Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, the main purpose of these amending regulations, laid before the House on 18 July, is to update the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 so that they can continue to operate given that the UK has left the European Union. This instrument is technical. It does not introduce new policy but moves the implementation detail of the legislation from being set by the European Commission to being set in the UK. These amendments will not reduce any of the UK’s standards and support for disabled people, nor add any additional burdens to the UK’s public sector. The changes will allow the UK to be more responsive to the needs of disabled people when they use public sector websites and online services.
“Digital accessibility” refers to principles and techniques to follow when you design, build, maintain and update websites and mobile applications to make them as easy as possible for people to use. This applies in particular to making websites and apps that disabled people can use. There should be no disadvantage when using assistive technology with computers, tablets and mobile phones, such as switch controls for a computer rather than a keyboard and mouse or screen-magnification software.
I shall give some examples. A blind student should be able to access their university’s website through a screen reader, find out their timetable and download course information and lecture notes. A business owner with arthritis who uses speech recognition rather than a keyboard should be able to log on and pay their taxes. We all have access needs at some time in our lives, and we expect to be able to continue to use public services ourselves, independently.
The accessibility regulations build on existing UK legislation and commitments, such as the Equality Act 2010 in England, Scotland and Wales, and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland, which place duties on service providers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people when providing services and exercising public functions.
The 2018 regulations that this instrument amends were transposed from EU directive 2016/2102, which requires public sector bodies to make their websites and mobile applications accessible unless it would impose a disproportionate burden on the public sector body to do so.
The regulations can also place obligations on the Minister for the Cabinet Office, including monitoring of the public sector to ensure that the regulations are being met, and sending a report to the European Union every three years, detailing what has been found during the monitoring.
The implementation of these monitoring and reporting obligations was harmonised so that implementation was similar across EU member states and so that there could be comparison between countries. This harmonisation is no longer required, and the specified monitoring process has been inefficient to implement. These amendments move the monitoring process from being defined in a European Commission implementing decision to being set by the UK Government. The model accessibility statement that websites and mobile apps need to publish is also moved to be set by the UK Government.
Although the UK is no longer party to the discussions within the EU about best practice in implementing these policies and how the European Commission will update its monitoring and reporting process, the UK will continue to iterate the monitoring based on our research, analysis and findings. The monitoring team in the Government Digital Service continues to share experience and knowledge with other countries around the world with similar policies and will update the monitoring process as new technology becomes available.
The first report was due to be sent to the EU in December 2021. Instead, the Minister for the Cabinet Office published a report on GOV.UK, and the amendments in question alter the obligation, allowing the same procedure to be followed in the future. This ensures that the monitoring and the effectiveness of the regulations are transparent to all.
The 2018 regulations use a European technical standard as the definition of the accessibility requirements placed on the public sector. This standard is controlled by the European Commission and is subject to its funding and timeframes. Practically, this standard mainly references an international standard called the web content accessibility guidelines, created and published by the World Wide Web Consortium.
These amendments would move the technical standard to this international standard, which is far better known, used by digital accessibility experts and open for all to contribute to. Updates to this standard may be quicker to implement in the UK than when we followed the previous European process, which included updating the European standard and creation and ratification of an EC implementing decision.
These regulations are made under Section 8 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which allows a Minister to make regulations to resolve any deficiencies in law that arise as a result of the UK’s departure from the European Union. The technical standard, monitoring and reporting methodology and the model accessibility statement were set through the European Commission implementing decisions. The UK no longer adopts new implementing Acts, so changes to these Acts no longer take effect in the UK. This instrument removes the links to the Commission’s implementing Acts and replaces them with UK-set implementations, as mentioned previously. Three European Commission implementing decisions will be revoked once the amendments are made.
With these explanations, I hope that noble Lords will join me in supporting these draft regulations. I commend them to the Committee.
My Lords, I have some questions and rather a strong comment. It is clearly convenient that we do not diverge too far from the existing European regulations. I should like to ask whether there is much divergence. There is a good deal of reference here to the World Wide Web Consortium, which attempts to set the standards. It is an interesting body, not entirely intergovernmental, and operates, I assume, by consensus. Are the Government entirely happy with the way in which the World Wide Web Consortium operates, or are there any problems? I know that the Government are concerned about rising Chinese influence within the World Wide Web Consortium.
Do the standards that the United States, for example, sets in this particularly technical area differ considerably from those set within the European Union? One of the challenges that we face in reshaping our regulatory patterns as we leave the European Union is how far we simply follow the United States instead or whether we continue to keep as close as possible to the European Union. I note in this area that a high proportion of British citizens who retire overseas retire within the European Union. If we are looking at something relevant to the disabled and the elderly, therefore, it would make a great deal of difference to ensure that we do not diverge too far from the European Union.
