Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for a disability commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the Prime Minister for her kind words in answer to a question asked by Philip Davies MP in the other place at Prime Minister’s Questions on 7 February. She described me as a champion of disability rights, and it is as a long-standing campaigner for disability equality that I have tabled this Question for Short Debate, because I believe it is crucial that we assess, on an ongoing basis, progress made towards that elusive goal.
I say “elusive” because 2020 will mark a quarter of a century since the introduction of the Conservatives’ Disability Discrimination Act. The sad fact is that we, as disabled people, are nowhere near attaining equality. By that, I do not simply mean equality with non-disabled people; I mean equality with the other protected characteristic groups covered by equality legislation.
We are so far behind as disabled people, not because we necessarily lack the determination or ability to catch up, but because we are still too often denied the equality of opportunity to contribute and to succeed. Unlike other groups, we need reasonable adjustments to be made for us to be able to enjoy equal access to goods, facilities and services, whether commercial or statutory. The goal of equality might be the same, but the nature and extent of the disadvantage that goes with disability are so different that while mainstreaming disability might sound laudable in theory, in practice it means that disability, as the heaviest stone, falls to the bottom of the inequality pond. A prerequisite to it not being left at the bottom is a sharp focus on disability issues—the sharp focus provided by the DDA; the Disability Rights Commission, or DRC; and, following the DRC’s amalgamation within the Equality and Human Rights Commission, or EHRC, the focus provided by a disability commissioner. But now we do not have a disability commissioner because the post has been abolished, even if the need for such a position and the sharp focus it was meant to bring to disability issues has not.
Noble Lords will know from my previous contributions on this matter that I was not made aware of the agreement between the commission chair and the then Minister for Women and Equalities to abolish the position of disability commissioner until after I had been misled by that Minister of the Crown to believe that I was being appointed to that position, for which I had applied and been interviewed. Now it transpires that I was not the only one not to have been informed of the position’s intended abolition. I thank the Prime Minister for telling Philip Davies that she had not been made aware of the decision either, and I also acknowledge that the then Minister for Disabled People, Penny Mordaunt, who is now Minister for Women and Equalities, in addition to being Secretary of State for International Development, was not made aware either.
I know there is a Civil Service saying that, “We are where we are”—the implication being that one needs to accept a new reality and move on. I make it clear that I accept that the Government cannot insist that the EHRC reinstates the position, even if they wanted to, because the commission is independent. However, if the EHRC is independent, there is something that the Government can do—and, I believe, should do—both to extricate themselves and to move us on from where we are, which I am sorry to say is not a good place. They can express regret that a former Minister should have gone behind my back, the backs of disabled people and the backs of the Prime Minister and her ministerial colleagues and allowed the commission to do away with disabled people’s last distinctive, powerful voice. She did not have to do it. Indeed, I recently learned that one of her predecessors in the coalition Government blocked such a move and ensured that the position of disability commissioner was not abolished when the commission previously proposed that it should be. So there was a clear precedent, which she chose to break with, and in the process undermined disabled people and severely compromised the Government.
As I told Cathy Newman on “Channel 4 News” in November last year, this is not about me. When your disability has taken you to hell and back, it tends to put things in perspective. So while serving as the disability commissioner would have been an honour, which I would have done to the best of my ability, what happens to me does not matter. I am not important; the position was. What concerns me far more is the message given by the involvement of the then Minister for Women and Equalities in the position’s abolition and the Government’s continued failure to dissociate themselves from her involvement, which it is clear that she did not inform—never mind consult—her ministerial colleagues about. It worries me that the Government seem not to appreciate the need for them to express a view, because the adoption of such a position amounts to a message in itself—a message that may be inadvertent but none the less is one of contempt, as if because it is only disabled people, they do not need or deserve the truth.
Speaking as a disabled person, disabled people deserve better than that. We deserve some respect and a clear answer. So I ask my noble friend the Minister if the Government are glad that the disability commissioner position has been abolished. Are the Government proud that a former Minister was involved in the position’s abolition, as I demonstrated she was with reference to two contradictory emails that I mentioned in the Chamber last November? If the Government are not proud, why do they not say so?
