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Guest blog by Avaneendra Khare, Ada Romero Pastor, Chloe Goldthorpe, and Laura Grob

In 2021 Just Fair had the pleasure of partnering with the SOAS Human Rights Clinic. Four students (Avaneendra Khare, Ada Romero Pastor, Chloe Goldthorpe and Laura Grob) undertook a research project to help civil society in the UK prepare for the next review of the UK by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by analysing past recommendations the Committee had made to the UK, and recent relevant academic work. The students have now produced an excellent and very comprehensive report, ‘Thrive Not Survive’. Below they discuss their project and some of their key findings.

The background: the UK’s upcoming human rights ‘health check’

The United Kingdom is one of the 171 State Parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which means that it accepts the rights enshrined in the Covenant.

In legal literature, economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) are often contrasted with civil and political rights. Typically, though not always, civil and political rights are best protected when the State does not interfere with certain aspects of its people’s lives; socio-economic rights, on the other hand, require the State to take active steps to ensure that its people have access to such entitlements as housing, healthcare, and education. Therefore, the UK is obliged, over a period of time, and taking into consideration the resources available to it, to give effect to these rights within its territories. This is known as ‘progressive realisation’.

In order to hold the different countries that are party to the Covenant accountable, there is a dedicated Committee, which functions within the United Nations system, to report upon, review, and monitor the implementation of the treaty. All countries are required to submit reports to the Committee every five years, which should present the state of these rights in their respective territories. The UK has undergone six such reporting cycles between 1980 and 2016, and another is due in 2023 (read more about this here). During this process, the UN Committee will assess whether the UK Government has taken any relevant steps towards the realisation of socio-economic rights, and make recommendations for further action.

As part of this process, civil society organisations are able to submit alternative reports (also known as shadow reports) with the intent of contributing evidence and drawing a more objective picture of the current situation in regards to economic, social, and cultural rights.

In preparation for this work, to better understand historical developments and the current environment, Just Fair asked us to research and write a report to examine trends in previous reporting cycles as well as research recent progress that the UK has made towards granting these rights to all UK inhabitants.

Barriers to realisation of rights in the UK

One of the most relevant obstacles towards progressive realisation is the UK’s refusal to translate international economic, social and cultural rights into national law. The Government has repeatedly stated that it considers these norms exclusively as guiding principles, rather than rights that can be claimed. If a right is not protected, no person, organisation or institution is able to bring the claim before a domestic court.

Although in other countries one can potentially seek remedy by approaching the Committee, the UK has not signed the Optional Protocol, a treaty closely related to the Covenant, which sets out this process. As a result this too is not available to UK inhabitants as an option.

Further complicating the picture for the UK is its extremely complex constitutional structure. The UK consists of four distinct jurisdictions: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, each with their own complex histories, political conditions, and unique concerns and challenges. Based on how the government is structured, to varying degrees, some of these jurisdictions possess the power to implement some of these rights within their individual territories. This results in a situation where inhabitants of the UK enjoy different levels of protections based on which nation in which they live.

Where are we now?

As a result of these barriers, but also the austerity measures implemented in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that lasted for well over a decade, Brexit, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the research indicates that there has not been significant progress towards the protection of people’s livelihood since the last reporting cycle in 2016.

Economic, social and cultural rights are the base to sustain a dignified life (with a roof over one’s head, enough food, a healthy body, an opportunity to access education, a stable salary, and so on), so the inability and unwillingness of the Government to protect them puts people’s lives at risk. From housing, to health, to work and education, all rights have been underprotected or even completely neglected. That leaves many in a situation of extreme deprivation, without access to safe and stable jobs and without the ability to access adequate healthcare.

In the face of looming challenges like climate change or further economic recessions, it is of paramount importance to have an appropriate framework that protects the bases of a good life; not only to ensure that people can survive, but also have the opportunity to flourish.

It is these issues and more that our report examines.