Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.
Silence is Golden: UK Human Rights Violations & the British Media
On the 15th August 2014, The Disability News Service became the first UK media source to break the news that "t he UK government has become the first country to face a high-level inquiry by a United Nations committee, as a result of "grave or systemic violations" of the rights of disabled people".
This 'announcement' came informally, during the Sixth International Disability Law Summer School at the National University of Ireland in Galway in June, by an address from Professor Gabor Gombos, a former UN committee member on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
Although this news was subsequently picked up by a number of disability organizations (including Disabled-World), the mainstream press within the UK has largely by-passed this rather newsworthy piece of information. A rather strange thing considering how ravenous the British press usually is for topical 'news', and this was certainly information that would have been expected to have generated some kind of reaction. But no
I raised my concerns about this apparent lack of media interest, in an article for Disabled-World on the 20th August 2014, also voicing concerns about the notable silence of the main political opposition party within the UK - The Labor party. As the UN inquiry is confidential, nobody outside the UN or the British Government is completely sure of what is going on at the moment, and the Government is naturally unprepared to confirm or deny that a high level inquiry is currently taking place. While we can be pretty certain that an inquiry has indeed begun, what form that inquiry is taking or if that inquiry will indeed be slowed down by the General Election taking place within the UK in 2015, we cannot be sure.
However, in a strange twist of fate, The Mail Online became the first and only mainstream news organization in the UK so far to 'break' this story, running the headline on the 27th August 2014: " Now UN sparks fury after launching human rights investigation into Britain's disability benefit reforms". Below is an extract from the article: "The United Nations sparked fury today after launching an unprecedented inquiry into Britain's treatment of the disabled. The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities launched a formal probe into whether this country has committed 'grave or systemic violations' of the rights of disabled people. Tory MPs tonight branded the investigation 'politically motivated' and said Britain's record on help for disabled people was among the best in the world. The focus on Britain for the latest inquiry raised eyebrows given the other countries represented on the committee. Its members include Uganda, Kenya, Thailand, and Tunisia. The investigation is the latest in a series of interventions into British domestic policy by the United Nations, which have provoked fury among ministers. Earlier this year a group of UN poverty 'ambassadors' attacked Government welfare reforms, and last year the UN's controversial Brazilian housing 'rapporteur' Raquel Rolnik, a former Marxist dubbed the 'Brazil Nut', criticized cuts to housing benefit".
The article goes on to quote the reactions of a number of Conservative MP's. Michael Ellis said: "This politically motivated loony left decision brings the UN organization in to disrepute. At a time when there are grave international crises around the world and when in dozens of countries around the world there are no benefits available, this absurd decision is made to attack our country which rightly does more than almost any other to protect the rights of disadvantaged people from all walks of life."
Fellow Conservative Philip Davies wailed: "These people at the UN are idiots, frankly. There's no other way to describe them. This country has led the way in the support and rights that we give to disabled people - such as through the Disability Discrimination Act which was passed by a Conservative government in 1995. If the UN drew up a list of countries in the world showing how much they gave to disabled people they would find the UK was the highest in the world. They are exposing the UN for the completely useless organization that it is."
While the Department for Work and Pensions predictably refused to comment on the inquiry, did point out that to The Daily Mail: "the UK spends around £50billion a year on disabled people".
Has the silence has been broken
So the silence has been broken at last- or has it? The Daily Mail report seemed curiously confident that the UN has indeed launched an "unprecedented inquiry" into the effects of recent UK welfare changes upon the disabled, and was motivated enough to seek out the rather colorful responses from the Members of Parliament quoted above. However, that is still all we have had from the mainstream press within the UK so far, and certainly there has been little reaction or comment to the Daily Mail story itself, by any other mainstream media organizations.
This silence is unlike the 'usual' behavior of the British press that we have witnessed over recent years, particularly from the 'tabloid' variety, who would have been fully expected to have launched a sustained and bitter 'character assassination' of the UN itself by now. However, the silence that has largely surrounded the UK's possible violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) treaty, a treaty that was ratified by the UK Government on the 8 June 2009, is pretty much unprecedented in recent British media history.
