GENEVA (Reuters) - Britain’s cost-cutting welfare reforms gravely or systematically violated the rights of disabled people, according to a United Nations inquiry published on Monday that was rejected by Britain.
The issue has caused disputes within Britain’s Conservative government, prompting a leading cabinet member, Iain Duncan Smith, to resign in March, complaining that cuts to disability payments were “a compromise too far”.
Among its recommendations, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said Britain should set up a mechanism to permanently monitor the impact of policies relating to disabled people’s standard of living and their ability to work and live independently.
Members of the U.N. committee of 18 independent experts visited Britain in October 2015 and the report was based on more than 200 interviews and some 3,000 pages of documentary evidence.
The 22-page report criticised welfare cuts and caps introduced under an austerity programme the government said would make the welfare system fairer and reduce benefit fraud.
“Persons with disabilities have been regularly portrayed negatively as being dependent or making a living out of benefits, committing fraud as benefit claimants, being lazy and putting a burden on taxpayers, who are paying ‘money for nothing’,” it said.
The allegation was unsubstantiated, but disabled people were subject to increasing hostility and aggressive behaviour.
The government had not factored disabled people’s needs into its reforms, and cuts in housing benefits had caused high levels of stress and depression, the report said. Programmes to encourage them to find work “had no visible impact”, and many were driven into debt and forced to resort to using food banks.
In a written response provided by the U.N. human rights office, the British government said it strongly disagreed with the conclusions and was proud of its record of supporting disabled people to lead more independent lives. It said nearly 500,000 more disabled people were in employment since 2013.
“As a strong parliamentary democracy, where the voices and opinions of disabled people are represented and listened to, the UK is a place where disabled people’s rights are respected, promoted and upheld,” the British government’s response said.
In a point-by-point rebuttal that was as long as the committee’s 10,000 word report, Britain said that the U.N. inquiry was too narrow in scope and it did not plan to follow up on is recommendations any further.
Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Catherine Evans