Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on disabled people of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.
My Lords, I am very pleased to have secured time for a debate this afternoon on the impact that leaving the EU will have on people with disabilities. During the referendum campaign, little was said about this matter and I have heard very little since. But the implications for millions of disabled people and their families could be profound. The choices that will be made by the Government over the next few years about how we leave and what they choose to prioritise will be of enormous significance. I am grateful to the Papworth Trust for its thorough and calm analysis in its publication of last autumn, Brexit: What Next for Disabled People?
I declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as patron of a local charity, Ace Anglia, which provides support and services to people with learning disabilities.
This is not the place to introduce a debate on the impact of Brexit on our economy overall. Indeed, it may be years before we can make a full assessment of that. But, if it is anything like as bad as some of us fear, the consequent deterioration in public finances could significantly reduce the amount of money available for benefits to disabled people and to the public services on which they are often dependent. The charity Scope estimates that 400,000 working-age disabled people are dependent on social care. It also reports that disabled people spend an average of £550 extra a month as a result of their disability. Clearly, these people have much less financial resilience to withstand a downturn and are more dependent on public services.
Of immediate concern is the loss of grants from European structural funds. According to the Academic Network of European Disability Experts, 19% of all European social fund grants are spent on projects directly supporting disabled people. To put that into context, the Papworth Trust alone received £7 million from that source between 2007 and 2016. The future sources of funding beyond 2020 are completely unknown. A quick glance at the White Paper published earlier suggests that the Government will meet some of these commitments—but only until 2020. That is a very short-term planning horizon.
Supporters of Brexit have always argued that the UK itself should be responsible for this kind of spending, not the EU. That is fair enough, but then we should expect to see some allocation of funds from the savings, whatever they may be, of no longer being members. To assist charities and other bodies with their forward planning, the Government should begin to offer some clarity about the post-2020 scenario.
There is a much deeper concern that a rush to deregulation, as a matter of either political choice or economic necessity to improve competitiveness, will reduce the statutory protections available to disabled people, especially with regard to employment and access rights. Anti-discrimination laws, while enacted by this Parliament, have their roots in EU law and could be removed by this or a future Government should they choose. The Government have set out, in outline at least, that their approach to unravelling the past 40 years of lawmaking in a European context will be the rather misnamed great repeal Bill. It seems to me to be a sensible approach to keep hold of the legislation that we currently have and to review it over time. This must be with proper parliamentary scrutiny and not just delegated to Ministers—although I am not convinced that the Government fully understand yet what a massive task this is, and the amount of Civil Service and parliamentary resource that will be required to perform it.
I will give some examples of what I mean. The blue badge scheme for parking concessions for people with disabilities is standardised across the EU. There is a comprehensive package of rights for disabled travellers on air and rail services. The charity Guide Dogs has pointed out to me that we have EU-mandated disability awareness training for bus drivers, and rules that ensure that electric and hybrid vehicles are audible. These are important matters and we need to make sure that they are not accidentally or deliberately lost in a wholesale bonfire of EU law.
The employment equality framework directive is a major component of EU labour law and combats workplace discrimination on the grounds of disability, as well as gender, age, race and sexual orientation. It will be a matter of choice for the Government as to whether they wish to hold on to these protections and, crucially, to what extent they are prepared to work with the groups representing the interests of disabled people to make sure that their needs are fully understood.
We are all aware that there is a social care crisis in this country, which is completely interwoven with the serious problems facing the National Health Service. There is no time in this introduction to detail concerns about the loss of EU migrants to the health and social care sector, although other noble Lords may have more to say on this. An estimated 130,000 EU citizens are working in the health and social care sector, so this is a major issue. There is already evidence that a combination of uncertainty about future arrangements and the increased instances of racially motivated attacks is making it harder to recruit into this sector. The fall in the value of the pound is making the UK a much less attractive option. Given that there is already a vacancy rate of around 5% in the care sector because of the low pay and unsocial hours, any deterioration here is a matter for concern. The charity Sense estimates that currently 108,000 learning disabled people with moderate to severe needs receive no support whatever. It would be catastrophic if this were to get any worse.
