JCHR Press Notice No. 7

5 March 2003   Session 2002-03


Inquiry into the Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural  Rights


The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights is one of the core instruments of the UN human rights system to which the UK is party.  In common with the other principal UN human rights treaties, it requires the States party to it to present periodic reports, at regular intervals, detailing their compliance with the rights it protects.

The UK's fourth periodic report under the Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights was submitted to the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in January 2001. Examination of the UK report by the CESCR took place in Geneva in April 2002.  The CESCR's concluding observations were issued in June 2002.  They criticised a number of aspects of human rights protection in the UK and made recommendations for change.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, as part of its mandate to consider matters related to human rights in the United Kingdom, is conducting a programme of inquiries into the UK's implementation of its obligations under the principal UN human rights treaties, and in particular into the action taken in response to the concluding observations of the UN treaty bodies.  The Joint Committee has already looked at the implementation of the concluding observations recently issued under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  The Committee intends to continue to monitor UK reports presented to the UN treaty bodies, and to examine the subsequent concluding observations and the Government's response to them. 

Almost one year after the CESCR issued its concluding observations, this inquiry will be seeking to discover how the recommendations have been received in government, and whether or how they are to be acted upon.  The recommendations of the CESCR have no binding force.  Nevertheless, and although the JCHR may take a different view to the UN Committee on some matters,  the concluding observations present an authoritative view of compliance with standards which bind the UK in international law. 

This call for evidence therefore seeks views on some of the key criticisms and recommendations made by the UN Committee, and on the Government's response to them.

Should the Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights form part of UK law?

The CESCR, in its Concluding Observations "strongly recommends" that the UK re-examine the matter of incorporation of the Covenant in domestic law.  It contests the view of the Government, as put forward to the Committee during their consideration of the Report, that the Covenant rights are principles and programmatic objectives rather than legal obligations.  Incorporation of the Covenant rights is not required under the Covenant.  However, the CESCR, in its General Comment on the Domestic Application of the Covenant (General Comment No 9) outlines three principles for the domestic implementation of ICESCR rights:

• The means of implementation chosen must be adequate to ensure fulfilment of the obligations under the Covenant;

• Account should be taken of the means which have proved most effective in ensuring the protection of other human rights in the jurisdiction (and any departure from these means with regard to economic and social rights should be clearly justified);

• An approach which directly incorporates the Covenant into domestic law, though not formally required by the Covenant, is desirable.

The Joint Committee seeks views on the following questions:

Is there a case for incorporation of guarantees of economic social and cultural rights in UK law?  Can the Covenant rights be adequately protected without incorporation?

Can you provide evidence of areas where you believe the lack of such guarantees leads to lesser or unsatisfactory protection of economic social and cultural rights, such as to breach the UK's obligations under the Covenant?

Specific Issues

The Joint Committee  would also welcome evidence on any of the specific matters raised in the conclusions and observations of the CESCR.  A copy of the Concluding Observations is attached.  [Of the matters highlighted by the Committee, we consider UK participation in multinational organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF to be outside this Committee's terms of reference.  In addition, the JCHR has already inquired into the case for the establishment of a Human Rights Commission (The Case for a Human Rights Commission: Interim Report, 2/09/2002,  House of Lords Paper 160/House of Commons Paper 1142; the physical punishment of children (as part of its examination of compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a report on which is to be published shortly); into the scope of the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, including in relation to protection of socio-economic rights (Inquiry into the Work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission).  We do not intend to revisit these issues here.]    The Joint Committee would in particular welcome views on how a rights-based approach to the following matters could address the following concerns.

• Discrimination in Employment, Housing and Education. The CESCR recommended further steps to combat de facto discrimination, in particular against ethnic minorities and people with disabilities, in relation to employment, housing and education.  In this regard it "strongly recommends" that the UK enact comprehensive legislation on equality and non discrimination, to ensure compliance with Article 2.2 of the Covenant, which requires that the Covenant rights should be guaranteed without discrimination. 

