There is an important link between human needs and human rights that the Conservatives have dismally and persistently failed to recognise
The United Nations (UN) inquiry into the allegations many of us made regarding the systematic abuse of the human rights of disabled people in the UK has exposed the multiple injustices of targeted cuts and the disproportionate burden of austerity heaped on sick and disabled people, their carers and their families, evidencing and detailing the effects of a range of policy measures affecting them that have been introduced since 2010. These include the bedroom tax and cuts to disability benefits, funds to support independence and social care.
The report concludes that the overall effect of what is now an essentially punitive welfare regime, which has been based almost entirely on unevidenced political claims and assumptions, has had an extremely detrimental and regressive effect on the rights of disabled people, to live independently, to meet their basic needs, to seek and stay in work, and to be able to live an ordinary life as citizens.
The UN report documented multiple violations of disabled people’s rights, including the way that they are politically portrayed as being lazy and a “burden on taxpayers”, the harm to health caused by unfair assessments, the cuts to legal aid and curtailed access to justice, the imposition of the bedroom tax and the ending of the Independent Living Fund.
I wrote a lengthy article about the unsurprising but nonetheless disquieting report findings and recommendations as I read it, here.
Predictably, the government responded to the damning contents of the report by denying a “causal link” between their policies and the evidenced accounts of the consequences being presented to them. Yet the government have never monitored the cumulative impact of their policies and successive cuts on disabled people, and they told the UN rapporteurs that it was “not possible or practical” to carry out an impact assessment on how reforms would affect disabled people. The UN disagreed, and stated that with the evidence and data already available, the government could have done this.
The UN have called on the government to carry out a cumulative impact assessment. The government have refused to comply with any of the recommendations the UN has made. However, that means they cannot legitimately claim that there is “no causal link demonstrated” regarding the austerity measures and psychological distress, severe hardship, deteriorating health and death, as they have persistently refused to investigate the associations that academics, charities, disabled people’s organisations, individual campaigners and opposition MPs have consistently demonstrated. Denial isn’t empirical evidence or any kind of proof that your claims are valid. Nor does withholding evidence of correlation disprove causality.
It was also noted that the government failed to listen to the concerns of disabled people it had claimed to involve in policy making processes. Disabled people and their representative organisations “were not meaningfully taken into account in the decision-making and had little or no influence on policy decisions.”
The implication is that disabled people have not been democratically included. The government have persisted in treating us as objects of policies, rather than seeing us as democratic subjects and citizens.
Also of note: “The [individual] impact assessments conducted by the State party prior to the implementation of several measures of its welfare reform expressly foresaw an adverse impact on persons with disabilities.”
“The State party has not conducted a comprehensive human rights-based cumulative impact assessment even though reliable sources have indicated it is feasible.”
The UN stated that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) failed to properly investigate people’s deaths after their social security payments were stopped. t was noted that the government had made no “attempts at objective, thorough, open and impartial investigation(s)” to look at the alleged 90 deaths a month, despite being aware that there was widespread public concern about this.
Among other concerns, the committee said the UK government had used rhetoric to stigmatise disabled people, negatively influencing public perceptions. The report says that disabled people “have been… negatively portrayed as being dependent or making a living out of benefits; committing fraud as benefit claimants; being lazy and putting a burden on taxpayers, who are paying ‘money for nothing’. Persons with disabilities continue to experience increasing hostility, aggressive behaviour and sometimes attacks to their personal integrity.”
The committee said it found no evidence to support any of these ideas, especially the idea that disabled claimants were committing benefit fraud.
The committee were very critical of the legal aid cuts, which have created a significant barrier for people challenging benefits decisions and holding the government accountable:
“Evidence indicates that legal aid to challenge administrative decisions ending or curtailing their benefits before first-tier tribunals has been restricted. Legal aid for cases before those tribunals has also been curtailed. Similarly, access to review by an independent and impartial tribunal has been restricted by the introduction of mandatory reconsideration procedures before the same administrative entity that has ruled on benefits.”
I was pleased to see the United Nations report highlight a fundamental prejudice that informed the very basis of the “functional capacity approach” of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), as well as commenting on the major flaws of the assessment process itself. The WCA is based on the assumption that a health condition or disability should not automatically be regarded as a “barrier” to work and that work itself can have health benefits. However these assumptions have been controversial from the outset.