The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and the Secretary of State for International Development should not have to take the rap for a decision that I accept none of them was involved in making. Yet the Government’s silence on this matter means that that is exactly what is happening, because it has all the telltale signs of a cover-up, not necessarily by Ministers, but by the Whitehall machine.
Some argue that because the commission is independent, the Government therefore cannot state that they regret a decision taken by a Minister without compromising its independence. I do not follow the logic of that argument. Surely to state one’s opinion of an independent body’s actions underlines and reinforces that independence rather than compromises it. The commission cannot have it both ways: either it is independent or it is not.
The fact is that your Lordships’ House was never meant to know about what happened to downgrade disability by the taxpayer-funded body supposedly responsible for promoting and protecting our rights. As its chair told the Women and Equalities Select Committee:
“Lord Shinkwin has obviously chosen to make public some of this detail, which otherwise would be confidential”.
What an admission. If I am wrong—I would be happy to stand corrected—there is an easy way to prove it. If the Government and the commission have nothing to hide, let them put all records of contact about me and the disability commissioner position, whether between the commission, the commission chair, the Government Equalities Office, the then Minister for Women and Equalities, her private office, her special advisers, the Department for Education or any other external organisations, in the Library. All I am asking for, as a disabled person, is transparency. Surely that is fundamental to equality.
In conclusion, of course I think there is a strong case for a disability commissioner, otherwise I would not have applied for the position. But now it has been abolished, the case that the Government need to make is why disabled people should trust them when they cannot even bring themselves to express regret for the involvement of a former Minister in the abolition of disabled people’s last powerful voice. As a Conservative, I believe we could have a much better story to tell, but we need to close this sorry chapter before we start the next one. I hope very much that my noble friend can help us do that and I look forward to her response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for tabling this Question for Short debate. I hope it will provide an opportunity to alleviate some of the noble Lord’s concerns regarding the way the debate on disabilities and equality is held. I have been involved in the equalities debate for a long number of years. As the national secretary for women in the very male-dominated Transport and General Workers’ Union, I learned pretty early on that issues of importance to women should be mainstreamed and must not be sidelined into a women-only debate. The same principle applies to questions of disability and equality.
As we know, the Equality and Human Rights Commission was established by the Equality Act 2006, starting its work in October 2007. At that point I was proud to be appointed as deputy chair of the commission, a position that I held until December 2013. The Act brought under one umbrella the responsibility for dealing with all the protected characteristics while at the same time terminating the remits of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission.
Because the DRC had not been in operation for very long and it was believed that the disability lobby had not had the opportunity to set out its stall, it was agreed that the new commission should have a separate statutory committee to highlight disability issues. This, by the way, did not mean that questions of disability and agreement for special campaigns were not discussed at the main board. They were, because they were and are the responsibility of the whole board. It was never the intention that disability questions should be dealt with as a separate issue. Apart from anything else, people with disabilities often have more than one protected characteristic; they may be from an ethnic minority background, for example, or they may be female or gay. How could the EHRC consider the rights of a disabled person absent any consideration of other characteristics?
In March 2017, the sunset clause contained in the 2006 Act came into play, and the disability committee was abolished. In recognition of the fact that all other issues under the commission’s remit were dealt with in the mainstream debate, the board of the commission took the view that disability would best be dealt with in the same way and therefore it would no longer seek a commissioner with that narrow remit. Since taking that decision, a disability advisory committee has been established. Our own noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, is a member, together with a number of people with wide experience of a variety of disability issues. Of course members of the main board of the EHRC have a duty and a responsibility to deal with all equality issues. No member can nor should consider themselves as representing one strand or one subject. If a candidate is not interested in questions of, among others, race, sexuality or religious discrimination then that person should not consider themselves suitable to be a commissioner.
