At the time of writing this blog, rumour is circulating on the internet that the UK government has become the first country to face a high-level inquiry by a United Nations committee, as a result of human rights violations concerning the disabled. These investigations are normally conducted confidentially, so the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which is carrying out the inquiry, have refused to confirm or deny that the UK is being investigated. However, a former CRPD member is reported to have given indication at a recent international law conference in June, of an investigation duly taking place.
If this is true, these investigations add to human rights concerns raised by a 138 page report released by ‘Just Fair’ on 6th July 2014 called ‘Dignity and Opportunity for All: Securing the rights of disabled people in the austerity era’, with findings that the UK government may indeed be in breach of its legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of disabled people. These breaches of human rights fall primarily upon recent Government welfare changes, particularly to housing benefit and the introduction of PIP, which have been argued to be detrimental to independent living.
There have also been a number of suicides of both physically and mentally disabled people, reported by the coroner to have been motivated primarily by those persons’ concern and worries over PIP reassessments, or after having had their welfare benefits withdrawn. Whether the underlying cause of these suicides would also come under any UN investigation is open to debate. However, these suicides may not have occurred without the government’s heavy handed, ideological drive aimed purely at eradicating the ‘something for nothing culture’. A culture that may not actually exist, except in the minds of politicians.
Certainly, you would not see any politician rushing to swop their healthy salaries and perks in return for a life on ‘benefits’, a life that isn’t as nice and cushy as some people would have us believe – a fact indicated by the often higher rates of illness and mortality amongst those people who are trapped within the ‘poverty’ of welfare.
The ‘benefit culture’ argument is something that has been around for a long time, and one that has often been largely exposed as a myth, particularly by independent organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. However, it may be a tactic designed to cynically exploit people’s fears about the social world, and particularly fears over those social groups that have historically been feared, marginalised, exploited or oppressed within UK history. The phrase ‘divide’ and ‘rule’ springs to mind – if the UK public are fighting each other, then they are less likely to be fighting our glorious leaders and their dodgy practices.
It must be particularly troubling for the government if they are indeed under UN scrutiny, a government that consistently plays the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ card in relation to the actions and motives of other countries, but where persistent and continuing concerns about human rights abuses of the disabled have been raised within the UK itself for quite some time – and in a supposedly moderate, civilised and tolerant nation.
Since 2010, campaign groups and also certain sections of the media have raised concerns about welfare changes and about the high numbers of disabled being inaccurately found ‘fit for work’ under the new PIP reassessment, only for the majority of these cases to be overturned by appeal some months later. An indication of a new system that is not only unfit for purpose, but is causing untold and unnecessary misery for hundreds of thousands of disabled people.
Certainly there is no ‘opportunity’ now for those disabled people who have been driven to the despair of suicide, suicide arguably motivated to some extent by the actions, ideology and rhetoric of a government obsessed with a ‘diminishing’ work ethic. However, there are many reasons why people cannot work or find work, laziness or an over generous benefit system is not top of the list, and by a long way. Arguments of a diminishing work ethic are the arguments of people who have little real knowledge or experience about life on the margins of society, nor of the ‘real’ world – drawing their ‘facts’ mainly from the caricature of ‘Benefit Street’, or from a mountain of dodgy statistics.
However, my main concern here is to judge what effect recent Government changes to disability welfare, particularly the negative rhetoric that has been pushing those changes, have had upon disability hate crime within the UK (if any).
Since the start of the UK financial crisis in early 2008, disability hate crime has often been argued to be rising and in 2011, the Glasgow Media Trust reported that the general public believed that between 50 and 70 per cent of those on disability benefits were indeed frauds. They also reported at the time that there had been a huge increase in the use of words such as ‘scrounger’, ‘cheat’ and ‘skiver’ in tabloid papers stories linked to disability.
Certainly, negative government and media rhetoric surrounding welfare change has been around since the current government came to power in 2010. However, it has to be realised that disability hate crime existed long before this government came to power and will exist long after it is gone.
For example, The Crime and Disabled People report released last year by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found there were about 72,000 incidents of disability hate crime committed every year from 2007-08 to 2011-12 in England and Wales. Far higher than official government statistics have often reported. However, the report highlights that this figure has also remained pretty much constant since 2007-08, carrying with it the underlying assumption that the motivation of disability hate crime has therefore not primarily been influenced to a great extent by either negative government rhetoric or negative media reporting of ‘disability benefit fraud’.
But is this strictly true – that despite the large amount of negativity surrounding benefit fraud and disability, little of it has actually played a part in the motivation of ‘hate’?
At the moment, we don’t really know for sure. But as I said earlier, hate crime committed against the disabled has been around a lot longer than this current government, and around a lot longer than claims of widespread benefit fraud or a diminishing work ethic. Personally, while I don’t think that negative government rhetoric or negative media reporting of ‘benefit fraud’ has actually helped the situation, the motivation underlying abuse, harassment and violence committed towards the disabled, is far more complex than simply blaming government rhetoric or media rhetoric.
