On Wednesday 24 January, an international body reported that the UK government had breached the legal human rights of sick and disabled people. This is now the fifth such report to state this in just 20 months.
A report [pdf “ECSR conclusions for 2017 – UK”] from the European Committee of Social Rights (part of the Council of Europe) details whether the UK government was meeting its legal obligations under the European Social Charter. The UK signed up to the charter in July 1996 [pdf, p3]. It covers “fundamental” human rights, includingthose related to employment, housing, health, education, social protection, and welfare.
The report covered [pdf, p3] the years 2012 to 2015. And overall, it found the UK government was breaching its legal obligations in two areas.
Failing on welfare
The first breach was of Article 12, the right to social security. The committee found [pdf, pp19-22] that many welfare benefits – including Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) – were “manifestly inadequate”. That is, people were not getting enough money to live on and were being left in poverty.
The committee made a point [pdf, p19] of noting that, in response to a previous report where it had raised this issue, the UK government:
contests this finding… arguing that the benefit rates are considered in isolation, without taking into account the safety net of other benefits and credits available.
But the committee once again disagreed. It said [pdf, p20] that all the benefits mentioned left people below the poverty line, even with “other benefits and credits”. Therefore, this is an automatic breach of the charter [pdf, p20].
Going further, the committee noted some serious concerns over the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) benefit sanctions regime. It referenced a report given to a UN committee which highlighted that [pdf, 23-24]:
- “The post-recession rise in UK hunger is intimately connected to the rise in benefit delays, caused by an increase in both benefit sanctioning, as well as maladministration”.
- “The high percentage of successful appeals against welfare benefit decisions [sanctions] provides further confirmation of the prevalence of poor administration”.
It said [pdf, p24] that the UK government must “urgently” reform “the benefit sanctions scheme”, and take steps “to reduce benefit delay”. And the committee warned [pdf, p24] that if, in the next report, the UK government did not show how it is doing this:
There will be nothing to establish that there is an effective right to social assistance for all persons in need.
The committee also [pdf, p25-27] “deferred its conclusion” on whether the UK government was meeting its legal obligations to EU nationals and asylum seekers and refugees, stating it:
cannot accept the necessity of halting the provision of such basic emergency assistance as shelter… to individuals in a highly precarious situation.
Failing on workers’ rights. And an NHS in crisis.
The second area that the committee stated the UK government was breaching legal obligations was Article 3. This covers the right to safe and healthy working conditions.
It concluded that the UK did not conform to the treaty in its protection of temporary, domestic and self-employed workers [pdf, p6-7]. It also noted discrepancies between the number of UK work-related deaths and non-fatal injuries that the government reported, and the EU’s figures; the EU’s being higher.
Also of note were the committee’s conclusions over Article 11, the right to protection of health.
It said that:
- The UK government missed [pdf, p13] its own NHS targets on “four hour accident and emergency waits, 18 weeks from referral-to-treatment, 62 days to start of cancer treatment, and six weeks for diagnostic tests”.
- Rates [pdf, p14] of mental health issues were “higher” for poor ethnic minorities and an “issue of concern” for the LGBTQ+ community.
- Alcohol consumption and abuse levels had “risen” over the long term [pdf, p17-18].
The committee only found one positive development [pdf, p3] since its previous report. That was the Control of Asbestos Regulations which came into force in 2012.
The DWP says…
A DWP spokesperson told The Guardian:
Our welfare system is among the best in the world and we are committed to helping people improve their lives. We spend over £90bn a year supporting people of working age, including those who are out of work or on a low income.
The UK government must now report back to the ECSR on all these areas.
But we’ve been here before.
Disabled people: living on the edge
The UN has published four reports since June 2016 into the Conservative government. All of them condemned its treatment of sick and disabled people, saying it had committed “grave” and “systematic” violations of their human rights.
One UN committee went even further, stating that the UK government has created a “human catastrophe” for disabled people, and then tried to misrepresent the impact of its policies through “unanswered questions”, “misused statistics”, and a “smoke screen of statements”.
So now we have this fifth report, by a European committee. As one disabled person told The Canary:
It seems pretty clear that drastic action needs to be taken. Because sick and disabled people in the UK now need protection from their own government.