A brief look at the work of the commission on disability issues will show that it is not an area which is neglected. Reports and campaigns on legal rights, housing, health and accessibility at football clubs are but some of the areas covered. I hope the noble Lord feels more confident that the work of the EHRC is both comprehensive and inclusive. He should know, and I am sure he does, that the commission papers are all available to the public and to Ministers—there is no secrecy.
My Lords, I welcome this debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for the opportunity to say something about the EHRC’s approach to the disability agenda, even though his own experience with it is not a good one. The question before us, which is a valid and really rather difficult one, is whether the disability agenda is best served by those who have oversight of all the protected characteristics that concern the EHRC or whether it should be particularly promoted by one disabled commissioner with a dedicated committee. If the latter, should all the protected characteristics be treated in the same way?
As for disability, the practice in the recent past was a statutory disability committee chaired by a disabled commissioner, but there is now just an advisory committee with all the commissioners having a duty to oversee the disability agenda. If one were to ask a body of disabled people which model they would choose, I am pretty sure they would go for the former. The reason is simple: as we have heard, so much of life, public and private, is denied to disabled people even now and there are still so many battles to be fought, be that video relay services so that deaf people can take part in everyday life or wheelchair users wanting to travel independently on public transport without feeling that they are entering a lottery. They would want the strongest voice possible to get things changed. After all, there are so many different disabilities, all with their own particular problems.
The question of whether disabilities should ever have been bundled up with the other eight protected characteristics is at the heart of what the House of Lords equality and disability committee tackled in its March 2016 report. I am very pleased to say that our chairman will speak more about that. The committee made the point that the other protected characteristics need equality of treatment to bring about equality of opportunity, but different treatment is required for disabled people. Although several of our committee’s witnesses wanted to go back to the old days of a separate commission, which we just heard about from the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, our committee concluded that it was better to make improvements to the working of the Equality Act than to take disability out of it. The commission is quite open about its reasons for disbanding the Disability Committee, saying that it was often on a different page from the commission as a whole. It said that there should be in future be a “managing of expectations”, which will inform its relationship with the new Disability Advisory Committee. I am afraid that I find that phrase rather chilling. Does that mean, “Be realistic, don’t ask for the moon” or, “We are not going to promote this issue at this time because we are concentrating on another non-disability matter altogether”?
The House of Lords equality and disability committee called for the statutory Disability Committee to be re-established as a “decision-making body” with ring-fenced resources to increase its visibility and influence, although the report acknowledged that this would have to be in the context of the EHRC as a whole. Contrary to the view, the 2013 independent review of the Disability Committee found that it was not as effective as it might have been and not “hard-wired” into the commission. I am not quite sure what that means in this context. Perhaps someone will enlighten me.
I am not persuaded that disability can be treated on the same footing as the other protected characteristics, particularly in view of the longer lives that both disabled and ordinary people are living now, meaning that ordinary people need services that disabled people need now. We need somebody shouting the odds from the rooftops on our behalf. Perhaps this is for a disability tsar, not the commission. Disabled people want a body that will not rest until it has brought about real change—not a body that has all the right words but not enough action.
My Lords, to my mind this is a debate not about persons but about the strategy of the EHRC and its handling of disability issues. It is good to note that my noble friend Lord Low is on the Disability Advisory Committee, so it is not without expertise, but the clue to understanding whether the EHRC is living up to expectations lies in the diffusion of that expertise.
I had the privilege of chairing the 2016 report of the Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability. Our first and lasting impression, gained from our own work and strongly from witnesses, was that disabled people regretted the demise of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Disability Rights Commission. That Act introduced the notion of reasonable adjustments and favourable treatment. It was then rolled into the EHRC by the Equality Act 2010 and disability became just one of nine protected characteristics.
