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The UK is experiencing a cost-of-living crisis which threatens to increase poverty, inequality and destitution. This is a rights issue.

This crisis is happening in the context of the recent cut to Universal Credit and an imminent rise in National Insurance contributions. Both of these measures will hit those least able to afford it the hardest.

The statistics about the crisis and the projected impact make for stark reading, for example:

  • The Resolution Foundation notes that the higher energy cap, due to be introduced on 1 April 2022, will see energy costs in England jump by more than 50% overnight, with the average annual bill set to rise from £1,277 to around £2,000
  • The Office for National Statistics reported that the Consumer Prices Index (CPI)[1] rose by 4% in the 12 months to December 2021
  • Chairman of Tesco, John Allan, warned this week that “the worst is yet to come” on food price inflation, and predicted it will soon hit 5%
  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) predicts households on low incomes will be spending on average 18% of their income (after housing costs) on energy bills after April. For single adult households on low incomes this rises to 54%
  • The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has projected that the combined effect of higher prices and higher taxes will lead to a 30% rise in destitution[2] because of the differential impact of inflation upon the poor

While the UK Government has announced some initiatives to help tackle these issues, their impact will be limited.

JRF has found that even after the deferral scheme for energy bills and council tax discount announced by the UK Government is considered, once the new energy price cap kicks in, families on low incomes will spend on average 16% of their incomes (after housing costs) on energy bills and single adult households on low incomes will spend 43% on average of their income (after housing costs) on energy bills.

What can we do?

Just Fair has joined 30 other organisations in sending the UK Government a letter, organised by Child Poverty Action Group, calling on them to, “increase benefits by 6% in April and ensure support for housing costs increases in line with rents.”

If social security levels are not increased by at least 6% then there will, in effect, be a cut to incomes in real terms. As prices of essentials rise (as detailed above) people’s ability to afford these items must match these rises, otherwise there will be a regression in the realisation of the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to social security.

The relevance of economic, social and cultural rights

We supported this call because we believe it is a prerequisite for the UK Government to meet its legal obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), specifically the right to social security (Article 9) and the right to an adequate standard of living (Article 11). 

The United Nations has made it clear that appropriate measures to realise these rights include, but go beyond, legislation. Indeed, 

“Other measures which may also be considered “appropriate” for the purposes of article 2 (1) include, but are not limited to, administrative, financial, educational and social measures.” (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General comment No. 3: The nature of States parties’ obligations)

Increasing social security levels and support for housing costs would be examples of these measures.

In September 2021 in the context of the cut to Universal Credit we wrote about the obligation the UK has of non-regression in respect of these rights: 

“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)

To fully meet international obligations, the UK Government must ‘progressively realise’ these rights. As we clarified in a blog in September 2021: 

“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.” 

For this reason, we would encourage the UK Government to consider further measures that it could implement to better realise rights, particularly in the context of the current cost of living crisis. As a starting point we would call upon it to reverse the cut to Universal Credit and to examine measures that could be taken to specifically help those worst impacted.

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[1] Although anti-poverty campaigners, believe that the CPI measure grossly underestimates the true cost-of-living crisis and outcry has prompted changes for ONS.

[2] JRF defines destitution as when a person cannot afford to buy the essentials to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean

Background image by Cecilia Castelli.