On 2nd February 2017 Baroness Scott of Needham Market led a debate in the House of Lords “to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on disabled people of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.” The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for giving us the opportunity to reflect on this important subject. For many years, the European Union has been an important driver of disability rights in the UK, helping to improve disability access and strengthen non-discrimination laws right across Europe. It was the European Union that ensured non-discrimination laws were extended to smaller businesses, and the European Court of Justice which extended rights to carers and those in relationships with a disabled person, to name just two examples. With the proposed European Accessibility Act still some time away from implementation, I hope the Minister can understand the fear expressed by many in this House and outside it that a post-Brexit UK may start to fall behind its European counterparts when it comes to disability rights.
Britain, of course, has a proud history of disability rights, but that is no guarantee of future progress. Indeed, in this time of cuts and savings, there will be great pressure on Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that those with disabilities take their “fair share” of the cuts. Despite the admirable rhetoric on cutting the disability employment gap, it is significant that one of the few policy changes of substance thus far has been to dramatically cut the benefit entitlements of disability benefit claimants in the work-related activity group. The Government’s policies, such as including disabled people within the underoccupancy charge and restricting the eligibility criteria for personal independence payments, are further trends that make many of the disabled people I have spoken to fearful for the future of disability rights outside the EU.
As we move towards Brexit, it is absolutely essential that Her Majesty’s Government give disabled people confidence that the UK will be a world leader in disability rights, showing the way forward rather than lagging behind. Although we have made significant progress over recent decades, there is still a long way to go in securing full accessibility and rights for disabled people in our country. This can be a particular problem in rural areas—I declare my interests as president of the Rural Coalition—where many people with disabilities still struggle with accessing basic services, particularly public transport. People in rural areas can also struggle to access adequate care services, something which may become even harder if and when the UK Government introduce immigration restrictions on those EU residents who make up a significant proportion of our caring workforce.
I realise that the Minister will today seek to reassure the House that any existing EU disability rights legislation will be incorporated into British law through the great repeal Bill. But I hope he will be able to go further than that, and reassure us that Her Majesty’s Government recognise there is still a huge amount of work to do and that there is a determination to take this forward.
Baroness Sherlock (Lab)…Who in government is taking responsibility for having a strategic look at the impact of Brexit on disabled people as a whole, making sure that nothing is missed and, ideally, doing what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said and showing that the UK can be a leader in this field? That is the very least we deserve to hear.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Henley) (Con)… The right reverend Prelate used those very words when he said that we had a proud history. He wants us to be a world leader. I can give an assurance that we are a world leader. We were a world leader with legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and we will continue to be a world leader. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will see that stepping forward yet slightly further with the Improving Lives Green Paper. That is something we are committed to do, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and others have made clear their commitment in this field.