Both the 'left' and the 'right' wing of the establishment press have fallen eerily silent, which is in sharp contrast to the noise that has been generated over the past number of years, particularly from those who frantically and desperately worked to 'scapegoat' both the disabled and the employed within the UK for largely being 'workshy' and 'benefit' fraudsters. It is also in contrast to sections of the British media who have heroically fought back against these falsehoods, half-truths and misinterpretations concerning welfare provision, by highlighting the actual reality of life within Britain for many. A life that is often an existence on pittance wages or pittance benefits, and poverty that is a combined result of a low waged economy, high 'indirect' taxation, mass discrimination over employment and vicious austerity measures.
However, if Government 'flagship' policy over welfare provision primarily targets the unemployed and the disabled for further welfare reform (social groups that are already at the wrong end of the 'prosperity' ladder), then it should not come as a big surprise if these measures actually bring disastrous consequences - as well as also bringing the UK dangerously close to violation of UN conventions on 'human rights'.
A Commons Select Committee investigating this issue, released a report on 2th April 2014, detailing the financial hardship that some of these ill-considered reforms have already caused: "Reforms to the support provided for housing costs - including the Social Sector Size Criteria (SSSC) (also known as the "Bedroom Tax" and the "Spare Room Subsidy") and the household Benefit Cap - are causing financial hardship to vulnerable people who were not the intended targets of the reforms and are unlikely to be able to change their circumstances in response, say the Work and Pensions Committee in a report published Wednesday 2 April."
While the Select Committee considers these effects as being primarily 'unintentional', just what precisely do these politicians expect to happen when policy (such as the 'bedroom tax') is aimed primarily at those on benefits - including the unemployed and many of the disabled? Can nobody within the 'political world' actually think that far ahead? Personally, I also wonder if anybody within this current Government has actually even read the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) treaty.
The HM Government (2012) Welfare Reform Act
The HM Government (2012) Welfare Reform Act, sought to reduce the UK's welfare benefit costs by a total of £18 billion over a period of five years from its implementation date, by promoting 'work' as more beneficial than claiming 'benefit'. Therefore, while £18 billion is a large sum of money, these reforms are much less about saving money and much more about 'ideological' reform - and reform that underpins the 'work ethic' itself. It is welfare reform fueled primarily by the argument that welfare benefits within the UK are far too generous, and that people would therefore sooner stay on benefits than find work. Arguments that have consistently been proven to be false, on all counts.
The reforms currently in place are not just out of touch with reality, but measures so draconian that they would not be out of place within 17th or 18th century Britain. They are also measures that may end up costing the UK taxpayer a small fortune, and certainly nobody at the moment is willing to tot up what these welfare reforms have actually cost the taxpayer so far to implement. Certainly, these costs run into many hundreds of millions of pounds already, and money that has primarily have been spent in trying to bully and humiliate sick and disabled people back into employment. We should remind ourselves that Atos Healthcare, the firm that was originally responsible for testing disabled benefit claims in "fitness for work" tests, were said to have had a £500 million contract with the government for this work.
Forcing people who are sick or disabled back into employment has already had disastrous consequences for many. As the Government's welfare reduction drive truly kicked in, between January 2011 and November 2011, 10,600 deaths were recorded within six weeks of a claimant coming off incapacity benefit. Although we don't know the actual number of claimants who died while an appeal process was in progress. However, certainly many hundreds of thousands of appeals were ongoing at that moment in time, the majority of which were later upheld in favor of the claimant.
Wages for those at the bottom end of the labor market have been steadily falling in real terms for many years. Additionally, the types of jobs that are being created at the moment within the UK are predominantly precarious, part-time and poorly paid jobs. This is witnessed by the numbers of people who are experiencing in-work poverty, and according to the charity Oxfam, there are now over 13 million people in the UK who do not have enough to live on each week. Currently, half the total population of the UK claim 'benefits' of some kind or another, therefore being on benefits does not mean that people are 'well off', working or otherwise.
