Dr Mark Simpson (Ulster)
The protection of human dignity and poverty reduction are core functions of social security. Changes to working age benefits since 2010 have reduced claimants’ incomes, putting more people at risk of poverty and arguably reducing the ability of the system to support a dignified standard of living. Human rights law has been used to challenge key policies and pressure has grown for a different approach in Scotland and Northern Ireland, resulting in Northern Ireland’s mitigations programme and the devolution of new powers to Scotland. The Scottish Government has given a commitment to develop a devolved system on the basis of a distinctive set of principles, notably respect for the dignity of claimants, and plans to reinstate statutory targets for the reduction of child poverty. The Northern Ireland Executive has a legal duty to publish a strategy for tackling poverty and social exclusion. There are also proposals for enhanced protection of social and economic rights in both regions. These objectives could be undermined by benefit cuts. Limiting the child element of universal credit to two children per household is projected to increase child poverty and merits particularly close attention. Recent judicial reviews show senior judges are increasingly prepared to hold governments accountable for the impact of social security regulations on children’s rights. It is therefore likely that this change will be challenged in the courts. However, the devolved regions need not wait for legal action. The two-child limit works against Scottish policy on child poverty, while Northern Ireland’s larger average family size and higher rates of socio-economic disadvantage mean it will be among the most affected United Kingdom (UK) regions: parity in social security provision does not mean parity of living standards. Drawing on research for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the seminar examines how social security system can protect dignity. It then assesses the impact of recent reforms in the UK, with a focus on child-related benefits. Finally, it suggests that dignity and child poverty can help devolved administrations identify priority areas where limited resources can be targeted to improve social security at the regional level.
This seminar took place on 6th June 2018