The WCA places focus entirely on how we as individuals experience our illness and impairments. As such, this approach does not permit us to place our experiences of disadvantage in the context of how organisations, institutions, policy-makers and wider society interact with us. Despite the government claiming that they take a social model approach, eligibility for benefits and services is still being determined by assessment of how much our own bodies are affected by illness and impairment rather than the disabling social, cultural and political barriers that we experience.
The report said: Work Capability Assessments do not take into account the “support persons with disabilities need to perform a job or the complex nature of some impairments and conditions.”
The inquiry also found that welfare assessors displayed a “lack of awareness and limited knowledge of disability rights and specific needs”, and disabled people experienced distress, “anxiety and psychological strain” as a result of this flawed process, and the financial insecurity that it generates.
“The committee observes that measures have caused financial hardship to persons with disabilities resulting in arrears, debts, evictions and cuts to essentials such as housing and food,” the report said.
The Government’s own research, published in June this year, revealed that one of the cornerstones of their austerity campaign – that cutting social security means recipients will be more likely to find work – is fundamentally flawed.
Researchers found that cutting unemployed peoples’ benefits had the opposite effect to what is being claimed – something that many of us have also previously argued. The study, carried out by Oxford city council and the Department for Work and Pensions, found unemployed people become less likely to get a job when benefits are cut. Instead of looking for work, they are forced to devote their energies to surviving day-to-day. For every £1 in benefits cut per week, a person’s chance of getting a job drops by 2 per cent.
The government can no longer justify its narrative about benefit cuts, claiming that they are “incentives” to “support” people into work.
Beyond the rhetoric – the hidden agenda
There is a wider agenda driving the welfare “reforms” and it is important to consider the hidden ideological dimension and the language references and signposts to that, as well as the superficial narratives and semantic shifts being deployed as a PR exercise, techniques of neutralisation and gaslighting to obscure political intentions and the consequences of policies.
The UN report effectively exposed the justification narratives presented by the government for their welfare “reforms” as unfounded and unsupported by empirical evidence. This report is just the beginning, it arms us with an invaluable weapon with which to continue our campaigning, and shape future challenges and debate to government policies and social injustice.
The Conservatives have an ideological commitment to a “small state” and this is fueled by privatisation and an ever-expanding neoliberal competitive “market place.” The market place, private profit opportunities and neoliberal outcomes have been conflated with citizen’s interests and needs.
The welfare “reforms” have presented the opportunity to promote and deliver private income protection provision via profit making companies operating in free markets. Insurance companies and right-wing think tanks have been attempting to steer governments in this direction for many years.
For example, Matthew Oakley, a senior researcher at the Social Market Foundation, and government advisor, recently published a report entitled Closing the gap: creating a framework for tackling the disability employment gap in the UK, in which he suggests considering a “role that a form of privately run social insurance could play in both increasing benefit generosity and improving the support that individuals get to manage their conditions and move back to work.
Oakley also proposes abolishing the ESA Support Group. To meet extra living costs because of disability, Oakley says that existing spending on PIP and the Support Group element of ESA should be brought together to finance a new extra costs benefit. Eligibility for this benefit should be determined on the basis of need, with an assessment replacing the WCA and PIP assessment. The Conservative definition of “the basis of need” seems to be an ever-shrinking category.
May’s new director of policy, John Godfrey, is a keen advocate of what in his last job, at financial services giant Legal and General, he called “Beveridge 2.0”: using technology to introduce new forms of “social insurance”.
Godfrey told a campaigning group, the Financial Inclusion Commission, last year that the systems used to deliver “auto-enrolment”, the scheme that ensures all low-income workers have a pension, could also be used to help the public insure themselves against “unexpected events”.
“There is a clear lesson from auto-enrolment that if you have a plumbing network or an infrastructure that works, that auto-enrolment infrastructure could be used for other things which would encourage financial inclusion: things like, for example, life cover, income protection and effective and very genuine personal contributory benefits for things like unemployment and sickness,” he said. “They can be delivered at good value if there is mass participation through either soft compulsion or good behavioural economics.”
