The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) new lead on disability issues has pledged to help change the way it is viewed by disabled people, and to do more to explain and promote the work it is doing.
Mike Smith, the new chair of the EHRC’s disability committee, said he believed the EHRC had done an “extraordinarily high” amount of work on disability in its first 27 months, but had been “less good” at letting disabled people know about this work.
Changing this was a priority, he said, as was making sure the EHRC “genuinely” listens to disabled people, and ensuring “we really are doing what people want and they get the benefit of it”.
He accepted that some disability organisations did not yet view the EHRC with the same affection as its predecessor, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), and that “for some people there has been disenchantment” with its performance.
But he insisted that those people who had worked with the EHRC held it in high regard, and added: “I realise how important my role is for all disabled people in the UK.”
He said he wanted to help change the way disabled people, and the wider country, felt about the EHRC and its important role in creating an equal society.
He added: “I want people to feel about the EHRC the way they felt about the DRC.”
He said it was too soon to lay out the disability committee’s plans for 2010-11 as he will be consulting with his fellow committee members.
But his “personal” interests include independent living (he is chair of the National Centre for Independent Living) and the risk that disabled people’s rights could be eroded by the recession and subsequent public spending cuts.
He leads for the EHRC on lobbying for improvements to the equality bill and said he was “thrilled” that nearly every disability-related amendment it has worked on so far had been accepted by the government.
He will also be “taking a very close look” at how the EHRC’s inquiry into disability-related harassment is set up, “making sure that we really do challenge how public authorities take their responsibilities to prevent disability-related harassment and hate crime” and encouraging disabled people to contribute to the inquiry.
Another key area of work will be to lead the commission’s work on monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
He said the EHRC would look “quite hard” at the “reservations” the government negotiated in the areas of education, immigration, defence and benefits.
But he said the convention would be a “very important” tool in the medium term for “creating a society where disabled people are equal”.
Smith was also appointed in December as one of eight new EHRC commissioners, and will take responsibility for “championing” disability issues at board level.
He said he had spoken to both Sir Bert Massie and Baroness [Jane] Campbell about their resignations from the board last summer in protest at the leadership of EHRC chair Trevor Phillips.
He said: “I understand and I absolutely respect what they have done and how they have done it and I certainly respect them as individuals and their judgement.”
But he said the new board was “working very hard to work in a better way and a more inclusive way and to communicate better”.
28 January 2010