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 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.
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”.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.