Philip Alston’s Austerity Report Must Be A Turning Point For Social Justice In Britain

Koldo Casla & Daniel Willis

Published in The Huffington Post first.

Professor Alston said “austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so”. We need a radical change to establish the sort of society we want to become.

Continue reading “Philip Alston’s Austerity Report Must Be A Turning Point For Social Justice In Britain”

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The socio-economic duty: A powerful idea hidden in plain sight in the Equality Act

This article was published in Oxford Human Rights Blog.

Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 asks public authorities to actively consider the way in which their policies and their most strategic decisions can increase or decrease inequalities. I am talking about the socio-economic duty. However, successive governments since 2010 have failed to commence it, to bring it to life in technical terms, which means that public authorities are not technically bound by Section 1. Continue reading “The socio-economic duty: A powerful idea hidden in plain sight in the Equality Act”

The UK must protect economic and social rights with a new law – here’s what should change

file-20190411-44810-69lpa7Koldo Casla & Peter Roderick

This article was published first in The Conversation

Like many other countries, the UK has voluntarily subscribed to a number of international treaties which say that everyone living in the country is entitled to the right to adequate housing, the right to health, the right to social security and other socio-economic rights.

But unlike other countries, by and large these rights have not been incorporated in domestic law, which means that people living in the UK do not have an effective legal way to claim their rights. The UK is an outlier.

That’s why we’ve just launched a consultation on an Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Bill that we’ve developed together with colleagues from other universities and from civil society. It’s the first stage in a process that we hope will eventually end in such a bill being introduced in the British parliament.

The good news is that this means there are several models of incorporating economic and social rights into a country’s legal system that the UK could learn from.

Over 90% of the world’s constitutions recognise at least one socio-economic right. In around 70% of them at least one of these rights is explicitly enforceable in court, and 25% recognise ten or more socio-economic rights as judicially enforceable – particularly those relating to education, trade unions, health-care, social security, child protection and the environment.

The Finnish constitution, for example, imposes the obligation on parliament to legislate for the protection of socio-economic rights, and a widely respected parliamentary committee leads a thorough oversight of this constitutional responsibility. Canadian courts have the power to strike down legislation if it contravenes the constitutional bill of rights, and courts normally give parliament and government a period to comply with judgments.

The South African system creates the expectation that public authorities will adopt reasonable measures to improve the enjoyment of the rights to housing, health and food. In some circumstances, people in South Africa can claim compensation in court if they think they have been victims of public decisions that do not meet that principle of reasonableness. The Spanish constitution establishes that the constitutional bill of rights must be interpreted in accordance with international human rights law, which is part of the domestic legal order.

What would change

Continue reading “The UK must protect economic and social rights with a new law – here’s what should change”

Britain’s cuts to social security breach international human rights law. It is time to invest in a fair future

downloadThis article was published in Open Democracy.

In accordance with international human rights law, countries must take concrete steps to the maximum of their available resources to fulfil economic and social rights progressively. This includes the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living.

In case of serious economic difficulties, countries can slow down, halt and even reverse some of the progress, but those measures must be time-limited, objectively necessary and proportionate, adopted after meaningful engagement with those most affected by them, they cannot be discriminatory, must mitigate inequalities and ensure that the rights of the most disadvantaged people are not disproportionately affected. These are the requirements of the human right principle of non-retrogression.

A briefing recently written by the social rights NGO Just Fair for the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee shows that tax and social security cuts since 2010 have not met the mentioned requirements of non-retrogression and therefore breach the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living. This means that the UK is infringing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Articles 9 and 11) and the European Social Charter (Articles 12 and 13), both of which have been voluntarily subscribed to by the UK. Brexit will not change that.

The briefing is supported by 15 local and national groups working on fair taxation, community engagement, workers’ rights, child poverty, equality and food security: Caritas Anchor House, Unison, Women’s Budget Group, Back To 60, Equality and Diversity Forum, Community Links, Sustain, Fair Play South West, Race On The Agenda, Taxpayers Against Poverty, Research for Action, Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Tax Justice UK, The Equality Trust, and 4 in 10.

Tax and social security policies since 2010 have not been justifiable in terms of the goals they were meant to achieve (a), they have not been proportionate (b) and the effects have been discriminatory (c). The weight of local government funding cuts has fallen on people at risk of harm, discrimination and disadvantage (d), and benefit sanctions have been harmful and largely ineffective (e). Continue reading “Britain’s cuts to social security breach international human rights law. It is time to invest in a fair future”

The UN Envoy Has Listened To Britons In Poverty – Now The Government Must Listen To Him

The Special Rapporteur hears from people affected by poverty in Newham - C Bassam Khawaja 2018This article was published first in Huffington Post

I saw Philip Alston in action and the gratitude people showed – these people’s experiences must not be ignored

A few months ago, the government reluctantly accepted a request from an independent expert that provides special advice to the United Nations. His name is Philip Alston and his mandate is extreme poverty and human rights. He wanted to visit the UK to monitor the effects of specific policy decisions on poverty. He was particularly interested in measures like universal credit, benefit sanctions, local government funding cut… and Brexit, of course.

