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Labour’s policies are missing one vital ingredient – ‘social rights’

The public want social rights such as the right to housing, healthcare and decent living standards, on an equal footing with currently defined ‘human rights’. Such a policy would sharpen Labour’s plans and empower citizens, writes Stuart Weir.

Image: Ponderosa Templeton, Wikimedia/Creative Commons.

The Labour party’s 2017 manifesto remains an impressive document with its insistence on equality and human rights. Labour has become the party of commitments to human rights of all kinds, civil and political, workers’ rights, women’s rights, the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, the rights of people with disabilities, and LGBTI rights.

But there is a gaping hole, as a new pamphlet by Paul Hunt, the outstanding human rights lawyer and activist, points out. In Social Rights Are Human Rights – But the UK System is Rigged, published by the Centre for Welfare Reform, Hunt writes that the manifesto’s social policies on education, social security, housing, health and social care are “among its strongest features”, but there is no explicit mention of social rights [my emphasis], except for a single reference to the right to education.

In most human rights discourse since 1945, social rights have normally been grouped with economic rights, but Hunt notes that they are omitted from Labour’s agenda while economic, or workers’ rights, take a central place. The manifesto says for example that a Labour government will never accept “the weakening of workers’ rights, consumer rights or environmental protections”.

Hunt observes that social rights seem to have been replaced in Labour’s policy-making by “consumer rights”. Consumer rights are of course important – but not as important as social rights, in other words rights protecting people’s basic needs, their human dignity and well-being.

Social rights include the right to an adequate standard of living, including food and clothing; the right to education; the right to enjoyment of the highest standard of physical and mental health; the right to housing; the right to social security; and the right to non-discrimination in the enjoyment of those rights.

Hunt is formidably equipped to take up the cause of social rights. He is professor of law at the Human Rights Centre, at Essex University. He has travelled the world in senior UN roles including as UN Rapporteur on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Special Rapporteur on health and Senior Human Rights Advisor to WHO’s Assistant Director-General.

He has chosen an opportune moment to champion social rights in the UK. The public have long been well ahead of the political class in understanding the need for social and economic rights, but the Labour leadership has now begun to catch up, setting out social policies that break with Labour’s past timidity and provide the contours for a wide-ranging, deliberate and evidence-based social justice strategy for all. The temper of the times looks strongly favourable  

Labour now needs to give its aspirations concrete form, by giving the public rights to basic social protections and remedies that they can themselves invoke.

Previous calls for a Bill of Rights to protect both political freedoms and social justice were partially met in 1998 when the Blair government passed the Human Rights Act into law. The Human Rights Act protected rights to life and liberty, free speech, freedom of information and other civil and political rights.

But the public has always expected more. Opinion polls for the Rowntree Reform Trust from 1991 to 2004 found that large majorities wanted to secure economic and social rights as well, including social rights to hospital treatment on the NHS within a ‘reasonable time’, a woman’s right to abortion, the right of homeless people to be housed, and so on.

Responses to a coalition government green paper on a revised Bill of Rights in 2010 broadly supported the inclusion of such rights. And a similar consultation by the Northern Irish Commission found that around 9 out of 10 people supported the inclusion of rights to health care and an adequate standard of living in a Bill of Rights.

An earlier poll for the NI Human Rights Consortium in 2009 that support for the inclusion of three central social rights in a NI Bill of Rights was strong – and held equally strongly between Catholics and Protestants, with over 9 out of 10 people in both communities supporting the inclusion of ‘the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’, ‘the right to adequate accommodation’, and ‘the right to an adequate standard of living’.

You may think that such findings would justify reforms extending the scope of human rights in Northern Ireland. In fact, the Northern Ireland Office, the loyalist hegemony in the province and the 2010 coalition government rejected the Commission’s proposals and promptly set about shredding the presumptuous quango.

There is a stark divergence of view between public opinion and the institutional power of the political and legal establishment. The major parties and big business have proved themselves consistently hostile to recognising both social and economic rights. A rights-based system is unpopular with politicians and judges for reasons that range from a desire to maintain political primacy over social and welfare policy-making, over the allocation of resources and in particular to protect a ‘flexible’ labour market. Social issues are said to be ‘non-justiciable’ – i.e., not resolvable in the courts – and not the proper business of an ‘unelected’ judiciary that has no place nor any expertise in such issues.

In other words, the political class is determined to protect itself, not fellow citizens and our society’s well-being. (The divergence between the UK’s rulers and ruled on social rights and other issues makes for further thought on the idea of the ‘centre ground’, which seems to be far more a political construct of parties and corporate interests than an attempt to locate policies that the public support.)

Our citizens are the people with the expertise to drive social and economic policies. As Professor Sandra Fredman has argued, the provision of enforceable social and economic rights can facilitate and empower individual people as “active agents” rather than “passive recipients”. The Human Rights Act has repeatedly shown how legal rights have empowered civil society organisations and ad-hoc groups to act on behalf of citizens, in some cases over social matters.

Paul Hunt briefly touches on an unlikely obstacle to acceptance of a campaign for social rights. The expert human rights community has decided that the Human Rights Act, the target of unmerited hostility from the Conservative party, is best defended by prohibiting any efforts to improve its protection of other rights. The cry is, ‘Don’t rock the boat!’  There is a fundamental riposte to such negative thinking – it is recognised that human rights of all kinds are indivisible, and are all stronger if they are promoted on the same footing. 

The Labour party needs to climb above the reservations of the human rights community. In doing so, it will strengthen its social policy aspirations and the capacity of ordinary people to stand up for themselves – and make our protection of all human rights so much the stronger.


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