UK making poor progress in socio-economic rights protection and it could get worse

The UK equalities watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), has published a report this month assessing progress on socio-economic rights in Britain since 2016, when the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights examined UK progress in implementing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).  

The UN report found numerous areas of significant concern and recommended specific remedial measures in its ‘Concluding Observations’ (its recommendations for action).

It stated the Committee’s serious concerns “about the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups.”

It also said it was deeply concerned about the various changes in the entitlements to, and cuts in, social benefits made by the government’s welfare reforms, and about legal reforms (including cuts to legal aid as well as the introduction, since reversed, of employment tribunal fees) that had restricted access to justice, in areas such as employment, housing, education and social welfare benefits.

Other concerns raised by the Committee included “persistent discrimination” suffered by migrant workers, discrimination in accessing health care services against refugees, asylum-seekers, refused asylum-seekers and Travellers and significant inequalities in educational attainment, especially for children belonging to ethnic, religious or other minorities and children from low-income families.

Although progress has been made in some areas, for example in relation to the publication of the findings of the UK Government’s Race Disparity Audit, the entry into force of employers’ gender pay gap reporting requirements and the introduction of the National Living Wage, the EHRC report says that “the overall picture emerging from the most recent evidence remains deeply concerning.” 

The report identifies persistent challenges in relation to a number of economic and social rights and further deterioration in some cases. These include reforms to social security since 2010 which are badly affecting children, disabled people, single parents and ethnic minorities, increases in child poverty and the prevalence of low pay, underemployment, precarious self-employment and zero-hours contracts. And it says that changes to legal aid mean that justice is beyond the reach of many, especially children, disabled people and ethnic minorities.

It also comments on the implications of the UK’s planned withdrawal from the EU, which it says poses “risks to the protection and fulfilment of socio-economic rights.”

It says that there continues to be significant uncertainty regarding the future applicability of existing human rights protections that derive from EU law in the UK, including those in relation to non-discrimination, family life, education, work, social security, health care and the rights of the child.

The EU withdrawal bill currently going through parliament brings existing areas of EU law into UK domestic law, but the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights (CFR) will not be retained. The EHRC says this could result in a reduction in legal rights and domestic remedies.

It says that protections relevant to socio-economic rights – such as the right to dignity (CFR Art. 1), the right to non-discrimination (Art. 21), the rights of the child (Art. 24), the right to fair and just working conditions (Art. 31), the right to social security (Art. 34), and the right to effective remedy (Art. 47) – do not have equivalent protection in UK law and are at risk of being lost.

The EHRC has recommended a number of amendments to the withdrawal bill to address concerns about the loss of rights.

More broadly it recommends that the UK Government ensures that there is no regression in the respect, protection and fulfilment of socio-economic rights as a result of the changes introduced as the UK leaves the EU.

The government has committed to playing a “leading role in protecting and advancing human rights”, but in an EHRC blog on the report, EHRC senior associate Marion Sandner said “Action is needed now, not words.”


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