A crucial report submitted to the United Nations by three national disabled people’s organisations has been criticised for failing to speak out strongly enough on the links between the UK government’s welfare reforms and the deaths of benefit claimants.
The “shadow report” will be sent to the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD), which will question the UK government in public this year about its progress in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
The report, which is likely to have a significant impact on the committee as it draws up the “list of issues” it will raise with the UK government in public later in the year as part of the “periodic review”, concludes that there is “little evidence that government is consistently taking account of the [convention] in developing policy and making decisions”.
It was drawn up by Disability Rights UK (DR UK), Disability Wales and Inclusion Scotland, with significant input from consultant Neil Crowther, who has worked at a senior level for both the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Disability Rights Commission.
It was funded by EHRC, and separate shadow reports have been published on Scotland (led by Inclusion Scotland), and on England and Wales (led by DR UK and Disability Wales).
The report says: “Since the [UNCRPD] was ratified by the UK in 2009 there has been a dramatic programme of reform and public spending decisions that individually and cumulatively have severely impeded the rights of disabled people.
“In some policy areas, practices are being encouraged or go unchallenged which are at odds with the principles and intention of the [convention], such as rising numbers of children attending special schools.”
The report includes 20 “top issues of concern”.
Among those 20 issues, the report points to how measures to reduce public spending are having a “disproportionate and retrogressive impact on the rights of disabled people”.
This echoes the conclusion reached in November by CRPD, which found – followed a lengthy inquiry triggered by activists from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) – that the UK government’s social security reforms had led to “grave or systematic” violations of the convention.
Among the other 19 key concerns, the shadow report criticises the lack of an overall government strategy on the inclusion of disabled children, and highlights the failure to counter negative portrayals of disabled people in the media, as well as the government’s failure to secure an adequate supply of accessible housing.
The report also highlights the rising number of disabled people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties dying in state care, the absence of an independent system to investigate those deaths, and the significant increase in the number of people subject to compulsory detention and treatment under the Mental Health Act over the last decade.
And it says that the absence of a statutory right to independent living “undermines disabled people’s ability to exercise choice and control in their care”.
But the report says little about one of the key issues of last year’s UN report, which was fuelled by years of DPAC research and campaigning: the link between the UK government’s welfare reforms and the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.
The report merely states that it is “concerned by evidence that suggests that the administration of social security benefits may have been an attributing [sic] factor in the decision of some people with mental health problems to take their own lives”.
It says that this “may raise issues concerning the States [sic] obligation to protect people’s right to life”; and although it promises to “address this issue in more detail” later in the report, it fails to do so.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, Disability News Service (DNS) has built up a substantial body of documentary evidence linking government ministers with the deaths of benefit claimants, particularly those with mental health conditions.
Both DR UK and Disability Wales are paid subscribers to DNS, and so have received these stories throughout that period.
Among those reports, DNS has repeatedly described how ministers failed to act on a coroner’s warning in 2010 that disabled people would die if they failed to improve the safety of the work capability assessment (WCA).
A report by a second coroner and another by the Scottish Mental Welfare Commission showed that other disabled people lost their lives as a result of that failure to act.
Ministers also deliberately loosened regulations that had been drawn up to protect people with mental health conditions whose lives could be at risk if forced into work-related activity.
And ministers failed to show the 2010 coroner’s report and their own secret reviews into deaths linked to the WCA to the independent expert they hired to review the assessment.
Neither DR UK, Disability Wales, Inclusion Scotland or Crowther have requested any of that documentary evidence while preparing this week’s report, and none of those concerns are mentioned in the report.
There is also no mention in the report of Government-funded research by public health experts from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford, which concluded in late 2015 that the programme to reassess people on incapacity benefit through the WCA was linked to 590 suicides in just three years.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, criticised the shadow report, and said that an alternative report by the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance would ensure that these issues were properly addressed.
She said: “The direct human cost of the government’s welfare reform policy, as so damningly evidenced in the UN disability committee inquiry report, represents a deliberate and systematic attack on disabled people’s rights and quality of life: attacks justified by an economic ideology that seems to view the support disabled people need as an unnecessary cost that needs to be eliminated .
“The CRPD shadow report provides a key opportunity to publicly lay out an evidence base for the huge injustice disabled people are experiencing right now and no report can credibly claim to represent the voices of disabled people while overlooking the depth and impact of these attacks.
“The Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance shadow report will fully evidence the extent of the injustice and attacks our community has faced and continues to face.”
A DPAC spokeswoman said: “The UK government has repeatedly denied the causal link between benefit deaths and welfare reform and this shadow report presents no challenge to that disgraceful position.
“It is an extreme insult to all the hard work that individual disabled people and our allies have put into exposing the facts and creating a robust evidence base.
“If the authors of the shadow report disagree that the evidence base is strong enough then surely as organisations and individuals who purport to care about disabled people’s rights then they have a responsibility to put some effort into creating one.
“In fact, they have had years to do so.”
Asked to explain the lack of emphasis on the links between the government’s welfare reforms and the deaths of claimants, Crowther said he had worked as a consultant for DR UK and Disability Wales and so it was “for them to comment, not me”.
Sue Bott, DR UK’s deputy chief executive, said the issue was raised twice in the report, which also endorsed CRPD’s findings, which itself “raised the matter of deaths of people following benefits assessment”.
She said: “We chose not to reiterate the issues covered in the inquiry report, save to provide updates on some issues such as the [proposed cut to some claimants of employment and support allowance], in order to have space to raise other critical issues such as deaths in detention within the overall shadow report word limit.
“On the issue itself, it is not clear from a legal point of view that these deaths would amount to a violation by the state of the right to life, hence the language we chose to use and our cross referencing to the right to health.
“This should not be regarded as any downgrading of the seriousness of the issues raised.
“We think the reports provide a comprehensive and robust account of current challenges facing disabled people and our rights in Britain today.”
She added: “It seems likely that the [CRPD] will highlight the impact of austerity measures and benefits reforms when it selects its ‘list of issues’ in March and subsequently this will provide an opportunity to submit additional evidence.
“We will explore the opportunity to do so at that stage.”
She said the reference to providing “more detail” further on in the report was “a mistake that we overlooked during final editing”.