The right to live with dignity

by Lorna McGregor

Published: 29 Jun 2016

Some human rights are instantly familiar to people: the right to freedom of expression; the right to life; the right to a fair trial; and freedom from slavery.

However, issues such poverty, low pay and inadequate housing are very rarely viewed as human rights issues, yet that is exactly what they are.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is a UN treaty that focuses on rights that are crucial to enable people to live with dignity. It looks at working conditions, social security, adequate food, housing, health and education.

The UK government has signed up to this treaty which is binding as a matter of international law and part of the Commission’s role is to ensure that the government does all it can to make the protections in the treaty a reality for everyone.

The bad news is that there is a lot of work for the government still to do to make the protections in the treaty a reality for everyone in the UK.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights monitors how states are meeting their treaty obligations and this week it reported back to the UK government on the key areas where action was needed.

The majority of recommendations reflect the issues raised in the report that we submitted to the committee in April.

The impacts of social security reform feature heavily, especially the adverse impact of these changes on disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, including women, children, disabled people and low-income families. A connected issue was that of ensuring fairness when the government is making financial decisions.

The committee recommended that the UK government conduct a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of social security reforms introduced since 2010.

This is something that the Commission has also been recommending so that decisions are informed by an understanding and consideration of the full impact of policy and legislation on marginalized groups.

The recent referendum has shone a light on worrying community divisions and we are encouraged that the committee made a recommendation for the UK government to implement the socio-economic duty in the Equality Act.

This is an existing provision in the legislation which requires public bodies to have due regard to the impact of their decisions on different socio-economic groups. This would require public bodies to look to address inequalities and it’s something the Commission supports. 

Issues related to work were also highlighted. The committee recommended that the UK address the root causes of high rates of unemployment among young people, disabled people and some ethnic minorities.

It called on the UK to progressively reduce the level of temporary employment, precarious self-employment and zero-hour contracts, and to review the new national minimum wage to ensure that it is set at a level sufficient to provide workers and their families with an adequate standard of living.

The committee also acknowledged that ‘reforms to the legal aid system and the introduction of employment tribunal fees have restricted access to justice in areas such as employment, housing, education and social welfare benefits’.

These issues now lie with the UK and devolved governments and they must act on these recommendations. The Commission will be working with civil society organisations, Parliament and government to ensure that they remain on the radar and that action is taken.

It is important to understand that human rights, far from being an abstract concept, have a real and tangible impact on the lives of everyone. Binding treaties such as ICESCR are powerful protections for human rights.

Human rights are about living in a country where the state looks after people that are struggling, where people can enjoy fair and safe working conditions and where people have enough to eat. Living with dignity shouldn’t be too much to ask.