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Linda Burnip the lady who sent evidence to the UN of grave violations of UK disabled human rights

Linda Burnip, founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, has initiated a UN investigation into the UK government’s ‘grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights’
After five years campaigning for disabled people’s rights in the face of austerity, it’s a wonder Linda Burnip hasn’t thrown her hands in the air and given up. When she refers to the “very long” list of policies that have, in one way or another, left disabled people worse off, it is plain that there are so many battles being fought, and new ones emerging all the time as more cuts and welfare reforms are wheeled out, it would be unsurprising if she were overwhelmed by it all.
Linda Burnip, who runs the disability rights group Disabled People Against Cuts says there was scant opposition to cuts in parliament
However Burnip, along with her fellow founders and activists at the campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) is unwavering: “People [have] said to me over the years, ‘there’s no point in bothering because you’re not going to get any change’. I’ve always felt I’d rather try than just not do anything.”
True to this stance, Burnip and her co-campaigners decided that protesting within the UK wasn’t enough. For the past three and a half years, a handful of people at DPAC have been diligently gathering and submitting evidence to the United Nations, asking it to launch an investigation on the grounds that both the previous coalition government and the new Tory administration have been responsible for “grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights”. When it was leaked at the end of August that a UN committee would indeed be investigating the UK’s treatment of disabled people (UN inquiries are usually kept confidential) DPAC confirmed that it was expected to be underway next month.
The group began pursuing an inquiry using Article 6 of the Optional Protocol within the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the beginning of 2012. In what was “a long and arduous” process, with strict rules for proof of any claims made, Burnip says DPAC presented a range of evidence including analysis of the impact of specific policies such as work capability assessment (WCA) and individual testimonies by people affected by a host of policies.
“This is the first time any country has been investigated by the UN using the Optional Protocol so it will be, if nothing else, a very historic event,” Burnip says. “Disabled people should not be the scapegoats for the financial mistakes of governments, should not be constantly told that there is no money to support them by millionaire politicians. We will not tolerate further erosion of our living conditions or our human rights, nor will we sit quietly while they try to take our rights away.”
The inquiry also requires responses from ministers to the evidence submitted. Once the committee has released its findings the government is expected to respond within six months.
For Burnip, going down the UN route was a direct result of frustration that cuts and reforms were relentlessly raining down on disabled people across the UK. “Until the coalition was elected I think things were quite positive on independent living,” she says, although she points out that some of the most controversial welfare policies – including the WCA fitness for work tests and employment support allowance were first introduced under the Labour government.
“[Prior to 2010] there was the Labour party’s independent living strategy, which wasn’t perfect but was going in the right direction. Then, when the coalition came in, everything started going backwards. It’s like 30 years of disabled people’s rights have just been lost in five and a half years,” says Burnip.
Burnip, 61, has a long history of grassroots social justice campaigning and trade union activity, spanning education, health and social care. All of it has informed her recent activism on behalf of disabled people, while personal experience (she has Crohn’s disease), and advocating on behalf of a disabled son provided “a much broader overview” of the barriers that disabled people face, she says.
DPAC was formed by a group of people with a variety of disabilities in the immediate aftermath of mass protests at the Conservative party conference in October 2010, amid warnings that the impact of austerity would be catastrophic for people with physical or mental impairments. Burnip says: “When we first got together to organise the protest march at the Tory party conference in Birmingham a lot of people accused us of scaremongering and said, ‘of course nothing bad is going to happen. Everything is going to be fine.’ But it was really obvious from what was said in the June budget of 2010 that disabled people were going to be hit really hard by the cuts.
“I think probably a lot of people just buried their heads and didn’t want to think about it,” she adds, saying that in retrospect it was as if people couldn’t grasp that the situation would become “as bad as it’s turned out to be”.
According to analysis by the Centre for Welfare Reform, disabled people have been targeted by cuts nine times more than most other citizens. It also found that people with disabilities, who make up one in 13 of the population, bore almost a third (29%) of the cuts. It was against this backdrop – with people buckling under the strain of fitness-for-work WCA tests and escalating benefit sanctions – that activists sought help beyond the UK.
Burnip says there was little choice, with scant opposition to cuts in parliament – “to be honest the frontbench of the Labour party as an opposition have been a joke”– and a rhetoric and ideology from those in power that repeatedly dismissed and vilified disabled people. She quips that she tries to avoid listening to the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, but admits there is no way to ignore him when he is so central to how policies have played out. Referring to a speech he gave in the Commons in which he called non-disabled people “normal”, sparking a hail of criticism, she wonders: “When he says things [like that] about disabled people not being normal, you do think: ‘Where’s that coming from?’”
It is unclear what the outcome of the UN inquiry will be, or indeed what, if anything, it will persuade the government to do, but Burnip is encouraged by the UN’s involvement so far. “I think they’ve been cautious about the process and how they should proceed, but certainly from the time we submitted our first report, they have taken it seriously.” At the very least, she says, it will alert others, including small campaign groups like DPAC reliant totally on volunteers, to the fact that there are avenues to challenge “regressive” government policies, says Burnip.
“The inquiry has already shown that disabled people can and must fight back. We hope that it will get international attention and be a way of publicising the relentless onslaught focused on disabled people in the UK.”

Curriculum vitae

Age 61.
Lives Warwickshire.
Family Married, two children.
Education Dame Allan’s girls school: Newcastle upon Tyne, Liverpool Polytechnic: BA Social Studies; University of Warwick: MA Comparative Labour Studies.
Career 2008-present: volunteering and other activities, currently steering group member for Disabled People Against Cuts and director of Framework Inclusion UK; 1989-2007: full-time mother and family carer; 1979-89: unqualified social worker and benefits adviser; 1977-79: market research executive, British Gas.
Interests Politics, disability rights, gardening, cooking.

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