My final comment and objection draws on the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee comment that the proposals move down from legislative processes to administrative purposes. This, after all, is something that the Government are doing across a whole range of legislation: lessening the ability of Parliament to scrutinise, lessening accountability to Parliament and, indeed, as a number of the Minister’s right-wing colleagues mentioned in the Northern Ireland protocol debate earlier this week, asserting executive sovereignty against parliamentary sovereignty.
I suspect the Minister is among those unhappy with this trend. I should like him to take back to his colleagues that, given the extent of this gradual slide towards lessening parliamentary accountability and giving greater ministerial discretion across the board— something we are also dealing with in the Procurement Bill and a number of other Bills before the House—there will come a point when the House stands up and objects to SIs. I will take back to my party group whether, if it comes before the House, we should draw the attention of the House to this element of reducing parliamentary scrutiny. There is behind these technical and entirely suitable regulations a larger constitutional issue of how we maintain parliamentary democracy, rather than executive government, in this country.
My Lords, I welcome these regulations and congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the manner in which he introduced them to the Grand Committee. In essence, the regulations take us from the European standards, EAS, to the Web3 standards, IWAS. For the convenience of the Grand Committee, when my noble friend responds, perhaps he could set out some of the material differences, as he sees them, between EAS and IWAS to bring some clarity to this matter.
He rightly commented on the monitoring done by the GDS and the report published at the end of 2021. In that report, 612 public websites were sampled: 593 with a light touch, 19 more in depth. Does the Minister believe that this is the right level of scrutiny and assessment of public sector websites, and that going into only 19 in more depth is the right means of getting a clear picture of what is going on out there? Some 90% of the websites have an accessibility statement but only 7% of those sampled had what should have been in that accessibility statement. There is a clear departure there. Can he say whether the EHRC is playing a full role in this and whether he would envisage greater involvement by the EHRC in this process?
Some 19 years ago, when I was at the Disability Rights Commission, I was involved in the first formal investigation into UK websites. It was an important piece of work then but multiple times more important in 2022. In this area, we considered not just websites but mobile applications because what we get from technology is the potential inclusion, empowerment and enablement of disabled people given what the technology is capable of doing. Equally, however, technology can exclude and discriminate if it is not produced and constructed while rooted in being inclusive by design.
It is understandable why it has taken the country years to enable buildings such as Parliament—that is, a physical building—to become accessible for disabled people. It is desperately unfortunate when we see inaccessible steps, if you will, being built in cyberspace when, in many ways, we are starting from a greenfield site. If everything across the public and private sectors was predicated on inclusive design, there would be no issues here. Does my noble friend the Minister believe that more needs to be done across this area, with a greater understanding across Whitehall, to grasp what it really means to begin and run all this through that conception of “inclusive by design”? Does he agree that inclusion leads to innovation, empowerment, engagement and enablement, by which I mean human-led technology enabling all the talent that we have in this country? In many ways, there could preciously be a more important time for us to focus on this.
My Lords, I came in just to listen to this important debate; it is a real privilege to follow the noble Lord as I had not intended to say anything. I should declare an interest: I currently co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Metaverse and Web 3.0. I am in an almost infantile state in terms of learning to understand the huge implications for ordinary lives of the new and emerging technology.
I want to make one point about inclusion and accessibility. We must remember that we spent a great deal of hours and months debating how much access all people have to technology. We assume that all this brilliant access is going to erupt from the beautiful, advanced phones that we either get from the House of Lords or can afford to buy, but that is not the case for millions of people in this country who have a huge amount of difficulty accessing information. More and more organisations—not just government organisations and local authorities, but mental health organisations and housing associations—are going digital; indeed, everyone is. There is not enough communication with the public. There is not enough communication with—or, frankly, respect for—the users.
I speak as someone whose son has learning disabilities and lives with autism. I can tell the Committee that he has mastered the iPad but there is no way for him to navigate. As yet, nothing has been made easier for him to ensure that he can access information more easily. We must not live in a panacea of our own with governing regulations, talking about legislation and implementing it as though everything is done once it leaves this building. I urge the Government and the Minister to consider the implications for those who have no access anywhere to the internet or smart technologies. What will happen to them? Are we going to ensure that people who do not have access to their information can have the privilege of understanding all the changes we are about to agree to?
Again, we could take this debate off in all kinds of directions. I am struck by the points just made about what we used to call digital exclusion—I do not know whether that is still what we call it. I was struck recently by news reports about people who, because of the stresses of the cost of living, have decided no longer to have access to broadband, which will clearly present a huge problem in their access to information and public services. It might be helpful if the Minister could say something about that.
My question is similar to that asked by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. Obviously, we need this SI because of our exit from the European Union. I do not know enough about this to be fully up to speed on the differences between the EU standard and the new international web accessibility standard. It would be helpful if the Minister could let us know the key differences, if there are any, and whether there has been any discussion with disabled people’s organisations. What has been done that would lead the Government to favour that route?
