In August 2017, the UN accused the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and successive Conservative-led governments of creating a “human catastrophe” in the UK. Nearly ten months on, in parliament, the government was still essentially denying it had done anything wrong – ignoring UN accusations of “grave” and “systematic” violations of people’s human rights.
The DWP and the government: creating a “human catastrophe”
As The Canary previously reported, last August the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) met to assess how well the UK government was sticking to its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People, which the UK government ratified in 2009. The UNCRPD heard evidence from disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), charities, and NGOs. But it also heard counter-arguments from the UK government.
The committee’s assessment was damning. Its chair, Theresia Degener, said:
Evidence before us now and in our inquiry procedure as published in our 2016 report reveals that [welfare] cut policies [have] led to human catastrophe in your country, totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in.
It condemned the UK government’s attempts to misrepresent the impact of policies through “unanswered questions”, “misused statistics”, and a “smoke screen of statements”. Also, it said the government had introduced policies and legislation which “fail to implement” disabled people’s rights in “reality”.
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At the time, the government and the DWP refused to recognise the UNCRPD’s findings. Since then, both have maintained this stance. So on Wednesday 20 June, Labour MP Rosie Duffield called a Westminster Hall debate into the report. The government’s response? To continue to deny there was a problem.
A “national scandal”
The government and minister of state at the DWP Sarah Newton faced a barrage of criticism from opposition MPs; mostly Labour.
Labour’s Fiona Onasanya said that disabled people in the UK had become a “forgotten class”. Dan Carden said that the UNCRPD findings were a “national scandal”. Many repeatedly referred to the UN finding the government guilty of “grave” and “systematic” violations of disabled people’s human rights.
SNP MP Dr Lisa Cameron said that there were “widespread failings” in the DWP system.
Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Marsha de Cordova, poured scorn on the government, saying the “significance” of the UNCRPD “judgement is difficult to overstate”. She also noted that in “addition to the devastating cuts” the “chaotic” DWP had “endlessly mistreated” disabled people.
“Devastating”. “Absolutely horrendous”.
But it was perhaps Labour’s Debbie Abrahams who summed up the situation best. She reminded the government that the UNCRPD report was based on “facts”, “testimony” and “evidence” from disabled people. Abrahams called austerity “devastating” for disabled people, reeling off the countless cuts that successive government had implemented since 2010. She said that what disabled people had been subjected to was “absolutely horrendous”.
The UN report echoed what Abrahams said. You can read The Canary‘s full analysis here. But some of its main criticisms were that the UK government had violated rights through:
- The Bedroom Tax.
- Changes to Personal Independence Payments (PIP).
- Cuts to social care.
- The abolition of the Independent Living Fund (ILF).
- Caps on benefits.
Abrahams then made a crucial point. She noted that the government has said it “will not be acting” on the UNCRPD report. But she then highlighted the fact that it’s not the only damning report – mentioning a committee of the Council for Europe also accusing the government of violating its treaty.
She called on Newton to “reassure” disabled people that change was going to happen:
In the past years, there have been five international reports accusing the government of breaching various legal agreements on the human rights of sick and disabled people. But Newton, responding to the criticism levelled at her government and party during the debate, was dismissive.
She said [0:50] that the government ‘utterly refutes’ the allegations made by the UNCRPD and by opposition MPs. Then, she said the UN did “not take on board the evidence that the government gave them”. And she said that when the government does respond to the UNCRPD report, it will ‘rebut’ its allegations. Newton even accused opposition MPs of not using facts, of engaging in “irresponsible talk”; claiming that disabled people would “suffer” due to Labour ‘frightening’ them:
Disabled people: at serious risk
But Newton was whitewashing what the UN report had said; not the first time a government minister has done this. Overall, it said that “systematic violations” of disabled people’s human rights in the UK had occurred. It stated that:
- The government knew that welfare reforms would “disproportionately and adversely affect the rights of disabled people”, yet it did nothing. It also ignored evidence indicating this.
- Measures introduced by the government were discriminatory.
- The government had violated disabled people’s basic rights, including independent and community living and rights to life, social protection and employment.
- Over half a million people may have had their human rights abused by the government.
It would be staggering for the government to refute and ignore the allegations of one UN report. But to ignore five, and effectively accuse Labour MPs of ‘fearmongering’ in the process, is shocking. The term ‘wilful ignorance’ perhaps sums the government and the DWP’s position up best. As one disabled person told The Canary:
It seems pretty clear that drastic action needs to be taken. Because sick and disabled people in the UK now need protection from their own government.
– Write to your MP, asking them to support the UN and European committees’ findings.
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