Poverty and human rights

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In November 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, visited the UK. As part of this visit, a visit to Scotland took place. To prepare for his visit the Special Rapporteur invited written submissions on issues related to poverty and human rights. In particular, the Special Rapporteur expressed an interest in: austerity; universal credit; new technologies in the welfare system; child poverty; and Brexit, More details are available here:  

Colleagues from across the third sector and from the SDGs network are invited to share their concerns here. This page formed the basis of the SCVO submission to the UN Special Rapporteur. Please note that SCVO concluded our submission on Tuesday the 11th of September 2018. The final SCVO submission is available here: This submission includes a reference to this page. Colleagues are welcome to continue to add to the wiki page.

An interim report from the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights was published on the 16th of November 2018.

SCVO produced two blogs based on the interim report: The UN Special Rapporteur is clear – let’s just hope government is listening and Is Scotland “mopping up the mess” of UK welfare policy?

SCVO will host a webinar with the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on the 14th of February 2019.

Poverty in Scotland[edit | edit source]

Poverty and inequality are not inevitable. Despite this, in 2014/17 19%, or almost one million, people in Scotland lived in poverty after housing costs. Similarly, 58% of working-age adults were in relative poverty before housing costs despite living in working households. Among lone mothers, those living in poverty after housing costs in Scotland fell in 2010/11, but has since increased, reaching 37% in 2014/15. Over a third of people in minority ethnic groups were in poverty after housing costs (36%) as were 29% of households with a disabled family member. These individuals and families face very real challenges. They may battle with hunger or struggle to pay their bills or to heat their homes. In the long term poverty will impact upon their health, their wellbeing and their life chances. These challenges represent a failure to fulfil the right to an adequate standard of living as established in international human rights law, and in many cases result in infringements on other economic, social, civil and political rights. SCVO, our members, and the wider third sector believe that Scotland can do better.

Austerity[edit | edit source]

SCVO, our members, and the wider third sector welcome the Scottish Government’s aspiration to take a rights-based approach to the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, recognising that a rights-based approach can create a system that respects, protects, and fulfils everyone’s right to social security. The 11 entitlements devolved to Scotland are, however, largely claimed by older people and disabled people. The majority of entitlements remain reserved to Westminster where a culture of cuts and sanctions, driven by the UK Government's austerity agenda, dominates. As a result, without a culture change at a UK level, the levels of poverty experienced by individuals, families and communities reliant upon their right to social security is unlikely to improve significantly. Therefore despite being among the most economically developed nations in the world, both the UK and Scotland will fail to ensure the rights of their citizens and to fulfil their commitments to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including: No poverty; Zero hunger (170,625 3-day emergency food parcels were given out in Scotland in 2017-2018); Good health and wellbeing; and Gender equality (in the UK women are twice as dependent on social security as men). Rather, it is predicted that poverty in the UK will increase sharply in the next few years and will continue to increase towards 2030 as social protections are reduced.

Universal Credit (UC), the UK Government’s new benefit system for working age claimants, is just one example of the impact austerity driven policies can have on people and communities.

Universal Credit[edit | edit source]

In the UK, 1.1 million people were on Universal Credit (UC) in August 2018, of whom 410,000, 37%, were in employment. In Scotland, Universal Credit Full Service will be fully deployed for new claims by the end of 2018, with a migration of those from older entitlements taking place between July 2019 and March 2023. It is anticipated that when Full Service rollout is complete in 2023, there will be 652,500 in Scotland claiming Universal Credit.

SCVO, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA), Scottish Women's Aid, members of the Scottish Campaign for Welfare Reform (SCoWR), and many others accross the third sector and civil society believe that Universal Credit will worsen poverty for many. UC can and should protect people from and poverty its consequences. To achieve this there is a need to listen to those claiming UC and redesign elements that simply aren't working. For example:

The five week waiting period for the first payment is too long and pushes people into poverty, debt and crisis. In addition, up to a fifth of new claimants do not get their first payment in full due to, in the main, problems with verification. What individuals claiming UC are expected to live on over this period, given that 49% of those in social rented housing and a 33% living in the private rented sector have no savings, is unclear. The DWP does offer advances but these must be paid back, in many cases worsening the indebtedness of individuals and their families.

The DWP can reduce a UC payment by up to 40% of a claimant’s personal allowance; this provision is all the worse because as part of the implementation, any outstanding tax credit payments previously not pursued by HMRC – some of which go back over a decade - are being deducted. Many new claimants face deductions from Universal Credit for overpayments they were not aware of.

The rigid imposition of a monthly payment culture, with assessments based on the individual’s circumstances on the day of the assessment rather than taking into account what their circumstances were over the course of the month, do not fit well for those, often in precarious employment, who are not paid monthly. As a result, individuals are unsure of what they will receive month by month and in some months an individual will receive no payment, making budgeting all the more difficult. Even two claimants in the same job on the same salary and paid the same day can receive different levels of UC, depending upon their assessment date.

