Benefit cuts ‘violate international rights’

Cuts to social security benefits introduced by the coalition government since 2010 amount to a breach of the UK's obligations under international agreements on human rights, according to an article by two legal experts and campaigners.

Key points

  • The UK ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976. It is thereby legally bound to guarantee the right to social security for everyone, without discrimination. In particular, indirectly discriminatory measures – which might appear neutral at face value, but which have a discriminatory impact on the exercise of Covenant rights – are prohibited under Article 2(2).
  • The coalition's cuts have in fact been distributed in an indirectly discriminatory manner – because they have had a disproportionate impact on the rights of 'at risk' groups, particularly women and disabled people. This places the UK in breach of the Covenant.
  • Women are particularly vulnerable to cuts and changes to social security. Women are already at greater risk of poverty than men, and as a result are more reliant on social security. Cuts in childcare tax credits, child benefit and maternity/pregnancy grants are especially problematic, as well as the discriminatory effects of the new universal credit, housing benefit changes and the household benefits cap.
  • Cuts and changes to social security are also indirectly discriminatory in relation to disabled people. 85 per cent of local councils now restrict care to people with 'substantial' and 'critical' needs, and increasing numbers of disabled people are left without care as a result. Overall, people claiming disability benefits will be £9 billion worse off over the period from 2010 to the end of the current Parliament in 2015.
  • Guidance states that infringements of the Covenant may be allowed if the measures in question are both 'necessary' and 'proportionate'. The coalition has sought to defend its austerity policies on the grounds of economic necessity. But it could have reduced the budget deficit by other means, without limiting the right to social security in a discriminatory way. It therefore failed to use all resources at its disposal to secure the right to social security, free from discrimination, as a matter of priority – contrary to Articles 2(2) and 9 of the Covenant.

Source: Jonathan Butterworth and Jamie Burton, 'Equality, human rights and the public service spending cuts: do UK welfare cuts violate the equal right to social security?', Equal Rights Review, Volume 11
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Publication date: 
Sep 30 2013