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Current social security provision is not adequate; it has not increased in line with inflation and the rising cost-of-living, and it is not enough to meet essential needs.

This violates at least two of our everyday rights, the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living. 

These were the key messages in our recent submission to the  Works and Pensions Committee (WPC) in response to their call for evidence on benefit levels.

Social security levels violate international human rights

In 1976 the Government of the United Kingdom ratified, and so agreed to be legally bound by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), a United Nations human rights treaty. Article 9 of ICESCR protects the right of everyone to social security. Article 11 protects the right to an adequate standard of living – which includes food, clothing and housing. Article 2(2) of the Covenant states that rights must by guaranteed without discrimination of any kind.

In our submission we outlined the ways in which these rights are being violated in the UK and noted that two UN Special Rapporteurs on extreme poverty and human rights have highlighted the inadequacy of charity as a substitute for the UK Government fulfilling its rights obligations.[1]

In addition, every few years, the UK is reviewed by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in terms of how well our rights in ICESCR are being realised. Such a review is ongoing, and we strongly encouraged the WPC to take notice of it and get involved. 

Our evidence showed violations across the board

In January 2023, we submitted an independent parallel report on behalf of civil society in England and Wales to CESCR.  

In our submission to the WPC, we highlighted evidence contained in this report, including:

  • Disability benefits appear to be effectively subsiding basic benefits to meet subsistence costs rather than meeting any additional costs of living with an impairment.
  • Work is not necessarily a route out of poverty. In-work poverty has increased, rising from 13% of in-work households being in poverty in 1996-97 to 17% in 2019-20.
  • The £20 uplift to Universal Credit led to a decrease in child poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic, which illustrates that social security is effective in tackling child poverty. But this progress is expected to reverse with the cuts to provision and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.
  • The level of social security support was further compounded by the application of a benefit cap that has been frozen since 2016, despite rising living costs and rents.
  • The no recourse to public funds policy can lead to destitution and exploitation.
  • Sanctions are considered to be cruel and intensify experiences of poverty.
  • There is insufficient capacity within the welfare benefits system to minimise administrative delays which creates cycles of debt and hardship.
  • Benefit claimants find the experience of interacting with the social security system to be stigmatising and undignified.
  • The current system fails to meet people’s needs and is driving rising poverty, which is disproportionately impacting particular groups.

Taking a rights-based approach

We called on the WPC to consider how the principles of a human rights-based approach[2] could do much to inform the design and delivery of the working-age benefits system.

[1] P.2

[2] A commonly used model for a HRBA is the PANEL process (Participation, Accountability, Non-discrimination, Empowerment and Legality). The Scottish Human Rights Commission has produced a wide range of materials to help people apply these principles to their work: 

Background image by Anina Takeff for OBI x Fine Acts