Happy International Day of Disabled People from the UK Government
Today is the 25th International Day of Disabled People. As of Thursday the government didn’t seem to have anything planned, so I will try to fill the gap by discussing what the Day should mean to our government and what’s actually happening in the UK.
As it’s an international day, the most obvious focus for celebrations is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (I should say that a lot of the international documents follow US usage and refer to ‘people with disabilities’, in the UK disability movement the term ‘disabled people’ is seen as more in tune with the social model of disability.)
Disabled people should treasure this Convention; if it had been left to governments it would never have happened and it took 20 years of explaining, campaigning and lobbying by disabled people from all over the world to achieve it. The Convention was agreed by the UN on 3 December 2006 (10 years ago today) signed by the UK in 2007 and ratified in 2009. Every major party supported the Convention, so there should be no doubt that the UK government is committed to the human rights set out in the Convention.
Periodically, the government must report to the UN Disability Committee on the UK’s implementation of the Convention and there is a UK Independent Mechanism (UKIM, made up of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Scottish Human Rights Commission) that reports on outstanding issues.
Here I’ll concentrate on Article 28: the right to an adequate standard of living and social protection. (If you’re interested in other issues, the UKIM report published at the end of 2014 is very good.) To realize this right, the article obliges governments to guarantee disabled people access to anti-poverty programmes and to help with disability-related expenses.
This assistance is needed. In the following tables two common measures of poverty are used – living in a family below 60 per cent of the median for families in circumstances, measured either before housing costs are taken into account (the government’s preferred measure) or after (preferred by most anti-poverty charities). They show the proportion of people in poverty by these measures in different types of family.
Children in families with a disabled adult are likely to be poor and, based on the after housing costs measure, nearly half of all children living in families with a disabled child and a disabled adult are poor. If we look at working age families, the same pattern of disadvantage can be seen, but we can also see that getting disability benefits seems to make a big difference, there really doesn’t seem to be a case for restricting access to them:
Most disabled people’s organisations argue that these figures show that the government has a duty to strengthen the benefits for disabled people. Unfortunately, that is not what has happened. After the 2010 election, the Coalition government’s cuts included:
- The abolition of the special rate of Employment and Support Allowance for people who become disabled in youth, affecting 7 – 8,000 people;
- Cutting contributory ESA for members of the work-related activity group to a maximum of one year;
- Replacing Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment (which will eventually be paid to 450,000 fewer claimants);
- Closure of the Independent Living Funds;
- The abolition of the disabled worker element in Universal Credit;
- Abolition of the Severe Disability Premium in Universal Credit;
- Lower additions for disabled children in Universal Credit;
- Cuts to other benefits that disabled people claim along with non-disabled people, such as the benefit freeze.
There were so many cuts to disability benefits that disabled people and their organisations lobbied for a ‘cumulative impact assessment’ of the whole package. Risibly, the government claimed it was not able to carry out such an exercise. Exasperated, the Equality and Human Rights Commission hired Howard Reed and Jonathan Portes to research the overall distributional impacts of the government’s policies. Their report, Cumulative Impact Assessment, was published at the end of 2014 and revealed that households with disabled adults and children were losing out by an average £1,500 a year:
Distributional impact of direct tax, benefit and tax credit changes, 2010- 15, in cash terms by household disability status
But that was the horrid old Coalition government, now we have a Conservative government, perhaps they’ll make life a bit easier?
Well, one thing they haven’t done is reverse any of the Coalition cuts. But Mrs May and Philip Hammond have got some things (sort of right) by reversing some of their own cuts. In his 2016 Budget, George Osborne announced plans to cut spending on Personal Independence Payment by reducing the number of points awarded for needing to use an aid or equipment to carry out ‘daily living’ activities; this had hardly been announced before the government abandoned it.
Another of Mr Osborne’s bright ideas, announced in his July 2015 Budget, was his decision to cut Employment and Support Allowance for people in the Work-Related Activity Group to the same rate as Jobseeker’s Allowance. The OBR calculates that this will average out as a 28 per cent cut. After a number of Conservative MPs called for the cut to be withdrawn there was speculation that this would be announced in the Autumn Statement, but no, it’s still going ahead.
But it isn’t just the new cuts that are causing problems for disabled people. Implementing policies long ago announced is still causing problems. Take the festering sore that is the Work Capability Assessment – in 2015, a report published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found an association between WCAs carried out as people were moved from Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance and extra cases of reported mental health problems and additional prescribing of anti-depressants. Each additional 10 000 people reassessed in an area was associated with an additional 2 to 9 suicides. Organisations ranging from Mind to Disabled People Against the Cuts are now calling for the test to be replaced by a more humane alternative, but the government shows no sign of relenting.
The UN Convention entitles disabled people to equal social assistance against poverty and help with the extra costs of disability. The cuts so far have not only failed to reach that standard, they have hurt disabled people more than non-disabled people. The best present the government could announce on the International Day would be that it is going to live up to its responsibilities and reverse these cuts.