Disability rights are human rights – and why this matters on Human Rights Day 2019

Colourful stick figures in front of a colourful world map

The phrase “disability and human rights” remains common. Its continued use indicates there is still a lack of recognition that the rights disabled people have are fundamentally rights we have as human beings. Equally, many pan-human rights narratives and projects still often largely neglect to give sufficient attention to the complex and multiple issues that still affect disabled people’s lives in the UK today.

Yet human rights have been at the forefront of the agenda in the UK, particularly during the last 18 months amid Brexit related debates. It is encouraging that human rights issues have made their way into critical discussions at strategic level in political policy development. It has, however, not gone unnoticed that human rights being present on such agendas has been, for the most part, due to human rights committees and bodies pushing this topic into mainstream debates from ‘outside’ of where political decisions are made. As an example, it was the Joint Committee on Human Rights that pushed the topic of ensuring human rights are maintained when the UK Government makes international agreements during and after Brexit into the forefront of Brexit related debates. Similarly, it was the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur who visited the UK to undertake an inquiry of poverty and human rights to ensure the Government paid attention to how well human rights were being monitored as poverty develops in the UK. On each occasion, the conversation did not come from the centre of Government; it came from groups on the periphery of Government.

There is good news and bad news here. On the one hand, it is evidence that political debates and challenge, via the groups surrounding Parliament and Government, has an effective voice that is, for the most part, heard and responded to. On the other hand, it is disappointing that maintaining human (including disability) rights does not always feature as embedded, ‘automatic’, and mandatory topic of consideration during policy development at the most strategic level of Government.

Business Disability Forum wants this to change. This is why we responded to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR)’s call for written evidence on human rights in international agreements post-Brexit at the beginning of this year (January 2019). We made some recommendations to the Committee, and we were thrilled to see the Committee deliver such a thorough report which reflected many of our concerns, mainly:

  • To ensure disabled people’s rights are specifically included and recognised as human rights;
  • That the agreements we make with international bodies must reflect the UK’s own equalities and human rights legislative standards;
  • To ensure continued compliance with human (including disability) rights is reviewed throughout the delivery lifecycle of an agreement;
  • To make human rights equality analyses part of international agreement sign off processes; and
  • For the JCHR and Parliament to be part of that analysis scrutiny process.

If agreed by the next government, the impact of the last two points would be huge. Making a strategic human (including disability) rights equality analysis part of the process of international agreement making will ensure accessibility, disability equality, and human rights are considered as a mandatory part of the UK’s international agreement process. It will mean that accessibility and the rights of disabled people will be central to decision making to ensure any agreement the UK makes will not adversely impact on disabled people’s lives.
Following the publication of the JCHR’s final inquiry report, we were pleased to see Harriet Harman MP (Chair of the JCHR) say:

“The UK Government must not become the weak link for human rights when making international agreements as we prepare to leave the European Union. Human Rights should not be an ‘add-on’ to any international trade agreement or treaty, but be embedded from the outset, drawing from the right expertise to ensure the highest standards”.

They are excellent words to leave with us on Human Rights Day, and we hope (and will monitor) the next Government will ensure these words are made a reality. Importantly though, this is evidence that by contributing our expertise and evidence gathered from our networks and member businesses, we have influence that makes an impact, and has the potential to change processes at the most strategic level of Government that affect people’s lives.

Therefore, with an election looming this week, Business Disability Forum would like to say thank you to our members and networks of disabled people who have contributed to our human rights policy work this year. In doing so, these businesses #StandUp4HumanRights and we continue to believe that this matters – and makes a difference.

Happy #HumanRightsDay.

 

Poverty and disability in the UK: the potential impact of Brexit

Rain

By Diane Lightfoot, Chief Executive Officer, Business Disability Forum

In my third and final blog in our series on poverty and disability in the UK, I look at the very topical issue of Brexit and its potential impact.

I have written these blogs to coincide with the UN Rapporteur on Extreme poverty and Human rights’ current visit to the UK. The implications of Brexit on poverty is a key issue that the rapporteur has been considering during his two-week long visit. Business Disability Forum was one of the organisations asked to submit evidence on this and other issues affecting income levels of disabled people to Philip Alston ahead of the trip.

At the time of publishing, the Brexit negotiations seem to be in ever more turmoil. Given this, and how much is at stake, we questioned our timing for this blog, but felt that whilst the bigger picture remains deeply uncertain, it’s vital that we continue to represent the rights of disabled people and ensure that they do not become a casualty of this uncertainty.

