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UN envoy is correct to call for greater social rights protections in the UK – says former rapporteur

UN envoy Philip Alston hears from people in Newcastle. © Bassam Khawaja 2018

For 12 days, Philip Alston, the UN envoy on extreme poverty and human rights, and his tireless team, have travelled the length and breadth of the UK. They’ve listened to hundreds of people who have experienced poverty. Many of these stories were heartbreaking, as I witnessed when attending a public meeting in Jaywick, Essex, organised by Unite Community, for the international visitors.

The UN team has received hundreds of written testimonies about the shocking impact of austerity on individuals and communities. Alston held discussions with politicians and officials and at the end of his visit, unveiled his end-of-mission statement.

These preliminary findings bring a powerful searchlight to bear on austerity and poverty in these islands. Universal Credit, he says, “is fast falling into Universal Discredit”. The country’s “overall social safety net is being systematically dismantled” and women are disproportionately impacted. The scale of child poverty “is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster” and, by excluding citizens from decision-making in the area of artificial intelligence, we may be heading “for a future based on artificial democracy.”

The indictment is long, detailed and rooted in evidence. In 2019, Alston will present his final report and recommendations to the UN and, whatever its political hue, the UK government will be required to respond in public.

This is international human rights accountability in action.

For six years, I served as UN envoy on the right to health. In my experience, an effective country visit raises neglected human rights issues and provides recommendations which progressive politicians, officials, civil society organisations and others can advance long after the UN team has gone home.

This is precisely what Alston is doing. His most striking contribution is not merely another catalogue of the violence perpetrated by austerity on disadvantaged individuals and communities. The egregious impact of austerity has been well documented.

Alston is also doing something remarkably different. He is saying what the mainstream media, think-tanks, politicians and officials have – with rare exceptions – failed to say since 2008. He is telling this truth: austerity and poverty are among the most important human rights issues of our time. He is demonstrating that the austerity experienced by millions of people in Britain is in breach of the government’s legally binding international social rights obligations. He is exposing the gaping hole at the heart of our national human rights system: its failure to explicitly recognise social rights.

In his end-of-mission statement, Alston urges the UK to “reimagine what this country should represent and how it protects its people” and he correctly insists that “legislative recognition of social rights should be a central part of that reimagining.”

Read more: Reality of poverty in Newcastle, England: UN examines effect of austerity

An issue on the sidelines

The UK’s binding international social rights obligations include the rights to an adequate standard of living, a decent home, an effective system of health and social care, education and social security based on respect not sanctions. International social rights may be progressively realised – this means governments aren’t expected to realise them overnight but rather to purposefully work towards their realisation.

Social rights are on national agendas in Germany, Finland, Italy, Spain, Norway and many other countries – but not in the UK. Representatives of successive British governments have flown to the UN, affirmed social rights and then suffered a severe attack of amnesia on the way home where they have failed to even mention these fundamental human rights in Westminster and Whitehall.

In the UK, it is sometimes argued that social rights are not needed because they can be adequately protected by the rights enshrined in the 1998 Human Rights Act. It is true that claims based on civil and political rights have successfully challenged a few austerity measures – and this is very welcome. But neither the Human Rights Act, nor the 2010 Equality Act, has slowed the onward march of austerity.

Read more: We need to combat forced labour and in-work poverty – Brazil and India offer some lessons

We are also told by those in power not to worry, although the UK’s laws and policies may not explicitly mention social rights, they implicitly shape all the government does. This argument masks social rights and drains power away from rights-holders to those in authority. Explicitly framing something as a human right matters. Without the status of a human right, it is shorn of transformative and emancipatory promise.

Moving to the mainstream

There are signs today that, despite the neglect of countless commentators over many years, social rights are emerging from the margins and moving towards the mainstream.

Unite Community not only campaigns for workers’ rights, which is the historic and vital role of the trade union movement, but also explicit social rights, such as the right to housing. In her moving testimony to the UN team, Rebecca Rocket, one of the Unite organisers of the Jaywick meeting, called for more attention to social rights.

Jaywick: one of the most deprived parts of the UK. Johnny Essex/Shutterstock

Residents in Leith, Scotland, have successfully used the right to housing in their campaign to improve poor housing conditions. As Heather Ford, treasurer of the residents’ association put it: “Human rights pulls you together as a community and gives you the same goals. The fact that I know that I have a right to a wind-tight, watertight, mould-free house means that I don’t have to be scared.”

In Belfast an inspirational civil society organisation, Participation and the Practice of Rights, places explicit social rights at the core of its community-based action, including a Right to Welfare, Right to Work campaign.

Increasingly, the UK’s national human rights institutions are using explicit social rights language. A growing social rights literature addresses economics, housing, health, education, social work and many other issues. Jeremy Corbyn, and other senior members of the Labour Party, refer to the rights to healthcare, housing and education, while social rights recur in the Fabian Society’s recent collection of human rights essays.

Back to school in Scotland. © Bassam Khawaja 2018

For some years, the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has called for more attention to social rights. In January, she appointed an independent group of experts to advise her on how to advance human rights, including social rights. I sit on this advisory group and our report, to be published on Human Rights Day on December 10, will give close attention to social rights.

No need to amend the Human Rights Act

Crucially, some fear that the promotion and protection of social rights depends upon an amendment to the Human Rights Act and this will be exploited by the act’s critics to roll-back this vital legislation. But these fears are unfounded because there are effective ways of advancing social rights without amending the Human Rights Act. For example, it’s possible to proceed social right by social right, and social sector by social sector, from education to housing and so on, with each explicit social right embedded in sectoral law, policy and practice.

Social rights are not the preserve of lawyers and other technocrats. They are not just about going to court. Explicit social rights have the power to dignify and emancipate. They can shape policies and practices. There is evidence of their positive impact. And, although few members of the public have heard of social rights, successive polls show considerable public support for the broader idea.

So we are indebted to Alston and his UN team for insisting austerity and poverty are human rights issues, confirming the critical importance of social rights, highlighting the gaping hole at the heart of our national human rights system, and urging us to place social rights in the centre of our reimagined society.

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