By Sue Jones
Jeremy Corbyn asked David Cameron during PMQs to publish the details of the Government’s response to the UN inquiry into the treatment of disabled people in the UK. The new Labour leader also asked if the Government intended to co-operate with the inquiry.
Such UN investigations are conducted confidentially by the UN and officials will not confirm or deny whether the UK is currently being put under scrutiny.
However, the ongoing inquiry has been widely reported by disability rights groups and campaigners. And yet, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has previously declined to comment on the investigation.
Mr Corbyn used his final question during PMQs to ask about the United Nations inquiry into alleged “grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people in the UK.
The PM responded with his now customary dismissive remarks, saying the inquiry may not be“all it’s cracked up to be”, and added that many disabled people in other countries do not have the same level of rights and support as those in the UK.
The United Nations team of investigators are expecting to meet with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, members of parliament, individual campaigners and disabled people’s organisations, representatives from local authorities and leading academics.
“This is deeply embarrassing to all of us in this house and indeed to the country as a whole”, said Corbyn.
The team will be gathering direct evidence from individuals about the impact of Government’s austerity measures, with a focus on benefit cuts and sanctions; cuts to social care; cuts to legal aid; the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF); the adverse impact of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA); the shortage of accessible and affordable housing; the impact of the bedroom tax on disabled people, and also the rise in disability hate crime.
The Government’s controversial approach to people with disabilities and disability benefits had been met with criticism from charities and campaigners. They argue that disabled people have been forced to bear the brunt of austerity cuts more than any other social group. Corbyn pointed out that Cameron has previously promised to protect the poor, sick and disabled – now a broken promise.
In 2013, Dr Simon Duffy from the Centre for Welfare Reform published a briefing outlining how the austerity cuts are targeted, arguing the cuts were targeted at the very groups a decent and civilised society would protect.
- People in poverty (1 in 5 of us) bear 39% of all the cuts
- Disabled people (1 in 13 of us) bear 29% of all the cuts
- People with severe disabilities (1 in 50 of us) bear 15% of all the cuts
The report says: “The unfairness of this policy is seen even more clearly when we look at the difference between the burden of cuts that falls on most citizens and the burdens that fall on minority groups.”
By 2015 the annual average loss in income or services will be:
- People who are not in poverty or have no disability will lose £467 per year
- People who are in poverty will lose £2,195 per year
- Disabled people will lose £4,410 per year
- Disabled people needing social care will lose £8,832 per year
Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, told the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that disabled people “should work their way out of poverty.”
He added: “We don’t think of people not in work as victims to be sustained on government handouts. No, we want to help them live lives independent of the state.
“We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.”
The Work and Pensions Secretary has been widely criticised for slashing vital support for disabled people. His war on disabled people includes closing Remploy factories, scrapping the Independent Living Fund, cuts to payments for a disability Access To Work scheme and changes to Employment and Support Allowance.
The reformed Work Capability Assessment has also been very controversial, with critics labeling the tests unfair, arbitrary and heavily bureaucratic. Changes are weighted towards removing vulnerable people’s sickness and disability benefits and forcing them into employment before they’re ready – potentially putting them and future co-workers in harm’s way.
The hated and widely condemned ‘bedroom tax’ disproportionately affects people with disabilities, with around two-thirds of those affected being disabled.
The United Nations has already stated that the bedroom tax constitutes a violation of the human right to adequate housing in several ways. If, for example, the extra payments force tenants to cut down on their spending on food or heating their home.
There are already a number of legal challenges to the bedroom tax under way in British courts. In principle the judiciary here takes into account the international human rights legislation, as the UK has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The right to adequate housing is recognised in a number of international human rights instruments – signed and ratified by the UK.
In 2013, the UN rapporteur Raquel Rolnik called on the UK Government to ditch the bedroom tax. Her report and recommendations were dismissed as “misleading Marxist diatribe” by Tory ministers.
Meanwhile, the UN rejected claims made in the Sun newspaper that it had “slapped down” Raquel Rolnik and blasted a “blizzard of misinformation” in the “xenophobic” British media as “pure spin”.
The DWP’s sanctions regime has also been widely discredited and there has been controversy of benefit deaths. Statistics finally released by the DWP, in the wake a long-drawn-out legal battle, revealed that thousands have died after their benefits were stopped.
The Daily Mail has already preempted the visit from the special rapporteur, Catalina Devandas Aguilar – who is spearheading the ongoing inquiry – by using racist stereotypes and claiming the UN are “meddling” in UK affairs. The Mail blatantly attempted to discredit the unprecedented intervention, and the UN rapporteur before she had even arrived in the UK.
Meanwhile, Cameron seems very keen to play the investigation down and dismiss the impact of his government’s “reforms” on the lives of sick and disabled people.
Despite all of this, the mere fact such an inquiry has been deemed necessary is both embarrassing and deeply damaging for the Government – even if they refuse to admit it.