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United Nations Summons UK Government Over Breaches of UN Convention on Disabled People’s Rights

Sunak’s Government has been called to face a UN committee over the shocking conditions faced by some disabled people after years of austerity

Disability rights activists protest at the Department for Work and Pensions against welfare sanctions last October. Photo: Ron Fassbender/Alamy Live News

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A key United Nations committee has summoned the UK Government to face scrutiny over failing to properly implement the Committee’s calls for a UK-wide disability strategy.

The UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) says disabled people across the country are being denied their basic human rights. These include some disabled people lacking  proper access to food, water and sanitation. 

A report into the breaches of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities found the UK in breach of articles 19, 27 and 28 – respectively, the right to live independently and be included in the community, the right to work and employment and the right to adequate living standards and social protection.

The Government was due to appear before the committee in August last year to answer questions about their progress with the Committee’s recommendations, but the UK forced it to be rescheduled to March 2024.

At the time, the Committee found that not only was the UK Government in breach of three articles of the Convention, but its actions against disabled people were “grave and systematic”.

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They included the gaps in safeguards for disabled people, unimplemented elements of the Equality Act 2010, and a lack of resources to ensure the Act’s correct implementation. 

The UN’s scathing critique included findings that the government’s overhaul of the disability benefits system resulted in hostility towards the disabled community and wasn’t backed up by the evidence. 

Further, a lack of opportunities for input led to welfare applicants’ voices not being “taken into account” and they were not involved in shaping reform, the UNCRPD found.

As a result, prior to implementing so-called welfare reforms, the government knew the adverse effects that such reforms would result in, including breaches of their rights, the UN committee found. 

Nevertheless, UK ministers persisted with sweeping changes to disability support, leading to breaches of three clauses of the UNCRPD.

Damaging Delays

The Government finally published an updated Disability Action Plan, a document detailing thirty-two “practical measures to improve disabled people’s daily lives”, on the 5th Feb – the month before the UNCRPD hearing.

Now the 18th March hearing will put the UK under real scrutiny from the United Nations and pressure from disabled people’s organisations for the first time since 2017, exposing their record on disability rights in front of the UN and the public alike.

However, the Government will likely be judged more on the actions it has taken rather than those it intends to take – a consequence of releasing an action plan this close to the hearing.

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Despite the Government rescheduling their appearance to 18th March 2024, many disabled people and Disabled-led organisations advocating for the community did attend, detailing how Government policy and cuts in funding had led to negative impacts on the disabled community.

The hearing at the UNCRPD on the 18th March could ultimately shape the next steps for the UK on disability policy, as the Government faces scrutiny over its record so far and whether its proposed actions will fulfil its duties under the Convention.

If not, further monitoring from the EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission) and UKIM (UK Independent Mechanism) is almost inevitable until the UN Committee is satisfied that the UK is fulfilling its duties to the disabled population.

The UK Independent Mechanism, of which the EHRC is part, also consists of the equality and human rights commissions of Scotland and Northern Ireland too. 

The UKIM was set up to promote and protect but also monitor the UK’s implementation of the Convention, ensuring the rights of disabled people in Britain. 

In August 2023, it produced the report which assessed the progress the UK had made since they were found in breach of the Convention.

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A Plan Without Action

Amelia Peckham, Co-Founder of the firm Cool Crutches and Walking Sticks, said:  “Unfortunately, the UK Government has not yet demonstrated action when it comes to disability. They’ve talked about it, they’ve made a plan for it, but what the disabled community needs to see is action, prioritisation and, quite honestly, at worst, attendance to global scale discussions around disability.

“If they are going to do as they say, and they really want to drive action and change for the disabled community in the UK, this is an indisputably integral step and opportunity to show commitment and exactly how they plan to do it.” The Special Rapporteur for the UNCRPD, Stig Langvad, said that it was of “deep concern” that the UK considered itself to be a leader in upholding the rights of disabled people.

Disability Rights UK goes as far to say that Government inaction had led to the “widespread erosion of the rights of Disabled citizens across the UK”. 

Speaking to Byline Times, Mikey Erhardt, a campaigner for the organisation, said: “There are 14 million Disabled people in the UK. Although we are not a homogenous group, we all want to live in an inclusive society where everyone has a fulfilling life and feels connected and valued.

“It was no surprise to our movement that in 2016, the United Kingdom was the first country to be investigated for violating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People. The investigation found “grave and systemic” violations of Disabled people’s rights, and we know things have only gotten worse since.”

Erhardt added: “We hope the UN holds the Government to account for the fact that our lives are not valued equally to others, for the fact that we experience discrimination and oppression in our daily lives and that their policies have and continue to create disabling barriers to our inclusion across society.” 

Watchdog Warning

The UN’s damning criticism last year sparked demands for urgent action from the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The ECHR found last summer that despite the insistence of the Committee for the UK Government to carry out a “cumulative impact assessment” of its policies affecting the disabled population, this had not happened. Ministers maintained that the “consideration of equality impacts under the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED), as established by the Equality Act 2010” was sufficient.

But the Government’s lack of progress has concerned many experts and those in the field. Liverpool Hope University’s Centre for Culture and Disability Studies were among them.

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Dr Ella Houston, a Senior Lecturer in Disability Studies at the university said the UK government’s reluctance to acknowledge their “violations of disabled people’s human rights under the UN Convention” indicates that despite breakthroughs in policy and legislation, “discrimination continues to be widespread and rampant.” 

“In regards to their treatment of disabled people’s human rights, instead of burying their hands in the sand, politicians ought to be hanging their heads in shame,” she added.

Meanwhile, devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland, have conducted their own impact assessments of UK disability policy to varying extents.

Wales, where social security policy is not a devolved issue, has nonetheless reaffirmed its commitment to the social model of disability, a model which says that people are disabled by societal barriers, not their individual impairments.

Scotland has carried out “some generalised impact assessments” of devolved policy around income tax and its effect on disabled people. However, impact assessment of broader policy in the Scottish Government on disabled people “is lacking”, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commision (EHRC).

Yet for some disabled people, the action taken is not enough to show significant progress in the UK’s disability rights and equality record, nor do they see positive impacts from Government policy in their own lives.

Impact assessments may, in theory, uncover the problems, but things have not improved, and in some areas, they are worsening.

“It’s been seven years since the UN first criticised the Tory Government’s dire treatment of disabled people, and in that time, the situation has only gone from extremely bad to abjectly terrible.

“Turning up to one hearing will not undo 14 years of deliberately punitive policies, and the UN needs to develop ways to actually hold the Government accountable for its repeated breaches of the convention,” Lucy Webster, a journalist and disability advocate, told Byline Times.

The Government’s Disability Unit, part of the Cabinet Office, was approached for comment but did not not respond in time. 

Correction: This piece originally stated that the Government’s Disability Action Plan was published on 5th March, just before the UN hearing. It was in fact published on 5th February, and the article has been amended to note this. We’ve also relabelled a walking stick company as a firm rather than a non-profit.


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