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Disability: UN Convention

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 19 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking consequent upon an agreement reached on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

My Lords, the UK played a full and positive role in the negotiations both in its national capacity and, in 2005, as president of the EU. The UK’s legislation, policies and practices are now being checked against the convention’s obligations with a view to us being in a position to sign and ratify the convention as soon as practicable.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend, and to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister for acting in total accord with his pledge, at the presentation ceremony in 10 Downing Street on 5 July 2000, to treat Rehabilitation International’s historic Charter for the New Millennium,

“with its compelling case for a UN convention, as the basis for a global consensus on priorities on disability for at least the next decade”.

Is my noble friend aware that the widespread hope now is that Britain will act quickly to ratify the convention, and perhaps even—not inappropriately—be the first to do so? Is he further aware of the need to match precept with practice and to do all we can to help the poorer countries to cope?

My Lords, my noble friend was chair of the world planning group of Rehabilitation International and I pay tribute to him for his work. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, who opened a debate in your Lordships’ House on this matter in 2000. The UK Government have always enthusiastically supported the development of a charter, a treaty, and we are checking with all government departments to ensure that current legislation is compatible with the wording of the treaty. Of course, as soon as we can sign it, we will wish to do so. As for international co-operation and help, yes, of course we wish to do everything we can to encourage other nations to ensure that the terms of the treaty are implemented.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the fact that nearer to home people with disabilities have found that the system of payment for their travel to work has been changed? There has been quite a glitch which in some cases has meant that people have been hard pushed to find the money to go to work. Is this happening only in government departments or is it a general thing? Has it come from the Minister’s department so that everyone with a disability who travels to work is affected?

My Lords, I think the noble Baroness is referring to the Access to Work programme. Perhaps I may write to her with more details. It is not exactly covered by the UN treaty, but we are very keen to help disabled people who wish to go back to work to do so. In the past nine years, the proportion of disabled people in work has risen by about 8 per cent; we are keen to see the figure increase and will do everything possible to support that.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we live in a very commercial world? Will he do something about the military services for people who become severely disabled with a long-term condition so that they too will be covered when this becomes law?

My Lords, the House has debated this matter on a number of occasions. Of course the Government wish to ensure that any soldier injured on active duty is given the best treatment possible, both short term and long term. I pay tribute to the work of Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham; I know it well, and it is doing outstanding work. Wider issues about the charter and the degree to which disability legislation applies to the Armed Forces have been well covered. The Government decided not to cover members of the Armed Forces in disability legislation because all Armed Forces personnel need to be in combat effectively to meet a worldwide liability to deploy. But in answer to the substantive question, it is very important that we provide the right services.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that if future increased funding is needed to meet the ongoing aims and objectives of this convention, it will be available, as well as future legislation?

My Lords, there are two points here. With regard to the UK, we are confident that there will not be too many problems with our own domestic legislation as it is at present in relation to the terms of the treaty. Of course, we must go through a detailed process and that is being done at the moment. That debate is better had when we have completed that work. We are very keen to move quickly and we want sign up. Of course, there are issues on which reservations may need to be expressed, but it is best for us to do the detailed work.

As for other countries, the UK’s aid programme has increased enormously and will continue to increase in the next few years. Clearly there will be elements of disability programmes in that aid programme.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to ensure that children with disabilities who are living away from home have access to advocacy services in accordance with their Article 7 right?

My Lords, that is clearly important, and I have always been a great enthusiast for advocacy services to be made available. The Government have set up the Office for Disability Issues, which is a cross-government approach to encourage independent living and ensure that disabled people receive as much support as they can. The office is very much concerned with that issue.

My Lords, is there a timetable for the work on the treaty and, if so, what is the expected completion date?

My Lords, with regard to the work within the UN, the agreement has been reached and the text is now subject to a technical committee to ensure that the terms of the agreement are consistent with other human rights treaties that the UN has already agreed to. My hope is that that can all be done very quickly, and that the General Assembly can come to a vote on this before the end of the year. It will then be up to individual countries to decide to sign up. When 20 countries have so signed, the treaty comes into force 30 days after the 20th country has signed up.

My Lords, how many conventions from the United Nations or the EU have Her Majesty's Government yet to sign up to or ratify?

My Lords, that is a very good question, and I am sure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would be delighted to supply further information. For the record, I am told that there is no definitive list of treaties that are in force for the UK. The FCO’s treaty database, which provides details of all treaties since 1835 to which the UK is or has been a party, has some 14,000 records. Some of those treaties may no longer be in force. The continuing validity of a treaty is considered on a case-by-case basis, as and when circumstances arrive.