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Column: Human rights should be placed at the heart of budgetary decisions

Around 6.9 per cent of the Irish population live in consistent poverty; in order to break the cycle and support dignified living, the government needs to listen to the people affected, writes Saoirse Brady.

Saoirse Brady

UNDER THE EU-IMF financial assistance programme, the Irish State continues to seek savings of €440 million within its social welfare budget.

However, if we must cut our spending even further to meet austerity requirements, how do we ensure that cuts are equal, fair and allow people to live in basic dignity? Particularly in a context where more than 1.5 million people now depend on a social welfare payment for themselves and their families.

We in FLAC (the Free Legal Advice Centres) believe that the Government should consult in more depth with the people most heavily impacted by cuts – and follow international law on fundamental rights to achieve a just outcome in our budgetary decisions.

Human rights at the heart of budgetary decisions

FLAC has repeatedly called for human rights to be placed at the heart of Government’s budgetary decisions through impact assessments and Equality Budgeting follows a similar approach in relation to equality. In this light, FLAC’s Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA) project hosted a roundtable on Equality Budgeting with a number of civil society representatives on 18 July.  The discussion centred on how the Government can deliver a fairer, more equitable budget in line with the State’s own legal commitments. The Irish Equality Budgeting Campaign’s research on established models in other jurisdictions proved particularly valuable in framing the wider conversation.

The State has clearly defined what poverty means in an Irish context: it is a situation where a person’s “income and resources (material, cultural and social) are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally”.

In 2011, 6.9 per cent of the Irish population was found to be living in consistent poverty; in other words, living in households with an income less than 60 per cent of the national median, and unable to afford such basics as adequate heating, replacement clothing or decent meals.  The Government has committed itself to reducing the rate of consistent poverty to four per cent by 2016 and to two per cent by 2020. If it keeps to its present course, however, it is not clear how this target can be met.

Households with children are most impacted by welfare cuts

Earlier this year, the Department of Social Protection published a Social Impact Assessment of Budget 2013 which gauged the impact of last year’s budget and direct taxation on specific groups in society – but only after the cuts had already been made. The Department asserted that these cuts did not make things worse for people, because the number of people at-risk-of-poverty remained unchanged at 16 per cent. However, it is equally clear that the cuts did not improve the situation of people already living, or at risk of living, below the poverty line. Households with children are most impacted by welfare cuts; consequently, lone parents with children have suffered the greatest losses.

Equally, while the Government has made strong belt-tightening commitments to the EU and IMF, it has also committed itself under international law to respecting, protecting and promoting human rights, including the right of people to live with dignity. A basic minimum income is not an optional extra. The right to an adequate standard of living is contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Council of Europe’s European Social Charter. Despite these requirements, the Irish Government has failed to deliver on this right for a substantial proportion of the population.

Reducing poverty and supporting dignified living

So what, if anything, can the Government do to ensure that it achieves its targets to reduce poverty and ensure that people living in Ireland have a dignified existence? There is no simple answer, but FLAC would argue that talking to those who will be affected by any changes or cuts would be a good start.

With an earlier date of 15 October set for this year’s Budget Day, FLAC and many other organisations have already sent in their proposals around welfare spending to the Department of Social Protection. We also attended a Pre-Budget Forum earlier this month. Here and through its Social Inclusion Forum,  the Department of Social Protection engages with organisations representing various social groups. But the Department should not just rely on a once-off box-ticking consultation. Instead, there should be ongoing consultation throughout the year.

The people most affected by cuts – those living in poverty – should be heard equally in the decision-making process before final decisions are made. Until they have a say in the decisions that affect them, their lack of participation will continue the vicious circle and remain “a defining feature and cause of poverty, rather than just its consequence” as outlined by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty, Magdalena Sepúlveda.

FLAC would ask the Government, in particular the Minister for Social Protection, to take a fresh look at the social protection budget from a human rights and equality perspective, so that everyone can enjoy an adequate, basic standard of living, even in these straitened times. In the forthcoming October Budget, the Government must put people at the heart of its policies to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected and that the State fulfils its international legal obligations.

Saoirse Brady is FLAC’s Policy and Advocacy Officer. Saoirse is responsible for FLAC’s policy work on social welfare law reform and is the author of Not Fair Enough (2012), calling for the reform of the social welfare appeals system and One Size Doesn’t Fit All (2009), a legal analysis of the State’s direct provision and dispersal system for asylum seekers.

FLAC’s Pre-Budget submission 2014 is available at www.flac.ie and you can support the Equality Budgeting Campaign at: www.equalitybudgeting.ie.

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