Alston and his team spent the last two weeks in the UK. He visited Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Essex and London. He met with civil society groups, frontline council workers, government officials, MPs, academics and –by far the most important thing of all- with many people with direct experience of living in poverty.

Just like when he went to the US last year, Alston has been received with hostility by grumpy white men. “Poverty in Britain? Who are the UN and this foreigner to meddle with our business?” Alston has seen it before. No surprises there. Archives are full of similarly wrathful headlines from nationalistic and isolationist commentators and politicians all over the world. Human rights defenders know it too well. We must be doing something right.

Yes, poverty in Britain. Written evidence I put together for Alston on behalf of Newcastle University and Newcastle City Council explains why he went there. Newcastle was the first city with a fully rolled-out universal credit. Nearly three in ten children live in low-income families, compared to two in ten in England. Fuel poverty is also above the mean: Over 14% of households live in fuel poor homes, 11% in England. Newcastle also has the dubious distinction of hosting the busiest food bank in Britain. The City Council reports that public spending cuts from government since 2011 amount to £254million.

New research in Gateshead and Newcastle by my colleagues Mandy Cheetham (Teesside University), Suzanne Moffatt and Michelle Addison (Institute of Health & Society, Newcastle University) demonstrates that universal credit is affecting claimant’s mental health till unbearable limits. People being moved to universal credit, especially those with disabilities and health conditions, are forced to wait an average of seven and a half weeks – sometimes twelve – to receive their first payment. Deductions for advance payments and rent arrears put people in front of the impossible choice between heating their home or putting food on the table.

I saw Alston in action in Newcastle. He listened attentively and respectfully to hardworking families that depend on the foodbank to stay afloat. He met with people who can’t figure out how to muddle through the website to claim benefits. The ‘digital by default’ policy pushes them to Citizens Advice in the City Library, from where they walk for one hour to the West End Food Bank, back to the website, and the wheel keeps on rolling down the slope.

People thanked him for having come to them – instead of expecting it to happen the other way around. It’s like they are not used to that sort of deference. I witnessed sincere appreciation in Newham, East London, in an event organised by Just Fair and Community Links. A crowd of 80 housing activists, child poverty charity workers, survivors of misogynistic violence, people with disabilities, mothers with children spoke up when an open microphone was handed to them. “We’re really glad you’re here”, one person told him, to general approval.

The final report will be out in June. I look forward to reading it and using it extensively. We shall wait and see what’s in it. For now, the preliminary conclusions presented today make clear that tax and social security cuts since 2010 are incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations, and that rampant income and wealth inequalities suggest that public authorities are not making use of all available resources to ensure an adequate standard of living for everyone.

In or out of the EU, Alston’s account should be a Dickensian story, not a cover letter for 21st Century Global Britain. The UN envoy has listened carefully. Now it’s time for the government to act.

Koldo Casla

Photograph: Just Fair and Community Links event in Newham, East London. 12 Nov 2018 (c) Bassam Khawaja 2018

Reality of poverty in Newcastle: UN examines effect of austerity

IMG_9322-Edit-Edit-Edit_xlargeThis article was published in The Conversation

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is in the UK on an official UN mission. He is meeting with civil society groups, academics, public authorities and above all with people living in poverty and dealing with the consequences of years of austerity.

Alston, an independent expert from Australia, is seeking evidence on poverty, inequality and the effect of austerity on local government funding.

This official UN visit takes place at a critical juncture for the 66m people living on these islands. With Brexit’s bridge to nowhere in sight, Britons have been promised “the end of austerity” by their prime minister. However, think tanks such as the Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies agree that the recent budget from the chancellor of the exchequer is far from an end to austerity, and that uncertainty about the future relationship with the EU leaves all financial prospects up in the air.

Alston and his UN team are visiting Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Essex, Glasgow, London – and Newcastle. Continue reading “Reality of poverty in Newcastle: UN examines effect of austerity”

Renting rights: what England can learn from fairer systems around the world

downloadThis article was published first in The Conversation.

Record numbers of families now rent privately in Britain. Twice as many middle-aged people rent their homes compared to 2008, and it has been estimated that about one-third of millennials will rent for their whole life.

Renting the house you live in has its advantages as it gives you greater freedom of movement and saves you other costs: insurance, service charge, deposit, mortgage interest, to name a few. Yet, for most people, renting privately is not really a matter of choice. It is the result of stagnant wages and the fact that house values rise much faster than the economy.

Britain is becoming a country of (reluctant) tenants. But the law does not keep the balance fairly between landlord’s interests and tenant’s rights. Continue reading “Renting rights: what England can learn from fairer systems around the world”