JOINT

Joint Committee publishes report on the Welfare Reform Bill

12 December 2011

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) today publishes its legislative scrutiny Report on the Welfare Reform Bill

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) today publishes its legislative scrutiny Report on the Welfare Reform Bill.

The Report deals with a number of significant human rights issues, including:

  • The thoroughness of the Government's human rights analysis
  • Impact assessments and monitoring
  • Destitution
  • Discrimination
  • Retrogression

The Government's principal objective in this Bill is to support people to move into and progress in work, while still supporting those in greatest need.  The committee commends this objective, which is consistent with many international human rights instruments which recognise the right to work and the right to an adequate standard of living, and therefore welcomes the Bill as a potentially human rights enhancing measure. However, it has a number of concerns about its compatibility with the requirements of human rights law. 

The committee regrets the fact that the Government has not provided Parliament with a full human rights memorandum which includes a detailed analysis of the Bill’s compatibility with the UK's obligations under relevant international human rights treaties. Providing such information to Parliament strengthens the principle of subsidiarity: laws passed after detailed parliamentary scrutiny of their human rights compatibility are more likely to withstand subsequent judicial scrutiny.

The committee calls on the Government to improve its capacity to conduct equality impact assessments. It reiterates its previous recommendation that, where the Government's view on compatibility relies on safeguards to be provided in secondary legislation, draft Regulations should be published together with the Bill. It also calls upon the Government better to monitor the post-legislative impact of the measures in the Bill.

Although the imposition of conditionality requirements on benefits is not precluded by human rights law, the committee believes there is a risk that the conditionality and sanction provisions in the Bill might in some circumstances lead to destitution, contrary to Article 3 ECHR. The committee therefore urges the Government to give careful consideration to this risk and carefully to monitor the impact of the sanctions regime.

The committee is concerned that some of the proposals in the Bill may be implemented in a way which could both lead to a discriminatory impact and also not demonstrate a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the legitimate aim that is sought to be realised. It considers that changes to welfare support designed to meet the right to social security and the right to an adequate standard of living should be supported by evidence and closely monitored after implementation.

With regard to the housing benefit cap, the disproportionate impact of current proposals on larger households is said by the Government to be justified because it promotes fairness with similar-sized households which are just outside entitlement to benefit – undoubtedly a legitimate aim.  However, the committee is concerned about the possible disproportionate impact on some disabled people.  It therefore recommends allowing additional discretion to exempt disabled people facing exceptional hardship from the benefit cap and from the provisions concerning under-occupation of social housing.

The committee recognises that the availability of resources is of central relevance to the extent of the UK's obligations under the UN human rights treaties.  However, the duty of progressive realisation in UN human rights treaties entails a strong presumption against retrogressive measures affecting the right to social security and to an adequate standard of living.  The committee is therefore not satisfied that the Government has demonstrated reasonable justification for the negative impact of the introduction of Personal Independence Payments on the right of disabled people to independent living.  The Bill should be amended to ensure that the assessment process for PIPs takes account of the barriers experienced by disabled claimants.  The committee recommends a trial period for the new assessment process and a report to Parliament on the implementation of the new testing system.  However, it welcomes the Government's decision to table an amendment to the Bill to remove the provision which allows for withdrawal of the mobility component of PIP from residential care home residents.

The committee welcomes the Government's avowed intention of improving ministerial accountability for the eradication of child poverty, although any changes proposed to the current legal framework for accountability will require careful scrutiny.  It recommends that the Bill be amended to require the Secretary of State to make a statement to Parliament responding to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission's annual report; and it calls on the Government to commit to providing an opportunity for Parliament to debate that report and the Minister's statement in response.

Dr Hywel Francis MP, the Chair of the committee, said:

"This is an important Bill and it is vital that the Government take on board the committee's concerns, not least since there is still a lack of available detail about the substance of some of the changes proposed.  We welcome the Government's recent decision to retain the mobility component of the Disability Living Allowance for residents of residential care homes as a sign that it is indeed willing to think carefully, in human rights terms, about exactly what it is proposing."

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