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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Seize the moment, because Britain needs a broad movement for social rights

This article was published first in The Human Rights Essay

Britain is a very unequal society and austerity has seriously damaged our welfare system and our social fabric.

UN bodies have issued damning reports about the state of human rights in our country. Last year, for example, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights strongly criticised “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”.

Senior see the empty purse

We are witnessing historical changes in politics and society in general. The mentioned UN report came out only three days after the referendum. As I write this, the Government continues to refuse to bring into the UK law the rights contained in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which includes some social rights. Unless Parliament introduces the necessary amendments, citizens will no longer be allowed to demand the enforcement of the rights as recognised in the Charter. In the meantime, the Government is determined to deliver a heavy blow to democracy with power grabbing Henry VII clauses, and fails to dispel the suspicion that they would like to see lower and fewer employment rights once EU law is off the table.

Whatever one thinks of the reasons why people voted out and of the prospects of leaving the European Union, there is no question: Defending social rights is now more pressing than ever. Continue reading “Seize the moment, because Britain needs a broad movement for social rights”

SDGs and Economic & Social Rights under the Brexit Uncertainty

cover spotlight sdg 2017 reportThis text introduces the UK chapter of the Spotlight on Sustainable Development 2017 international report, with other contributions from Social Watch, Third World Network, the Global Policy Forum and the Center for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among others. 

“While the Sustainable Development Goals themselves are not framed explicitly in the language of human rights, virtually all of the Goals correspond to the contents of key economic, social and cultural rights.”—UN Secretary-General, December 2016

This report examines the progressive realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and economic and social rights in the UK. Specifically, it focuses on three issues: a) the impact of welfare reforms on the right to an adequate standard of living; b) substantive equality; and c) human rights-based accountability for the implementation of the SDGs.

The present and future of economic and social rights in the UK will depend considerably on the legal and policy consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. In March, the UK communicated formally its intention to leave the EU, and the negotiations only began in late June. What follows will therefore frame economic and social rights in the context of the uncertainty derived from Brexit.

Author: Koldo Casla

Read more…

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?”

International human rights bodies have said it loud and clear: We need clear targets to reduce child poverty

This article was published first by Huffington Post

The UK needs clear targets to reduce and eventually put an end to child poverty.

This is the purpose of a Private Members’ Bill sponsored by Dan Jarvis MP. The Bill places the duty on the government to set targets to limit both absolute and relative child poverty, to lay out a clear strategy, and to report to Parliament on progress made to meet the targets. The Bill intends to restore the benchmarks of the Child Poverty Act 2010, which were removed by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.

According to the Department of Work and Pensions, the proportion of children in absolute low income (before housing costs) was 17% in 2014/15, substantially more than the 5% target of the Bill being discussed in Parliament. Furthermore, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted a 3-point rise in absolute child poverty between 2016 and 2020 as a result of planned tax and benefit reforms. Continue reading “International human rights bodies have said it loud and clear: We need clear targets to reduce child poverty”

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.

Economic and social rights in the UK in 2016: A whole year under the UN spotlight… and more is coming

downloadThis article was published first by Housing Rights Watch

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.

Koldo Casla

Policy, Research and Training Officer, Just Fair