In February last year, I wrote an article about Conservative attitudes towards poverty that entail a victim-blame narrative. It was written at a time that the government were developing “better measures of child poverty” to provide a “more accurate reflection of the reality of child poverty.”
According to the Tory-led Coalition, poverty isn’t caused through a lack of income. Iain Duncan Smith is responsible for this outrageous nugget of calculated, preemptive denial. Because the government knew in advance what the consequences of the austerity cuts would be: a massive increase in inequality and poverty. I concluded that the austerity cuts contravened the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
And they do.
As Chancellor George Osborne, prepares to release his mid-term (Autumn) budget statement, the government’s Children’s Commissioner for England has published a report criticising the Coalition’s austerity policies, which have reduced the incomes of the poorest families by up to 10 percent since 2010.
The Children’s Commissioner said that the increasing inequality which has resulted from the cuts, and in particular, the welfare reforms, means that Britain is now in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects children from the adverse effects of government economic measures.
Austerity cuts are disproportionately targeted at the poorest. It’s particularly shameful that absolute poverty has returned to Britain since 2010, given that we are the 5th wealthiest nation in the world. That indicates clearly just how much inequality has increased.
Government spending decisions made in 2010 have a disproportionate impact particularly on disabled children and their families.
Another report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission indicates some very worrying trends regarding decreasing living standards, increasing employment insecurity and low pay, and the return of significant, rising levels of absolute child poverty not seen in the UK since the advent of the welfare state. Until now. (See here for the findings from the State of the Nation report.)
Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner, said: “Nobody is saying that there isn’t a deficit to close. Our issue is that at the moment, it is the poorest in society who have least to fall back on that are paying the greatest price for trying to close that deficit. It is patently unfair. It is patently against the rights of the child.”
Dr Atkinson says that this means the UK has broken the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which each country is obliged to protect children from the detrimental consequences of economic policies. The Commissioner condemned the government for placing undue financial pressures on poorer parents, despite being one of the most developed countries in the world.
“The basic fact is that there are families living in the fifth-biggest economy in the Western world who are making choices about whether they can afford to heat their house or feed their children,” she said.
“We need as a nation to decide whether we are in the business of making the poorest pay the highest penalty when there is a gap between what the country has in its coffers and what its expenses are.”
The Commissioner’s report found that the government cuts have led to the UK infringing upon Articles 3, 6, 18, 23, 24, 26, 27 and 31 of the Convention. These Articles guarantee children the right to life, development, health, social security and leisure.
Researchers collected data on the experiences of people in three categories: children and young people under 16 years old, young people aged 16 to 20, and parents.
There is “an urgent need to reconsider some of the budgetary proposals which leave families struggling to be able to afford to buy essential items”, the report concludes.
The United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child will examine the report in 2016 as part of an evaluation of the UK’s performance on children’s rights issues. Dr Atkinson said the UK would face “very, very damning” criticism from the UN if the government does not make changes.
The Labour government had introduced a legal safeguarding framework that included all areas of children and young people’s well-being, under their flagship Every Child Matters policy. The policy was quietly repealed the day after the Coalition took Office. Enshrined at the heart of Every Child Matters is the Paramountcy Principle: this states that the welfare of children is at all times paramount and overrides all other considerations. This reflects a “whole child” approach to welfare and child protection, as well as a holistic inter-agency approach to achieving that. The emphasis was on prevention, rather than the current “crisis management” approach. And it’s very evident that crises are not being managed at all.
68 per cent of our front line children’s services have had cuts to their budgets in 2011 alone. Bearing in mind these are also providing statutory services and also considering that many local authorities are pessimistic about the future of these services, and with most charities previously funded to undertake ECM outcome based work – work with families in which children are struggling at school because of problems at home including poverty, adult mental health problems, domestic violence, substance abuse truancy and poor housing – being also fearful for the future of the most vulnerable members of society. In some areas, support for vulnerable children of school age has just been cut from the budget completely. And as we know, the worst of the cuts is yet to come.
The government has rejected the findings of what they deem the “partial, selective and misleading” Children’s Commissioner report.