The limitation of UC to the first two children in each family will put a further 200,000 children into poverty.

Household payments of UC by default are bad for gender equality. Women are twice as dependent on social security as men, are disproportionately affected by austerity, and have a right to an independent income. Automatic split-payments would encourage the financial independence of women. In June 2018, of the 880,000 households on UC, just 20 received a split-payment. Reducing the economic inequality faced by women is essential to both realise their rights and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Similarly there is a need to revisit the sanctions and conditionality regime that accompanies Universal Credit which puts pressure on individuals to participate in employability activities incompatible with caring roles or to take on low-paid work below their skill level. Insufficient childcare provision also guarantees that some parents most often women, will be subject to sanctions, resulting in financial insecurity and extreme stress.

As currently designed, Universal Credit leaves many people in Scotland and the UK without the support they need, pushing them into poverty, debt, and crisis.

Scottish action to address poverty and realise rights[edit | edit source]

While SCVO and many of our members believe that urgent action is needed to halt and improve Universal Credit, we stress that the Scottish Government have a number of tools available to them through which they can address poverty and realise rights. As a starting point, the Scottish Government can improve Universal Credit and ensure access to some independent income by automatically splitting household payments of UC into individual payments. Split payments of Universal Credit were unanimously supported at Stage 3 of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. SCVO, Scottish Women's Aid and others believe a timescale for realising this commitment should now be introduced encouraging the UK and Scottish Governments' to engage positively and quickly to cost and negotiate the IT changes needed to roll out automatic split payments. Topping up entitlements, introducing a universal basic income or a minimum income guarantee, are also avenues that the Scottish Government can and should explore to lift those living in Scotland out of poverty [we recognise that the Scottish Government is planning to support a couple of basic income pilots in Scotland and to introduce an income supplement for parents on low incomes].

Despite the very real poverty experienced by communities across Scotland, last year the Scottish Government failed to spend European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF) monies in real terms due to poor management. As a result, millions of pounds have been decommitted by the European Commission. More must be done to ensure that Structural Funds post-Brexit are utilised in full to encourage social inclusion, grow the social economy and improve labour market mobility, and employability to improve life chances, reduce poverty, fulfill rights and realise the SDGs.

The most empowering and effective route out of poverty is, for many people, fair, sustainable and meaningful employment. By incentivising and strengthening the Business pledge the Scottish Government could further encourage a culture of fair work. For example the Scottish Government could require all businesses to commit to the Business pledge, or as a minimum the Living Wage, to receive public contracts. SCVO, UNISON , and others across Scottish civil society, believe that EU law would allow the Living Wage to be set as a contract condition.

However, paid employment may not always be the best way for people to contribute to society at a particular point in their life. They may be able to make a bigger impact and gain confidence and engagement with their communities by being supported as carers, volunteers, learners or activists. This would ensure more people are willing, engaged and confident to take on paid employment when it suits their life circumstances and the job opportunities are there, not when they are desperate, unprepared or disengaged. Devolved employability programmes, such as Fair Start, could be designed in a different way from present, in order to offer the opportunity to create person-centred rights based services rather than focusing solely on getting as many people into work as quickly as possible.

New technologies[edit | edit source]

Internet access[edit | edit source]

In 2016 the UN declared access to broadband to be a basic right. Without internet access in the home individuals have limited access to public services, channels for civic and democratic participation, knowledge and information tools, opportunities for social engagement, the labour market, and learning opportunities. Despite this, many individuals and households in Scotland and the UK cannot afford the devices and connections needed to benefit from the many advantages the internet offers.

Home internet access varies considerably by household income. In 2016, 63% of households in Scotland with an income of £15,000 or less had home internet access rising to 98% in households with incomes of £40,000 and over (Scottish Household Survey, 2016). Additionally, only 65% of social housing tenants have home internet access, compared to 88% of home owners or private rented tenants. Older people, those with disabilities, and those in social housing or on low incomes are all more likely to be digitally excluded.

There are strong economic benefits to being online. Increasingly the cheapest products and services are only available online. The internet is therefore an ‘enabling’ service that has the potential to reduce cost across a range of household spending, for example, by shopping online for cheaper deals or through price comparisons. Estimates suggest that a household on an average income can save £744 a year from having broadband in the home. These savings are not available to households without home internet access. 

Similarly, telecommunications tariffs are increasingly structured around inclusive packages. As a result, individuals and families with basic packages pay more per unit of consumption (Consumer Futures 2013). More must be done to prevent this poverty premium.

New technology in the welfare system[edit | edit source]

Both the UK and the Scottish Government are increasingly moving services online. The Department for Work and Pensions, for example, planned for 80% of Universal Credit applications to be completed online by 2017 as part of a transition towards digital only services.

