Tory peerage for equality watchdog’s disability chair


theweeksubThe chair of the equality watchdog’s disability committee is to be made a Conservative peer, an announcement that appears to have divided leading disabled figures.

Some fear that Chris Holmes, a multi-gold-medal winning Paralympian, lawyer, and director of Paralympic integration at London 2012, will find it difficult to maintain his independence as the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) disability commissioner.

But others have welcomed the decision to appoint another disabled person to the Lords, with Holmes joining 29 other new “working peers” selected by his party, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Green party.

His appointment came only days after the EHRC decided to scrap the statutory disability committee he chairs and replace it with a less powerful advisory group.

One prominent disabled activist warned that the decision to make Holmes a Conservative peer would put his work and that of the committee under the microscope.

He said: “It will be more important than ever for the committee to be seen to be championing disabled people’s equality and human rights, to avoid being accused of being too close to the government.”

But Kirsten Hearn, a Labour party member and vice-chair of the disability committee, said she believed it would be “helpful” to have Holmes in the Lords.

She said he was “very committed to disability equality and disability rights” and was “a man with principles”.

She added: “I am hoping he is going to speak up for the rights of disabled people and work closely with other disabled peers like Tanni Grey-Thompson, Jane Campbell and Colin Low.

“I hope he will bring a positive voice for disabled people in the Lords, in partnership with other prominent disabled peers, to try and negate the damage being done by the government to disabled people, and if possible to champion our rights.

“That’s what I look forward to him doing. The fact that he is going to be an active Tory may or may not allow him to do that.”

She added: “I think that it might be interesting for disabled people’s organisations and others to have a fairly early conversation with him about what he could do to influence government thinking about disability issues.”

Sir Bert Massie, who chaired the Disability Rights Commission and is a former EHRC commissioner, was also complimentary about Holmes’s personal qualities.

He said Holmes was “a nice guy, intelligent, he’s got charm, he’s got wit”, and would make “quite a good member of the House of Lords”.

But he said he personally would not have chosen him, because of the impact on his independence as chair of the disability committee.

Sir Bert, a Labour party member, said: “When I was holding public positions, I never aligned myself to any political party.”

He said it would be difficult for Holmes as a disabled person to support a government “who have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to disability issues”.

But he added: “As a new and working peer it makes it difficult to be independent. If he comes out and says that a government policy is a load of rubbish, he might get leaned on.

“Chris is not a crossbencher so he doesn’t have the freedom to speak out. It’s unrealistic to think he is going to be there to serve disabled people.

“He’s a tough guy, he will cope with it, but it does make life difficult, providing you think the equality commission is any use and is not just a fig leaf so the government can say they are doing something on equality.”

He also said he regretted that the 30 new peers were all party political appointments, and so had ignored “so many other people who could make a good contribution on disability and other issues and would be excellent advocates for disabled people” in the Lords.

Mike Smith, Holmes’s immediate predecessor as chair of the disability committee, declined to comment on the announcement.

The EHRC also said it would not comment on the peerage because it was a “party political appointment and does not involve the commission”.

1 August 2013