“Designed to reduce people… to complete destitution”: human dignity in the active welfare state

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


This paper discusses the implications for the right to a life in dignity (article 1 CFR) of the “activation turn” in the welfare state. The concept of “dignity,” lacking consistent definition, has been described as a better basis for “judicial manipulation” than “principled decision making.” Nonetheless, it is possible to discern a standard of living deemed compatible from the various references in international human rights agreements to a “decent” or “adequate” standard of living, freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment and the right to a private and family life, as well as to dignity itself. The “activation turn” (while the focus here is on the UK, the phenomenon is international ) is characterised by the requirement that social security claimants be available for paid employment and undertake compulsory activities intended to result in finding employment. Failure to comply may result in sanctions, the maximum applicable being loss of benefit for three years. To date, the most significant challenge to conditionality in the UK resulted in the rejection of a claim that the right to freedom from forced labour was violated. This paper argues that while activation of claimants is compatible with the human rights instruments, the UK’s sanctions regime may be vulnerable to challenge. The main focus is on whether a regime claimed to be designed to result in “complete destitution” can be compatible with human dignity. While the socio-economic rights instruments will be discussed, given their non-integration into UK law the key focus is on article 3, article 8 and P1-1 ECHR and their relationship to three elements of the protection of human dignity as identified by McCrudden: prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment, individual autonomy and satisfaction of essential needs. In each case it is concluded that there is potential for violation of the right to dignity, either in individual cases or in the general operation of the policy.
Period5 Jun 2014
Event titleJustice and Dignity under Challenge: CCJHR annual conference
Event typeConference
LocationCork, IrelandShow on map


  • dignity
  • human dignity
  • destitution
  • claimant activation
  • conditionality
  • social security
  • social rights
  • inhuman and degrading treatment
  • respect for family life
  • social citizenship