Poverty: UN rapporteur calls for recognition of social rights in UK

Jennifer Sadler-Venis, IBA Content Editor

In July 2019, Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, presented the UN Human Rights Council with a 21-page report on his mission to the UK, in which he highlighted the UK government’s ‘dismantling of the social safety net’ and ‘clear violations of the country’s human rights obligations’.

The report found a fifth of the UK population live in poverty, with four million living 50 per cent below the poverty line and 1.5 million destitute in 2017. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, disabled persons, single parents and children are among those at greatest risk.

Then-Chancellor Philip Hammond responded to Alston’s report to ‘reject the idea that there are vast numbers of people facing dire poverty in this country’. Meanwhile in January 2019, homelessness charity Crisis highlighted that the number of rough sleepers in England has risen by 165 per cent since 2010, when the government’s austerity policy began in response to the financial crisis.

By treating work as a panacea for poverty while dismantling the social safety net, the Government has created a highly combustible situation that will have dire consequences

Professor Philip Alston
UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

To tackle poverty, the report calls for the legislative recognition of social rights. The UK has signed and ratified the 1976 UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but not incorporated those rights – including the right to social security, an adequate standard of living, the highest standard of health, and just and favourable conditions to work – into domestic law.

For Neil Gold, Chair of the IBA Poverty and Social Development Committee, the problem is ‘not about the recognition of social rights, but those in power not caring whether those rights exist’.

Louisa McGeehan, Director of Policy, Rights and Advocacy at the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), argues that ‘in introducing austerity measures, the UK government failed to comply at all with the relevant conditions’ of the UN Covenant. She believes the country’s child poverty rates – 30 per cent of UK children in 2017–2018 – indicate that poverty is a political choice.

Were social rights recognised, says Carla Clarke, Head of Strategic Litigation at the CPAG, ‘current austerity policies, such as the benefit cap and two-child rule, would be in clear breach’ of social rights. Further, the lack of transparency surrounding benefit entitlement and decision-making, as well as the digital administration of the social security system, ‘would need to be overhauled to avoid non-compliance’.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) declined to comment specifically on how the support it offers guarantees UK citizens’ social rights, but told Global Insight 'evidence shows that full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life, which is why our welfare reforms are focused on supporting people into employment’.

It is gradually rolling out the digital-by-default Universal Credit, which in its standard form replaces six benefits with one monthly payment and the DWP describes as ‘a force for good’. The initial payment is made after a five-week assessment period designed to mirror work – a schedule that CPAG says is ‘causing families hardship and driving people to food banks’ – with advance payments offered as loans. Those in work can claim UC, but every £1 earned will result in a benefit reduction of 63p. Failing to comply with ‘claimant commitments’ can result in sanctions.

The Trussell Trust – the UK’s main food bank provider – found that on average, food banks see a 52 per cent increase in demand a year after UC is rolled out to an area, compared to 13 per cent in areas with UC for three months or less. It also found that in 2018–2019, almost 40 per cent of food bank referrals were due to benefit delays or changes, while 33 per cent related to inadequate income.

A spokesperson for the DWP argued that the Trussell Trust statistics fail to prove a causal link between UC and food bank usage. Similarly, they say Alston’s report ‘represents a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here’. The official response to Alston’s report criticised its ‘overtly political tone’, arguing that the ‘biggest welfare reform programme for a generation… is working’, as the ‘employment rate is at a record high’ and the National Living Wage ‘is among the highest in the world’.

Yet Alston’s report found that over half of those living in poverty are in work, and ‘in-work poverty rates outstripped the growth in employment’ in 2018. In families where two adults work full-time on the minimum wage, they are still 11 per cent short of the income needed to raise a child. The report argues that ‘by treating work as a panacea for poverty while dismantling the social safety net, the Government has created a highly combustible situation that will have dire consequences’.

Alston told Global Insight that ‘to eliminate or greatly reduce poverty, there need to be a wide range of social services available to people who are not able to take advantage of work opportunities. And those who are not earning enough through work need to have access to the social security benefits that used to be available before the austerity programme started systematically chopping them down’.

Despite its rebuttal, the government has since promised to ‘turn a page’ on austerity. The benefit freeze will end next year, UC sanctions will be reduced from a maximum of three years to six months and UC work allowances will increase, which independent social change organisation the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests will lift 200,000 people out of poverty.

However, Alston told Global Insight that while ‘some of the dimensions that are hardest to justify and might be politically burdensome are being adjusted, I don’t think there is any change in the essential spirit and level of community services that are being provided or way in which the welfare system is being operated.’