Today the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty arrives in the UK for a twelve-day visit. This is an interesting time to arrive in the UK to investigate human rights for those living in extreme poverty.
If the government is to be believed, things are looking rosy. At the Conservative Party conference back in September Theresa May announced the end of austerity. Last week Phillip Hammond signed off on a Budget that provided some much-needed funding for some areas of the public sector, announcing that the “era of austerity is finally coming to an end.”
These are welcome steps. CPAG is heartened that the government finally appears to be recognising some of the glaring errors in universal credit – errors that have caused hardship for so many low-income families - and has committed some money to help alleviate some of the worst impacts.
However, while the Prime Minister and the Chancellor would like us to believe in a brighter future, it is not so easy to erase the past. The impact of nearly a decade of austerity has been devastating for children’s rights, and we have detailed some of the worst aspects in our submission to the UN Special Rapporteur.
In particular, changes to the social security system have left huge holes in family budgets, and when families have no money, it is very difficult for children in these families to access and enjoy their human rights.
The introduction of the benefit cap, which limits benefit payments for working-age households, disproportionately affects lone parent families who are already at higher risk of poverty. The two-child limit, which restricts eligibility for payments in child tax credit, housing benefit and universal credit to two children per family, is likely to affect around 870,000 families, with at least 2.9 million children when fully rolled out.
Universal credit, the Government’s flagship welfare reform that was designed to simplify the benefit system and make it easier for people to transition into work, has now been cut so heavily it will no longer reduce child poverty as originally promised. There are also a number of problems and errors in the design of universal credit, including long waiting times for initial payments, inflexible assessment cycles, high levels of deductions for debt repayments, and a requirement that claims be managed entirely online. In addition, high levels of administrative errors are causing further problems, including mishandling or loss of evidence by the DWP, failure to include disability elements in awards, incorrect calculations of housing costs, applying the law incorrectly and giving misleading information to claimants.
Under human rights law, children have rights. These rights are internationally agreed standards, shared by nations, and outline the basic things we all need as human beings. Rights include the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to food, and the right to an education. Together, they create a safety net which no child should fall through.
Almost a decade of austerity has placed children’s rights at risk. Trying to ensure children do not fall below this safety net is increasingly challenging, both for parents in families where incomes have been squeezed, and for public services trying to support these families where budgets have been slashed.
CPAG has used human rights law to challenge some of these changes to social security. For example, in July CPAG had a case heard in the Supreme Court, in which we argued that the benefit cap discriminates against lone parents and their children. We are also pursuing a challenge to the two-child policy, on the basis that it breaches children’s and families’ rights as protected by the Human Rights Act. These challenges have the potential to affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty. But taking legal action against the government is a last resort. CPAG, alongside others, would prefer to work with the government to make sure social security policy is compliant with human rights law at its inception.
In the coming days CPAG will be supporting the UN Special Rapporteur to gain an accurate and informed picture of extreme poverty in the UK that includes a thorough assessment and understanding of what the last ten years have been like for children and families living in poverty in the UK. Government ministers may tell us that austerity is ending, but research tells us that child poverty is rising. Until the government commits to policy decisions that can reverse this trend, CPAG and others will continue to hold the government to account on its commitments to respect, protect, and fulfil children’s human rights until they are fully realised for every child in the UK.