The ability to make and maintain claims online using an online journal through which individuals receive “to do” demands and record actions is central to Universal Credit. Individuals with limited access to online facilities or who find new technology challenging are at significant disadvantage. This becomes more challenging still for individuals with literacy or numeracy problems. A direct payment pilot project carried out prior to the introduction of UC found 19% of claimants to have literacy or numeracy issues.

UC can also provide help with housing costs and a landlord portal is gradually being distributed to social landlords to help with administration. Evidence suggests that the DWP systems in their current state are not adequately developed. In particular, there is no alignment between deductions from UC and housing costs. As has been discussed this can lead to arrears and threaten to tenancy sustainment.

The digitalisation of public services can simplify and integrate services. Similarly, internet in the home can offer faster, more convenient access to public services. However, the people who are most likely to be supported by public services are also those most likely to be digitally excluded. Online public services must be accessible to all. The varied needs of public services users is not being fully considered. The drive to digitalise public services must therefore be supported by initiatives to ensure that everyone can use and access digital services.

Equal access to information and communication technology (ICT) is also essential to achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including, achieving quality education, creating decent work and economic growth, reducing inequalities and reducing poverty.

Digital inclusion is therefore key to tackling inequality and poverty, meeting the SDGs and fulfilling human rights.

Big data, artificial intelligence, algorithms and automated decision-making processes[edit | edit source]

Brexit rights and poverty[edit | edit source]

SCVO have worked closely with our members to explore the potential impacts of the vote to leave the EU.

Through several engagement events and through our major ‘State of the Sector’ survey, the threat to human rights protections, time and again, presented itself as a fundamental concern. In the survey, 80% of respondents felt leaving the EU would negatively impact human rights and equalities. Similarly, 86% of respondents felt that leaving the EU would have a negative impact on the Scottish Economy, impacting public spending, disposable income, charitable giving and, subsequently, funding for many third sector organisations, many of whom support some of the most vulnerable communities in Scotland. Any negative economic impact of leaving the EU will be most deeply felt by people in poverty, often those reliant on inadequate social security entitlements which have not kept pace with inflation.

Brexit will also see an end to the European Social Fund which is a direct investment in social policy that tackles inequality, combats poverty and reduces disparities between regions. As an example, The value of European funding to Scotland over the last programming period was £800 million, with charities and voluntary organisations receiving a significant share through the European Social Fund and the Regional Development Fund. Similarly, third sector organisations in Scotland often successfully bid for transnational funding which comes directly from the European Commission. Funds of this nature are often secured in partnership with organisations from across the EU. It is incredibly difficult to fully assess the scale of this type of funding – although it is known to be significant. The loss of these funds is likely to have a significant impact on the sectors work with people in poverty and other vulnerable communities.

Brexit could mean a no deal and stories of stockpiling food and medicines (insulin and just in time medicines) which the UK and Scotland currently import are very real. People in poverty are likely to be the first to experience negative consequences as they have limited financial resources and fewer networks which could help access food and medicine. Trade deals made with those outside of the EU could, post Brexit, alsi have a substantial impact on the rights and protections of people in Scotland.

Legal protections[edit | edit source]

Organisations accross the sector are concerned that Brexit may be viewed by some in positions of power as an opportunity to relax workplace rights and conditions which are enshrined in EU law under the single market. The EU has been the driving force behind many of the advancements in human rights protection in the UK. For example, in matters relating to gender rights and disability rights, progress has been made despite pushback from UK Governments over many decades. As such, even if EU legislation were transposed in to domestic legislation seamlessly, there is a risk that human rights in the UK would not keep pace with EU progress and protections would remain ‘frozen in time’.Minimum wage rights, sick pay, paternity pay, maternity benefits, adoption leave and workplace rights such as equality legislation - discrimination at work, protected characteristics, gender equality, support with childcare and dependent care and pay parity are all threatened. As are the many advances in gender and disability rights.

The Scottish First Minister’s Standing Council on Europe seeks to ensure there is no regression in current human rights protections and that Scotland is not be left behind future EU and ECHR progressive developments. Similarly, the Scotland Declaration on Human Rights is supported by over 170 civil society organisations in Scotland and states that signatories want human rights and equality to be at the heart of Scottish society, and that principles of transparency, non regression, participation and progression should govern all decision-making on rights.

Brexit is also likely to have a significant impact on EU citizens living in Scotland, particularly the most vulnerable citizens who may struggle to pay for settled status, or to provide evidence that they have lived in the UK for five years. As a result they will be at risk of being declared an unlawful immigrant and at risk of losing everything: their home; their employment; their health services; and their community.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The causes of poverty are diverse and multifaceted. However, currently in both the UK and Scotland inadequate and flawed social protections, unequal access to the internet and digital devices, and the very real threats posed by Brexit, undermine rights and economic security. A co-ordinated vision to tackle poverty and inequality, realise rights and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is urgently needed. Central to this vision is a truly rights-based social security system in both Scotland and the UK, action to ensure fair work while recognising everyone’s contribution to society, initiatives to address the digital divide, and opposition to the removal of our European citizenship and rights.

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