Forcing people off benefits in order to get claimants to take up low paid work, is not only a heavy handed ideological attempt to underpin the 'work ethic', but completely ignores both the personal health circumstances that people may have, and also the effort that people actually put in to find work - and are often rejected by employers through no fault of their own.
In addition, research undertaken by a top British University in 2013, indicated that Government attempts to reduce the welfare budget could actually have a negative effect on the economy by as much as £30.4 billion a year. And earlier this year, the Welsh government duly complained that about £930m is being currently lost to the Welsh economy every year because of current welfare reforms. A negative effect on the economy that will surely also impact upon Scotland.
This may in fact bring us much closer to the reason why mainstream media within the UK and The opposition Labor party, may have kept largely 'quiet' about the UK playing fast and loose with UN human rights conventions. The proverbial saying 'Silence is golden' springs to mind, a saying that is used in certain circumstances where saying nothing is the most preferred option. Yes, silence may be golden, but silence can also speak volumes.
Firstly, the British Labor party has broadly condoned the current welfare reforms going on within the UK today, and have even publicly stated that any future Labor Government will not undo them. So, if any embarrassment is felt by the Government over potential UN human rights investigations over the consequences of welfare reform, this embarrassment will also surely be felt by the main opposition party too.
Secondly, despite the comments of the two Conservative MP's highlighted above, the UN is largely respected by the British Government, and the British Government actually depend upon UN support and intervention in helping to protect British interests abroad. However, the power of the UN is limited, and will not on its own be able to force any UK Government to change tack on welfare policy. Nevertheless, it will certainly look bad for any Government to ignore an UN investigation and its recommendations, and it's an embarrassment that may hang over British parliament for many years to come. We as a nation cannot criticize any other country for human rights violations, when we are actually seen to commit them at home, ourselves. It is also an embarrassment that may have consequences much closer to home, and much sooner than we think.
There are all sorts of rumors flying around at the moment about why there is a general reluctance from the mainstream media within the UK, and also the British Labor party, in commenting upon the UK's apparent violation of the UNCRPD treaty. Has the current Government somehow silenced and suppressed our supposedly free press, and the main oppression party too? Well yes, the rumors say - but not in a way I expected.
On Thursday 18th September 2014 there will be a referendum on independence for Scotland, it's an important vote for the future of the UK. There is a suggestion that Government was initially confident that this vote would go in favor of Scotland staying part of the United Kingdom. However, in recent weeks, this confidence has been rocked by a number of polls that suggest that vote may indeed be much closer than expected, and may even go down to the 'wire'.
Many of the arguments put forward by those in favor of independence have focused on the incapacity of the British Government to make decisions that are in the Scottish national interest, including decisions upon social policy, taxation, employment, health and welfare. The arguments are that the general public in Scotland, the sick, the poor and the disabled will be much better off in an independent Scotland, where Scottish parliament will have more control over the decisions that affect them the most.
Therefore, rumors have it that the both the Government and the opposition Labor party are so desperate not to have any further bad 'news' bandied about welfare reform (and bad news that may actually tip the independence vote into the 'yes' camp), that until after 18th September, the national media within the UK have been politely and quietly asked to 'sit' on any story associated with any potential violation of the UNCRPD treaty. Not surprising, since both 'right' and 'left' wings of the British media have much to gain by not rocking the 'independence' boat for their prospective political parties, they have duly complied with this request.
This 'rumor' gained extra momentum last week after the Prime Minister's authority received a damaging blow in Parliament itself, when a Liberal Democrat bill aimed at modifying the controversial 'bedroom tax' was voted through to the next stage in Parliament - after 70 Conservative MP's stayed away and refused to vote with the Government. An unprecedented move in British political history, which is said to indicate that many of our politicians are indeed feeling jittery at the moment, and not only because of recent UN scrutiny over British welfare reform - particularly the dreaded 'bedroom tax' itself.
Certainly, Government welfare reform has hit Scotland hard, and any damaging effects that may also impact upon its economy, will also make an 'independence' vote appear highly attractive to the Scottish voter. No surprise then, that our political leaders and their media associates are feeling quite nervous now - and rightly and deservingly so.