Note the context shift in use of the term “inclusion”, which was originally deemed a democratic right, now it’s being discussed narrowly in terms of individual responsibility.
A report published by the Adam Smith Institute as far back as 1995 – The Fortune Account – also sets out proposals to replace “state welfare” with an insurance system “operated by financial institutions within the private sector”.
Mo Stewart has spent eight years researching the influence of the US insurance giant Unum over successive UK governments, and how it led to the introduction of the “totally bogus” work capability assessment (WCA), which she says was designed to make it harder for sick and disabled people to claim out-of-work disability benefits.Stewart’s book, Cash Not Care: The Planned Demolition Of The UK Welfare State, was published in September. She states that the assessment was modeled on methods used by the controversial company Unum to deny protection to sick and disabled people in the US who had taken out income protection policies.
She goes on to say that the WCA was “designed to remove as many as possible from access to [employment and support allowance]on route to the demolition of the welfare state”, with out-of-work disability benefits to be replaced by insurance policies provided by private companies like Unum.
Stewart warns us that the UK is now close to adopting a US-style model.
The implications of the inquiry findings for Conservative welfare policies
The government has announced further welfare measures which will affect disabled people including a four year freeze for most working-age benefits, reductions in the Benefit Cap, changes to tax credits and to Universal Credit, and abolishing the “Work-Related Activity Component” for new ESA claims from 2017.
As noted in the UN report: “The State party continues its policy of reducing social benefits of persons with disabilities as reflected in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.”
Article 28 of the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) says: Adequate standard of living and social protection – This article affirms the rights of persons with disabilities to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their family, and to social protection without discrimination on the basis of disability. This right includes access to assistance from the state with disability-related expenses for persons with disabilities and their families.
The report reiterated something that many of us have noted and discussed in detail previously: that there is no evidence of a causal relationship between a reduction in social security and an increase in employment amongst disabled and sick people. Nor does welfare “dependency” “disincentivise” people seeking employment more generally. It was pointed out in UN report that these views are not evidenced. The two assumptions are embedded in justifications of Conservative welfare policies, and are prejudices that have been around since the Thatcher administration.
Bearing in mind these are key assumptions underpinning current policies and the proposals set out in the recent work, health and disability green paper – for example, the recent decision to reduce the money paid to people who have been assessed as being unfit to work but able to undertake work related activity (those people in the Employment and Support Allowance work related activity group (WRAG)) is based on the same assumption- the Department for Work and Pensions have claimed – that it will “remove the financial incentives that would otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work”.
Particularly important in the current context and given the government’s recent work, health and disability green paper, the UN report says that: “Given the barriers that still prevent the full participation of persons with disabilities in the labour market and mean higher unemployment rates for them, income-maintenance social security schemes are particularly important for persons with disabilities. Such schemes allow them to maintain their autonomy and freedom of control and choice of their living arrangements and day-to-day activities. Without an adequate level of social protection, persons with disabilities run the risk of being isolated, segregated from the community and/or institutionalized.
States parties should find an adequate balance between providing an adequate level of income security for persons with disabilities through social security schemes and supporting their labour inclusion. The two sets of measures should be seen as complementary rather than contradictory.
Measures aimed at facilitating the inclusion in the labour market of beneficiaries of social security should include transitional arrangements to ensure income protection while they reach a certain threshold and sustainability in their wages. They should become eligible again without delay if they lose their jobs.”
Although many of us have been discussing these issues for a few years, the inquiry has consolidated a lot of valuable evidence and provided a concise rebuttal of government justification narratives for cuts in support for disabled people, which we really needed to be presented to the government formally, from an independent, official and international witness.
Though the government have tended to dismiss much evidence to date of the harm that their policies are causing, such as that which has been presented through case studies by shadow ministers, as “anecdotal”, it is rather more difficult to dismiss and ignore the substantial evidence presented as a result of rigorous international scrutiny.
The government response was founded on denials, more misdirectional rhetoric and techniques of neutralisation, defensive arrogance, authoritarian scorn and contrived outrage, rather than being about stepping up to democratic accountability, reasoned discussion and rationality. No sign of civilised conscience and decent concern regarding the impact of the prejudice and discrimination that is being intentionally and systematically embedded in Conservative policies, aimed at disabled people, at all.