• The National Minimum Wage.  The CESCR urged the UK to ensure that the level of the national minimum wage is determined in accordance with the requirements of the right to an adequate standard of living; to extend protection of the minimum wage to people under the age of 18; and to apply the minimum wage on a non-discriminatory basis to people between 18 and 21. Article 6 of the Covenant guarantees the right to remuneration adequate to ensure a decent living, and Article 11 guarantees the right to an adequate standard of living.

• The Right to Strike.  The CESCR recommends that the right to strike be incorporated in legislation and that strike action should no longer entail the loss of employment, in accordance with Article 8.1 (d)  ICESCR.

• Domestic Violence.  The CESCR recommended that the UK continue its efforts to combat domestic violence and to ensure sufficient refuge places (Article 8, Article 13 ICESCR).

• Poverty and Social Exclusion.  The Concluding Observations urge the UK to address the problem of poverty and social exclusion as a matter of high priority, with special focus on the needs of ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and older people. Article 11 ICESCR protects the right to an adequate standard of living, and requires "progressive realisation" of this right, and non-discrimination in its delivery.

• Homelessness.  The Concluding Observations recommend that the UK should ensure availability of adequate health care to homeless people (Article 12 ICESCR), and that there should be a focus on the needs of groups particularly vulnerable to homelessness, including ethnic minorities (Article 11 ICESCR).

• Housing Conditions.  The CESCR recommends that the UK should take immediate measures to improve poor housing conditions and to relieve fuel poverty (Article 11 ICESCR).

• Further and Higher Education.  The CESCR recommends that the UK should ensure that arrangements for tuition fees and student loans, etc, do not have a negative impact on students from less privileged backgrounds, in breach of the obligation to progressively achieve free third level education (Article 13(2)(c)).

• Integrated Education in Northern Ireland.  The CESCR recommended that the UK should consider appropriate measures to facilitate integrated schools in Northern Ireland, where there is parental support for integration.

The Reporting Process

The CESCR recommended dissemination of the concluding observations widely at all levels of society, in particular among State officials and the judiciary. It also recommended that the UK should involve NGOs and other members of civil society in the preparation of its next periodic report. The Joint Committee would welcome views on the reporting process, on its accessibility to NGOs, trade unions and interested individuals, on the possibilities for co-operation with government and with the UN, and on the dissemination of the government Report and the concluding observations.  The Joint Committee seeks views on the following matters.

What more could be done to increase awareness of the reporting process?

What steps could be taken to make the reporting process more useful or relevant to government or wider civil society?

The Joint Committee would be grateful for evidence in response to some of all of the issues raised above, or any of the matters you feel should be considered in the context of the UK's report under the ICESCR or the UN Committee's observations upon it.  These should reach the Committee by 28 April 2003.

Copies of the Covenant, and further information regarding the Covenant and the CESCR, are available on the UN website at www.unhchr.ch

Instructions to Witnesses

Evidence should be submitted to Paul Evans, Commons Clerk of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Committee Office, House of Commons, London SWlA OAA.  Fax 020 7219 6864. E-mail JCHR@parliament.uk.  Electronic submission is acceptable to meet the closing date, but a signed hard copy should also be sent - in any event, witnesses are asked wherever possible to accompany hard copy by an electronic version, preferably in Word or WordPerfect format. Evidence should if possible arrive by 28 April 2003; evidence submitted later may not be able to be taken into account in the Committee's deliberations.

Shorter submissions (of fewer than 5000 words) would be preferred. Longer submissions should include a one-page summary.

Evidence must be clearly printed or typed on single sides of A4 paper, unstapled. Paragraphs should be numbered. If drawings or charts are included, these must be black-and-white and of camera-ready quality.  Evidence should be signed and dated, with a note of the author's name and status, and of whether the evidence is submitted on an individual or corporate basis.  Only one copy is required. All submissions will be acknowledged.

Evidence becomes the property of the Committee, and may be printed or circulated by the Committee at any stage.  You may publicise or publish your evidence yourself, but in doing so you must indicate that it was prepared for the Committee.  Evidence published other than under the authority of the Committee does not attract Parliamentary privilege.