The prime minister has refused to criticise four Conservative peers who made discriminatory and disablist remarks about disabled peers working in the House of Lords.
Boris Johnson’s refusal to speak out came in response to a disabled constituent who wrote to him after reading last month’s Disability News Service (DNS) story about the comments made by Lord Farmer, Lord Howard of Rising, Baroness Noakes, and Viscount Trenchard.
They had been speaking during a debate on the continuing use of remote participation and “hybrid” sittings, which have been introduced in the Lords during the pandemic.
All four 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 contribute to debates from their homes*.
One of the Tory 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”.
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, who lives in the prime minister’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, told the prime minister in an email that she was “very concerned” about the attitudes of the four peers and was sure he would want to act on them.
She asked Johnson (pictured) to contact the government’s chief whip in the Lords to “let him know that one of your constituents does not have the same views of disabled people as they do” and that she values the contribution made by disabled peers.
She added in her email: “This is particularly so when the perceived stigma of disability means that some [prospective parliamentary candidates] do not even mention their disability during election campaigns for fear of prejudice affecting the result.”
King told the prime minister that hybrid proceedings were “important in ensuring proper access to the proceedings of Parliament and help to ensure proper representation of disabled people”.
But when Johnson replied, he ignored the concerns she had raised about the four Tory peers.
Instead, he said only that the government “values the vital contribution all members of the House make to legislative scrutiny”, and then wrote at length about hybrid proceedings and remote participation.
Johnson’s decision to condone the comments made by the four Tory peers comes in the same week that he failed to criticise England football fans who booed players taking a knee as an anti-racism gesture before two recent friendly internationals.
The Conservative party has refused to answer questions about the comments made by the four peers, or to say if it believes they were disablist and discriminatory, or if it would take any action against them.
Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, issued a statement that also appeared to condone their comments.
The disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Sal] Brinton, who took part in the Lords debate virtually, as she has had to shield from the virus during the pandemic, told DNS this week that the silence from the prime minister, from Tomlinson and the Conservative party “speaks volumes” at a time when there are “substantial barriers for disabled people in politics”.
She said: “Does this mean that the prime minister is condoning the discriminatory and disablist comments by members of his own party?
“I had hoped that he would lead by example in light of his government’s intentions to finally publish their disability strategy.”
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, a disabled crossbench peer, who also took part in the debate virtually as she has been shielding, said she was “disappointed that party leaders have not yet openly demonstrated some acknowledgement” of the discrimination faced by disabled peers, or proposed any ideas on how to tackle it, but she said there was “still time”.
She said she had found the Tory peers’ comments “unpleasant to hear and wished all peers were more aware of the consequences of such discriminatory remarks”.
She said: “The majority of my fellow peers work in a mutually supportive way with one another, but we know that there are some who hold the same out-dated attitudes as many people outside the Westminster bubble.
“The debate on remote participation has offered a timely opportunity to tackle disability discrimination head-on and change it.”
She called on all peers to “come together to create an environment where everybody no matter what their disability, can contribute equally.
“The responsibility to take this forward must not be simply left to disabled members to raise, it is not our problem alone.
“We are a self-regulating House and therefore it is everybody’s duty to tackle discrimination on every level.”
Baroness Campbell said she now wanted to work with the authorities in the Lords to ensure there was “meaningful consideration and action, especially regarding reasonable adjustments”, so that “equal participation” and the Equality Act “become a reality across the parliamentary estate”.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “It is alarming that both the prime minister and his minister for disabled people appear to condone the comments made by these peers.
“This only serves to reinforce the message that the government does not take disabled people’s rights seriously.
“With so few disabled politicians in parliament, it is obvious that the way we do business needs to change, reform and become more inclusive.
“Disabled people must be at the very heart of our decision-making.”
A spokesperson for Number 10 had refused by noon today (Thursday) to say why the prime minister had failed to criticise the comments of the four Tory peers; why he was apparently condoning their disablist, discriminatory comments about disabled people; and why he had refused to take any action.
But she said in a statement: “The government is committed to supporting disabled people play an active role in all aspects of life, and will deliver a National Disability Strategy which will be underpinned by their direct insight and lived experience, as well as guidance from charities, stakeholders and disabled people’s organisations.
“We value the contribution of all members of the House of Lords make to legislative scrutiny, and want to ensure all members can continue to participate.
“It is for the House of Lords to make a final decision about the form proceedings should take after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended.”
*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.”
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