Equality watchdog to scrap vital disability committee


theweeksubSerious questions have been raised over why the equality watchdog has decided to scrap the disabled-led committee that makes some of its most important decisions on disability equality, ignoring the advice of an independent reviewer.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) wants to replace its disability committee with an advisory group that will not have the same legal powers to make decisions on issues affecting disabled people.

The decision to overrule the advice of the reviewer came despite a consultation exercise which found that about 70 per cent of the individuals and organisations that responded were in favour of the committee keeping its statutory status, while only 11 per cent thought it should be removed.

Mike Smith, who chaired the committee until last December, said he believed the decision to scrap the committee may have been made by the commission before the review took place.

He said he had been told previously by some commissioners that they believed the disability committee should not exist.

He added: “It was often said to me by senior officers that they thought the commission did a disproportionately large amount of work on disability, and attributed this to the existence of the disability committee.”

It is the second disabled-led committee to be told this week that it faces abolition, after a review of the government’s Equality 2025 advisory body recommended that it should be disbanded.

The disability committee was given significant powers by the Equality Act 2006 to take important disability-related decisions within EHRC, for example allowing it to overrule commission officers on critical and strategically-important legal cases.

Agnes Fletcher, the disabled equality consultant who carried out the review, told EHRC there was a “compelling rationale” for keeping the committee and its statutory powers until at least 2017.

But EHRC ignored her advice and has recommended to Conservative women and equalities minister Maria Miller – who is also the culture secretary – that the committee should be replaced with an advisory group with no statutory powers.

Smith praised Fletcher’s report but questioned why she had not been allowed to see a report the committee had commissioned to analyse its impact on EHRC over its five years.

The commission’s board had not allowed Smith or his committee to see the report last year, claiming there were “problems with the methodology”.

Sir Bert Massie, who chaired the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) and is a former EHRC commissioner, said that abolishing the committee was “a bad decision” for which the commission had offered no explanation.

He said: “I can’t but be suspicious about the motivation because there is no honourable motivation I can see.”

He is to write to Miller, but said he had “no great confidence” that she would ignore the commission’s recommendation.

Sir Bert said that having a committee with no statutory powers would mean its advice could be ignored, and that it could be scrapped at any time, potentially also leaving the EHRC without a single disabled commissioner.

He said: “We may end up with the commission pontificating on disability issues without any disabled person on the commission. That could easily happen.”

He added: “This will mean the equality commission will be even weaker than it has been on disability issues. The commission should be up there fighting hard, and, frankly, it isn’t. If it was abolished tomorrow, how many people would attend the funeral?”

Fletcher, a former DRC director of communications, highlighted the “broad and complex” nature of the EHRC’s work on disability – which has accounted for 43 per cent of its legal cases – and the committee’s new role in supporting the commission to “promote, protect and monitor” the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

And she said there was a feeling that the committee – which costs just £28,000 a year to run – had been undermined by a “lack of support or even hostility” from the commission.

Despite this, she said the committee had made a “valuable” contribution in its first five years, leading on the “ground-breaking and extremely influential” disability-related harassment inquiry, advising on key legal cases, and supporting the commission’s work on the UNCRPD.

She also said there was “almost nothing” about the committee on the commission’s website and that the staff resources it had been given by the commission had “gradually dwindled” over the years.

One of her few criticisms of the committee’s work was that many organisations had claimed it did not have a high enough profile and had met only “sporadically” with stakeholders.

But Smith said that for its first three years, the commission had not allowed any stakeholder events focused only on one equality strand. More recently, it had told the disability committee there was not enough funding to hold such events.

The commission now wants to replace the committee with a “high-level strategic advisory group” – still chaired by the EHRC’s disability commissioner – with a “wider” programme of engagement with disability stakeholders and a funding increase of about 50 per cent.

The commission warns in its response to Fletcher’s review that such a move could be seen as “a change to our commitment to disability issues and potentially pose a risk to the reputation of the commission”.

Fletcher said she was “disappointed” that the commission had not agreed with her recommendation.

She said: “There are very significant changes to policy underway, including in education, employment, social security, social care and housing.

“These changes will have a major cumulative impact on many disabled people in the next few years.

“I believe that an expert statutory body, closely in touch with disabled people’s organisations, focused on monitoring this impact and on developing the commission’s strategy in response, is vital.”

Chris Holmes, the current disability commissioner and chair of the disability committee, said in a statement that his committee was “confident that the commission will ensure that the approach it is proposing will continue to enable the commission to deliver for disabled people”.

An EHRC spokesman claimed the statutory powers were delegated to the committee because of the “newness and complexity of the disability equality legislative framework, and the need to support the then newly formed EHRC to continue the legal and policy work undertaken by the Disability Rights Commission”.

He said this was no longer necessary because the Equality Act 2010 had “strengthened the legislation in relation to disabled people”, while the UNCRPD had been ratified by the UK government, and the commission had “significantly increased officer understanding and expertise on disability matters”.

18 July 2013