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UK: manifestly inadequate

UK: manifestly inadequate

Politicians and the media don't discuss social security in terms of rights anymore. They discuss welfare in terms of "skivers", "shirkers" and "scroungers", and people "on the sick" or "swinging the lead" all of whom are getting "something for nothing".

But under the Council of Europe's Social Charter (article 12), to which the UK is a signatory, we all have the right to social security. Rights aren't "something for nothing", they're an integral part of our humanity, or at least of our citizenship.

Amid all the furore about the demonisation of people on benefits it's often forgotten - by those on either side of the argument - just what social security achieves: it saves lives, prevents poverty and destitution. To live free from the fear of starvation, poverty and homelessness is a right that most people in the UK accept as fair, necessary and obvious.

To ensure this right is being maintained the Council's European Committee of Social Rights publishes an annual review. This year it found UK benefits were "manifestly inadequate". And they are. Jobseeker's Allowance stood at just £67 per week in 2011 (the year covered by the report), while incapacity benefit was £71 (£94 for those with a long-term disability) and the state pension languished at £102 per week.

The real value of UK benefits has been declining for some time, as PCS research found last year. While unemployment benefit was worth 28% of average earnings in 1967, today it is only 13%.

Unsurprisingly, when told the Committee concluded "the situation in United Kingdom is not in conformity with Article 12", Iain Duncan Smith was dismissive: "It's lunacy for the Council of Europe to suggest welfare payments need to increase when we paid out £204bn in benefits and pensions last year alone".

But actually they do need to increase. Compared with the UK's paltry 13%, in France unemployment benefit is worth 66% of average earnings, and it's 59% in Germany, 75% in the Netherlands, 63% in Belgium, 58% in Spain, 57% in Denmark and 46% in Sweden. (Incidentally, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands all have higher rates of tax over 50% - and France may soon have a higher tax rate of 75%).

Things are not likely to get better in the UK. Annual benefit increases have been capped at 1% and look set to continue to be with cross-party consensus. This is despite George Osborne's hubris about his 'recovery'. Last November he said “I am determined that everybody benefits from this recovery and that’s what we’re going to set out to do with our economic plan”. That clearly won't include those on social security or as Osborne calls them, those "with their curtains closed, sleeping off a life on benefits".

So one can only imagine what the Council of Europe's committee will make of the UK in next year's analysis when the government's new sanctions regime will be included. Since October 2012, over 52,000 people have lost their benefits for 3 months or more and benefit sanctions on jobseeker's allowance claimants alone amount to £328,000 removed per day (see analysis here).

Just like this government, the UK benefits are, shamefully, "manifestly inadequate."