Government’s response to ‘human catastrophe’ UN report is ‘deeply unsatisfying’

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The government has been accused of publishing a “deeply unsatisfying” response to a devastating report by a UN committee that concluded last year that the UK had been “going backwards” on independent living.

One disabled people’s organisation (DPO) said the government had been “clutching at straws” in the response in an attempt to persuade the committee that it was implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Another DPO said the response to the UN added to concerns that the government failed to understand the convention and the concept of both independent living and the social model of disability.

Last September, an international committee of disabled human rights experts delivered a damning verdict on the UK government’s progress in implementing the convention.

The UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities said it was “deeply concerned” that the government still believed it was a “champion of human rights”, while its chair said that the UK’s cuts to social security and other support for disabled people had caused “a human catastrophe”.

A year on, the government has now delivered its response – as requested by the committee – to 25 of the 80-plus recommendations that were made in that report and an earlier inquiry from 2016 which found it guilty of “grave and systematic violations” of the convention.

But the government appears to have decided that there was a need for improvements in just six of the 25 areas it was asked to respond to.

Its response to most of the recommendations has been to ignore or dismiss the UN’s criticisms and defend its existing policies.

Among the recommendations it has ignored are: the need to introduce a legal right to independent living; a call for action to address the disability pay gap; the need for an assessment of the cumulative impact of all its social security cuts and reforms on disabled people; and a call to review the employment and support allowance conditionality and sanction regime.

It also ignored the call to develop a “comprehensive plan” – in “close collaboration” with DPOs – aimed at the “deinstitutionalization” of disabled people.

But the government does appear to have made a small number of concessions to the committee’s reports.

It points in its response to refreshed guidance on employing disabled people (published last month); says the minister for disabled people has convened a cross-sector taskforce on communicating in an accessible way with disabled people; and says the Office for Disability Issues will be “reinvigorating” its “stakeholder engagement” to ensure it engages with more “Disabled People’s User Led Organisations, smaller local stakeholders and individuals”.

It also says the government will be refreshing its much-criticised hate crime action plan later this year, including areas focused on disability hate crime, although it makes no reference to the call by the UN committee to combat “negative and discriminatory stereotypes or prejudice” against disabled people that is linked to benefit claimants.

And the government report points out that the minister for defence people and veterans announced a review last December of the long-standing “reservation” to the employment rights contained in the convention, which gives the UK an opt-out in relation to jobs in the armed services.

DPOs and grassroots groups have been highly critical of the government’s response.

Ellen Clifford, campaigns and policy manager for Inclusion London, said: “The first government follow-up report is deeply unsatisfying, in that it demonstrates a failure to substantively engage with the UN disability committee’s recommendations.

“Similar to their report as part of the public examination process in 2017, it is little more than a list of legislative and policy measures and spend with no evidence of impact or effectiveness.

“The report and cover letter moreover add to concerns around a failure to properly understand either the convention itself, with repeated misinterpretations of the concept of independent living or a social model approach to disability.”

She said it was also “quite frankly offensive” for the government to include discussion of autism in the report’s section on health.

Clifford added: “There is also a notable lack of mention of engagement with DPOs, which is required under the convention but which the UK government has steadfastly avoided over the last 12 months.

“The new general comment from the committee sets out the specific requirement to involve organisations of disabled people in implementation and monitoring of the UNCRPD, yet time and again consultation and engagement with non-user-led charities is being prioritised [by the UK government].”

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) accused the government’s report of “clutching at straws” in its attempts to persuade the committee that the convention was being implemented in the UK.

Kamran Mallick, DR UK’s chief executive, said: “Although the report says there are plans for engaging with disabled people and our organisations these are yet to take place even though we were told the same thing last year in Geneva. 

“The creation of the inter-ministerial group on disability and society is welcome and I hope it will really get to grips with implementing our rights, rather than what seems to be the current approach of side-lining the UNCRPD.

“Examples of the ‘clutching at straws’ approach include the Care Act principle of wellbeing being used to try and demonstrate a commitment to independent living whereas in reality the two things are not the same. 

“In fact, the idea of independent living was rejected by the government when the [care bill]was going through parliament.”

And he said another of many examples of straw-clutching was that the report claimed the government was following the UNCRPD principle of supported decision-making through the Mental Capacity Act 2005, when in fact the bill it has introduced to amend the act would “take supported decision-making away”.

Michelle Maher, of the WOWcampaign, was also heavily critical of the response and said she was “devastated” to see the UK government again ignoring the UN’s recommendations.

She said: “The Tory party have dismissed the UN’s findings with their usual disregard of disabled people’s lives in the UK, and the affect of cuts upon us.”

She said the government was ignoring the “heart-breaking reality” of the “despair, humiliation and desperation” shown by disabled people as a result of its cuts, while it was “ignoring the truth about the impact”.

She said this was why the campaign launched its WOWvoices website, to provide “a space to allow people to have their voices heard, to put the truth out there”.

WOW is now pushing for a second House of Commons debate on the need for an assessment of the cumulative impact of the government’s cuts and reforms, something the UN committee called for in its concluding observations and in the November 2016 “grave and systematic violations” report.

The government’s response insists yet again that such an assessment “cannot be reliably modelled”, even though the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the government’s own social security advisers, and Virginia Bras-Gomes, chair of the UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights – among others – have all insisted that it could and should be done.

The government was humiliated in 2014 when the Institute for Fiscal Studies – which ministers repeatedly claimed shared its view that such an assessment would not be possible – published research that included a CIA.

EHRC has also published its own CIA report, in March, which calculated its own impact assessment of all the tax, national insurance, social security and minimum wage reforms introduced between May 2010 and January 2018.

Maher said the government had “blocked a full assessment at every turn, ignoring any duty of care”, and was “heartlessly cutting, knowing the impact”.

She said: “They laid the ground work for cuts by poisonous rhetoric against us and they are continuing.”

She called on disabled people and their allies to write to their MP to support WOW’s call for a new House of Commons debate on the need for a CIA.

A DWP spokeswoman declined to say if the government agreed that its response accepted the need to make improvements in six of the 25 areas highlighted by the committee, or which of the measures detailed in its response were introduced as a result of the UN committee’s concerns.

But she said in a statement: “We have noted all the concluding observations, and not just those that the UN asked us to provide information on this year.

“We will respond fully to the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities in 2023. This is the deadline set by the committee for the next UK periodic report.

“We’re committed to building a society which is fully inclusive of disabled people across every area of their lives, from transport and housing to healthcare and employment.

“Our response to the UN sets out our progress over the last year, including the creation of a new inter-ministerial group on disability and society, which will drive progress against the implementation of the UN convention.

“While we’ve made significant progress there is always more we can do. We’re determined to continue making progress in creating a society that works for everyone, where all can participate fully.”

Picture: Theresia Degener, chair of the committee, speaking last year about the UK’s progress in implementing the convention