United Nations takes aim at UK's disability benefits reforms

Session describes agenda that "demonises" disabled people and is a block to an adequate standard of living
Photo: Mark Harvey/Alamy

By Jim Dunton

19 Mar 2024

A United Nations panel has presented UK government officials with a stark assessment of reforms to the benefits system over the past 14 years, describing a political agenda that "demonises" disabled people and results in unacceptable living standards.

The observations came at a session of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that was held in Geneva yesterday, following up previous inquiries – including a damining 2016 report. That document found welfare reforms since 2010 had resulted in “grave or systematic violations” of disabled peoples' rights.

Rosemary Kayess, UN committee expert and co-rapporteur, acknowledged recent investment in social care on the part of the UK government. But she said the committee had found evidence of "regression" in the standards of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities over the past seven years.

"We see a reform agenda that is framed in a political narrative that demonises disabled people, including proposals to cut disability benefits to reward working people by cutting taxes – which tells disabled people that they are underserving citizens," she said.

"And this is coupled with an onerous and complex social benefits sytem that is the basis for trauma and preventable mental distress."

She added: "Reforms within social welfare benefits are premised on a notion that disabled people are undeserving, skiving off and defrauding the system. This has resulted in hate speech and hostility towards disabled people."

Kayess said the committee had heard "disturbing reports" that disabled people accessing food banks had been left exposed to exploitation.

Committee expert and co-rapporteur Laverne Jacobs said there appeared to be a repeated pattern of people with disabilities turning to suicide after struggling to comply with eligibility requirements and being denied an adequate standard of living and social protection.

"At the moment, what we have heard suggests a significant and shameful gap between the convention's requirements and the lived experience of persons with disabilities in the UK," she said.

"Moreover, details of processes and requirements of the government systems are often difficult to ascertain from information published on government websites.

"Lack of transparency has an important impact on the lives of persons with disabilities in terms of knowing how to navigate the systems relating to independent living, work and social benefits. And also in terms of knowing what the outcomes will be."

Alexandra Gowlland, deputy director of the Cabinet Office's Disability Unit, was part of the UK delegation to Geneva for the committee session.

She said the UK was "fully committed" to implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and cited legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 in England, Scotland and Wales, and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland.

The UK delegation also told the session that the government was committed to addressing social and environmental barriers impacting disabled people and engaged closely with disabled people and their organisations.

The committee was told that ministers were committed to improving the lives of disabled people and were delivering the most ambitious disability reform agenda in a generation.

Kamran Mallick, chief executive officer of charity Disability Rights UK said the government had delayed appearing before the committee for several months in a way that amounted to a refusal to properly engage with the process.

"Despite requesting a delay last year, they have provided us with no new evidence – instead signposting to plans and policies that create no transformative change," he said.

"The delegation shared all the ways they believe they’ve created progress for disabled people’s rights – but they know, just as we do, that no progress has been made. In fact, we have gone backwards."

Mallick said accessing basic support, such as getting an on-the-day GP appointment or a universally-accessible social-security system, was not a luxury.

"Just because our government refuse to take responsibility on their failure to deliver this, that doesn’t mean that it’s not unacceptable," he said.

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