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Welfare Rights: poverty, disability, asylum

Crossing the Boundaries: the place of human rights in contemporary scholarship
Afternoon panel session:

Chair: Professor Peter Townsend
Dr Helen Bolderson Hosting destitution - Universal and categorical convention rights and the construction of the asylum seeker
Dr Hartley Dean From poverty reduction to welfare rights: a social policy perspective on human rights

Dr Helen Bolderson
Hosting destitution - Universal and categorical convention rights and the construction of the asylum seeker

Why have welfare rights for refugees, written into articles 21-24 of the Refugee Convention, been less successful than article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in protecting asylum seekers from destitution consequent on successive UK policies?

Evidence of the comparative success of the ECHR is given in the paper. Suggested explanations for the Refugee Convention's failure to counteract benefit withdrawal include the effects on transposition of traditional UK policy styles; the legal and social constructions put on refugees and asylum seekers leading to confusion about who is who; and, crucially, the nature of the Refugee Conventions' welfare rights and their underlying, and possibly conflicting, concepts of justice.

One concept of justice is based in the idea of equality as 'equivalence' leading to universal human rights of inclusion and the other in the idea of 'difference', leading to particularistic rights involving categorisation. The former is reflected in the Convention's stipulations that refugees are to be treated commensurately with nationals for the purposes of benefits and services: the latter in the confinement of these stipulations to a category ('refugees) that relies, for its construction and determination, on institutional and membership relationships within a polity.

Questions about the appropriate application of different principles of justice to different spheres of activity, and the genesis and ownership of rights, individually or communally, have been addressed in the literature of adjacent disciplines. The concluding argument in this paper arises and generalises from the problems of misconstrued and contestable categories surrounding the Refugee Convention's welfare rights, and the relative success of Article 3 of the ECHR, which is absolute, has no qualifications and does not deal in categories. It questions the value of categories or disqualifications in the human rights field, unless these can be justified, and suggests this as an issue for investigation through cross-disciplinary scholarship.

Dr Hartley Dean
From poverty reduction to welfare rights: a social policy perspective on human rights

As an academic subject, Social Policy, has conventionally adopted and championed T.H. Marshall's classic sociological formulation, which identifies three kinds of citizenship rights: civil or legal rights, political or democratic rights, and social or welfare rights. A similar distinction is made in human rights instruments between 'first generation' civil and political rights on the one hand and 'second generation' economic, social and cultural rights on the other. Though it is the latter - and their scope for poverty alleviation - that are of central interest to Social Policy, they continue by and large to be eclipsed by, or subordinated to, the former.

The paper:

  • Presents a critique of the UNDP and UNCHR's recent espousal of a 'human rights approach' to poverty reduction: an approach that colludes with the assumption that substantive welfare rights cannot be inalienable and may be subject only to 'progressive realisation'; and which is driven by technocratic or managerialist assumptions whose essential effect is to de-politicise poverty.
  • Demonstrates the extent to which welfare rights are marginalised through two countervailing, yet mutually contradictory, hegemonic preoccupations: the first - which may be of either neo-liberal or neo-conservative provenance - is with individual (as opposed to collective) responsibility; the second - which dates from the so called 'cultural turn' in progressive political thinking - is with issues of identity and recognition (rather than with redistribution).
  • Revisits and expands the concept of welfare rights. Drawing, inter alia, on Nancy Fraser's notion of a 'politics of needs interpretation', it is argued that rights to welfare - i.e. to both material and ontological wellbeing - should be premised not on contractarian assumptions about the nature of human self-centeredness and individual responsibility, but upon solidaristic assumptions about the nature of human interdependency and individual frailty. It is through the language of welfare rights and the processes by which they are negotiated that people may lay claim to the satisfaction of their own needs, while also recognising the claims of distant strangers.

Social Policy can further contribute to interdisciplinary scholarship by developing and promoting a more holistic concept of welfare rights.