Health is of course mainly a national competence and there has never been an attempt to provide uniform services across the EU 28. However, there are some rights that exist across the EU that may now come into question. Because disabled people are more likely to use healthcare services, they could be affected more. All EU citizens can access each other’s health services free of charge using the European health insurance card. Will a continuation of this scheme be a priority for the Government? The UN estimates that around 1.2 million British citizens live and work in the EU. If we restrict the rights of EU citizens to the NHS, of course the same will happen to ours.
What will happen to the large number of pensioners, some of whom are disabled, currently accessing health services in places such as Spain and Cyprus? If the scheme is not to be continued, the Government will need a massive campaign to make sure that British tourists have adequate health insurance when they travel. For people with disabilities, getting such insurance can be very difficult and costly, and the Government will need to take this up with the insurance industry.
I understand that there is an NHS Europe transition team. I would like the Minister to assure us that disabled people are being consulted and involved in the thinking about what the implications might be of the different outcomes and options being considered by the Government. There are many tricky issues to be considered and resolved, and some of them will be part of the terms of departure that we agree with the EU. Others, such as co-ordination rules for social security, can be done bilaterally and could, if we are not careful, result in a bureaucratic nightmare.
We will still be Europeans and it makes no sense to turn our back on everything. It is estimated that there are 70 million disabled people in Europe, and a well-established network of research and development projects in which UK organisations have been active. It is an absolute priority to remain within those networks and funding programmes if we are not to lose the very real progress that we have made in understanding and treating the disabilities themselves and, crucially, in helping disabled people to live more fulfilled lives.
My Lords, we should thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, for initiating this debate. While the referendum campaign provoked some discussion around the significance for disabled people of remaining in or leaving the EU, these matters were not centre stage in our national debate. There was neither a specific reference to what Brexit may mean for some 10 million-plus disabled people in the January pronouncement of the Prime Minister nor a single word in the White Paper that has been issued today.
We are in the impossible position of being asked to start the process of exiting the EU without any clear idea of where it will end—except that the Government have given up on membership of the single market and the customs union. History will reflect with incredulity on how we got into such a mess. There is real concern that the future for the UK outside the single market will make us poorer as a country than we would have been over the long term. The OBR has made the judgment that any likely Brexit outcome will lead to lower trade flows, investment, net inward migration and potential output. All this has adverse implications for the public finances and our social security system, already battered by austerity.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that we should be grateful to the Papworth Trust for its briefing on the key issues affecting disabled people and the EU. We should acknowledge the importance of the EU to date in bringing down the barriers faced by disabled people—for example, in improving access to public buildings and transport, and supporting employment programmes. Indeed, 19% of ESF grants are spent on projects that directly support disabled people. This is not to deny the role of the UK in leading the way on disabilities legislation but to recognise that the EU directives and the treaties that we have signed underpin discrimination laws.
Once outside the EU, the UK will lose the underpinning of EU equalities legislation and the oversight by the European Court of Justice. Can the Government at least confirm their intention on membership of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights? Commitments to enshrine all existing EU legislation into domestic law, the so-called great repeal Bill, are welcome but this does not mean that these rights will be sustained over time. Moreover, being outside the EU means that the UK could be left behind on future developments, such as the planned EU-wide European Accessibility Act. Would the Government support embedding the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which we ratified, into domestic law?
We know that disabled people are heavily reliant on the NHS and social care services, and we know that these services are heavily dependent on migration from the EU. We also know that there are horrendous recruitment problems in the sector. Restrictions on free movement will only exacerbate these. It is imperative, therefore, that the status of EU nationals working in the UK is clarified as a matter of urgency, to help retention. There is also a need for a clear strategy for the future.
We should not overlook the capacity issues in all of this—for the Executive, Parliament and the Civil Service—specifically in relation to plans for EU legislation that is currently directly applicable but which has to be converted into UK law. The House of Commons Library note suggests there could be some 5,000 pieces of legislation. I ask the Minister to provide us—in due course but, I hope, as soon as possible—with a list of all those which touch on matters relevant to disabled people. When ministerial red boxes are being stuffed full of Brexit matters, who will focus on delivering the halving of the disability employment gap?