However, practice shows that it is not enough to treat disabled people equally with everyone else. There are situations where, to get to a level playing field, disabled people need favourable treatment, a concept with which employers struggle. Witnesses to our committee thought that the inclusion of disability within the EHRC had diluted the focus on disability that had existed and had given rise to a sense of a loss of rights by disabled people. We concluded that it was impracticable to turn the clock back, but that loss of focus and expertise concentrating on disabled people is at the heart of this Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin. He is asking, in my view, whether the EHRC is handling disability issues with the emphasis that it should. Mainstreaming is an ideal that has not worked, so far.
I fear that the answer is no, special disability commissioner or not. I say that not only because of the findings of the Select Committee report, which highlighted failings in ensuring disability rights, but because of the strictures in the report on the UK in 2017 by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That report called for the incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into English law and drew attention to shortcomings in bringing into force relevant provisions of the Equality Act, especially about transport and leasehold premises, the accessibility of buildings and sports stadia, the availability of legal aid and the provision of health and education for disabled children. The Government’s response has been resistance.
As for the EHRC, it is not clear that having a Disability Advisory Committee which interacts with the board is as good as the previous arrangements. The Select Committee report recommended that the committee should be re-established as a decision-making body with ring-fenced resources. That does not seem to be the case. I give the EHRC credit for funding legal assistance for litigation by disabled persons, providing legal advice and starting judicial reviews. The recommendation it made for a disability action plan to be produced with input from disabled persons seems to have been rejected, as has the need to produce guidance on carers’ rights under the Equality Act, although the EHRC has taken some carers’ cases. Disability issues are swallowed up in the general rights issues that the commission is pursuing.
Also very seriously, it was clear from evidence given to the Select Committee that it was much regretted that the Equality Advisory and Support Service was no longer in-house. Indeed, it has gone to G4S, a result that has been much criticised and which was subjected to judicial review by human rights groups. Disabled people called for face-to-face legal advice, dispute resolution and the restoration of the conciliation service. None of those things has happened. They wanted enforcement functions more than strategy formation. They want a champion, not to be just one of nine protected characteristic groups, and that call has not been answered. The Government should respond to the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, with plans for a more proactive EHRC with a dedicated disability area and a timeline for carrying out all the recommendations of the Select Committee’s report.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to participate in this debate, not only because it deals with an important question but because the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, was once upon a time a student of mine and this is the first time that I have had the opportunity to participate in a debate led by an ex-student.
I shall follow on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, was saying, but I want to talk about not the individuals involved but the principle at stake, which is whether the Equality and Human Rights Commission treats disability fairly and equitably. In this country, we started with dedicated commissions—the Commission for Racial Equality, of which I was privileged to be deputy chair, the Equal Opportunities Commission, and so on. Those dedicated commissions did a lot of valuable work, but as protected characteristics, as they are called, began to multiply—we now have nine—it was not possible to have separate commissions for each of them and we embarked on the path of a single Equality and Human Rights Commission. This raises an important question: is a single commission capable of doing the work of nine commissions? If so, is it able to do so with equal impartiality, justice and fairness? This is why what we are debating today is of great interest.
In the history of our country we have played with three different models for constituting a human rights commission. One would be to have each of the commissioners selected on merit—not for representing a particular disadvantaged group but simply because of their public eminence. Secondly, they might be nominated because of their capacity to represent particular groups, such as women, the disabled, or whatever. Thirdly, they might be appointed for general purposes and then be asked to concentrate on a particular area, such as women, the disabled or race.
In recent years, the Equality and Human Rights Commission seems to have opted for the first model, which seeks in the name of mainstreaming to abolish the commissioner in charge of the disabled. That is a mistaken approach because, as noble Baroness, Lady Deech, pointed out, the question is how do you mainstream something? Is the only way to mainstream through abolishing the commissioner in charge of a particular issue? Representatives of different groups ensure that their concerns and disadvantages are noticed and, therefore, recognising differences is not a way of avoiding mainstreaming. Expecting every commissioner to be concerned with all groups equally is inherently implausible and impracticable. The commission needs representatives of the diverse groups in our society for a variety of reasons.
