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Shameful: Britain hauled before the UN for violating disabled people's rights

The UK is the first nation to be found in violation of the Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities, mainly through its abysmal austerity policies. We went to the hearing to see what the Conservative government had to say for itself. 

March 23 2024, 12.36pm

“I knew it would be crap, but just how blatant they are to sit there with straight faces and absolutely no care about what they’re coming out with is just disgusting,” says Alison Turner. 

Alison is the daughter-in-law of Errol Graham, who was found dead in his flat in 2018, having starved to death after his disability benefits were removed. 

We’re standing outside of the United Nations after a tense session of the Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD), where the UK government has just given evidence on their treatment of disabled people. The reception they got from the Committee's rapporteurs was not much softer than Alison’s.

The (UNCRPD) was founded in 2006 in order to monitor different countries' progress in empowering disabled people to live independently. It was created to uphold the Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities, which aims 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.” 

In their first implementation report in 2011 the UK Government said “The UK believes that the Convention is an important and necessary statement of the rights that all disabled people have, and must be able to exercise.” Though their actions in subsequent years contradicted that.

In 2016, the UN found the UK government to be the first-ever country to be in “grave violation” of the Convention.  In particular, the UN cited austerity measures that had a disproportionate effect on disabled people. These included changes to social care, housing benefits, eligibility criteria for Personal Independence Payment (PIP)  and the scrapping of the Independent Living Fund. This had a role, the UN says, in breaching the following articles: 19, the right to live independently and be included in the community,  27 right to work and employment and 28 the right to adequate living standards and social protection. At the time the uk government said they “strongly disagree” and that “the Government does not accept the Report’s conclusion that there is evidence of grave and systematic violation of the rights of disabled people.”

In August 2023, the UK government were called to attend an evidence session during which representatives from Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations (DDPOs) also gave evidence. The government did not attend, which prompted disabled activists to get #WheresTom (referencing the previous Minister for Disabled People Tom Pursglove) trending.

 At the time a spokesperson from the DWP told me it had always been the government’s intention to give evidence in March. Interestingly, the DDPOs were allowed to speak at the last session, which the government did not attend.

I was invited to attend the event with the DDPO delegation, which included Disabled People Against Cuts, Disability Rights UK, Inclusion London, Disability Wales, Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance and DPAC Ireland. There were also delegates from unions including Unite the Union, TUC, Equity, CWU and the NUJ

Speaking before the hearing, NUJ president Natasha Hirst said “They will try and convince the committee they’re world leaders of disability rights, we need to challenge that”. Hirst also spoke about how it was important that although the DDPO delegation was not allowed to speak, their presence was felt online. “We want to empower disabled people so they know we’re here to hold the government to account”.

Also with the delegation were disabled people with lived experience and family members of those who have died due to government cruelty -  such as Turner who, along with her family, has spent many years taking the government to court to get justice for Errol and to ensure this doesn’t continue to happen. The family are yet to receive an apology or compensation from the government.

Going to Geneva to hold Westminster to account

Ellen Clifford from DPAC and author of The War on Disability echoed the sentiment of many in the room that we were keen to hear what the government had to say, but that it shouldn’t have come to this “I am quite depressed at the fact that we have to come all the way to Geneva to try to hold our government to account because there's no way to do it in the system we have”. This is one reason why DDPOs are pushing for the UNCRPD to be made into law.

In these events, government ministers aren’t expected to show up, no matter how great it would’ve been for the DDPO to see them answer for their actions, though it seemingly wouldn’t have been impossible as the day before Secretary of State for DWP Mel Stride was in Paris for a conference on work, which is just an hours flight away from Geneva (I know I did it).  Instead, the UK government was represented by the Deputy Director of the Disability Unit in the cabinet office, Alexandra Gowlland, and representatives from the devolved nations.  