My Lords, leaving the EU is very much a disability issue, with hidden risks that were not aired much during the referendum campaign. Therefore, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for introducing this really important debate.
As time is short, I will concentrate on the area I am most familiar with: the workforce which facilitates independent living for disabled people such as me. I declare an interest as someone who has employed personal assistants from at least 10 EU countries during the past 25 years. I am not unusual. There are thousands of disabled people who do the same. Our personal assistants—some call them carers—are a mixture of UK and EU nationals. They are crucial to our independence and our freedom to enjoy a private and family life, to work, to socialise and to raise children. Our employees are funded mainly by social care or healthcare personal budgets. During the past 30 years, increasing numbers of disabled people have become employers.
When preparing for this debate, I searched for data on how many EU nationals were employed as personal assistants. I contacted the United Kingdom Homecare Association and independent living PA agencies, such as Independent Living Alternatives and PA Pool. No specific data were available but we know there are more than 70,000 EU citizens working in social care. I then contacted disabled employers through social media platforms to find out more about their reasons for seeking personal assistants from EU countries.
Everyone I heard from said first that the pool of potential UK employees was drying up, yet demand for care workers continued to rise. The EU workforce was therefore an essential supplement, and all were concerned about moves to restrict it. Other reasons given for recruiting EU nationals were a strong work ethic and reliability, and the fact that the job tends to attract single people, who, as a rule, are found to be more flexible in their working hours, giving much-valued opportunities for spontaneity. They are keen to fill live-in employment positions. This helps disabled people who live in rural villages where local employees are limited. Some commute to and from their home countries between work stints. Such flexibility is a win-win situation for both employers and employees.
I spoke also to John Evans, a quadriplegic man and pioneer of independent living for disabled people in the UK and internationally. He said:
“I have been free from residential care for 34 years, employing my own PAs who support me to have full control of my life. They have come from 15 different EU countries. Without their support I could not do my work at home and abroad. If the Government does not make some kind of arrangement to protect our access to the EU PA workforce, I will lose my freedom again”,
and he will have to return to residential care. We constantly hear about the threat to the NHS if restrictions to work in the UK are tightened. The PAs and carers employed by thousands of disabled people must be accorded the same attention; otherwise, the current social care crisis will worsen and disabled people will lose the right to independent living, as set out in Article 19 of the UN convention.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission shares my concern. In its evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ Brexit inquiry, it said that any change in Immigration Rules,
“should be subject to a rigorous equality and human rights impact assessment”.
Will the Minister assure the House that this assessment will be carried out rigorously and shared with Parliament? Will he also guarantee that disabled people and their organisations will be thoroughly involved in any Brexit developments regarding access to the EU workforce? Our independence depends on it.
My Lords, there are certain debates in which you discover quite happily that someone else has done the heavy lifting for you. I thank my noble friend for that. What strikes me about this debate is that it is not about the big acts of principle because when it comes to disability, this Chamber—and, indeed, the whole British Parliament—handles it pretty well. It is the small things. It is the stream of regulation that we are always struggling with to make those big acts of principle count.
I remember when we were dealing with small concessions in regulations about transport, people from all Benches coming up to me and saying, “It is really inconvenient to make sure that the displays at stations are the right size, that we have the easiest tables to fold down to change a baby on, that the toilets are accessible”—there is always a good reason why not. That gets easier and easier to ignore when you have a smaller machine driving it, when you have people saying, “It is very inconvenient regulation for me”. If you do not have real weight and determination behind it, or an energy, it gets picked off.
People will say, “That is red tape. It gets in the way”. One of the many things I have covered in your Lordships’ House is health and safety. I came to the conclusion that everybody was against health and safety regulations until their child was up a ladder. It will be inconvenient for you until you have a disabled child or a disabled parent who needs that support. We need a clear guide and energy here, with the Government prepared to commit time, resources and, indeed, political capital to standing up to people like that. It is going to get more difficult because the EU is a convenient punchbag, let us face it. We can duck round it and say it is the EU’s fault, not ours—“We have to do it, I’m afraid”. If anybody has not seen that here, I can take them through a few events. I will not do that now because no one has annoyed me quite enough to do it. But that happens and unless the Government are prepared to publicly start taking on the responsibility for those unpopular small decisions with certain sectors, we are going to fall down here.
