This article was first published in the blog of The Equality Trust
The UK is one of the most unequal societies in Europe. Even though decreasing unemployment and low inflation have reduced income inequality for now, unfair taxes, stagnant incomes and unaffordable housing risk enlarging the wealth gap.
It is not only about raw data. Inequality is widely perceived as a growing problem in society. According to the 2016 British Social Survey, more than 76% of the people believe there is a wide divide between social classes.
Abundant empirical research shows how bad inequality can be for general economic stability, criminality, individual self-esteem, mental health, sense of trust and civic participation.
Many of these issues are closely connected to human rights.
Equality is of paramount importance for individual freedom and meaningful choice in a free society, and growing inequality within a country suggests that its government is not doing everything in its power to guarantee an adequate standard of living for all.
Public authorities must safeguard not only formal equality but also substantive equality. They must protect equality in the law, but also adopt the necessary policies to address the underlying causes that fuel economic and social disparities.
However, the UN body that monitors states’ compliance with this treaty concluded in its 2016 report that the Government has not done everything within its power regarding non-discrimination.
Specifically, the UN asked the Government to bring the Equality Act 2010 to life in full.
We need evidence-based policies to reduce inequality and support human rights, and we need such policies to be adopted at all levels of government. Section 1 of the Equality Act provides this by calling on public authorities to aim at the reduction of the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage.
Section 1 should be part of the Prime Minister’s vision of a “shared society”. The Government failed to implement this socio-economic duty in 2010, but it is not too late. There is a perfect opportunity to announce the commencement of section 1 in the green paper on social justice, expected in February.
Both in principle and in practical terms, equality matters to human rights, and human rights matter to equality.
We in Just Fair are excited to work together with The Equality Trust and others advocating the implementation of section 1 of the Equality Act.
Koldo Casla is Policy, Research and Training Officer at Just Fair, which monitors and advocates economic and social rights in the UK. Koldo tweets as @koldo_casla, and you can follow Just Fair at @JustFairUK.
After nearly two years of evidence gathering and interaction with civil society and government officials, last June the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued its Concluding Observations on the extent to which UK authorities have been complying with international law on these rights.
To the government’s sorrow, the picture was bleak, but the report also included 60 very specific recommendations. For example, the Committee recommends making economic and social rights enforceable in court, just like civil and political rights are, without regressive changes to the Human Rights Act 1998. Authorities must adopt measures to address the deficit of affordable housing, particularly rental housing. The UK should review its fiscal policy to make sure that taxes provide the necessary resources to satisfy economic and social rights. The government must also enact Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that authorities have socio-economic equality in due regard when designing and implementing their policies. Decisive measures must be taken to eliminate the gender pay gap, and reduce the use of temporary and precarious forms of employment, such as “zero hour contracts”. The Committee also expressed serious worries about the negative impact of welfare reforms introduced since 2012, in particular benefit cuts and freezes, the use of sanctions, and the disconnect between state benefits and costs of living.
These findings can only be explained if one factors austerity into the equation. The Committee expressed serious concerns 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”. The Committee had seen the link between austerity and human rights retrogression before in the Czech Republic (2014), Slovenia (2014), Romania (2014), Portugal (2014) and Spain (2012). The connection had also been noted by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (2013).
2016 was a busy year for the UK government. The Committee on the Rights of the Child published its Concluding Observations in June, and so did the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in October. In September, the UN made public a joint letter sent to the UK government some months earlier by the Special Rapporteurs on Housing, on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on Extreme Poverty, and on the Right to Food, with specific questions about the compatibility of welfare reforms with international human rights obligations of the UK, and the report of the inquiry of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was published in October. This Committee stressed a series of concerns about the negative impact of austerity-led welfare reforms on the rights of people with disabilities.
UN human rights oversight does not end here. Every five years or so, countries are grilled for three hours in the UN Human Rights Council in what is known as the “Universal Periodic Review”. Next turn for the UK will be May 2017. We don’t know what sort of recommendations the UK will receive from other countries, but many organisations and coalitions, including Just Fair, have already made some suggestions. The joint report produced by the British Institute of Human Rights gathered information from 175 organisations, including Just Fair.
Ok, so the UN has spoken categorically, and more is surely coming in mid-2017. But what now?
The UK has voluntarily assumed the commitment to bring to live the rights proclaimed in international treaties. International human rights mechanisms provide advocacy opportunities, but they are only as effective as civil society makes them to be. Organisations and society at large must hold the government to account and demand policies that fulfil the human rights promise.
As soon as she entered into office, PM Theresa May promised that her government would “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.” For now, however, apart from some minimal announcements in the Autumn statement in November, the government has not changed course from the austerity path initiated by Cameron and Osborne. The government has not reacted to the report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in its response to the inquiry report of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government ignored entirely the criticism of the deliberate and unjustified retrogressive measures of recent years.
