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Nolan on Budget 2010: Welfare Cuts and Human Rights

This post is contributed by our regular contributor Dr. Aoife Nolan. You can read more about Aoife on our Contributors page.

Last month, I blogged in relation to reports on significant reductions in social welfare spending in the 2010 Budget.  In that post, I highlighted some of the implications that the threatened cuts would have for the realisation of government’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The rights protected by ICESCR include the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to adequate housing, food, water and clothing. The rights to work, social security and education, trade union rights and the right to the highest attainable standard of health are also provided for in the instrument.

In my previous blog entry, I focussed particularly on Article 2(1) ICESCR which requires states parties ‘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’.  According to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, this Article obliges states parties to move as expeditiously and effectively as possible towards the full realisation of Covenant rights and requires states parties to give immediate effect to the minimum core obligations imposed by those rights. It also imposes a corresponding prohibition on retrogressive measures – that is, backward steps in the realisation of the rights set out in ICESCR – other than in very narrow circumstances.

The Irish Times provides a useful summary of the key welfare cuts brought about as a result of the budget:

Social welfare rates are to be cut by 4.1 per cent on average while child benefit will fall by 16 per cent. There will be no reduction in old-age pension rates. For new social welfare applicants, the rate of jobseekers benefit and supplementary welfare allowance for those aged 20 and 21 years of age who have no dependent children is being reduced to €100 per week. For those aged between 22 and 24 years, allowances will fall to €150 per week. Disability, widows’ pensions, invalidity and carers’ allowance are all to be cut by €8.20 to €8.50 per week. In addition, child benefits rates are to revert to 2006 levels with a cut of €16 in monthly payments. This brings rates to between €150 and €187 per month. Welfare dependent families will be fully compensated for this move through an increase in the Qualified Child Allowance of €3.80 per week. Low income families in receipt of Family Income Supplement (FIS) are also to be fully compensated.

These cuts clearly constitute retrogressive measures in relation to the right to social security – something which I discussed in my previous blog entry.

The broader, non-welfare-related implications of the budget cuts for Covenant rights will become evident over the coming months when the potential impact of public sector pay cuts and pension scheme changes on the delivery of crucial economic and social rights-related public services such as education and health will be seen. The implications of other budget decisions for economic and social rights are immediately obvious. For instance, the increase in the Drugs Payment Scheme Threshold, the reduction in carers’ allowance and the introduction of the Prescription Charge are likely to prove significant obstacles to the realisation of the right to the highest attainable standard of health for all. The reduction in rates of student support grants will have a clear impact on those seeking to give effect to their right to education.

According to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,

Should a State party use “resource constraints” as an explanation for any retrogressive steps taken, the Committee would consider such information on a country by- country basis in the light of objective criteria such as:

(a) the country’s level of development;

(b) the severity of the alleged breach, in particular whether the situation concerned the enjoyment of the minimum core content of the Covenant;

(c) the country’s current economic situation, in particular whether the country was undergoing a period of economic recession;

(d) the existence of other serious claims on the State party’s limited resources; for example, resulting from a recent natural disaster or from recent internal or international armed conflict.

(e) whether the State party had sought to identify low-cost options; and

(f) whether the State party had sought cooperation and assistance or rejected offers of resources from the international community for the purposes of implementing the provisions of the Covenant without sufficient reason.

The criteria set out by the Committee would seem to leave it open to Government to justify its cuts in welfare and other socio-economic rights-related expenditure, programmes and services in terms of (c) and (d). However, (a) and (e) argue against the Government being successful in such a claim. The Committee has also highlighted that ‘where the available resources are demonstrably inadequate, the obligation remains for a State party to ensure the widest possible enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights under the prevailing circumstances … even in times of severe resource constraints, States parties must protect the most disadvantaged and marginalized members or groups of society by adopting relatively low-cost targeted programmes.’

Such a sentiment is arguably reflected in the Minister’s statement in his speech that the Government ‘must safeguard those worst hit by the recession’.  However, this is almost certainly not how the Budget will work in practice. While the decision not to change state old-age pension rates is to be welcomed, cuts to disability benefit and child benefit explicitly target two groups that have been identified as particularly vulnerable by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its statements.

The Minister’s claim that the Government has ‘preserved the real value of social welfare for those most in need’ is open to serious question. It is certainly one that will be asked by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights when considering Ireland’s next periodic report on the progress made in relation to the implementation of the rights set out in the Covenant.

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