The Papworth Trust report points out that the drive from Europe means there is a focus. You have to come behind it grumblingly, saying, “Oh, I wouldn’t do this but I appreciate you have problems”. You have to take it on. Unless the Government are prepared to look for a cross-party consensus about how we go about this, we will get into trouble. The disabled are one group but others will suffer as well. We must take on the fact that this unpleasant grind to make sure that things are accessible and easy to use is there. If we do not do that, we will jump from events where we have a big, dramatic event—“We’ll make a change. Oh, that doesn’t work. It’s out of date, we’ll have to go back”. That is inefficient and inconvenient for those who happen to have their lives disrupted in a large way in that process.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss this important question. When we debated the question of withdrawing from the EU last June, I said it was clear to me that disabled people would get a much better deal by remaining within the EU. In my experience, it has always been possible to get much more for disabled people from the EU than from our own Government, of whatever complexion. Now that we have decided to leave, it is important to make sure that the benefits disabled people presently derive from being in the EU are maintained by the United Kingdom.
Most of the benefits come from the single market. To take just three examples, first, in 2014 disabled people successfully influenced the revision of the EU’s public procurement directive. Accessibility is now a mandatory criterion for all public tenders above a certain financial threshold. According to the European Commission, public procurement accounts for 14% of the EU’s GDP. At home, according to a 2015 House of Commons briefing paper, in 2013-14 the UK public sector spent a total of £242 billion on procurement of goods and services—33% of public sector spending. In sectors such as energy, transport, waste management, social protection, and health and education services, public authorities are the main buyers, so public procurement regulations offer a substantial lever for improving accessibility and bringing about change, just as they did in the United States many years ago.
Secondly, on the accessibility of the world wide web, despite strong resistance initially from national Governments, we now have a directive that ensures the accessibility of all public sector bodies’ websites. It covers their mobile applications and includes an enforcement mechanism. This means that disabled citizens can access e-government services right across Europe. In conjunction with the previously mentioned new rules on public procurement, this directive ensures that industry delivers digital solutions that are accessible to all. We already have European standards for accessible ICT, but technology is moving very rapidly in this area and it is good to have this new legislation to ensure that disabled people are able to keep up.
Finally on accessibility of goods and services, the European Commission has now tabled a proposal for a directive that would harmonise accessibility requirements across the EU for a wide range of goods and services, including smartphones, computers, ticket machines, ATMs, retailers’ websites, banking, e-books and associated hardware such as Amazon’s Kindle, and audio-visual media services and related equipment. Travel-related information is also included. Items not complying with the standards will not be able to be brought to market. This proposal does not include everything one would want and is still under negotiation—it does not include white goods such as washing machines and microwaves, for instance—but it goes much further than anything we have in this country. In the UK, the Equality Act does not apply to manufacturers and manufactured goods.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred to concerns that withdrawal from the EU will put at risk the implementation of disability awareness training for bus drivers as well as measures to ensure the audibility of electric and hybrid vehicles. Regulations requiring bus drivers to undertake disability awareness training are due to come into effect in 2018. The requirement was due to come into force in 2013, but the Government made use of a derogation to delay it. It would indeed be a perverse result of Brexit if, instead of being just delayed, the regulation was lost altogether.
The EU regulation on sound levels of motor vehicles would mean that all new quiet vehicles must be fitted with an acoustic vehicle alerting system, or AVAS, by 2021. But again, it is now unclear whether this regulation will be incorporated into UK law once the UK has left the EU. Will the Government commit to the introduction of disability awareness training for all bus drivers and to ensuring that all quiet electric and hybrid vehicles are rendered audible, with a clear deadline for installing acoustic vehicle alerting systems on all quiet vehicles?
From the point of view of disabled people, there can be no doubt that it would make sense for the UK to remain a member of the single market. If we do not, and if we are to safeguard the interests of disabled people, we need, on Brexit, to bring across as many of the benefits of the single market as possible. I trust that the great repeal Bill will do this and that we will choose to hang on to as many of the benefits thus transposed as possible.
