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In international human rights law the term ‘progressive realisation’ is often used in relation to our economic, social and cultural rights. It’s an obligation that the UK has signed up to which means that the government will work to the maximum extent of their available resources to realise these rights over time, always moving forward with them.

A recent report from the London School of Economics, ‘The Conservative Governments’ Record on Social Policy from May 2015 to pre-COVID 2020’ illustrates in detail how the UK has failed to live up to this self-imposed obligation, even before the onset of the pandemic.

The report,

“points to a slowdown in social progress and a widening of deep structural inequalities across multidimensional areas of life on the eve of the pandemic. We show that key indicators of social progress had already slowed down, stalled or gone into reverse by early 2020 when the public health crisis struck.”

This is important because as the authors note, “These pre-existing patterns of risks and vulnerabilities are critical context for understanding why the pandemic played out in the way that it did.”

The report examines in depth 8 key areas that directly relate to our rights within ICESCR:

  • Child poverty (Article 9 – the right to social security and Article 10 – special measures of protection and assistance on behalf of all children without any discrimination)
  • In-work poverty (Article 6 the right to work and Article 7 the right to just and favourable conditions of work)
  • Inequalities in early childhood (Article 10 – special measures of protection and assistance on behalf of all children without any discrimination)
  • Educational inequalities (Article 13 – the right to education)
  • Mortality and life expectancy inequalities (Article 11 –the right to adequate standard of living and Article 12 – the right to highest attainable standard of mental and physical health)
  • Inequality in unmet need for care (Article 12 – the right to highest attainable standard of mental and physical health)
  • Physical safety (Article 12 – the right to highest attainable standard of mental and physical health)
  • Homelessness (Article 11 –the right to adequate standard of living including adequate housing)

In the report, some positives are highlighted, however the overwhelming evidence is of regression in terms of the fulfilment of our rights in international law. This is in direct contravention of the requirement for ‘progressive realisation’ and importantly the report highlights that this was the trend before the pandemic made inequalities even starker.

As the report surmises,

“Overall though, our central conclusion in this report is that the second decade of the 21st century was in many respects a decade of going backwards rather than forwards in terms of reducing social disadvantage and social inequalities through social policy making.”