It should also be noted that our concerns over Brexit, expressed here, do not relate to the decision to leave the European Union. On this we remain neutral. Instead it is the unintended consequences of the mechanisms being used as part of the Brexit process which have and continue to concern us and many other disability and human rights groups.

Here is what we said.

 

The impact of Brexit legislation on accessibility

Research undertaken by Business Disability Forum in February 2018 showed 39 per cent of businesses feel there would be no change to disability related legislation post-Brexit, and 47 per cent did not feel Brexit would have any impact on disabled people’s opportunities[1].

We are concerned, however, that this may well not be the case should the Trade Bill 2017-19 (currently, at time of writing, at the House of Lords Committee stage) complete its journey through parliament without the addition of significant safeguards.

As it stands, the Bill currently allows ministers to change a wide range of laws without Parliamentary scrutiny in order to implement international trade agreements. One of the Acts affected by this is the Equality Act 2010, which secures many rights for disabled people.

Without safeguards added, the Trade Bill will, for example, permit specific aspects of the Equality Act 2010 to be immediately suspended should accessibility requirements make doing trade deals difficult. In effect, it could allow accessibility for disabled people to become an optional, disposable element of any contract the UK enters into if it would further trade. Such wide ranging powers to change primary legislation by the Executive and without Parliamentary scrutiny is unprecedented and hugely concerning. The current Government has provided assurances that protections enshrined in law for over twenty years will be protected but we cannot be sure that such assurances will be respected by any future Government. Rights this important must be protected by our democratic processes and any changes scrutinised by elected representatives of the people including disabled people.

 

Wider context

Why are we highlighting such a seemingly technical point such as the potential effect on vehicle accessibility regulations of the Trade Bill in the midst of all the many difficult aspects of the Brexit negotiations? Trade is of course vital to the future prosperity of the UK and we are not suggesting that the country’s ability to enter into good trade deals should in any way be hampered. What we are saying is that no agreement post Brexit or at any time should be at the expense of the rights of some of the most disadvantaged people in our country. The UK has been a leader in protecting the rights of disabled people and now is not the time to allow any roll back on that leadership role or to allow anyone else to do so in the future.

The Trade Bill is completing its passage through parliament, at a time when UK-wide scrutiny into disabled people’s experiences of public transport has found that disabled people are already greatly disadvantaged by the standard of public transport in the UK. Since 2013, Select Committees and All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) in the UK[2] have looked at the competence of transport to meet the needs of people with disabilities in the UK. In addition, the Department for Transport also led a major consultation on accessible transport this year, which led to the publication of the UK’s ‘Inclusive Transport Strategy: Achieving Equal Access for Disabled People’ in August.

 

The effect of inaccessible transport on employment and poverty

 The Government recognised the barrier that inaccessible transport represents to disabled people getting and staying in work, in its ‘Improving Lives: The Future of Work, Health and Disability’ strategy[3].

Feedback from Business Disability Forum members and partners shows that workplace adjustments related to transport (for example, travelling to work, and travelling to meetings, or between ever-growing ‘multi-sited’ workplaces) are some of the most commonly requested adjustments we see employers making for employees, due to them experiencing difficulties with inaccessible or a lack or inclusive travel. These are matters we are trying to address through our current Going Places campaign.

We have also seen an increased number of calls to our Advice Service since Access to Work, the UK Government’s scheme for providing funding support to businesses to help cover the cost of adjustments, decreased funding available to cover transport-related support for disabled employees. In these cases, employees have had to have some of their work duties reallocated to another employee, change roles completely, or even reduce their hours.

 

Social isolation

But it is not only access to employment opportunities which is affected by the availability of accessible transport, but social inclusion generally. Without suitable transport on offer, disabled people are at greater risk of social isolation as they become cut off from vital networks and community and healthcare services.

They are also less able to access shops and businesses, which in turn has a knock-on effect on the economy.

 

Making accessibility a priority

The UN rapporteur is set to conclude his visit today. As he issues his interim findings, we hope that issues such as accessible transport and its implications for the life chances of disabled people are acknowledged and addressed, and legislation such as the Trade Bill, reviewed.

Disabled people are at far greater risk of poverty than non-disabled people, due to the factors covered in this series of blogs. This visit has enabled us to raise awareness of these issues. Let’s hope that the rapporteur’s final report, due next year, will offer some solid recommendations which lead to positive change.

 

 

[1] See https://businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/media-centre/news/press-release-businesses-unprepared-for-threats-to-disability-rights-post-brexit-survey-finds/ [Accessed 10 September].

[2] For example, the Transport Committee (2013-2014); Young Disabled People’s APPG (20152-16); APPG on Disability (2018).

[3] Published by the Department for Work and Pensions (2017).