The equality watchdog has secretly decided to scrap its committee of disabled advisers, without attempting to consult on the move with disabled people and their organisations, Disability News Service (DNS) has learned.
The decision by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and its failure to consult with disabled people’s organisations over the move, will place a further question-mark over its prestigious “A” status as a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), awarded by the United Nations.
There are also questions over whether it carried out an equality impact assessment of the move to scrap the disability advisory committee (DAC).
If it failed to do so, it may have breached its duties under the Equality Act, despite its position as Britain’s national equality body.
The committee’s terms of reference state that its work will end on 31 March 2022, but it has already had its term extended once, and the commission could have extended it again.
Its work is being discontinued at a time of increased concerns about attacks on disabled people’s rights, and when the UN is preparing for a public examination of the UK government’s progress in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
At last July’s meeting of the committee, members made it clear that there had been “significant regression” in disabled people’s rights under the UN convention.
EHRC has made no public announcement on why it decided not to extend the life of the committee, which was set up five years ago “to bring disability expertise to inform and advise the Commission’s decision making across all its work”.
DNS only learned of the decision when reading the minutes of last July’s meeting of the committee on the EHRC website.
Its final meeting will take place next week, on 8 March.
Several members of the committee approached by DNS this week failed to respond to questions.
But Simone Aspis, a DAC member, said she was concerned at the loss of the committee.
She told DNS that the committee’s role was even more important “given disabled people have experienced marginalisation as a result of COVID-19 and the continuing cuts to disabled people’s rights.
“They are the most disadvantaged group of people.
“How is the EHRC at a strategic level going to be able to move things forward without a consistent voice of disabled people?
“I am very disappointed by the handling of this decision.”
Mark Harrison, a member of the steering group of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA), said ROFA had “many concerns” about the decision to scrap the committee, the commission’s “only structural engagement body with disabled people”.
He said it appeared to be “a strange move when other public bodies are embracing co-production”.
But he also highlighted “wider concerns about the independence and effectiveness of the EHRC and its ability to protect the human rights of disabled people”.
He said: “Successive Conservative-led governments since 2010 have slashed their funding, destroyed capacity to take effective legal action and have made political appointments to key positions.”
He said ROFA had previously had “good engagement and regular meetings” with EHRC’s lead staff on disability, but these ended about four years ago.
He also pointed to the commission’s failure to act on mounting evidence of links between the Department for Work and Pensions and the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.
Harrison said: “It is our opinion that the EHRC is no longer independent of government or an effective human rights body.”
Rachel Perkins, the committee’s chair, declined to comment on how she thought the loss of the committee would impact on disabled people, and why she and the committee had not spoken out on its closure.
EHRC had refused to say by noon today (Thursday) if it had carried out an equality impact assessment of its decision to scrap the committee, why there had been no consultation over the move with DPOs and disabled people outside the committee, and why it had failed to state publicly that the committee was being scrapped.
But an EHRC spokesperson said in a statement: “We consider the impact on equality and good relations in all our decision-making, in line with our public sector equality duty.
“Our disability advisory committee is a time-bound committee, which was designed to strengthen our understanding of disability rights.
“The terms of reference for the disability advisory committee, which are published on our website, have always made clear that the committee was a time-bound structure.
“It was extended to support the delivery of our 2019-2022 strategic plan.
“Disability, to date, has been the only protected characteristic with this dedicated advisory function.
“Stakeholder engagement with other representative groups has taken place via less formal structures.”
She added: “Thanks to the excellent work carried out by the committee, supporting us on a number of key achievements such as the Mental Health Act, the National Disability Strategy and the social care inquiry, we now feel better equipped to take forward the work it has been assisting with, and to bring engagement with disabled people in line with our wider practices.
“Under our 2022-2025 strategic plan, we remain committed to improving engagement with stakeholders and will be making a formal commitment in due course to our continued engagement with disabled people.
“We very much look forward to continuing work that preserves the legacy of the disability advisory committee.”
Picture: Mark Harrison, Rachel Perkins (centre) and Simone Aspis
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