Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I have had the privilege of being involved with disabled people’s rights since 2015. I say privilege in a personal sense, because albeit that there are 14.6 million self-reported disabled people in the UK—22% of the population—what we discovered on our committee was that, unless we are very lucky, as we get older we are all likely to suffer from mobility, sight and hearing problems without necessarily identifying as disabled, and yet in need of the adjustments made for disabled people. In the seven years of my involvement with disability, my arthritis has progressed and I completely empathise with step-free access, for example.
I know that the Minister is a caring and compassionate person, but I have to tell her that my involvement with disability rights has also been the most disillusioning and disappointing issue I have faced in my years in this House. What I have to say now will explain that. In sum, there has been hardly any progress: no central champion in the Cabinet; no will to be proactive rather than reactive; and always jam tomorrow, not jam today—witness the National Disability Strategy. Shockingly, I have to report that in January a High Court judgment, in the case of Binder v the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, found that the strategy was unlawful because a proper consultation involving specific proposals to be put to disabled people was not carried out.
There is no strategy and the Government have not, as far as I am aware, started the process to reconsult and create a fresh strategy that takes account of what disabled people need and want. Rather than moving forward with disability rights, the Government have gone backwards. Moreover, it is an affront to parliamentary sovereignty that major parts of the Equality Act 2010, from 12 years ago, are still not in force.
The disability committee was fortunate and grateful that our report of 2016 was chosen for follow-up by the Liaison Committee, and we are appreciative of the boost that gave to our recommendations. The Government’s response, however, is almost entirely unsympathetic. I enumerate it here theme by theme. In the follow-up report, we expressed the hope that the Inter-Ministerial Group on Disability and Society and the ministerial disability champions would drive our recommendations forward. I have to confess that I do not understand the difference between the two groups but, in any case, there is little published information about the interministerial group. It is reported that it met three times and then lapsed. I see that the Government are advertising for regional stakeholder chairs of disability groups; that seems to me to be spreading tomorrow’s jam even more thinly so that it leaves no taste at all. Can the Minister tell us the difference between the two groups, whether they are functioning and what has been reported from them?
We made recommendations about government leadership in this field. In their response to our 2016 initial report, the Government said that they were committed to creating a public service ombudsman combining local government and parliamentary and health remits. It was announced in the Queen’s Speech in 2015. We saw that as an opportunity to support the Equality and Human Rights Commission and disabled people’s organisations, and secure compliance with the Equality Act 2010, but the Government now say that they are not bringing forward this legislation. Yet they have announced a new ombudsman for private landlords. Why should that have priority, and will it do anything for disabled tenants?
Coinciding with the Liaison Committee review, last summer the Government announced a National Disability Strategy. We immediately expressed the view that this new venture should not displace or put aside the need to implement recommendations already made, in favour of setting up new targets. The strategy is now null and void because of the High Court judgment I referred to. Where is the programme for starting again on consultation and creation, this time taking account of the recommendations in our report rather than setting them aside in favour of vague future promises?
Maybe the reason why disabled people are not heeded is that there is no Cabinet voice for them. We recommended that the Minister for Women and Equalities should be a stand-alone, full-time role with the right to attend Cabinet. This was dismissed as a matter for the Prime Minister’s choice. Who holds the role of Minister for Women and Equalities currently? It is Liz Truss, who is, as we know, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Not even a superwoman, which no doubt Ms Truss is, could possibly carry out the exceptionally onerous job of Foreign Secretary while also concentrating on women and equalities. With all due respect to her competence, this is farcical.
We also recommended that the Minister for Disabled People be made a member of the Cabinet’s social justice committee. This mirrored a recommendation by the Commons Women and Equalities Committee. The social justice committee was set up about 10 years ago on the understanding that a cross-department attitude was needed. While Wales and Scotland have similar committees, the English one was disbanded in 2016 without its duties being redistributed to other committees. Why was this done? Who in Cabinet is leading on disability rights issues? What committees are taking these on?
As an aid to achievement of disability rights, we recommended that the public sector equality duty in Section 149 of the Equality Act be amended so that the public authority would be under a duty to take proportionate steps towards the achievement of disability issues. The way the PSED works now tends to be passive rather than proactive. The Government rejected our recommendation on the ground that it would involve opening up the Equality Act as a whole to amendment. They feared that such an alteration would lead to court litigation concerning actions that claimants alleged should have been taken and whether they were proportionate. The Government have left this untouched. Our 2016 criticisms remain. The wording of the PSED means that a public authority can make no progress at all towards the aims of the general duty and yet be judged compliant with it by the courts.
