I don’t get out much these days, the Westminster bubble keeps us well institutionalised! A bit of a paradox for someone who has battled to raze institutions to the ground!
This paper explores disability, equality and human rights: Survival and Sustainability, I’m going to keep my contribution to looking at the Equality Act – its effectiveness and sustainability for disabled people’s rights.
Before I begin, let’s take a quick glance at where disabled people’s equality and rights is currently sitting in the sociopolitical conscience.
Reflecting upon the Rio Paralympics, it’s worth remembering the extraordinary success, of the London Paralympics, in terms of inclusion and national promotion. In spite of Rio’s shambolic approach to Paralympian sport, team GB still shone. Disabled peoples’ remarkable sporting success in 2012 and 2016, was no accident. When our Government and others put their minds to progressing disability equality, we can be world leaders.
For a short while during both games, disabled people were seen as active, successful citizens. A stark contrast to our general stereotype as unfortunate people who require expensive, special support – a problem to be solved by experts – hardly a rights approach, where the primary focus should be progressing a new agenda of disability investment and innovation to tear down age-old barriers.
So, what’s to be done? A House of Lords Select Committee looked at the effectiveness of the Equality Act on reducing disability discrimination in 2017. I was on the review committee. We took evidence from a range of witnesses from government, lawyers, disabled people and their organisations, and private/public services.
Our final report proposed 55 recommendations. They were workable, low-cost legislative and practical changes that would greatly enhance equality for disabled people, to participate in work, social and family life.
The Government agreed to implement one Recommendation in full – to finally enact section 165 of the Equality Act, requiring taxis to carry wheelchair users without extra charge.
Sadly, the right to travel, did not set the tone for the rest of their response. Instead Govt merely proposed employers and service providers become more disability confident. There is much reference to reviews, consultation and “round-tables”. My take on “round-tables” – is they do indeed, go round in circles.
The entire exercise reminded me of, Sir Humphrey Appleby, from BBC’s Yes Minister. The government had a number of techniques for avoiding action over practically anything. One was to establish an “inter-departmental committee”. It could sit for years ensuring that while there was plenty of talk, there was most certainly no action.
In short the government has responded with a general impression that equality and rights of disabled people is a “tough nut to crack; that “employers and service providers mustn’t be burdened by central regulation as it won’t change hearts and minds” – an exhausted cliché that has dogged disabled people’s lives for decades.
Disabled people in Britain deserve more. The review committee report clearly demonstrated that the government approach simply doesn’t inspire change. All the evidence over the years of antidiscrimination legislation implementation, shows that without clear and decisive enforcement, we cannot win “hearts and minds”. One of the first formidable disabled campaigners for civil rights legislation, Mike Oliver, argued in the 1970s – “I don’t care what people think about me. I am concerned about how people behave towards me. Laws regulate behaviour.”
Let me turn to some our specific proposals. The review committee recommended that the Equality Advisory and Support Service (‘EASS’) be restored to the EHRC. When the helpline was run by the Disability Rights Commission, calls were handled by disability experts and the content informed our legal strategy, guiding our test case work.
Instead, in their wisdom the helpline contract has been outsourced to a private sector provider G4S! Hardly known for its sensitivity and understanding of vulnerable adults!
The equality helpline is even more critical now that access to justice through the courts is all but impossible, due to tribunal fees, severely reduced legal aid, and ‘Red Tape’ procedural changes.
Therefore It’s deeply disturbing that the Government has rejected all the Committee’s law enforcement Recommendations. For example all the Review Committee changes to the costs rules, restoring tribunals’ power to make wider recommendations, and allowing charities to bring class actions. Disabled People’s access to justice is now a profound worry.
Our recommendations did not just require the Government to legislate or instruct through guidance. One thing that struck us from the witnesses’ evidence, was the sad decline of local authority partnerships and coproduction when planning services or developing local projects.
Since the Disability Equality Duty (the tool which helped public services ensure disabled people’s inclusion was factored in), was replaced by the general public sector equality duty, rights of access to services and environments has been put on the backburner.
At one time Public authorities would have had to make a disability equality action plan and involve disabled people, collect and publish data, and report on progress.
We suggested that disability equality plans should be reintroduced. Keen not to interfere in local matters in the name of localism and cutting red tape, the most the Government offered was another review. Sir Humphrey rises again!
I am an avid promoter of coproduction when it comes to progressing disability equality and rights. Having enjoyed very constructive partnerships with Local Authorities when we developed Social Care Direct Payments back in the 90s, I know it can work. But it requires all sectors to engage in realistic trading zones with disabled people where each other’s skills, experience and knowledge are heard and respected, with joint decision-making an ultimate goal. The Disability Equality Duty andPlans provide a legally binding environment, but at the same time promote a culture of genuine partnership. It is Carrot and stick that makes equality sustainability possible.
Another area that the Committee was made aware of in terms of the disability equality downturn, was the question of a generic versus specific equality enforcement commission. The majority of witnesses complained that in nine years, the EHRC had achieved half of what its predecessor body the DRC had done in just 6 years.
The evidence received does suggest the broader equality remit was not effectively combating disability discrimination. Obviously the reduced funding of the EHRC is partly to blame. However, is it too early to integrate disability equality? Do we understand the multiple causes?
To address this our Committee recommended the EHRC Disability Committee be retained when its statutory role comes to an end this year, to maintain a specific disability equality watching brief.
Eradicating inequality doesn’t mean treating all groups in society the same. Equality for disabled people often means treating people differently. The primary barrier to Disabled People’s social inclusion, arises from architectural and environmental barriers, which are not the same for other protected groups.
The demise of the DRC disability focus has undoubtedly put disability equality in the slow lane because the broader remit has simply become too broad to accommodate the specificity of disability discrimination.
In her first speech on taking office, Teresa May promised to fight for ordinary Britons and combat the “burning injustice” in society. She crystallised that intent by announcing an equality audit of public services, starting with a review into how ethnic minorities and white working class people are treated by public services.
This generic approach will forget us. Disabled people form part of the black and working class population and face dual discrimination. Therefore, we all need to call for disabled people to be incorporated into the review.
In fact, I and the Committee believe the Prime Minister should accept the report as a detailed disability equality audit on public services – done and dusted. The recommendations are ready – all she needs to do is act upon them. Jumpstart disability equality and rights in the UK! Take a lead.
It was the 21st birthday of the Disability Discrimination Act in 2017. However, instead of disability equality in the United Kingdom coming of age, it is regressing. Its survival and sustainability is down to all of us.
It really is time – as Sir Humphrey most certainly would never have advised – “stop talking about it, and decisively act.