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We write in advance of the 72nd pre-session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regarding its review of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This submission includes information on the situation of low-income families in temporary accommodation, protection of education from attack, access to education during Covid-19 school closures, inadequate social security protection, the right to food, and an overarching failure to give ICESCR protections meaningful application in domestic law.

Failure to fully incorporate social, economic, and cultural rights protections into domestic legal framework (article 2)

  1. The UK government has not incorporated the Covenant rights into its domestic legal framework in a manner in which people who assert a violation of a Covenant right can seek legal remedy.
  2. In the State Party Report, the government asserts that “It is possible for an individual to challenge any government decision in the domestic courts if their rights have been breached.”[1] However, recent jurisprudence from the UK Supreme Court—in litigation asserting violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in the context of social security policy—makes it unambiguously clear unincorporated international treaties do not form part of the domestic law of the UK and that there is “no basis […] for any departure from the rule that our domestic courts cannot determine whether this country has violated its obligations under unincorporated international law.”[2] The failure to incorporate the ICESCR, as is the case with the UN CRC, into domestic law leaves people alleging violations of those rights without a domestic recourse to remedy.
  3. In addition to the absence of enforceable remedies in domestic courts, the UK government’s failure to ratify the Optional Protocol leaves people who allege violations of rights under the Covenant without the avenue of petitioning the Committee.
  4. Since its passage in 2010, the Equality Act’s opening section on the “socioeconomic duty” remains unrealized until secondary legislation is passed, bringing it into force. The duty, if the government brings it into force, could potentially require all public bodies to “have due regard to the desirability of exercising [decisions] in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socioeconomic disadvantage.”[3] Examples from devolved administrations in Scotland[4] and Wales[5], where Section 1 has been brought into force for some public bodies, suggest that such a duty can be useful in improving practice in public decision-making.[6]
  5. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the UK government:
  • To set out precisely what route exists for a person alleging a violation of a right under ICESCR to bring a justiciable legal claim in the domestic courts.
  • Provide further explanation of its refusal to ratify the Optional Protocol in light of the difficulties of enforcing rights under “unincorporated international law” through domestic courts.
  • Explain its delay in bringing into force across the UK the socioeconomic duty contained in Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010.

Low-income families in “temporary accommodation” (articles 2, 9, 11, 12, 13)

  1. Over the last decade, there has been a 65 percent increase in the number of families living in temporary accommodation in England, from 36,640 households in 2011 to 60,490 households in 2021.[7] The majority of these families live in London. Official data from October 2021 estimated that there were 42,290 households with children in temporary accommodation in London, including 86,450 children.[8] This means that approximately 70 percent of all families in temporary accommodation are living in the capital.
  2. In a January 2022 report, Human Rights Watch found that children in London are growing up in substandard and uninhabitable “temporary accommodation” as a result of persistent policy failures by central and local government, and that the UK government is failing in its duty to ensure the right to adequate housing for homeless families.[9]
  3. Between May 2021 and October 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 75 people, including 33 who were either currently living in, or had recently left, temporary accommodation in various boroughs across London.
  4. People interviewed described conditions including toxic mold, cold temperatures, and a lack of adequate space in their temporary accommodation, affecting the right to health. The situation is worsened by the fact that some families live in “temporary” accommodation for several years.
  5. As a part of austerity-driven cuts to social security support, the government decreased the amount of housing benefits privately renting tenants can receive by reforming a calculation method known as Local Housing Allowance. In 2011, the government altered the amount from covering 50 to 30 percent of local rents. Meanwhile, the cost of private renting rose. The number of families living in temporary accommodation in England has increased by 65 percent since April 2011, when Local Housing Allowance rates were first changed.
  6. Human Rights Watch also documented how temporary accommodation can interfere with children’s right to education. The effects of inadequate housing were even more pronounced during the Covid-19 pandemic school closures. The lack of physical space means it is difficult for children to concentrate or find a quiet environment to do their work. Learning also requires access to capable devices and reliable, affordable, and accessible internet—however, most people interviewed said their temporary accommodation lacked Wi-Fi.
  7. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of the UK:
  • What measures is the government taking or planning to take to reduce the number of children and families in temporary accommodation and help them secure permanent and affordable housing?
  • What measures is the government taking or planning to take to allocate educational resources to vulnerable and low-income groups, including children living in temporary accommodation or other forms of substandard housing?
  1. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of the UK to:
  • Enshrine the right to housing in domestic law as a basic human right, ensuring that all who experience a violation of this right, by being denied adequate housing, have access to speedy and effective remedies.
  • Ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • Ensure a sufficient supply of housing, in particular by increasing the amount of affordable social housing with long-term tenancies.
  • Create an internal quality standards framework that covers potential issues including toxic mold, protection from the cold, adequate space, and other habitability concerns.
  • Provide free, equitable access to quality internet for households living in temporary accommodation with children in primary, secondary or tertiary education, including through Wi-Fi installations, data voucher plans, and zero-rating educational websites.