Such a commission reflects society at large and has a great symbolic value. It also ensures that relevant groups have their own spokesmen and they feel reassured. It ensures necessary sensitivity and expertise and gives the concerns of particular groups a clear focus. This is why the absence of women or ethnic minorities, for example, on the Equality and Human Rights Commission seems extremely odd. The same applies to the disabled, whose presence on the commission is as vital as the presence of women or anyone else. Others can certainly speak for them—as, obviously, anyone could speak about race—but can they speak with the same authority, authenticity and intuitive grasp of the issues involved? They cannot. A commission in charge of human rights ought to include a diversity of groups and, therefore, a diversity of commissioners.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for introducing the debate.
I have no disability, as far as I know, but I was married to someone who was very disabled. He was diagnosed in 1983 with MS and died last year at the age of 80. We were together with his disability for 34 years. I therefore learned a great deal about disability because you cannot avoid it. He was lucky to live to 80 because I am told that many people with MS do not live that long. I think he did so because he kept working and, as has been said, it is important to be useful and doing something. That is what he used to say: “I feel useful. I am doing something”. He sat as a part-time judge, mainly in Reading, and he worked until retirement age. The court in Reading then asked him to stay on for two more years and he was proud of that. It is a great comfort to someone who has to struggle most of the time to do the work they are doing. I am happy to say that his brain never deteriorated. On the day he died, he was reading a book I had given him for his birthday: a book of poems by Rupert Brooke. Very important factors were that we could talk to each other and have something to share.
I put it to the Committee that disabled people are not treated well, which is very sad. When you go out, a lot of restaurants and shops are very pleased to help you as much as they can, but not everyone is. In many places there is no way for a disabled person to get in. It might seem that that does not matter, but it is the law that there should be some way for them to get in. If you write to the company that owns the business, you will not hear from them. Those things are very important because, if you are disabled, going out to do something is a big event. You cannot just say, “I’m going out for a drink” or “I’m going out for dinner”. It is not like that. Everything must be planned down to the very last detail, including transport.
I think we do need a commissioner. To some extent, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, that it should be a representative person. It is not, in my opinion, necessary for a race commissioner to be of a certain race, because there are so many races. But a disability commissioner should be a person with a disability.
Disability is so varied, and no two disabled people have the same issues or problems. A lot of people do not realise that. They think that if you are in a wheelchair, that is your disability. But no, you may be very stupid and unable to work at all or you may be very bright and work all the time: you cannot tell unless you talk to the person, get to know them and find out what is wrong with them. Usually, people do not even make the attempt to find out what a person can offer to the world.
We all know “Does He Take Sugar?”, and we have all experienced that. Even later in my husband’s life, people would ask me whether he needed a drink. I said, “Ask him, I don’t know”, or I would ask him. You have to constantly try to guard against the mistreatment of disabled people.
There has to be someone with proper responsibility for disability because it is complex and varied. Unless somebody really knows about it, they cannot do anything to help. I have learned a lot this afternoon. Everyone who has spoken has taught me something. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser—it is good to know what is going on. When I first joined the Commission for Racial Equality, it had no connection at all with the women’s commission. I suggested that we must at least meet that commission. It was daft that we were all dealing with equality issues but did not know each other. I was very moved by what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and I thank her for that.
My time has finished. I thank also my noble friend Lady Deech, who taught me something. I am not entirely in agreement with what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, but I thank him.
My Lords, this is an interesting debate and, as many people have already stated, it comes down to this question: is disability something that easily fits with the rest of the commission? Personally, I think it should be there but that it needs to be treated slightly differently.
I and my noble friend Lady Thomas are both disabled people under every term of the Act, but our problems in day-to-day life could not be more different. As the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, said, if you have a disability—in my case, dyslexia—you often have to plan to do the normal differently. I am in a total mess if the voice-operated system on my computer breaks down. I cannot function as a normal Member of this House because I do not have access to email. It does not happen very often, but it does happen. Suddenly everything changes.
