Welfare reform: fixing broken Britain, or an abuse of human rights?

By Bernadette Meaden
October 8, 2014

As Iain Duncan Smith was being lauded at the Conservative Party Conference for ending ‘a culture of dependency’ through welfare reform, one wondered how many people present knew or cared about one significant but unmentioned fact.

Just a few months ago, Professor Gabor Gombos stated that the United Kingdom has the distinction of being the first country to be investigated by the United Nations Committee for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, regarding ‘grave and systemic violations’ of the human rights of its sick and disabled citizens.

You can watch a video of Professor Gombos talking about this here, starting one hour and four minutes into the video. He explains, "The enquiry procedure is basically about grave and systemic violations of human rights in a country. Where the issue has been raised and the government did not really make effective actions to fix the situation (it is a very high threshold thing – the violations should really be grave and systemic, it cannot be based on gossip) it should be established."

Perhaps many people at the party conferences, particularly those celebrating the ‘achievements’ of welfare reform, were unaware of this, as it was mainly reported in specialist media such as the Disability News Service and has been dismissed out of hand by government ministers. But many at the sharp end of welfare reform, and who are aware, welcome the inquiry. They now see a system which often seems to have been designed to cause maximum distress and hardship, effectively punishing people for being unwell.

People like welfare rights adviser Nick Dilworth who was recently the subject of a feature in the Guardian) see the terrible human cost of the chaos and delays now endemic in the system of support for sick and disabled people, a system that has been ‘reformed’ to disastrous effect, and which people are expected to navigate, often at the lowest point in their lives.

“I don’t think the public knows how bad it is. In the past we’ve nearly always been able to find a solution [to people’s problems]. Now you come across situations where there is no answer and you can’t do anything.

“You get grown men crying. What you see are broken lives. It means we are seeing people for whom all you can do is give short-term answers like food-bank vouchers.’

Nick has also gained a reputation for his rigorous analysis of statistics issued by the Department for Work and Pensions. Through his blog he challenges the rhetoric that has surrounded welfare reform, and its underlying assumptions. He completely rejects, for instance, Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that people were ‘parked on sickness benefits’, pointing out that whilst the numbers may have remained fairly constant, these were not the same people, there was a continuous ‘churn rate’ as people moved on and off benefits as their circumstances changed.

Nick is part of New Approach, a group which is calling for the abolition of the notorious Work Capability Assessment and a far more supportive approach to helping sick and disabled people find employment if they are well enough.

New Approach warmly welcomes the UN investigation into the United Kingdom’s treatment of people with disabilities. Jane Bence, who herself has uncontrolled epilepsy, says, "The UN Investigation offers us all hope, hope which wasn't there before and hope which none of the main political parties are offering us. A 'new approach' and thought is needed towards Social Security and this investigation could bring that closer."

So, whilst Ministers and their supporters congratulate themselves on fixing ‘broken Britain’, (a concept they themselves invented), the United Nations seems to be heeding the distress of sick and disabled people whose lives are being made unbearable. The government may claim that welfare reform is a success, but history, and the United Nations, may tell a different story.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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