On a similar theme, we recommended that regulations should change so that public authorities would be required to develop and implement a plan of action setting out how they will meet the requirements of the PSED in all their functions. The Government pushed this into the long grass, commenting only that it would be considered in any future work to review the specific duties placed by the PSED on public authorities.
Perhaps the most egregious of all the failings to implement the Equality Act relates to Section 36, which would mandate reasonable adjustments to the common parts of buildings, paid for by the tenant, where needed for disability access. In 2016, we said we could not understand why another review was needed. Six years later, still nothing has happened, and again we recommended that Section 36 be brought into force within six months. The Government’s response was to refer to difficulties the Scottish Government had faced in implementing equivalent provisions, and to say that a consultation was imminent. When is this consultation? What is the timetable? Why is it necessary? How can the Minister defend non-implementation of a section of an Act 12 years after its passage? Is this not an affront to the legislative work of Parliament?
Disabled people’s access to sports grounds is a well-known problem. The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, has tried to improve matters with his Accessible Sports Grounds Bill, which would have given local authorities a discretionary power to refuse a safety certificate to large sports stadia that were not accessible. It did not get through the Commons. The Government’s response was that existing legislation was sufficient to ensure access to sports stadia for disabled fans. It is a delicate issue because legal action can be initiated only by an individual, and no single fan wants to upset his club and come into conflict with it. While there has been some progress and recognition of the issue, a recent survey by Level Playing Field found that many disabled fans suffered abuse and that there was a poor level of staff disability awareness, inaccessible public transport and general access barriers at stadia. In 2015 the Government set out a sports strategy promising action and said that they would work with the football and safety authorities to improve the situation. But there are no metrics of success. What progress can the Minister tell us of in the last seven years?
I expect the Government will tell us that the number of disabled people in work has increased, but the gap between disabled and non-disabled working people remains the same. The figures look better only because more people are identifying as disabled and more people are in work. The Government’s aim to help disabled people into employment will be thwarted if public transport is not accessible, but Section 163 of the Equality Act, which would make taxi licences conditional on compliance with accessibility regulations, remains uncommenced after 12 years.
In addition, we recommended that the accessibility requirements apply to private hire vehicles. The Government did not accept our recommendations. They have launched a consultation on taxi and private hire vehicle best practice and have said that, at some time in the future, they will legislate to mandate disability awareness training for all drivers. When will the Government take the steps necessary to ensure that every disabled person can get into a hired vehicle and get to work? The new Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Act, passed in May, is not relevant to disabled people, as it is, as it says, about reporting safeguarding and other dangerous issues relating to drivers.
Not just disabled people, but all citizens, need to be able to access justice to enforce their rights. Even where litigation can be afforded, it may present particular challenges to disabled individuals, who may find barriers to understanding and navigating their way through the legal system. We recommended that the costs should be mitigated by implementing qualified one-way cost-shifting in claims concerning discrimination under the Equality Act. This means that a successful defendant cannot recover their costs from the losing claimant, except in precise circumstances. It makes bringing reasonable legal action less of a costly risk.
Costs have an adverse effect on the rights of disabled people to enforce their legal rights. The Government said last year that they were considering the issue. Can the Minister tell us what progress has been made in amending the Civil Procedure Rules to achieve this? Can she explain future plans and timetables, given that a commitment has been made to do this? Our recommendation was that it be achieved within six months.
In general, disabled people need legal aid to enforce their rights, especially as it is for the individual to take action, and it is a brave and well-resourced individual who embarks on this. We salute the handful who have taken their issues to court. Legal aid may be available for legal advice concerning unlawful discrimination. Income thresholds qualifying for the help with fees remission scheme have changed in line with inflation, but not capital thresholds.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry in May 2021 to examine whether legal aid enables people who raise a discrimination complaint to get justice. We do not know the result but, whenever it comes, it is intended to inform the Government’s review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. What progress has been made, if any, are the Government changing the Lord Chancellor’s guidance on legal aid in discrimination cases?
