The Labour Party is being urged to enshrine the rights to housing, education, food and work in law, among other protections, if elected to government.
With the prospect of a general election looming, members are calling on the party to adopt into its manifesto a pledge to enshrine the UK’s existing international economic, social and cultural rights commitments into domestic law.
It recommends the party set up a wide-ranging commission, made up of various shadow cabinet teams and external experts, to decide on how best to do this.
Writing for LabourList, Lord Frank Judd, a Labour peer, and Matthew Turner from the Labour Campaign for Human Rights (LCHR) said: “Had a legal right to food existed before 2010, it could have forced changes to the brutal social security policies that have led to an explosion of food banks.
“Looking forward, a legal right to health could require governments to adequately fund the NHS, while a legal right to work could help bring UK employment law into line global standards on pay, conditions and the right to organise.”
The LCHR is holding an event at the party’s conference in Brighton on Sunday (29 September), with a specific focus on adopting a right to food to “address the skyrocketing rise in reliance on food aid in recent years”.
What Are ‘Economic, Social And Cultural Rights’?
A couple and their two children leave the food bank in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, after collecting a three day emergency supply of food, April 2019. They told Human Rights Watch the benefit cap left them unable to pay rent and afford food. Image credit: Kartik Raj/Human Rights Watch
Human rights are commonly divided into two categories – “civil and political rights”, and “economic, social and cultural rights”.
Civil and political rights protect individuals’ freedom from interference by the state, and ensure that everyone can take part in civil society. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right not to be tortured.
Economic, social, and cultural rights protect the basic necessities for life – including the rights to food and water, to have a roof over your head, and to receive adequate healthcare.
These rights are set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which was signed by the UK in 1976 among a number of other treatises.
Are Economic, Social, And Cultural Rights Protected In The UK?
Image Credit: Flickr.
The rights set out in the ICESCR cannot currently be enforced in UK courts, because the covenant has not been incorporated into UK law.
Nor is the UK obliged to respond to any complaints that are made to the Geneva-based committee responsible for enforcing the ICESCR, because it has not signed the “optional protocol”.
This is similarly the case for the European Social Charter, which the UK has ratified – except for an additional protocol providing a system for collective complaints.
However, a number of rights included in the ICESCR have “at least partial effect” in the UK through various pieces of legislation, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
This includes the Employment Rights Act 1996, which governs good working conditions and is legally enforceable, as well as other laws relating to healthcare and education access.
The Equality Act 2010 also contains a section requiring public authorities to carry out their functions in a way “designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socioeconomic disadvantage”.
But this clause, known as the socio-economic duty, is not currently binding on public authorities as no government has yet brought it into effect.
What Could A Social Rights Bill Look Like?
Koldo Casla and Peter Roderick from Newcastle University’s Institute of Health & Society are drafting what is thought to be the UK’s first ever Social and Economic Rights Bill. (Credit: Jack Satchell)
The LCHR has highlighted that one option the Labour Party could take is to introduce a Social Rights Bill, which would work in a similar way to the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998.
The HRA enables British citizens to go to their local courts to enforce the civil and political rights set out in the European Convention of Human Rights. Before it was introduced, they had to journey the human rights court in Strasbourg instead.
- Require all public bodies to respect, protect and fulfil all economic, social and cultural rights consistent with the UK’s international obligations and treaties;
- Require the government to report on what they are doing to realise economic, social, and cultural rights during each parliamentary session;
- Ensure pre-legislative scrutiny and impact assessments of proposed legislation and policies, including of how available resources are being used to progressively realise the rights in question, and how any potentially negative impacts are prevented or mitigated;
- Provide judicial mechanisms for individuals or organisations to challenge and seek remedy for laws, policies, or practices that violate their rights.
The LCHR said that such a bill “need not – and must not – mean handing over political decisions to the courts”.
It would instead “ensure that the government and public bodies act within a framework of internationally-recognised rights, with safeguards for the most vulnerable, accountability of public bodies, and opportunities for remedies, when rights are violated”.
What to know more? Why not read:
- Our interview with the drafters of the UK’s first social and economic rights bill
- Why the UK “must stop fuelling inequality and choose a better world”
- Our explainer on the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights