UK disabled people face human catastrophe


Miro Griffiths explains the need for a socially just welfare system.

The UK government did not react with horror following the concluding observations from the United Nations Committee the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which indicated that austerity measures “have created a human catastrophe for disabled people”. Instead, the sense of exceptionalism was apparent as Conservative Minister Penny Mordaunt insisted the UK should promote its disability policies as a catalyst for change throughout the world. Whilst this is blatant arrogance on behalf of the government, it suggests the current trajectory of distressing medical assessments, social security sanctions and devastating cuts to services will continue.

The changes to social security are relentless. Disguised as a necessity under fiscal conservatism, they demonstrate the intention of the Tories to disregard the rights of disabled people, strip away the notion of humanity and dismantle the opportunities to establish resistance.

So what is the current framework for protecting disabled people’s participation within society?  And how do recent welfare developments reflect the government’s desire to silence and stigmatise those who require support?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the UK has signed and ratified, is all but dismissed. The Equality Act achieves very little as its foundation is built upon the subjective stance of ‘reasonable adjustments’, whereby those with considerable power determine if the marginalisation experienced by disabled people can be justified on the grounds of too much cost, too many resources or too much disruption to everyone else. Even the legislation that mirrors the EU treaties is likely to be shredded by the current government, as it attempts to concentrate more power by arguing that sovereign rule will improve people’s life chances.

A Commons inquiry, which scrutinised the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment system, was informed – by disabled people – of the lies and misinformation perpetuated by the assessors. In late October 2017, the Disability New Service, revealed that complaints regarding the assessment process rose by 900% in one year. Complaints and appeals will continue to rise as individuals discover how assessors, commonly employed by outsourced private companies, exploit disabled people by fabricating the medical reports and omitting the personal narratives and opinions of those participating in the mandatory assessments. The injustice surrounding the PIP is long-standing, as it has taken the government four years to address eligibility concerns highlighted at a tribunal. Almost 10,000 disabled people were prevented from receiving a higher rate of support because guidance from the Department of Work and Pensions did not reflect the intention of the legislation.

The Access to Work scheme, created to support disabled people in employment by funding the incurred disability-related expenses, is subject to extensive cutbacks and bureaucratic incompetence as support is capped and conditional on the basis of an individual’s salary.  Further it is provided only after people are subjected to extensive scrutiny and suspicion. Whilst the November 2015 spending review pledged to increase the number of disabled people using the scheme by 25,000, currently 4000 fewer are accessing support than in the final year of the New Labour government. The Department for Work and Pensions has been accused of manipulating statistics in an attempt to dampen any criticism regarding cuts. Figures show the number of disabled people accessing support has fallen by 15% over the last seven years, with funding for workplace adaptions falling from 380 to 50 in one year and the provision of assistive technology dropping from 18,000 to 12,500.

The failure to protect disabled people during the implementation phase of Universal Credit, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of disabled people in debt and, potentially, homeless, signifies the intention of the Conservatives to place disabled people in further precarious conditions. It is estimated that 500,000 disabled people will be financially worse off under Universal Credit and the removal of disability premiums could amount to an annual loss of £1000.

The Tories seek to portray social security as a gift, granted to people who have failed to be productive to society. It is prescribed as a benefit to help individuals take responsibility for their marginalisation. By utilising private enterprise and expensive consultants, the design and delivery of social security is controlled by those who benefit most from the exploited communities. Focus is not on the removal of barriers or the rights of those who require support, it is to generate profit by silencing disabled people. The state views any attempt to challenge or disrupt the current assessment and review procedures as disobedience.  As a result, it is of little surprise that action taken by disabled people and their allies is sporadic.

The majority of disabled people have little opportunity to exercise their rights as citizens, participate in protest and activism or be included in the political discussions that shape society. This is deliberate. Yet, the attention is directed towards the individual’s supposed inability to participate or contribute, and never addresses the economic, cultural and political structures that perpetuate disabled people’s isolation.

Our aim must be to radically overhaul the design, development and delivery of social security. By ensuring it focuses on the societal barriers that prevent disabled people existing as respected citizens, where people’s contributions are valued beyond the eagerness to create profit and wealth, a system can be created to benefit all, not just a few.

Miro Griffiths MBE is a researcher, guest lecturer and advisor to the UK Government and European Commission.

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