The “rash” decision to scrap the role of disability commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will make it harder for the watchdog to stand up to attacks on disabled people’s rights, according to two former commissioners.
Both Baroness [Jane] Campbell and Sir Bert Massie criticised the apparent decision not to appoint a new disability commissioner to replace Lord [Chris] Holmes, the disabled Tory peer who left the post in January.
Baroness Campbell was EHRC’s first disability commissioner, while Sir Bert was the chair of the Disability Rights Commission throughout its existence, and then became one of EHRC’s first commissioners alongside Baroness Campbell after its launch in 2007.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported last week that the minister for women and equalities, Justine Greening, had appointed another disabled Tory peer, Lord Shinkwin, as a new EHRC commissioner, but not as the disability commissioner.
This was despite the minister telling candidates last year that the disabled person appointed to the role would “act as the Commission’s Disability Commissioner”.
It is still not clear what parts the government and the commission played in these decisions, but it has come as EHRC’s statutory disability committee, which had significant legal powers, is being replaced by a non-statutory disability advisory committee (DAC) without such powers.
Although the government has no statutory duty to appoint a disability commissioner, both Baroness Campbell and Sir Bert say the role was important.
Baroness Campbell said: “I think it is still important to have a disability commissioner because, as the House of Lords reported on last year, the EHRC needs to be more proactive in protecting and promoting equality for disabled people.”
She said the commission used to be more proactive in the area of disability, and had “more teeth” when she was chairing the disability committee, while she had “greater authority” as the disability commissioner to raise disability discrimination issues.
She pointed also to the “groundbreaking” disability hate crime inquiry headed by Mike Smith, Lord Holmes’s predecessor as disability commissioner.
Baroness Campbell said: “I wouldn’t have thought taking away responsibility for disability oversight from a commissioner was going to help this situation.
“The EHRC has now demoted the disability committee from a statutory entity to a non-statutory working group and it now wants to go further and take away the responsibility for ensuring one of the commissioners covers disability non-discrimination appropriately and effectively.
“I think this a rash decision and it surprised me. I wonder what their rationale is, especially at a time when we are witnessing the rights of disabled people retrogressing in so many areas.”
Sir Bert (pictured) said the EHRC’s disability commissioner had been able to “bring a focus” on disability at the commission in a way that an ordinary commissioner – even one who was disabled – would not be able to do.
And he said he believed that not having a disability commissioner would make it harder for the commission to stand up to the government on disability issues.
He said: “I think it will. It will make it more likely that disability issues are sidelined.”
He said the commission had already proved that it was failing to defend disabled people from government attacks, such as cuts to employment and support allowance, and its flawed disability benefit assessment regime, which he said were “blatant human rights violations”.
“Who is fighting it, apart from a few journalists? [The commission] should be shouting about it from the rooftops.
“It is almost unbelievable that the government has been able to get away with it.”
He said he believed the commission saw having a disability commissioner as a “constraint” on its work.
Anne McGuire, a former Labour minister and shadow minister for disabled people, also criticised the move.
She said: “It really doesn’t matter whether it is a statutory obligation or not to appoint a disability commissioner, the reality of past years was that there was one.
“Moving away from that position potentially undermines confidence amongst disabled people that the EHRC will give much needed focus on disability issues.
“I think it is disappointing at a time of increasing difficulties for disabled people that either the government, the EHRC or both have taken this action.
“The EHRC will have to go some way to prove that disability equality issues will not be downgraded.”
Last week, EHRC refused to answer questions about what had happened to the disability commissioner role because it was “a government appointment”, although it said that it was “considering what arrangements for chairing and membership of the new DAC will ensure we are best-placed to develop strong arrangements for engaging with disability stakeholders for the future”.
It declined to add to its statement this week.