Review risks ‘watering down’ disabled people’s influence at equality watchdog


A review of the equality watchdog’s disability committee could slow down further progress on disabled people’s rights, campaigners have warned.

The warning came after the Equality and Human Rights Commission announced that it had appointed Agnes Fletcher, formerly director of communications at the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), to carry out the review.

Fletcher’s appointment has been welcomed by current and former committee members, but they have also warned that the review risks reducing disabled people’s influence within the EHRC.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “The risk of a review is that it will water down disabled people’s lead role in the commission and slow down any further progress on disabled people’s rights.”

She added: “Whilst the EHRC is now experiencing stringent cuts, and hasn’t always pursued disabled people’s rights as strongly as we all want, it has done some useful work led by disabled people.”

She pointed to last year’s inquiry report into home care, which she said “started from a human rights perspective”, and the From Safety Net To Springboard report in 2009, which “argued that social care should enable us as disabled people to participate fully and follow our aspirations”.

She said such successes were largely due to the disabled members of the disability committee.

Sayce, a former member of the committee herself and another former DRC director, suggested that Fletcher was well placed to carry out the review, and added: “We can only hope that the review will lead to strong measures to ensure disabled people’s leadership and real commitment to future years of progress on our human and civil rights.”

Mike Smith, who chairs the disability committee, has already warned that government cuts to the EHRC’s funding threaten the committee’s future.

EHRC is planning for its budget to be cut to £18 million by 2014-15, compared with £55m in 2010-11.

Smith said the committee had achieved “some amazing things for disabled people” in its first five years.

He pointed to a number of successes, including convincing the EHRC to support key legal cases such as those of Elaine McDonald – who was denied the night-time care she needed by her local authority – and Jane Cordell, a profoundly Deaf diplomat who was told by the government that the lip-speakers she needed to do her job in a new foreign posting were too expensive.

The committee has also led the EHRC’s work on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and headed a major inquiry into disability-related harassment.

Smith added: “Much more goes on which positively contributes to the work of the wider commission. I hope this valuable guidance by committed disabled individuals will not be lost.”

He also praised Fletcher and said she “completely understands the issues facing disabled people today”.

The committee has powers to make decisions within the EHRC on matters solely concerning disability, while the commission also seeks its advice “on all matters which relate to disability in a significant way”.

The Equality Act 2006 stated that a review had to take place after the committee had been in operation for five years.

Fletcher is an equality consultant, a trustee of the advocacy agency POWhER and the disability arts organisation Shape Arts, and a former vice-chair of RADAR and a former member of the government’s disability employment advisory committee. She said she was “both challenged and pleased” by her appointment.

As part of the review, there will be a three-month consultation with disabled people across England, Scotland and Wales, probably from early December.

Fletcher has been asked to report back to the commission’s board by the end of March.

The commission will hand its own conclusions to culture secretary Maria Miller, the former minister for disabled people, who will decide what amendment should be made to the Equality Act.

1 November 2012