Watchdogs pose key questions on UK’s compliance with UN convention


newslatestA report by Britain’s four equality watchdogs has posed questions that could expose gaping holes in the UK government’s compliance with the UN disability convention.

The report has been broadly welcomed by disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), but they have also criticised the failure to publicise the document, or to involve DPOs in its preparation.

The interim report suggests 66 questions that it believes the UN committee charged with examining compliance should ask the UK government, and the devolved executives in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The report has been prepared by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

Together, the four bodies make up the UK Independent Mechanism (UKIM), which has the job of promoting, protecting and monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in the UK.

But EHRC said the report would not be submitted as evidence to the high-level inquiry into alleged “grave or systemic violations” of the convention by the UK, which is believed to be underway and being carried out “confidentially” by the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

An EHRC spokesman said the report would not be submitted to the committee because – if such an inquiry was taking place – “any inquiry procedure is confidential between the committee and the relevant state party”.

The UKIM report will be used instead as part of the standard examination of the UK’s record on implementation of the convention, a process that will probably now be delayed until 2016.

Among the most difficult tasks the UK government is likely to face when its compliance is eventually examined is to explain “what steps it has taken to assess the overall, cumulative impact of welfare reform, changes to social care funding and eligibility criteria and the closure of the ILF [Independent Living Fund] on disabled people”.

The UKIM report says: “The UK Government has reasoned that modelling difficulties prevent it from undertaking an assessment of cumulative impact which would be sufficiently robust. However, there is a substantial body of opinion that thinks that it can be done.”

And it points to the EHRC’s own research, which shows that “with some caveats, cumulative impact assessment is both feasible and practicable”.

The report also suggests the CRPD should ask the UK government what steps it has taken to ensure the closure of the ILF does not have a negative impact on the convention’s crucial article 19, the right to independent living.

It also raises concerns that the government’s new Care Act will result in most local authorities focusing their resources only on those disabled people with “substantial” or “critical” care needs.

And there are key questions about the impact of the UK government’s sweeping welfare reforms on disabled people, including the transition from disability living allowance to personal independence payment, the “bedroom tax”, the work capability assessment, and the missed targets of the government’s welfare-to-work programme.

The report says: “Research indicates that disabled people are disproportionately affected in terms of reductions in income and services by the welfare reform programme.”

UKIM’s report also warns that there is “significant evidence” that highlights continuing “prejudice and negative attitudes” towards disabled people, which may be reinforced by negative portrayals in the media, including “an increase in articles in the print media about the ‘burden’ that disabled people are alleged to place on the economy”.

It suggests the committee should ask the UK government to detail what steps it has taken to encourage public portrayals of disabled people that are consistent with the convention, “including through government communications”.

In one of its few overtly critical sections, the report says that the UK government’s disability strategy and action plan, Fulfilling Potential – Making it Happen, fails to set out a “comprehensive plan for the inclusion of disabled children in society”.

And it warns of concerns that the UK government’s welfare reform programme “is having the effect of increasing levels of poverty experienced by disabled children”.

Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives (formerly Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People), criticised UKIM’s failure to consult DPOs, as the equality bodies are supposed to do under the UNCRPD.

He said: “Why was this report released without publicity? Was it a good day to ‘bury bad news’? The EHRC is too close to government to be able to tell it ‘how it is’.”

But he said the report did point to “some real violations of the UNCRPD by the coalition government, which they need to be held to account for.

“There are also some questions that the UN needs to probe with the British government which will expose the disproportionate and discriminatory treatment they have meted out to disabled people in the UK.”

Philip Connolly, policy and communications manager for Disability Rights UK (DR UK), called for the UKIM report to be read by the UN team carrying out the high-level inquiry, if it was taking place.

He said his organisation’s own research into the UK government’s compliance with the convention was “on ice” because of the UN’s slow progress in its monitoring work, and because the next government “is likely to be allowed time to submit an updated report and then that report itself would become the subject of scrutiny”.

But he said: “Our own analysis and early drafting makes for grim reading and we are pleased to see others conduct and publish their own hard-hitting research.

“These conclusions may well be unpalatable to the UK government but we don’t expect that they will be able to ignore them.”

Ian Jones, of the WOWcampaign, welcomed the report and the “acknowledgement that the UK has not yet adequately adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”.

But he questioned why it had taken more than five years (since the ratification of the convention by the Labour government in 2009) for UKIM’s 66 questions to be raised by organisations such as the EHRC across areas such as education, employment, discrimination, and the cumulative impact of government attacks on disabled people.

Jones said WOWcampaign was “very worried” that the government would find a way to keep secret the answers to these questions, as well as the outcome of the high-level inquiry.

He said: “This government appears to be willing to stop at nothing to keep the consequences of their ‘flagship’ welfare reforms out of the public domain.”

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said the UKIM report “confirms what we have all been saying for a number of years”, but was “likely to be treated with the same contempt” shown to the UN’s special rapporteur, Raquel Rolnik, whose report on UK housing was branded “a Marxist diatribe” by one minister and “utterly ridiculous” by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

McArdle said: “The fundamental human rights of sick and disabled people are being shamelessly and systematically trampled over in today’s Britain with absolute impunity and there seems to be very little than anyone can do about it – other than remove the perpetrators from power in May.”

Rick Burgess, co-founder of the campaigning organisation New Approach, said the EHRC’s role in failing to hold the government to account was “shameful”, while the report was “simply a shopping list of questions that should be asked of the UK”.

He said: “At this point in the most abusive regime ever for disabled people, this amounts to an abdication of responsibility.”

He called for Lord [Chris] Holmes, the EHRC’s disability commissioner and a Conservative peer, to resign, and added: “That the report was released with no consultation with DPOs and with zero publicity also indicates the profound failure of the EHRC to stand up for disabled people’s human rights.

“While we suffer victimisation and poverty, the EHRC take home generous salaries and write pointless reports that continue to delay any effective oversight of government policy.”

Pat Onions, founder of Pat’s Petition, highlighted UKIM’s concerns about the government’s failure to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of its cuts and reforms.

She said: “All measurement and observation presents technical difficulties. Whether it is possible or not is a question of how much effort the government wants to devote to this.

“Are they prepared to take responsibility for their own policies or do they prefer to continue making policy in the dark? The excuse – sorry, we didn’t know what we were doing – just isn’t acceptable in 2014.”

UKIM is expected to submit its final report – including feedback on the interim report – to the CRPD in August or September next year.

18 December 2014