I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for giving us the opportunity to reflect on this important subject. For many years, the European Union has been an important driver of disability rights in the UK, helping to improve disability access and strengthen non-discrimination laws right across Europe. It was the European Union that ensured non-discrimination laws were extended to smaller businesses, and the European Court of Justice which extended rights to carers and those in relationships with a disabled person, to name just two examples. With the proposed European Accessibility Act still some time away from implementation, I hope the Minister can understand the fear expressed by many in this House and outside it that a post-Brexit UK may start to fall behind its European counterparts when it comes to disability rights.
Britain, of course, has a proud history of disability rights, but that is no guarantee of future progress. Indeed, in this time of cuts and savings, there will be great pressure on Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that those with disabilities take their “fair share” of the cuts. Despite the admirable rhetoric on cutting the disability employment gap, it is significant that one of the few policy changes of substance thus far has been to dramatically cut the benefit entitlements of disability benefit claimants in the work-related activity group. The Government’s policies, such as including disabled people within the underoccupancy charge and restricting the eligibility criteria for personal independence payments, are further trends that make many of the disabled people I have spoken to fearful for the future of disability rights outside the EU.
As we move towards Brexit, it is absolutely essential that Her Majesty’s Government give disabled people confidence that the UK will be a world leader in disability rights, showing the way forward rather than lagging behind. Although we have made significant progress over recent decades, there is still a long way to go in securing full accessibility and rights for disabled people in our country. This can be a particular problem in rural areas—I declare my interests as president of the Rural Coalition—where many people with disabilities still struggle with accessing basic services, particularly public transport. People in rural areas can also struggle to access adequate care services, something which may become even harder if and when the UK Government introduce immigration restrictions on those EU residents who make up a significant proportion of our caring workforce.
I realise that the Minister will today seek to reassure the House that any existing EU disability rights legislation will be incorporated into British law through the great repeal Bill. But I hope he will be able to go further than that, and reassure us that Her Majesty’s Government recognise there is still a huge amount of work to do and that there is a determination to take this forward.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, for securing this debate. Many people are tired of hearing that Brexit means Brexit. This debate may give some insight into what disabled people are thinking. It seems a long time since I made my maiden speech on what became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. I have been surprised by how much legislation there is concerning disabled people incorporated in the European Union. Britain has helped to lead the campaign for better protection for disabled people. It will be a tragedy if, ostracised from Europe, we become an isolated island. As far as disability issues are concerned, I feel that Europe needs us and we need Europe.
I hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance today. Many disabled people are frightened at this time. Diabetes can be a serious disability if not controlled. Will such research as the DIAMAP project, the Alliance for European Diabetes Research, funded by the European Commission, still be available for members from the UK? The European Commission funds many important research projects to find ways of preventing disability. Does Brexit mean that we will no longer be part of the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020, a renewed commitment to a barrier-free Europe? Will the blue badge for disabled drivers or passengers, a European project, still be available?
I am very concerned when I hear members of the Government say that we want to let in only the brightest people when Brexit takes place. This will be a disaster for disabled people who need help. We have many disabled people, some of whom can work, but they need carers who can help with personal care and mobility. We do not have enough British people who want to do such jobs. We need the many young, fit people who come from the EU who are honest and want to work. They do not need to be high-fliers but they need to feel wanted and to be cherished. Otherwise, with a low pound and abuse, they will not come. The Government have a responsibility to enable disabled people to live as independent lives as possible.
My Lords, I leap briefly into the gap. I declare an interest as trustee of several charities, notably the Ewing Foundation for deaf children. Brexit changes Britain, but we do not know exactly how. The negotiations have barely started; all we have are our worries and our hopes. While we in this House will in future be considering a positive mountain of regulations, we know that we will have the benefit of many Members with personal knowledge of disability. I doubt there is a legislative chamber in the world with such effective and numerous representation of disabled people. The further point, however, is to make certain that the voice and opinions of disabled people are heard and thought about when regulations are formulated, not just at this legislative stage.
