The government is failing to protect disabled people from discrimination, according to the conclusions of a nine-month investigation by a House of Lords committee.
The Equality Act 2010 and disability committee has concluded that laws designed to address disability discrimination were “not working in practice”, while government spending cuts were having “a hugely adverse effect on disabled people”.
Baroness Deech, chair of the committee, set up to examine the impact of the Equality Act on disabled people, said disabled people were being “let down across the whole spectrum of life”, including in access to public buildings, housing, public spaces and public transport.
She said: “When it comes to the law requiring reasonable adjustments to prevent discrimination, we found that there are problems in almost every part of society, from disabled toilets in restaurants being used for storage, to schools refusing interpreters for deaf parents, to reasonable adjustments simply not being made.”
The report also calls on the government to carry out an assessment of the cumulative impact of the cuts to spending and other major reforms on disabled people, a demand that has been made repeatedly by disabled activists.
The report provides a string of examples of how disabled people have been affected negatively by cuts in public spending, in addition to benefit and tax changes, including cuts to advice services, and legal aid, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals, cuts to the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and cuts to public transport, social care, mental health services and support for disabled students.
It concludes: “In the light of this list we think that the conclusion that disabled people have been hit particularly hard is inescapable.
“Difficult decisions must be made, but they must also be done in a fair, transparent and accountable way.”
The committee also found that there should have been separate legislation to protect disabled people from discrimination, rather than including disability in the Equality Act 2010, although it was now “too late to undo this mistake”.
Merging the Disability Discrimination Act with the other protected characteristics in a single Equality Act had “led to a loss of focus on disability discrimination and a sense of a loss of rights among disabled people”, the investigation concluded.
But the report says that separating disability now from the other “protected characteristics” such as gender and sexuality would be “impractical”, and it would be more sensible to improve the Equality Act so that it gives “greater prominence to disability” and increases “protection of disabled people”.
The committee also calls on the government to give “due consideration” to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities when drawing up new policies and laws which may impact disabled people.
And the report accuses the government of using its so-called Red Tape Challenge as a “pretext” for removing protection from disabled people, and says that “instead of concentrating on the burden on businesses, [the government]should be looking at the burden on disabled people”.
Baroness [Sal] Brinton (pictured), the disabled president of the Liberal Democrats, who sat on the committee, said they hoped their report would be used to hold the government and other organisations to account.
She told Disability News Service (DNS) that the report “makes it absolutely plain that disabled people have not been served well, despite legislation often being in place, and that discrimination is still a real barrier for us”.
She added: “This is a blueprint for tackling disability discrimination, and should be the basis for making changes.
“For decades, governments (of whatever colour) have avoided really tackling disability discrimination, whilst saying they believe in eliminating it.
“This report, coming hot on the heels of the disability cuts in the budget fiasco, means this government has no excuses.
“It must remedy the failings our report highlights and the disabled community will judge how serious they are about equality in their response.”
Baroness [Celia] Thomas, another disabled committee member, and also a Liberal Democrat peer, told DNS: “For the first time, the discrimination which still exists for disabled people is set out in one place, with evidence to back it up.
“The report also sets out how things could and should change. If all the recommendations were implemented, disabled people would certainly notice – with, for example, far more reasonable adjustments put in place as a matter of course, and better access to transport.”
She said her message to the government was to “get on and remedy the failings highlighted in the report”.
She said: “There is no excuse – many of our recommendations are not costly, or time-consuming, and they just need the government to take action.”
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, another disabled member of the committee, said in a video posted by the committee on YouTube that they wanted the EHRC to do more to promote disability equality “so that disabled people really knew their rights, because that has definitely slowed down”.
She said that disabled people’s voices had become “very silent” under the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty (PSED), compared with the Disability Discrimination Act’s disability equality duty.
And she said the involvement of disabled people had been “squashed” by the government’s Red Tape Challenge.
The report calls for a strengthening of the pSED, which it says presently allows the government and other public bodies to “have due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity, but then go ahead and “pursue plainly discriminatory policies”.
The report concludes that there is a “fundamental flaw” with the duty, and so a new section should be added to the Equality Act stating that a public body has to take “proportionate steps” towards eliminating discrimination and advancing equality of opportunity.
And it accuses successive governments of “20 years of inertia” when it comes to addressing inaccessible travel by trains, taxis and buses, and calls on Network Rail, Transport for London, train operators and bus companies to “put more of their resources towards making their stations and vehicles more easily accessible to those in wheelchairs”, while it says that no new trains or buses should be put into service without audio-visual announcements.
On access to housing and leisure facilities, it calls for a one-line amendment to licensing laws that would allow local authorities to refuse to grant or renew a licence for pubs, clubs and restaurants until they provide basic facilities for disabled customers.
And it says that councils should follow London’s example and revise their planning policies to require a “significant proportion” of new buildings to be wheelchair-accessible or adaptable.
The report also demands action to make it easier for disabled people to defend their rights in the courts, and calls on the government to remove the new fees it introduced for employment tribunal claims.
Baroness Brinton said she believed that two particular recommendations of the committee would have the biggest impact on disabled people.
She said the Red Tape Challenge had “given government and others in the public sector permission to downgrade the needs of disabled people”, and that “if this were remedied, and urgently, many practical benefits would follow”.
She also pointed to the report’s transport recommendations, which were “probably going to help disabled people most day to day”.
She said: “I know from my own experience how fragile independence is when buses, trains, stations and taxis cannot be relied upon.
“It only requires the political will to change this – we should insist that our recommendations are delivered.”
Baroness Thomas said she would particularly like to see local authorities enforcing compliance with the building regulations relating to access, and using their licensing powers to make compliance with the Equality Act a condition of granting a taxi licence.
And she added: “With a minor amendment to the Licensing Act, they could refuse to renew the licences of restaurants, pubs and clubs which don’t have disabled access and disabled toilets.”
The committee’s investigation has taken nine months, has heard from more than 50 witnesses – including many leading disabled campaigners and representatives of disabled people’s organisations – and received nearly 180 pieces of written evidence, and heard first-hand testimony from disabled people, which included a visit to the user-led organisation Real.
The report will be debated by peers once the government has responded to its conclusions and recommendations, which should happen within two months.