Harald Hauben and Michael Coucheir were both part of the research team for the study entitled “Assessing the impact of European Governments’ austerity plans on the rights of people with disabilities”. Both of them are lawyers specialized in issues concerning social security and social inclusion in Europe and accession countries.
Hello Harald, hello Michael. In 2012, the study on the impact of austerity on the rights of people with disabilities was launched. You both were part of the research team, how did you get involved in this?
In late 2011, the EFC (the European Foundation Centre) launched a public call for proposals to conduct a study aiming at assessing the impact of the crisis on the lives of people with disabilities. A consortium composed of Bernard Brunhes International (BBI, France) and the European Platform for Rehabilitation (EPR) obtained the contract. Both of us were at the time working at BBI, an independent consultancy specializing in research and technical assistance in European social affairs. A team of five researchers – including ourselves – focused on the European and comparative dimension of the study while national researchers worked on the six country reports that were selected: Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the U.K.
Since the beginning of the crisis ENIL has been receiving an increasing amount of alarming messages from disabled people that they were hit hard by certain austerity measures. Does the study confirm this?
At the time that the study was conducted, four years had passed since the start of the economic crisis in 2008. The study confirms that the crisis itself had impacted on the lives of people with disabilities through rising poverty levels, which affect people with disabilities significantly more than the general population. In regard to the employment situation we noted that in some Member States people with disabilities were particularly hard hit such as in Ireland where employment rates for people with disabilities fell by 10% in comparison with a 4% decrease for the general workforce. But the finding that people with disabilities were worse hit by growing unemployment than the general workforce did not hold true for all Member States. In Spain for instance massive unemployment appears to have affected the entire population, especially youngsters, and not specifically people with disabilities.
However, we should not forget that the activity rates and labour market participation of people with disabilities are far below the levels of the general population in a vast majority of European countries. The activity rate of people with disabilities was around 25 % in Hungary and Spain at the start of the crisis, and the situation has undoubtedly got worse. Moreover people with disabilities’ income out of gainful employment is often significantly below the income levels of the general workforce and they are more often employed in temporary or precarious labour contracts or conditions.
The austerity measures and budgetary cuts that many governments have taken since the onset of the economic crisis certainly have had a significant adverse effect on the lives of people with disabilities. This holds particularly true for policy areas such as social care, rehabilitation services, long term (including home) care and support for independent living which appear to have been affected the most by the austerity and fiscal consolidation measures throughout Europe. Social security cash benefits, health care, employment services and mainstream education are affected as well, albeit with a greater variety among the Member States.
What is furthermore noteworthy is that apart from public budget cuts, many governments have abandoned, postponed or contained pre-crisis reform plans some of which were inspired by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD). In Portugal the introduction of a pilot project aimed at introducing personal budgets for people with disabilities was postponed but also in Ireland and Spain we noted similar trends. De-institutionalisation plans in Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary and Romania were shelved often because of financial constraints.
I suppose there are differences in Europe between the Member States? Is the impact limited to countries such as Greece and Spain where there has been a significant impact on the economy of the countries?
With the exception of the Scandinavian countries, Germany and to a lesser extent also Austria, all EU Member States have reported cuts and policy changes that have directly or indirectly impacted on the lives of people with disabilities. The extent and volume of the budgetary cuts and consequences for people with disabilities are more evident in countries that have suffered the most from the crisis such as Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal but also in countries like France, the Netherlands or the UK, to give a few examples, various policy interventions have impacted on the access to services and rights for people with disabilities.
Specifically as regards social security cash benefits for people with disabilities (invalidity pensions, disability payments, long-term care cash benefits), we see that direct cuts in benefit amounts have only been implemented in those countries that were hardest hit by the crisis, such as Greece and Ireland. However, indirect benefit reductions (e.g. non-indexation, increased contributions from benefits etc.) or stricter entitlement conditions (e.g. longer qualifying periods, limits to the consideration of non-contributory periods) were observed in a larger number of Member States. The fact remains that in some Member States, social security cash benefits and entitlements have not been affected at all. Some Member States (France, Belgium) have even seen an increase of their statutory disability payments’ amounts, based on the need to support the purchasing power of the ‘most vulnerable’ at times of economic crisis.
Can you give us some illustrative facts and figures?
EU Member States have introduced a wide range of measures. They concern interventions in several policy domains like employment, social care, health and long term care or education. Next to the introduction of drastic and far-reaching system changes, various small scale interventions were made. While the isolated effect of these interventions may be marginal, their combined impact on the lives of people with disabilities, in all its dimensions, is huge.
