Welfare reform, human rights, and a human catastrophe

By Bernadette Meaden
June 20, 2018

Today, three events in Westminster have demonstrated the way in which politicians pursuing welfare ‘reform’ and austerity have ridden roughshod over the human rights of some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the UK. Inevitably these three events will be overshadowed by others, but their significance should not be overlooked.

First, there was an evidence session of the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into benefit sanctions. You can watch that session here .  Ekklesia believes that benefit sanctions are a human rights issue, which is why we submitted written evidence to the inquiry, challenging sanctions on both moral and human rights grounds. We believe that benefit sanctions undermine the fundamental purpose of a social security system, which is to ensure that nobody goes without the essentials of life.

DWP guidance for Decision Makers says that a sanction would be expected to cause a deterioration in the health of a claimant. As the Joint Public Issues Team said in their report Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions, “It is precisely because of the damage caused by poverty on human well-being that the welfare state exists. We would argue that any human society should be disturbed by a statutory system that deliberately causes harm to another human being. At the heart of our Christian understanding of social justice is that human society should make provision for the weakest and most vulnerable. It is alarming to discover a welfare system that deliberately sets out to exploit a person’s vulnerability in order to achieve control and compliance.”

We also maintain that benefit sanctions contravene Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states;

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

And yet sanctions deliberately deny those rights in an arbitrary manner, often on the most trivial of pretexts, imposing destitution, hunger, and a risk of homelessness.

The Work and Pensions Committee acknowledges that the government "has never formally measured whether the current system of benefit sanctions gets people off benefits, and/or into work, nor what the impact of sanctions is on individuals." This is a terrible indictment of the government, displaying a reckless disregard for people's welfare. But other organisations with a more responsible attitude have produced plenty of evidence that benefit sanctions cause and exacerbate multiple problems, from homelessness to mental illness. Indeed, almost anyone who has seriously studied the current sanctions regime concludes that it does more harm than good. Kirsty McHugh, chief executive of the Employment Related Services Association, said, “for the vast majority of jobseekers, sanctions are more likely to hinder their journey into employment.”

Many politicians across the political spectrum cling to the idea that conditionality must be a part of the benefits system, and that conditionality must mean sanctions. But the current harsh sanctions regime was only introduced by Iain Duncan Smith in 2012, and there has always been conditionality within the social security system.

The first level of conditionality is that those who are able, whilst they are able, will contribute through tax and National Insurance, and when they are in need, they will receive support. Dare we say: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs".

The second level of conditionality was that a claimant must be eligible for the appropriate benefit. There are conditions people must meet to be eligible, and people in receipt of benefits who are not eligible may stand accused of benefit fraud. Yet we are now in the position where a person who is eligible and entitled to receive a benefit may be rendered destitute because they missed the bus. That is the extreme to which conditionality has been taken. 

The current sanctions regime seems inspired not by fairness, as its supporters claim, but by a a zealous desire to sorting the deserving from the undeserving poor. No matter that homelessness, destitution, mental illness and all manner of social ills may be the result, as long as that zealous and mean-spirited desire is satisfied.  

Also today, there was a short Westminster Hall debate on the government’s response to the United Nations report on how the UK complies (or fails to comply) with the UN Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities (CRPD). The debate is available to watch here  As the Chair of the Committee on the CRPD said last year, “social cut policies has led to human catastrophe in your country, totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in”. This appears to have left the government unmoved, and unmotivated to change its approach in any way. They have not seen fit to change, for instance, the fact that, by design, Universal Credit halves the support for a disabled child

Meanwhile, assessments for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) continue to strip people of vital support. And this is not merely because the assessments are often farcical. It is because that was the intention of the government when PIP was introduced. The Treasury said, “the central assumption for this policy is that it will result in a 20 per cent reduction in caseload and expenditure once fully rolled out.” So before a single disabled person was assessed, the Treasury was literally banking on one in five people losing their support. How then can assessments be fair, and how can they respect the human rights of disabled people? 

And, as if just to underline the complete disregard for vulnerable people’s welfare which has characterised welfare reform and austerity, today Westminster also saw the launch of a report from the Women’s Budget Group, which says Universal Credit "risks increasing women's vulnerability to financial abuse". The government was told about this several years ago, but refused to change the design of Universal Credit.

Shamefully, in the UK we have now reached a point where the more vulnerable or disadvantaged a person is, the less likely they are to have their rights respected or their welfare considered. 


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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