Access to education during Covid-19-related school closures (article 13)

  1. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, UK schools were fully closed for 16 weeks and partially open for 11 weeks, affecting the nation-wide school population of 11.8 million students.[10] Schools fully opened by April 2021. Some of the students, teachers, and parents we interviewed reported that many students were left to learn on their own, had fewer hours of instruction or fewer subjects because of teaching conditions, or needed their parents’ assistance to learn when their parents reported not having the capability to do so—leading to a diminished quality of education.[11]
  2. School closures due to the pandemic all too frequently resulted in alternatives that were not accessible for children with disabilities, risking their exclusion from education.[12] The switch to learning using internet-connected devices often created accessibility issues for children if the technology was not suited to their disability.
  3. Barriers to access distance learning opportunities also tended to be particularly high for students from groups who were more likely to face exclusion from education even before the pandemic, including children who come from low-income groups. Some students may have unreliable internet, limited access to devices, or no access at all. Statistics published in 2020 by the UK’s Office of National Statistics reflect that most households only have access to broadband internet that would struggle to handle the internet needed to receive live synchronous teaching over video—the kind of teaching that was adopted or attempted by many schools in the UK.[13]
  4. Many teachers were expected to continue teaching during school closures, but their own access to adequate devices and connectivity varied. Many teachers were not provided with the training to deliver remote learning.
  5. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the UK government:
  • What specific measures has the government taken or plans to take to remedy lost learning time of all children, including children with disabilities and children from vulnerable and low-income households?
  • How does the government plan to mitigate the ongoing learning inequities that resulted from disparate access to devices and internet between children from low-income and higher-income households?
  1. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the UK government to:
  • Explicitly allocate educational resources strategically to low-income groups, children traditionally at risk of exclusion from education, including children with disabilities, and those shown to have been particularly affected in their education during the pandemic.
  • Provide supplementary funding for teachers and school officials in historically under-resourced areas and schools and school districts that have indicated the need for additional resources.
  • Provide ongoing training and support programs for teachers in online education.
  • Provide teachers, assistants, and school officials with guidelines and tools to report concerns related to their students’ well-being.

Poverty and food insecurity (articles 2, 9, and 11)

  1. Official data published in March 2021 showed that 43 percent of households receiving Universal Credit, the UK’s social security program, were experiencing food insecurity prior to the pandemic.[14] The data showed the disproportionate impact of food insecurity on families headed by a single adult (predominantly women) or a Black person, families living on less than £200 (US$276) per week, and people with disabilities.[15]
  2. Demand for food banks grew as the number of Universal Credit claimants increased to 6 million by March 2021, doubling since the onset of the pandemic.
  3. The country’s largest food bank network reported that it had given out 2.5 million emergency food aid packages between April 2020 and March 2021, up 33 percent compared to the prior year, and its data showed lack of income and inadequate social security support as the main drivers.[16]
  4. After schools closed in March 2020 across the United Kingdom, the central government adopted a supermarket voucher system offering £15 (US$20) of vouchers per week per child to replace free school meals in England.[17] The voucher system, administered by a private multinational company, was criticized for technical glitches, inadequate preparation, understaffing, difficulties and delays for school administrators using the online portal, delays in families receiving them, inability to redeem them at supermarkets preferred by low-income families, and some supermarkets being unable to process them.[18]
  5. In July 2021, the National Food Strategy,[19] an independent review into the country’s food systems, recommended removing obstacles for families seeking free school meals for children;[20] ensuring long-term food provision for children during school vacations; and extending an existing food subsidy program for pregnant people and families with young children. At present, however, it is not clear whether the government intends to take forward any of the suggestions of the National Food Strategy.
  6. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the UK government:
  • What concrete steps is the UK government taking to address increasing food insecurity, in particular for households on low incomes?
  • What steps is the UK government taking to ensure that access to free school meals is not interrupted again in an unprecedented situation of systemwide closure, to ensure children’s right to food is guaranteed?
  • What plans does the UK government have to implement the recommendations of the National Food Strategy?
  1. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the UK government to:
  • Announce publicly that it accepts the right to food as a basic human right, and also as part of the human right to an adequate standard of living, and accept its duty to ensure that no one in the UK goes hungry. The government should ensure an effective remedy (including legal protection) for those whose right to food has been violated by state action or inaction, so that they can effectively challenge government policy and laws to ensure that everyone has access to adequate food, and that those who do not receive compensation.

