Why are the UN investigating the UK Government for potential breaches of disabled peoples human rights?
It has recently been *reported that the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is to visit the United Kingdom 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 Party (known as Tories) Government. The UN was asked to intervene by the grass-roots campaign network Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) 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; but just what does this actually mean, why has this happened and what are the potential implications for disabled people in the UK and around the world?
The UNCRPD was hard fought for over decades, driven largely by European and Latin American disabled people organisations. The Convention eventually came into being in 2008, and now ratified by over 150 countries (known as State Parties). The purpose of the Convention is defined in Article 1 as:
‘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’.
Lofty intentions indeed. The Convention goes on to afford disabled people a number of rights including for example; the right to recognition before the law (Article 12), the right to live independently (Article 19) the right to work (Article 27). Its 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. The Convention was ratified by the UK in 2009. By also signing up to the Optional Protocol, the UK accepted the legitimacy of the UN Committee on the CRPD to investigate potential breaches and report their findings. This Committee is a panel of human rights experts and works with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to ensure its application in states who have signed up. The Committee visits usually include a series of meetings with relevant authorities (in this case most likely they will seek meetings with government ministers and departments), civil society organisations e.g. NGO’s, campaign/community organisations and individuals to hear testimony and gather evidence.
Any claim of potential breaches must be forensically evidenced to a set UN template, with the burden of proof falling heavily on the claimant. In claims made against a government as the State Party, they have a right to reply before the evidence is considered for inquiry level action. In this case, the Committee reviewed the government response and felt there were enough grounds to launch an inquiry.
On coming to power in 2010, the government implemented their austerity agenda, a series of cuts and reforms which fell mostly on public services , local councils and the voluntary sector. These measures they said were necessary to address the shortfall in the nations budget, caused by using public money to bail out the UK banking sector following the global financial crisis in 2008.
No matter where you are, as a disabled person living under a capitalist system, you are more likely to face economic disadvantage and dependency on public & local services and voluntary sector support. This is also true in the UK. Many disabled people understood that their lives as they knew them were about to be turned upside down. Despite generations of self organised activism, disabled people in the UK were still less likely to be in work or university, to own their own home or car. A significant number lived in poverty and isolation. Yes, 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. It may have been the 20th century, with surface level cosmetic change, but for many it was simply a matter of now being prisoners in gilded cages. And even that wouldn’t last long.
In one year alone, 2012 almost half a million – 470 000 – disabled people lost their jobs. The total amount of disabled people who’ve 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; over 1500 disabled people working in semi-state supported employers Remploy 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 (support with everyday tasks such as washing, dressing, cooking etc). During the last parliament, Social Care budgets were slashed by 25%, with that figure set to reach 33% over the course of this parliament. This means that around 4 in 10 disabled people get 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 – a fund to support those with complex support 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.
Added to this are the huge swathe of Council services and departments closed, and jobs lost. Local Council funding for voluntary sector has been decimated. Often these were the only provider of frontline/crisis interventions such as Domestic Violence Refuges for women. Many voluntary and community groups existed only through funding from local councils.
But by far, the biggest impact has been felt by those claiming Social Security. Mandatory retesting for every single claimant of all forms of disability benefit. Divided into those ruled immediately fit to work, fit to do work related activity, or not able to get paid work at all; many saw their incomes slashed overnight. Those found fit to work instantly lost their right to any disability benefits, those who were fit to do work related activity had their benefits for a limited time. Again, only those with the most complex support needs had ongoing access to disability benefits.
This was compounded for many by what became known as the Bedroom Tax. Disabled people who received a rent subsidy would now be charged for any ‘spare’ bedroom. This means 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 many thousands of people have left their (often adapted) homes and support networks and communities, moving to 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 cold homes rather than face the trauma changing homes, and re-establishing networks and services all over again.
There are of course too many cuts and reforms to note here, but here are 2 facts worth bearing in mind:
Disabled people are paying up to 9 times more through direct and indirect cuts in order to balance the UK’s budget than non-disabled people;
For disabled people with the highest support needs, this figure rises to 19 times more.
In what is still the 6th richest country in the world.
You would think this would make victims of us all. That it would be easier to passively accept this change, and be grateful for whatever meagre support was now on offer.
Then you would be wrong.
Disabled people in the UK have a proud history of self-organised resistance movements. Throughout the last 50 years the UK has seen the anger, defiance and mobilisation of disabled people manifest in political action groups like UPIAS (Union of Physically Impaired And Segregated), DAN (Direct Action Network) and now DPAC.
