Last week the Salvation Army published its annual State of the Nation report. It contains a mass of depressing social and economic topics and statistics. One stands out, yet again: the deplorable state of our benefit system.
New Zealand had a proud record from the late 19th century of providing social security for the disadvantaged, but most commentators now acknowledge the ‘reforms’ (which culminated in the benefit cuts of 1990) reduced this protection so much that the system has even now not recovered.
As part of its ‘reform’ programme, the previous Coalition Government set up a widely representative Welfare Expert Advisory Group to investigate and make recommendations to address this problem. This group reported in May 2019 with a range of recommendations, including an immediate increase to the standard benefit by from 12 to 47%!
Although the Government has adopted some of the recommendations, it has not yet meaningfully addressed our welfare system’s deficiencies. (These are exacerbated by New Zealand’s current situation as a low-wage economy so that the loss of an income can tip families into immediate poverty.)
The Covid-19 crisis has brought these inadequacies of our present levels of care for disadvantaged and structurally oppressed people into stark relief, revealing just how many New Zealanders have been living on the edge of disaster. Again, this Government has taken some steps: an immediate increase in the standard benefit of $25.00 per week, wage subsidies to businesses to keep working people in jobs, and measures to alleviate the plight of homeless people.
But in all this there is one relevant framework which has been hardly mentioned: international human rights law and, in this context, an internationally recognised right to social security and social assistance. Yet this framework can lend support to these cries for reform and draw attention to the Government’s obligations and its own international commitments.
As with many of the issues highlighted in the Salvation Army report, this right is categorised as a human right in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966 (the Covenant, ICESCR), which New Zealand ratified (that is, agreed to be legally bound by) in 1978. It is one of the three foundational international human rights instruments, with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) from which the two Covenants derive.
The rights articulated in this Covenant are economic, social and cultural rights: to work and as a worker and in relation to trade unions; to social security and social assistance; to an adequate standard of living, encompassing housing, food and water; to healthcare, including physical and mental health; to education; and to take part in cultural life. All people are entitled to these rights, and ratifying states have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil them. New Zealand was a powerful supporter of the inclusion and recognition of these rights as early as 1948.
The right to social security and social assistance is one of the oldest established of such rights. It was one of the earliest areas of concern to be addressed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), established in 1919. New Zealand has been a member of the ILO since its inception and has agreed to many of its binding Conventions. The ILO was instrumental in the drafting of the Covenantal ‘work rights’, including Article 9 on the right to social security and social assistance, which is thus one of those economic and social rights which the Government is obligated to provide for all New Zealanders. As with other Covenant rights, it has been extensively commented upon by the United Nations Committee which oversees the Covenant and by the ILO and other experts, so that there is a wealth of material for policy makers and advisory groups to adapt to any local setting.
The Committee periodically issues General Comments to assist states in carrying out their obligations. General Comment 19 (2008), for example, contains a wealth of information and recommendations for fulfilling the right to social security. Earlier, General Comment 3 (1990), on process applicable to all ESC rights, makes two points of particular relevance in this context: no regressive measures should ever be taken, except in dire circumstances and then for as short a time as possible, and the interests of the most vulnerable should always be of paramount importance. On neither of these criteria does the present benefit system stand up to much scrutiny. While benefit levels may not have been ‘cut’, in relation to the cost of living, especially housing, they are certainly going backwards; and all non-governmental organisation (NGO) reports and national statistics show that the plight of the most vulnerable groups is worsening.
In the opportunity which presents itself for a real national conversation about the sort of society we truly desire and are prepared to work for post-Covid-19, there is surely a place for a re-recognition of the framework which the international human rights system provides. It reminds the Government of is international obligations and the need for solutions; and for advocates it provides a wealth of information and arguments to shape their advocacy.
NOTE: The Human Rights Foundation’s blog presents a human rights perspective on current issues.Through it, we aim to highlight human rights in general, as they provide: (1) a set of agreed international standards, under which governments, including ours, have obligations to their peoples; (2) information on policies and practices which can be useful models for adapting to local conditions.