The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has delivered a highly critical report on UK government social and economic policy. In particular, the UK’s anti-austerity measures and benefit cuts came under fire for having a disproportionate adverse affect on disadvantaged and marginalised individuals.
What is this Committee?
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Committee) is a body of independent experts who are elected by the parties to an international treaty called the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Treaty). The UK signed up to the Treaty in 1968. The parties to the Treaty all agree to take steps to guarantee a number of specific human rights that relate to economic, cultural and social matters. These include, for example, the right to work under fair and favourable conditions, the right to social security and an adequate standard of living, and the rights to education and the highest attainable standard of health.
Why is this Committee reporting now?
The role of the Committee is to monitor the implementation of the Treaty by the UK and the other parties. The UK submitted its latest report to the Committee in 2014. The Committee has now examined the UK’s report and reported its concerns and recommendations.
Deep concerns over UK tax and spend policies
The Committee expresses deep concern about recent austerity measures and cuts in welfare benefits in the UK, including the introduction of the household benefit cap and the “bedroom tax”. It is also concerned about the impact of VAT rises and inheritance tax cuts, on “the ability of [the UK] to address persistent social inequality”.
Policies affecting disadvantaged people in the UK
The Committee highlights a range of other social problems, many of which have a greater impact on the most disadvantaged and marginalised people within UK society. These issues include:
- the “persistent critical situation” around adequate housing provision;
- the “negative impact” of precarious forms of work such as “zero-hour contracts”;
- the “lack of adequate measures to reduce reliance on food banks”;
- the “lack of adequate mental health care”;
- restrictions on access to justice following legal aid cuts; and
- “significant inequalities in educational attainment”.
Is it all bad news?
No, the Committee notes a number of positive developments too, among them the adoption of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights and the UK’s achievement in hitting the international target of allocating 0.7 per cent. of gross national product for official development assistance.
What does this mean for human rights in the UK?
The rights in the Treaty are not directly enforceable in the UK courts nor can UK citizens complain to the Committee about violations of these rights, so the direct legal effect of this report in the UK is very limited. The report criticises the UK government for not giving direct legal effect to the Treaty (as is the case with the European Convention on Human Rights, which has direct legal effect in UK law through the Human Rights Act). However, by becoming party to the Treaty the UK assumed international law obligations to respect the human rights it contains.
This was the first report of the Committee about economic and social rights in the UK since 2009. This means it covers a significant period and comes at a critical time in terms of the importance of understanding the causes of social division and inequality in the UK.