All in all, this is a sorry tale: no progress in implementing the 2010 Act; barriers to getting justice; poor treatment of sports fans; difficulty in getting transport to work and elsewhere; and a general sense that the Government prioritise the supposed interests of business over the needs of disabled people for adjustments and support. This has the effect of putting a large segment of the population out of the job market and out of contact with their fellow citizens. Why do the Government not have more empathy with them? Do Ministers not look at their ageing relatives—and indeed colleagues in this House—and realise that, in the fullness of time, they too will be in wheelchairs, on Zimmer frames, hard of hearing and worse still? They should act now to uphold parliamentary sovereignty as expressed in the Equality Act and for the sake of justice for a large segment of the population. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, is taking part remotely. I invite her to speak.
My Lords, I welcome the chance afforded us by the Liaison Committee taking the Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee report of 2016 out of the long grass and producing its report, published last July. I was a member of the Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee and I endorse all the comments of our admirable chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech.
It really is quite shocking that so little has improved for disabled people since our report, which was careful not to advocate remedies that would involve large spending commitments. It is telling that the Liaison Committee reserved its most damning criticism for the Government dragging their feet on bringing into force Section 36 of and Schedule 4 to the Equality Act 2010, which include provisions on reasonable adjustments to the common parts of buildings such as blocks of flats. If those components of the Act had been brought into force, those responsible for the common parts of buildings, such as a landlord in a leaseholder block of flats, would, after consultation, have to agree to reasonable adjustments, the cost of which could be entirely met by the disabled person.
A good example, which is worth quoting, is given in the report:
“An elderly leaseholder has a flat on the second and third floor. There is absolutely no reason why she cannot live independently, save that she has mobility issues. She wants to install a stair lift … She asks the freeholder for permission. The freeholder says no. She offers to pay the installation costs and all the running costs herself”.
The freeholder, quite legally, still says no.
The Government have announced their intention to bring this section of the Equality Act into force. Indeed, in the National Disability Strategy, published nearly a year ago and foreshadowed in the Liaison Committee’s report, they say:
“We will take immediate steps to … extend disabled tenants’ rights on accessibility”.
Now, we are told, it will happen in due course, with no timescale given. The Liaison Committee is not impressed. It says:
“The Committee finds it objectionable that parts of the Equality Act, now over 10 years old, are still not in force. It is an affront to Parliament that its will expressed in legislation has been ignored or set aside by the executive.”
The Government’s response points to the consultation, saying that any change has “significant implementation issues”. Yes, I am sure it does, but a way must be found to improve the housing stock for all disabled people as a matter of urgency. After all, we are told in the National Disability Strategy that nearly half of all disabled respondents had difficulty getting in and out of where they live. I do not know whether yesterday’s Statement on private rented housing will address this point.
I remind the Government that there are 14 million disabled people in the country and that this figure will increase in future years, so more accessible housing is crucial. If levelling up means anything, surely it should mean using the power of the law to make sure that disabled people do not lose out in basic ways such as being able to live, travel and enjoy leisure activities that are accessible. Will the National Disability Strategy make a difference? It is full of commitments to this and that to try to improve the lives of disabled people, but without concrete proposals with timescales, and updates on progress, it is difficult to get excited.
What is needed is someone with a driving ambition to find solutions to some problems that have been left unresolved for far too long. That person should first ask disabled people themselves what should be done.
I am up to speak slightly earlier than I expected. It is a shame that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn has found himself trapped in a previous debate in which he spoke: that is why he is not here. I am also sad that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is not with us. She and I fought together, as it were, on these issues for many years and I was looking forward to seeing her again. I welcome the debate and compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and her committee. I share her disappointment and that expressed in the report, and the disappointment in the inadequate government response to the impact follow-up report.
I decided, as one of the government team which helped to put the Equality Act on the statute book in 2010, to delve back into Hansard to get a flavour of what we were aspiring to, and what was said by those participating in the debate then, who worked hard to put this important document on our statute book. It took a year to write that Bill. I attended meetings with counsel and others on behalf of the then Leader of the House for a year in the writing of that Bill, because it was a consolidation Bill and a very large and important piece of legislation.