Inadequate social security support (articles 9 and 11)

  1. In October 2021, the government refused to reverse a real-terms social security cut, when it ended its £20 weekly “uplift” to Universal Credit announced in April 2020, shortly after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.[21] The cut to the basic rate of support to recipients of social security amounted to £1,040 per year, which expert analysts assessed as the UK’s “biggest overnight cut to the rate of social security since World War II.”[22] Six months prior to the cut, according to official data, there were 6 million people in receipt of Universal Credit, although that number has since decreased to 5.6 million.[23]
  2. It is worth noting that the £20 weekly increase was never applied to an estimated 2 million people on “legacy” benefits, who were still waiting to transition to the Universal Credit system, including many people with disabilities and long-term health conditions.
  3. The deepening cost-of-living crisis in 2022 affected low income households in the UK. Official data on inflation showed the highest rates in four decades, with consumer price index reaching 11.1% in October 2022.[24] Retail associations in early 2023 estimated that food price inflation was in excess of 13.3%, with food prices, along with energy, being a main contributor to the cost of living.[25]
  4. In November 2022, the government announced that working-age benefits in social security support would rise by 10.1% to help meet the pressures of inflation on low-income households.[26] While the proposed increase was a welcome change from a long period of frozen social security levels, the increase does not take effect until April 2023, leaving low-income households without adequate support in the interim, and once implemented will still fall below inflation-matching figures, resulting in a real-term cuts to social security support.
  5. The UK government continues to retain in place its April 2017 “two-child limit” policy in the tax credit aspect of its social security provision through tax relief. The policy, legislated for in the Welfare and Work Reform Act 2016, stops families on low incomes to claim child-related tax credit for any child after the first two children, where the child was born after April 2017. In effect, this tax credit policy financially penalizes large numbers of children and their families, and negatively impacts all children raised in low-income households with a parent or parents who claim benefits. It is also a policy that punishes parents if they want to have more than two children, including through blending families (that is a family in which two adults may have children from previous relationships and bring them to live together as one household).[27]
  6. Human Rights Watch recommends that the committee ask the UK government:
  • What specific steps does the UK government take to ensure that its provision of social security support is compliant with ICESCR Articles 9 and 11? And, if the UK government does not explicitly use the terms in ICESCR in its assessment, how does it ensure that the levels of social security support are sufficient to guarantee an adequate standard of living?
  • To embark on a detailed impact assessment of the relationship thus far between the two-limit policy and child poverty.

Protection of education from attack (article 13)

  1. The UK has both legislation and military policies protecting schools from military use. For example, the UK’s 1958 Manoeuvres Act states:
    1. Subject to the provisions of this Act, any persons taking part with the authority of Her Majesty in the manoeuvres authorised by a manoeuvres Order … may, under the direction of the Secretary of State, within the manoeuvres area and during the manoeuvres period—pass over, and encamp, construct works not of a permanent character and execute defence manoeuvres on, any land; …
    2. The foregoing subsection shall not authorise entry on or interference with … any school or ground attached thereto…[28]
  2. In a debate before the House of Commons in 1991, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces clarified that when considering the applicability of this act: “There is no statutory definition of the term “military manoeuvre,” but in common service usage the term would be used to describe the strategic or tactical movement of a military force.”[29]
  3. The UK’s 2004 Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict states that:
    1. It is prohibited: (a) to commit any act of hostilities against cultural property, so long as it is not being used for military purposes…
    2. As a corollary, the better view is that the law also prohibits:… (b) the use of cultural property for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in armed conflict, unless there is no feasible alternative to such use…
    3. Cultural property includes … institutions dedicated to … education…[30]
  4. In a 2016 Army Doctrine Note on Human Security, the UK Army made the following observations about schools and the law of armed conflict:
    1. Schools and other educational establishments must be permitted to continue their ordinary activities. Any occupying power must, with the cooperation of the national and local education authorities, facilitate the proper working of schools and other institutions devoted to the care and education of children. In certain circumstances an occupying power may be within its rights in temporarily closing educational institutions, but only when there are very strong reasons for doing so, these reasons are made public, and there is a serious prospect that the closure will achieve important and worthwhile results…
    2. Targeting… [A]ttacks on schools are prohibited unless they are being used for military purposes and even then considerable care would have to be taken.[31]
  5. The UK endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration[32] and its related Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict in April 2018. It has subsequently noted its endorsement of the declaration and outlined ways that its commitments can be implemented through the Ministry of Defence’s 2019 Human Security in Military Operations Directive,[33] as well as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2019 Voluntary Report on the Implementation of International Humanitarian Law at Domestic Level.[34]
  6. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of the UK:
  • Are UK armed forces instructed and trained to adhere to the “better view of the law,” as outlined in the 2004 Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict?
  1. Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee:
  • Congratulate the UK on endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration.Encourage the UK to continue to encourage other countries, especially those in NATO and the Commonwealth, to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration; and continue to develop and share examples of its laws, policies, and other forms of implementation of the declaration’s commitments with this Committee and with other countries that have endorsed the declaration.

