Equality watchdog brings non-disabled people onto disability committee for first time


newslatestThe equality watchdog has appointed two non-disabled people to its disability committee for the first time.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said its seven new committee members had been recruited “on the basis of their understanding of the barriers that stop disabled people from taking a full and equal part in society”, and their experience of challenging those barriers.

They were also required to be either a disabled person or have significant experience of working with or supporting disabled people.

Over the next year, the committee will play a key role in informing the commission’s report on the UK’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as contributing to the commission’s next strategic plan and its periodic review of Britain’s progress on equality and human rights.

But the seven members will only serve two years on the committee. Last year, the commission over-ruled the advice of an independent reviewer and decided to scrap the committee in 2017 and replace it with an advisory group without the same legal powers.

EHRC’s disability committee was given powers by the Equality Act 2006 to take important disability-related decisions within EHRC, such as allowing it to overrule commission officers on critical and strategically-important legal cases.

The committee, headed by the disabled Tory peer Lord [Chris] Holmes, will now have five disabled members – Dr Rachel Perkins, Saghir Alam, Michele Scattergood, Dr Marc Bush and Professor Anna Lawson – and two non-disabled members, Helen Chipchase and Rob Greig.

Chipchase is the interim head of diversity at Sainsbury’s and was previously the disability and carers lead at BT, while Greig is chief executive of the National Development Team for Inclusion and the government’s former national director for learning disabilities.

Perkins is the former chair of the government’s now defunct advice body of disabled people, Equality 2025, and a government advisor on mental health; Bush is director of policy and intelligence at Healthwatch England and former head of research and public policy at Scope; Scattergood is chief executive of Breakthrough UK; and Lawson is chair in law at the University of Leeds, and coordinator of the accessibility strand of the Academic Network of European Disability experts.

Alam is the only current member of the committee to be reappointed, and is also chair of Action on Disability and Development International.

Kirsten Hearn, the committee’s current vice-chair, who decided not to seek another term, was critical of the decision to appoint non-disabled people to the committee.

She said: “I am a strong believe in ‘nothing about us without us’.

“I am sure that the two non-disabled people being appointed have got great skills to bring to the work, but I do think that lived experience of being a disabled person cannot be [replicated]in someone who doesn’t have it.”

She said she had decided not to re-apply partly because she feared becoming “complacent” and “stale” after five years on the committee, but also because of how EHRC had changed in that time.

She said: “I do think the values and way of working of the EHRC are not aligned to mine as they once were.

“There has been a big value shift, which I am unhappy about. The EHRC’s relationship with the government has changed because the government has a different ideology [to Labour].

“We are not challenging discrimination as strongly as we were previously. It is much more about getting people to do the right thing.”

She added: “I am also a bit disheartened that it is so difficult to get things done, because of how the institution has responded to its current role. There are much more hoops to jump through.”

Hearn said she felt sympathy for EHRC staff who were finding it “really difficult to work” after losing so many colleagues to redundancy following funding cuts to the commission.

Mike Smith, former disability commissioner at the EHRC, confirmed that during the time he was on the committee, all of its members were disabled people.

He added: “There is genuine value in having people with lived experience of disability in control of the work and decisions of the disability committee, including providing scrutiny over the decisions of officers.

“But the real test of the new committee will be in what improvements they are able to deliver for disabled people, in realising their human rights and overcoming discrimination.

“I wish the new committee all the best in delivering these significant challenges, and meeting the outcomes expected by disabled people and the government when they extended the life of the disability committee [to 2017].”

Lord Holmes said in a statement: “As defined by the Equality Act 2006, over 50 per cent of members of the disability committee are disabled people.

“The recruitment process to the disability committee was undertaken with full regard to the requirements of [the act], and focused on appointment of a broad range of people with the influence, skills and expertise required to deliver a high-performing statutory committee.”

Greig said: “I think it is important that disabled people are in a majority on the committee. I think it is important to have a coalition of disabled and non-disabled people working together.”

He added: “[The EHRC] is potentially a really important and influential body. I would suggest it could have more impact than it has in the past.

“I would like to see if I could make a contribution to making an impact.”

2 October 2014