When it came to your Lordships’ House at the end of the end of 2009, we discussed it through the spring—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I was reminiscing about the passage of the Equality Act 2010. We miss some of those who took part then and, in today’s debate, we miss perhaps most of all the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, who is not able to be with us. I am sure all noble Lords wish her well and look forward to her return.
It is clear, if you look at the record of the passage of the Equality Act, that there was a great deal of optimism and of consensus, which allowed the Bill to be improved and amended as it went through your Lordships’ House. For example, on employment, the Labour Government responded to disability organisations and others by bringing forward amendments that addressed the compelling evidence of disabled people being discriminated against once employers were aware of their disability. They prohibited the use of pre-employment questionnaires, except in prescribed circumstances, thus stopping the inhibition of people with disabilities or mental health problems applying for jobs.
That is a good example, as we knew the words in the Act would and should tackle the discrimination faced—in this case disability—and therefore were very important. Being a practical politician, because it was in the run-up to a general election, there was an agreement to put measures in the Act that would need the new Government—in whatever form they took—to pick them up and implement them. In some cases, it was simply changing “may” to “must”. For example, I believe it was the coalition Government that, quite late on, approved the change of “may” to “must” on the monitoring of wage discrimination in companies of, I think, over 500 people. That was done long after the Act was passed.
This follow-up report builds on the recommendations of the March 2016 report by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010, that I think the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, also led. What we saw, when we put the Act on the statute book, is that it created a positive duty to anticipate the needs of and make reasonable adjustments for disabled people. The issues that have been discussed today say that,
“in the context of services, the objective of the duty is to, so far as is reasonably practicable ‘approximate the access enjoyed by disabled people to that enjoyed by the rest of the public. The purpose of the duty to make reasonable adjustments is to provide access to a service as close as it is reasonably possible to get to the standard normally offered to the public at large’. The duty is contained in section 20 and comprises three requirements … to: avoid putting disabled people at a substantial disadvantage where a provision, criterion or practice would put them at that disadvantage compared with people who are not disabled—for example, adjusting a ‘no dogs’ policy for visually impaired people … remove, alter or provide means of avoiding physical features where those features put disabled people at a substantial disadvantage compared with people who are not disabled—for example, providing a wheelchair ramp alongside stairs … provide an auxiliary aid where disabled people would, but for the provision of that aid, be put at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with people who are not disabled—for example, providing an induction loop for hearing impaired people.”
As noble Lords have said, those duties are really very clear, so the shame of this is that they have not been fully enacted 12 years later. I can see that the disability organisations are both disappointed and disheartened by that. For example, on Section 36, no reasonable explanation was given to the noble Baroness’s committee about the continued delay. I quote from the report:
“The Committee could find no reasonable explanation for the delay in bringing section 36 into force in 2016, and the evidence received in 2021 paints a similar picture … asked why the Government had failed to commence this section of the Act, Catherine Casserley said: ‘I really do not understand why the provision has not been implemented’.”
Further down in the evidence section, when asked about Section 36, Melanie Field, who is an absolute veteran of the 2010 Act and worked with us all the way through it, said:
“We often draw government’s attention to the need to implement that provision, and we hope that progress will be made.”
I would like to ask the Minister when. When will progress be made? It really is shameful that it has not been made already.
Turning to making the public sector equality duty more effective, can the Minister expand on the statement and the Government’s answer to recommendation 8 about the public sector equality duty? There, the Government note that amendments to Section 149 will be considered or the Act will be replaced in the future. Can the Minister give the Committee the likely timetable for bringing forward the amendments? Can she please tell the Committee whether the Government intend to replace the Equality Act altogether, and when they intend to do that?
I draw specific attention to the report’s challenge that the Government do not produce data on their interministerial group on disability and society, so it is unclear whether it still exists or not. I ask whether it does in fact exist and, if so, in what form. If it does, will the Government commit to publishing data on it regularly so that it is embedded at the heart of government decision-making—as disabled people have demanded quite rightly and as they need? Do the Government intend to follow up on the recommendation that the Women and Equalities Minister becomes a full-time Cabinet-attending post?