However, that is not to say that there has not been some degree of negative impact of government cynically playing the ‘benefit fraud’ card, nor that it has not put some disabled people at increased risk of abuse and harassment. However, whether this abuse and harassment would have occurred anyway without the ‘benefit fraud’ card being played, is also open to debate.
For example, if we analyse incidents of verbal abuse committed against physical disabilities separately from mental disabilities, we find that there may indeed have been some influence upon the type of abuse that is directed towards physical disability. From previous surveys of the type of abuse people have had committed against them, many physically disabled people have reported that the abusive language used against them has changed somewhat in recent times. In past times, the abuse centred upon the disabled being called ‘spastic’ or ‘cripple’, but in recent times those types of words are less commonly used, with ‘sponger’, ‘fraud’, ‘layabout’ or ‘cheat’ more likely to be put into practice.
So, as far as abusive language goes, people may indeed be picking up on the ‘benefit fraud’ angle to some extent, even if these attacks are just as likely to be ‘excuses’ aimed purely at having a ‘go’ at somebody with disability. If it wasn’t the accusation of ‘benefit fraud’, it would most likely be something else. Interestingly, reports indicate that mentally disabled people still get verbal abuse such as ‘spastic’ directed at them, possibly indicating that the accusation of ‘faking’ disability may be much harder to apply to mental impairment.
Whatever, the abled-bodied seem particularly obsessed with monitoring the disabled to see if they are ‘really’ disabled or just faking it. I’ve heard many stories of physically disabled people being accused of faking disability, if they are seen as being able to get out of wheelchairs unaided or happen to move their legs while sat in a wheelchair. It’s a fear of ‘faking it’ that is arguably tied to the ‘work ethic’, and an persistent fear that some social groups may not be pulling their full weight within society – or are perceived as receiving preferential treatment of some kind. Either way, it may be a fear that places strain upon social relationships within society, particularly relationships with those social groups that are already perceived to be ‘different’ in some way from the dominant majority.
So, while abuse, harassment and violence committed against disability is a complex problem, we must be careful not to compound that problem even more so, by blaming (intentionally or unintentionally) all the ills of the UK on ‘benefit fraud’ or ‘spongers’. While disability hate crime is not likely to be motivated by negative government or media rhetoric, anything negative that becomes connected to ‘disability’, certainly won’t help solve the problem of ‘hate crime’ either.
All indictor’s suggest that negative behaviour towards disabled people is still no better than it was years ago, despite repeated arguments that attitudes towards disability is improving. If attitudes are indeed improving, then why are incidents of ‘hate crime’ not decreasing? A question everybody repeatedly refuses to answer.
I recently came across a Government report called ‘‘Transformation’ in British attitudes towards disabled people since Paralympics 2012”. A DWP press release that introduces this report claims that: “Nearly 70% of the British public feel attitudes towards disabled people have improved since the London Paralympic Games in 2012, statistics published by the government reveal.”
And that: “The findings from the DWP survey are from one of the most detailed surveys of its kind and marks the second anniversary of the Paralympic Games in London”
However, as a researcher investigating disability hate crime, I analyse all data released towards attitudes and hate crime against disability. I have read the report that the press release is based upon, and the press release is actually misleading.
Firstly, the survey cannot be argued to be the most detailed of its kind as regards disability, as the figures obtained are taken only from one simple question that had only 1,890 respondents – with the vast majority of them being abled-bodied respondents. Hardly a detailed study. Yet a BBC report (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28175349) announcing this new and detailed study, built it up even more so, claiming that 10,000 people had actually taken part in this ‘new’ survey, so that the 70.7% result was truly good news, and reflective of society.
However, while the figure obtained from this rather simplistic question was indeed 70.7%, the figure obtained from disabled respondents themselves were far lower at only 56.1%. Hardly good news then, highlighting that not all disabled people feel that attitudes towards them are that positive at the moment.
That last point is indeed highlighted in the DWP report itself, where two highly comparable questions, one taken from 2013 and one from 2014, indicate that positive attitudes of the abled-bodied towards the disabled have actually decreased by nearly 8% within 12 months. The report argues that these two sets of data should not be compared, but a trained researcher can assure people that these questions may be argued to be comparable, even though the 2014 question was indeed asked in a slightly different way.
This report should therefore be seen as a hasty and ill-thought out attempt by the DWP to try to create some good news about disability. This seems to make more sense now in light of the rumours circulating about UN human rights investigations. It also makes sense of the BBC’s involvement, who seem to be disseminating information about disability from the government, without seemingly interrogating that information first. I for one will therefore be interested to hear if these rumours are indeed true.
Paul Dodenhoff is a part-time PhD student at Lancaster University Law School. He is currently developing a theoretical framework around the motivation to commit ‘hate crime’ against physical and mental impairment. He has written about disability hate crime for a number of websites, including www.disabled-world.com. He has previously conducted a number of small research projects surrounding health and safety motivation, the motivation to learn and the NHS productive ward.