Baroness Deech (CB)
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.