But denial and derision is the standard Conservative response to professional, authoritative reports that use thoroughly researched evidence to highlight and criticise the government’s prejudiced, discriminatory and punitive policies. Denial is a standard response by those who wish to abdicate responsibility for the problems that they have created. When a so-called democratic government adopts and standardises this strategy, it is surely time to be very worried.
For example, when presented by the UN housing envoy Raquel Rolnik with the harsh facts and excruciatingly dismal human consequences of Britain’s housing crisis and the discriminatory nature of the bedroom tax, Tory ministers opted to leap unhesitatingly for the rhetorical low ground, with housing minister Kris Hopkins dismissing Rolnik’s report as a “Marxist diatribe.”
Then there was the Department for Work and Pensions response, rubbishing the robust, well-researched, professional report on the grounds that the evidence is based on “anecdotal evidence”. Yes, that’s the department run by Iain Duncan Smith, who, when asked to provide robust evidence for the claimed success of the benefit cap replied: “I believe I am right.”
The UN ruled that the highly discriminatory bedroom tax breaches human rights.
The United Nations have also found that the government is in breach of its obligations to uphold the human rights convention on gender discrimination.
In 2010 the Equality and Human Rights Commission warned the government about its potential failure to meet its legal duties. This followed concerns raised by the Fawcett Society and others, regarding the estimated grossly disproportionate impact of the austerity cuts on women. The Commission recognised the serious concerns about the impact of the deficit reduction measures on vulnerable groups and, in particular, following the House of Commons library report, the impact of the budget on women. The Commission report stated:
“We have written to the Treasury to ask for reassurance that they will comply with their equality duties when making decisions about the overall deficit reduction, and in particular in relation to any changes to tax and benefits for which they are directly responsible.”
In August last year, concerns raised by the Committee include protection from discrimination under the Public Sector Equality Duty, the impact of austerity measures on women and women’s services, and restrictions on women’s access to legal aid. The report highlights the key areas where women’s rights in the UK have come to a standstill and in fact some are being reversed.
It’s emerged more recently that the UK has become the first developed country to face a UN inquiry into disability rights violations. The UN Committee has the power to launch an inquiry if it receives “reliable information” that violations have been committed, and as the Labour Government signed up to the protocol in 2009 – the UNCRPD and the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights – it is legally binding.
Austerity measures and welfare “reforms” such as the bedroom tax (which is in itself established by the UN as being a contravention of human rights law) mean the rights of disabled people to independent living, work, and adequate social security have been seriously undermined, causing significant hardship. Last year, Amnesty International also condemned the erosion of human rights of disabled people in UK.
Earlier this year, the level of UK benefits paid in pensions, jobseeker’s allowance and incapacity benefits was deemed “manifestly inadequate” because it falls below 40% of the median income of European states, by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
The finding in an annual review of the UK’s adherence to the council’s European social charter is likely to provoke a fresh dispute between the government and European legal structures. Of course Iain Duncan Smith dismissed the finding as “lunacy.”
The Council of Europe, which has 47 member states, said the conclusions were legally binding in the same way that judgements relating to the European Convention on Human Rights had to be applied by member states.
We ought to be very concerned about the government’s declaration that they intend to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, (ECHR) and to repeal our own Human Rights Act, (HRA). One has to wonder what Cameron’s discomfort with the HRA is. The Act, after all, was formulated by the Labour Party to protect the vulnerable from neglect of duty and abuse of government power.
The rights protected by the HRA are drawn from the 1950 European convention on human rights, which was a way of ensuring that we never again witness the full horrors of the second world war, and overwhelmingly, one of the greatest stains on the conscience of humanity – the Holocaust.
Human Rights establish a simple set of minimum standards of decency for humankind to hold onto for the future. The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms was drafted as a lasting legacy of the struggle against fascism and totalitarianism.
We need consider, as a matter of utmost urgency, what kind of government would blatantly disregard international law; would want to avoid international scrutiny; would not welcome any concerns for the well-being of UK citizens, and would want to see those basic protections for citizens overturned.
Certainly not one that values or plans to uphold the universal protection of its citizens.
Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for the memes