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UN: Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 3 May 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many member states have now signed the United Nations convention on disability rights.

My Lords, I am pleased to say that the UK was among the first 82 signatories to the convention when it opened for signature on 30 March 2007. That is the highest number of signatories in the history of a UN convention on its opening day. Since then, a further three states have signed, making a total of 85 signatories.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend and her ministerial colleague Anne McGuire, who has worked with such distinction to put Britain at the forefront of the drive for a UN convention.

Having signed the convention, will the Government now also be signing the Optional Protocol to allow the appropriate UN body to speed up its full implementation where disabled people can show their rights are being violated?

How many member states have now signed the protocol? And would it not seem inconsistent if, having already signed a similar protocol relating to the rights of women, we do not sign this one as well?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks and for his question. The House may be interested to know that not only have we paid tribute in this House to my noble friend’s pioneering role championing the rights of disabled people but, at the ceremony to mark the opening for signature of the convention, Prince Ra’ad Bin Zeid, in the name of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, also paid tribute to his pioneering role.

Some 48 UN member states have signed the Optional Protocol. It is not the custom of the Government to sign optional protocols, because we believe that at present there is not necessarily enough value in signing a protocol for UK citizens because the petitioners petition a monitoring committee that is not a court of law and therefore cannot offer compensation or necessarily even legal interpretation. However, almost as an experiment, we have signed the convention on women’s rights, and we are reviewing that situation, so it is not necessarily the case that we will not sign optional protocols in the future. It is under consideration.

My Lords, I welcome the advancement that we have made in disability rights. Given what the Minister has said, has the signing of the convention impacted on individual disabled rights in this country?

My Lords, it is early days. We have only just signed the convention, and we are going through the process that we need to go through thoroughly to work our way towards ratification. It is the first time that the EU has signed a convention in this way, and our ratification process needs to be taken in tandem with the EU. It is an extremely important step forward. We believe that it will have an important impact on the rights of the 650 million disabled people throughout the world. We are committed to taking it forward, and I feel very optimistic about the contribution that this Government can make.

My Lords, from these Benches we greatly welcome the Government’s lead with regard to this important convention. We welcome the fact that it recognises that the 800 million people with disabilities experience serious human rights violations and we welcome the Government’s announcement that they will enable enhanced treaty scrutiny in this case, by referring the convention to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I serve.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister about one or two points. First, why is the Department for Work and Pensions handling this issue rather than the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has a broad remit? That is odd. Secondly, what is the timescale for the process of considering the changes that need to be made to British law to give effect to the convention? Finally—

Finally, my Lords, returning to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, why is the United Kingdom out of step with, for example, the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in not accepting the Optional Protocol?

My Lords, for some time the Department for Work and Pensions has been the lead department on disabilities, but it is fair to say that my honourable friend Anne McGuire MP has worked widely across government in preparation for signing the convention. With her expertise and the strong relationships that she has built up with the stakeholders—with organisations representing disabled people and disabled people themselves—it is right that she and her office should take forward this work. I do not believe that the United Kingdom is out of step. We have been at the forefront of taking forward this initiative and we are very much prepared to look at how the process of working with the EU should develop. We are always prepared to make the most of the opportunity that this convention offers.

My Lords, the Minister will know—indeed, she almost said—that it is one thing to sign a convention or a treaty; it is quite another to ratify it. Given that more than 20 countries are in the EU, all of which have signed the convention, and given that only 20 states need to ratify the convention for it to come into force, what pressure are the Government putting on fellow EU countries to do just that?

My Lords, my honourable friend Anne McGuire is meeting EU Ministers. We are working closely with them to identify the key issues around shared competency. It is the first time that the EU has signed a convention, so we are in new territory. The absolute timetable for ratification is beyond our control, but I must stress that we would not have signed the convention if we were not absolutely committed to ratifying it and to making the most of the opportunities, not just within the UK, but internationally, to put disabled people’s rights on the agenda.

My Lords, notwithstanding the good news on the number of signatories to the convention so far, what further pressure is coming from the FCO and DfID to increase the number?

My Lords, I am very pleased that already our embassies around the world have started to promote the convention. The Foreign Office and DfID are working closely with DWP to make sure that we are all working in the right direction. We will lobby Governments and we will fund projects leading to long-term changes, promoting best practice and changes in behaviour wherever possible. We are committed to making the convention a really positive and progressive move forward.