UN experts have expressed serious concerns about the impact of government austerity on the rights of disabled people and other disadvantaged groups.
In a scathing report, the UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights said it was “seriously concerned” about the “disproportionate adverse impact” of the austerity measures introduced by successive Tory-led governments.
And it questioned why the government had made no attempt to carry out a “comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact” of these measures on the economic, social and cultural rights of disabled people and other groups.
Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, tried to dismiss the report as “very historical” when he spoke at a meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group on Tuesday (28 June), even though the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) provided updated information to the committee in April, and the Just Fair consortium of UK human rights organisations provided its own updated report last month.
The UN committee has now become just the latest in a series of expert, influential organisations to call for a cumulative impact assessment of government cuts and reforms on disabled people, a demand disabled activists have been making since at least the autumn of 2011, when first Pat’s Petition and then the WOW petition demanded such action by the government.
These organisations include EHRC, parliament’s joint committee on human rights, the Department for Work and Pensions’ own social security advisory committee, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
The committee said it was “deeply concerned” about the social security reforms introduced by the coalition and the current Conservative government, and said it was “particularly concerned” about the impact on groups such as disabled people, women, children and low-income families.
It called for the benefit cuts that came in through the 2012 and 2016 welfare reform acts to be reversed.
It also raised concerns about how often the UK government used benefit sanctions, and the absence of “due process and access to justice” for those who have been sanctioned, and called for a review of their use.
When asked by Disability News Service (DNS) for his response to the report, during Tuesday’s meeting, Tomlinson said: “I don’t want to have a political debate, because I will probably lose, but in reality we are spending £3 billion a year more on supporting people with long-term health conditions and disabilities than when we came into office.
“There are always requests for different ways we could spend money, different places we could spend more money.”
And he said that DWP had to justify “every bit of our expenditure to Treasury”.
When DNS asked whether this meant he was saying the UN committee was wrong and its conclusions were unfounded, and whether he was aware of the report, he said: “I am aware and we will publish our full response but we are not in a position to do that yet.”
But he said: “There is still much more that we need to do.
“That is absolutely the case as to why the secretary of state has gone for the green paper [on employment support for disabled people, due to be published later this year], rather than a white paper, where it is ‘we know best’… whereas the green paper is about opportunity [for disabled people and others to have their say].”
He added: “They have made a series of recommendations. We will look at that. Many of those things we are already doing, because this is very historical.”
When DNS pointed out that the report was not historical and had been provided with up-to-date information from disabled campaigners in the last few months, Tomlinson said: “You and I can disagree on that.
“I am not dismissing the importance of it, I am just saying that some of the things that have been looked at have already been responded to.”
The UK ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976 and was last reviewed on its progress on implementing the treaty in 2009, under the last Labour government.
The committee is one of 10 bodies that monitor the implementation of the UN’s main human rights treaties.
Because the UK has ratified the treaty, it is obliged to use the “maximum of its available resources” to progressively achieve the “full realization of economic, social and cultural rights”.
The committee warned all the countries that have signed up to the treaty in 2012 that austerity measures must be “temporary, necessary, proportionate, and not discriminatory and must not disproportionately affect the rights of disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups”.
Among other concerns raised by the committee in its “concluding observations”, it criticised the UK’s failure to bring into force the Equality Act measures on dual discrimination, which would outlaw, for example, cases in which people are directly discriminated against for being both disabled and gay, or for being both black and a woman.
The committee also said that it was concerned that disabled people, young people and those belonging to ethnic, religious or other minorities continued to be disproportionately affected by unemployment.
And it raised concerns about the “persistent critical situation in terms of availability, affordability and accessibility of adequate housing” in the UK, and the “significant” rise and “exceptionally high levels” of homelessness affecting disabled people and other groups, particularly in England and Northern Ireland.
It also raised concerns about the government’s reforms to legal aid and the introduction of employment tribunal fees, which it said had “restricted access to justice, in areas such as employment, housing, education and social welfare benefits”.
And it called for more information in the UK’s next report to the committee on the impact of its national strategy on gender-based violence, particularly on disabled women and girls.
In a tiny section on the “positive aspects” of the UK’s progress, the committee praised the 2009 ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – under the last Labour government – the introduction of the Care Act 2014 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015, as well as work by the Scottish government on integrating refugees and on drawing up a human rights national action plan.
EHRC welcomed the report and again called on the government to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of its policies on disabled people and other groups, and called on it to “improve its planning and monitoring of reforms to social security” and review social security policies which have led to cuts in protection.
Lorna McGregor, an EHRC commissioner, also highlighted the committee’s concerns on access to justice.
She said: “Recent reforms to civil law justice have had particular impacts on disabled people, women and ethnic minorities.
“For example, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals has resulted in large drops in the numbers of claims brought for discrimination on the basis of sex, disability, race and sexual orientation.
“I welcome this report by the UN and we will now work with civil society organisations to hold the government to account in this area.”