Campaigners have written to MPs warning that a proposeed cut to Universal Credit, due to enforced from the 6th October, would be in breach of the United Kingdom’s human rights obligation.
Charities, organisations and MPs from across the political spectrum fear that the £20 a week cut, or £1040 a year, will plunge millions of people into poverty and hardship.
However, despite growing pressures the UK government remains committed to ending the uplift, arguing that it was only ever meant to be a “temporary” measure to support families through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now, Human Rights Watch is warning that if the UK government proceeds with its plan “it would be in violation of its international human rights obligations, in particular the binding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, signed by the UK in 1968 and ratified in 1976, which sets out the rights to an adequate standard of living and to social security.”
The letter continues: “Cutting the basic rate of support to people living on low incomes, many of whom are already in work, by more than £1000 per year would leave many in a position where the government’s social security system cannot guarantee their human right to an adequate standard of living.
“In July, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation assessed this to be the UK’s “biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since World War II.” Analysis the same month by the Institute for Fiscal Studies of recent government data has shown that for the average recipient of social security, this amount would represent 12 per cent of what they are paid as “entitlements,” and for about a quarter of all social security support claimants, it would be more than 20 per cent cut to entitlements.
“According to the latest official data, the number of people receiving Universal Credit doubled from 3 million in March 2020 to 6 million in March 2021, as the Covid-19 pandemic’s economic impact made itself felt. As of 8 July 2021 there were 5.9 million people (or 5 million households) receiving Universal Credit; almost half (44 per cent) are households with children. These data do not include Northern Ireland.
“The Trussell Trust and Independent Food Aid Network have both warned of growing demand for food aid during the pandemic and set out concerns about the effect of the impending cut on demand for their services. Citizens Advice estimates that 75 per cent of people receiving an uplift would not have enough money to cover daily costs if the cut were to proceed, and projects an increase in the number of people on low incomes in debt.
“The announcement of a £20 per week increase (to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit) as a Covid-19 pandemic related “uplift” in April 2020 was a welcome relief for those surviving on inadequate levels of social security support, which had diminished in value for a decade. Human Rights Watch research published in May 2019, alongside the work of many others, has documented how the inadequacy of social security support, scaled back since 2009, had left increasing numbers of people in need of food banks.
“For the approximately 3 million people already receiving Universal Credit prior to March 2020, the removal of the first increase in benefit levels in real terms in a decade would represent a cut to their social security support. For the approximately 3 million people receiving Universal Credit for the first time since the pandemic started, the current social security support level has been the status quo since their entry to the benefits system, and a removal of £1040 per year is a clear cut.
“Recent constituency level analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation projects that, in 413 parliamentary constituencies, at least one in three working-age families will be affected directly by the cut.
“Cutting up to £1040 per year from social security support would be retrogressive. A policy debate centred on rights, fairness, and justice – whether that is about “levelling up” or “building back better” – should focus on the necessary steps to ensure a well-functioning and adequate social security support system that provides beneficiaries a level of resilience that permits them to withstand day-to-day economic pressures, as well as systemic shocks like the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The proposed cut in October 2021 would do precisely the opposite.
“In fact, rather than cutting this support, greater priority should be given to ensuring the up to 2 million people yet to enter the Universal Credit system and still receiving “legacy” benefits, including people with disabilities and long-term health conditions, are guaranteed a commensurate increase to their level of social security support.
“International human rights law makes clear that cuts, even where a government argues that they are unavoidable, should not proceed where they would cause violations of people’s human rights—including the rights to an adequate standard of living and social security. Any cuts must also satisfy a stringent six-part test set out by the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In any event a government deliberately choosing to significantly retrogress its protection of basic rights including the rights to an adequate standard of living and to social security will be violating those rights.
“Evidence of the harm that will be done is copious, including in research produced by Child Poverty Action Group, Citizens Advice, Feeding Britain, Independent Food Aid Network, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Policy in Practice, Save the Children UK, Trussell Trust, Turn2Us, and Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, among others (see appendix). Many, if not most, of these documents have been communicated directly either to the relevant government departments at the time of their publication, or are submissions to or reports produced by parliamentary inquiries.
“Ignoring all this evidence and proceeding with the cut, with the justification that it is too “difficult to isolate the specific impact of one policy” on poverty is unacceptable. Reports that the government is not disclosing its internal impact assessment of the cut, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, are equally worrying.
“The six-part test requires that, when proceeding with cuts, a state: show a compelling state interest; demonstrate that it has exhausted all alternatives; ensure that the cuts are non-discriminatory; ensure the decision is temporary, necessary, reasonable and proportionate; give opportunity to those most likely to be affected by the policy to participate genuinely in the decision-making process; and ensure a minimum social protection floor.
“The decision by the government to proceed with the planned cut will cause deep harm and does not satisfy all these criteria.
“We urge you to use the period immediately following the resumption of Parliament to make the government think again. There is still time to act now to prevent the increase in poverty and queues for aid at food banks that will result from this retrogressive move.”
The letter is signed by Yasmine Ahmed, UK Director at Human Rights Watch.