Even in turbulent waters, there is room for good news. Following the lead of Scotland (since 2012) and Wales (since 2015), a bill is currently being discussed in Westminster Parliament that would create a new duty to prevent homelessness for all eligible applicants threatened with homelessness in England, which would stop councils turning non-vulnerable single people away without any assistance at all. In November, the Supreme Court ruled on the human rights compliance of the so-called “bedroom tax” (or “spare room subsidy”), which essentially means the lowering of housing benefit for those living in social housing that is deemed to have spare bedrooms. The Court ruled that disabled adults who cannot share a room with another person should not have their spare room subsidy removed, and also that treating children and adults differently in this regard would breach Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on private and family life, and non-discrimination. The Scottish government is considering legalising the right to food in accordance with international human rights standards, and has also announced its intention to introduce a new socioeconomic equality duty on public authorities in 2017.
Brexit has taken the UK to an unchartered territory. We don’t know when and how the UK will leave the European Union, and we don’t know the effect that this may have for human rights in general, and economic and social rights in particular. But it is fair to say that the UK is not heading out in order to protect and promote economic and social rights better. At times of enormous political and social uncertainty, in Just Fair we will continue using the international human rights machinery in defence of human rights for all.
Together, these two treaties constitute the core of the international system that protects human rights. Both treaties entered into force a decade later in 1976, only a few weeks apart. And both of them have received approximately the same number of ratifications to this day: 168 for the ICCPR and 164 for the ICESCR. Like all other European countries, the UK is a party to both of them.
Degrees of separation
But there are significant differences between these two treaties. The intention of those who drafted them was to flesh out the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by making the protection of rights legally binding for states. But considering that the 1948 Universal Declaration contained civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights in a single text, by creating two separate documents it was clear that the drafters wanted to introduce differences between these rights.
While all this happened during the political context of the Cold War, this was not the main reason why different types of human rights were treated differently. Rather, the decision had to do with states’ general preference for a weaker duty to protect their citizens’ economic, social and cultural rights. Countries were willing to proclaim these rights as long as this proclamation did not entail strong accountability mechanisms.
The second difference between the two treaties refers to the clarity and burden of words. Article 2(1) of the ICCPR talks about states’ obligations “to respect and to ensure [civil and political rights] without distinction of any kind”. Yet the same article in the ICESCR uses much more cryptic language about how the compliance of states to the treaty on economic, social and cultural rights will be monitored. It states:
Each state party to the present covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the present covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.
It’s difficult to assess compliance if rights are meant to be “achieved progressively”, or to decide the “appropriateness” of the “means” authorities are making use of. And can we blame governments if they promise “to take steps”, but not just yet?
There are also differences in the ways states who violate these two sets of rights are held to account. When the ICCPR was adopted, it brought with it an independent monitoring body known as the Human Rights Committee.
This had three responsibilities: examining states’ abidance by the treaty approximately every five years; dealing with interstate complaints (although to date this has never been used); and receiving complaints from individuals who consider themselves to be victims of a violation of any of the political and civil rights contained in the ICCPR. A complaint can lead to detailed recommendations on the specific case which countries are expected to implement. To date, 115 countries have let their citizens complain to the UN like this, but the UK is not one of them.
But when it came to economic, social and cultural rights, the ICESCR did not contain anything similar, and this was only partly corrected in 1985 when the UN created a body to periodically assess the general level of enjoyment of these rights in those countries which have ratified the treaty.
All this means that there are three degrees of separation between the two sets of rights: different treaties that states could pick and choose from, different legal wording, and different accountability mechanisms.
An unfortunate hierarchy
Something similar happened in the European context. In 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights was set up with a relatively resourceful European Court of Human Rights devoted essentially to civil and political rights. Then, in 1961, the European Social Charter was established (and then revised in 1996). This is monitored by the much weaker European Committee of Social Rights.
The impact of this hierarchy in which civil and political rights are given more weight than economic, social and cultural rights is visible at the domestic level, too. In the UK, for example, the very important Human Rights Act 1998 gives judges the means to apply the European Convention on Human Rights, but not the European Social Charter or the ICESCR, although the UK has ratified both treaties.
Half a century since the adoption of the two landmark human rights treaties, it is time to close the gap between human rights.
Independent human rights bodies, scholars and a growing number of practitioners have worked to define the meaning of economic, social and cultural rights and the contours of states’ obligations to uphold them.
Since 2013, individuals in 22 countries, ranging from Argentina to France and Mongolia, can also complain directly to the UN if their economic, social and cultural rights have been violated. This only applies to countries that have ratified the 2008 Optional Protocol to the ICESCR. Unfortunately, the UK is not one of them.
Yet, even in the UK, a minority of the judges in the Supreme Court has accepted that given their nature, some human rights treaties (although not the ICESCR for now) should be “directly enforceable in UK domestic law”, even without an act of parliament.
Half a century ago, human rights were internationalised with some degrees of separation. Luckily, we now have some tools that we lacked at that time – but we need to tell the government to make use of them.
I recently attended an event organised by the Foreign Policy Centre in partnership with the European Commission’s representation in the UK. The title could hardly be more topical: “Examining the EU’s democratic legitimacy”.
It really was about Brexit, like nearly every political debate in the UK for months if not years.
