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What impact does poverty have on human rights? We're about to find out

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Published date
10 Oct 2018
Austerity and Universal Credit have weakened rights and pushed many low-paid workers into poverty - and Brexit could make things even worse

We already know that austerity has pushed millions into poverty over the last eight years and permanently damaged the UK economy.

This November, the UN’s top independent expert on poverty and human rights will visit the UK to investigate just how some of this government’s policies have affected the poorest in society.

Special Rapporteur Professor Philip Alston has already started collecting evidence ahead of his visit.

In our submission we argue that austerity and the introduction of Universal Credit (UC) have already weakened rights for low-paid workers and pushed many into poverty.

And we warn that Brexit could make things even worse.

Austerity

We’ve pointed out time and time again that government cuts have not just deprived people of vital services, but also made the country poorer.

Thanks to austerity, the economy is growing more slowly, workers are enduring the worst wage slump for two centuries, and a million more children in working households are growing up in poverty.

This disastrous policy has been accompanied by a concerted attack on workers’ rights.

Between 2010 and 2015, the coalition government abolished the Agricultural Wages Board, halved the consultation period for mass redundancies, imposed fees for employment tribunals (since struck down by the Supreme Court), and cut compensation for unfair dismissal.

In 2016, the Conservative government then introduced the Trade Union Act, which restricts:

  • Unions' rights to freedom of association, including the right to strike
  • The ability of public sector unions to organise and represent public sector workers
  • Unions’ ability to organise campaigns on public policy issues

This all matters.

The IMF now recognises that labour market deregulations mean workers get a smaller share of the wealth they create. Weakening trade unions has the same effect, while research also shows that wage inequality is lower where unions are stronger.

Undermining protections for workers and making it harder for them to organise through trade unions will only make the lowest paid worse off.

Brexit

There’s every reason to fear that Brexit could be used to launch another round of deregulation.

EU law currently provides a range of employment rights, including protections for pregnant women and new mothers, the right to equal pay for work of equal value, and protection from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, age, religion and belief.

All that could be at risk as the government continues to rule out providing legal guarantees and ministers and former ministers agitate for ‘red tape’ to be slashed.

And just last month, it emerged that international trade secretary Liam Fox has joined forces with the same right-wing thinktanks behind the Trump agenda to cook up a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal that would carve up our NHS, tear down hard-won workers’ rights, and rip up the UK’s high food safety standards.

Universal Credit

It’s easy to see why Professor Alston is particularly interested in the impact of UC.

The tales of suffering in areas where the new benefit system has been rolled out are heart breaking.

And the rollcall of organisations calling for its implementation to be stopped continues to grow. This includes the Archbishop of Canterbury, who used his speech to our annual Congress to call for the rollout to be suspended until ministers find a way to end the “immense suffering” it was causing.

The flaws are well known: excessive delays for new claimants, a complex system, sanctions for workers on short hours, and cuts that will leave most claimants poorer.

There are also serious question marks over whether the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has the resources to implement such a massive change.

The impact on areas where UC has been introduced are also clear. All the evidence shows that in these places, more people are turning to foodbanks, falling into arrears with their rent, and getting into debt.

That’s why it’s so worrying that the DWP wants to start moving 3 million people onto UC in January 2019.

Time to get serious

Whatever conclusions Professor Alston comes to, we want ministers to take his work seriously.

Because the last time a UN Special Rapporteur looked into this government’s record, her report on housing was dismissed as “utterly ridiculous” by ministers.

The spiralling levels of poverty in this country will make the next one harder to brush off.