The Conservative government's £12bn welfare cuts have been put under international scrutiny after the United Nations said that it will review the welfare proposals as well as unemployment policies to see if they "disproportionately affect" the rights of the disadvantaged and vulnerable people. The news comes barely days after Chancellor George Osborne's tax credit cuts proposal was delayed by the House of Lords and after his own backbenchers asked for changes in the cuts.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has requested further information from the UK government on its welfare changes and unemployment policies as part of a regular cycle of examinations. The findings will be published in June next year.

On 26 October, the House of Lords defeated the government's proposed tax credits cuts, effectively delaying its implementation until the Tories came up with a scheme to help those affected by it. The move by the Upper House has triggered an angry response from Prime Minister David Cameron who immediately ordered a review of the relationship between the upper and lower lawmaking houses.

The challenge to the cuts did not stop there. On 29 October, 20 Tory MPs supported a cross-party backbench motion urging the government to "reconsider the effect on the lowest paid workers of its proposed changes to tax credits."

A UN spokeswoman said the CESCR will be reviewing the UK and six other countries. "It is not an investigation or inquiry launched in response to a particular situation or at the request of a third party," she pointed out.

The review is carried out under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the UK is a signatory to. Areas that will be reviewed include:

  • the government's austerity measures and welfare reform;
  • unemployment policies and the national minimum wage;
  • the government's proposed Bill of Rights which is targeted to replace the Human Rights Act;
  • supply of social and affordable housing;
  • childcare, child poverty and food bank use;
  • gender equality;
  • mental health services availability;
  • higher education policies and fees;
  • Northern Ireland legislation on abortion;
  • essential services for asylum seekers;
  • policies to tackle domestic violence, human trafficking, forced marriages and female genital mutilation; and
  • access to basic services and education for gypsies and travellers.

Just Fair coalition which campaigns for social justice in the UK has met CESCR representatives and welcomed the review, saying that it was timely. Jamie Burton, the coalition's chairman said: "We and many others are concerned about the adverse impact austerity policies have had on the least well off and already marginalised in society, including those in work."

He continued: "In one of the richest countries in the world, people do not have enough food to eat or decent housing to live in. Worst of all, the measures have hit children, single mothers, and people with disabilities the hardest. As the tax credits scandal shows, the public is turning against these policies precisely because they are so unfair."

Government says review not an investigation

The government however was quick to highlight that the review was not an investigation. A spokesman said: "This is not an investigation but a routine request for information that occurs every few years as part of the periodic reporting process to the UN."

He continued: "We are committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society. The UK government continues to support millions of people on benefits with an £80bn working-age welfare safety net in place."

The UN review is a separate probe from the UN's Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is looking at whether the recent disability benefit reforms put forward by the government breached the rights of the disabled.