The UK is about to be investigated by the UN for its shameful treatment of disabled people – but does the Government care?

Penny Mordaunt called for ‘people power’ to be harnessed to tackle inaccessibility in Britain. You are supposed to complain and kick up a fuss when you witness it, because that saves the Government the effort of doing the job itself

James Moore
Monday 30 January 2017 13:02 GMT
Penny Mordaunt, the minister for disabled people, says she wants disability issues to have a much higher profile
Penny Mordaunt, the minister for disabled people, says she wants disability issues to have a much higher profile (Getty)

In 2009 Britain did something important and progressive: it signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

Now, as we all know, the Government loves disabled people and is working really hard for them. Just last week Penny Mordaunt, the minister for disabled people, took to the Huffington Post to urge Britons to “say no to inaccessibility”, banging the drum for equal rights. Hooray!

So there’s surely no need for the UN to be examining Britain’s record, is there? What with all the wonderful policies the Government has in place to help people with disabilities? “Here are some statistics our civil servants have found about how well Britain is doing. Run along now, would you?” Something like that (perhaps without the run along now, would you), is what I’d imagine Penny Mordaunt and her people will tell the UN team handling the examination.

It’s just that, as a precursor to it, a group of organisations representing people with disabilities were asked to write a report putting their views. Published this morning, it paints a very different picture to the one I imagine the Government would put forward. One that the average person living with disabilities in Britain might have a little more sympathy with.

The report, by Disability Rights UK (DRUK), Inclusion Scotland and Disability Wales, highlights sharp cuts to benefits and support endured by disabled people since the Coalition government started to swing the axe wielded by former Chancellor George Osborne.

It criticises the lacklustre enforcement of legislation that is supposed to ensure equal rights, and (my words) the official suspicion, scepticism, and bureaucratic bullying, disabled people endure when it comes to accessing benefits and services.

It considers the massive shortfall in public housing in the UK generally, which is amplified when it comes to finding housing suitable for people with disabilities.

It looks at the increasing difficulties that people with disabilities face when trying to live independently. Just last week, for example, it emerged that some are being forced into care homes because that’s a cheaper option for cash-strapped health services than sending out carers.

The report raises the disturbing issue of the unexplained deaths of disabled people in the care of the state, particularly those with learning disabilities or mental health problems, who have been subject to a rapid growth in the use of compulsory detention and forced treatment as a result of mental health legislation that is incompatible with the convention.

It highlights delays in implementing requirements that employers make reasonable adjustment to allow people with disabilities to work and use services, and the tendency among public bodies to focus on process as opposed to the achievement of meaningful outcomes when it comes to their legal duty to eliminate discrimination (in other words, box ticking).

Dispatches: Assessor dismisses claimant's disability as being "fat"

It raises the issue of a rising tide of abuse and hate crime. That, of course, has been fuelled by certain elements in the media, aided and abetted by a Government that is well aware of how much easier cuts are to sell if you can convince the electorate that they’re targeted at the undeserving.

The UK has, in fact, been headed in a profoundly regressive direction. Against this backdrop there has been a revolving door at the Department for Work and Pensions with various junior ministers taking on the portfolio and talking a good game while doing very little.

Penny Mordaunt was at it with her piece. She called for “people power” to be harnessed to tackle inaccessibility in Britain. You are supposed to complain and kick up a fuss when you witness it, because that saves the Government the effort of doing the job itself.

“Whether you look at the shockingly low average life expectancy of people with learning disabilities or the sheer poverty of disabled people, it is clear that progress towards real equality continues to be patchy and torturous,” said Sue Bott, the deputy CEO of DRUK, saving me the job of summing up the report.

It’s at this point critics of the UN usually like to point out that some of the other countries that have signed the convention can hardly be considered as paragons. They will suggest that the UN should concentrate its fire on them, because, despite everything I’ve listed, it could be worse, you know!

That is a specious argument. Just because other countries are bad, it doesn’t and shouldn’t give the UK a pass. It doesn’t excuse the shabby behaviour of the Government corporately and the do-nothing-at-best attitude of ministers individually when it comes to one of this country’s most vulnerable groups.

This is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, with one of the world’s ten biggest economies. If the UK can’t get it right, why should we expect anyone else to?

The purpose of the convention is to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all humans’ rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”.

Its general principles call for people with disabilities to be protected against discrimination, to enjoy full participation and inclusion in society and equality of opportunity with their able-bodied peers. It’s an important and worthwhile document.

Mordaunt, in her piece for Huffington Post, described the British people as “kind and generous”. She said they have “buckets of common sense, and value fairness”.

If she is right, we might expect that the British people will be very much in support of the convention’s aims.

We might also expect them to take a dim view of the performance of her Government when it comes to meeting them, well before the UN gets around to issuing its final judgement.

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