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Disabled People: UN Convention

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 24 April 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they expect to ratify the United Nations convention on disability rights.

My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, ratification of international treaties is a complex process which takes time, but our aim remains to ratify this convention by the end of the year.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, who is aware of my long involvement in this policy area. Since the sooner we ratify, the greater our influence in monitoring the convention to the benefit of disabled people here and, with our support, of the poorest of the world’s disabled poor, would it not be mistaken and wrong further to delay ratification? For example, would not ratification signal that the inhumanities of institutional discrimination by health authorities against people with learning disability, as documented in Mencap’s report, Death by Indifference, will cease? And where do we stand now with regard to the optional protocol and the fear among disabled people of substantive reservations being taken out when we ratify?

My Lords, I should start by saying that because a number of states have ratified the convention it comes into force on 3 May, at the end of next week, which is good news. Ratification by the UK, which is important for the reasons that my noble friend has outlined, would be a fitting tribute to the leadership and commitment of my noble friend in the cause of disabled people over so many years. I know that he would also wish me to mention the tireless work of the late Lady Darcy de Knayth, which has been an inspiration to many.

The fact that we have not yet ratified the convention does not mean that we cannot be supportive of poor people. DfID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been actively working to support poor people, and the convention is embedded in everything that DfID does. As for the optional protocol, it is still under consideration, as is the issue of reservations to the convention. I would be happy to say a little more about that if I was asked a supplementary question that gave me time to do that.

I very much agree with my noble friend that our association with the convention and our leadership in getting it under way in the first place is a signal to the world that we will not tolerate discrimination and will do everything that we can to eliminate it across the globe.

My Lords, by delaying ratification until the end of the year, will we not be debarring ourselves from membership of the monitoring committee which will undoubtedly be set up by those countries that have already ratified? Will our absence from the monitoring committee mean that we are not effective in terms of framing policy?

My Lords, as I think all noble Lords will understand, the general rule is that the UK does not ratify international treaties until it is in a position to ensure that it can implement the provisions and comply with its obligations. The noble Lord is absolutely right that the monitoring committee has to be set up initially within six months of the convention coming into force, but further provisions say that when 60 states, I think, have ratified, the monitoring committee can be expanded. So although we will not be there at the start, we will certainly have an opportunity when the monitoring committee is expanded.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many developing countries expect the UK to take the lead in these matters? Will he tell us which countries have already ratified the convention?

My Lords, I am happy to list them but it will take me a little while. Perhaps I may say that there are currently 127 signatories to the convention, 71 to the optional protocol, 24 ratifications of the convention and 14 ratifications of the optional protocol. The countries that have ratified include Bangladesh, Croatia, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Gabon, Guinea, Honduras, Hungary, India, Jamaica, Jordan, Mali, Mexico, Namibia, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Philippines, San Marino, South Africa, Spain and Tunisia.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the idea of ratification reinforces the idea that all parts of the law and government structure should respond to civil rights issues for disabled people, as they should across the board? That is one of the important reasons why we must be seen to be in the forefront—in addition to the example that it gives to other states.

My Lords, I very much agree. A lot of work has been undertaken to ensure that we can ratify in accordance with the aspiration to do it by the end of the year. I should point out that the average timescale between the signing of a convention and its ratification is in excess of four years. We signed in March last year and hope to ratify by the end of this year. We must work very hard, for the reasons which the noble Lord said, to ensure that we achieve that.

My Lords, I acknowledge the positive role that the UK Government have played in the process leading to the development of the convention, and would in particular pay tribute to the work of the Minister for Disabled People, Anne McGuire, in another place. Can the Government confirm that they do not intend to make substantive reservations to the convention which would undermine the human rights of disabled people? Do they intend to communicate the results of the departmental exercise currently under way to determine the extent to which the UK meets the requirements of the convention?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words about my colleague Anne McGuire, who has been very active in promoting the convention. I should also state that whatever reservations may come forward in due course must not be incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty. A lot of work has been undertaken which is coming to a conclusion and it is hoped that my honourable friend Anne McGuire will be able very shortly to make a Statement on this issue. I should also say that it is helpful to be able to have reservations because it facilitates a country’s ability to ratify the convention when it may otherwise be precluded from doing so, so there is a positive aspect to reservations as well. History also shows that reservations that are entered over time are removed, as pressure builds up domestically to effect the changes that are needed.