Welfare Cuts in the Next Budget – ESR Violations on the Horizon?
The Irish Times reports that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs have indicated there will be significant reductions in social welfare spending in the forthcoming Budget. The comments were made at a meeting on 27 October between the Taoiseach, the Minister and the Community and Voluntary Pillar under the social partnership process. Seamus Boland of Irish Rural Link, who attended the meeting, said the talks centred generally on the economic situation facing the country. He said the Taoiseach had again indicated that cuts of up to €4 billion had to be implemented in the Budget in December. Mr Boland said Ms Hanafin and the Taoiseach had pointed out that as part of this process there would have to be significant reductions in social welfare spending. He said that they told the meeting that the country could not afford the current level of expenditure but did not provide details of where the cuts might fall in the Budget. Mr Boland said the Community and Voluntary Pillar had argued that cuts in social welfare spending would hurt those who were the most vulnerable and weakest in society.
Proposed whole-scale cuts in social welfare fly in the face of the results of rescent research sponsored by TASC which reportedly found high levels of public support for the funding of childcare, education and old age through general taxation. According to the Irish Times, the survey (which was carred out at 60 locations around the State, on a sample of 1,000 people of 16 years or more) found that 88 per cent believe old age provision should be State-funded; 87 per cent believe education should be State-funded; 78 per cent believe health should be State-funded and 58 per cent believe childcare should be State-funded.
The broad ‘cuts’ approach proposed by government also directly contradicts the recommendations of several of the presenters at the recent ‘Towards a Progressive Economics’ Conference (held on 10 October) which recommended economic expansion, fiscal stimulus measures and the reform of welfare, rather than simply a ‘slash and burn approach’ to benefits. While the Government argues that such cuts are necessary, one can only hope (however wistfully) that, in formulating the budget, it will bear in mind the obligations it accepted by ratifying the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.
The most celebrated obligation under that Treaty is set out in Article 2(1) which requires states
to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.
This Article imposes an obligation on states to move as expeditiously and effectively as possible towards the full realisation of the Covenant rights. This includes the right to social security which is set out at Article 9 of the Covenant. In its General Comment No.3 on The Nature of State Parties Obligations (1990) The Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (the body responsible for monitoring the implementation of ICESCR) states that
any deliberately retrogressive measures [in relation to the realisation of the rights under the ICESCR] would require the most careful consideration and would need to be fully justified by reference to the totality of the rights provided for in the Covenant and in the context of the full use of the maximum available resources.
Research from a project on ‘Budget Analysis and the Advancement of Economic and Social Rights in Northern Ireland’ which is being carried out by a Team based at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, provides further detail on what a ‘retrogressive measure’ might constitute:
The ComESCR has not specified exactly what constitutes a ‘deliberate retrogressive measure’ but some guidance can be sought from its General Comment 4 on the Right to Adequate Housing which states that,
‘[A] general decline of living and housing conditions, directly attributable to policy and legislative decisions by State Parties, and in the absence of accompanying compensatory measures, would be inconsistent with the obligations under the Covenant.
In its work, the QUB project team highlights Magdalena Sepulveda’s (current UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty) statement that a deliberate retrogressive measure means any measure which implies a step back in the level of protection accorded to the rights in the ICESCR as a consequence of an intentional decision by the State. According to Sepulveda in her excellent book on ICESCR, this includes an unjustified reduction in public expenditures devoted to implementation of ESR in the absence of adequate compensatory measures aimed to protect the injured individuals.
In its General Comment No.19 on the Right to Social Security, the Committee stated that,
There is a strong presumption that retrogressive measures taken in relation to the right to social security are prohibited under the Covenant. If any deliberately retrogressive measures are taken, the State party has the burden of proving that they have been introduced after the most careful consideration of all alternatives and that they are duly justified by reference to the totality of the rights provided for in the Covenant, in the context of the full use of the maximum available resources of the State party. The Committee will look carefully at whether: (a) there was reasonable justification for the action; (b) alternatives were comprehensively examined; (c) there was genuine participation of affected groups in examining the proposed measures and alternatives; (d) the measures were directly or indirectly discriminatory; (e) the measures will have a sustained impact on the realization of the right to social security, an unreasonable impact on acquired social security rights or whether an individual or group is deprived of access to the minimum essential level of social security; and (f) whether there was an independent review of the measures at the national level.
This is a demanding test and it is immediately obvious that most, if not all, of the elements set out by the Committee will not be satisfied if the Irish Government implements the threatened (yet hitherto unspecified) broad cuts in social benefit.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has also made it clear that
a minimum core obligation to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights is incumbent upon every State party. Thus, for example, a State party in which any significant number of individuals is deprived of essential foodstuffs, of essential primary health care, of basic shelter and housing, or of the most basic forms of education is, prima facie, failing to discharge its obligations under the Covenant … In order for a State party to be able to attribute its failure to meet at least its minimum core obligations to a lack of available resources it must demonstrate that every effort has been made to use all resources that are at its disposition in an effort to satisfy, as a matter of priority, those minimum obligations.
Taking the example of basic housing/shelter, the Simon Community recently warned that large numbers of people will be made homeless if there are any further cuts to the rent supplement scheme in the Budget. There would thus seem to be a clear risk that the Budget cuts may result in the State failing to meet its minimum core obligation in relation to the right to adequate housing under Article 11(1) ICESCR. A truly stunning achievement in light of the subsistence level of protection which the ‘minimum core’ of ESR is intended to cover.
Given the government’s apparent failure to contemplate seriously any alternative to significant cuts in social welfare, it seems unlikely that it could argue convincingly that it has made ‘every effort to use all resources that are at its disposition’ to meet its minimum core obligations. Indeed, the State’s duty under Article 2(1) to allocate the ‘maximum of available resources’ should prompt us to query whether, in fact, the government is doing everything that it reasonably can to satisfy its duty to increase revenue to secure funds to direct towards human rights concerns (International Human Rights Internship Programme ‘Government Human Rights Obligations and Budget Work’ December 2008 at 3).
Ireland ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in December 1989. It is disappointing and shocking that a 2009 budget would appear to be so inconsistent with the obligations that it assumed in doing so.
Human rights-based budget analysis was the subject of recent Viewpoint issued by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, while more information on budget analysis and other budget work can be found on the webpage of the International Budget Partnership.
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