William Eichler 06 September 2017

Disabilities in a time of austerity

The Government’s drive to reduce public spending has hit everyone hard. But the impact it has had upon disabled people has been particularly punishing to the point that campaigners have suggested Whitehall and local authorities may well be breaking international law.

In 2009 the UK ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (the convention). Periodically, a UN committee assesses the progress of each of the convention’s signatories and, last month, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities looked at the UK.

And it does not look good. A group of deaf and disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs), including Disability Rights UK, Inclusion London and the British Deaf Association (BDA), submitted evidence to the committee purporting to demonstrate that policies pursued by the Government - many of them arising from the austerity agenda - place it in breach of the convention and amount to human rights violations.

The convention is designed to ensure disabled people can enjoy the same standard of life as those who do not have a disability. ‘Countries are to guarantee that persons with disabilities enjoy their inherent right to life on an equal basis with others,’ states the convention’s summary.

The austerity agenda - characterised in large part by cuts to welfare, health and social care - has, however, according to the DDPOs, severely undercut the ability of many disabled people to ‘live life on an equal basis with others’.

‘It’s across the board,’ says Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, one of the groups that contributed to the submission. ‘We’re not just talking about welfare reform. We’re talking about other things that a lot of disabled people rely on like social care. For disabled people the impact is a lessening of opportunities - opportunities to work, to get on in life, and to participate in the community as equal citizens.’ 

This has been a major concern throughout the last seven years of austerity. A Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) report, published in 2012, found that reforms to benefits and services risked leaving disabled people without the support they needed to live independently. 

Dr Hywel Francis, chair of the committee, said at the time: ‘We are concerned to learn that the right of disabled people to independent living may be at risk through the cumulative impact of current reforms. Even though the UK ratified the UNCPRD in 2009 with cross-party support, the Government is unable to demonstrate that sufficient regard has been paid to the convention in the development of policy with direct relevance to the lives of disabled people.’

Ms Bott, speaking in 2017, paints a picture of life in the UK for disabled people that makes Dr Francis’ conclusion (‘the right of disabled people to independent living may be at risk’) look cautious. ‘What is happening is that people’s personal budgets are being cut to such an extent that the support that they're receiving is not enough to enable them to live a good life in the community. Many people are facing being virtually institutionalised in their own home.’

The Government, naturally enough, does not see their approach as undermining the ability of disabled people to live full lives. They see it as quite the opposite. The cuts, according to the Conservatives, are setting people free from welfare dependency and encouraging them into work.

As a spokesperson for the department for work and pensions (DWP) obliquely put it: ‘This Government believes that a disability or health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life – or in the workplace. This forms the foundation of our reforms to help disabled people realise their potential in the labour market and wider society.’

But for many, cuts are not a liberation. Multiple Government decisions and policies interact to make independent living for disabled people difficult: restrictions in local authority eligibility criteria for social care support, the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment, the closure of the Independent Living Fund, changes to housing benefit risk, and so on.

One specific finding, published last month, is instructive. A survey by the National Housing Federation (NHF) revealed that Government plans had caused an 85% drop in new homes for the most vulnerable, including disabled people. The survey of 69 housing associations, which together deliver a third of supported and sheltered homes in England, found plans to build new homes for vulnerable people were down from 8,800 to 1,350 units.

The NHF concluded this was due to Government ‘indecision’ about how to fund supported, sheltered and extra care housing, coupled with funding cuts to support services. Together this had left residents and housing associations with little certainty about their future income.

‘These findings really bring it home,’ said David Orr, NHF chief executive, ‘changes to supported housing funding are stopping building for the most vulnerable.’

The survey results were ‘shocking’, said Ms Bott. ‘Housing is a vital component in disabled people being able to live independent lives and participate in their community.’

It is not just Whitehall that is to blame though, according to the DDPOs’ submission to the UN committee. Local authorities too are responsible for the dire situation facing disabled people in this country. The DDPOs’ submission to the committee even implicated councils in the Government’s human rights violations.

I put it to Ms Bott that this might be unfair considering councils are operating under difficult circumstances. ‘They are overstretched,’ she conceded. ‘But on the other hand there are things local government is clearly responsible for. It’s not a question of money. It’s a question of knowing the law and implementing an approach that complies with the law.’

She gives the example of planning. ‘We’ve seen a number of planning instances in the last few years that haven't taken account of access for disabled people,’ she explains. ‘That’s not about just financial resources. That’s about an attitude of mind; making sure disability issues are considered in planning decisions and that disabled people are consulted and involved.’

Ms Bott’s last point is backed up by a recent Women and Equalities Committee inquiry on Disability and the Built Environment which concluded: ‘Many workplaces and service premises are inaccessible, there is very little choice of where to live, and the public spaces through which people need to move can be prohibitively excluding. Together these factors constitute an unacceptable diminution of quality of life and equality.’ 

However, while it may be the case that it’s not just about money, funding is still a prerequisite for ensuring those with the right ‘attitude of mind’ are able to plan their communities in such a way as to ensure they are suitable for disabled people. Or, as the Local Government Association’s (LGA) written submission to the Women and Equalities Committee put it, it is ‘crucial that planning services are properly resourced.’

For many, the suggestion that Whitehall might be violating the rights of disabled people might appear extreme. After all, there is a lot of equalities legislation designed to safeguard the disabled. As the DWP spokesperson explains: ‘The UK has some of the strongest equalities legislation in the world, including the Equality Act 2010, and we will continue to make sure that these rights are protected.’

However, this means little without sufficient resources and enforcement. ‘We have some good pieces of legislation in the UK and the UK is signed up to the convention so the issue is really making sure the provisions of our legislation and of the convention are enforced,’ Ms Bott said.

‘Yes, we have good legislation,’ she concluded, ‘I dont know whether it’s the best in the world - I think that’s an arguable point - but we certainly cease to be the best in the world if we absolutely fail to enforce that legislation.’

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