My Lords, this is a timely debate. Thanks to my noble friend Lady Scott, we have heard forcefully this afternoon some of the real worries about Brexit both from disabled people themselves—I am one—and others. Perhaps the main one concerns what will happen to the thousands of personal assistants from the EU who give top-quality care to severely disabled people if there is no free movement. Who knew, before the referendum, that Brexit might mean that all the EU directives, which have made life so much better for disabled people travelling throughout Europe, for example, or even accessing public sector websites, might have to be negotiated all over again? Or will they? Who knows?
There is now a terrible uncertainty about what will happen in the future. Will we have reciprocity for all the working people from the EU who are settled in this country to stay after Brexit? This is perhaps the greatest worry for many disabled people, as they are now used to the high standards and attitudes of many EU care workers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, has said. I must straightaway ask the Minister whether he thinks there is any chance of an exemption from the restriction on the free movement of labour for staff in social care and NHS services. I repeat my noble friend’s question about whether there are any disabled people on the NHS Europe transition team.
The word “reciprocity” is very important in the field of social security as well as care. There has been a long-standing provision in EU law to co-ordinate social security schemes for people moving within the EU and EEA. This is a very important protection for disabled people who may want to reside in other EU or EEA member states. These co-ordination rules, such as allowing a person’s contributions paid in one country to count towards entitlement to benefit in another country, or allowing certain benefits to be taken abroad with them, are there to support free movement. What will happen in the future? What about those people who have lived and worked in more than one member state and paid national insurance in those countries?
At present, a person who moves from one member state to another has access to benefits in the host country if they are economically active or can support themselves. Working EU and EEA migrants are entitled to in-work benefits on the same basis as nationals of the host country, but this could all change. Will the Minister say which department is in charge of these negotiations? If there is no certainty for many months, quite a lot of disabled UK nationals living abroad are likely to return to the UK, where they may well need care services and quite possibly supported housing, thus adding to the strain that services are experiencing.
I turn briefly to the great repeal Bill, which, as we know, will annul the European Communities Act 1972 and transpose EU law into domestic law. The difficulty will come when the Government decide which laws will be scrapped altogether. The wretched Red Tape Challenge does not give us any confidence, as the report of the Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee makes clear. This is about regulations being burdensome; it does not seem to matter that their disappearance might make life more burdensome for disabled people. So we are particularly concerned about hard-won rights in the fields of, for example, product design, air and rail travel, employment, building accessibility, public sector website accessibility and many others. Can the Minister assure us that disabled people will be in the forefront of negotiations on any matter that affects them directly?
My Lords, this fascinating brief debate serves to highlight the enormity of the task facing both the Government and Parliament in the months and years ahead, as we seek to understand and then deal with all the implications of the decision to leave the EU. Will the Minister tell the House how the Government propose to enable us to scrutinise the issues as they start to emerge? Will there be pre-legislative scrutiny of the great repeal Bill to ensure Parliament is sighted on the areas where the Government are unable or unwilling simply to transfer current provision across, or where, as various noble Lords have mentioned, there is a need for some regulatory or enforcement mechanism that is currently Europe-wide?
Like my noble friend Lord McKenzie, I read the White Paper carefully—I even searched the electronic version—and I could not find the words “disabled”, “disabled people” or “disability” anywhere in it. Will the Minister tell the House how much thinking the Government have begun to do on the impact on disabled people of the decision to leave the EU? Has his department developed a strategy to engage with key stakeholders in the field and, through those stakeholders, directly with disabled people, both to consult them and to reassure them that it is engaged with the issues? My noble friend Lord McKenzie made some important points about the commitment to enshrining long-term protections for disabled people in our law. Will the Minister also commit to enshrining in law those protections for disabled people that currently derive not from EU legislation but, for example, from judgments of the European Courts?
The question of transport was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Scott and Lady Thomas of Winchester, and the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Low, among others. I should be very interested in the answers about blue badge recognition and accessible transport, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Low.
The matter of health and social care is absolutely crucial. Disabled people have a higher than average need to access health and social care. We have heard already about how many disabled people will be accessing health services in other EU nations and are very anxious about what will happen next. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, mentioned the EHIC. What are the Government doing about that? Are they beginning negotiations on this—how high on their priority list will it be? If not, what will they do to enable disabled people to obtain appropriate insurance care? Have they begun discussions with the insurance industry or representative bodies in the financial services sector?