I see that the Minister will be obliged to publish a report. Where will that report go? It would be helpful if there were a commitment from the Government to publish it and to alert certain specific organisations to its existence, so that they can engage with it to improve and develop the Government’s approach to this in the coming years.
I have a question about the Brexit freedoms Bill. This instrument would seem to be an ideal candidate for that legislation, but it has all gone a little quiet. It would be useful to understand whether this kind of measure would be in that Bill and what mechanics we should expect in that legislation. It seems an enormous undertaking when actually we are able to deal with these issues quite sensibly as they arise with the assistance of the dashboard, perhaps. It would be useful to know what the Government intend to do.
It has also gone a bit quiet on the Government’s disability strategy. Obviously, they have got themselves in a bit of difficulty in the way that it was initially set about. It would be helpful to know whether these issues and concerns are likely to form part of a revised strategy when it emerges.
I echo the questions others have raised on monitoring. It is all very well to have standards but if there is no assurance that they are being met and no remedies to put things right, it all becomes a bit of a Whitehall exercise. I am sure that is not what Ministers intend.
My Lords, I thank the Committee once again for its interest in these regulations. I thank all those who have spoken for doing so in broad support for them. The Government are committed to improving the everyday lives of disabled people, and access to public information and services is vital. I shall be touching on some themes that were raised on this issue in a moment. This instrument makes sure that the public sector remains accessible to all as it moves online.
I have no answer to give on the point raised the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, about the Brexit freedoms Bill. I do not have any information on that, but she will probably respect that we have had a few noises off and there may have been a few distractions. If I have some information for the noble Baroness before the end of my remarks, I will certainly pass it on.
A number of questions were raised. I shall start by touching on the point about the monitoring process. The European Commission-set monitoring process was designed more for harmonisation across countries rather than effectiveness. The monitoring process will be iterated to have more impact on the least accessible websites, and on sites and services that disabled people may use more often. I think these were points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and my noble friend Lord Holmes.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, spoke about the differences between the EU and the UK. His core question was: are we deviating? The World Wide Web Consortium is an open organisation, as he knows. All can contribute and there is a process for technical experts to ratify. It is interesting that the similar US regulations use an older version of the international standard—2.0 versus 2.1. The EU also bases its standard on the international standard, so the variation is minimal and practically follows the WCAG standard.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and my noble friend Lord Holmes asked particularly about the material differences between the EAS and the IWAS—the European and international versions of the standard. I can reassure them that they are minor and are really variations on mobile accessibility. I hope that answer is of some help.
Can I ask the Minister a question? We are concerned about how much influence we have in these international organisations. Paragraph 7.15 of the Explanatory Memorandum says:
“The UK Government can influence updates to the standard as a member of the World Wide Web Commission.”
It would be nicer if it said “does influence”. Are we happy with the influence we have in this rather odd mixed private, university and intergovernmental organisation?
I cannot answer that. I imagine we are but, if we are not or if there is any issue arising from that, I will write to the noble Lord. I assume that we are happy with that, but he raises a fair point.
My noble friend Lord Holmes asked about Parliament, its role and why it is not keeping responsibility for updating the version of the technical standard. I reassure him that the international standard is updated relatively frequently, with a new version due next year. The standard is open for all to contribute to and goes through extensive review by industry experts. We think it may not be the best use of parliamentary time to require further legislation every time it is updated.
My noble friend also requested a response to his concerns about the movement of power away from Parliament. We are happy to write with a response. He also asked about enforcement of the regulations. The Equality and Human Rights Commission enforces digital accessibility in England, Scotland and Wales, and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland enforces it in Northern Ireland. Both have taken steps to make sure that public sector bodies meet these regulations.
This allows me to talk more generally about inclusion or the lack of it, perhaps. This was raised particularly by the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and Lady Uddin, and my noble friend Lord Holmes. I can give some reassurance: this is one of the great priorities of the Government. The UK Digital Strategy, published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in June, includes plans to strengthen the digital education pipeline as well as to provide essential digital skills training. The Department for Education is delivering free learning and qualifications for adults with low digital skills.
A question was asked about the national disability strategy, which allows me to expand a little on what I just said. In January 2022, the High Court declared that the strategy was unlawful, because the UK disability survey, which informed it, was held to be a voluntary consultation that failed to comply with the legal requirements of public consultations. The Government strongly disagree with the finding and the Work and Pensions Secretary of State has sought permission to appeal the High Court’s declaration. We are awaiting the Court of Appeal’s decision on whether that permission is granted. That provides an update on what is clearly a challenging situation—that is probably the best way to put it.
I believe I have answered the majority of questions. I have an answer on the Brexit freedoms Bill which I have already given, so I will write to the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, because there is no more information on that. I understand her concern. With that, I beg to move.