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Why is the UN investigating Britain’s treatment of disabled people?

United Kingdom
Human Rights

Disabled people and their supporters demonstrate against welfare cuts outside a jobcentre in Britain, 29 July 2015. Roger Blackwell under a Creative Commons Licence

Whatever the outcome of the inquiry, disabled people will continue to fight injustice, writes Andy Greene.

The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will visit Britain in the next few weeks as part of an inquiry into ‘grave and systemic violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD)’ by the Conservative government. The UN was asked to intervene by grassroots campaign network Disabled People Against Cuts under a monitoring mechanism known as the Optional Protocol as a response to cuts and reforms introduced by the party during the previous parliament (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, 2010-15). This is the first time any government has been investigated for breaches of the convention.

The UNCRPD was hard fought for over decades, driven largely by European and Latin American disabled people’s organizations. The convention eventually came into being in 2008, and has been ratified by more than 150 countries. Its purpose, as defined in Article 1 is: ‘To promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.’

It goes on to afford disabled people a number of rights, including the right to recognition before the law (Article 12), the right to live independently (Article 19) and the right to work (Article 27). It is based on the Social Model of Disability, which asserts that people who have impairments are disabled by the attitudes, institutions and processes societies create, rather than those impairments.

Britain ratified the convention in 2009. It also signed up to the Optional Protocol, thereby accepting the legitimacy of the UN Committee on the CRPD to investigate potential breaches and report its findings. Governments have a right to reply if a claim is made against them. In this case, the Committee reviewed the government’s response and felt that there were enough grounds to launch an inquiry.


Upon coming to power in 2010, the coalition government implemented its austerity agenda, a series of cuts and reforms which fell mostly on public services, local councils and the voluntary sector. These measures, the government claimed, were necessary to address the shortfall in the nation’s budget, caused by using public money to bail out Britain’s banking sector following the global financial crisis in 2008.

Many disabled people understood that their lives were about to be turned upside down. Despite generations of self-organized activism, disabled people in Britain were still less likely to be in work or at university, to own their own home or car. A significant number lived in poverty and isolation. There had been relative gains over the years, but these were mostly in areas covered by access to public buildings, goods and services and also some public transport. Systemic change had never happened.

In one year alone, 2012, almost half a million – 470 000 – disabled people lost their jobs. The total number of disabled people who have found work over the whole parliamentary period comes nowhere near this. Funds which supported disabled people to work, such as Access to Work (AtW) were restricted; more than 1,500 disabled people working in semi-state supported employers Remploy, which aspires to find disabled people work, lost their jobs on the promise that the money saved would be ploughed into AtW support for them. Over two-thirds are still out of work today.

Cuts to local councils have had an incredible impact on disabled people. The biggest single cost most councils have is Adult Social Care, which provides support for everyday tasks such as washing, dressing and cooking. During the last parliamentary period, social-care budgets were slashed by 25 per cent, with that figure set to reach 33 per cent over the course of this current parliament. This means that around 4 in 10 disabled people do not receive any form of support at all, never mind adequate support to live independently. The overwhelming majority of councils now provide support only for those people with ‘substantial or critical need’ – i.e. people with complex support needs. The closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) in June this year, which similarly supported those with complex needs, has already seen many councils cut support packages. Transition funding was devolved to councils for one year, intended to provide support for former ILF users. Many councils have taken the money and not provided the support, as the money wasn’t ring-fenced in a way that would hold the councils accountable.

There is now mandatory retesting for every claimant of all forms of disability benefit. The retesting categorizes social-security recipients into those ruled immediately fit to work, those fit to do work-related activity, and those not able to get paid work at all. Those found fit to work instantly lost their right to any disability benefits, while those who were fit to do work-related activity kept their benefits for a limited time. Only those with the most complex support needs had ongoing access to disability benefits.

These problems were compounded by what became known as the Bedroom Tax. Disabled people who received a rent subsidy would now be charged for any ‘spare’ bedroom. This meant that rooms used to house specialist or medical equipment (often at the request of health professionals) became a financial liability. Reduced income and rising costs meant that many thousands of people have left their (often adapted) homes and support networks and communities, moving into smaller homes and having to rebuild their lives. Others have made a different choice – to remain in their homes, pay the charge and skip meals or sit in freezing homes rather than face the trauma of changing homes and re-establishing networks and services all over again.

Disabled people are paying up to 9 times more on average through direct and indirect cuts in order to balance Britain’s budget than non-disabled people. For disabled people with the highest support needs, this figure rises to 19 times more.

Whatever recommendations come out of the UN visit, the work of disabled activists will continue to set the terms for resistance – fearless and challenging. Fearless in its targeting and tactics, challenging the myth of disabled people as vulnerable objects of pity. Recent moves to restrict campaigning, protest and strikes have shown that the government is prepared to go to whatever lengths are required to push through its painful agenda. We must be just as determined in fighting back.

Will the UN visit prove to be white knight or a white elephant? The truth is, it doesn’t matter. Disabled people taking the responsibility to make change happen ourselves is what matters.

Fighting back is our business, and business is good.

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