Disabled activists fear that the UN committee examining the UK’s progress on implementing the disability rights convention may be ignoring links between the government’s welfare reforms and the deaths of benefit claimants.
This week, the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) published its “list of issues”, the areas where it believes the UK government may have failed in its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
The UK and devolved governments will now be expected to respond to the list, while disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and other bodies, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, can also submit their responses to the committee.
The list was published three weeks after DPOs came together to tell CRPD how they believed the UK government had been breaching the convention.
One of the key areas that DPOs focused on during last month’s session in Geneva was the impact of benefit sanctions on disabled people and the links between welfare reforms and the deaths of disabled claimants.
The committee was told how government ministers ignored a prevention of future deaths letter from a coroner in 2010 – following the death of Stephen Carré – which warned that other people with mental health conditions would die if they did not take action to improve the safety of the work capability assessment (WCA).
But Iain Duncan Smith (pictured) ignored his legal duty to reply to the letter, and, when he appointed an independent expert, Professor Malcolm Harrington, to review the WCA, failed to show him the letter.
Duncan Smith and his employment minister, Chris Grayling, announced that summer – against Harrington’s advice – that they were going to roll out the WCA the following spring to hundreds of thousands of existing claimants of incapacity benefit.
As a result of that decision, the test’s flaws were not corrected, and many other people with mental health conditions lost their lives.
But there has been concern this week that there is no explicit mention of this and other similar areas of concern, including the impact of imposing benefit sanctions on disabled people, in the committee’s list of issues.
The committee does use the list to ask the government which measures it has taken to monitor the cumulative impact of its welfare reforms and tax policies, and to ensure that the WCA – which tests eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits – is “based on the human rights model of disability”.
It also asks for information on measures taken “to address suicide rates among persons with disabilities, including in relation to disability-related discrimination”.
But there is no explicit mention of concerns that welfare reforms have breached disabled people’s right to life, particularly through the use of benefit sanctions and the links between flaws in the WCA and the deaths of claimants.
DPOs that gave evidence in Geneva have stressed that it is too early for a detailed response to the list of issues, but Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said: “Although we cannot make any immediate response, this is an area of concern.”
When asked whether the list included questions relating to links between the WCA and the deaths of claimants, a CRPD spokeswoman said: “On the issue of causation you have raised, it is for stakeholders which would like to submit written comments to the list of issues to substantiate their submissions.”
When asked to clarify the meaning of this statement, the spokeswoman declined to comment further.
The list of issues also asks the government to describe the policies, programmes and measures it will put in place to protect disabled people from being “negatively affected” by leaving the European Union.
Elsewhere, the list appears likely to have covered many of the issues raised in “shadow reports” to the committee by DPOs and other organisations, including questions for the UK government on: discrimination and violence against disabled women; access to justice; involuntary detention; deaths in detention of people with mental health conditions; disability hate crime; the right to independent living; access to healthcare; workplace discrimination; poverty; participation in political and public life; and access to sporting events.
On education, the committee asks for detailed statistics on the number of disabled pupils and students in the segregated and mainstream systems, and the steps the government has taken to ensure “mainstreamed inclusive education at all levels”.
It also asks the UK government “when and how” it would withdraw its reservation against article 24 of the convention, which covers inclusive education.
The last Labour government placed an “interpretive declaration” against article 24 when it ratified the convention in 2009, explaining that the UK believed the convention allowed it to continue to operate both mainstream and special schools.
It also placed a “reservation” against article 24, reserving the right for disabled children to be educated outside their local community.
Tara Flood, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said: “The government has used as cover the reservation and interpretive declaration to increase levels of segregation.
“It sounds as though [the committee] have picked that up, which we are delighted about.”
She said it appeared that the committee had listened to ALLFIE and other DPOs on the issue of inclusive education.
She said ALLFIE would now send the committee more information on the government’s plans to increase the number of grammar schools, which she said was “as clear an indication that a government is going to give that they are backing away from an education system that is inclusive”.
The government will be examined on its UNCRPD progress in public in Geneva in August. A final report from the committee will follow later this year.