Disabled activists who persuaded the United Nations (UN) to investigate serious breaches of rights by the UK government say their four-year journey has been vindicated, after a report concluded there had been “grave or systematic violations” of the UN’s disability convention.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) – led by its co-founder Debbie Jolly – first approached the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) four years ago, and lodged a formal request to investigate the allegations the following year.
Now, more than four years after the first contact from DPAC, CRPD has published its report into the allegations.
The committee has concluded that the UK government is guilty of “grave or systematic violations” of disabled people’s human rights, and that it has discriminated against them across three key parts of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
DPAC welcomed the report – the first such high-level inquiry to be carried out by CRPD – but was scathing about the government’s response, which rejected the committee’s conclusions and all 11 of its recommendations.
Within 48 hours, DPAC had published a detailed rebuttal of the government’s claims.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of DPAC, said: “The DPAC research team, led by Debbie Jolly, are delighted that our allegations of the grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights have been fully vindicated by the UN inquiry into the UK, which highlighted a catalogue of abuses heaped on disabled people by the UK government since 2010.
“However, as expected, the Tories’ response to this report is a disgrace, although even their own responses to the UN show them up as compulsive liars, idiots, or both.”
DPAC and other disabled activists, including Black Triangle co-founder John McArdle, were also furious that the government leaked the UN report to a right-wing tabloid, The Mail on Sunday, and attempted to rubbish its conclusions before it was published the following day.
A string of leading campaigners have signed a letter written by McArdle that will be sent to the UN to ask it to condemn the UK government’s “unacceptable” behaviour, which they say was an attempt to “discredit and delegitimise the report”.
The committee examined breaches under articles 19 (independent living), article 27 (work and employment) and article 28 (adequate standard of living and social protection) of the convention.
Under article 19, the report concludes that the government’s social security reforms – including cuts to housing benefits, the introduction of the benefits cap, changes in eligibility criteria for personal independence payment, the tightening of eligibility criteria for social care, and the closure of the Independent Living Fund – have “disproportionately affected persons with disabilities and hindered various aspects of their right to live independently and be included in the community”.
On article 27, it says that evidence it has collected “points to significant hardship, including financial, material and psychological”, experienced by disabled people undergoing benefits assessments.
And it points to a significant and “disproportionate” increase in benefit sanctions handed to claimants in the employment and support allowance (ESA) work-related activity group between 2012 and 2014.
It concludes that “claimants who have been sanctioned have faced financial hardship, including through becoming indebted, relying on the support of relatives or on food banks or having reduced essential services”.
Under article 28, the committee says it was given evidence that showed social security reforms “had a more negative impact” on households including disabled people, “especially on those living on low income”.
As part of its inquiry, two CRPD members spent two weeks in the UK in October 2015, interviewing more than 200 people, including civil servants, politicians, academics, researchers, lawyers and representatives of disabled people’s organisations, as well as collecting more then 3,000 pages of documentary evidence.
The report concludes that disabled people “have had their freedom of choice and control over their daily activities restricted, the extra cost of disability has been set aside and income protection has been curtailed as a result of benefit cuts”.
Among its 11 recommendations – all of which were rejected by the UK government – the report calls for more funding for disabled people affected by austerity measures since 2010, for measures to ensure “appropriate legal advice” is available to disabled people, and for the government to do more to “actively consult and engage” with disabled people and “give due consideration to their views”.
It also repeats the call made many times by disabled campaigners since 2011 for the government to carry out an assessment of the cumulative impact of all of its cuts and reforms on disabled people.
Pat Onions, co-founder of Pat’s Petition, said: “Over five years ago, Pat’s Petition launched a campaign asking for a cumulative impact assessment (CIA) of how the cuts the government were going to implement, under the new welfare reform bill, would affect chronically sick and disabled people and their carers.
“This was successful in bringing together grassroots groups, politicians and people from all walks of life.”
The petition, and later one by the WOWcampaign, led to a debate in parliament.
Onions said: “Had the government carried out a CIA, how many deaths would have been prevented? How much suffering prevented?
“Instead they snubbed us, laughed at us and called us names. Now the UN is calling for exactly the same – a CIA. And the government is ridiculing them too.”
The government says in its response to the report that it “strongly disagrees” with its conclusions and “does not accept the report’s conclusion that there is evidence of grave and systematic violation of the rights of disabled people”.
It says: “The report focuses on too narrow a scope and, in doing so, presents an inaccurate picture of life for disabled people in the UK.
“The government reiterates its position that the reforms discussed in the report were right, ensuring a sustainable system that continues to protect people who are more vulnerable while supporting those who can work to do so.
“The report’s narrow focus on employment and support allowance (ESA) processes with little consideration of employment programmes does not adequately reflect the support available for disabled people to work in the UK.”
It adds: “The government stands by its reform of the UK welfare system, which is designed to provide adequate standards of living, a comprehensive support system and special protections for vulnerable people.”
Asked to confirm that it did not accept any of the committee’s 11 recommendations, a DWP spokeswoman declined to do so, instead claiming that the “core intention of these recommendations are already incorporated into UK policies and practices”.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that “dialogue on the issues raised [does] not end with the publication of the findings”, and that CRPD “looks forward to continued engagement with the UK on the human rights of persons with disabilities”.
Asked for the committee’s response to the UK government’s apparent refusal to accept any of its recommendations, Maria Soledad Cisternas Reyes, CRPD’s chair, told Disability News Service: “We maintain a continuous dialogue with the UK government and stand ready to meet and discuss the substantive elements of the report, taking into account the best way of implementation with regards to persons with disabilities.
“We know responses to policy measures evolve and therefore welcome any positive measures the government has taken or will undertake to ensure that the rights of persons with disabilities are met in full compliance with the convention to which the UK is a state party.”
She added: “We believe that this report and the UK government’s response will generate an open, informed and inclusive debate across the [UK], with the full participation of persons with disabilities and the organisations that represent them.”
The committee will now meet to discuss the government’s comments and determine its response in Geneva in March.
CRPD also announced that the UK will be examined for the first time on its overall progress in implementing the convention in August and September 2017, “when the findings of the inquiry will also be raised to assess progress made in relation to the recommendations”.
Linda Burnip, from DPAC, said the UN investigation only took place because of the actions of grassroots disabled activists.
She said: “While the large disability charities and organisations such as Amnesty with huge financial and staff resources sat back and did nothing to challenge the government, DPAC as usual raised the issues and will keep raising them both visibly and through research and evidence-gathering.
“This report is just the beginning, but will be an invaluable tool [with] which to continue our campaigning.”