Poverty in the UK: The world is listening, but is the government?

Koldo Casla and Wanda Wyporska

This article was published first in Open Democracy

The UN has heard shocking findings about the level of UK poverty – but the response from government has been confused.

Last Friday, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, presented his report on UK poverty in front of the UN Human Rights Council.

Fourteen million people in poverty, one and a half million of them in destitution, proliferation of food banks, rising homelessness and rough sleeping, stagnant social mobility, closure of libraries and of bus lines in rural areas, local government funding cuts… In parts of our country more than half of the children are growing up in poverty. If you are a woman born in a deprived area you can expect to die younger than you would have done ten years ago. The poor have borne the cost of unfair taxes and social security cuts introduced since 2010.

All this, despite historically high employment levels. The conclusion is both clear and bitter: Cuts to public services do not work, and simply hurt far too many people. If the Government had meant to harm the British social fabric on purpose, their masterplan would not have had to look substantially different from what we have seen over the past decade.

The world’s fifth largest economy must do much better than this. But Friday was not about Mr Alston’s report. It was about the Government’s response. It is time neither for complacency nor histrionics. As pointed out by fifty UK civil society leaders in an open letter published last week, the Government needs to come up with far more responsible and constructive feedback than what they have been offering recently.

The UN Special Rapporteur came to monitor compliance with international human rights treaties that are binding upon the UK, and it is a general principle in international law that countries must act “in good faith” to comply with international treaties they have voluntarily subscribed to.

When Mr Alston made his report public on 22 May, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, said it was “biased”, “barely believable” and “a completely inaccurate picture of” the Government’s approach to tackling poverty.

A few days later, the Government added in its official response to the United Nations: “We regret the inflammatory language and overtly political tone of this report, and strongly refute the claim that the design and delivery of welfare reforms, including Universal Credit (UC), are deliberately punitive”.

Last Friday the UK delegation in Geneva simply referred to this written response, with no more comment (min 31:58).

However, only last month ago something rather odd happened at a in a parliamentary committee of one parliamentary committee. A senior civil servant acknowledged: “We did a fact check of the Special Rapporteur report, he made a lot of good points, a lot of it was factually correct; (…) in terms of the facts, austerity, cuts to local government funding (…) all of those things were really good points.” An opposition MP could not believe what he was hearing and turned to the visibly uncomfortable Minister, who added: “It was more the tone and some of the language used which I thought was unnecessary, but of course there are areas in there that I will be working with officials on”. So much for a biasedinaccurate and barely believable report.

A few days earlier, in early June, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said on BBC: “I don’t accept the UN Rapporteur’s report at all. I think that’s nonsense. Look around you. That’s not what we see in this country”. Poverty, deprivation and social exclusion are, of course, not the sort of things he sees from his windows in Downing Street. And that may be part of the problem. It would be helpful for the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and other Cabinet members to take a walk around the country and meet the people trapped in poverty, with no choice, with no freedom, the people that are most affected by the policies they have been implementing.

Those who spoke with Mr Alston in November were not under the illusion that their living conditions were going to improve massively as a result of his presence or his subsequent report. They thanked him for having come to them, instead of expecting it to happen the other way around. It was as if they were not used to that sort of deference from people of authority.

We did not expect the Government to U-turn in Geneva after a decade of ideological austerity. But it is an opportunity for a new Prime Minister. Not everything is about resources, and there’s something the Government could do right now. Get out and talk to people. Certain decisions would not have been adopted if the relevant ministers had spoken with those that are struggling the most in our society. For example, we are convinced the digitalisation of social services would never have been signed off. It is unrealistic to take for granted the confidence and the digital literacy of vast numbers of potential claimants of Universal Credit. “Digital by default” is simply unfit for purpose, and it would not have taken them long to realise that if they had made the effort.

Mr Alston concludes in his report that “key elements of the post-war ‘Beveridge social contract’ are being overturned” in contemporary Britain. Over 600,000 copies of Beveridge’s report were sold when it was published in the early 1940s. We wonder how many people will have downloaded Alston’s report for the UN in 2019; the world record number of submissions from all around the country, the media coverage and above all the testimonies of people that met with him give us reasons to be optimistic. We are witnessing an unstoppable movement to end poverty, fight inequality, preserve public services and champion human rights. Poor people, whether in work, unable to work or unable to find work that pays, deserve to be heard. Mr Alston’s verdict is out. It’s the Government’s turn now. The world is listening.

Continue reading “Poverty in the UK: The world is listening, but is the government?”

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Damp, dirty and dangerous: Here’s how the government is housing homeless children

Kids View Baby Sad Child Toys Double-decker BoyThis article was published in Left Foot Forward.

Report shows how government and local authorities are failing thousands of vulnerable kids in Britain by shoving them into B&Bs and forgetting all about them.

There are over 120,000 homeless children in England.

And while children’s housing rights are proclaimed in a number of international treaties endorsed by the UK, human rights acquire true meaning when statistics and international standards give way to life experience.

And that is why the new report by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) is so welcome. The report exposes the problem of housing children in temporary accommodation like B&Bs for extended periods. Continue reading “Damp, dirty and dangerous: Here’s how the government is housing homeless children”

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”

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…

International human rights can help reverse yet another heavy blow on sexual and reproductive health

My Body My ChoiceThis article was published first in UK Human Rights Blog

Women’s sexual and reproductive rights are not safe and accessible in all corners of the United Kingdom.

Abortion is still a crime in Northern Ireland. Women who choose to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights have to travel to mainland Britain, but they have to face costs (about £900 in this recent case) that would not apply if they lived in England, Wales or Scotland.

By a majority of 3 to 2, the Supreme Court has ruled that, while this situation does in principle concern the right to enjoy a private and family life without discrimination (Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights), the difference in treatment is justified because the decision on this matter falls under the powers of the devolved administration of Northern Ireland (paragraph 20 of the Judgment). And therefore the human rights of women living in Northern Ireland are not being breached.

Well, international human rights bodies beg to differ. Continue reading “International human rights can help reverse yet another heavy blow on sexual and reproductive health”

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?”