A coalition of 175 civil society organisations has raised grave concern about the impact of the government’s welfare “reforms” and living standards in the UK, hate crimes, mental health, deteriorating prison conditions, stop and search powers and the Conservative’s plans to repeal the Human Rights Act, among other issues. The organisations include Age UK, Just Fair, Inclusion (London and Scotland), the TUC, Unicef UK, Rights Watch, The Law Centres Network, Mind, the Mental Health Foundation and Stonewall.
The coalition contributed to a report which calls on the United Nations (UN) to recognise the evidence from the wide range of civil society groups and to ensure the UK Government, and the devolved administrations, are accountable for taking appropriate action and measures to redress many raised human rights concerns. The report authors caution that a high proportion of the 132 recommendations from the last United Nations hearings in 2012 have not been implemented.
The British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) announced the launch of the Joint Civil Society Report, on the 22 September. It was submitted to the United Nations in Geneva last Thursday as part of the Universal Periodic Review of the UK.
The report was produced as part of Human Rights Check UK project, which has been assessing human rights changes since the UK was last reviewed by the UN in 2012. BIHR have engaged with over 175 organisations across England, Scotland and Wales through both a call for evidence and by hosting a series of events across Great Britain. These groups range from local community advocacy groups to large national organisations, working on issues such as health, age related issues, children’s issues, justice, education, welfare and many others.
Many of the issues and concerns raised in this report of 84 pages have been under-reported in the mainstream media.
The human rights framework in the UK is being eroded
A key theme throughout the evidence received are serious concerns regarding the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act. Civil society organisations were worried that a new Bill of Rights would offer weaker human rights protections, particularly impacting the most vulnerable members of society.
The report says repeal of the act would be a “denigration of international human rights law.” It also says in the submission: “The UK’s retrogressive debates are already negatively influencing other countries. There is increasing concern that the UK’s political rhetoric will, if not checked, threaten the coherence and credibility of the post-second world war human rights settlement.”
The report also says: The rhetoric in national media and among senior officials often repeatedly misrepresents and misreports judicial cases, “blaming” human rights laws for situations/decisions which are about other laws or are only partially about human rights (often centring on groups considered “unpopular” or “undeserving”). When the Human Rights Act has positively supported people, this is rarely discussed.
It is vital that the UK Government guarantees it will build upon the Human Rights Act, rather than amending or repealing it via a new bill of rights. Refusal to give such a guarantee should be recognised as an indication that there is a significant risk of the human rights framework in the UK being eroded.”
These are all concerns that I have raised myself over the last two years, along with many other campaigners.
Other key issues raised were related to growing poverty and inequality across the UK as a result of welfare “reforms” and austerity measures. The report reflects the damaging impact that Conservative policies are having on a number of human rights issues, including access to justice, children and women’s rights and the right to an adequate standard of living. These are problems and themes which many of us have been campaigning and writing about for the last four or five years.
Social security no longer alleviates poverty and homelessness
Many concerns were raised about the impact of the welfare cuts, growing poverty and an inadequate standard of living in the UK. The report said that recent policy and legislative changes have seen a regression in standards of living and the welfare system’s ability to tackle poverty, homelessness and unemployment. Many organisations reported that this is having a negative impact on marginalised social groups, among which are some of our most vulnerable citizens.
For example, the abolition of disability premiums may result in 100,000 disabled children losing up to £28 a week. Changes to personal allowances will leave single parents with severe disability needs with £73 less a week. There was recognition of the discriminatory impact of the bedroom tax on disabled adults and children, carers, domestic violence victims, separated parents and others.
The benefit cap disproportionately impacts on single parents, children and BME groups. The Supreme Court ruled that the cap violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) but did not overturn the policy. The UK Government has further reduced the cap to £20,000 per annum for households outside of London and £23,000 for those within Greater London through the Welfare Reform Work Act 2016, affecting 92,000 more households.
The report also said that benefit sanctions have significantly increased and that evidence strongly suggests links to rising destitution and food bank use. Many people have received sanctions in “error”. The authors pointed out that there is no empirical evidence that sanctioning is in any way effective in “getting people back to work”.
It was also noted that the government claim to have introduced a National Living Wage in 2016, to increase minimum wage to over £9 per hour by 2020. This does not apply to those under 25. Rates are not set in accordance with recommendations from the Living Wage Foundation.
Further concerns raised are freezes to working-age benefits for four years from April 2017, the removal of the Child Tax Credit entitlement for third or subsequent children born after 6 April, repeal of the Child Poverty Act 2010. Although the Government will publish child poverty data, there are no longer statutory targets or a duty to report.
The report authors also acknowledged that there been an unprecedented rise in the use of food banks, and several submissions directly related this to welfare cuts and austerity measures. One million people were provided with 3 days of emergency food in 2015/16.
It was noted that the Parliamentary committee recently (2015) assessed the impact of the Equality Act 2010 on disability discrimination, concluding it was unsatisfactory. Particular issues raised in evidence submissions include: the significant and disproportionate impact of welfare cuts on disabled people, e.g. Work Capability Assessments have seen many disabled people incorrectly assessed as fit for work; concerns about the portrayal of disabled people as “benefit scroungers”, perpetuated by some sections of the media and political leaders, and new tribunal fees being a disincentive to bringing discrimination cases forward.
