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The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has sent a new report to the UN Human Rights Council which calls for measures to be taken to ensure people can access their right to social protection,[1] including social security.

Along with Project 17 we submitted evidence to the Special Rapporteur in advance of this report, specifically on the various ways in which the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition[2] breaches economic, social and cultural rights.  

The report was very encouraging, noting many of the less obvious barriers to the realisation of the right to social security. 

Priorities for action by governments, that we identified in our evidence and elsewhere, and strongly support included the following:

  1. Addressing gatekeeping

“In the name of saving costs, social protection systems are increasingly designed to discourage fraud, leading to the imposition of complex hurdles and to a mentality in which social workers see themselves as gatekeepers rather than helpers, thus increasing complexity and the distrust of beneficiaries. The result is that those who most need support may end up discouraged or unjustifiably excluded. Non-take-up is thus not merely an administrative or technical issue, it is a political one that requires political will to be overcome.”

Gatekeeping is defined as controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something, in this case support. Gatekeeping was a key obstacle we identified in our own report in relation to those subject to NRPF accessing support. Project 17 assert that it has become systemic, in 2019 Project 17 found that 60% of their clients were unlawfully refused Section 17 support when they first approached their local authority and that it was commonplace for families to be turned away before an assessment was conducted.[3]

  1. Social protection as a human right

“The starting point should be to recast social protection not as a favour provided by benevolent governments, but as a human right.”

As a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (read our ‘plain English’ version) the UK Government has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the right to social security of everyone in the UK.  Social security is not something the UK Government provides through altruistic feelings, rather each person in the UK is a rights-holder, and the UK Government and other public authorities are duty bearers. This means that they have an obligation to take action to realise rights and remove barriers to accessing rights. This is a powerful lens through which to frame the relationship.

  1. Ensuring effective and equal participation

The Special Rapporteur outlined a number of ways that Governments could improve uptake of social protection including:

  • planning effective ways to communicate benefits available to people in a way that they can access
  • assessing who might be ‘left behind’ through the automation of services
  • ensuring the participation of people in poverty in the design, implementation and monitoring of social protection schemes

The last priority is particularly important and potentially transformative. As the Special Rapporteur’s report concludes,

“When moving from rights on paper to rights in practice, the world cannot afford the luxury of ignoring the experiential knowledge of people in poverty.” 



[1] Social protection is defined by the International Labour Organisation as ‘all measures providing benefits in cash or in kind to guarantee income security and access to health care.’

[2] No recourse to public funds is an immigration condition imposed on undocumented migrants and people who have leave to remain subject to a NRPF restriction. A person with NRPF cannot access most welfare benefits or social housing but they can access publicly funded services that are not listed as ‘public funds’.

[3] ‘Not Seen, Not Heard: Children’s Experiences of the Hostile Environment’ February 2019, Project 17


Background image by Rozalina Burkova