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Using Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to Tackle Destitution in the UK

by Dr Luke D. Graham 


To summarise this series of blogs so far, destitution is the non-realisation of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) and, even though there is broad public support for ESCRs, rising destitution in the United Kingdom has been the consequence of government policy. As such, this series of blogs has argued that rising destitution in the UK (understood as the non-realisation of the right to an adequate standard of living as contained in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ICESCR]) is intimately linked to government policy. This final blog in the series argues that, to tackle destitution in the UK, the realisation of ESCRs should be the aim of social security policy. In the post-Brexit, post-COVID world the UK cannot return to the old normal. Rather, we should recast – and make the attainment of the right to an adequate standard of living central to – the underpinnings of our social security system.

The benefits of an ESCRs-based approach to destitution

Explicitly framing – and addressing – destitution as an ESCRs issue has the potential to supplement existing – and limited – responses to destitution. For example, Hunt has documented seven case studies in which using the language of social rights has contributed to the tackling of issues relating to destitution such as inadequate housing.

Eliminating the need for charitable assistance as central to addressing destitution in the UK

I have previously shown that reliance on charitable assistance to realise the ESCRs required to meet subsistence needs is a central feature of the destitution experience in contemporary Britain. Concerning the right to food, the Trussell Trust – who support a nationwide network of foodbanks – is aiming to create a future without the need for foodbanks through its Hunger Free Future campaign. Ultimately, eliminating the need for such charitable assistance in the realisation of ESCRs will be crucial to eradicating destitution in the UK. The first step towards eliminating this need is societal and political recognition that reliance on charitable provision to ensure a sustainable income and to realise the rights to an adequate standard of living, adequate housing, adequate sanitation, adequate water, adequate food, and adequate clothing is unacceptable by human-rights-based standards. Rather than praising the rise in foodbanks as uplifting, we should rather criticise them as demonstrating many failures of the state with respect to the obligations it has voluntarily assumed under international human rights law.   

How to eliminate the need for charitable assistance

The rights which are required to be realised (without charitable assistance) to avoid destitution are the rights identified under the right to an adequate standard of living within Article 11 of the ICESCR. When individuals cannot realise these rights it should not be charity to which they turn. Rather, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has held that social security benefits must be adequate in amount and duration so that everyone may realise their right to an adequate standard of living. The right to social security is contained in Article 9 of the ICESCR and is strongly interconnected Article 11. Further, the right to social security is ‘of central importance in guaranteeing human dignity for all persons when they are faced with circumstances that deprive them of their capacity to fully realize their Covenant rights’. As such, the social security system should be sufficient to enable sustainable income and an adequate standard of living.

This is not currently the case in the UK where lack of access to – and inadequate – social security are amongst the primary reasons for individuals experiencing destitution. This is because austerity and ensuing changes to social security policies have negatively impacted the enjoyment of the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living. In the UK, social security is designed so that potential recipients (rights-holders) are financially better off in work. However, poverty rates are increasing amongst working adults and although ‘poverty rates fall from 35 per cent to 18 per cent when people move into work’ it is clear that ‘even sustained employment does not eliminate in-work poverty for too many households’. Thus, neither social security nor work guarantee freedom from destitution in the UK.

This limit to the amount of money available to those claiming their right to social security combined with other factors such as the wait for the first payment and the advanced hardship loans under universal credit (which must later be paid back reducing future payments) are specific policies which limit the effectiveness of the social security system in preventing destitution. Consequently, the UK should adopt the CESCR’s recommendation to ‘restore the link between the rates of State benefits and the costs of living’. Until this occurs those in receipt of social security will always be on the brink of destitution.

Conclusion: destitution is not inevitable

One hundred and twenty years ago Keir Hardie addressed the House of Commons with the following words ‘at the bottom of the social scale there is a mass of poverty and misery equal in magnitude to that which obtained 100 years ago’. Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropist – also published over a century ago – observed that ‘a very great number – in fact, the majority of the people – lived on the verge of want; and that a smaller but still a very large number lived lives of semi-starvation from the cradle to the grave; while a yet smaller but still very great number actually died of hunger’. It is to our nation’s great shame how readily and aptly these words describe the situation which exists in the UK today.

Poverty and destitution are not inevitable. They are a political choice. Strengthening, recasting, and reconceptualising our social security system so that it is informed by – and adheres to – both the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to social security is a necessary evolution to address destitution. In the post-Brexit, post-COVID world the UK must return to a ‘new’ normal. Perhaps now is the time for a modern-day Beveridge Report which – at its heart – is informed by Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the aim of ensuring the realisation of the right to an adequate standard of living.


19 February 2021

Author profile

Dr Luke D. Graham is a Lecturer in Law at Coventry University. His ESRC Funded PhD undertaken at Lancaster University Law School was titled ‘Destitution as A Denial of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Addressing Destitution in The UK Through a Human Rights Framework’. @lukedgraham


Dr Luke D. Graham, “Using Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to Tackle Destitution in the UK​”, (Just Fair Guest Blog, February 2021), <>, [Date of access].

The views expressed in any and all articles posted on the Guest Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Just Fair.