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The UN declares the UK’s austerity policies in breach of international human rights obligations

The UN are “seriously concerned” by the state of inequality in the UK.

In a damning new report, the United Nation’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has confirmed that the UK government’s austerity measures and social security reform are in breach of their obligations to human rights.

Drawing on evidence from Just Fair, the report considers a number of factors in its decision, including increased reliance on foodbanks, unemployment rates, the housing crisis, mental health care, and discrimination against migrants. The committee reminds the government of their obligations and calls upon them to make changes.

The UN committee said it was “seriously concerned” about “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures” are having on disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups.

It also emphasised problems with welfare reform, saying it was “deeply concerned” about “the various changes in the entitlements to, and cuts in, social benefits”, including the reduction of the household benefit cap, the four-year freeze on certain benefits and the reduction in child tax credits. It added that these changes adversely affect “women, children, persons with disabilities, low-income families and families with two or more children”.

It said that these issues and others meant the UK government are failing “to meet their obligation to mobilize the maximum available resources for the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights”.

The report also expressed concerns over:

  • Unemployment, which, despite a small rise in the employment rate, continues to disproportionately affect people with disabilities, young people and people belonging to ethnic, religious or other minorities.
  • The high incidence of part-time work, precarious self-employment, temporary employment and the use of zero hour contracts.
  • The “persistent discrimination” against migrant workers.
  • The challenges faced by asylum seekers due to restrictions in accessing employment and the insufficient level of support provided through the daily allowance.
  • The national minimum wage, which “is not sufficient to ensure a decent standard of living in the State party, particularly in London, and does not apply for workers under the age of 25”.
  • Increases in the inheritance tax limit and value added tax, and reductions to corporation tax, in encouraging “persistent social inequality”.
  • The new Trade Union Act (2016), which limits the right of workers to undertake industrial action.
  • Sanctions in relation to benefit fraud and the absence of due process and access to justice for those affected by the use of sanctions.
  • The limited availability and high costs of childcare and the lack of involvement of men in childcare responsibilities.
  • Persistent underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions in the public and private sectors.
  • Violence against women with disabilities.
  • The increased risk of poverty for people with disabilities, people belonging to ethnic, religious or other minorities, single-parent families and families with children.
  • The persistent critical situation in terms of availability, affordability and accessibility of adequate housing (in part as a result of cuts in state benefits), the lack of social housing, and lack of adequate access to basic services, such as water and sanitation, for Travellers.
  • Reforms to the legal aid system and the introduction of employment tribunal fees, and the resulting restriction of access to justice, in areas including employment, housing, education and social welfare benefits.
  • The significant rise in homelessness.
  • The country-wide reliance on foodbanks.
  • Discrimination in accessing health care services against refugees, asylum-seekers, refused asylum-seekers and Travellers.
  • The lack of adequate resources provided to mental health services.
  • Persistent serious shortcomings in the care and treatment of older persons, including those with dementia.
  • Significant inequalities in educational attainment, especially for children belonging to ethnic, religious or other minorities and children from low-income families which has the effect of limiting social mobility.
  • Increasing university fees, which affect the equal access to higher education.
  • Lack of corporate regulation.
  • The way international development funds are used overseas.
  • The announced plan of replacing the Human Rights Act of 1998 by a new British Bill of Rights.
  • The criminalisation of termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland.
  • The lack of effective measures adopted by the State party to promote the use of Irish Language in Northern Ireland.
  • The lack of involvement and participation of Northern Ireland in this review process, and the limited information available on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights in the British Overseas Territories and the Crown Dependencies.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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