[1] State Party Report, para 182.

[2] R (SC & Ors) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, [2021], UKSC 26, 74-96, citation to paragraph 85.

[3] Equality Act 2010, Part 1, section 1, available at

[4] Scottish Government, “Fairer Scotland Duty: guidance for public bodies,”

[5] Welsh Government, “Socio-economic Duty: an overview,”

[6] “Evaluating the socio-economic duty in Scotland and Wales,” Equality and Human Rights Commission, March 2, 2021,

[7] Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, “Statutory Homelessness Live Tables,” last updated September 9, 2021, (accessed September 23, 2021).

[8] Ibid., “Detailed local authority level tables: April to June 2021,” October 28, 2021, (accessed October 28, 2021).

[9] Human Rights Watch, “I Want Us to Live Like Humans Again”: Families in Temporary Accommodation in London, UK, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2022),

[10] UNESCO, “Country Dashboard: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” March 31, 2022, (accessed January 3, 2023).

[11] Human Rights Watch, “Years Don’t Wait for Them”: Increased Inequalities in Children’s Right to Education Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2022),

[12] UN, “Policy Brief: A Disability-Inclusive Response to COVID-19,” May 2020, (accessed January 3, 2022), p. 6; and United Nations, “Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Children,” April 15, 2020,, p. 8.

[13] Office for National Statistics, “Internet access – households and individuals, Great Britain: 2020,” August 7, 2020, (accessed May 3, 2021).

[14] UK Department for Work & Pensions, “Family Resources Survey: financial year 2019 to 2020,” March 25, 2021, (accessed January 4, 2023).

[15] “New data shows the extent of UK food insecurity before the pandemic hit,” Sustain Web, March 26, 2021, (accessed January 4, 2023); “Welfare system ‘broken’ for disabled people, say food banks,” Big Issue, August 6, 2021, (accessed January 4, 2023).

[16] “Trussell Trust data briefing on end-of-year statistics relating to use of food banks: April 2020 – March 2021,” Trussell Trust,

[17] “UK: Children in England Going Hungry with Schools Shut,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 27, 2020.

[18] John Dickens, “How the government’s free school meals voucher scheme is leaving children without food,” April 24, 2020, Schools Week,; Naomi Rovnick, “Headteachers urge government to fix UK free school meals website,” Financial Times, April 21, 2020,; Rob Davis, “Government awarded school meal voucher contract without tender,” The Guardian, May 7, 2020,; Emily Ashton, “The Free School Meal Voucher Scheme Still Isn’t Working Properly, 7 Weeks After Schools Closed Due To Coronavirus,” BuzzFeed News, May 7, 2020,; Sally Weale & Jessica Murray, “UK’s poorest families suffering as free school meals vouchers delayed,” The Guardian, April 9, 2020,; and Judith Burns, “Coronavirus: 'Humiliation' as school meal vouchers fail at till,” BBC News, May 7, 2020,

[19] Kartik Raj, “UK National Food Strategy Has Game-Changing Potential,” Human Rights Watch Dispatch, July 15, 2021,

[20] National Food Strategy, Independent Review, Chapter 16, July 2021, (accessed January 4, 2023).

[21] Human Rights Watch Letter to UK Parliamentarians Regarding Impending Cut to Social Security Support, September 3, 2021,

[22] Calum Masters and Harriet Anderson, “UK heading for the biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since World War II,” Joseph Rowntree Foundation, July 23, 2021,

[23] UK Government, Universal Credit statistics, 29 April 2013 to 13 January 2022,

[24] Office for National Statistics, “Consumer price inflation, UK Statistical bulletins,”

[25] “Inflation to Continue into 2023,” BRC, January 4, 2023,

[26] UK Government, “Chancellor delivers plan for stability, growth and public services,” November 17, 2022,

[27] Nothing Left in the Cupboards: Austerity, Welfare Cuts, and the Right to Food in the UK (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2019),, Chapter 2.

[28] Manoeuvres Act, 7 Elizabeth 2, Ch. 7, December 18, 1958, art. 2.

[29] Minister of State for the Armed Forces, House of Commons Debate, vol. 186 c68W, February 18, 1991.

[30] UK Ministry of Defence, Joint Service Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict, Joint Service Publication 383 (2004), secs. 15.18 & 15.18.1.

[31] UK Army, “Human Security: The Military Contribution,” Doctrine Note 16/02, June 2016, sec. 4-4 – 4-5.

[32] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015,

[33] Ministry for Defence, Human Security in Military Operations, Part 1: Directive, JSP 1325, v. 1.0, January 2019, secs. 3:14, 6:1, 6:13, & 6:19-22.

[34] Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Voluntary Report on the Implementation of International Humanitarian Law at Domestic Level, 2019, p. 36.

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