Fears about the future of disability rights have continued to be raised in light of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s plan to disband its statutory body, the Disability Committee.
The proposal to replace the statutory body with an advisory one with no legal powers to make decisions on disability-related matters, follows an independent review carried out by disabled activist and former member of the Disability Rights Committee, Agnes Fletcher. The review recommended retaining the statutory status of the Disability Committee for another four years. Retaining its status, according to Fletcher, would have provided disabled people with the confidence that rights were being safeguarded at the highest level.
The minister for disabled people, Esther McVey suggested to Disability Now last week that the Disability Committee lacked teeth.
But Mike Smith who was the committee’s Chair until December 2012, told Disability Now that he disagreed and that he suspected the future of the Disability Committee had been decided before Fletcher’s review.
He said that it was the environment the Disability Committee had been operating in which had constrained it.
“The Equality Act 2006, which set up the committee gave it quite far-reaching powers so it certainly doesn’t lack teeth. What it may have lacked is the full support of the whole commission, which meant that it wasn’t able to do as much as it wanted to. I think in the very early days of the commission, there was a strong focus from the commission on not doing single quality strand work but instead stuff that could apply to groups of people. This restricted the Disability Committee in what it was able or allowed to do. There was a fear that if we had communicated more with disability stakeholders, other strands would have asked for the same. In later years, with down-sizing we were told that there were fewer resources available. It wasn’t for lack of trying.”
He added: “An advisory body may well have good influence and it may reach out further, but it does have to be said that there were times in the past when the Disability Committee over-ruled the decisions of commission staff on really important cases. Like RBS against Allen [relating to RBS’s legal obligation to provide wheelchair access to its banks] and the Cordell case [relating to central government failing to meet the support needs of a deaf employee]. Initially, the commission staff didn’t perceive the strategic importance of those cases and it was the Disability Committee and me as disability commissioner who were able to drive through the change in the response to that. It is questionable whether an advisory committee could have the same influence without the backup of those statutory powers.”
A current member of the Disability Committee, who did not want to be named, said that a new advisory body would be ignored by the commission.
The committee member said: “The Disability Committee was the last vestige of the regulatory aspect of the EHRC which is gradually being turned into a let’s-trust-everybody-to-do-the-right-thing body, which is all very well if organisations could be trusted to do the right thing. In my opinion they can’t be, which is why the EHRC is there.”
Asked what the EHRC’s motives in abolishing the Disability Committee might be, the committee member said: “I suspect that the commission thinks that every commissioner should be looking at all strands equally. In fact disability can be distinctly different in that you can treat everybody equally but if you don’t remove the barriers that stop people being equal… It’s not about how you feel about somebody but whether they can get on a bus for instance.”
Fletcher said that she was disappointed with the EHRC’s stance and added: “I welcome the Commission’s commitment to continue to have a group of high-level experts on disability to help steer its work in this crucial area. But to be meaningful the Commission must guarantee that there will be sufficient money and people for the next three to four years to enable a suitably strategic input into the Commission’s decision-making process. The Commission’s CEO (or deputy) will need to be responsible for ensuring the non-statutory committee’s work is given equal strategic prominence throughout the Commission’s work plan. There should be a transparent process for recruiting disabled people to any replacement body and sufficient resource and commitment should be given to direct, face to face engagement with disabled people’s organisations around Britain.”