Official figures show a 99% decline in legal aid awards to disabled people to fighting benefits disputes since 2011. The number of disabled people granted legal aid in welfare cases has nose-dived from 29,801 in 2011-12 to just 308 in 2016-17. This is due to the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which cut over £350m from the legal aid budget and abolished the right to legal representation in many circumstances including clinical negligence, immigration, employment and housing; all as Austerity cuts hit us in precisely these areas. What a cynical move, shackling the mechanisms to challenge the Austerity ideology.
Kamran Mallick, chief executive officer of the charity Disability Rights UK, said: “The government was warned changes to access to legal aid would fall heavily on disabled people who need legal advice, and these figures show those concerns were real…Access to justice is a fundamental human right as well as a sign of a civilised society. We’d urge the government to reverse the changes that are hitting disabled people so heavily.”
The Observer reports that Gill Coddington, a benefits expert working at Scope’s helpline, said that of about 23,000 calls to the helpline every year, about 65% related to issues to do with benefits. She said the cuts to legal aid meant that now only a tiny number received help.
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who has nystagmus and is registered as blind, said “Thousands of disabled people are being denied access to justice. When over two-thirds of social security appeals are lost by the Department for Work and Pensions, it is crucial the government adequately funds legal aid to ensure disabled people can have access to justice.”
Since 2010, cuts to welfare, health and social care services, the legal system and local authority funding have derailed decades of progress in the disability rights movement.
In June 2017, in Geneva, a UK delegation faced questioning by a UN committee based on 2,000 pages of evidence gathered during its inquiry into human rights abuses against disabled people in the UK. The Government’s response? They fronted it out. They assumed an air of indignant defiance admitting neither shortcomings nor wrongdoing. They said, things are better for disabled folks in the UK than in some other countries, so why are you looking at us?
So, Westminster no longer considers the U.N to be a credible assessor of human rights and is not too bothered if we are in fact violating the rights of disabled citizens, because we would have had them more violated in some other countries.
The UN investigation also reveals that the UK government increasingly ignoring existing UK legislation. For example, it is obliged by law to carry out impact assessments and gather necessary statistics, to inform them about heavy impacts their policies may have for effected groups. But the Government, our Tories, were unable to accommodate UN requests for data, demonstrating that it is in breach of this public sector equality duty. Disability Rights UK said,: “Many of the Government’s answers have a tone of complacency at best and high-handed evasion at worst. The Government produced no evidence or detail to show how it is supporting people to lead independent lives; something it committed to when it ratified the convention in 2009. The Government document also makes grand claims about the impact of the Equality Act and the Care Act that simply don’t reflect the everyday experiences of disabled people in the UK.”
The UN report contains 60 recommendations for improvements, but the UN has no enforcement power and the UK government so far made it clear it is not concerned about the findings of the report, much less committed to implementing the changes. But it is no reason to give up hope for a turnaround. As the Windrush scandal has recently demonstrated; the media can still exert massive pressure on the Government, and the British public still have their red lines.