How Osborne’s new cuts breach the UK’s human rights obligations

Fully stocked – for now. Danny Lawson/PA Wire

A brighter, more secure future”? “All in this together”? With George Osborne’s latest round of extreme welfare cuts now laid out, these grand claims are ringing more hollow than ever.

The Conservative government’s July 2015 budget will certainly have a lasting effect and legacy, but not just on the deficit. It will affect millions of vulnerable people, including children, who will be forced deeper into poverty and reliance on charitable concerns such as food banks.

The specific cuts announced by the chancellor include a further reduction to the benefits cap – not only from £26,000 to £23,000 as promised in the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto, but down further to £20,000 outside London. Child tax credits, housing benefits and working tax credits will be reduced, with child tax credit only being paid for the first two children.

These moves are particularly controversial, since the benefits cap was purportedly meant to “reward work”. In Osborne’s Britain, as he reiterated while delivering the budget, hard work is supposedly the best route out of poverty – but cutting the incomes of families who work for already low wages directly contradicts that aim.

Osborne has nonetheless argued that the £12 billion cuts to welfare are needed to make sure “work pays” and that “we give a fair deal for those on welfare and a fair deal to the people, the taxpayers of this country who pay for it.”

Evidence to the contrary is not hard to find.

Feeling the pinch

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the shortfall between those on low incomes and the weekly cost of a decent standard of living is growing. On child tax credit, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that reducing the Child Tax Credit child element to its original 2003-04 level (adjusted for inflation) will increase relative child poverty by about 300,00 (or 2.5 percentage points). Current figures put the number of children already in poverty at 3.5m.

In relation to hunger, figures released in April 2015 by the Trussell Trust show that more than 1m people received three days’ food from Trussell Trust food banks, compared to 900,000 last year. This figure includes almost 400,000 children. Compare these figures to the 346,992 in 2012-13 and 26,000 who accessed food banks in in 2008-09 and the increasing scale of food poverty becomes horribly evident.

I can only imagine how these welfare cuts are going to affect food poverty throughout the UK. What’s clear is that the people these cuts will hit the hardest are the most vulnerable in our society – those on low incomes, children, single parents, large families and those with disabilities.

We can argue about the political and moral reasoning for such cuts, but the legal implications of such policies are often forgotten. If we assess the situation from a legal human rights perspective, the UK government is showing blatant disregard for legal obligations it signed up to long ago.

Even leaving aside the question of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, the UK has ratified both the UN International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN ICESCR) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC). Both these legally binding treaties oblige the government to realise “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing.”

The UN CRC requires that governments “recognise the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development” and recognise that “every child [has] the right to benefit from social security”.

While neither of these conventions have been directly incorporated into British law, the state is nonetheless bound at international level to honour their duties.

Falling short

It is also true that human rights law provides special protections for the most vulnerable – exactly the people who will be most seriously affected by these cuts.

Even the Cameron government’s own advisers have warned it about the cuts’ impact on children. The report of the UK Children’s Commissioners to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, published in July 2015, pulls no punches:

Response to the global economic downturn, including the imposition of austerity measures and changes to the welfare system, has resulted in a failure to protect the most disadvantaged children and those in especially vulnerable groups from child poverty, preventing the realisation of their rights under Articles 26 and 27 [of the UN CRC] … Reductions to household income for poorer children as a result of tax, transfer and social security benefit changes have led to food and fuel poverty, and the sharply increased use of crisis food bank provision by families.

Off balance. EPA/Will Oliver

Likewise, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights recently reported on the UK’s compliance with the UN CRC, and found it falling well short:

Welfare cuts will ensure that the government is not in compliance with its international human rights obligations to realise a right to an adequate standard of living under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESR) and a child’s right to an adequate standard of living under Article 27 of the UN CRC. Further it will be in breach of the statutory target to eliminate child poverty contained in the Child Poverty Act 2010.

Hence the well-timed change to the definition of child poverty, something Iain Duncan Smith and the Department for Work and Pensions have been trying to bring about for a long time.

Two steps back

The overriding consequences of these cuts will be more of what we’ve already seen: a rise in child poverty, food poverty and fuel poverty. This is not a matter of choice. People turn to food banks “as a last resort, when other coping strategies have failed. Deciding to seek help from a food bank can be difficult, embarrassing and shameful.”

As such, the increasing use of food banks to substitute the role of the state in protecting the most vulnerable in society is not only a violation of the right to food and the right to an adequate standard of living. It is fundamentally a violation of the most essential right: the right to live one’s life in dignity.

The fact that the third sector is doing a fantastic job dealing with food poverty (as well as the housing crisis and fuel poverty) – albeit only touching the tip of the iceberg – does not mean that charities should replace the role of the state.

Clearly, these austerity measures and now the impending welfare cuts are not only a deliberate attack on the poor; they represent a serious failure to comply with Britain’s legal international human rights obligations. This government has taken depressing backwards steps in terms of realising core economic and social rights.