“This dithering is unacceptable” Mark Harper, Shadow Minister for Disabled People on the then Labour government’s delay in ratifying the UN Disability Rights Convention, January 2009
“At the heart of this report lies an outdated view of disability which is patronising and offensive. We strongly refute its findings.” Damian Green, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, responding to the criticisms of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities November 2016
Some have concluded that the government has complacently dismissed an inquiry report by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into the devastating impact of austerity measures since 2010. I believe they are wrong and the government is on the run.
The clue is in the government’s considerable efforts to pre-empt and then sink the report. The work, disability and health Green Paper had been in preparation for over 2 years and was still highly speculative and vague when it was finally published on Monday 31 October having been heavily trailed in the press as including plans to reform the Work Capability Assessment. While the details – insofar as they can be described as details – pointed in a very different direction, the overall tone of messaging around the paper seemed designed to signal the arrival of a more measured and benevolent tone. Various disability charities were (unwittingly? foolishly?) co-opted for the press effort and the government ruthlessly exploited this. Damian Green described the Green Paper as “a turning point in our action to confront the attitudes, prejudices and misunderstandings within the minds of employers and across wider society.” By publishing something so seemingly significant and appearing to signal a change of approach, the government was striving to distance itself from what had gone before while pre-empting and striving to submerge what was about to come.
The UNCRPD inquiry – also in train for two years – was leaked by the government to the Daily Mail on 6th November, apparently forcing the the Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights’ hand to publish it without any notice or fanfare on 7 November. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of the media would have known that the prospects for coverage would be very slim indeed as the outcome of the US Presidential Election loomed large. The government’s official response to the CRPD report was to dismiss it, with Damian Green arguing ‘The UN measures success as the amount of money poured into the system, rather than the work and health outcomes for disabled people. Our focus is on helping disabled people find and stay in work, whilst taking care of those who can’t.’ A spokesperson was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying ‘Their evidence period runs up until the end of 2015, so it is already out of date.’ (the article doesn’t mention that the government was sent the report in early 2016 and has only just got ’round to responding to it).
Why try so hard to bury bad news if you are so confident that the news is inaccurate, or its implications so light?
Perhaps it’s because this is the beginning not the end of a process, one that will refuse to go away for some time and which will become tougher as time goes by. While officially a confidential inquiry, we were always likely to find out by stealth what the Committee had concluded. Published or not, when it comes to conducting its public examination of the UK’s implementation of the Convention in 2017 the Committee will rely on its findings and subject the government to even deeper scrutiny. But published it is, and moreover so is the government’s very detailed and lengthy response. As such, one might argue that DWP’s media management will ultimately backfire.
Armed as we are with the government’s response to the findings and conclusions put before them we are now much better equipped both to scrutinise the Green Paper and to support the UNCRPD Committee in its public examination in 2017. As President Obama would say, now is the time to focus. Complaining to the government, or to the Secretary General of the United Nations, about the tone of the government’s response is wasted energy. Did anyone really expect them to say ‘its a fair cop’ and to embrace the criticism? Instead our focus has to be on unpicking the government’s arguments:
- Yes, money isn’t everything and there’s more to life than social security, so let’s shine the light on how well government is supporting people to escape poverty, to exercise choice and control and to participate fully in practice – what is happening to people’s everyday opportunities? Just how far will the proposals in the Green Paper, or action to implement the Care Act go to address these issues?
- But with respect to the money, let’s not let the government get away with its glib claim to be spending more today than in 2009-10. Let’s ask how much it would have been spending were it not for cuts, count the human cost of those cuts, and also scrutinise just how well the considerable amount of public money is being spent in support of human rights.
In forcing publication of the UN Committee’s findings and its own response and publishing the Green Paper the government has provided a major opportunity to put it to the test. Let’s not waste it.