For close to a year I chaired the Lords’ Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee. It was set up in June 2015 to examine the impact of the Equality Act on disabled persons, a group who had once enjoyed the protection of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, designed solely for them. Now all 9 “protected characteristics” (gender reassignment, race, sexual orientation, age, pregnancy, religion, marriage, sex, disability) are under the one umbrella of the Equality Act 2010 and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The committee was set up because there was a feeling that disabled persons were not getting their fair share of support in this wide agenda, and that it was not properly understood that a level playing field for disabled persons involves more than equal treatment: it may necessitate special treatment to ensure that disabled persons can play a full part in employment and in the community, and enjoy independent living as far as possible. After reading the submissions (over 800 pp) from the 144 people and organisations who wrote in to the committee, and after hearing oral evidence from 53 witnesses, we concluded that the implementation of the Equality Act had indeed failed to give disabled persons the rights they should enjoy.
We took evidence in sign language where necessary, and issued our call for evidence, and a summary of our report (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldselect/ldeqact/117/11702.htm) in “Easy Read” (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldselect/ldeqact/117/11702.htm to make sure everyone could access our conclusions. I highly recommend Easy Read, by the way, and wish more government documents could be so brilliantly summarised for instant comprehension!
There is no space here to list our 55 recommendations, but the gist of them was this. There are 11m disabled persons in the UK and the number will grow for, as we live longer, it follows that our last few years are sure to be marked by weakening eyesight, mental faculties, hearing and mobility. And any one of us might have an accident and find ourselves temporarily without the use of an arm or leg. So the needs of disabled persons ought not to be treated as a minority interest, but as an issue of access in every sense of the word, available to everyone, whether disabled at birth, later on, by age or by accident. Therefore we need to think in advance about the needs of disabled people, rather than being thoughtless or reacting when it is too late. The committee discovered that originally 7 of the new Crossrail stations were going to be left without step-free access! We recommended that when Government and public authorities plan their policies, they should actively take into account the impact on disabled persons and ensure as far as possible that this is positive. We want the Minister for Disabled People to be a member of the Cabinet’s Social Justice Committee so that he or she can champion the position of disabled persons whenever policies are proposed that might affect them.
We discovered, to our amazement, that for 20 years statute had decreed that wheelchairs must be carried in taxis, but that the government had failed to bring the provisions into force. (Since publication of our report, they have said they will do so by the end of the year – why so long?) In evidence we heard too many accounts of how taxis would ignore would-be passengers with wheelchairs or guidedogs, when taxis are the most important form of transport for many disabled people. We realised that local authorities might be able to use their licensing powers to enforce compliance with the Equality Act when licensing taxi drivers, and likewise by refusing to renew licences of restaurants, pubs and clubs which do not do all that they reasonably can to ensure access for disabled customers. We heard how sports stadia make it difficult for disabled fans to view games and sit with the home fans, albeit that the Premier League teams have now promised to do so.
We realised that the recent cuts to legal aid and the hike in tribunal fees make it even harder for disabled people to enforce their rights in court – and what use are rights if they cannot be enforced? We proposed facilitating group action, reducing the costs burden and extending conciliation procedures. In its drive to reduce “Red Tape” burdens on business, the government has overlooked the resulting transfer of burdens onto the disabled people who are users of services and consumers. We heard how interaction with government services is made unnecessarily difficult for disabled persons because for example telephone calls are made to those who have difficulty in hearing, and online forms vanish if not filled in very quickly (we all know that, whether we are disabled persons or not!).
We tried to be practical in our recommendations. It is not sensible to suggest removing disabled persons’ rights from the Equality Act into a separate Act, but we want to be sure that their share of it is enhanced. Our recommendations are tailored to fit the age of austerity – they are achievable with little or no cost to the taxpayer and with minimal amendments to legislation. What is vital now is to ensure that that the government carries out those recommendations, and we were glad to know that the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee will continue with their similar mission.
Three members of our committee are disabled persons and I was impressed by their energetic dedication to the rights of all disabled persons. And I was moved and inspired by listening to the many disabled witnesses who appeared before us and gave graphic descriptions of the lack of equality in their everyday lives. I knew little about the topic when I started, but it has been an experience I will never forget, a lesson in how the House of Lords can spend time on important subjects and make a difference. My aim now is see those recommendations implemented.