There are many examples of such drastic changes, including: the abolishment of independent living funds in Italy and the UK; cuts in social (care) funding with more than 25% in the UK, Ireland and Spain; the abolishment of the special education system for children with disabilities in Portugal combined with the lack of sufficiently funded services in support of mainstream schooling; cuts in financing of disability organisations in Hungary, Portugal and Spain; or the closure of numerous sheltered workshops in the UK. Moreover, new ways and mechanisms for assessing ‘disability’ (used as a criterion for access to services or payments in cash of various nature) have been introduced in Greece, Romania, Hungary, Spain and the UK leading to large re-assessments and decreasing numbers of entitlements.
But it is often the ‘smaller’ interventions like a 5% decrease in the amount of disability benefits in Ireland, the suspension of the indexation mechanism for cash benefits for people with disabilities in Bulgaria, Latvia, Hungary or Portugal, or the increased user charges for health care costs that are causing additional challenges for people with disabilities. Considering also the waiting lists for having access to cash benefits or services or the delays in payments of disability benefits (with reported cases of more than six months in Greece, Ireland or Spain), the situation becomes particularly worrisome.
In the Independent Living movement we are of course worried primarily about the effect of the crisis on the availability of personal assistance and community based services. Can you comment on that?
Personal budgets for people with disabilities have not been introduced in all Member States. In countries that have a personal budget scheme like the UK and the Netherlands, the study revealed that serious cuts in the personal budgets were introduced as part of the austerity measures (40% in the UK). In countries that have no personal budget mechanism, we also noted various forms of financial cuts that directly affected the independence and freedom of choice of people with disabilities, such as reduced financial support for assistive technology and environmental controls, transport allowances etc.
At a more general level the research revealed that there is a growing trend to more uniform and standardised services for people with disabilities, with less personalised interventions. Attempts to realise economies of scale often result in the merger of services and centres and may lead to more institutionalised forms of care. Because of the often low and/or decreasing income levels of people with disabilities who cannot afford to pay for the costs that go along with independent living, they may be pushed back into institutionalised solutions.
Your research was done in 2012. Many cuts were still in the planning phase, to be implemented later. Do you think the situation got even worse? What is to be expected for the years to come?
The study looked at the situation in 2012, at times when the impact of the crisis had not yet fully materialised. Two years down the line, many planned or new measures have been implemented across the EU. It would be worthwhile to try to map the changes that have occurred since, but the situation is not likely to have improved when it concerns the access to rights for people with disabilities, to say the least
How do you see the role of the EU and its institutions in this matter? What role do they play and what role could they play?
One of the key challenges is that there is currently no systematic collection of statistics and data on disability matters in the EU. Only 5 Member States collect statistics and have developed participation indicators in spite of the requirement of the UNCRPD. In this regard the EU institutions could play a facilitating role by supporting the 28 Member States -who ultimately have prime responsibility in social policies- to exchange and monitor data and information on disability issues in a regular and structured way.
The draft directive on non-discrimination on grounds of (among others) disability beyond the workplace is a very concrete legislative action which the EU could take further. Through other actions such as the implementation of the new ESF programme 2014-2020 and the EU programme for employment and social innovation, the EU could take concrete steps that have a direct consequence for the lives of people with disability.
That is not to say that there wasn’t any progress made at EU level since the study’s publication in 2012. In early 2014, the EU has approved revised public procurement directives, in which the possibility of contracts’ reservation to sheltered workshops was extended to economic operators whose main aim is the social and professional integration of disabled and disadvantaged workers, while the minimum required percentage of disabled or disadvantaged employees was reduced from 50 to 30%.
In ENIL we dream of user led programs for Independent Living with personal assistance funded directly by the EU. How realistic do you think this is under the current circumstances?
An EU-financed fund in support of personal budgets for people with disabilities, which is directly accessible by individuals, is in the current legislative and political context of the EU definitely a bridge too far. But it may trigger some reflection as it would imply the building of a first ever EU-wide social ‘protection’ scheme. In a fast moving Europe with an every growing inter-dependency of the 28 national economies and increasingly top-bottom steering of public spending -which are largely affecting the national social and health care expenditures- under the European Semester, it remains somehow striking to see that there are still 28 very different social systems in the EU that exist in parallel.
Through the ESF, the EU is channeling since more than 50 years funding that in principle should directly benefit those out of the labour market but it is not a mechanism that provides cash directly to individuals who can dispose of it at their own choice. The recently established Fund for European aid to the most deprived, targeting individuals by means of providing food and goods through national partner organisations, is another example where the EU has taken an important initiative in the social sphere. When reflecting further on these examples, one may think of a scheme where people with disabilities would directly be given (part of) a personal budget that they could use freely in order to promote the full enjoyment of their rights.
Thanks a lot for the interview.
Thank you for the opportunity to address your readers on these important issues