Austerity and Human Rights in Leicester

Following the UN’s condemnation of UK austerity policies, Adrian Bua reports on the impact of that these are having in Leicester, based on exploratory research carried out as part of the collaborative governance under austerity project.

A recent report by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has argued that the UK government may be failing to meet its international human rights obligations.  A range of concerns were raised, ranging from the limits imposed by the Trade Union Act (2016) on industrial action to lack of corporate regulation. However, notably for us, most of the challenges levelled at the UK government pivoted around austerity policies, and their disproportionate and discriminatory impact on the most disadvantaged. Specifically,  the UN investigative committee is expressed serious concern “about the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups” and reminded the UK government that austerity measures “must be temporary, necessary, proportionate, and not discriminatory.”

The UN is especially concerned about changes to the welfare system and the possible violation of social rights through cuts introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. This is a topic we researched in Leicester as part of the exploratory phase of our project ‘collaborative governance under austerity’. The report highlights a series of issues that resonate with our analysis in Leicester.

First, it highlights sanctions in relation to benefit fraud with the absence of due process. National changes to welfare have bought in a regime that regulates, disciplines and punishes – what academics call “workfare”.  We know anecdotally that sanctions are leading some people to fall “off grid” and disappear from official records. Agencies agencies from the statutory and voluntary sectors aim to pick up the pieces, but their capacity to do so is being decimated by austerity.

Second, the report highlights employment practices including a rise in zero hour contracts and precarious employment. In terms of employment, our research and review of case literature suggests that poor working conditions have increased in the textile trade [link to report] and especially the hidden and ‘informal’ economy. However, some respondents argued that the local authority was hesitant to do anything about this because it might put off investors – a key way in which Leicester aims to overcome austerity. If the issue as to be highlighted, Leicester might be tainted by association with the “sweatshop economy”.

Third, changes to social benefits including the reduction of the household benefit cap, the four-year freeze on certain benefits and the reduction in child tax credits are also criticised. In Leicester housing was an important issue, where the council used a strategy of amelioration through using discretionary funds to ensure that those most at risk maintained a roof over their heads.

Dr Adrian Bua is Research Assistant at the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity, and Researcher at the New Economics Foundation