After the surpising 2017 general election, opposition parties have a golden opportunity to stand up for the rights of UK citizens.
In an era of fake news and alternative facts, Theresa May’s attempt to portray her party as the party of workers is apposite in its audacity. From promises to put a stop to gender and racial discrimination at work, to promises to better protect vulnerable children and domestic violence victims, to digital rights, their manifesto for the 2017 election rings hollow and hypocritical when we consider successive Tory government legislative agendas.
Promises to end gender and racial discrimination in the workplace can only be gossamer thin when the enforcement of those rights remain beyond the means of most workers. Employment tribunal fees of £1200 – introduced under David Cameron – mean that many workers cannot afford to bring claims. Studies have shown this has reduced the number of claims by 67% – 60% in racial discrimination claims and 87% in sex discrimination claims, with women and low-paid workers hardest hit. Citizens Advice reports seven out of 10 successful claims are not taken and more than half of those interviewed said fees and costs deterred them. Legal protections against gender and racial discrimination are meaningless if people cannot enforce those rights. Without justice there is impunity and employers can get away with precisely the kinds of discrimination the Tory manifesto says May will stop. For this very reason, Labour have promised to scrap the fees. But May’s manifesto says nothing about scrapping the fees – or rolling back the damage her party has inflicted upon workers’ rights.
The manifesto’s references to “work incentivisation” are merely euphemisms for welfare reforms driving more people into poverty. One example is the “benefit cap” – an arbitrary cap on benefits tied to the minimum wage and divorced from actual need – which May says is encouraging more people into work and out of poverty, but in fact is forcing thousands, particularly single mothers with small children into homelessness. It is currently subject to legal challenge on the grounds it discriminates against women and the vulnerable children the Tory manifesto says they want to protect.
As a result of austerity measures the U.K. has been found in breach of its international human rights obligations by the UN Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights.
Another example is the limit of universal tax credit to families with more than two children. Designed, in effect, to deter low-income families from having more children, the scheme includes the now infamous “rape clause” providing an exception for women whose child is the product of rape or others domestic violence or abuse where pregnancy is not a free choice. To obtain the tax credit, women must suffer the indignity of sharing this deeply personal and traumatic experience with tax authorities.
As a result of these and other austerity measures, the U.K. has been found in breach of its international human rights obligations by the UN Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which was “seriously concerned” about “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures” are having on women, the disabled, and disadvantaged and marginalised groups.
Yet despite this warning and the alarming rise in poverty, May has implemented a new, even lower benefit cap which experts say will put a further 50,000 households and an estimated 126,000 children in poverty. And the manifesto reaffirms its commitment to further cuts.
Child poverty in Britain is already at a record high, with around 30% of children – 4 million children – living in poverty.
The Institute for Financial Studies further warned that the plans and “big cuts” set out in the Tory manifesto would, if implemented, condemn Britain to five more years of austerity, causing serious damage to public services.
Imagine what another five years will do for the rights of vulnerable children? Child poverty in Britain is already at a record high, with around 30% of children – 4 million children – living in poverty. Britain has plummeted on the world rankings on provision for children’s rights and services – dropping from 11th to 146th on the Tory government’s watch. Continuing to pursue further cuts without a clear plan of how to redress the damage they have already done, doesn’t sounds like a plan “to protect vulnerable children“, as the Tory manifesto announced.
Unaccompanied refugee children were left in the Calais Jungle at risk of being trafficked on May’s watch. The Tory government bungled the consultation required by the Dubs Amendment to determine how many of these vulnerable children Britain could protect, grossly underestimating local authority capacity and community support to bring them to safety. Their failure has put those vulnerable children at risk of modern slavery and sex trafficking.
How about children being held overnight in police cells? The practice is, as May herself admitted as Home Secretary, unlawful and widespread. Thousands of children, as young as 8, have been held in police cells overnight: a distressing and damaging experience as well as being in breach of domestic and international law. Prime Minister May failed to end the practice.
If Theresa May succeeds in removing human rights protections in Britain, it will be the most repressive and persecutory states that cheer the loudest.
The manifesto also purports to address “digital rights“, but in fact is proposing a regime which controls what kind of information we can share and access online, which has been criticised by free speech and online rights groups as a new form of censorship.
And what about the promise that the UK will not withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights during the next Parliament? On 7 June 2017, the day before the 2017 General Election, that pledge appeared to be bent into an opaque and confused U-turn. May volunteered to rip up the Human Rights Act to purport to give her government the powers it already has to fight terrorism. In so doing, she undermined the 800 years of protections for British people fought for by British people.
If Theresa May succeeds in removing human rights protections in Britain, it will be the most repressive and persecutory states that cheer the loudest. We hope that opposition MPs stand firmly against this threat. The Tory manifesto and its underpinning of previous government acts ring hollow and hypocritical when it comes to human rights.
This blog has first appeared on Open Democracy, and is republished here with the consent of the authors and Open Democracy.
|Kirsty Brimelow QC
|Barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and Chairwoman of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales
|Barrister at Doughty Street Chambers