What does the Queen’s Speech promise for disabled people?

Yesterday (19 December 2019), the Queen addressed Parliament to deliver her 2019 speech. Angela Matthews, our Head of Policy, looks at the disability and business-related elements of what she promises her Government will deliver

Houses of Parliament

Leaving the EU and trade agreements

Leaving the European Union (EU) on 31 January is a priority. After this date, global trade agreements will commence. Business Disability Forum has worked hard to provide evidence for why the Government must expand its international trade agreement procedures to ensure the impact on accessibility and disability inclusion is not forgotten or disregarded during such decisions. The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has recommended such to Parliament (Business Disability Forum made this recommendation during the Committee’s call for written evidence on the issue earlier this year). Our policy team will be monitoring how far this recommendation becomes a reality embedded into the heart of the Government trade agreement decision-making processes. The Queen promised in her speech that the “integrity and prosperity of the United Kingdom is of the utmost importance to my Government”. Developing more equality-conscious procedures in our global economic decision-making is a great, hugely impactful way for the Government to live up to this.

The NHS

The Queen also promises that the Government will “deliver on the people’s priorities”. The topic that follows is, of course, the NHS. The NHS is crucial to supporting and maintaining our everyday general health; but for very many employees, is it the system that supports their condition so that that can stay in work. As the Improving lives strategy brings the health and work settings ever closer together, never has it been clearer that for many, many employees, the NHS is a huge part of their lives that they rely on (for example ongoing treatment and rehabilitation which allows them to be well as they stay in and develop at work). For this reason alone (and many others), there will be a ‘sigh of relief’ that hospital charges will be removed “for those in greatest need”. Who those in “greatest need” are, we are yet to see. Many carers and people receiving treatment often need to be parked at hospitals for a day at a time as visits and treatment cycles and appointments can be lengthy. The financial impact of just parking in the place someone needs to be for their or someone else’s disability or condition can be immense.

Working life

“Measures will be brought forward to encourage flexible working” will be welcomed by many. Our policy and advice teams still see that one of the top three adjustments employees with disabilities and long-term conditions say helps them stay employed is their employer’s flexible working culture. For this reason (and others), we have seen many more of our membership organisations revise their flexible working policy for all staff, and for flexible working to be introduced into workplace adjustment policies. Alongside this, the Queen also reminds us that there will be new measures to allow greater leave entitlement to unpaid carers, who are the somewhat ‘silent backbone’ supporting the social care system at present. Without supportive carer policies, we hear of employees with caring responsibilities often care for a relative, partner or neighbour, which can have an impact on their own physical and mental energy levels, and while coming into work and trying to be productive. Measures to support the millions of unpaid carers in our economy are not just welcome, but crucial.

Education

We are promised that “every child has access to high quality education”. The promise of increased skills development and better education opportunities was a feature of many pre-election manifestos. We cannot emphasise enough that “high quality” must necessarily include accessible and inclusive (a topic we asked for action on in our recent manifesto), which many learning formats, programmes and qualification structures are currently not. And this must include people with disabilities at all ages. We know that not everyone is ready for (or wants to be) learning and taking part in non-mandatory education at the same age and time as everyone else (sometimes for disability-related reasons) and an inclusive society needs to ensure that learning and development opportunities are available to people when they choose.

A new Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission

The Queen announced that a “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission” will be established which we heard would “undertake a review of every aspect of the post-Brexit constitutional settlement”. We wait to hear the specific terms of reference for this Commission and trust that the Commission does not just “promote human rights” but enhances and enforces them.

For more policy news go to businessdisabilityforum.org.uk/policy

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.