By John Pring on 17th August 2023
Category: Human Rights
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is facing fresh accusations that it is failing to hold the UK government to account on disability rights, after a high-profile submission to a UN body was branded “not fit for purpose”.
The commission was asked to assess the progress of the UK government since it was found guilty of “grave and systematic” violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities seven years ago.
The 2016 findings were the result of the first high-level inquiry ever carried out by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD), which itself followed years of research and lobbying by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).
Most of the violations of the convention were caused by policies introduced by Conservative ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) across work and employment, the right to an adequate standard of living and social protection, and independent living.
The UK is due to be examined on that progress at the UN in Geneva later this month, although the government has refused to give evidence until next March (see separate story).
But the report being submitted to the UN by EHRC and the UK’s three other equality and human rights bodies* – which monitor implementation of the convention as the UK Independent Mechanism (UKIM) – contains far more criticism of the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than it does of the UK government.
The report targets the actions of the devolved governments even though the section of the 2016 CRPD report that describes the “systematic violations” of the convention focuses exclusively on the welfare reforms of the UK government and the actions of DWP.
Analysis of the UKIM report by Disability News Service shows there are 4,711 words about the progress in England and the UK, but 5,007 words on Scotland, 1,494 words on Wales, and 3,142 words on Northern Ireland.
EHRC will have been responsible for the section on England and the UK.
EHRC’s chair, Baroness Falkner, even appears to suggest that the blame for the UNCRPD violations should be shared with the Welsh government.
In a press release issued today (Thursday), she says: “Alongside other human rights and equality bodies in Britain and Northern Ireland, we urge the governments in London and Cardiff to address the problems faced by disabled people and take action to address the UN’s recommendations from 2016.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of DPAC, said the report was clearly “not fit for purpose”.
She said: “When I was first sent this report, I was told it was from the Scottish Human Rights Commission and as it is so damning of the Scottish government with no real mention of the Westminster government, that is what I assumed it was.
“However, on further reading I realised that this is a joint four-nation report which still has virtually no criticism or reference to the human rights abuses faced by disabled people in England.
“It is deeply disturbing that there is so little criticism of the Westminster government by our EHRC and it seems obvious to anyone reading this report that they are no longer independent but merely another wing of government failing to uphold in any way the rights of disabled people in England.
“How they manage to maintain their A status as a human rights watchdog is beyond my comprehension.”
It is just the latest evidence that suggests the EHRC has become too close to the Conservative-led government and is unwilling to criticise its acts of discrimination and breaches of disability rights.
The commission has been criticised for failing to speak out strongly enough about the impact of cuts to rail staff on the rights of disabled people to travel on the railways.
In May 2022, it declined to criticise the Treasury for refusing to release information that would show the impact on disabled people and other equality groups of the chancellor’s spending decisions in his spring statement.
It has also failed to persuade DWP to sign a legal agreement that would force it to improve its discriminatory treatment of disabled benefit claimants, 16 months after it announced that an agreement was likely to be signed by the summer of 2022.
And it abandoned plans to launch an inquiry into links between DWP’s work capability assessment and countless deaths of claimants.
EHRC had not commented on the concerns by noon today.
Today’s UKIM report says there has been limited or no progress against more than half the recommendations made by the UN committee.
Of 11 recommendations made in November 2016 by CRPD, UKIM says there has been no progress, or little or limited progress, across six of them, although there is a lack of clarity on which governments are responsible for this lack of progress.
UKIM says there has been only “some progress” in implementing the other five recommendations in the seven years since CRPD produced its report.
It says that while “commitments to address some issues have been made, actions have been delayed or don’t go far enough”.
Among its findings, it says there has been little progress in reducing negative and discriminatory stereotypes and prejudice against disabled people, including benefit claimants.
And it says there has been no progress on ensuring access to justice for disabled people, and limited progress in ensuring that “special attention” is paid when implementing policies to disabled people in poverty and at higher risk of exclusion.
It also says there has been no progress in setting up a way to monitor the impact of policies on the rights of disabled people, and no progress in carrying out an assessment of the cumulative impact of all the welfare cuts and reforms on disabled people.
*The Scottish Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
Picture: The government office block where EHRC has its London headquarters. Picture by Google
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The prime minister’s spokesperson gave No 10’s backing to Falkner at the Downing Street press briefing on Tuesday morning, telling reporters: “The government has enjoyed a constructive relationship with both the commission and the chairwoman on its important ongoing work relating to equality.”
Falkner declined to comment.
EHRC’s Kishwer Falkner rejects allegations by 12 current or ex-colleagues.
When the investigation was paused, Falkner’s allies were quoted telling the Daily Telegraph that it was a “victory for board over blob”. “The Blob” has been used by Conservatives to describe a mass of people, usually of leftwing sensibility, who are critical of the Tories’ agenda.
The government has been keen to show support for Falkner. When details of the investigation into the claims against her became public, the prime minister’s spokesperson said the government had “enjoyed a constructive relationship” with Falkner while newspapers were briefed that Badenoch would not allow the EHRC chair to be “hounded from office”.