The perceptions of disabilities always exist in certain contexts. For example: “everyone in a wheelchair is only affected by transport”. That is something I went through many a time on many a Bill. “Dyslexia”, my own disability, “affects you only in the education system”. Both perceptions are patently absurd under any examination.
I recently took part, in the company of Barry Sheerman MP, in a commission on the neuro-diverse community and recruitment. We discovered—I throw this in merely to explain the great diversity—that the neuro-diverse community has tremendous difficulty with big-firm recruitment. It uses a series of online tests that we are bad at. I suspect that nobody else in this Room knew that, although you should have read our commission’s report. The difference is there and although all the other sectors here will have a great degree of difference, it is greater still. Many of the disabilities in the two groups which are to be discussed in the next debate have a great diversity of influence.
I have given the Minister warning of this question, although not much because I probably sent it to the wrong email account. I ask her: is there any evidence that the new approach is working better? I ask because that approach is not one that is reassuring to the huge and diverse disability communities—not “community”. We need to know that there is something working better and that information is getting out there. That is the important bit. Unless the Government can give us that assurance, we are going to have problems because we do not know what is happening.
Also, if your Lordships are looking at this huge, diverse and multifaceted group of things, yes, every disabled person happens to belong to at least one of the other groups in the commission but they will have little turns and changes in emphasis as things are gone through. Everything will be that little bit more complicated and, as my noble friend already said, we need to take some positive action to adopt this. Most bits of that action are actually much easier than people think, certainly with modern technology, but it still has to be taken. Somebody still has to be told that it is their duty to take it and, most of the time, it is my experience that people have to be shown that they can deal with the problem fairly easily.
In my professional life—I have to declare an interest here as chairman of Microlink, which deals with disability adaptation—often merely the structural changes in how something is paid for make life easier. For instance, it is often cheaper to do it without referring to somebody else’s budget and putting a central core down, but that is for another day. We need that reassurance that the information is getting through and that there is a central point, which is going down. If we do not have this, we will come back to this subject. We need the reassurance that it works, so is it being tested and, if so, how? What are the results? Make those public and we can move on.
My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, for bringing this debate before us today. We know that he has a great record of campaigning for the rights of people with disabilities and he is well respected for the views he holds and the passion he holds them in, as we have seen today.
The UK has, through various pieces of legislation, always striven to promote equality in the workplace. Over the years, there have been different statutory bodies that deal with specific aspects of discrimination. It was a Labour Government who set up the Equal Opportunities Commission; its first chair was Baroness Lockwood, who has only recently retired from your Lordships’ House. This body was established under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and had statutory powers to help enforce Acts such as the Equal Pay Act and other gender equality legislation that existed in Britain at that time.
The Equal Opportunities Commission was established to tackle issues of sex discrimination. Then we had the Commission for Racial Equality, which was established in 1976 to address racial discrimination and promote racial equality. Then we had the Disability Rights Commission, again established by a Labour Government in 1999, which obviously focused on issues relating to disability discrimination. As my noble friend Lady Prosser pointed out, these commissions were merged into a new body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in 2007. In addition to taking on the responsibilities of the three existing commissions, they acquired new responsibilities to provide the same level of protection for all minority groups. The primary aim was and is to promote and protect everyone’s right to equal opportunities in the workplace, as laid down in the Equality Act 2010.
The legislation on equality and human rights has changed over the years and I believe it has improved: as we learn more about how many forms of discrimination there can be, Parliament will, we hope, bring forward legislation to deal with it. With all the legislation we have, and the protected characteristics, can a case be made for a separate disability commissioner? I am not so sure, since there are nine protected characteristics under the 2010 Act. There could be calls for there to be a separate commissioner for each of those, not just for disability. I know that when the legislation was brought in to set up the Equality and Human Rights Commission to bring everything together in one umbrella body, I was concerned about what would happen to the voice of women, for example. Other groups were very concerned about what would happen to their voice: would they all be lost in this bigger organisation?
