Two recent reports published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission focus on disabled people’s rights to social security and to participate in political decision-making. Both are submissions to the inquiry of the UN Special Rapporteur on Disabilities, who is due to report to the UN’s General Assembly next month.
Earlier this month, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) responded to the UN Special Rapporteur on Disabilities’ inquiry into disabled people’s right to participate in decision-making. The report, Smoothing the Pathway to Politics for Disabled People, focuses on disabled people’s right to participate in political life and identifies five key actions:
- Regular collection of disability data from elected Members of the House of Commons, National Assembly for Wales and Scottish Parliament to ensure disabled members get the support they need to fully participate in public life; and a confidential disability survey of all current Members of the House of Lords.
- Enactment of s106 of the Equality Act 2010, so that political parties are required to publish diversity data about their candidates.
- Reopening the Access to Elected Office Fund in England, and work with the Scottish and Welsh Governments to explore options for making the scheme, or similar funds, available across Great Britain.
- Introduction or continuation of evidence-based, targeted campaigns to tackle barriers and build confidence amongst disabled people interested in standing for elected office
- Leadership by elected bodies in making the practical changes needed to enable disabled people to fully participate in political life.
This report follows the publication, in June, of the EHRC’s detailed submission responding to questions identified by the UN Special Rapporteur on Disabilities’ inquiry into the right of disabled people to social security. The Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, is currently preparing a study to be presented at the 70th session of the General Assembly, in October 2015, and the EHRC paper is in response to the call for evidence.
The Commission’s response on social security focuses on three areas from the UK context:
- the impact of reforms to the UK’s social security system on disabled people’s rights to independent living and to an adequate standard of living;
- whether the design and delivery of health and social care services in England is consistent with the rights to physical and mental health, independent living and freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and
- the impact of reforms affecting access to civil law justice in England and Wales on disabled people’s right to effective access to justice.
The paper provides a valuable overview of evidence on the impact on disabled people of UK welfare reforms and reforms to civil justice. For example, the EHRC conducted a formal assessment of the extent to which a Spending Review conducted by the UK Government in 2010 complied with the requirements of the former equality duties for race, gender and disability.
There is also a section on the transition from Disability Living Allowance to PIPs and the impact this has had, as well as the lack of evidence, suggesting further impact assessment is needed of the policy:
‘The proportionality of this policy is difficult to measure because “available statistics on PIP awards are still very limited.” An independent review has called for a “rigorous, quantitative and qualitative evaluation strategy with a scheduled plan for publication of findings”, holding that this is necessary in order to “build confidence that award outcomes are fair and consistent”.’
The paper also discusses and sets out evidence for the impact of other reforms, including:
- housing benefit
- work capability assessments
- the Independent Living Fund
- reduction in resources for adult social care
- home care for older people
- treatment in health care
- mental health safeguards and access to mental health care
- restrictions in legal aid
- the mandatory telephone advice gateway
- Exceptional Case Funding
- judicial review reforms
- tribunal fees
The EHRC considers that the reforms to legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 raise issues for the protection and promotion of disabled people’s substantive rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and undermine access to redress in relation to these rights. The paper notes that many non-governmental advice centres are heavily used by disabled people; for example, 37% of citizens advice bureaux clients are disabled or have long term health problems, yet of 338 citizens advice bureaux, only 21 now offer specialist civil legal aid advice, compared to 200 five years ago. This is combined with the closures of law centres and specialist housing advice centres.
The EHRC paper also highlights findings of Ministry of Justice research on the Mandatory Telephone Gateway service that the service was ‘not accurately identifying people who should be diverted to face-to-face advice because of communication difficulties, mental health or mental capacity issues, or the complexity of their case’. The Gateway is now effectively the only route by which legal aid can be accessed for cases involving discrimination, debt and special education needs. Independent research published by the Public Law Project conducted a gap analysis of questions not addressed by the MoJ research, which included:
- the experiences of individuals who did not access the gateway but would have been entitled to do so; and
- an assessment of the accuracy and quality of the advice given by the telephone operator screening service.
The EHRC papers asserts that the findings of the MoJ evaluation combined with those of the independent research suggest that the introduction of the mandatory telephone advice gateway may have an adverse impact on disabled people’s access to justice rights under Article 13 UNCRPD.