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UK Government breaches international human rights law in treatment of disabled people

A report published this week by Just Fair finds that the UK government is in breach of its legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of disabled people.

The report is the first comprehensive analysis of the extent to which the UK government is meeting its international obligations to realise the rights of disabled people in the austerity era. It examines the rights to independent living, work, social security, social protection and an adequate standard of living.

Combining legal analysis with testimony-based evidence, the report concludes that government policies are compromising disabled people’s enjoyment of these fundamental rights, causing significant hardship.

The report - Dignity and Opportunity for All: Securing the rights of disabled people in the austerity era - analyses the impact on disabled people of public austerity and the reform of social security.

Baroness Jane Campbell, crossbench peer and Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Disability Group, said:

"It is both extremely worrying and deeply sad that the UK – for so long regarded as an international leader in protecting and promoting disabled people’s rights – now risks sleepwalking towards the status of a systematic violator of these same rights ... I hope that this excellent report serves as a major wake-up call."   

The report finds that much of disabled people’s essential support is under threat. In particular:

- The criteria for Personal Independence Payment, the new benefit that seeks to provide help with disability-related costs, are likely to leave many disabled people with less help with daily living or mobility than they need or currently receive.

- Eligibility criteria for local authority social care services have tightened as demand has increased and funding has decreased, and the draft regulations under the Care Act seek to enshrine these strict criteria in law.

- People with very high support needs, for whom help from the Independent Living Fund is critical to their inclusion and participation, are likely to receive less support following the planned closure of the fund next year.

- Housing support policies, including the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, frequently fail to acknowledge the specific accommodation needs of disabled people, who may need an extra bedroom, adaptations or to live close to family and friends.

‘Welfare to work’ policies have introduced a work capability assessment that fails to properly assess capability for work; a work programme that fails to help disabled people into work; and benefit sanctions that withhold benefits from disabled people who are unable to comply with work-related conditions due to their physical or mental health.

Among other measures, the report recommends that:

- The right to independent living be enshrined in UK law, giving government and other public bodies a clear obligation to ensure that policies and practices support, rather than compromise, independent living.

- Social care services are properly funded to provide support for independent living rather than services that meet only basic needs for washing, feeding etc.

- The underlying ethos of the Department for Work and Pensions and JobCentre Plus should be focused on realising disabled people’s right to work, to social security and to an adequate standard of living.

- Recent benefit changes should be comprehensively reviewed through the lens of the UK’s human rights obligations to ensure that they are empowering rather than punitive.

- The work capability assessment should be thoroughly reformed to ensure that long term sickness benefits provide secure support for disabled people who cannot work, or those who need support because they face barriers to work. The resources spent on the work programme should be used for local programmes that use evidence-based methods and that encourage and support employers to employ disabled people.

- Disabled people should be supported to work, not punished for being unable to meet obligations imposed with little or no regard for their impairment or long term condition.

Aoife Nolan, Trustee of Just Fair and Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Nottingham, said:

‘Following several years of progress in realising disabled people’s rights, through equality legislation and the welfare system, government policies are now compromising disabled people’s enjoyment of their human rights, reducing their autonomy and independence.  Not only do these policies cause significant hardship and anxiety, but they also amount to impermissible backward steps in relation to disabled people’s human rights, contrary to the United Nations human rights framework.’

The report’s principal author, Jane Young, said:

‘We need to appreciate the benefits of respecting, protecting and fulfilling disabled people’s human rights. After all, disabled people who receive the support they need are more likely to find satisfying work and be able to support themselves and their families. Taking a human rights approach to welfare and social care would transform the lives of millions. The question is, are we brave enough to change course?’

The report features numerous personal testimonies about the impact of government policy on disabled people. One testimony captures the cumulative impact of policy changes on disabled people and those with long term health conditions:

‘I have no family or friends who I could turn to for help. For over three years my life has been governed by fear... I survive day to day, living in fear of the brown envelope from the Department for Work and Pensions] coming through the door…’

The  report  will  be  submitted  to  the  United  Nations  expert  bodies  that  monitor implementation  with  the  relevant  human  rights  treaties,  in  order  to  influence  and  inform their conclusions regarding UK compliance

See Jane Young's site for more.

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