I looked at the briefing that the EHRC sent out for this debate and it says that it believes its efforts should be embedded in all its work. Its strategic plan sets out the key issues to address all areas of life. It has a disabilities advisory committee with people with expertise in this field, and most people who sit on the committee have disabilities. This committee keeps strong links with the board of commissioners to keep informed of their activities and to input them as appropriate. The board maintains oversight of the work of this committee and is in regular contact with it. The Equality and Human Rights Commission believes that the changes it has made were designed to strengthen, rather than weaken, its approach to advancing the rights of people with disabilities. It has made a good case for the work it does on behalf of people with disabilities and it believes that that is the best way forward.
We can always improve on all levels of equality and discrimination and we are all looking at ways to make things better for people, to treat people equally and to ask what legislation we need to put in place to make sure that happens. There is still much work to be done to ensure that people with disabilities are treated with respect and given the support they need. I believe that our legislation can provide that, but we should look at other ways as well, if they are needed, as the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, strongly believes is the case. I look forward to what the Minister has to say on this.
My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend for securing this debate and all noble Lords who have made such interesting points on the subject. I echo the words of the Prime Minister in February about my noble friend and the role he has played in this area and I am sure will continue to play. Before I move on to deal with the issue of an equality and human rights disability commissioner and the particular points made, I want to take a moment to reflect on the Government’s position on disability.
The Government are absolutely committed to improving the lives of people with disabilities and making the UK a country where everyone can achieve their full potential. The Government take action, including through legislation where necessary, to address disability discrimination. For example, we recently announced our intention to commence Section 36 of the Equality Act 2010, and our manifesto commits to change the Act to better protect people with fluctuating mental health conditions from discrimination. We provide support to people with disabilities and related conditions to help them live fulfilling lives and move towards—and, where possible, into—employment. We have invested over £130 million to improve work and health outcomes for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions, and the long-term unemployed. We have also provided an additional £19.3 million for the Jobcentre Plus Flexible Support Fund to help claimants with limited capability for work with extra costs that can be involved in moving closer to the labour market and into work.
To further improve our ability to spot and respond to discriminatory practice, the Equality Advisory and Support Service—the equality and human rights helpline—refers cases which may have specific strategic significance to the EHRC for possible enforcement action. Disability inquiries constitute nearly 70% of the service’s work, so it is acutely conscious of and sensitive to disability issues. The service has strong links to the EHRC, which sits on its management board. To address the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the two organisations have a memorandum of understanding and a good working relationship. I know that the EASS would very much welcome the noble Baroness—or, for that matter, any noble Lords who are interested—to visit its site near Rotherham to see the approach it takes to deal with its many callers.
The EHRC has a crucial monitoring and enforcement role for the Equality Act 2010. It has enforcement powers to compel compliance with the Act’s provisions, including the disability discrimination provisions and specific accessibility provisions, and to challenge organisations where required. If the EHRC suspects an employer or service provider of committing a breach of the discrimination provisions, it can conduct an investigation and take action to ensure that the employer avoids a continuation or repetition of that breach.
The EHRC has always been conscious of the need to prioritise disabled people’s interests, but its arrangements for doing this have changed over time, as noble Lords have pointed out. The 2006 Act provided for a disability committee. I stress that this was seen as a temporary arrangement, intended to reflect the need to integrate the particular requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act into the EHRC’s work. The then Government’s White Paper outlining the EHRC said:
“In line with the … Board’s general power to establish Committees to assist with specific functions, there will be a provision in the CEHR’s legislation for the establishment of a disability committee for a period … This will be especially important in its first years of operation”.
This committee had delegated powers within the EHRC relating to disability, but it did not have any additional powers: it could not do anything that the commission itself could not do.
