Tuesday, 23 June 2015

UN Committee Response to Ireland on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Cormac Staunton: The UN’s Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, in its concluding observations on Ireland’s third periodic report, makes a number of very interesting points. The report of the Committee is based a number of written and oral responses by both the State and Civil Society groups to questions raised by the Committee.

The Committee welcomes a number of recent developments in Ireland including: The establishment of the Low Pay Commission in 2015; The Adoption of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Act and the establishment of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in 2014.

In the area of economic inequality, as well as welcoming some key recent developments, there are a number of 'subjects of concern' and recommendations. Here I quote some of the observations that relate to the issue of economic inequality with some additional comments.

"The Committee noted that the data provided by the State were outdated and not disaggregated. They noted that the replies to issues rasied do not include sufficient data, which makes it difficult for the Committee to assess the actual and progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights, including the impact of the measures taken during and after the economic crisis.
The Committee recommends that the State includes detailed and updated information in its next periodic report." 

Anything that gives us more data to better understand the economy and society is welcome.

"The Committee is concerned at the lack of meaningful consultation with civil society and relevant stakeholders in formulating and implementing policies and legislation, which often results in such policies and legislation being less effective." 
The upcoming “National Economic Dialogue” provides an opportunity for the State to engage with civil society on budget issues, so it will instructive to see how effective it is.

Maximum Available Resources
The concept of 'maximum available resources' recognises that not all rights can be realised immediately because of constrained resources, but that all effort should be made to  maximize the available resources to make sure people can ultimately realise their rights.
"While noting the unprecedented economic and financial crisis that Ireland went through and its exit from the bailout programme during the reporting period, the Committee notes with concern that, in spite of the social transfers made by the State party to mitigate the impact of austerity measures. 
The State party’s response to the crisis has been disproportionately focused on instituting cuts to public expenditure in the areas of housing, social security, health care and education, without altering its tax regime;" 
This is reinforces the issue that social transfers are only one way in which people meet their economic needs and that we need to look at the provision of public services to fully understand economic inequality. Interestingly, the Committee have raised an issue that we have made previously: that our tax take has remained stable (rather than rising), despite the debt repayments we have taken on.
"Many austerity measures have been adopted during and after the crisis without proper assessments of their impact on economic, social and cultural rights; 
The austerity measures, which continue to be applied, have had significant adverse impact on the entire population, particularly on disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, in enjoying their economic, social and cultural rights; and 
No review has been carried out of such measures in a comprehensive and human rights based manner, since the State party’s exit from the bailout programme."
As with data collection, anything that gives us better assessments of the impact of policies is very welcome.

"The Committee is concerned at the disproportionately high rates of unemployment among Travellers, Roma, young people and persons with disabilities. It regrets the lack of disaggregated data to enable a regular assessment of the unemployment situation of these groups."
Again more detailed data and assessments of unemployment (and working conditions for those in employment) would add greatly to our understanding of economic inequality.

Social Security
"The Committee is concerned at the large numbers of social welfare appeals due to the lack of clear understanding, and consistent application, of the eligibility criteria. It is further concerned that a considerable number of initial decisions on these appeals have been revoked (art. 9). 
Bearing in mind that social welfare benefits provide a social safety net to the most disadvantaged and marginalized, the Committee recommends that the State party clarify the eligibility criteria regarding social welfare benefits as well as their application so as to avoid a large number of appeals. It further recommends that initial decisions on social welfare appeals are made in a consistent and transparent manner and that appropriate training be provided to the public officers who make such decisions."
Clearly there is a need to make our system easier to understand. But it also means we have to make the system more accountable to users.

Maternity benefits and childcare services
"The Committee is concerned that not all women workers are covered by the maternity benefits scheme and that paternity leave is not statutory. It is also concerned at the very high cost of childcare services provided by private actors and the lack of affordable public childcare services in the State party"
In particular, TASC has identified access to childcare as a key barrier to employment, particularly for women. Providing universal, subsidised childcare is a key policy that can reduce economic inequality.

"The Committee is concerned at the overall difficult housing situation in the State party, which includes:
  • The continuing gaps between availability and demand for social housing, which result in a long waiting list for social housing;
  • The increased costs of rental housing and reduced family incomes;
  • The ineffective social support programmes, such as the Rent Supplements and the Housing Assistance Payment, which do not reflect rent increases;
  • The increasing number of long-term mortgage arrears;
  • The growing number of families and children that are, or at the risk of being, homeless, as a result of the lack of social housing and the inadequate levels of rent supplement; and
  • The lack of effective complaint mechanisms for local authority tenants on tenancy-related issues."
Housing is a complex policy arena, but the housing situation in Ireland drives up the cost of living which is inherently regressive. Steps to reduce the cost of housing and to prevent people becoming homeless are required to reduce economic inequality.

Healthcare services
"The Committee is concerned at the overall deteriorating healthcare services, affected by significant budget cuts in public health in recent years, and at the negative impact on the access of disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups to adequate healthcare, in particular:
  • The widening disparity between people with and those without private health insurance in accessing medical services, 
  • The delay in providing universal health services and community-based health services; 
  • The lack of oversight of healthcare services; and
  • The poor health state of Travellers and Roma, particularly their life expectancy and infant mortality which are respectively 15 years less and more than three times higher than the general population (art. 12)."
All of these issues relate to health inequalities and are explored as part TASCs research in this area.

Many of the issues raised by the Committee are similar to those raised by TASC in Cherishing All Equally  and in our on-going work on economic inequality.

In particular, this type of report presents a more wide-ranging and nuanced view of the economic and social situation in Ireland. It reinforces the fact that we need to move beyond single measures such as the unemployment rate, the level of growth or the Gini Co-efficient.

Cormac Staunton is Policy Analyst at TASC. You can follow him on Twitter @Cormac_Staunton 

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