“The report from the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability is well-written, robust and forthright.”
The publication, in March, of the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability was an exciting moment – something you don’t usually hear about select committee reports, however worthy.
It is true that I was one of the many people who gave evidence: I contributed to written evidence from both Unity Law solicitors and on behalf of the Law Centres Network, and then gave oral evidence. The reason I say the report is exciting is because it is such a well-written, robust and forthright analysis of the impact of the Equality Act 2010, compiled after extensive efforts to hear the views of so many disabled people directly. It is a gritty record of the barriers that disabled people still face continually and daily, despite it being over 20 years since the Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995.
I was invited to the committee session at the House of Lords as one of the lawyers’ representatives, on behalf of the Law Centres Network. With me were Barbara Cohen, for the Discrimination Law Association, Rachel Crasnow QC of Cloisters for the Bar Council and Lucy Scott-Moncrieff on behalf of the Law Society.
In the days beforehand, we had done some frantic evidence-sharing, as we all had to incorporate the views of others and obtain the sign-off from our respective networks. We had also spent time thrashing out some of the trickier issues, such as the role of ombudsmen. Could there be a ‘Disability Ombudsman’? Would it make it easier for disabled people to complain or would it water down the protection from discrimination? We reflected on the fact that the duty to make reasonable adjustments – the ‘cornerstone of the protection offered to disabled people under the Equality Act’ (HL Debates col 662, 21 November 2014) – is always a challenge to the status quo. Ultimately, there needs to be a backstop of enforcement through the courts, so this must be accessible to disabled people.
Then, in committee room 4A, there came the questioning by the peers. There is something satisfying about having to answer difficult questions that you realise are the right ones for the committee to be asking. The four of us managed to complement each other, providing the committee with reliable and informed material that was needed for its final report. A highlight was when Barbara Cohen produced an original copy of the white paper put together before the Race Relations Bill in 1975. It is as true today as it was then that ‘enforcement depends excessively upon the making and processing of individual complaints’ and that it is ‘essential that the application of the law should not depend upon the making of an individual complaint’. Long memories remind us that change takes a long time.
For me, however, the process was a demonstration of the way that parliamentary scrutiny can work effectively. The committee was cross-party, so there were peers from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, as well as cross-benchers. This was not something where party differences were allowed to get in the way of the work. One thing that many of the committee did share, however, was a personal knowledge and experience of disability in one form or another.
Following its publication, Unity Law, Cloisters and the University of Leeds organised a conference to bring together individual disabled people, campaign groups, lawyers and parliamentarians to discuss the outcome of the report and the experiences of those who had fed into it.
Baroness Deech, who had very ably chaired the committee, spoke of how the process had affected her too. She said she had no particular knowledge of disability issues at the outset, and suggested that was why she had been asked to chair it. But she developed a very thorough understanding by hearing directly from those people who really did know about it from experience.
Some disabled people and lawyers thought the report did not go far enough; it did not, for example, call for a full reinstatement of legal aid. But the discussion noted the progress since the days when disabled people chained themselves to buses. The report does not dwell on the past but looks to the future, setting out practical and achievable steps that can and should be made forthwith. ■