower or indeed remove the standards that currently protect British people.
In response to this problem, the former High Court judge Michael Tugendhat has advocated that UK courts should have the power to ignore an act of parliament if it is contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and EU human rights principles.
And to avoid losing equality rights, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee has said that courts should be able to declare that an act of parliament is contrary to the Equality Act 2010. Such a declaration would send a message to parliament that it should consider appealing or amending the offending act – though it would not be obliged to do so and could choose to do nothing at all.
A British tradition
Social rights have been part of Britain’s tradition for centuries and Brexit should not change that. This year marks the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, which limited landlords’ privileges, facilitated free men’s access to the common land and granted women’s rights that were revolutionary for the standards of the time. Britain is also the land of the Peasants’ Revolt of the 14th century and of the Putney Debates in 1647, the birthplace of Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill, the stronghold of the labour movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, the country of the NHS, the home of the council house.
The UK must match these historical milestones with a categorical legal and political commitment to social rights in the 21st century.
It is not an overstatement to claim that Brexit is a constitutional juncture of unique historical relevance. As Britons look for the future they want to live in, now more than ever they must take back control of their rights. Britain should bring social rights home by incorporating international human rights law into the national legal system.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has published today the distributional results for the effects of tax and welfare reforms since 2010. The report presents the disaggregated impact of the changes made to Income Tax, NICs, VAT, social security benefits, tax credits, Universal Credit, and National Minimum and Living Wages.
The data is both illuminating and excruciating.
Let’s start with the good news (Figure 1). The top 10% paid a little bit extra through indirect taxes (VAT and others), and the introduction of the National Living Wage had a positive impact across the board, but more so for the bottom half of society.
And now the rest. The largest cash gains from Income Tax and NICs went to the wealthiest, particularly the top 30%. The poorest adults did not get much out of it either because they were not in work or because they did not earn enough to notice the tax changes.
The most regressive impact came from benefit and tax credits and from universal credit. Households in the second and third decile (those who have to look upwards to find 70-90% of the people) lost more than twice as much as those in the top 20%. The roll out of the universal credit has led to further cash losses.