05:38, September 04 322 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-04 05:38:03
Austerity has trampled over disabled people’s rights. But the UK won’t admit it

Like a lot of other disabled people, I’ve been eagerly following the progress of the United Nations’ inspection into the UK’s record on disability rights. Last month in Geneva, a UK delegation faced questioning by a UN committee based on 2,000 pages of evidence gathered during the course of its inquiry. The UN’s final report, published on Thursday, as widely expected, is a 17-page-long catalogue of shame, and highly critical of the UK’s record on almost every area covered by the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD).

The convention seeks to “promote and protect” disability rights among the UN’s member nations. In 2009, when the UK ratified the CRPD it didn’t seem like anything particularly challenging or unachievable. But back then nobody foresaw the coalition turning its fire on the poorest of the poor – or that disability rights would be among the collateral damage. Over the past seven years, cuts to benefits, social care, the legal system and local authority funding have effectively put decades of slow, painful progress into reverse. And, at the same time, membership of the convention has turned into a matter of controversy and political embarrassment.

In November, the same UN committee’s investigation into complaints that cuts to welfare and social care were in breach of the CRPD concluded that the UK government was guilty of “grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities”. The work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, strongly refuted the report’s findings and accused the UN of “an outdated view of disability which is patronising and offensive”.

So as I listened to the live-streaming of the UN scrutiny from Geneva, I was curious to see how UK government representatives were going to play it. The UK delegation’s opening gambit was to remind the committee of the UK’s “proud” reputation as “a global leader in driving forward disability rights and promoting inclusion”. Fortunately, the UN was having none of it. Committee member Coomara Pyaneandee responded: “[I] want to see you come back as a world leader which at the moment, I’m afraid you are not”.

For two days, the UK delegation dodged many of the UN’s questions, made numerous unsubstantiated assertions and, when they did have the data, often used it in ways that were misleading. Asked to provide data on the numbers of disabled benefit claimants facing sanctions, the delegation responded that it was “less than 1%” (a month). Luckily, a sharp-eared audience member noticed a disparity between this figure and the UK government’s own published data and, on day two, the delegation was forced to admit that a better answer would have been 18% a year.

One consistent theme of this inspection process has been the failure of UK’s existing equality legislation to adequately deliver the human rights of disabled people. For instance, current UK law fails to recognise the right of disabled children to inclusive education, as required by article 24 of the CRPD. Recently, there has been a rise in the number of UK children being sent to segregated, special schools. Too often, disabled children and their parents are being faced with a choice between segregated schools and a local, mainstream school that is inadequately funded and lacks the resources to be properly inclusive. As the UN committee chair Theresia Degener pointed out: “you believe that the right to education entails a choice between mainstream and special education … [but] article 24 is not about choice. It is about the right to inclusive education.”

However, the most shocking aspect of the UN report is what it reveals about the UK government’s increasing non-compliance with existing UK legislation. For example, it is obliged by law to carry out impact assessments and gather necessary statistics concerning any policies likely to have a disproportionately negative impact on disabled people. But its replies to UN requests for data repeatedly demonstrated that it is in breach of this public sector equality duty. As a result, the government’s schools green paper, published a year ago, failed to conduct the legally required impact assessment, even though this policy would undoubtedly have affected the life chances of many disabled children.

The report contains 60 recommendations for the UK government to bring it closer to implementation of the CRPD. But the UN has no enforcement power and the UK government has already struck a pose of indignant denial. “We’re disappointed that this report does not accurately reflect the evidence we gave to the UN, and fails to recognise all the progress we’ve made to empower disabled people in all aspects of their lives,” said a government spokesperson. With statements such as this it is hard to have much hope. In fact, with the government increasingly acting outside the law, it is likely that the situation for the human rights of disabled people in the UK will continue to deteriorate.

As for any positives to be drawn from this inspection process, I can think of two. It is enormously heartening to know that the UN has seen through the UK government’s smokescreen, and to know that it recognises the experiences of disabled people in the UK. And, for the next few years, this report sets the benchmark by which our government’s behaviour on disability rights will be judged.

Mike Lambert is a retired English teacher and freelance writer for the BBC