UK is going backwards on independent living, says UN committee

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A UN committee has told the UK government to make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights.

In its “concluding observations” on the progress the UK has made in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), the committee raised concerns and made recommendations on all but three of the 33 treaty articles it could have breached.

It was, said the committee, the highest number of recommendations it has ever produced for a country undergoing the review process.

The section highlighting the committee’s “principal areas of concern and recommendations” was more than 6,500 words long, compared with a “positive aspects” section of less than 120 words which mostly related to actions carried out by the Welsh and Scottish governments.

Among its recommendations, the committee – made up of 18 disabled human rights experts from across Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, Australasia and the Middle East – called on the UK government to incorporate the convention into UK law, and to carry out a “comprehensive crosscutting review” of its laws and policies, to address what it described as the “uneven” implementation of the convention and “discriminatory” laws, regulations, and practices.

The committee also said the UK government should recognise disabled people’s right to live independently, and called for a “comprehensive plan” – addressing education, childcare, transport, housing, employment and social security – that should be aimed at removing disabled people from institutions and instead developing homes for them in community-based independent living schemes.

Stig Langvad (pictured), the CRPD member who led the UK examination, highlighted independent living as one of the areas the committee was most concerned about.

He said: “Persons with disabilities are in our view not able to choose where to live, with whom to live and how to live… [they]are still facing the risk of institutionalisation and not being able to live within the community.”

He said the UK was “going backwards” on independent living, with reduced funding meaning “the right to choose where to live, with whom to live and how to live through independent living schemes where you have personal budgets are limited or even more limited than previously”.

He said this meant that disabled people were “still being faced with living in either families or institutions” against their will.

The committee also called for government action – in close consultation with disabled people’s organisations – to prevent any “negative consequences” caused by Brexit, and for it to implement the remaining sections of the Equality Act 2010.

There were several recommendations around the rights of disabled children, including a call for action to address the higher level of poverty experienced by their families, and for stronger measures to prevent bullying, hate speech and hate crime experienced by disabled children.

The committee was highly critical of the UK government’s approach to inclusive education, and the “persistence of a dual education system” that segregates increasing numbers of disabled children in special schools.

It called instead for a “coherent strategy” on “increasing and improving inclusive education”, which would include raising awareness of – and support for – inclusive education among parents of disabled children.

Langvad said the committee was “very concerned” that the UK government was maintaining a reservation [an opt-out]on part of the convention’s article 24, on inclusive education, which “means that the UK is not fully living up to its international commitment to allow all the right to inclusive education”.

On the criminal justice system, the committee called for action to address the “low awareness” about disability rights among judges, prosecutors, police officers and prison staff, to provide free or affordable legal aid for disabled people “in all areas of law”, and to remove employment tribunal fees.

It also raised concerns about the way that disability hate crime is dealt with by the criminal justice system, and called for a comprehensive legal definition of disability hate crime and “appropriate prosecutions and convictions”.

Several recommendations related to the rights of people detained under the Mental Health Act, with the committee raising concerns about the “continued use of physical, mechanical and chemical restraint”, including the use of Tasers in prisons, the youth justice system, and healthcare and education settings.

The committee also said it was “deeply concerned” that such practices disproportionately affect black and minority ethnic disabled people.

And it called for a “targeted measurable and financed plan of action” aimed at eliminating the “uneven access to health” for disabled people across the UK, and for the government to address reports of healthcare professionals failing to attempt resuscitation of people with learning difficulties and mental health conditions.

In the wake of the report, Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, wrote to David Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, to ask the government to respond to the report in the House of Commons.

She said it was “of vital importance” that MPs had a chance to debate the report.

She added: “I hope that a debate would allow the government to set out how they plan to address these failures, which affect millions of disabled people across the country, many of whom are now living in poverty, and to uphold disabled people’s rights in the future.”

a DWP spokeswoman said, before Abrahams’ intervention: “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