As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, the court challenge suggests that the national strategy for disabled people was not legal because the consultation did not take place in a proper fashion. I echo the question: when will we see a new strategy and how will the proper consultation take place? This draws particular attention to the lack of trust in this area. This report, the one before it and this debate show that there is a lack of trust in the Government’s commitment to disabled people and the reforms that are required, many of which are very straightforward. When the Prime Minister called the strategy a “down payment” in February 2022, when it was first launched, you could almost see the eye roll across the whole disability sector. I would like the Minister to go back and re-establish trust, which has been eroded, and work out how best to do that.
The last words I say should go to the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, because, during the debate in 2016 on the impact of the Equality Act on people with disabilities—led by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech—she said, quoting Sir Bert Massie:
“‘It is now ... 35 years since disabled people called for the right to be treated as equal citizens. Yet the Government still wants to ... talk and meet. It is no wonder disabled people are ... becoming increasingly angry. The Government’s tepid response to the Committee’s report clearly demonstrates a deep lack of understanding and concern about Britain’s disabled people’.
I am afraid that this just about sums up how the committee and disabled people feel about the Government’s disability agenda”—[Official Report, 6/9/16; cols. 980-81.]
My Lords, I thank the committee chair, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and other members of the committee for calling for this debate on a very important subject for our society. I hear the strong and impassioned points that have been made; there have been some forceful interventions and relevant questions that I will address in this closing speech.
I take the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, about re-establishing and rebuilding trust and, in my role as Minister for Women and Equalities in this House, I start by answering noble Lords’ questions and then offer a meeting to see if we can start to rebuild that trust as we go along.
I ask noble Lords to be in no doubt of this Government’s determination to promote the interests of disabled people and increase their participation in the labour market and wider society. This is even more important as society recovers from Covid and faces a number of post-pandemic challenges. This Government are committed to disability policy that supports all areas of life, and to taking action to create a society that works for everyone so that we can build back better and fairer for all. Our aim is to transform the everyday lives of disabled people across the country, through delivering long-term change through practical plans.
Since the start of 2022 alone, our wider work to support disabled people is having a real impact. We have supported two landmark pieces of legislation, the British Sign Language Act and the Down Syndrome Act, which have both been granted Royal Assent in the last few months. The BSL Act came about, with widespread support across government, from a Private Member’s Bill put forward by Rosie Cooper MP and with the help of personalities such as “Strictly Come Dancing” winner Rose Ayling-Ellis and of deaf people’s organisations. It promotes and facilitates the use of BSL, with legal recognition as a language of England, Scotland and Wales—a recognition that I know has been awaited for many years.
The Act provides a specific duty on the DWP Secretary of State to prepare and publish a British Sign Language report. This describes what each ministerial department has done to promote and facilitate the use of British Sign Language in its public communications. The Act specifies that these public communications should include: any public announcement that a government department makes about policy or changes to the law; the publication of any plan, strategy, consultation document or consultation response, or any explanatory or supporting materials; and its use of press conferences, social media or a government website to publicise any of its activities or policies.
The Act places a duty on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to issue guidance on the promotion and facilitation of BSL, which will be developed together with D/deaf BSL users as part of a non-statutory board of BSL signers. We hope to produce this guidance in 2023. A BSL advisory board will bring to bear the perspectives and priorities of those with lived experience, from BSL signers living across England, Scotland and Wales. It will be established in autumn 2022 with a broad remit to advise the Government on matters related to BSL, including how to increase the number of BSL interpreters and to review how the DWP might work to ensure that the Access to Work fund helps BSL users.
The Down Syndrome Act is an enabling framework to give a voice to people with Down syndrome. This will ensure that local government meets the needs of people with Down syndrome to ensure they receive better services now, and to transform their future experiences across social care, healthcare, education and housing services.
I know that the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton, Lady Deech and Lady Thomas, raised issues relating to Section 36 of the Equality Act 2010. In the six months since the Government responded to the Liaison Committee’s report, I am pleased to update this Committee on important progress on an issue in which the Liaison Committee, and before it the 2015 Select Committee, took a close interest—namely the commencement of the remaining parts of Section 36 of the Equality Act.
As many noble Lords know, commencement will enable a disabled tenant or leaseholder to require their landlord to make reasonable adjustments to the common parts of their homes—for example, entrances, hallways and stairs. I am aware that progress has been slower than all noble Lords would like, because we have been looking at the cost implications of implementation and how it fits with wider leasehold law and practice. However, on 9 June, the Government launched a consultation on implementation. This is important because disabled tenants and leaseholders are being given a real voice in how the detail of the policy is being shaped.
