Disabled people could be at risk of violence, and even “killings and euthanasia”, because of their portrayal by the UK government and media as “parasites” who live on benefits, according to unpublished comments by the chair of a UN committee.
Theresia Degener, who chairs the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, warns in the interview that such portrayals of disabled people are “very, very dangerous”.
Her comments are even more critical and highly-charged than those she and her committee colleagues made during last month’s two-day public examination in Geneva of the UK’s progress on implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Degener herself had told the UK government’s delegation that its cuts to social security and other support for disabled people had caused “a human catastrophe”, comments that were repeated by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in yesterday’s prime minister’s questions (see separate story).
But her comments in the interview with a BBC journalist – which are believed to have not been broadcast – go even further.
Degener (pictured) says that cuts to social security have been so severe that they have become “life threatening to many disabled people”, and she then talks about the impact of the austerity cuts on public attitudes to disabled people.
She says in the interview that “disabled people being portrayed as parasites, living on social benefits, and welfare and the taxes of other people” was “very, very dangerous”.
She says that such attitudes “will later on lead to violence against disabled people, we know it, if not to killings and euthanasia”.
She stressed later to Disability News Service (DNS) that she was not comparing the situation in the UK to the propaganda used in Nazi Germany, where disabled people were often referred to by the state as “useless eaters” who led “burdensome lives” as a justification for the killing of as many as 275,000 disabled people by doctors.
She told DNS: “I did not draw a comparison with Nazi Germany in the 1930s/40s because the current UK situation is in no way comparable to Nazi Germany.
“I meant to alert more generally to the danger of dividing disabled people from the general population by ‘othering’ them as ‘parasites’.
“There have been killings (disguised as mercy killings) based on such irrational thinking.”
She says in the BBC interview: “I am not saying that [this violence] is happening right now in the UK, but this is why governments have to stop this kind of attitude.”
Degener, who herself is German and a professor of law and disability studies, says that “although we would never as a human rights treaty body favour censorship, we think that media and the government have some responsibility in this regard”.
Her comments follow concerns raised in the committee’s report about “the persisting occurring incidents of negative attitudes, stereotypes and prejudice against persons with disabilities… as well as concerning their social protection entitlements”.
Her colleague Coomaravel Pyaneandee, a vice-chair of the committee, had said during the public examination that disabled people in the UK were “most concerned” about negative attitudes towards disabled people on benefits which were “fuelled” by the media and “government representatives”.
Disabled activists and opposition politicians have repeatedly raised concerns that ministers or civil servants have briefed newspapers in a way that encourages them to report inaccurate and misleading articles, with headlines such as “75 per cent of incapacity claimants are fit to work” and “Disabled benefit? Just fill in a form”.
In 2012, a report by Disability Rights UK found that disabled people increasingly believed that coverage of welfare reform and other disability issues in national newspapers was helping to fuel hate crime, with many of the respondents blaming rising hostility towards them on “government spin and distortion” and “rhetoric from the government about scroungers and benefit cheats”.
The previous year, a letter from the Disability Benefits Consortium to Maria Miller, then the minister for disabled people, accused the government of causing disabled people “significant alarm” by releasing information about disability living allowance (DLA) that led to “misleading” media coverage.
The letter warned her of the government’s obligations under the Equality Act not to “generate stigma, persecution or harassment of disabled people requiring support from the welfare system”.
Degener also says in the BBC interview that, compared to other countries with “less economic power” and less advanced equality and discrimination legislation, the UK’s austerity policy was “less human rights oriented”, so that “UK appears to be a strong country when it comes to equal rights but a very, very weak country with relation to economic, social and culture rights”.
She says the UK’s record on disability rights “is going backwards in a pace and to an amount that it worries us a lot” and that the evidence in front of the committee was “overwhelming”.
Degener was not available this week to expand on her remarks, but she has given permission for them to be used by DNS.
She made the comments in an interview recorded for BBC News on 31 August, following the publication of the committee’s “concluding observation” on the UK.
The comments were recorded by the UN because the interview took place at the end of a press conference.
BBC News has given DNS permission to quote from the interview, which appears to have been intended for its News at Ten programme but was not broadcast.
A DWP spokeswoman did not respond directly to Degener’s comments, but repeated the government’s previous response to the committee’s concluding observations.
She said: “We’re disappointed that this report does not accurately reflect the evidence we gave to the UN, and fails to recognise all the progress we’ve made to empower disabled people in all aspects of their lives.
“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*.
“We’re committed to furthering rights and opportunities for all disabled people, which is why it is encouraging that almost 600,000 disabled people have moved into work in the UK over the last four years.
“We’re also a recognised world leader in disability rights and equality, which is why we supported the development of the UN convention.”
She said 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”.
She added: “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.”
She also directed DNS to the concluding remarks of Karen Jochelson, who heads the Office for Disability Issues and led the UK delegation at the public examination in Geneva, and which can be watched here from 3:04:41.
*The other G7 countries are the USA, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and Canada