Exploding the Myths Around Benefit Levels and the European Committee of Social Rights

Wednesday saw Iain Duncan Smith expressing outrage about the findings of the European Committee of Social Rights on the UK's recent report to that body... So what is the all the fuss about? Who is this Committee that has raised the hackles of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions?

Wednesday saw Iain Duncan Smith expressing outrage about the findings of the European Committee of Social Rights on the UK's recent report to that body. Reacting to the Committee's conclusion that the UK had not satisfied its European social security rights obligations, Mr Duncan Smith stated that it was 'lunacy for the Council of Europe to suggest welfare payments need to increase when we paid out £204bn in benefits and pensions last year alone.'

So what is the all the fuss about? Who is this Committee that has raised the hackles of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions? The European Committee of Social Right is a human rights monitoring body established under the European Social Charter. This is a treaty established by the Council of Europe, an inter-governmental organisation established in 1949 which promotes co-operation between all countries of Europe in the area of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It has 47 member states, one of which is the UK.

The Committee's function is to make findings (or 'conclusions') on the conformity of the situation of all the countries that have volunteered to be bound by the European Social Charter (which the UK signed up to in 1962). The report that resulted in the findings that have so enraged Mr Duncan Smith was submitted by the UK in November 2012.

The Committee's findings highlighted a number of problems with the UK's welfare system in terms of the European Social Charter. Specifically, it found that the UK was not in conformity with its duty to establish or maintain a system of social security in terms of Article 12(1) of that instrument 'on the grounds that: 'the minimum level of short-term and long-term incapacity benefit is manifestly inadequate; the minimum level of state pension is manifestly inadequate; the minimum level of job seeker's allowance is manifestly inadequate.'

The Committee did not pick these conclusions out of the air - rather, it based its findings on the fact that the benefits in question fall below 40% of the Eurostat median equivalised income. This is the same approach to that it adopts to assessing social security systems in all states that are bound by Article 12(1) the European Social Charter - including the Nordic countries, Germany and France. The information on benefits levels were provided by the UK in its report - it was not the product of a cunning European or civil society plot to shame the UK in front of its peers.

Nor did the Committee fail to acknowledge the extent to which the UK is in compliance with the Charter. It specifically stated that the UK was satisfying its obligations in relation to the right to safe and healthy working conditions, the right to protection of health, the right to social and medical assistance, the right to benefit from social welfare services and the right of elderly persons to social protection. Where the UK had not provided all the information that the Committee needed to fully evaluate compliance, it found the state to be in conformity pending receipt of the requested information. In other words, far from victimising the UK, where there was any doubt, the Committee operated on the basis of a presumption in favour of state compliance. The only area in which the UK's performance was criticised is the one that has been seized on by Mr Duncan Smith and his party colleagues. In doing so, they provide an incomplete and distorted picture of the Committee's findings.

What Wednesday's story has done is to throw into sharp relief, the significant ignorance of some of our political representatives about human rights and Europe. Priti Patel, MP, is reported as having stated that, 'the unaccountable and unelected Council of Europe has clearly failed to properly research and understand the system in Britain. This institution should instead focus its attention on other countries where there are serious problems rather than attempt to meddle in our country.'

n doing so, she appears to confuse the Committee and the Council of Europe and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the role of both. In this instance, the Committee has carried out its function in terms of the European Social Charter appropriately. The fact that this has resulted in conclusions that the coalition government do not like does not mean that the Committee (or indeed the Council of Europe) has in any way deviated from the role it is required to play. Nor does it suggest that the Committee is unilaterally attempting to 'meddle' in UK affairs.

Confusion about European bodies and human rights standards was also evident on the part of Philip Davies, MP, who said: 'The Government can no longer stand by. They have got to say, "We're sick to the back teeth of this interference, we're going to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights".' Unfortunately for Mr Davies, the European Convention on Human Rights has absolutely nothing to do with yesterday's finding by the Committee. It is an entirely different instrument to the European Social Charter.

Demonstrating a somewhat higher level of knowledge, Jacob Rees-Mogg stated that, 'the UK has not signed the additional protocol providing for a system of collective complaints nor is the Charter applicable in domestic law. Therefore, the opinion it has expressed is of limited effect.' Mr Rees-Mogg is correct that the UK has not signed the additional protocol - but it has undertaken reporting obligations on its progress on the rights. He is also correct that the Charter is not applicable in domestic law (and that therefore reports that the Committee's findings potentially open the door for claimants to take the Government to court 'to get more money' are inaccurate) - but that does not mean it does not impose binding international law obligations. Strikingly, Mr Rees-Mogg's statement that the Committee 'overstates its case as the level of benefits is a matter of political debate not of being "manifestly inadequate"' demonstrates a failure to appreciate that simply because something is subject to political debate (and it is hard to find a human rights issue that is not!) does not mean that it is immune to consideration by human rights bodies such as the Committee.

The bad news for Mr Duncan Smith and others decrying the Committee's conclusions is that it is certainly not being lunatic. UK welfare 'reform' raises a wide range of human rights concerns - whether in terms of international, European or domestic human rights law. This is simply the most recent example of an international human rights body criticising the impacts on the most vulnerable of changes to the UK's social protection framework. It almost certainly won't be the last.


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