Regulations will be needed to set out some of the detail prior to commencement. Feedback from the consultation will be key to this. For example, we are asking all interested parties whether they would like a specified structure for reasonable adjustment agreements and further views on how works might be fairly financed. Via GOV.UK, we are offering a variety of formats to help people understand what switching on the provisions means and to enable views to be fed back as easily as possible. We are keen to give maximum opportunity to those affected by this change to feed in their views, so the consultation will last 10 weeks.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, raised accessibility to buildings and housing. We are also assessing disabled people’s needs in the built environment more generally. In June 2021 we commissioned research, as part of a full review of Part M of the building regulations, on the prevalence and demographics of impairment in England and the ergonomic requirements and experience of wheelchair users and disabled people. The research is looking at the size and layouts in toilets and the range of facilities needed to suit our population. Work is under way to develop robust data and evidence to help government consider what potential changes can be made to statutory guidance covering access to and the use of buildings.
As part of the review, government consulted from 8 September to 1 December on options to raise the accessibility of new homes, recognising the importance of suitable homes for older and disabled people. The consultation proposed whether to wait to see the full impact of recent planning policy changes on the use of the optional technical standards, or whether and how changes could be made by either mandating a higher standard or reconsidering the way existing optional standards are used, including set proportions for wheelchair user homes.
This is a technical and important piece of work. We have analysed all the responses, which have been comprehensive and have helped inform our work on how best to raise accessibility standards of new homes. We will set out our plans in due course. Evidence gathered will help government consider what changes can be made, including reviewing and potentially tightening the regulatory framework to deliver accessible new homes and updates to statutory guidance.
Our planning rules already mean that councils must consider the needs of older and disabled people when planning new homes. We have also given councils guidance on options they should consider, such as housing with improved accessibility, to enable older and disabled people to live more safely and independently.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised private hire vehicles. The committee’s report, and noble Lords’ contributions to this debate, raised accessibility to taxis. On 28 March we launched a public consultation on the updated best practice guidance document aimed at local licensing authorities, incorporating strengthened recommendations on the provision of an inclusive service. The consultation closed yesterday, and work is now starting to assess the views of stakeholders.
A wide range of stakeholders responded to the consultation, and we will consider their responses carefully before finalising the guidance. We hope that, once published substantively, the guidance document will support licensing authorities to ensure that the taxi and PHV services they regulate provide a genuinely inclusive and accessible service, meeting the needs of those who rely on it.
In the meantime, the Government remain committed to improving the experience of disabled taxi and PHV passengers—a commitment the committee welcomed in its report. Subject to parliamentary time, we will legislate to mandate the completion of disability awareness training by taxi and PHV drivers as part of national minimum standards. We also recently supported the Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Disabled Persons) Bill, which gained Royal Assent on 28 April, introducing improved rights for disabled people travelling by taxi and PHV. Together, we hope these measures will allow more disabled people to use this vital mode of transport with much greater confidence.
I am sure that noble Lords will also want to know what advice and support is available to disabled people concerned about taxis, and indeed the full range of service provision across the economy. The Government sponsor a free helpline, the Equality Advisory and Support Service, which provides support and advice to anyone in England, Scotland or Wales who feels they may have suffered discrimination. It receives approximately 35,000 contacts per year, of which about 70% are queries relating to disability. This means that the government helpline assists in more than 24,000 disability-related issues a year.
The EASS works closely with organisations such as Disability Rights UK to ensure that its services are widely accessible to those with a range of disabilities, offering: a textphone system alongside the main telephone number; British Sign Language via a video conference call that a deaf individual can access via the EASS website; video calls to individuals who are visual learners within the autistic spectrum who would find it difficult to process advice via voice channels; a webchat service that offers an accessible route for people who choose to type rather than use the telephone; documents in accessible formats such as large print alongside different font options, colours and sizes, which are posted to individuals; documents in Braille; and an email, transcript or audio file of a call or advice for individuals who find it difficult to recall information provided.
Finally, government services are working for disabled people across a range of other important areas, including the following.
As more disabled people are starting new jobs, there has been an increased number of people applying for support through Access to Work. We have delivered improvements to the Access to Work programme to meet this increase in demand.
