Jamie Burton QC has been with Just Fair since our beginning. As current Chair, Jamie reflects on Just Fair’s origins, our impact and our work today in a special blog for Trustees’ Week.
The policy response to the global financial crisis in 2007/8 was not the same across the world. Whilst some countries borrowed to invest their way out of the crisis, others, including the UK, cut public spending in order to tackle fiscal deficits. By 2010 the social implications of the UK Government’s austerity policies were becoming clear as rates of poverty increased, public services buckled and disparities in wealth grew. Of course, for those directly in the firing line, the effects of the unprecedented cuts were felt much sooner. And they only got worse as the programme sharpened and delivered ever deeper cuts.
It was in this context that I and some colleagues set up Just Fair, not as a political organisation but a legal one. The question being posed by the polarised response to the crisis was; which policy was the right one? By this I mean, the policy most likely to protect people’s homes, health and incomes, both immediately and in the medium to long term. This was to a significant extent a question of evidence and hence amenable to independent analysis. Yet the domestic legal system offered little by way of protection to those at risk of being at the wrong end of bad policy. Moreover, it didn’t recognise that as people we each have rights to an adequate standard of living (including a home, clothing and food), the highest obtainable standard of health, an education and social security. This was despite the UK having long since recognised these as human rights and committed in international law to respect, protect and fulfil them. What did the human rights discourse have to say about this huge social upheaval in what remained, despite the financial crisis, a very wealthy nation?
A two hour afternoon seminar on the topic morphed quickly into a two day symposium hosted by Just Fair and Essex University at the Law Society in London. Several hundred scholars (from law and other disciplines), eminent jurists, NGOs and social justice organisations came together to discuss the state of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) in the UK. And from there the need for Just Fair as a permanent organisation became undeniable.
Ever since, Just Fair has campaigned for better recognition and protection of ESCR in the UK. Often working in partnership with leading academics and others in their respective areas of concern, it has produced monitoring reports into housing, food and disabled peoples’ rights, and highlighted the connection between growing income and wealth inequality and breaches of human rights. It has advanced the case for better legal standards and accountability and the need to ensure law and policy match our international commitments.
I am pleased to say that ten years after we started, momentum behind economic, social and cultural rights as a key component of human rights, has increased substantially. Whereas in 2010 they were seldom discussed, they have since become relatively mainstream. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are actively looking at ways to incorporate them into their law, politicians in England often use the terminology of rights in the context of food, housing and work, and all the major human rights organisations now include them as part of their programmes for change, whilst social justice groups are advocating for their rights at the local level. But plainly, we have far still to go. Nobody in the UK can yet enforce their economic and social rights and public authorities are still free to ignore them. We were unprotected then and remain so now.
It transpired the case for austerity failed; first at the UN in 2016 where an examination by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights found the evidence for its efficacy lacking and the adverse effects out of all proportion to the benefits. Worst of all, the most marginalised and politically underrepresented were hit hardest. Just Fair contributed to the body of evidence under review, the bulk of which was of course provided by the Government. The economic case transpired to be no more robust: many prominent experts, including the International Monetary Fund, believe the decade long belt-tightening actually damaged the economy, and the political case collapsed too: David Cameron ultimately defended austerity with a moral case rather than any imperative to, “make the numbers add up”, while his successor claimed to end it altogether.
But by then of course it was too late. The damage was done, with many lives blighted. The effects of austerity on public services and social cohesiveness have now been further exposed by the current crisis. The pandemic has exacerbated acute injustices caused by deep and persistent inequalities across all aspects of economic, social and cultural life. For now at least, despite the financial implications of Covid, Prime Minister Johnson professes it would be a “mistake” to introduce austerity mark II. But it is not clear how long this will remain the case. Moreover, the ‘levelling up’ agenda isn’t being framed around human rights and the Government isn’t accountable to any measurable standards or evidentially verifiable commitments. Meantime, the evidence suggests worsening rates of poverty and destitution. The election cycle is a blunt means of holding governments to account; the numbers ignoring the ballot box are ever increasing. No politician ever professes to deliberately act in breach of our human rights, including our economic, social and cultural rights, so why the reluctance to enshrine them in law?
This blog is the not the place to set out the full case for incorporation in the UK. It’s simply a reminder of how important this debate is, how far we have come and yet how much further we must go before we can legitimately say that we are a society that honours our commitments to ourselves and the international community by upholding the rights of everyone to a decent and flourishing life. Just Fair will continue to do what it can to hasten the day that we can.