Disabled activists have welcomed an international body’s decision to consider downgrading the status of the UK’s much-criticised and “discriminatory” human rights watchdog.
The chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Baroness Falkner, decided to leak the information that its “A” status as an international human rights institution was under threat by publishing a column in the right-wing Daily Telegraph.
The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), which will review EHRC’s status, made it clear this week that recommendations made by its sub-committee on accreditation (SCA) were still “considered confidential”, although they would be published soon.
It is not yet clear whether GANHRI will only be examining concerns around EHRC’s stance on the rights of trans people, which Baroness Falkner focused on in her article, or whether it will also address concerns raised by disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) about the commission’s failure to hold the UK government to account on disability rights issues.
GANHRI is partly funded by the UN and oversees national human rights institutions around the world.
DPOs have been calling for EHRC to lose its prestigious “A” rating for more than a year, after concerns that it has become a cheerleader for the UK government.
In August, EHRC faced accusations that it was failing to hold the government to account on disability rights, after a high-profile submission to a UN body was branded “not fit for purpose”.
The commission had been asked to assess the progress of the UK government since it was found guilty of “grave and systematic” violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016, but a report submitted by EHRC and the UK’s three other equality and human rights bodies contained far more criticism of the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than it did of the UK government.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said this week: “Following the pathetic report made by EHRC for the UN reporting last August, we feel it is essential that their A status ranking is reviewed by GANHRI as soon as possible.”
Dorothy Gould, founder and coordinator of the user-led, rights-based organisation Liberation, said: “I’m strongly encouraged by GANHRI’s decision to review the EHRC’s status – the discriminatory position which the commission has adopted towards trans people is deeply troubling.
“The EHRC is meant to be setting the lead on human rights in the UK, not undermining them.
“My strong hope is that GANHRI will also address ways in which the EHRC is badly letting down disabled people.
“It was shocking and hugely distressing that the commission produced a report for the UNCRPD committee last summer which let disabled people down in so many ways: for example, in its flawed approach to welfare benefit issues, despite the devastation which that system has caused and continues to cause; in its praise for the draft mental health bill, despite the bill’s major breaches of our rights under the UNCRPD; in its use of only 2.5 lines out of an 85-page report to cover recent evidence about the major abuse and neglect of people detained against their will in psychiatric hospitals and huge numbers of deaths among them.
“Yet even now, there is no sign of fundamental change at the EHRC.
“Do our full human rights not matter to it? Do our very lives not matter to it? If not, then this is in no way a commission that deserves the status it has.”
There have been many other criticisms of the commission’s recent record on disability rights and its failure to hold the government to account.
Earlier this month, EHRC struggled to explain why its major report on Britain’s “equality and human rights landscape” ignored key breaches of disabled people’s rights by the UK government.
In the same week, DNS revealed that EHRC had failed to follow through on threats to take legal action against the government over its efforts to cut the number of autistic people and people with learning difficulties who have been detained in secure hospitals in England.
There have also been repeated concerns about the commission’s failed attempts since April 2022 to persuade DWP to sign a section 23 legal agreement that would force the department to improve its treatment of disabled claimants of benefits.
Last year, DPAC said the commission was “not fit for purpose”, that it had been “co-opted” by the government, and that its primary mission appeared to be to “avoid rocking the boat”.
That criticism came as DPAC submitted a statement to GANHRI, along with a similarly-critical statement about its stance on transgender issues from the LGBTQ+ organisation Stonewall, with support from the Good Law Project.
In a letter to GANHRI last year on behalf of DPAC, Stonewall and the Good Law Project, law firm Bindmans criticised EHRC’s “lack of actual and perceived independence” from the government.
The letter said the commission had been seen as “increasingly close to, and unwilling to criticise” the government since 2015 and particularly since the election of a Boris Johnson-led government in 2019.
Among the concerns raised by DPAC last year was EHRC’s refusal to carry out an investigation into countless deaths of disabled benefit claimants that have been linked to the failings of the Department for Work and Pensions, despite “ample evidence”.
DPAC said last year that EHRC’s leadership and policy direction represented a “serious threat to not just the rights of disabled people, but all communities targeted by this Government”, including those who were trans and non-binary.
In a statement this week, Baroness Falkner said: “We take seriously our duty to protect and promote equality and human rights for everyone.
“That includes considering, carefully and impartially and on the basis of evidence, how the rights of one person, or group, might be affected by the rights of another.
“We are disappointed that we will have to defend our accreditation status in this way and remain very confident that we will be able to respond robustly to any questions the SCA may have.
“We have already written to the committee to highlight inaccuracies in the submissions made against us, and to strongly reject claims that we are not compliant with the Paris Principles*.
“We take great pride in our independence from government and continue to demonstrate our impartiality through our willingness to robustly challenge them.
“At the EHRC, we keep our eyes on our first public duty, which is to protect and promote equality and… everyone’s rights – not merely those that shout the loudest.”
*The Paris Principles set out the minimum standards that national human rights institutions must meet “in order to be considered credible and to operate effectively”. They include “independence from government”
Picture: The government office block where EHRC has its London headquarters. Picture by Google
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