The autumn 2021 spending review has allowed the Department for Education to deliver an additional £1 billion for children and young people with more complex needs, including those with a disability, in 2022-23, bringing the total high-needs budget next year to over £9 billion.
In collaboration with ACAS, BEIS launched an online advice hub in July 2021, containing clear, accessible information and advice on employment rights for disabled people.
The DfE contributed £9.3 million in the 2021-22 financial year to fund the training of more educational psychologists, increasing the number of trainee educational psychologists each year to over 200.
The Rail Delivery Group and the Department for Transport have introduced a new Passenger Assistance app, with over 80,000 users of the app supported to receive over 400,000 different forms of assistance.
To make housing more accessible, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published a new National Model Design Code in July 2021, setting out comprehensive guidance on the design of homes and neighbourhoods for local planning authorities. The guidance emphasises the importance of designing new development, including public spaces and play areas, in a way that creates safe, inclusive, accessible and active environments.
To support people in court proceedings, the MoJ brought a new revised victims’ code into force in England and Wales on 1 April 2021, which set out enhanced rights for disabled people, as well as other victims.
The Cabinet Office has launched an enhanced programme of disability and access ambassadors, expanding to include 19 ambassadors, senior business leaders who help to ensure businesses are doing all they can to support their disabled customers.
BEIS published a consultation on making flexible working the default in September 2021. Flexible working can be particularly valuable for those who need to balance their personal lives with their working lives, including those with caring responsibilities. The consultation closed on 1 December, having received over 1,600 responses.
The Department of Health and Social Care’s adult social care reform White Paper, People at the Heart of Care, published in December 2021, reflected the needs of disabled people.
I will try to answer some of the specific questions that noble Lords raised. Both the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Thornton, raised the issue of the disability strategy, in particular in relation to the judicial review. The national disability strategy set out our ambition to improve the lives of disabled people. We are disappointed by and strongly disagree with the High Court’s finding, and the Secretary of State has sought permission to appeal its declaration. While awaiting a decision on permission to appeal from the Court of Appeal, we are required to take steps to comply with the court’s declaration. We will do everything we can to limit the impact of this ruling on disabled people but, to ensure compliance with the court’s declaration, we are obliged to pause a limited number of policies which are referred to in the strategy or are directly connected to it. We remain committed to improving opportunities and outcomes for disabled people as we await the outcome of the appeal.
As I said, in less than a year, we passed the British Sign Language Act and the Down Syndrome Act. Our intent is still to create more opportunities for disabled people to participate and thrive; to protect and promote the rights of disabled people; and to tackle the barriers that prevent disabled people from fully benefiting from and contributing to every aspect of society.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised issues about the progress of legislation in relation to the public service ombudsman. The Government do not anticipate bringing forward legislation at this time. Should the Government take forward any ombudsman reform, we would run a full public consultation, including responses from equalities and disability organisations.
I have already referred to many of the things the Government are doing in taking leadership of these issues, and I am very happy to say that the ministerial disability champions were appointed in summer 2020 at the request of the Prime Minister to help drive the development and delivery of the national disability strategy. The champions meet quarterly through the year; during the development of the national disability strategy, it was set out that the Minister for Disabled People will continue to chair a quarterly meeting of the champions to drive progress.
Noble Lords raised the status of the role of the Minister for Women and Equalities, and how that needs to be a Cabinet post. I am unable to give noble Lords any good news on that. All I can say is that, as well as it being the prerogative of the Prime Minister to determine who sits in Cabinet, I will do my best in my role in the Lords to support all disabled people, and I will work as hard as I can. My colleague, Chloe Smith, Minister for Disabled People, is equally committed and, as I said, it would be good for us to meet after this debate to see what progress, if any, we can make.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised the point of the Cabinet social justice committee. Again, the Cabinet and its committees provide a framework for Ministers to consider and make collective decisions on policy issues, covering the full range of government business, including issues of equality and fairness.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised the issue of sports and accessible facilities. The Government’s sports strategy
“commits us to work with the football authorities to ensure that all clubs meet their legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to provide reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled spectators.”
