The introduction of employment tribunal fees and changes to the social security system, along with restrictions on legal aid availability in England & Wales, are among the matters highlighted as human rights concerns in the UK in the latest periodic review by a United Nations committee.
Reviewing the sixth periodic report of the UK on the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights has raised concerns about access to justice, especially for disadvantaged and marginalised groups as well as in areas such as employment, housing, education and social security.
The committee welcomed certain developments, including the enactment of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the 2014-17 programme for Integrating refugees in Scotland’s communities, and the adoption of Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights (2013-17). However it makes more than 70 recommendations in areas where it believes more effective action could be taken, many of which reflect issues raised in a report by the UK's Equality & Human Rights Commission.
It is "seriously concerned" about the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures are having on disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups, and that the UK has not undertaken a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of such measures.
The UK should, the committee says, reverse the cuts in social security benefits introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, restore the link between the rates of state benefits and the costs of living, review the use of sanctions in relation to social security benefits and ensure they are subject to prompt and independent dispute resolution mechanisms; and provide a breakdown of the impact of the reforms on women, children, persons with disabilities, low-income families and families with two or more children.
It is also concerned that the reforms to the legal aid system and the introduction of employment tribunal fees have restricted access to justice, in areas such as employment, housing, education and social welfare benefits.
It calls on the UK to conduct a human rights impact assessment of the recent changes introduced to its fiscal policy, including analysis of the distributional consequences and the tax burden of different income sectors and marginalised and disadvantaged groups.
Better support should be provided to asylum seekers, to ensure an adequate standard of living, and access to employment while claims are being processed; further efforts should be made to eliminate gender discrimination; protections should be introduced against zero hours contracts and other precarious employment practices; and national minimum wage protection should be extended to the under-25s.
Any new Bill of Rights, it comments, should be "aimed at enhancing the status of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights in the domestic legal order".
Lorna McGregor, a commissioner with the Equality & Human Rights Commission, commented: "Recent reforms to civil law justice have had particular impacts on disabled people, women and ethnic minorities. For example, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals has resulted in large drops in the numbers of claims brought for discrimination on the basis of sex, disability, race and sexual orientation.
"I welcome this report by the UN and we will now work with civil society organisations to hold the Government to account in this area."
She added: "The UK Government should improve its planning and monitoring of reforms to social security. It should extend its analysis to include the cumulative impact of decisions on people sharing protected characteristics, review policies which have reduced protections and identify mitigating actions where adverse impacts are identified."