Prime minister ‘lies’ on benefits spending in response to UN ‘human catastrophe’ claims

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The prime minister has been accused of misleading parliament about spending on disability benefits, after trying to defend herself from accusations by a UN committee that her government had caused a “human catastrophe” by cutting disabled people’s support.

Theresa May had been asked about the accusations in yesterday’s prime minister’s questions by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, following a social media campaign led by the grassroots campaign group Black Triangle.

The campaign had questioned why opposition leaders had done so little to highlight the findings of last month’s report by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD).

But when Corbyn told May that the committee had accused her government of causing “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights, she replied that her government spends “more than £50 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions”.

May (pictured during yesterday’s prime minister’s questions) has now become the third senior member of the Tory government to use this inaccurate and misleading figure to defend its record on cuts to disabled people’s support.

Both Damian Green, the former work and pensions secretary, and Amber Rudd, the home secretary, have used the figure, Green in the House of Commons last year and Rudd during a television election debate in May.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) own figures – based on a freedom of information response secured by Disability News Service two years ago, and subsequent DWP spending figures – show that spending on disability benefits in 2015-16 came to about £37 billion at the most, with 2016-17 spending certain to be far below £40 billion.

The figure only reaches £50 billion by including spending on areas such as adult social care, concessionary travel and disabled facilities grants.

Both DWP and the Tory party have both been told that the figure is misleading, but ministers – and now the prime minister – continue to use it to defend their party from criticism of their record on cuts and reforms to disability benefits.

Although disabled activists welcomed Corbyn’s decision to raise the UN report in prime minister’s questions, there are still concerns that Labour has done too little to highlight its findings.

CRPD told the UK government in its report to make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights, raising concerns on all but three of the 33 treaty articles it could have breached, and making the highest number of recommendations it has ever produced after reviewing a country’s progress on implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

But despite the strength of that report, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Marie Rimmer, has still not made a single public statement about its findings, and does not appear to have even shared its findings or made any references to the report on social media.

In fact, none of her website, Twitter or Facebook profiles mention that she is shadow minister for disabled people, and she does not appear to have spoken out publicly about disability issues for at least six months, since admitting in an interview with DNS that she had no idea what the social model of disability was.

The only comments about the UN report have been made by her boss, the shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, who has written to work and pensions secretary David Gauke to ask for a Commons debate on CRPD’s conclusions.

Abrahams also raised a point of order with the speaker yesterday, raising concerns that Gauke had not yet replied to her call for a Commons debate on the UN report.

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said Rimmer’s failure to engage in the debate “exemplifies the lack of joined-up thinking or pro-active strategy in the Labour leadership and ranks in disability rights.

“The UN’s findings are irrefutable and Labour should be at all-out war with the Conservative party on this human catastrophe of that party’s making.”

He also said that Corbyn had missed a “wide open goal” by failing to make more of the UN report and explain to the British people that the “mistreatment and multiple violations of the fundamental human rights of disabled people is the biggest tragedy and scandal to hit Britain since the beginning of the disabled people’s movement.

“He should have presented before the nation the chief findings of the UN CRPD’s findings and explained to the British people why CRPD chair Theresia Degener described what is happening to disabled people as a human catastrophe.”

But he thanked shadow chancellor John McDonnell for apparently listening to Black Triangle’s plea for Labour to speak out on the report at prime minister’s questions.

He said both Corbyn and McDonnell had been “passionate supporters” of Black Triangle and Disabled People Against Cuts and he called on them to “take our severe criticism to heart”. 

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, thanked supporters who responded to a call for people to contact Corbyn on Twitter about the need to raise the UN report at prime minister’s questions.

She said: “It is unfortunate that the lie about the £50 billion spend on disability benefits wasn’t demolished [by Corbyn]when May churned it out yet again.

“However, it was very noticeable that she did not mention the UN at all in her pathetic response to the question.

“As for the invisible Marie Rimmer, our question remains as always: does she actually exist or is she just a figment of our imagination?”

Neither Number 10 nor the Conservative party had replied to requests for a comment on the prime minister’s use of the £50 billion figure by noon today (Thursday).

A spokesman for Rimmer has so far been unable to explain her failure to speak out on disability issues, including the UN report, but pointed to comments made by Abrahams, who he said was the “senior spokesperson for Labour on matters of disability”.