There was also widespread concern expressed that cuts to legal aid have impacted on the most disadvantaged groups in society, deterring potentially successful legal cases and challenges, and removing sources of advice and support. There is a disproportionate impact on women, children, BME communities, disabled people and people living in poverty.
Among the recommendations made:-
The UK government should:
- Monitor and review the impact of welfare reforms on living standards, increased poverty and food insecurity, and work to break the link between welfare support and poverty
- Pause and review its sanctioning policy, ensuring no person is pushed in to destitution
- Abolish the spare room subsidy since it causes destitution and has not served its purpose
- Reconsider changes to child poverty policy and ensure no child is living in poverty
- Create a living wage that accurately reflects the cost of living within the UK
Among other human rights failings, the report highlights the fact that race is the most commonly recorded motivation (82%) for hate crimes in England and Wales and that the Brexit vote coincided with a surge in such offences. It links reports on the government’s policy of creating a “hostile environment” for migrants with discrimination against those from minority communities. It’s true that political and media rhetoric about migration is loaded with dehumanising metaphors.
Mental health service funding cuts and government policies are having negative impacts on vulnerable people
Evidence submitted highlighted a number of serious issues, including:
- The underfunding of mental health services, resulting in just 25% of people receiving help.
- In England, funding for mental health trusts has dropped in real terms by 8.25% since 2010.
- Shortfalls in services have resulted in the police responding to people in crisis. In 2014-15, in England and Wales, the police picked up 23,128 people in mental health crisis and 4,537 were taken to a police cell because there was no other safe place available (although this is down from the previous year).
- Patients being placed in units far away from their home and support networks as a result of closing in-patient units. In 2015-16, 5,411 patients were sent ‘out of area’.
- The disparity across the UK in accessing talking therapies. In 2014-15, 33% of people in England waited longer than 28 days to start treatment following referral and 7% longer than 90 days. In Wales, data shows 57% of people waited over three months for an assessment and their first session.
- Concern that legal protections for people with mental capacity issues are not sufficient, including that the Mental Capacity Act and the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards in England and Wales are no longer fit for purpose (the Law Commission is reviewing both) and that the Adults with Incapacity Act in Scotland is not compatible with human rights standards.
Trade Unions and charities have been systematically disempowered
Serious concern was expressed that recent legislation has introduced unjustified, disproportionate and discriminatory restrictions on trade unions activities. The Trade Union Act 2016 sets statutory thresholds and substantial new legal hurdles which unions must overcome to take lawful industrial action in defence of their jobs, livelihoods, wages and working conditions.
The “Lobbying Act” has created additional layers of regulation for charities and Trade Unions, already subject to rules on political activities. The Lobbying Act’s chilling effect has been reported across jurisdictions. Research found 63% of charity respondents said the Act will make it harder to achieve their charitable objectives.
The recent Hodgson Review concluded that the Act did not strike the right balance. The UK Government has yet to respond to the report’s recommendations. CSOs are also critical of UK Government proposals to introduce an “anti-advocacy clause”, restricting organisations that receive public money from lobbying Government.
There are concerns about flawed research underpinning the proposal and its impact on civil society organisations (CSOs) being able to amplify community voices with the State. This has implications for democracy.
The Trade Union Act 2016 sets statutory thresholds and substantial new legal hurdles which unions must overcome to take lawful industrial action in defence of their jobs, livelihoods and working conditions.
There is widespread concern about the impact of the UK referendum to leave the European Union on human rights. Whilst the Human Rights Act is separate from the EU, a number of other rights-based standards emanate from the EU, including equality and employment law standards.
Stephen Bowen, the chief executive of BIHR, said: “The UK government needs to listen, not just to the United Nations but to the voices of the huge range of organisations closer to home that have shared their serious concern. They are troubled the government is taking the UK towards further isolationism and disregarding the United Nations, worsening the situation with welfare and legal aid cuts, and wanting to scrap the Human Rights Act, weakening its accountability for our rights at home as well as internationally.”
The report was launched on 22 September at Westminster, with contributions from Sir Nicolas Bratza (Chair of BIHR, and former president of the European Court of Human Rights), David Isaac CBE (Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission), the Rt Hon. Harriet Harman QC MP (Chair of the Joint Committee of Human Rights) and BIHR deputy director, Sanchita Hosali.
Harriet Harman, welcomed the report for its breadth and depth, and said she would be raising the issues explained with the Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, when she appears at the JCHR next month. Harriet spoke about how the UK level government debates on human rights were leading to a corrosion of rights domestically, and undermining the core principle of universalism.
She spoke of how the UK needs to recognise and celebrate, not disparage, international accountability, whether that be at the UN or the European Court of Human Rights. Yet the contrast between what the UK Government says domestically versus what is said at the UN can be like “hearing two different administrations.”
Director, Stephen Bowen, conveyed whole-hearted thanks to the 175+ organisations that have helped shape BIHR’s report, to root it in the very real and pressing issues many people in the UK face in ensuring their universal human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. The breadth and depth of organisations involved is a testament to how significant human rights are in the UK.
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