The question of social care is the one that exercised noble Lords most. We have heard all kinds of figures. The one I drew out from the Skills for Care website suggests that there are currently 90,000 EU nationals working in adult social care in England alone—some 7% of the workforce. Can the Minister give the House a definitive figure for how many non-UK EU nationals are working in social care, and tell us what he intends to do to ensure that that workforce is protected? Do the Government have a plan to enable those people to carry on working? Obviously, I think they should allow all EU residents who are settled here to carry on, but what are the Government doing specifically about social care?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, who always takes these issues and gives them such a clear reality when she describes her own experience of what it means in practice for one after another EU national to come in. The point she made is crucial. This is not a technicality but the difference between disabled people living independent lives and not living independent lives. The Minister should hear how concerned people around the House are about this. What do the Government plan to do?
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised the really important question of social security entitlements. What do the Government plan to do about the entitlement to benefits of disabled EU nationals who have been resident in the UK? Conversely, do Ministers have a plan for dealing with the benefit entitlement of disabled UK citizens who have been ordinarily resident in another EU state? If they suddenly have to return to the UK, will they be entitled to full support? What comes through crediting towards benefit entitlement if time is spent in another EU country?
I would be interested to hear the answer to the question on ESF funding, and how disability organisations will be protected in the longer term, past 2020. We have only just begun to scratch the surface. The House needs to hear from the Minister today, first, some hard answers to questions. The Government have had seven months to think about these issues, and we look forward to hearing what they have to say. Secondly, we want to know that the Government are taking this seriously. It is not just a question of each department looking at regulations in silos. Who in government is taking responsibility for having a strategic look at the impact of Brexit on disabled people as a whole, making sure that nothing is missed and, ideally, doing what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said and showing that the UK can be a leader in this field? That is the very least we deserve to hear.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for her request that I answer quite as many questions as she put to me. She will be faintly disappointed that, because of time constraints, I will be unable to answer absolutely everything that has come forward in the course of this debate, but I will certainly give an assurance that I will write to all noble Lords giving answers to questions that I cannot touch on in the necessarily brief speech that I have time to make.
I also offer my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for giving us the opportunity for at least airing—I think that is the best word—this subject initially on this occasion and acknowledging the deep concern felt all around the House. I hope that I can deal with some of the misconceptions and fears that have been expressed. I also want to give an assurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, my noble friend Lord Borwick, and others that, first, there will be considerable consultation as and when appropriate, as there always has been by the department that I have had the privilege of rejoining after so many years.
I also give an assurance again, particularly to the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, that there will be considerable scrutiny by Parliament of these matters. She might find that she gets rather sick of the scrutiny by the end, because we all know that there will be scrutiny this Session, and possibly once we get the great reform Bill next Session, and the Session beyond. She will acknowledge that our strong parliamentary system provides more than enough opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny both in this Chamber and in the other Chamber—where the Bill has already started and will be coming here after our break—and through the inquiries being conducted by a great number of Select Committees in another place. I am thinking particularly of the recent inquiry from the Women and Equalities Select Committee on ensuring strong equalities legislation. That will provide the appropriate scrutiny for these matters that the noble Baroness rightly seeks.
I start by stating clearly that this Government have a firm commitment, made clear in our manifesto and later on, to maintaining the United Kingdom’s strong and long-standing record of protecting the rights and traditional liberties, and to supporting disabled people to fulfil their potential. The decision to leave the European Union does not change this, and officials in the Department for Work and Pensions, in which I have the honour of serving, and in other departments will be working closely with all colleagues, and particularly with the Department for Exiting the EU, to ensure that the impact on disabled people is considered fully.
I can assure the House of the protections covered in the Equality Act 2010, which we should remember—I shall not say merely, because it added more things—consolidated all previous legislation. We have legislation going back a long way to the ground-breaking Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, for mentioning the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, on which she made her maiden speech. That Act predates our accession to the EU by some years, which shows how long we have been involved in this field, in which we have a long and proud history.