DPAC has followed in the tradition of using direct action and civil disobedience to mobilise disabled people as agents for change themselves. Born in 2010 at a protest outside the Conservative Party’s first conference in government, and using social media, the network has proved a formidable foe of government policy and corporate profiteers. Their sustained campaign against ATOS began with just a couple of dozen people protesting outside their London HQ, saw a week of action during the London Paralympics in 2012 in response to their sponsorship of the games (including many hundreds of protestors shutting down the HQ) and culminated in protests at over 60 offices nationwide in February 2014. A month later, ATOS withdrew from a £500m contract to carry out the Work Capability Assessments.
The network organised the attempt to build a fully accessible protest camp outside the Houses of Parliament in the grounds of the famous Westminster Abbey. The action took 6 months to prepare, involved over 100 activists in the site-take (supported by Occupy & UK Uncut) and brought 7 tonnes of infrastructure from accessible accommodation and toilets to kitchens. Full plumbing and power circuits. In the end, only the presence of hundreds of police and the intransigence of the Dean of Westminster prevented the occupation which was in protest to the closure of the ILF.
The ILF was also the catalyst for DPAC’s boldest action to date – the attempted storming of the House of Commons floor during Prime Ministers Questions in June this year. Only days before the closure date, dozens of disabled people outwitted police and security to reach the entrance to the commons floor only for police to become over-excited and dragged protestors away.
DPAC has also been effective in mobilising disabled people who want to campaign along more traditional lines also; lobbying MP’s, media campaigns, legal challenges, research and evidence gathering etc. DPAC has also maximised the opportunities brought by social media and the power it has to bring formerly isolated disabled people into the network and Its because of all of these actions, all of these efforts that the disabled peoples movement in the UK is undergoing a resurgence; and reshaping the wider left in the process. Grass-roots activism has responded to disabled people by embracing the ideas of inclusion and accessibility as integral to movement building and not a luxury or add on. And, in doing so often exposed the lip-service and frequently patronising nature of the more established, better resourced and frankly should-know-better institutions such as trade unions, campaigning NGO’s and the revolutionary left.
At the time of writing, DPAC is currently planning to celebrate its 5th birthday at the latest Conservative Party conference in Manchester with two direct actions in three days. With almost 30 local DPAC groups, these kinds of actions seem set to continue for a while yet.
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.
But, it appears the UN visit may also have little impact on the decisions of the government. Already in 2015, the UK has heard from UN Special Rapporteurs for Violence Against Women & Girls – who described the UK as ‘an old boys club…..doing little to prevent violence against women’; and on the Right to Peaceful Assembly who expressed ‘deep concerns of the high number of undercover police embedded in non-violent campaign groups’. Neither report has cut any ice with the government. Though they did manage to respond to the visit of the Special Rapporteur on Housing recent visit as ‘Marxist diatribe’. Which is at least consistent with their response to every criticism or questioning of heir policy direction. Normally, i would suggest that the biggest fear the Tories have is being shamed in front of the world by this report. But, Tories have no shame.
Once re-elected in May this year, the government have pledged to remove disability benefits altogether for all but those with the highest support needs. Disabled people are seen as undeserving of a safety net, unless you have to be hoisted into it. Hundreds of thousands of people will be left destitute – still with the added costs disability brings, only now without any income to meet those costs. With almost 2m people out of work, and barely half a million jobs in the entire country, working your way out of this poverty trap isn’t an option for most.
And, we’ve seen their plans or those who resist. The recent moves to restrict campaigning, protest and strikes have shown that they are prepared to go to whatever lengths are required to push through their agenda. We must be as determined in fighting back.
But, this planned visit could open the door for a raft of similar challenges by disabled people around the world. Already we have seen disabled people as part of social movements resisting austerity in Greece and Spain. I’ve no doubt these activists are watching with interest what happens here in the next few weeks. And too in places like Belarus, the only country in Europe refusing to sign up to the UNCRPD. Could a campaign demanding this act an engine driving towards democracy in Europe’s last remaining brutal dictatorship? Bolivia has seen violent confrontations with disabled people using crutches, wheelchair parts and walking sticks to break police lines when trying to deliver their demand for more support to their country’s parliament. Will the pen prove mightier than the foot-plate in breaking the resolve of nations who don’t make equality and independence of disabled people a priority?
Will the UN 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.
by Andy Greene
An edited version of this piece is published in New Internationalist