Hilary Benn delivered an eloquent keynote speech about the need of parliamentary oversight of the divorce process. After him, other articulate voices from both Chambers expressed their thoughts about the value of democracy, the history of Britain in Europe and the meaning of national and parliamentary sovereignty. Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and SNP had at least one voice in the panel; so did UKIP with its only MP (to Nigel Farage’s eternal sorrow), Douglas Carswell.
Judging by the interventions during the Q&A, had the referendum been held only in that room, Britain would have never chosen to leave; in fact, Conservatives would probably be a marginal force.
“How did we get to this point?” An incredulous audience asked with different words and tones.
A UN Committee of independent experts recently issued a harshly worded report on the extent to which public authorities have been complying with international law on socio-economic rights. The Committee monitors states compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the UK has voluntarily ratified along with 163 other countries. Adherence to the Covenant is a matter of rule of law. However, after months of engagement with government officials and evidence gathering from civil society groups (including Just Fair), the Committee’s report could hardly have been more damning.
Last February, I wrote a short piece praising British humour and weather, thanking London for hosting me and, yes, asking Brits to vote for Brexit. The text was full of irony, and I warned the reader that I would not do it if I were British. But, as a European citizen living in London, I did call for a vote out. And I regret it deeply now.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware my text didn’t make a difference on the 17+ million Brits who chose to leave the European Union yesterday. But I feel sorry anyway.
I feel sorry because last weeks I have added one more item to the long list of things I like from this country and its global capital.
I have discovered a European side to London and its British inhabitants that I had never seen before. Yes, most of my friends and London-based Facebook acquaintances are highly educated and sophisticated. And London is multicultural, multilingual and profoundly diverse. Unsurprisingly, it has gone 60/40 for Remain. England is an entirely different story. Still, one didn’t really see EU flags hanging out the window in London flats, and in common parlance locals used to refer to Europe in third person, as if the English Channel was not 20 mile long, as if Britain constituted its own continent. We may easily go back to that sooner than later, but somehow Brits and Londoners campaigning for Remain made me feel welcome in a way that I had never felt before.
Like most people, I was convinced Brexit was not going to happen. Hence I felt I could stand by my ironic and provocative “vote-out-if-you-dare”. And I believed (and still do) the EU had a lot to work on in terms of social rights protection and democratic accountability. So I didn’t want to line up behind Cameron and Osborne.
I felt welcome and confident with my predictions and convictions. So yesterday, when I put an “in” sticker on my t-shirt, I had to clarify to someone that it was “a critical in”. As if it made a difference.
If yesterday I felt welcome, confident and critical, today I feel sad, shocked and sorry.
We’ll have to resort to the trite keep-calm-and-carry-on. We need to live with the consequences. I say “we”, because I for one don’t intend to leave just yet. But I say “we” although I know that the burden will not be fairly shared among “us”. Disenfranchised English working people, many of whom voted out, will suffer the consequences of Brexit just as much they missed most of the benefits of being part of the EU. This strikes me as the most devastating outcome of this referendum.
There are other critical issues that Brits will have to face, of course. For example, the future of a Europhile Scotland outside the EU, the profound divide between London and the rest of England, or the generational gap between a Eurosceptic elderly and a younger generation that had envisioned their future as part of the European Union. That is gone now.
Other European countries will not be in a good mood, and EU institutions are unlikely to let the Tories regroup and trigger Article 50 TEU (the exit door from the EU) at their convenience: “Of course, Sir, we’ll wait until October for you. Anytime, really. Thank you very much for these lovely decades of charm”. England may see Scotland go, Northern Ireland join the Republic and Boris Johnson hold the keys of Number 10. And at this point it’s too early to tell if the meagre chances of having a socialist Labour opposition have just evaporated. After all, supposedly Jeremy Corbyn has also lost this referendum.
Recapitulating, Britain, I understand you couldn’t care less about my opinion, but I still want you to know that I regret urging you to vote out. If I had known, I would have kept quiet. To the 17+ million of you who voted out, I’m also sorry for bothering you with my presence in your country. For now, however, I don’t plan to do anything about that.
The postman just knocked on the door to hand me a parcel. “Thank you”, I say. “You’re welcome, my friend”. Well, at least, I have that.
I have lived in England for nearly five years, mostly in London, but for personal reasons I have also become familiar with other parts of the country as well. I have always felt welcome here – for which I am grateful. I like England very much. I adore the preciseness of language, the humour, the diversity and buzz of the capital… I don’t even mind the weather! Ideally, I would like to stay for some time.
This is my caveat, which I believe to be necessary since I will argue that the European Union would be better off without the United Kingdom.
The UK has been part of the European Communities and then the EU for more than four decades. In the second half of this period it has enjoyed a special treatment granted by the other Member States. It did not adopt the Euro, it does not participate in Schengen, and it can pick and choose from within the areas of security, justice and police cooperation as it pleases. Even the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is not fully applicable in the UK.
But, as is well known, David Cameron promised to get more leeway or leave. After intense talks behind closed doors, on 19 February the European Council discussed and agreed on a new settlement for the UK in the EU. Brits will be called to an in-or-out referendum scheduled for 23 June.
I say it is time to fly free – both for the UK and for the rest of the EU..