Human rights case against welfare reforms keeps growing

Iain Duncan Smith: hardship, despair, and destitution. Anthony Devlin/PA

On July 5, the Daily Mail mounted yet another attack on the pesky human rights folk who have the temerity to question the coalition government’s welfare agenda.

The article, headlined “The Brazil Nut strikes again: IDS anger as former Marxist Raquel Rolnik attacks his benefit cuts”, featured the same ignorance and thinly veiled racism that marked the Daily Mail’s coverage of Rolnik’s 2013 visit to the UK as UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing.

That visit was marked by a series of highly personal attacks, in which Grant Shapps, the Mail and others attempted both to blacken Rolnik’s name and to suggest her visit was somehow illicit or unexpected by the government. This was later refuted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This time round, the Daily Mail was complaining about “a bizarre attack on the Coalition’s welfare reforms” by Rolnik and two other UN-appointed independent experts: the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and the special rapporteur on the right to food.

Special rapporteurs are mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. In this 22-page letter, according to the Mail, “they claim that cuts introduced to tackle the huge budget deficit left by Labour may break Britain’s international treaty obligations to the poor.”

However feverish the Daily Mail’s nationalist outrage, this is hardly a bolt from the blue.

Unmet obligations

After her visit to the UK, Rolnik issued a press statement including initial recommendations and then a final report (presented to the UN Human Rights Council) that set out a range of concerns about the compliance of welfare reform with the UK’s human rights obligations. The special rapporteurs on the right to food and extreme poverty and human rights have also previously raised human rights alarms about the UK’s approach to social security.

Such worries have not been limited to the UN; the human rights effects of welfare reform and other austerity measures have been criticised by a range of European human rights bodies, including the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the European Committee of Social Rights.

The Daily Mail quotes Iain Duncan Smith arguing that the rapporteurs’ letter is “riddled with faulty logic”, accusing the authors of

[talking] down our country, criticising the action we’ve taken to get control of the public finances and create a fairer more prosperous Britain … They simply do not have a clue – and we will not be taking lessons from a group of unelected commentators who can’t get their facts straight.

However, far from being dreamed up out of nowhere, the Daily Mail reported that the letter states:

We would like to bring to your government’s attention information we have received concerning the … impact of reductions in public expenditure, in particular to social security, to an adequate standard of living…and to equality and non-discrimination, especially for people living in poverty.

In the letter, the Special Rapporteurs apparently highlight that “according to concerned sources”, the Government’s austerity measures could amount to backward steps that are prohibited by a UN human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which the UK signed up in 1974.

Far from being an uninformed assault on the UK’s proud welfare record, the letter is a considered response to information contained in a communication on alleged or actual human rights violations that was submitted to the rapporteurs.

The unrelenting Raquel Rolnik. EPA/Salvatore di Nolfi

Crucially, in terms of UN guidelines, such communications will not be considered by special rapporteurs if they are obviously politically motivated, anonymous or solely based on media reports. Communications must identify the alleged victims, the date and location of the incident, and a detailed description of the circumstances of any incident in which alleged violations took place.

And here is the nub for Iain Duncan Smith: there is mounting home-grown evidence that the the special rapporteurs’ concerns are well-founded.

Home-grown resistance

The past two years have seen an explosion of reports highlighting concerns about the implications of welfare cuts and changes for society’s most marginalised and disadvantaged. A wide range of bodies, including the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Children’s Commissioner for England and the Scottish Human Rights Commission, have exposed and detailed the damage that welfare reform has done, is doing, and is going to do in human rights terms.

A recent report by British human rights campaign group Just Fair highlights a range of ways in which welfare reform has negatively impacted upon the human rights of disabled people, causing hardship, despair and – in some cases – destitution.

Echoing the information sent to the special rapporteurs, the Just Fair report concludes that there clear evidence that the UK is failing to meet a range of its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities: “These include the government’s obligation to avoid impermissible backward steps in terms of giving effect to the rights to work, social security, social protection and an adequate standard of living.”

The report also expresses great concern that the UK does not always meet its minimum core obligations to disabled people, failing to ensure a level of social security and social protection sufficient to provide basic food and shelter.

No sympathy

Far from “not having a clue”, it is safe to assume that the special rapporteurs have a very good idea of the human rights impacts of welfare reform, both as a result of their own work and the information sent to them by people working within the UK to monitor the impact of austerity.

Iain Duncan Smith dismissed the special rapporteurs’ letter as an “absurd and unwarranted intervention”. It is extremely unlikely that those on the hard end of welfare reform – disabled people, families with children, women – would agree with him. Certainly those in the UK who are holding welfare reform to a human rights standard do not. Why should the UN?