When lots of rights make a wrong…

15 12 2008

Staff at Bobballs have been concerned about James Purnell’s newly announced Raw Deal (Balls! 08.12).

But then we tried considering things from the government’s side of the fence. What factors are at play in determining reforms? But in particular, what obstacles to reform could there be in Northern Ireland?

That’s when we happened across the NI Human Rights Commission’s advisory Bill of Rights! How could a Purnell reform operate within a future world stalked by NIHRC’s BoR?

Check out page 50, it states:


A provision should be drafted to ensure that –
1. Everyone has the right to social security, including social assistance, social insurance and pension. Public authorities must take all appropriate measures, including legislative measures, to the maximum of their available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of this right.

Perhaps his provision was framed with Traveller communities in mind, but would this not be open to abuse by those in receipt of social assistance but who fail to meet their obligations?

Could anyone who is turned down for a particular form of assistance use a BoR to overturn it? Would, for example, penalising an individual one week’s payment (as is being proposed) be described as denial of ‘the right to social security’? Or would limiting certain assistance down to single mothers with children under one (as is being proposed) be deemed denial of fundamental rights/discrimination against everyone outside this bracket?

All arguable. So what if a penalty did not transgress social security rights, could it breach the right to an adequate standard of living (page 116) which states:


A provision should be drafted to ensure that –
1. Everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living sufficient for that person and their dependents. Public authorities must take all appropriate measures, including legislative measures, to the maximum of their available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of this right.

A penalty removes public resources from an applicant’s household income. That must impact on standard of living for a short period (carrot & stick etc) so as to incentivise a positive change in behaviour.

But few receiving a fine will believe their new position to be adequate… because if it were, they would be admitting that this new level of assitance is what they ought to have been receiving originally. So the penalty will always be said to result in an inadequate standard of living. Bingo… legal action!

If social assistance is always a human right then what enforcement/selection process/administration can there be? Will the Bill of Rights not just leave all applicants with every opportunity to get the ‘carrot’, and ensure courts take possession of the ‘stick’?

In reality, under this system everyday welfare administration would surely move from the civil service to the law courts.

No one will want to see social reforms replace the catch-all welfare safety net with a tiny, dodgy looking hammock. But on the other hand, however suspect Purnell’s reforms are, the view from the other end of spectrum isn’t so great either. Who could fund the mess this BoR threatens to create?

When the News of the World illustrated Purnell’s reforms with a picture of Karen Matthews it demonstrated how badly we need a sensible debate on the issue. Not entirely sure that the advisory BoR really helps that along.

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