Gowlland spoke for just 7 minutes, during which time she spoke lavishly about what the government were supposedly doing for disabled people. She said twice that “the UK government is fully committed to implementing the convention on the rights of people with disabilities” and that they “welcome this dialogue” which many in the DDPO delegation, myself included found rich considering they were sat a few rows away from us and didn’t even look at us. 

Gowlland said the UK government is “committed to transforming the benefits system and ensuring people can access the right support and have a better overall experience when applying for benefits”, whilst not mentioning the work capability assessment reform plans. She also called disability hate crime “completely unacceptable”, though many believe it’s the government's villanisation of disabled people that has led to hate.

She also highlighted papers such as The National Disability Strategy and the Disability Action Plan. Whilst she called the national disability strategy “ambitious and it will drive significant improvements to the daily lives of disabled people” Gowlland didn’t mention that it’s currently being challenged by disability rights activists in the high courts. She said the Disability Action plan would make “tangible improvements to disabled people's lives or foundations for long-term change”, but not that there was no funding attached to the plan.

The devolved nations' evidence showed the distinct difference between them and the Westminster government in their treatment of disabled people, with Wales highlighting their disability task force, but it was not enough.

Rhian Davies of Disability Wales said, “Although we are glad to see mention of the Disability Rights Taskforce and Locked Out report, we are disheartened that there was no mention that 68% of COVID-19 deaths in Wales were disabled people and that we still do not have a clear timeline on incorporation of the UNCRDP into Welsh Law.”

UK rhetoric "dehumanises disabled people"

Although the DDPOs were not allowed to speak, they did share evidence with the UK rapporteurs for the UN, which was drawn on massively when it came time for them to question the government.

Rosemary Kayess, chair of the UNCRPD, brought the government to task in her response, during which she said  “Reforms within social welfare benefits are premised on a notion that disabled people are undeserving and skiving off and defrauding the system. This has resulted in hate speech and hostility towards disabled people.” AShe continued that the government had created “a pervasive framework and rhetoric that dehumanises disabled people”.

The other Rapporteur  - Dr Laverne Jacobs -  cited evidence they had received and a 2015 study that linked WCA reassessments to approximately 600 suicides in three years and linked many disabled people’s mental health crises to the disability assessment process. She told the UK Government that there is a “significant and shameful gap between the conventions requirements and the lived experience of disabled people”

Despite being asked questions by the committee specifically on benefits deaths, the government did not even acknowledge the scale of deaths the policies have caused. This is something Turner wasn’t surprised by 

“I think it's just them, keeping themselves away from it. Because they know that they've caused it, they are the sole cause of the harm that's been done and the extreme level of deaths that's been happening and they haven't got an answer for that.”

Some in the delegation voiced disbelief that the government seemed to feel no particular shame in being hauled before the UN in that manner.  no shame about the fact they had been hauled to the UN. “They should be embarrassed. It's embarrassing that we are the fifth wealthiest country in the world and we are still leaving people to die of starvation after their benefits are being removed” Rensa Gaunt from Inclusion London told me. 

“They say they’re world leaders but the only thing they’re leaders in is being the first to be investigated by the UN under the Convention of the Rights of disabled people, congratulations!” concluded Gaunt.

Despite the government’s evidence being as disappointing as many expected, it has only galvanised the disabled people’s movement. As the event was live-streamed, viewers were encouraged to tweet along using the hashtag #CRDP24* and at one point it was trending in the UK. 

All of us together sought to shine a light on the truth of our perilous situation. The fact that the UK Government and the devolved administrations sought to hide in the dark refusing to answer directly the questions of this esteemed Committee is shameful” said Tony O’Reilly, on behalf of the Northern Irish Delegation in a statement

But we know the Committee valued and respected our contribution. Our efforts will not be in vain. Our fight for justice, equality and human dignity will continue to flourish thanks to the work and support of DPAC and the wider coalition of UK DDPOs.”

“It’s important we go back and fight against the government and ensure the next government enshrine the convention in domestic law”, said Clifford. 

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