University of the West of England research student Coralie Neave-Coleshaw reviews the recent UN report revealing concerns about the UK welfare system, and shows how disabled people are affected by supply-side employment policies
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has recently released its concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of the United Kingdom. Its conclusions in respect of social security provisions are bleak; it is ‘deeply concerned about the various changes in the entitlements to, and cuts in, social benefits’ since 2012, and makes several recommendations. These include: reviewing entitlement to social security; reversing cuts; restoring links between benefit levels and the cost of living; and reviewing the use of sanctions.
In a separate section, the CESCR also raises concerns about working conditions, including ‘the high incidence of part-time work, precarious self-employment, temporary employment and the use of zero hour contracts in the state party, particularly affecting women’. The CESCR does not draw links between attacks on social security and the growing insecurity in low-paid employment, though it effectively notes the problems of both within the UK. But there have long been suggestions that the two are linked; for example, before becoming Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP said that conditionality and sanctions were ‘about the preservation of a large pool of unpaid labour for large-scale corporations to exploit’.
The apparent intent to remove the welfare safety net in order to benefit profitmaking companies can be particularly seen in the evolution of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). ESA was infamously introduced to remove a million people from the Incapacity Benefit rolls by increasing back-to-work support and simultaneously increasing the expectation on people to accept this support (more details here). Before the 2010 election, the Labour government guided the development of ESA. Successive DWP papers during this time spoke not just of increasing expectations of benefit claimants with the arrival of ESA, but also recognised that ‘no strategy for moving people from welfare to work is going to be effective unless employers choose to take people on’. Policy was aimed both at supply side – increasing conditionality on claimants to undertake skills training, work experience or other steps to increase their employability – and also demand side. In 2008 it was confirmed that the Access to Work budget would be doubled, and a commitment was given to build an employer-led campaign aimed at ending disability discrimination in hiring, in tandem with the introduction of ESA. The clear intent when ESA was introduced was to tackle barriers to employment with both claimants and employers.
Since 2010, emphasis has shifted almost entirely to the supply side of tackling unemployment. Conditionality has become stricter and sanctions more stringent. People claiming ESA in the Work Related Activity Group – who are unfit for work – can nevertheless be asked to undertake, among other activities, mandatory work placements, under threat of sanction. And although the Coalition government launched the Disability Confident campaign to encourage employers to hire disabled people, this will mean little if the work is low paid and insecure. There are even stories of ESA claimants undertaking permitted work – paid work of less than 16 hours a week – having their benefits withdrawn completely due to administrative errors. All of this is likely to discourage and in some cases actively harm a person’s chances of returning to work.
Throughout the course of the Reilly v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions case, no court was prepared to recognise the human rights implications of benefit conditionality. It is debatable whether asking those found unfit for work under the state’s own rigorous health assessment to undertake the kind of conditionality seen in Reilly would rise to a breach of Article 4. But the CESCR’s concluding observations show very clearly that some of the most vulnerable in society are having their economic and social rights breached by the recent welfare reforms. At the very start of its observations the CESCR calls for the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural rights to be incorporated into UK law to ‘ensure that victims of violations of economic, social and cultural rights have full access to effective legal remedies’.
The CESCR’s observations do not directly draw a link between social security reforms and problematic working conditions. But it is clear that many of the poorest and most vulnerable are trapped between low-paid, insecure work and the rigours of the current conditionality system with its threat of absolute destitution. If the economic rights of millions of benefit claimants and precariously-employed workers are to be respected and fulfilled, social security must be reformed, and the human rights breaches from recent welfare reform must be recognised and amended. Part of this must be a sustained effort by government to tackle demand side barriers, alongside a benefits system that is effective at supporting people into work where appropriate and does not actively harm claimants’ chances of returning to work.