We are delighted to welcome back Ben Warwick with a guest post on the recent UK report on socio-economic rights sent to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Ben is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and PhD candidate at Durham Law School. His research centres on resource constraints and the implementation of economic and social rights. He is a member of the Durham Human Rights Centre and the Economic and Social Rights Academic Network (UK and Ireland).
The UK has updated the UN on its progress on socio-economic rights. Well, sort of. There is a report, and it has been sent to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but the contents of the report barely acknowledge the somber picture for socio-economic rights in the UK. The report is supposed to be the government’s honest assessment of the socio-economic rights successes and failures of the previous five years. It sits at the heart of a process that should be about open dialogue and exchange between the UK and the relevant UN human rights committee. It should give clear details on the legal and on-the-ground situation in the country; yet the UK has been highly selective in what details it provides.
Food banks? What food banks?
The UN Committee isn’t shy about saying what it requires to be in the reports that countries submit. On the right to food, the guidance is clear that information should be provided on any measures taken to ensure there is sufficient affordable, quality food. Countries are also asked to indicate the steps taken to ensure that the most marginalised individuals have equal access to food. Clear then, that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights would expect to see in the UK’s report a mention of the close to 1.5 million people fed by Trussell Trust foodbanks alone since 2010. Perhaps the Committee would also be interested in an acknowledgement of the disproportionate impact that food poverty is having on women? Or would appreciate a response to the 26 charitable organisations which charged the government with having overseen an, ‘avoidable and unnecessary’ violation of the human right to food? Yet, in an extraordinarily brazen act, the government fails to mention food banks, food poverty, the critical Defra report it commissioned, or the large numbers of charities working in this area. Indeed, in the entire 47-page volume, the word ‘food’ is only mentioned once – in the title of a Scottish Government policy report.
With the right to adequate housing, there is a longer history of UN experts commenting critically on the UK. For example, there was a focus on UK housing policy by the UN Committee on Economic and Social Rights in their previous report. On that occasion, the Committee criticized a ‘chronic shortage of housing, in particular social housing, for the most disadvantaged and marginalized individuals’. Similarly, an independent expert, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, noted that in her view the UK’s situation ‘can be described as a housing crisis’ On this right, the report engages marginally more with the issues than with the right to food. The government report lists policies and refers to a previously published document on housing rights. Yet, there remains no mention or discussion of the rapid and marked changes to housing situation over the last five years (for example a 26% increase in declared homelessness over the past four years).
Crisis? What crisis?
In fact, in the entire 47 pages of report, nowhere is there a mention of austerity or a financial crisis. That the UK government feels the crisis is of no relevance to, or wishes to obscure its effects upon, its international human rights obligations is deeply revealing. This report covers issues surrounding work, an adequate standard of living, health, and gender equality that have been at the centre of the crisis; yet any discussion of the crisis context seems to be taboo for the government.
By contrast, Iceland’s most recent report candidly addressed the difficulties that the economic situation had caused and attempted to justify the reforms made in response to the financial crisis. This approach is much closer to the spirit of openness and constructive dialogue preferred by the UN human rights bodies. It also portrays Iceland as a country that is attempting to grapple with its human rights obligations during a period of resource constraints. The UK meanwhile, appears to not be interested in considering the problems.
The UK’s report will be examined by the UN Committee (most likely in 2015), which will use its experience and expertise to assess the progress (or backsliding) that has taken place in the previous five years. In the run up to this examination, it will be for NGOs to write ‘shadow’ reports that show the real picture of economic and social rights in the UK after the crisis. The words ‘crisis’, ‘food bank’, and ‘austerity’ are bound to feature much more prominently in these assessments of the UK’s progress. These shadow reports will sit in stark contrast alongside the government’s deficient account. And when the UN Committee gives its observations, it may not be quite so easy for the government to bury its head in the sand.