We expect all sports and clubs to take the necessary action to fulfil their legal obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to make “reasonable adjustments” so that disabled people are not placed at a substantial disadvantage when accessing sports venues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised the public sector equality duty. It has very wide application, applying to all functions of most public bodies, to the public functions of other organisations and to every protected characteristic in the Act. It is often added to other grounds as part of a claim for judicial review, although a requirement to take all proportionate steps would be a positive duty. Inevitably, claims made against public authorities for failing in this duty would be setting negative, and possibly counterfactual, terms that the authorities should have taken this or that step—or, indeed, several successive steps—but had failed to do so. Arguments in the courts would focus on actions that had not happened and whether they would have been proportionate if they had happened. Adoption of the 2009-10 Bill amendment, as a way of moving to an outcome-focused duty, would, therefore, not simply be a shift in policy terms but raise potentially significant issues for legal bodies. The Government, therefore, take the view that the amendments to the public sector equality duty set out in Section 149 of the Equality Act should, in due course, be considered if or when any more general decision is taken to revise or replace the Act in future.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, also raised the issue of access to justice and the legal aid system. The Government remain committed to ensuring that access to justice is a reality for disabled people in exercising their rights and are continuing to carefully consider the issue. This includes examining the possibility of consulting on the feasibility of a potential pilot scheme testing the advantages and disadvantages of extending cost protection to disability claims. This is a key issue on which we aim to set out the way forward in the coming months.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, raised the issue of disabled people’s access to housing. I have already referred to that in my closing speech, but the Government have consulted, as I said. We will wait to see the outcome of the consultation. Again, the consultation is part of a full review of Part M of the building regulations. Evidence gathered will help the Government consider what changes can be made, including reviewing and potentially tightening the regulatory framework to deliver accessible homes and update statutory guidance.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked what accessible support and advice are available for disabled people who face discrimination. As I said, the Government sponsor a free helpline, which works in the ways I already described: textphones, sign language and video calls for those who need it.
We will continue to be ambitious to deliver meaningful policies to improve disabled people’s lives, and we will continue to ensure that the voice of disabled people is properly heard. We will continue to work closely with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations.
My Lords, I thank all those who have joined this debate. The absence of certain members of our committee who are disabled is really rather poignant and illustrates just how difficult it is for disabled people to participate, whether it is by video or whether they cannot get here on public transport. I know that several of them would have wanted to be here.
I very much welcome the Minister’s offer to meet, and I apologise to her most sincerely for not having spotted her email of about a week ago offering a meeting. Had we had one, our speeches would have been a bit less like ships passing in the night. I would very much like to take up her offer and look forward to working with her, because I know that she cares about this. We have seen her attitude in various welfare matters, and I know her to be a caring person who wants to do the right thing by disabled people.
I welcome the Government’s efforts in sign language. When we heard witnesses in our committee six years ago, some people managed to come and give evidence in sign language and interpretation was provided—however, at very great expense. Anything that improves the ability of people who use sign language to get their message across and be heard is very welcome.
I welcome the fact that a consultation has been launched on Section 36, on new homes and, I think, on various other things too. An awful lot of consultation is going on, and I must remind the Minister that the judgment in the Binder case said that a consultation should not just be vague and unspecific; it should put forward specific proposals that the Government are making, in order that there be a specific response from disabled people. The court also said that disabled people and all their various organisations should be consulted. I hope that we are not back again in future saying, “Another consultation has gone wrong”. I urge the Minister and all her assistants to make sure they get those consultations, of which she mentioned about half a dozen, right according to the judgment in the Binder case.
I also hope that consultations will not hold things up. We would like a date of commencement of, for example, Section 36 and when new homes will be required to be accessible. There was a little bit too much use of the words “commitment” and “subject to parliamentary time”. Those phrases always raise red flags with me.
On sport, I have to respond that sports stadia do not know exactly what is required of them under the Equality Act. There is a need to be more specific, which is why the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, put forward his Bill. They are bound by the Equality Act to make “reasonable adjustments”; it would seem by past practice over the last few years that either they do not know or they wilfully do not know.
Finally, it is disappointing that some of the responses that the Government gave in their answer to the Liaison Committee’s report, for example on PSED, are still there. The main flaw in the approach is the lack of a strong champion in the Government and of a strategy. I hope that, one day, we will have both of them. In the meantime, I thank the Minister and I look forward very much to having a meeting with her very soon.
Committee adjourned at 6.21 pm.