Disabled peers and other campaigners have welcomed the major improvements to the equality bill they helped to secure before it cleared its final parliamentary hurdle.
The bill is now set to become law after MPs approved amendments made in the Lords, many of them around disability rights. It is now just awaiting royal assent.
Three disabled peers – Baroness [Jane] Campbell, Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins and Lord [Colin] Low – played a key role in persuading the government to accept the disability amendments.
Baroness Campbell said the bill – which streamlines existing equality laws – was “not in good shape” when it entered the Lords, when compared with the rights contained in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
She praised the efforts of her fellow disabled peers, as well as the support given by the Disability Charities Consortium (DCC), former legal experts from the Disability Rights Commission and the disability charity RADAR.
She added: “It was a truly collective effort – something that the disability movement is renowned for and good at.”
Baroness Campbell said the number of amendments relating to disability that were passed by the Lords was “out of all proportion to the rest of the bill”, with 12 amendments either preventing “regression” from rights gained through the DDA – such as those around reasonable adjustments, accessible information and education – or securing new rights for disabled people.
The new rights include a ban on employers using health questionnaires to discriminate against disabled job applicants, stronger protection on reasonable adjustments, new laws on accessible taxis and new rights to auxiliary aids and services for disabled pupils.
Baroness Campbell said the “area of biggest disappointment” was that the bill’s new public sector equality duty does not provide strong enough protection for disabled people, despite some improvements secured by peers.
A government policy statement has indicated that the new duty will be “much weaker” than the current disability equality duty (DED), she said, while there is no way of ensuring that public bodies comply with the new duties.
She and other campaigners now face “an uphill struggle” with lobbying the next government on the regulations that will set out public bodies’ specific duties.
Marije Davidson, RADAR’s senior policy officer, said the act now “provides an opportunity to generate new energy and momentum behind disability equality”.
She said: “The new government needs to take forward implementation of the equality bill as a matter of urgency, including drafting and consulting on regulations related to the public sector equality duty and taxi accessibility.
“We will press for a robust enforcement of the rights of disabled people as well as raising awareness amongst disabled people of their rights.”
Scope said it was “delighted” that many of the changes it campaigned for as a member of the DCC found their way into the bill.
It described the bill as a “positive step forward” for disabled people, but warned that “much will depend on the guidance that accompanies the bill and how it is enforced”.
John Knight, director of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD), another DCC member, said it too was “delighted” with many of the key improvements.
He said it would now be vital “to make sure that the act works for disabled people up and down the country, and that disabled people are aware of their rights, and are able to challenge discrimination when they face it”.
LCD will release a report next week on how to ensure disabled people can use the Equality Act to challenge discrimination.
Most of the measures in the new act will come into force on 1 October, although the DED will not be replaced by the single public sector duty until April 2011.
8 April 2010