Disabled people pulling down barriers across the EU
This week Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson warned of the risks of leaving the EU for disability rights. The response from a Vote Leave spokesman was that the UK outlawed disability discrimination long before the EU did and that “EU governments have a terrible track record in protecting the disabled, and certainly should not be able to influence our policy in this area”.
His response fails to understand how UK and EU law have interacted in a positive way to benefit disabled people in the UK and the role of activists, not governments, in improving the rights of disabled people across the whole of the EU.
Yesterday, I attended a meeting in parliament with some of the disabled activists who fought so hard under a Conservative government to get that first landmark Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 and other disability rights in the UK – Baroness Jane Campbell, Lord Low, Baroness Sal Brinton among others.
They were very clear on two things: EU law has improved the rights of disabled people in the UK; and equality for disabled people can only be fully achieved by working across borders.
On this latter point, see this excellent report on, for example, the role of EU regulations in ensuring accessible air travel, the mutual recognition of disabled people’s parking badges, or the plans to create a single market for accessible manufactured goods.
What was equally clear was the fear that, if the UK votes to leave the EU, they would be shut off from the valuable cross-border dialogue and sharing of good practice on disability policy that the EU facilitates. This would be bad for disabled people in this country and, as a leading Irish academic on disability law, Professor Gerard Quinn, said yesterday UK disability society is “vibrant” and its contribution to campaigns and discussion at EU level would be sorely missed.
The two-way benefits of EU membership are evident when it comes to rights for disabled people in the workplace. The UK’s experience of requiring employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people was influential in developing what is now an EU-wide right. And securing the right to equality at work in EU law forced our government to look again at the rights it had introduced some years before.
The EU Equal Treatment Directive got rid of the exemption in the DDA that meant small businesses could discriminate against disabled people and refuse to employ them. As William Hague explains here, this had been a purely political compromise to win over key business-facing Conservative ministers at the time. If this exemption still applied today, it would exclude about 15% of the workforce. EU law also closed the loophole that allowed employers to justify direct discrimination and it introduced specific protection from disability-related harassment at work.
The European Court of Justice, which rules on EU law, has had a positive influence on equality rights too. Take the Coleman v Attridge Law case involving the mother of a disabled child who was harassed and discriminated against because of time off she needed to care for her child. She had no protection in UK law. But in a landmark ruling, the European Court recognised that disabled people would never achieve full equality if those who care for them are not also protected from discrimination at work because of their association with a disabled person. This led to greater protection for carers in the Equality Act 2010.
If the UK votes to leave the EU, the TUC has explained in this short briefing what the risks are for disability rights in the workplace. Those who believe that no government would touch these rights should remember that the Equality Act was one of the first pieces of legislation to feature on the government’s Red Tape Challenge in 2011. This was despite the fact it had only just been passed into law with cross-party support under the Labour government in 2010.
Rights could remain intact on paper but a government concerned about minimising so-called ‘burdens on business’ may weaken them in practice – as they’ve already done with the introduction of tribunal fees. Unison is currently challenging the introduction of fees using the EU law principle that rights must be effective in practice. It is because of this principle too that there are no limits on compensation for victims of discrimination. But Conservative politicians have made clear they want to cut compensation in discrimination claims and they have already cut compensation for workers who have been unfairly dismissed – a right not guaranteed in EU law.
Given the deregulatory zeal of many in the Vote Leave camp, it is not hard to imagine exemptions for small businesses or loopholes creeping back in. No doubt, this would be sold to the wider electorate as freeing up businesses, enabling them to create more jobs – just as they said cutting benefits would incentivise more people into work. But we know that cutting disabled workers’ benefits like Employment Support Allowance has hindered not helped more disabled people into work. And more deregulation would mean more disabled people being kept out of work or being poorly treated, as a result of greater employer discrimination.
So, there’s a lot here that we’re concerned about. There’s the risks to disabled workers’ rights after a potential Brexit, and the prospect that an economic downturn and a shift rightward by a Conservative government could well result in worse cuts in spending on welfare, social care and the NHS (all vital for disabled people’s participation in work and society). And we would also stand to lose the considerable benefits of cross-border dialogue and disability activism.
As this briefing from John Evans from the Centre for Independent Living concludes:
“We want to continue to work together with our disabled colleagues throughout Europe with the support of the EU. We want to pull down barriers not erect them. We recognise discrimination does not stop at borders. We want to protect Europe’s very significant achievements for disabled people, and prevent others from being taken away and provide a platform for the further improvements for our future.”