The socio-economic duty: a human rights remedy against austerity and inequality

 

This post was published in the blog of The Baring Foundation

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The Scottish government is currently consulting on the implementation of Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010, which would require public bodies to consider when making decisions how they would reduce the equalities of outcome resulting from socio-economic disadvantage. Just Fair is one of the organisations leading the #1forEquality campaign to urge the UK government to do the same.

The UK is a very unequal society. While the share of income in the top 20% has remained approximately stable since the early 1990s, the share of the top 1% continuously increased well into the 2000s. There are significant gaps between ethnic groups, with the median income of a family of Bangladeshi origin 35% below that of a white British household. Inequality is most evident in the distribution of wealth: The richest 1,000 people accumulate more wealth than the poorest 40% of households.

The austerity policies implemented by successive UK governments have been strongly criticised by independent international human rights bodies.

In summer 2016 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed serious concernsabout “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”.

Last August the Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities described the situation in the UK as a “human catastrophe”: “Each disabled person is losing between £2,000 and £3,000 per year; people are pushed into work situations without being recognised as vulnerable, and the evidence that we [the UN Committee] had in front of us was just overwhelming”.

Like all other countries, the UK is expected to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015, including the 10th one, whereby governments pledged to ensure equal opportunity and to reduce inequalities of outcome between and within countries.

However, because of its comparatively low investment in education and a regressive tax structure, the UK does not rank highly when it comes to the commitment to reduce inequality.

The UK must change course soon but luckily we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 imposes a duty on public bodies, when making strategic decisions, to consider how they can reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socioeconomic disadvantage.

To take effect, though, this provision requires a formal decision by the Government to activate it, or as is known technically, to commence it.

Despite being at the forefront of the Act, successive governments have failed to bring the socioeconomic equality duty into force. As a result of the Government’s inaction in this regard, in the mentioned 2016 report the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concluded that the UK was not doing everything within its power to tackle discrimination in relation to these rights.

Thankfully the Scottish Government is committed to introducing the socioeconomic duty before the end of the year, and has launched a consultation about what this duty should mean in practice. At the end of this process, Scotland will become the first part of the UK to bring the socioeconomic equality duty to life. Continue reading “The socio-economic duty: a human rights remedy against austerity and inequality”

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General Election: What do the manifestos say about the socio-economic equality duty?

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This article was published first in Left Foot Forward

Lucy Shaddock, Public Affairs and Campaigns Manager, The Equality Trust; and Koldo Casla, Policy, Research and Training Manager, Just Fair

The countdown is on to the General Election, and party manifestos have been coming thick and fast. There’s plenty of rhetorical commitment to a more equal and fair society, with the Conservatives proclaiming that they ‘abhor[s] social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality’, and Labour declaring itself ‘the party of equality’. The Liberal Democrats say they will focus on ‘breaking down the barriers that hold people back’, while Plaid Cymru wants a country based on ‘fairness and equal opportunity’. The Green Party promises to ‘fight for equality, and for a society where nobody is left behind’, and the SNP says ‘tackling rising inequality must be one of the key priorities of the next parliament’.

They all use the word ‘rights’ a good number of times. In fact, for the first time in too many years no serious political party threatens to repeal the Human Rights Act in the next Parliament, which is only thanks to the tireless campaigning of so many activists up and down the country.

There are many levers available to policymakers to ease our social divisions – taxation, spending, investment and regulation offer opportunities to tackle inequality. We need them all: the UK has among the most unequal incomes in the developed world, and an eye-watering wealth gap that sees the richest 1,000 people hoarding more wealth than the poorest 40 per cent of the population combined. This economic gulf hurts us. It undermines our enjoyment of human rights by harming our physical and mental health and by hindering our education, it damages our economy, restricts social mobility, reduces levels of trust and civic participation, and weakens the social ties that bind us.

How many of the parties have put their money where their mouth is and committed to reducing socioeconomic inequality as a legal public duty? Continue reading “General Election: What do the manifestos say about the socio-economic equality duty?”

Equality matters to human rights. We need a socio-economic duty.

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.

In 2015, together with other countries the UK pledged to ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome (Sustainable Development Goal No. 10). The UK has also ratified a number of treaties promising to abide by the principle of equality and non-discrimination, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

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.

Should rights be submitted to referendum? (You won’t find the answer here)

0fe51435c8d9f2e165e32117bb1d8c65-800xEarlier this year, many of us felt proud of Ireland. 62% of Irish people voted to proclaim marriage equality in the national constitution. Ireland, a country of profound Catholic roots, had become the first country to recognise at the constitutional level the right to marriage regardless of sexual orientation. It was very good news for those who believe in human rights, equality and non-discrimination.

Last week, only seven months after the Irish vote, 63.5% of the Slovenian electorate rejected a law allowing same-sex marriage. Turnout was rather low (36%), lower than in Ireland (61%), but enough to make the result just as valid. The result was particularly disappointing considering that in 2005 Slovenia became the first Eastern European country to legally recognise same-sex partnerships. (By the way, two days after Slovenia voted against equal marriage, the Greek Parliament voted in favour of civil partnerships for gay people).

Reportedly, the Slovenian constitution forbids referendums on human rights issues, but the Constitutional Court authorised the popular vote called by a civic platform (suggestively named “Children Are At Stake”) that had gathered more than 40,000 signatures.

I haven’t been able to find the ruling in English, so I am not familiar with the Court’s reasoning, but the Slovenian story makes me wonder: Should rights be submitted to referendum? Continue reading “Should rights be submitted to referendum? (You won’t find the answer here)”