The government’s response to the UN report bears little resemblance to the lived experiences of disabled people, despite claims to the contrary. The government has justified systematic cuts to disabled people’s social security by claiming such cuts “incentivise” people to find work. The cuts are a form of punishment (apparently for our own “good”) designed to bring about “behaviour change” and this approach is founded on the wrongly perceived attitudes of disabled people, who this government consistently describes as being “parked on benefits” with the “misperception that they can’t work”.
This does nothing at all to address the barriers disabled people face in finding and staying in work, nor does it address the acknowledged prejudiced attitudes of employers and Conservative ministers. It’s not long ago that Conservative welfare minister David Freud expressed the view that disabled people should work for less than the minimum wage. He wasn’t the only one, either. Philip Davies expressed the same view, claiming that disabled people “are the most disadvantaged by the national minimum wage,” so they should be “permitted” to work for less in order to “compete” in the labor market. Davies described criticism of his remarks that disabled people could work for less than minimum wage as “leftwing hysteria”.
It seems that Conservatives believe that the only way of “helping” disabled people in any way is by simply taking money from them.
In their response to the UN report, the government say: “The United Kingdom is proud of its record in supporting disabled people to lead more independent lives and participate more fully in society. More than 20 years ago the UK legislated to protect disabled people’s rights. It now spends around £50 bn a year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions, which is over £6 bn more than in 2010. That is around 5% of GDP, or over 6% of government spending. The UK spends more on disabled people and people with health conditions than the OECD average, and countries such as Germany, France and the USA.”
That’s definitely Conservatives being… conservative with the truth again.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) report on spending on benefits for disabled people says the actual spend is £36,063 bn but this is partly in benefits that are not counted as working age disability benefits: War Pensions, Attendance Allowance for over 65s, Statutory Sick pay, Carer’s Allowance, Industrial Injuries Benefits and the ILF which the government has closed)
The total of those benefits not paid to working age disabled people is £7,908bn
That makes the actual spend on all working age benefits for disabled people £28,155 billion
The IFS report says: “The spending on DLA/PIP is only half what it was in 1995-96. Spending across Great Britain on disability benefits in 2014–15 was £13.5 billion. At 0.8% of national income this is half the level of disability benefit spending when it was at its peak in 1995–96.
The overall number of individuals receiving disability benefits has fallen slightly since the mid-1990s. But this is in the presence of underlying demographic change that would have tended to push UP the numbers receiving considerably – both overall population growth and the baby boomer generation reaching older working ages.”
It’s not clear if the spending figures include the massive costs of private companies that are contracted by the state, ironically, to cut welfare spending.
The National Audit Office (NAO) report earlier this year scrutinised public spending for parliament, and is independent of government. The report indicates how public services are being appropriated for purely private benefit.
The audit report in January concluded that the Department for Work and Pension’s spending on contracts for disability benefit assessments is expected to double in 2016/17 compared with 2014/15. The government’s flagship welfare-cut scheme will be actually spending more money on the assessments conducted by private companies than it is saving in reductions to the benefits bill.
From the report:
Estimated cost of contracted-out health and disability assessments over three years, 2015 to 2018
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending.
This summary reflects staggering economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically motivated waste of tax payer’s money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people. Private companies like Maximus are paid millions from our welfare budget, yet they are certainly not “helping the government” to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.
I will be challenging the government’s response to the UN report fully in due course. It would be good to see some collaborative effort from disabled campaigners and activists in addressing the government as comprehensively as possible. If anyone is interest in working together on this, just contact me here via the comment section.
The UN committee will meet to discuss the government’s comments and determine a response in Geneva, in March 2017.
Meanwhile it’s crucial that we use the body of evidence collated by the UN and the conclusions drawn in the report effectively. For example, our responses to the consultation on the work, health and disability green paper must address the underpinning propositions and delve beneath the superficial rhetoric and glittering generalities, rather than permitting the DWP’s weighted and somewhat leading questions to shape the outcome of the consultation.
We must use the UN findings constructively to continue to challenge existing policies, and any which arise in the future to violate the human rights of disabled persons.
We need to continue to coherently and collectively challenge the government’s assumptions on which their proposals for work, health and disability policy are based, none of which are not supported by a shred of solid empirical evidence.
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