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UN finds that the UK is in violation of disability rights convention

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    Joachim Stanley considers the recently published report by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which has concluded that the UK is in violation of disability rights.

    By Joachim Stanley

I was saddened to read that in a recent report, the UN has concluded that the UK is in breach of its obligations to the disabled.

The UN’s report, issued by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, concludes: “There is reliable evidence that the threshold of grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities has been met.”.

Background to the Inquiry

The Committee, began its review in 2012 before formally launching an Inquiry in 2014, reviewed a range of benefits changes include the Welfare Reform Act 2012, the Care Act 2014 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.

The UK is the first nation to have been investigated by reference to the ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’, of which it became a signatory in 2007.

The Convention includes rights such as:

  • The right to live independently and to be included in the community;
  • The right to an adequate standard of living and social protection;
  • The right to work and employment.

Conclusions of the Inquiry

The report concluded that the rights of disabled people to attain an adequate standard of living, live independently, and work have all been adversely affected by various austerity measures introduced over recent years by the UK government.  Politically, it is likely that the last of these considerations may be the most significant: the disability cuts were ostensibly driven by a desire to break a perceived cycle of benefit dependency and get the disabled into work.    By that rationale, these policies have not been merely ineffectual, but actually counter-productive.

The report’s conclusions include the following:

  • Changes to housing benefits and criteria, the closure of the Independent Living Fund and a narrowed redefinition of the social care criteria have all “hindered disabled people’s right to live independently and be included in the community.”;
  • Employment and Support Allowance sanctions (which very many commentators have been claiming for years are used routinely and unreasonably, rather than as a last resort) had increased significantly and been “disproportionately applied”;
  • The bedroom tax “failed to recognise the specific living arrangements” disabled people require (this is exactly the concern I raised in a previous blog on this topic);
  • Means assessors frequently had limited knowledge of the conditions with which they were faced, disability rights and specific needs;.
  • Assessments for fitness for work omitted to take into account the support the disabled require to perform a job or “the complex nature of some impairments and conditions”;
  • Several work schemes “had no visible impact on decreasing unemployment” amongst the disabled, and some who accessed other programmes experienced reductions in support or “loss of employment”.  Given that the DWP is supposed to support people back into work (indeed, this is its primary function), this last point seems particularly egregious.

Troublingly, the report also concluded that disabled people were often portrayed as “dependent or making a living out of benefits”.   In my experience, people with severe disabilities are very frequently not independent – that is a function of their condition(s).   If they cannot work and/or are faced with a range of government policies which hinder that objective, then there is very little option for them but to try to make a living on benefits.

The committee concluded that the benefits measures have caused financial hardship resulting in “arrears, debts, evictions and cuts to essentials such as housing and food”.  The government have refused to accept these conclusions and claimed they are “patronising and offensive”.  They also claimed that the UK is a “leader” in disability rights – a somewhat bold claim, in the circumstances.

Recommendations

The report has made a number of recommendations, including that the UK should undertake a “cumulative impact assessment of the measures adopted since 2010…on the rights to independent living and to be included in the community, social protection and employment of persons with disabilities”. It is recommended that disability organisations and representatives are involved in this assessment.

My experience

Like most clinical negligence practitioners, much of my life is spent working with and for the disabled – in my work this is usually when my clients have suffered such disability as a result of negligent failings in their medical care.  The issues discussed in this report are often those reported by my clients who find themselves engaged in battles in respect of housing and employment as a result of their disabilities, as well as having to come to terms with their injuries. A number of clients report feeling that pursuing a claim is the only option available to them to ensure that their needs will be met.

From my perspective, this report makes worrying reading.  Troubling in itself, the report comes against the backdrop of a series of measures spearheaded by the NHS Litigation Authority to limit and/or render clinical negligence claims unviable.   There is a real danger that the disabled in particular are being socially isolated and left without means of redress or assistance.   There appears to be a regrettable failure to engage on the part of the very government departments which are nominally tasked with assisting them.    It is to be hoped that the UN report prompts the UK government to rethink its policies towards the disabled and I will continue to follow this closely.

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