MPs have heard how disabled campaigners were abused and threatened, while one was even reported to the police, after taking legal actions against service-providers for disability discrimination.
Esther Leighton and Doug Paulley (pictured) were praised by MPs for their campaigning work, after giving evidence yesterday (Wednesday) as part of an inquiry by the Commons women and equalities committee into enforcement of the Equality Act 2010.
The committee is particularly looking at the enforcement role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which was criticised by both Leighton and Paulley in their evidence.
Leighton told the committee how the defendant in one case was so outraged by a legal letter she had sent him that he reported her to the police, which interviewed her under caution for alleged blackmail, which has a maximum prison term of 14 years.
She was subsequently advised by a police officer “not to write upsetting letters to businesses”.
Paulley told the MPs of the abuse and even death threats he had received after taking legal actions following discrimination, and he criticised the EHRC for failing to provide support after his high-profile Supreme Court victory over First Bus on access to the wheelchair space in buses.
He said he had at times needed support from mental health crisis teams “as a result of the unpleasant treatment and threats” he had received after taking legal cases.
Disability News Service reported last year how City of London Police was forced to launch a major review after refusing to treat online attacks against Paulley as disability hate crimes following the January 2017 First Bus ruling.
Leighton, a wheelchair-user, said she had taken a series of disability discrimination cases against Caffé Nero over access failings in individual branches, but on each occasion the company settled the case without introducing changes across the chain.
She told the committee that she was “outraged” that disabled people were still having to fight to secure access improvements, and told the MPs that she had visited a branch of Caffé Nero that morning that had still not bought a ramp she had asked them to provide two months ago.
She said such examples of repeated discrimination were “upsetting cumulatively” and “horrible in the way that they pick away at your ability to be a full member of society”.
But she said EHRC did not fund such individual cases, and there was no possibility of securing legal support from solicitors through a “no win no fee” arrangement, so they usually had to be taken on by individual disabled people as “litigants in person”.
Leighton said she wanted there to be a way to negotiate binding agreements with service-providers like Caffé Nero so that “they don’t pay me off every time and we never end up in court” and instead “they do something about every Caffé Nero in the country and prove to me that they’ve done it and then I’ll go away.
“I would like that to be public so other coffee chains can see that that was really important.”
She said that was the sort of action the EHRC should be taking.
Paulley said he believed there was a “very substantial difference” between the EHRC and the former Disability Rights Commission (DRC), which merged with other equality bodies to form the EHRC in 2007.
He said: “I felt the DRC were much more proactive, approachable and useful than the EHRC has turned out to be.”
Although EHRC funded and supported his First Bus case, he said they “lost their mojo” after the merger and “do not seem to be anywhere near as proactive” or supportive of disabled people.
Both Paulley and Leighton called for more high street access legal cases to be taken.
Paulley said: “You just have to walk down the high street to see instances of discrimination all the time.
“There are so many places that I can’t get in.
“It’s because there aren’t enough cases being taken that service-providers are either not aware of their obligations [or believe that there is not] any significant chance that they are going to be taken to task for them.
“So what we need is a lot more cases being brought.”
He added: “It doesn’t work as an enforcement system and the evidence of that is that so many providers ignore their obligations with impunity, or [do not even know] what their obligations are.”
At the end of the evidence session, three members of the committee, the Tory chair Maria Miller – a former minister for disabled people – and the Labour members Jess Phillips and Sarah Champion, praised the duo, with Champion describing their campaigning work as “very impressive”, and Miller adding: “On behalf of the whole committee I’d like to thank you for all the work that you do… we are immensely grateful.”
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