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The UK government has announced plans to cut the rate of Universal Credit (UC) by £20 per week on 6 October. In March 2020 the government had announced an ‘uplift’ of £20 per week to UC as part of its response to the pandemic. We believe that the proposed cut represents breach of the UK government’s international human rights obligations in a number of ways.

Civil society groups across the UK have provided a mountain of data and testimonies from people who will be impacted by this proposed  cut. They evidence a system that is failing individuals across our society, and in particular the deficiency of UK government in its duty to protect, respect and fulfil its human rights obligations.

In 1976 The UK government ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and in doing so agreed to be bound by the terms of the covenant. Amongst other provisions ICESCR provides for the right to social security (Article 9) and the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 11).

In 2019 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council following a visit to the UK to examine how human rights obligations were being met. His report was scathing in terms of the failings of Universal Credit to create routes out of poverty and the report included a number of recommendations to reform the system to ensure it complies with human rights obligations.

The announcement in March 2020 of the £20 uplift to UC was welcomed as an effective step to help to support people during the pandemic. We believe that it could also be viewed as an important move by the UK government to fulfil its human rights obligations.

Under international human rights law states (such as the UK) have an obligation to ‘progressively realise’ socio-economic rights. This is a commitment to work to achieve these rights to the maximum extent of their resources over time, with a particular focus on continual improvement. The £20 uplift to Universal Credit provides an example of progressive realisation, and of the UK government moving in the right direction in relation to fulfilling socio-economic rights.

However, as has been well evidenced, the potential cut to Universal Credit would impact negatively not only on the achievement of the right to social security, but also on the right to an adequate standard of living (which includes adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions).

In doing so it would represent a breach of the UK government’s obligation to progressively realise these rights, something which the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) had already warned the UK government about in 2016 in relation to welfare reform. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Tracker is already evidencing a regression in terms of the right to an adequate standard of living.

The principle of non-regression requires that states, such as the UK,

“refrain from cutting subsidies for essential goods such as food, water and energy if they will cause undue hardship on people. Reducing spending on education, health care or other social services are a violation of ESCR unless the state can prove that they do not have the necessary resources.” ESCR-Net

The proposed cut clearly violates the principle of non-regression.

In addition, as explored by Human Rights Watch, the proposed cut would also fail to satisfy the  stringent six-part test set out by CESCR in relation to reducing spending on socio-economic rights.

We therefore believe that the proposed cut to Universal Credit represents a clear breach of the UK’s international human rights obligations, particularly in relation to socio-economic rights, and for this reason we support the #keepthelifeline campaign.

To help support this campaign you can take action by writing to your local MP using this tool from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.