The right reverend Prelate used those very words when he said that we had a proud history. He wants us to be a world leader. I can give an assurance that we are a world leader. We were a world leader with legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and we will continue to be a world leader. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will see that stepping forward yet slightly further with the Improving Lives Green Paper. That is something we are committed to do, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and others have made clear their commitment in this field.
As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister stated in her speech on 17 January, the Government will continue to work to ensure that the UK is a fairer society. I am sure that the whole House agrees that that should include disabled people to ensure that they have the right support and full access to opportunities provided by my department and other departments. We were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, that we made a manifesto commitment to halve the disability employment gap. That commitment is evidence of the importance the Government place on their duty to support disabled people to fulfil their potential. We intend to meet that commitment as far as possible.
Having a disability should not determine the path someone is able to take in life—in or out of the workplace. What should count is a person’s talent and desire to succeed. It is good to be able to report that, in terms of that commitment, we have already seen 600,000 more disabled people in employment than in 2013, and that is progress and an example of where we are going. The problem is that employment in other areas has also gone up and, therefore, the gap has not narrowed as much as it should, but we are going in the right direction and the fact that we have more disabled people in employment is a good thing. We want to see the gap narrow as well—but narrow while both are going up, rather than narrow while they go down. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, would accept that this is the aim that we should pursue.
Since the new Disability Confident scheme launched on 2 November 2016, we have seen more than 3,500 employers sign up to it, including some big employers such as Jaguar Land Rover, Barclays, Channel 4 and Fujitsu. They all recognise the important point that the talent and skills that disabled people can bring to their organisations should be recognised. This improving picture is very encouraging, although there remains much more to be done. That is why the Improving Lives Green Paper, which I touched on, seeks to start a far-reaching national debate by: working even more widely to change employers’ attitudes; trying to get systems across the department and the health service—obviously we have to work across government—working together better; encouraging everyone to focus on disabled people’s strengths and abilities; and introducing an accessible information requirement for local buses.
As I said, we have a proud history of leading the way internationally. If one looks at, say, the EU standards for making rail vehicles accessible, they are modelled on our own UK standards. To give one small parochial example, our very own city of Chester won this year’s European Union Access City Award. Through our international development aid work, the UK actively helps other countries to support disabled people. We recently joined the International Disability Alliance to create the Global Action on Disability group to stimulate more action on disability globally. I can assure the House that this Government will continue working towards the best possible outcome for all the people of the United Kingdom, which obviously includes people with disabilities.
There has been considerable concern about the impact of immigration changes to the recruitment of carers and workers from the EU—as raised by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell; others have also touched on it—and I understand the concerns. The precise way in which the Government will determine how to control the movement of EU nationals to the UK after Brexit has obviously yet to be determined. We are considering very carefully the options open to us, following Brexit, to gain more control. As part of that, it is important that we understand the impact of any changes that we make on the different sectors of the economy and the labour market, including on health and social provision. But I assure the House that this is a matter that will be foremost in our minds in negotiations and thereafter.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also touched on the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. I can assure him that there is no intention whatever to withdraw from the Council of Europe, and we will still be subject to the European Court of Human Rights which, as the noble Lord knows, has nothing to do with the EU. That court long predates our membership of the EU but is possibly one of those popular misconceptions that should have been laid to rest many years ago—I see that the noble Lord and one or two others nodded at that. I can also give an assurance that we will continue our commitment to the UNCRPD; there is no question of any change in procedure on that.
I appreciate that there are a great many other questions on which I will need to write to noble Lords. The nature of these debates, as I said at the beginning, allows us to air the subject only briefly, so I shall therefore be writing a number of letters. I again express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for bringing this Question to the House today and thank all other noble Lords for their excellent contributions.
Ensuring that disabled people have the support that they need and the opportunities to fulfil their potential continues to be an incredibly important issue. It is one that the Government have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to, as did previous Governments—it is a commitment that this and previous Governments can all be proud of. I can confirm that officials in my department are already engaged in those discussions that I mentioned with officials in other departments to ensure that disability issues are given due consideration. Exiting the European Union, whatever our future relationship with the EU, will not diminish that commitment to making the United Kingdom an accessible, equal and fair society.