Life-threatening human rights violations a UK norm?

By Savi Hensman
May 7, 2018

An anorexic mother-of-four was found dead in her freezing home after her benefits were stopped. A 57-year-old settled in Britain for nearly half a century collapsed and died after a year of being denied the right to work or benefits. Universal Credit’s roll-out is plunging thousands into despair, while austerity has already cost an estimated 120,000 lives.

Recent news stories reflect a climate in the UK in which serious human rights abuses are widespread. Brutal suffering is inflicted on the most vulnerable and measures pushed through which put the public at large at grave risk. Amidst deep social divisions, many accept such measures but, in some instances, resistance has been effective. Further action is needed to restore a culture of justice and humanity.

Making state ruthlessness routine

The death of Elaine Morrall, wrapped in a coat and scarf at home in Runcorn with her heating off, has been widely covered in the news and social media. She “wouldn’t put her heating on until her kids came home from school” because “she couldn’t afford it,” wrote her mother, Linda, in an open letter to a local councillor.

She “was severely depressed. Suffered from eating disorder and many other problems” and “Was in and out of hospital in recent months in intensive care.” She had her benefits cut off because she was too ill to attend a universal credit interview and was about to be taken to court for not paying her rent.

“How many people have got to die before this government realises they are killing vulnerable people?” her mother asked. In the UK people pay National Insurance and taxes, expecting assistance in turn when they or their families need this, but increasingly it has been denied to those in need.

Such tragic cases are not uncommon. For instance also in November 2017, Stuart Targett took his own life at the age of 25 . He had turned to a foodbank after being refused Personal Independence Payment. This had been “the most significant factor on his mood”, Stephen Rule, a senior mental health nurse, told Salisbury Coroner’s Court in April 2018.

The government has made some concessions on social security after strong criticisms by a parliamentary committee and court rulings . But in other ways it is making it even harder to get social security, including putting pressure on doctors to coerce sick patients to work , even if dangerous.

The gradual roll-out of universal credit is increasing the number of people left destitute. It is possible that at some point, possibly during school holidays, demand will overwhelm supply, in which case deaths may rise steeply. However there have been occasional victories, for instance the postponement of plans which might have threatened the sickest and frailest

Other disabled or sick people, often pensioners, have found themselves victims of brutal and sometimes lethal cuts in access to social care or NHS services. People have frequently been left with little or no access to personal care – unless supplied by family or friends – or pain relief, let alone culture and companionship.

So, for instance, someone now very unsteady on her feet may be refused help to get to the toilet or kitchen. Unsurprisingly the number of people dying from falls has risen steeply .  Or other older people are relied on to provide such care, sometimes full time, until in some instances their own health breaks down.

In November 2017, in an article in the British Medical Journal, health researchers estimated that cuts in health and social care since 2010 had resulted in 120,000 excess deaths in England alone. They reckoned there might be 100 extra deaths or so a day from then on.

As with benefit cuts, this is unjust, unnecessary and cruel. Many in the UK have paid National Insurance and other taxes for decades and contributed to society in other ways, only to be short-changed in their hour of need. What is more, this is a wealthy country, which gives away huge sums to the rich and profitable corporations in tax cuts and loopholes. Meanwhile death is often slow and deeply unpleasant for those from whom vital resources have been withheld.

Windrush scandal: truth and change

Another type of abuse by the state has recently hit the headlines. One victim was Dexter Bristol, who arrived from Grenada when he was eight in 1968 His mother, Sentinel, was an NHS nurse, part of the ‘Windrush generation’ recruited from the Caribbean.

But last year he was fired from his job as a cleaner and could not get benefits because, according to the Home Office, he could not prove he was here legally. “We saw him get more and more depressed and anxious,” his mother said. On 31 March 2018 he collapsed and died. “Whatever the cause of his death, he died being denied an immigration status which was rightfully his.”

Another nurse’s son, Sylvester Marshall, has moved to the UK from Jamaica when in his teens  He married, had three children and worked as a mechanic, paying taxes for over three decades. Yet when he got cancer, he was refused treatment unless he could pay £54,000.

However community campaigners and an investigative journalist had been publicising the suffering of those targeted. They exposed the background – a government campaign to create a ‘hostile environment’ for supposedly ‘illegal’ immigrants.

This included setting targets for deportations and a scheme tackling NHS use by ‘overseas visitors’, piloted in 20 trusts. Patients seeking non-emergency hospital and community services were to be asked to produce identity documents or pay in full. This was rolled out, despite warnings that ethnic minorities and disadvantaged people would be unjustly treated and evidence that sizeable numbers were likely to be wrongly refused free care

It is unsurprising that ministers might have thought that almost any measure harming ethnic minority and disabled people would win votes. However reactions to the Windrush revelations suggested that they might have miscalculated, potentially putting off numerous voters of Commonwealth descent and white people who empathised with the victims.

When it was revealed that landing cards had been destroyed in 2010  and people then punished for not producing evidence that they were here legally, many were shocked. Further leaks which suggested that the home secretary, Amber Rudd, had pledged to increase deportations by 10 per cent, despite claiming not to be aware of targets, ended in her resignation.

Pressure will need to be kept up on her successor, Sajid Javid, if more than limited improvements are to be made . This includes making it easier for a new generation of children who know no other home to stay and thrive . But the success of the campaign shows that change is possible, with skill and persistence.

Rebuilding a culture of respect for human rights

It is seventy years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, since when the international framework of political, economic, social and cultural rights has further developed . This aims to protect sick and disabled people, minorities and dissidents among others.

People of various faiths and none have played an important part in making the case for just and humane treatment for all, at least at the most basic level. Yet in much of the world, awareness of the value of human rights has eroded, as time has gone by and the powerful have chafed at restrictions on their right to do whatever they please.

UK politicians and sections of the media have relentlessly attacked the notion of human rights, with considerable success – though most people who would like to see others’ rights taken away would probably be highly indignant if this happened to them. This has made it easier to brush aside criticisms by the United Nations and others about inadequate housing , mistreatment of disabled people, and ethnic minorities, restrictions to freedom of assembly and of association

However useful lessons might be learnt from the occasional success of attempts to defend the rights of people whose wellbeing and very survival is threatened. Winning over those who have been persuaded that such abuses are acceptable is important, if campaigns are to achieve more than letting protestors express sorrow and anger.

This may include helping to communicate the human cost of certain policies and values of compassion and justice. Challenging the idea that rights for minorities are at the expense of the majority may also be important. When states avoid their responsibilities and misuse their powers, no-one is safe.

More immediately, the damage to the health and social care system and hostile climate may have worsened the NHS crisis last winter. Harsh cuts to social and NHS continuing care and community health services have made it harder to care for sick people outside hospital. And immigration rules hindering recruitment of doctors, nurses and experienced care assistants have done further damage.

Indeed, the rules supposedly targeting overseas visitors, if consistently applied at the busiest times, could have been catastrophic. If administrators had insisted on checking all patients’ passports and proof of address before doctors moved them out of A&E or intensive care, logjams could have resulted, with lethal results.

Fostering solidarity and kindness, while challenging prejudice and untruths effectively, are important if human rights and dignity are to be defended. This may involve building alliances in which those most affected play a leading part.


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (

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