U.N. says Britain’s austerity measures violate the rights of disabled people

Protests against government cuts to disabled people's living expenses. (Credit: Roger Blackwell/Flickr)

Cutbacks in the Britain’s social care and welfare budgets have “systematically violated” disabled people’s rights, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. claims in a report that the U.K.’s austerity policy measures implemented in 2010, which slashed spending on public programs to reduce Britain’s deficit, have adversely affected disabled people’s right to work and to live to a standard quality of life.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities painted a damning picture of a benefits system that emphasizes getting claimants back into work, but with little consideration of disabled people’s human rights. This comes after statistics in recent years revealed that when disabled people are forced back into work, they often suffer from psychological distress as a result.

The report – based on an investigation by U.N. envoys carried out last year – suggested that people with disabilities have seen their living conditions deteriorate as a result of of cuts to housing benefits, social services and to the Independent Living Fund – a government program that provided financial support to people with disabilities across the U.K.

“Evidence indicates that persons with disabilities affected by cuts in their housing benefits have undergone high levels of stress, anxiety and depression as a consequence of the shortfalls in their budget and the costs to recover financial stability,” the report stated.

Disability campaigners welcomed the report, arguing that it is a clear indication of the U.K.’s failed commitments to protect disabled people’s rights.

“It confirms that, despite Theresa May’s warm words, this government is failing sick and disabled people,” Debbie Abrahams, shadow work and pensions secretary, told the Guardian.

Linda Burnip, a founding member of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), a group that campaigns for disabled people’s rights in the U.K., told the Guardian that the report “came as no surprise to anyone who has followed the stripping away of disabled people’s rights over the last six years.”

Theresa May’s government rejected the report, arguing that disabled people have seen improvements in their lives under the Conservatives.

“While the government continues to improve and build on the support available to disabled people, it stands by and is proud of its record,” a government source told the Guardian.

The Conservative’s work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, dismissed the U.N. report, according to the Guardian, calling it “patronizing and offensive,” and that it presented an outdated view of disabled rights in the United Kingdom. Green contended Britain is “a world leader in disability rights and equality.”

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“At the heart of this report lies an outdated view of disability which is patronizing and offensive. We strongly refute its findings,” Green told the Guardian. “The UN measures success as the amount of money poured into the system, rather than the work and health outcomes for disabled people. Our focus is on helping disabled people find and stay in work, whilst taking care of those who can’t.”

Cuts to disability benefits have proved divisive in the past – not only across political divides, but also among Conservative MPs. In March, Iain Duncan Smith, former secretary for work and pensions and prominent Brexit advocate, resigned from David Cameron’s cabinet, arguing that disability welfare cuts were a “compromise too far.”

Though disability campaigners agree with the government’s line that integrating disabled people back into the workforce is a step in the right direction, the report highlights that disabled people still face significant barriers in entering the workforce due to benefits cuts.

“Those who have re-entered the system by claiming the Job Seeker’s Allowance to support them until they find work face stringent levels of conditions and sanctions, which do not take into account the specific barriers they face. The Committee was informed that, in some cases, sanctions had led to financial hardship for persons with disabilities, and particularly persons with intellectual and/or psycho-social disabilities,” the report stated.

The report also added that programs to encourage disabled people back into work “had no visible impact,” leaving many facing debt and forced to use food banks.

In a written response to the findings, the British government claimed that 500,000 more disabled people were in work since 2013, and that increased investments into programs allowed 25,000 people to remain in work.

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Included in the ability to remain in work is the ability to live independently and in accommodation suiting their condition and needs.

In a defeat to the government last week, the supreme court ruled in favor of two families it claimed were unfairly taxed under what is called the Spare Room Subsidy or “bedroom tax” – a program that restricts housing subsidies and encourages families with “excess” bedrooms to downsize and move into smaller properties.

Disability campaigners claimed that the bedroom tax disproportionately affected disabled people who require living arrangements better suited to their needs. It has been claimed that those affected by the program lose between 14 percent and 25 percent of their housing benefit if they are deemed as having “excess” bedrooms.

A study from Cambridge University found that around 465,000 households have been affected nationally and that the bedroom tax has helped to trigger poverty, debt, isolation and ill health, particularly affecting disabled people.

Despite this, the U.K. government defended its record in helping disabled people remain in accommodation suitable to their condition in its official response to the U.N. report.

“The Government is committed to supporting disabled people in their right to live independently and be included in the community, which includes upholding the right to choice and control of residence and health care. Significant steps have been taken to protect the choice of residence and access to a range of support to enable independent living.”

Britain has been a signatory to the U.N. convention on the rights of people with disabilities since 2007, and has been a strong advocate on the international level for disabled people’s rights. The Department for International Development launched its Disability Framework last year “to ensure that disabled people are systematically and consistently included in, and benefit from, international development and humanitarian assistance.”

Despite the U.N.’s findings, the British government has said that it has no intentions to follow up on the recommendations made in the report.

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About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com