UN Warns UK Government of “Demonising” Disabled People Through Benefits System

The United Nations has issued a scathing critique of the UK government’s treatment of disabled individuals, accusing it of “demonising” them through its “traumatising” benefits system. At a gathering in Geneva on Monday, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) raised concerns that government policies have led to the deaths of disabled citizens. This condemnation follows a special inquiry report filed by the Committee in 2016, which revealed “grave and systemic” violations of disabled people’s rights under the government’s austerity and welfare reform measures.

The UK holds the dubious distinction of being the first country found to have breached the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (UNCRDP). Yet, even eight years later, Professor Laverne Jacobs, a disability lawyer and UNCRPD member, lamented a “significant and shameful gap” between the standards of the Convention and the reality faced by disabled individuals in Britain.

Rosemary Kayess, chair of the UNCRPD, expressed alarm at a prevailing framework and rhetoric that devalues disabled people and undermines their human dignity. She cited reforms within social welfare benefits premised on the notion that disabled individuals are undeserving, fostering hate speech and hostility towards them.

The report highlighted a stark increase in disability hate crimes, with 13,777 recorded in England and Wales in 2022/23—more than double the figure from 2016/17. Kayess underscored the government’s narrative, framing disabled people as undeserving citizens and perpetuating a political agenda that demonises them.

Despite assertions from government officials, such as Alexandra Gowland, Deputy Director of the Disability Unit in the UK Cabinet Office, that the government is “fully committed” to implementing the UN Convention and addressing barriers faced by disabled individuals, concerns persist. The Committee criticized the government’s heavy emphasis on employment for disabled people, noting negative consequences and inadequacies in the current capabilities assessment process.

Reports of intolerable situations and even deaths linked to the government’s benefit regimes and work capability assessments underscore the urgent need for reform. Rensa Gaunt, a communications manager at Inclusion London, recounted distressing incidents, including the tragic death of Errol Graham in 2018, as indicative of systemic failures.

Gaunt, who attended the Committee meeting in Geneva alongside family members of deceased benefits claimants and representatives from various organizations, criticized government rhetoric that pressures disabled individuals into employment without addressing systemic barriers. She emphasized the fundamental rights of disabled individuals to dignity and life, regardless of their economic contributions.

The UN’s admonition serves as a stark reminder of the challenges faced by disabled individuals in the UK and the imperative for transformative change in government policies and societal attitudes. As campaigners demand radical reform and systemic change, the world watches closely, expecting the UK government to uphold its obligations and ensure equal rights and opportunities for all citizens.

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