The Act required an independent review of the activities of the committee after five years. This was partly to review how well disability issues had been embedded within the commission, and partly to reduce the Government’s role in dictating the commission’s governance structures, which would strengthen its independence as a national human rights institution. This independent review was duly carried out, and reported in 2013. It is still available on the EHRC’s website, and noble Lords may find it helpful to read it if they are not already familiar with it. The review recommended that the statutory committee come to an end on or after March 2017, and the then Secretary of State, who was under a duty to dissolve the committee,
“as soon as reasonably practicable”,
after receiving such a recommendation, duly did so, with effect from 31 March 2017. This gave the EHRC adequate time to make new arrangements.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, has already given a good account of this but by spring 2017, the EHRC was already looking to change its disability arrangements to those which better reflected its independence. It was setting up a Disability Advisory Committee to replace the statutory committee. The purpose of this committee was to bring in disability expertise to inform and advise the commission’s decision-making across all its work. The board maintains oversight of the committee through receipt of the minutes of its meetings and advance sight of committee meeting agendas. It may invite reports from the committee on particular issues and request the attendance of committee members to observe or participate in discussions at board meetings where appropriate. Similar arrangements are in place for the statutory Scotland and Wales committees, ensuring that the expertise of the DAC, as we call it, can be applied across the full range of the commission’s activities. Individual committee members may also be invited by the commission to play a specific role in, or advise on, areas of work where their personal skills, expertise or networks are of particular value to a project.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, asked whether disability could be treated in the same way as other protected characteristics. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, spoke very much to the point when she noted that the Equality Act provides particular rights and protections for disabled people, including more favourable treatment in certain circumstances. It seems to me that the EHRC recognises this through its disability advisory committee, which is not replicated in its structure for other protected characteristics.
It was as part of that set of changes that the EHRC decided last year not to continue with the term “disability commissioner”. This was not a statutory post but simply an EHRC-created role: a set of responsibilities connected to the former disability committee that the commission decided to change as part of its overhaul of its disability arrangements, which indeed meshed in with a wider restructuring of the commission as a whole.
My noble friend has set out today, with strong feeling and in some detail, the problems and frustrations that he has experienced in seeking an appropriate role for himself as the EHRC’s disability commissioner. I am aware of his view that the real reason the disability commissioner role ended on 31 March last year, along with the statutory committee, was that the EHRC did not want him to occupy that role. I hope my noble friend and other noble Lords who have contributed to this debate will accept that I was not involved in any of the events that he has mentioned, so I am not in a position to debate the details of those events and I think he recognises that. I can certainly say that the Government have taken his concerns very seriously and he has had opportunities to discuss them with a range of Ministers and advisers across a number of departments, including Downing Street. I stress that the Government deeply regret that my noble friend was not able to resolve his differences with the EHRC about his role and responsibilities, and that as a result he is no longer an EHRC commissioner and cannot lend his wealth of personal passion and experience to the EHRC board.
In answer to the question of why we took away my noble friend’s disability commissioner role, I understand that he was appointed as a commissioner, not specifically as a disability commissioner. Any decision to give EHRC commissioners specific roles and responsibilities is a direct matter for the EHRC. My noble friend also makes the point that HMG should express regret about the conduct of a former Minister, and there was a precedent for keeping the disability commissioner. I believe my noble friend is referring to the coalition Government’s decision to abolish the statutory disability committee after three years rather than sooner. The relevant order related to the committee; it had no direct bearing on the disability commissioner, which was and remains an EHRC role, not in the gift of the Government.
I cannot allow my noble friend to intervene because I am right on the wire.
My noble friend talked about freedom of information in this regard. The decision to abolish the role was not taken by Ministers, and the redacted material that my noble friend refers to does not evidence that the Minister took this decision.
I am completely running out of time so I shall address just one more point, made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I assure him that the new EHRC arrangements work better for disabled people than the old ones. That is a really important point. I refer him to the remarks made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Prosser and Lady Gale, which are very helpful. The EHRC itself has noted that while its previous approach provided some focus on disability issues, it was found to have the effect of treating work on disability separately from other work programmes. It also led to work on disability being seen as the responsibility of specific individuals in the commission rather than the collective responsibility of the board and the organisation as a whole. It is believed that that led to some miscommunication as well as missed opportunities.
I am now over time. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, and I will catch up in writing on any points I have missed.