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Ireland's attitude to housing rights, social security and culture is under scrutiny

A Civil Society report will be presented in Geneva next week.

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

IRELAND IS BOUND by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which protects rights like health, housing, work, education, family life, social security, cultural life and adequate living standards.

The UN is currently conducting a review of Ireland’s compliance with the covenant, culminating in a formal examination of the government delegation led by Minister of State Sean Sherlock TD in Geneva next week, on 8-9 June.

A delegation from Irish civil society will present a comprehensive alternative report, Our Voice, Our Rights, drawn from evidence from more than 80 organisations and co-ordinated by legal rights group FLAC and its Public Interest Law Alliance project, on how these rights are being fulfilled on the ground.

The following gives an overview of the rights to housing, social security and a cultural life, all part of the Civil Society report being presented in Geneva next week.

Part one looked at the economic, social and cultural rights of three groups in irish society – children, disabled people and Travellers & Roma.

The right to housing

– Barra Lysaght, Legal Officer, Threshold

Housing is not a commodity. It is a basic, perhaps the most basic, of human rights.

International human rights law recognises the right to housing as part of the right to an adequate standard of living – not just the right to have a roof over your head, but the right to live in security, peace and dignity.

What do we mean by ‘adequate’ housing? Affordability, habitability, freedom from forced eviction, and access to local employment, education, and healthcare services are just some of the essential components of the right. Adequate housing is crucial to the enjoyment and exercise of other human rights, in particular the right to private and family life, and is vital to meaningful participation in the economic, social and cultural life of the community.

Threshold works to secure the right to housing, particularly for those experiencing poverty and exclusion, adopting a rights-based and solution-focused approach to housing issues.

There is a growing housing crisis in Ireland, and its impact is not limited to the increasing numbers of people who are becoming homeless. Migrants, students, mortgage holders, landlords, tenants – these are just some of the groups that have been impacted by factors which include a decrease in supply, an increase in demand, and the unresolved legacy of mortgage arrears.

Increasingly, discrimination is a feature of our housing market. Those of Threshold’s clients who rely on social welfare and housing assistance to pay their rent face significant obstacles in accessing private rented accommodation. The repossession of mortgaged properties is resulting in the eviction not only of homeowners, but of tenants in mortgaged properties. Difficulties in accessing homeownership and rising rents, particularly in urban areas, mean that housing-related costs are outstripping incomes. For many, this means that the ability to meet other basic needs, such as food, clothing and childcare, is undermined. An unprecedented increase in the number of homeless families is the inevitable consequence of a housing affordability crisis.

In Geneva, a civil society delegation, including Threshold, will be holding the Government to account before the UN on its obligation to secure the right to adequate housing for everyone in the State. We will be calling on the Government to make good on its promise to increase the supply of social and affordable housing. We will be calling for the recognition of the right to adequate housing within our Constitution. We will be calling for the introduction of rent certainty measures. We will be calling for action to end discrimination in the housing market. We will challenge the Government to take steps to ensure that the right to housing becomes a reality.

The right to social security

– Jane O’Sullivan, Solicitor & Policy Officer, Community Law & Mediation

Austerity has had a significant impact on the social welfare system and on people’s lives, particularly within vulnerable and disadvantaged groups – the UN’s examination of Ireland under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights in June provides a unique chance to assess the damage done and propose ways to address it.

Since the State’s last examination in 2002, the Government has engaged measures which have reduced the accessibility of the social security system. For example, the Habitual Residence Condition means many people are deemed ineligible for payments like Child Benefit. Instead of being defined in law, the meaning and application of the Condition must be interpreted by public servants. It disproportionately impacts on immigrants, including asylum seekers, and on victims of domestic violence. Yet a government-appointed working group to review conditions for asylum seekers will not include the Condition.

Another example: new rules have restricted access for one-parent families to social protection. About 215,000 families in Ireland – one in four – are headed up by a single parent. This means that almost a fifth of all children in Ireland live in a one-parent family, and more than half of those families live in deprivation.

