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Britain’s Rights Challenges Can’t Wait for Brexit

Critical Issues Left Unaddressed by Government and Parliament

Older woman leaving a community center with programs for older people in East London.  © 2018 Stephanie Hancock for Human Rights Watch
If a week is a long time in politics, July 2016 seems a lifetime ago.

Theresa May stood outside 10 Downing Street then and addressed the nation for the first time as prime minister. The Brexit vote had been less than three weeks earlier. She promised to tackle “burning injustices” relating to poverty and discrimination, and at the same time as leaving the EU, to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.”

Today the evidence of the deep problems she identified is mounting. The number of children living in absolute poverty has risen to 3.7 million. Food bank use among families with children is skyrocketing, and an upcoming Human Rights Watch report finds this is clearly linked to government changes to the welfare system. Botched assessments in the austerity-hit social care system prevent older people from getting the support they need. The families of those who died in 2017’s deadly Grenfell Tower fire are still waiting for justice.

These are questions of human rights as well as of social justice. And there is scant evidence the UK government is trying to resolve them.

Civil servants who might have helped devise policy solutions to these problems have been diverted to work on “no deal Brexit” preparations. Proposals for social care reform have been delayed. And members of parliament, who should be confronting the government over its failure to improve the rights of people living in the UK, seem mostly bewitched by Brexit.

Brexit has certainly put the UK through a major stress test of its institutions in recent months. But that is no excuse for the prime minister’s neglect in tackling injustice in the more than two years that followed her speech.

As a way forward on Brexit is found, the government should find the time and resources to put these pressing rights issues back on the agenda, and parliament should insist it do so.

And all parties should ensure that the country avoids a no-deal Brexit, which would inherently damage human rights protections and far more besides, and leave little space to address burning injustices that haven’t gone away.

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