The minister for disabled people appears to be condoning the behaviour of four Conservative peers who aimed discriminatory and disablist comments at disabled members of the House of Lords.
The Conservative party has also refused to take any action over the comments made by Lord Farmer, Lord Howard of Rising, Baroness Noakes, and Viscount Trenchard – reported last week by Disability News Service (DNS) – during a debate on the continuing use of remote participation and “hybrid” sittings in the Lords.
They were all arguing that the Lords should quickly return to “normal” and end the adjustments that have allowed disabled members and those shielding from coronavirus to vote and take part in debates from their homes during the pandemic.
One of the peers argued that “personal infirmity should not provide grounds for exemption from normality”, while continuing the adjustments post-pandemic would be “extending the logic of equality beyond reason”.
Another suggested that those members who “cannot or will not” attend the Lords should retire as peers, while a third said it was “inconceivable that those who aspire to take part in the governing of this nation should not make the effort to attend parliament, whatever the difficulties”.
Disabled campaigners reacted with horror and anger to the comments this week.
People First (Self Advocacy) told Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, that failing to act on the comments would make it “much harder” for him to implement his policies.
Ben Wilson, co-artistic director of Brick Wall Ensemble, said on Twitter: “The quotes from the Tory Peers in this article, although not surprising, are devastating.
“How can there be any hope for us disabled people who just want a fair chance to live our lives when those in positions of power treat us with such scorn and disrespect.”
The disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Sal] Brinton, who took part in the Lords debate, said it had been “horrible being on the direct receiving end of this from fellow peers”.
But she also said that all those found to be “clinically extremely vulnerable” to COVID-19 – including herself – had received repeated letters and emails from government ministers “telling us to continue to work from home if at all possible”, which made the comments of the four peers “even more ridiculous”.
Freya Papworth, co-chair of the Women’s Equality Party’s disability caucus, said she was so appalled by the comments that she had been unable to finish the DNS article.
She said: “The utter disdain these Lords clearly feel for disabled people is disgusting.
“No wonder we live in a country that is committing human rights abuses against us that no-one cares about.”
Disabled composer Amble Skuse said on Twitter: “And just as quickly as the barriers came down, they start going back up.
“And we thought people might learn from a pandemic…”
Steve O’Hear, until recently a journalist with TechCrunch and now a senior executive with a tech-based start-up, said: “The prejudice displayed in this piece is shocking.
“If the company I work for didn’t support hybrid working then I couldn’t work for them.
“And if TechCrunch hadn’t been remote I wouldn’t be in this industry at this level at all.”
Another disabled campaigner, Natalya Dell, described the peers’ comments as “disgusting, disablist, outdated and inflexible ideas”.
Despite the widespread anger, the Conservative party has refused to answer questions about the comments made by the four peers, or to say if it believed they were disablist and discriminatory, or if the party would take any action against them.
Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, refused to say if he believed the comments were disablist and discriminatory, and failed to pledge to ask his party to take action against the four peers.
Instead, he issued a statement that appeared to condone their comments.
He said: “Whilst I understand the strength of feeling of tradition held by many of long service, we must always be mindful to review and adapt, as the Leader of the House has already set out.
“This government is committed to removing barriers for disabled people from all backgrounds so that everyone can contribute, [and] the House of Lords is no different.”
In the debate, the four Tory peers all argued that the Lords should quickly return to “normal” and end the adjustments that have allowed disabled members and those shielding from coronavirus to vote and take part in debates from their homes during the pandemic.
Lord Farmer, a former treasurer of the Conservative party, said that extending hybrid arrangements post-pandemic would be “another example of extending the logic of equality beyond reason”.
He said that “for the sake of the public who are paying our way, personal infirmity should not provide grounds for exemption from normality” and that “parliamentary participation is for those able to bring vitality to proceedings”.
He said that “if infirmities of mind or body make that vital contribution impossible, any permanently lowered bar to participation serves peers’ interests, not those of the public.
“The previous norm should be reinstated: those of us who cannot come to the House cannot contribute.”
His colleague, Lord Howard of Rising, called for the Lords to “resume our usual proceedings at the earliest possible opportunity” and said it was “inconceivable that those who aspire to take part in the governing of this nation should not make the effort to attend parliament, whatever the difficulties”.
Baroness Noakes called for the Lords to “get back to normal as soon as possible”.
She told fellow peers that there were “no good reasons for hybridity in future” and that “those who are ill or otherwise unable to attend for periods of time can take leave of absence”, while those who “cannot or will not, for whatever reason” attend in person can retire instead.
A fourth Tory peer, Viscount Trenchard, made it clear that he did not believe that “those with disabilities, in poor health or pregnant should be allowed to continue to participate remotely”.
He said it was “an unfortunate fact that if a noble Lord’s condition or circumstances prevent his or her attendance and ability to participate fully, it is hard to argue that that member is fully capable of exercising his or her functions as a legislator”.
He added: “I welcome the fact that it has become easier for those with disabilities to participate fully, but exceptions to physical attendance requirements should be minimised.”
Picture: (Clockwise from top left) Viscount Trenchard, Baroness Noakes, Lord Howard and Lord Farmer
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