What is The UK Government Saying About Our Rights? A Synopsis
Helen Flynn – Head of Policy, Research and Campaigns at Just Fair.
Last month the UK Government submitted a report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in which it detailed how it believes it is protecting, respecting and fulfilling rights such as work, education and healthcare across the UK.
In this blog we explain the process this report is part of, and some of our commentary on the report.
The UK signed and ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1976. In doing so, the UK Government has agreed to be legally bound by the rights within the Covenant (check out our ‘plain English’ version of the Covenant here).
Part of being a signatory to this Covenant includes agreeing to have a group of human rights experts (called the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights or CESCR) review how the UK is doing at realising the rights in the treaty, a review which takes place every 4-5 years.
The UK was last ‘reviewed’ by this Committee in 2016. That was the ‘sixth periodic review’. The Committee’s final report for that review (including ‘Concluding Observations’) can be found here. The report Just Fair submitted to the Committee in 2016 can be found here.
To kick off the ‘seventh periodic review’ process (see our timeline here for what the process will look like), the UK Government must submit a ‘State Party Report’ (SPR) in which they explain to CESCR how rights contained within ICESCR are being realised for people in the UK. We have already written about this SPR being late and why this matters, in May 2022 the SPR was finally submitted. You can read it in full here.
We believe, the UK SPR raises a number of areas of concern that are worth highlighting.
- The overhaul of the Human Rights Act: paragraphs 4-6
There are some claims made in the SPR that are worth interrogating – including that the UK Government seeks to fulfil the Conservative’s 2019 manifesto commitment, when it clearly goes well beyond the commitment to “update the Human Rights Act” contained in the manifesto. Additionally, the proposals are presented as building upon the work of the Independent Review of the Human Rights Act, when as noted by Just Fair and others the UK Government ignored the findings and recommendations of this review in their own consultation document on the Human Rights Act.
- The right to food: paragraphs 106 and 128-139
This section is striking for the lack of detail in relation to issues such as food aid and food insecurity, which are given the same number of paragraphs combined as ‘junk’ food as a single topic. This is particularly remarkable given the UK Government is rolling back its own obesity strategy, food bank use has increased markedly since the last review in 2016, and it took a footballer to shame them into providing free school meals to children during the pandemic. In addition, their ‘food strategy’ released earlier this week received marked criticism.
- Race and socio-economic status in educational outcomes: paragraph 163
Data is not neutral. Even so, the UK Government’s handling of data in relation to this issue is concerning and worth highlighting. They note that GCSE attainment is closely related to socio-economic status but then write, “once this is controlled for, all major ethnic groups perform better than white British pupils on average except for pupils from the black Caribbean/Mixed white and black African ethnicity groups.” While it is hugely important to understand the interplay between the multiple characteristics people hold when we examine how rights are being realised, one cannot decide to simply remove a major factor, in this case socio-economic status, and then present the remaining information as an accurate picture. For more on this issue, check out the work of the Runnymede Trust.
- There is a lack of detail across the report. This includes a lack of properly disaggregated data, and failure to properly reference the sources of information that are presented. This makes it difficult for the reader to gauge to what extent rights are being realised and what impact policies, including financial policies, are having.
- The evidence presented is frequently not framed in terms of human rights. For example, in discussing older people, dignity and respect are described as something older people ‘deserve’, rather than a right that they have which the UK Government has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil. In addition, in discussing violence against women there is no attempt to examine the causes of violence, and no mention of the effect of violence on victims/survivors and the myriad of rights violence impacts. This framing results in a shallow overview which we believe is limited in terms of the vision it seeks to achieve and the ways it plans to go about achieving that vision.
What happens next?
In spring 2023 the UN CESCR will meet in Geneva to examine the UK Government’s report and ask them a series of questions about areas where they would like clarification or further information (see step 3 in the timetable below). This session is called the ‘pre-sessional working group’ (PSWG). Civil society organisations are also invited to submit reports to the CESCR at this stage, so over the next months Just Fair and other groups across the UK will be busy gathering evidence and drafting our own submissions.