Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) are to consider boycotting any engagement with the UK government, after it misrepresented their views to a UN committee of human rights experts.
The UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) last week delivered a report on the UK government which included more than 80 recommendations for improvements to its implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
It was, said the committee, the highest number of recommendations it has ever produced for a country undergoing its review process.
The committee’s “concluding observations” on the UK’s progress in implementing the convention followed a two-day public examination of its record in Geneva last month.
But a delegation of DPOs that attended the public examination – and had briefed members of the committee on the many breaches of the convention by the UK – were appalled at how disabled people’s views were misrepresented by the government in Geneva.
And they have now told Disability News Service (DNS) that they will be “considering a joint position on boycotting engagement with government” until it can be trusted not to misrepresent the views of disabled people and their organisations.
Ellen Clifford (pictured in Geneva), a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “Responses by government representatives throughout the CRPD process have further proved how they exploit any form of engagement to dishonestly validate policies that are actively harming disabled people and retrogressing our rights.
“What we want to do is try and establish a shared platform of non-engagement until the government can be trusted to do that in good faith and listen to what we say and not misrepresent those engagement opportunities.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, who also attended the Geneva session, added: “How can we work with a government whose policies are catastrophic and who deny there is anything wrong?”
Karen Jochelson, the head of the Office for Disability Issues and the UK delegation, told the committee during the examination in Geneva that “constructive dialogue, collaboration and coproduction with disabled people is key to the UK meeting its ambitions to progressively realise disabled people’s rights”.
She said the UK government had “a strong record in engaging with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, representative groups and service users to inform and influence policy”.
And she praised the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – ODI is part of DWP – for working with disabled people and DPOs to improve personal independence payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA), even though both disability benefits have been the subject of angry protests and campaigns over the damage they have caused tens of thousands of disabled people.
DPOs in Geneva were particularly appalled to hear Jochelson’s “offensive” claim that the 2,000 pages of evidence the committee received – much of it from DPOs who had spent years compiling proof of the government’s breaches of the convention – were partly “a testament” to ODI’s efforts to promote the UN review process among disabled people and their organisations.
Clifford said: “It was at that point where people (from the DPO delegation) got upset.
“Not only were we being dismissed and not being listened to, but the dire situation [facing disabled people]was being used as evidence [of engagement].”
DPAC and other DPOs believe that this misrepresentation mirrored the way Conservative ministers have repeatedly claimed that disabled people and their organisations have co-produced controversial government policies, such as the introduction of PIP and changes to the work capability assessment, the eligibility test for ESA.
In April, DNS revealed how DWP wrongly claimed that DPOs had “co-designed” plans to force new ESA claimants to take part in its punitive new health and work conversation, plans that disabled activists had described as “DWP skulduggery”, “pernicious”, “oppressive”, “punitive”, and “abusive”.
Meanwhile, the delegation of UK DPOs – which also included Disability Rights UK, Equal Lives, The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), Disability Wales, Inclusion Scotland, the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, Black Triangle and the British Deaf Association – has welcomed the UN committee’s conclusions and recommendations.
And there was satisfaction among the DPO delegation at the influence the disabled people’s movement has had on the CRPD process by working together to provide evidence to the committee about breaches of the convention by the UK government.
Coomaravel Pyaneandee, a vice-chair of the committee, had told the UK government’s delegation during the examination: “I want to see you coming back as world leader [on disability rights], which at the moment I am afraid you’re not, but disabled people’s organisations from whom I draw inspiration are in fact the world leaders in your country.”
The DPO delegation said, in a joint statement, that they had “established themselves as a force to be reckoned with following a long campaign of challenging the government’s blatant disregard for the lives of Deaf and disabled people in the UK”.
Clifford said: “The working relationship we established through this process stands us in better stead for collective action.”
Sarah Rennie, from the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida, who was also in Geneva, said the “collaborative way” DPOs had worked together had “clearly been highly effective at advocating for the interests of disabled people in the UK”.
And she said she hoped they would continue to work together in a way that was “inclusive of all disabled people, including the smaller DPOs”.
Lazard welcomed the committee’s “damning verdict” but said it would come as no surprise to disabled people in the UK, who were experiencing “increasing levels of poverty and exclusion, massive cuts to social care and independent living support and hundreds of thousands of people being forced through a totally discredited and punitive assessment regime”.
She said the committee’s conclusions were in “stark contrast” to the government’s “denial, spin, misinformation and frankly disdain for disabled people and our organisations, disdain for the mountain of evidence that shows things are actually going terribly wrong for disabled people and disdain for the UN process itself”.
Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, called on the UK government to “cut the rhetoric and start delivering on these excellent recommendations”, and welcomed the committee’s decision to raise concerns at the use of compulsory mental health detention and treatment.
Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, said: “It is a relief to see that the UK government’s appalling treatment of disabled people has been called out by the UN committee.
“The concluding observations give a clear sense of direction for the UK and devolved governments.”
Dr Terry Riley, BDA’s chair, welcomed the committee’s recommendation that the UK government “finally legislate to protect language rights of deaf people”.
He said: “Deaf people have been passed over too long; there can now be no doubt that the government has been taken to task. Without language rights, we have no human rights.”
Tara Flood, ALLFIE’s director, said: “We are delighted that the committee has highlighted the government’s shocking disregard for the human rights of disabled children and young people to be included in mainstream education and we welcome the committee’s call for a strategy to end the segregation and institutionalisation of children and young people from their families and communities.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said there was now “irrefutable” evidence that the UK government was operating as a “rogue government”, and that it was “totally disregarding” its international treaty obligations and showing “contempt for disabled people”.
He also criticised the reaction of opposition leaders in the UK, who had failed so far to speak out strongly on the commission’s report.
He said: “We feel forgotten as disabled people. There is always something else more important. It has just been a blip on the radar and it is all forgotten.
“We have done all our hard work as DPOs these past seven years but it comes to a point where the so-called opposition parties should step up to the plate and go to war with the Tories on our behalf.”
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, said: “When the chair of the disability committee described the situation that disabled people face as a ‘human catastrophe’ she was reflecting what Norfolk’s disability community has been experiencing over the last seven years.
“In a very short space of time we have gone from having some of the best rights in the world to a crisis situation where people are dying because of the barriers and discrimination caused by austerity.”
In response to the CRPD report, a DWP spokeswoman said: “These concluding observations are the latest part of a standard review process that all member states that ratify the convention go through.
“We are considering the full report in the context of cross-government work on disability issues, and will provide further information to ministers in DWP in due course.”
She added: “We’re disappointed that this report fails to recognise all the progress we’ve made to empower disabled people in all aspects of their lives, and our ongoing commitment to furthering the rights of disabled people.
“Almost 600,000 disabled people have moved into work over the last four years and we spend over £50 billion a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions – more than ever before, and the second highest in the G7*.
“The UK is a recognised world leader in disability rights and equality, which is why we supported the development of the UN convention.
“The UK has some of the strongest equalities legislation in the world, including the Equality Act 2010, and we will continue to make sure that these rights are protected.
“This government believes that a disability or health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life – or in the workplace.
“This forms the foundation of our reforms to help disabled people realise their potential in the labour market and wider society.”
*The other G7 countries are the USA, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and Canada
Picture by Natasha Hirst