I say privilege in a personal sense, because albeit that there are 14.6 million self-reported disabled people in the UK – 22 per cent 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 (Baroness Stedman-Scott) 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Baroness Deech is a crossbench peer. This is a shortened version of a House of Lords speech she gave on disability rights.