In a recent report, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights lamented the impact of the British Government’s “harsh and uncaring” austerity agenda, which has forced families to choose between eating or heating their homes. UN expert Professor Alston argues that it is “ideological” policy choices created a “social calamity and an economic disaster rolled into one”.
The Labour party is committed to rolling back austerity, a brutal political choice that has shamefully punished society’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups since 2010. But we need to do more.
The Labour Campaign for Human Rights’ latest campaign, Campaign for Social Rights, addresses the human rights abuses taking place on a daily basis, here in the UK. It urges the party deepen its commitment to social justice by enshrining in law a Social Rights Bill, ensuring new protections for our most basic – and most neglected – of human rights.
What are Social and Economic Rights?
These are human rights which the UK has recognised when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights – a legally binding human rights treaty. They include:
- The Right to Food
- The Right to Housing
- The Right to Health
- The Right to Work
If a legal right to food existed before 2010, it could have forced changes to the brutal social security policies that have led to an explosion of food banks. A legal right to health could require governments to adequately fund the NHS, while a legal right to work could help bring UK employment law into line global standards on pay, conditions and the right to organise.
Such rights have long been recognised by the UK through binding international treaties, but never translated into UK law. This has left communities defenceless against benefit cuts and the underfunding of public services. For example, when two women brought a legal challenge to the government’s imposition of a cap on benefits, the Supreme Court agreed this policy contravened the UK’s international obligations on child welfare. But the court said it was powerless to overturn the policy because the relevant treaty had never been incorporated into domestic law.
The impact of Labour giving legal protections to these rights through a Social Rights Bill could be profound.
How can it be done?
The UK would not be alone such rights into domestic law. Indeed, over 90% of the world’s constitutions from Finland to South Africa recognise at least one economic or social right, and around 25% recognise ten or more such rights as judicially enforceable. A group of human rights practitioners and academics have produced a draft bill based on the experience of the UK’s Human Rights Act that could provide a model adapted to our own context.
The UN’s expert shone a powerful spotlight on poverty in modern Britain, which is not just an insult to social justice but also a violation of human rights on a massive scale. Millions of people have suffered from austerity and Britain’s legal and political systems have failed to protect rights that are core to the dignity and wellbeing of us all.
Labour has a proud history of promoting human rights law, but while those rights that define our well-being and dignity remain unprotected, we are falling short.
Over the coming months, we will be highlighting the core pillars of our campaign, beginning with The Right to Food. At Labour Party Conference this month, we were proud to collaborate with Human Rights Watch, End Hunger UK, Just Fair, Sustain and the Independent Food Aid Network in hosting a panel discussion to highlight the scandal and extent of food poverty in the UK. We were delighted to see the Labour Party announce its commitment a Fair Food Act, following the event. This is an important step in the right direction and we will continue to campaign to ensure that all social rights are protected by law under the next Labour Government.
By promising in its coming manifesto to put the right to food and housing on a par with the right to free speech and a fair trial, Labour can truly promote human rights for the many, not just the few.
To read more about the campaign and what you can do to help, click here
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