NI Budget and Human Rights (Pt 1)

This week the Assembly is considering the Budget Bill; meanwhile the Assembly Committee for Finance and Personnel has asked for comments on its discussion paper about Maximising the Assembly’s contribution to the budgetary process. One suggestion for maximising the Assembly’s input could be to adopt a human rights approach to budgetary decisions.

The former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights explained the relevance of human rights to budgetary work very clearly:

The current economic crisis has made it particularly important to screen state budgets for their compliance with human rights. The allocation of resources will affect human rights protection – including gender equality, children’s rights and the situation of old or disabled persons, migrants and other groups which risk being disadvantaged. The way state revenues are obtained will also have an influence on justice and fairness in society; in this regard no tax system is neutral.

Budget analysis should therefore be seen as a potent instrument in the struggle for human rights. Looking at budget proposals from a rights perspective can assist politicians and planners to assign priorities in a non-discriminatory manner and to allocate resources where they are needed most

There has been considerable work done about human rights budget analysis – the QUB Budget Analysis Project (on whose work this post is based) and the work of Practice and Participation of Rights are two local examples, but the argument has been made in other parts of these islands too (see Amnesty Ireland’s response to a COE report on Ireland’s budget and this Joseph Rowntree report on Poverty, Inequality and Human Rights).

The QUB  Budget Analysis Project highlighted the international legal obligations that the UK is required to give effect to when making budgetary decisions, focusing on the United Nations International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights 1966 (ICESCR) which the UK has ratified.  NIHRC has similarly underlined the relevance of ICESCR to the budgetary process in its response to the consultation on Corporation Tax.

These obligations are directly relevant to the work of local political institutions because:

  • They are international law obligations which the UK must respect.
  • The Treasury guidance on assessment and evaluation of government programmes specifies that international treaties to which the UK is a party “should inform the development of policy”; the guidance lists ICESCR as one of these treaties (page 95).
  • The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights says that it is “essential to effective implementation of the Covenant that economic, social and cultural rights should be used as a framework for government policy development.” (para 79).
  • A United Nations body might ask UK representatives how these international obligations are being implemented in the UK when considering the extent to which the UK has given effect to international human rights law. These questions might come from the Committee which monitors ICESCR or from the Human Rights Council as part of the Universal Periodic Review of states’ human rights records. In 2009 the ICESCR Committee expressed concern about deprivation and inequality in NI.
  • Questions on how the budget respects human rights might also be asked by other monitoring bodies such as the European Committee of Social Rights.
  • These international law obligations reinforce domestic law obligations such as the Section 75 equality provisions and the Section 28E obligation to adopt an anti-poverty strategy, both in the Northern Ireland Act, as well as the Human Rights Act 1998 obligations. ICESCR though is clearer than Section 75 in addressing substantive issues and not primarily procedural issues.
  • The Northern Ireland Act permits the Secretary of State to decline to recommend the royal assent if Assembly legislation is incompatible with international obligations (s 14(5)) and also permits the Secretary of State to give directions to the Executive to ensure that international obligations are observed (s 26).

This last point is significant. The ICESCR contains a list of economic, social and cultural rights. These rights have been interpreted and developed by the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ComESCR) in documents such as General Comments, and Concluding Observations on State Reports. These sources provide important detailed guidance on the content of these rights.

Tomorrow’s post will highlight some of the ICESCR obligations relevant to budget analysis.

This post is based on work carried out by the QUB Budget Analysis Project. Full details of the project including documentation are available at