The One Parent Family Payment is designed to support lone parents on low incomes while allowing them back into the workforce. But the big stumbling block is childcare. Many lone parents simply cannot afford to return to work given the cost of childcare, yet recent changes to this payment went ahead without increasing childcare supports, such that more than 9,000 recipients lost their entitlement to the payment in 2012 and 2013 alone, and thousands more will lose it in July 2015 when the child age eligibility limit is lowered again to 7.

In recent years, rights have been overruled by economic expediency. There is serious concern about the railroading of social welfare legislation through the Oireachtas. This law affects the lives and basic living standards of so many in the State, including the most vulnerable. Laws are being passed in haste and, unfortunately, repented at leisure.

The new Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2015 makes it more difficult for carers to access income supports; you will be presumed ineligible for a payment unless you can prove otherwise, a serious shift in the burden of proof. Further, the regulations meant to give effect to legislation sometimes do not work as intended: while the Department insists that rent supplement limits will not be increased, the gap between rent supplement rate and actual market rate cannot realistically be bridged. People are being priced out of the rental market in the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis.

In the context of social welfare recipients being increasingly demonised in the media and the government’s refusal to proof budget decisions for human rights or equality impact, the resulting unfairness looks set to deepen. The UN’s scrutiny of how the government has fulfilled the right of people in Ireland to social security should shed light on how to address these issues.

Right to a cultural life

– Ed Carroll, Project Leader, Blue Drum

Ireland loves community. Community is a place of meaning-making, represented by objects, artefacts and cultural spaces as diverse as the hearth and knitted sweater.

Ireland loves art and culture.  Culture scrolls us backwards to connect to the inhabitants of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth and fast-forwards to the future creativity of the new Irish. Like an iceberg, culture shifts largely in ways that are unseen and unheard.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights has acknowledged the importance of how we define cultural life: “Culture reflects a way of being and feeling, in short, the community’s way of life and thought”. Similarly, the National Economic and Social Forum defined the cultural life of citizens not simply as “consumers (audiences), but also creators, producers, distributors, commentators, and decision‒makers”.

But very significant cohorts of the population do not receive publicly subsidised funding for arts and culture. The distribution of public funds is out of balance with our evolving cultural iceberg and the changing demographics of our communities.

The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has excluded community and art (a distinctive language of culture) from public funding of culture, explaining in 2014 that “[m]uch of the programmes aimed at community arts fall outside the remit of this Department and the Arts Council.”

Niall O’Baoill’s recent blog input is one voice from the ground of community arts practice that never trickles-up to government: “I make no apology for choosing to talk of an unacceptable cultural apartheid that persists in my country.”

Because spending on the arts in Ireland is a transfer of resources from the less well‒off to the better‒off. In 2010, the Arts Council received €68 million of which over €65 million came from the National Lottery. Lottery revenue is gathered disproportionately from lower socio‒economic groups and available data indicate that public funding for the arts is regressive, meaning it is a transfer of resources from the less well‒off to the better‒off.  In this light, does it not seem reasonable to demand an inclusive culture?

We’re promised Culture 2025, a new cultural policy, and a new Arts Plan. The previous 1987 White Paper identified “the encouragement of opportunities for dynamic participation in the creation of culture and personal engagement for meaning and purpose in life”. We know that the right to a cultural life is the Cinderella of the rights framework – but is a site for experimentation and innovation.

One year ago, in preparation for the civil society Parallel Report, Blue Drum and others organised a five-year Community Culture Strategy, an action to support the cultural rights of people and place. By engaging over 250 activists and artists across Ireland over the last year, it became clearer that community culture is a right that trickles up.

Promoting it will require a unique level of locally-led cooperation, but it can stimulate and support long-term programme development, exchange of know-how and show-how, and a new model of practice in the field of community arts – one based on cultural rights and values.

The UN is currently conducting a review of Ireland’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The review will culminate in a formal examination of the government delegation in Geneva on 8-9 June 2015.

Open letter to Ban Ki-Moon: ‘Ireland’s commitments to human rights are being weakened’

The UN is reviewing Ireland’s protection of rights – how will we fare?

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About the author:

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

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