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International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights


The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is one of the nine core United Nations (UN) human rights treaties (seven of which have been ratified by the UK). It forms part of the International Bill of Human Rights alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UK ratified ICESCR in 1976.

ICESCR rights are crucial to enable people to live with dignity. This treaty covers important areas of public policy, such as the right to:

  • work
  • fair and just conditions of work
  • social security
  • an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing
  • health
  • education

The full text of the ICESCR is available on the UN Human Rights website. 

How the ICESCR treaty cycle works

Each treaty operates on its own unique timetable. We are now in a period of follow-up activity for the ICESCR where we will be working with the government and civil society organisations to implement the Committee's recommendations (‘Concluding Observations’), adopted in 2016. 

Flow chart showing the various milestones in the ICESCR treaty cycle

Work by the Commission relevant to ICESCR

We have produced the following reports and research as part of our ICESCR treaty monitoring activity:

  • the Commission’s voluntary update report on progress on socio-economic rights in Great Britain (March 2018)
  • the Commission’s updated submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (April 2016)
  • our Oral Statement at the pre-sessional working group of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (October 2015)
  • our submission to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on socio-economic rights in the UK (August 2015)

We have produced the following work related to this treaty:

Next steps

Following the Concluding Observations of July 2016, the Commission is implementing a programme of work to make sure that the UK and devolved governments take concrete action to put into place the changes recommended by the UN. Our work includes engagement with government, Parliament, civil society and other stakeholders.

The next state report by the UK Government under ICESCR is due by June 2021.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights published its concluding observations in June 2016 and highlighted the following priority areas:

  • any new British Bill of Rights should be aimed at enhancing human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights.
  • there should be a human rights impact assessment of the recent changes to the tax system, particularly for marginalised and disadvantaged groups
  • there should be an assessment on the impact of social security reforms since 2010
  • austerity measures should comply with human rights – measures should be temporary, necessary, proportionate, not discriminatory and respect the core content of rights
  • public authorities’ should commence their socio-economic duty under Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010
  • disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups should have access to justice and legal aid
  • there should be a better regulatory framework to ensure companies operating in the UK fully respect economic, social and cultural rights
  • everyone should be guaranteed labour and social security rights in law and in practice – people should have decent work opportunities that offer job security and an adequate protection of labour rights
  • there should be a thorough review of the Trade Union Act 2016 to ensure that all workers enjoy their trade union rights without undue restrictions or interference
  • measures should be taken to address the housing deficit, bad housing or sub-standard housing conditions and inhabitability, and to reduce the exceptionally high levels of homelessness
  • there should be sufficient resources for the mental health sector to ensure the accessibility, availability and quality of mental health care
  • measures should be taken to reduce educational attainment gaps, particularly among children belonging to low-income families, and to tackle discrimination and segregation of students based on their religion, national or social origin, as well as their economic background
  • the Government should consider the impact on human rights in their international development work

The UN Special Rapporteurs on Housing, Disabilities, Poverty and Food have written a joint letter to the UK Government on the human rights concerns they have with the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 (April 2016).

ICESCR is monitored by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN CESCR), a body made up of 18 independent experts drawn from states that have ratified the treaty.

Governments submit reports to this Committee every five years. These ‘state reports’ explain the steps taken to implement the treaty and how these have affected people in the UK.  

The Committee also considers evidence from other sources. As one of the UK’s National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), the Commission submits information to this process in what is known as a ‘shadow report’.

The Committee identifies a ‘list of issues’ that they want the states to provide further information on. NHRIs and civil society can also respond to these issues.

It then examines the UK’s state report and the responses to the list of issues, and produces its own report with recommendations for action. These are called the ‘Concluding Observations’. States are required to publish these recommendations, act on them and report on progress.

More information about this procedure can be found on the UN Human Rights website.

Read the UK’s most recent State Report (2014). All documents, including the UN’s Concluding Observations and the shadow reports from the last examination in 2016 can be found on the UN Human Rights website

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights sometimes issues ‘General Comments’ which explain the application of the ICESCR in particular situations and set out the Committee’s interpretation of specific treaty provisions. You can find these General Comments on the UN website.

Last updated: 19 Mar 2018