It's that time again when the UK's politicians pitch their ideas for the future direction of the country. But while PR gurus seek to sell us on the latest tag line or manifesto commitment, the record of those in power sometimes slips into the background. And following seven years of Conservative-led government, there is plenty of a record for us to consider.
Let's consider what United Nations bodies have to say about the human rights record of the UK's government over the past couple of years. No partisan politics here; the bodies are made up of independent experts from around the world. No fake news either; the documents are all publicly available.
If anyone needs their rights protecting by the government, it's children. But UN bodies have had stark words on the government's performance here, especially on child poverty. A specialist committee wrote that it is 'seriously concerned' about the high rate of child poverty in the UK. More than this, it highlighted that the children worst affected are children with disabilities (or with a disabled parent), children in Wales and Northern Ireland and children from ethnic minority groups.
Even before a UN committee expressed its concerns about the referendum on Brexit leading to a 'sharp increase in the number of racist hate crimes', the UK was in the spotlight. The independent experts at the UN had taken note of government's ongoing failure to address the toxic atmosphere of racism and xenophobia in the country. Singling out newspapers for publishing 'extremely negative stereotypes of ethnic, religious or other minorities', the committee demanded action. And things have only got worse since.
Although it might not be obvious from the hundreds of thousands using food banks in the UK, the government has guaranteed everyone a right to food. It should come as no surprise, then, that the UN body in charge has expressed its concern that the government hasn't been living up to its promises. It is critical of the government's 'lack of adequate measures' to address the problem. It also recommends that the government reinstates a system of benefits for those that need them that are sufficient to cover the cost of living, including adequate food and housing.
Surely with a female Prime Minister the UK doesn't have any issues with women's rights? Wrong. The UK has been criticised for its continuing failure to address violence against women. Singled out for attention are the levels of domestic violence and rape here, and the poor protections available for victims/survivors such as emergency shelters and legal assistance.
United Nations committees try their best to be diplomatic. They have a special language of 'concern', and 'drawing attention' to an issue. So when a committee noted that it was concerned about the 'persistent critical situation' surrounding housing in the UK, people took notice. As the body made clear, this is an issue that has been obvious for a long time yet things seem to keep getting worse. In fact, the committee notes that part of the problem stems directly from the government's policy of cutting benefits. With the gloves off, they went on to comment how the government was failing on the standard of housing, on the 'exceptionally high' levels of homelessness, and on the out of control rental market.
Immigration is a topic that has been at the forefront of debates in the UK. But the government's policies have also caught the attention of UN monitoring bodies. One aspect of this is the use of detention facilities in the immigration process. In its own words, the committee noted that it was 'concerned that no fixed time limit on the duration of detention in immigration removal centres has been established'. This means that individuals can languish in a sort of prison with no idea how long they will be kept there. There has been a large campaign to address this cruel practice, but the government has yet to act.
What of those rights that the UK has always claimed to be so strong at protecting? Great courts and the right to a fair trial is a staple of the UK's story. Yet, the UN body responsible for review that right expressed concerns about legal trials with significant secrecy surrounding the proceedings. That body of experts was also damning about people's basic ability to access the courts. With such serious cuts to the system of legal aid, the body recommended that the Conservative government review its reforms and address the weaknesses.
So unfair are the workings of the UK's benefits system, that even this has drawn the attention of a group of UN experts. Benefit Sanctions (a scheme of bureaucratic penalties in the Jobseekers system) are being used too often and disproportionately according to these independent reviewers. A Sanction can leave an individual without income for anywhere between 4 weeks and 3 years. Experts at the UN recommended that the UK put some basic due process measures into place in the system, but the government has stubbornly defended the harsh scheme.
An impressive record, you'll undoubtedly agree. And this is just a flavor of the government's record. Some will want to move on to the next set of promises and airbrush out the blemishes on their performance. But perhaps like the unreliable friend who always makes promises they don't deliver on, we should be a little slower to accept the newest commitments of those with a record like this?