By Amina Hussain, British Institute of Human Rights
We at the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) have recently submitted a damning report to the United Nations (UN), as part of the UK’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for our Human Rights Check UK project.
In collaboration with a number of other Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), including JUST FAIR, we have told the UN that the UK Government needs to do more to protect human rights in the UK. As part of this process, we held a Call for Evidence for CSOs and were overwhelmed by the engagement, with nearly 200 organisations, having something to say about the human rights record in the UK.
A staggering amount of evidence received expressed real concern about the impact of austerity measures on the realisation of the right to an adequate standard of living. This human rights is internationally protected by Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as being relevant to a number of rights in our Human Rights Act here in the UK.
Both the measures in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the more recent Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 are having a real and significant impact on some of the most vulnerable members of society. Perhaps the most well-known reform is the infamous ‘bedroom tax’, where welfare benefits are removed for those under-occupying, introduced to encourage families to move out of social housing deemed ‘too big’. However, our report illustrates the detrimental impact this policy is having (read more on page 21 of the report here).
As our report notes, a fifth of affected households are unable to meet the shortfall in rent, and half of those are cutting other essentials like energy, electricity and food in order to pay the rent. It isn’t just CSOs who have real concerns about this policy, the courts have too. We are currently waiting for the Supreme Court to decide whether or not this policy is discriminatory in nature for certain groups of individuals.
Another reform that is failing to protect human rights, but also failing to meet the Government’s objective, is the use of benefit sanctions to those in receipt of job seekers allowance. Introduced to encourage individuals to get back into employment, welfare benefits are stopped for days, weeks or months if the recipient does not meet certain conditions, including being late for appointments or failing to update their CV.
Whilst this fails to take into account the vulnerability of those in receipt of benefits, it has also failed to serve its intended purpose. Research cited in our report (page 21) has shown that sanctioning has not been effective in getting people back to work.
Some other worrying statistics concerning socio-economic rights in our report (page 22) show:
Since 2010 there has been a 55% increase in rough sleeping, with figures suggesting an increase of 30% from just 2014-15 alone.
29% of private sector tenants are living in substandard housing.
One million people were provided with three days of emergency food from the Trussell Trust in 2014-15.
This evidence alone raises significant questions about the UK’s commitment to protect, fulfill and realise economic, social and cultural rights. But also worth mentioning, is the ongoing commitment of the UK Government to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. Although the specifics are still unknown, one thing seems clear, the direction of travel is one that is regressive and negative, taking us further away from our international human rights standards. Not only is the negative narrative about human rights often misleading, it also represents a denigration of international human rights law. There are legitimate questions about the level of protection that will be offered to certain groups of individuals and how we will all be able to hold public officials to account for rights breaches.
Given the severity of the statistics demonstrating a failure to protect the right to an adequate standard of living, having access to appropriate legal aid and measures to hold public officials to account becomes all the more important. The UK Government will submit their own report in February 2017, highlighting their own thoughts on the human rights record from the past four years. But we, Civil Society, have a crucial role to play in making the Government realise that human rights are universal, and can’t be ignored.
If you’d like to find out more about our Human Rights Check UK project, check out our minisite here.
You can also read the report that we, with the support of 75 other organisations submitted to the UN, here.
You can also find out what we’re up to by following us on Twitter @BIHRHumanRights