Austerity, Brexit and equal protections across the UK

25 August 2017

This week the United Nations Disability Committee scrutinised the UK for the first time since it ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009. 

Stig Langvad, the committee member who acted as the rapporteur on the UK, described the dialogue around the review as the most challenging exercise in the history of the Committee, commenting that it demonstrated differing perceptions of the implementation of human rights in the UK. This is strong - and I would go so far as to say shocking - language for the constitutionally diplomatic UN.

Disability campaigners have already used the Convention's complaints process (the Optional Protocol) to seek justice for disabled people who were disproportionately impacted by the government's welfare reform agenda. Austerity, Brexit and the need for equal protections across the UK were the grounds for tough and persistent questioning.

A 'bruising relationship'

On mental health, questions were asked about: the over-representation of people from African and Caribbean origin in psychiatric institutions, the disproportionate use of the Mental Health Act against people of African descent, supporting women with disabilities who experience violence or domestic violence, children and young people's mental health, and supported decision making.

The Committee and the UK government have had a bruising relationship. The Committee found that welfare reform had led to "grave and systematic violations" of disabled people's rights in this first complaints inquiry into a state. The Committee repeatedly expressed deep concern about the UK state's inconsistent approach to human rights and inadequate implementation.

It questioned the accuracy of government claims to fully engage disabled persons given that civil society organisations reported that this was not the case. When government officials asserted the UK's historical leadership role on disability rights, Committee members responded that the UK has a special obligation to set high standards because other states consider it to be an example to follow.

Why is the Disability Committee’s review so important?

The Disability Convention brings together existing civil, political, economic, social and cultural human rights held by us all individually and collectively and interprets what these rights mean for persons with disabilities in their everyday lives. The Disability Convention represents many years of dialogue that ultimately achieved a global consensus. It is a strong, empowering instrument of international law.

A write up for the Committee sessions on 23rd and 24 August is available but the main game in town is the Committee report and recommendations. UN Committee reviews are an exhausting process but it is vital that we, as mental health advocates, continue to stay engaged. Strong words have been diplomatically spoken at the UN. Now we must press for the UK government to realise human rights in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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