Social Justice

Tory government 'demonises' disabled people who face 'onerous' benefits system, UN warns

The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities questioned the UK government over policies which have led to 'trauma and preventable mental distress' and in some cases deaths of disabled people

disability benefits/ disabled people

Disabled people also face "increasing institutionalisation", homelessness and poverty, the committee has warned. Image: Unsplash

Disabled people in the UK are “demonised” by the government and face a “traumatising” benefits system, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) has warned.

Questioning the government on Monday (18 March), the committee said that the Conservative government’s policy has led to deaths of disabled people.

It follows a 2016 report which found “grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people in the UK – including within the welfare system, social care and housing.

Rosemary Kayess, the chair of the UNCRPD, said: “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 they are undeserving citizens. 

“This is coupled with an onerous and complex social benefits system that is the basis for trauma and preventable mental distress.”

Prime minister Rishi Sunak recently suggested that cutting benefits could be the key to slashing national insurance.

He told the Sunday Times: “We now have almost 2.5 million working-age people who have been signed off as unfit to work or even look for work or think about working and I don’t think that’s right. It’s really important to me that we reward hard work.”

Ministers have repeatedly proposed plans to drive more people into work, including tightening the benefits system and imposing tougher sanctions, which charities fear could have the adverse impact of pushing people further away from work by worsening physical and mental health.

Kayess added: “We find a pervasive framework and rhetoric that devalues disabled people and undermines their human dignity. Reforms within social welfare benefits are premised on a notion that disabled people are undeserving and skiving off and defrauding the system. This has resulted in hate speech and hostility towards disabled people.”

The government was also questioned over its plans to give the DWP powers to access benefit claimants’ bank accounts in cases where fraud is suspected. This follows criticisms made by campaigners, politicians and peers, and reported by The Big Issue.

Kayess asked: “How are you ensuring that the systems you are putting in place to monitor fraud and errors do not contain AI tools and algorithms that contain encoded biases resulting in cruel mechanisms that in essence traumatise and make people feel like criminals?”

Responding to this, spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Jennifer Heigham said that only minimal information will be received when fraud and error is indicated. She claimed each case will be looked at individually by a human.

Heigham added: “The government is committed to improving the lives of disabled people and is delivering the most ambitious disability reform agenda in a generation. The government is proud to have a proven track record of increasing disability employment and acting on disability discrimination, providing vital protections. We want to improve the overall experience of and trust in the benefits system for disabled people and people with health conditions.”

The committee also raised concerns around the disability benefits assessment process. The Big Issue has spoken to people have been driven to “psychological trauma to the point of being suicidal” when navigating the system.

Kayess said: “We have heard that the assessment process is complex and onerous, that the application itself has increased in size, that applicants are not always allowed assistance or support in meetings, that assessors are inexperienced and unqualified, in particular people with psychosocial disabilities. 

“It doesn’t take into account the specific circumstances of the person’s life and potential need to be connected to other support and services, for example, in situations of domestic violence, mental distress and crisis, or with caring responsibilities. This process does not seem to be trauma informed and not linked to other services and support and not suitable to assist people to be job ready.”

A survivor of domestic violence previously told the Big Issue about how she was “traumatised” in her disability benefits assessment. 

Professor Laverne Jacobs, another member of the UNCRPD and a disability lawyer, said: “We have faced numerous reports of persons with disabilities facing intolerable situations, even death, while trying to comply with the eligibility requirements of the UK government’s benefit regimes, work capability assessments and programmes administering support for independent living within the community.”

She claimed there was a “significant and shameful gap” between the requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the lived experiences of disabled people in the UK.

She added: “Lack of transparency around government processes can leave persons with disabilities not knowing if they’ll receive benefits at all or if they will have enough money to live. I will therefore quote the old adage that ‘Light needs to be shone on the dark corners of public administration in order for justice to be done.’”

The Big Issue has reported that the high number of sanctions imposed on unemployed benefit claimants by the DWP has helped drive the growing number of disability benefit claims, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. 

Jacobs explained the committee has heard “widespread and repeated concerns that the amounts of benefits are insufficient and that a disproportionate number of persons with disabilities are living in poverty, without the ability to heat their homes or purchase food”. 

“We have also heard reports from individuals who received little, inappropriate or abusive treatment in response to their mental health crises – crises that are often caused by the benefits assessment process. My questions are therefore, what measures will be taken to ensure that the processes designed to measure benefit eligibility and work capability are trauma-informed so that they do not cause mental health crises, suicide and death?”

The Big Issue previously spoke to a mother of a young man who took his own life after fearing his disability benefits would be taken away.

The committee cited other issues impacting disabled people in the UK, including “increasing rates of institutionalising disabled people” and “increasing use of restraints, restrictive practices and coercive measures in these forms of institutions”.

It also said “many disabled people live in unsafe, inaccessible housing or are homeless”. 

Responding to the questions from the committee, Alexandra Gowlland, the deputy director of the Disability Unit in the Cabinet Office, said: “We are grateful to the members of the committee for their thoughtful insights and questions.”

She said the government is “fully committed” to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is not incorporated in domestic law, but the UK’s Equality Act sets out protections for disabled people against discrimination, harassment or victimisation. 

Gowlland said: “We are committed to addressing social and environmental barriers that impact disabled people, supporting actions that enable disabled people to reach their fullest potential, and the public sector equality duty aligns with a rights-based approach as it sets this legal duty on public bodies to consider the impact of policies on disabled people and on how they live their lives.

“Ensuring the voice of disabled people is properly heard is something that is very important to us in the UK government.”

In her statement and response, Gowlland cited planned reforms to “drive progress” – including in the Disability Action Plan and the Health and Disability White Paper.

“Our goal to reduce the disability employment gap remains,” she said. “We will continue to galvanise action to ensure that we are ambitious about the employment of disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work.”

The DWP’s Heigham added: “We are committed to ensuring our welfare system encourages and supports people into work, while providing a vital safety net for those who need it most. We will maintain protections for those with the most significant health conditions. 

“In the future, removing the work capability assessment will reduce the number of assessments people need to take to access benefits, give people the confidence to try work and enable us to provide a more personalised approach.”

Professor Jacobs said: “We acknowledge the steps you have taken but at the same time urge the state party to develop further concrete ways to improve on its commitment to the rights of persons with disabilities and to take immediate steps to remedy the issues that we have highlighted today.”

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