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Equality Act – mere words or a force for change?

In the recent budget, the Chancellor sought to make significant and life-altering cuts to disability benefits. The target of these cuts was personal independence payments for people who need aids to help them dress and use the toilet. Thankfully, after facing huge political pressure, the Chancellor backtracked. Yet, coming so soon after the equally controversial “bedroom tax” it sends out a clear message that cutting taxes for the rich is to be prioritised over enabling disabled people to participate independently in everyday life.

The lack of political will to empower those with disabilities reflects and reinforces the way in which those with disabilities continue to be disadvantaged across society; and the fact that those who discriminate against the disabled, continue to do so unchecked.

The recent report by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 is a stark reminder of the challenges that disabled people still face in the UK, despite the Act, and concludes that the government is failing to protect and empower disabled people.

The Committee sought to give careful consideration to the adequacy of the legislation, whether it strengthened protection for disabled people, whether it had enabled those with disabilities to fully participate in and contribute to society with dignity and respect, whether the provisions relating to reasonable adjustments are being comprehensively implemented and, whether those with disabilities can enforce their rights to them.

It highlights the many ways disabled people are let down across the whole spectrum of society. It found widespread failures to provide reasonable adjustments to enable disabled people to have meaningful access to many spheres of life. Examples cited in the report include disabled toilets being used for storage and schools refusing interpreters for deaf parents.

The report also shows how the government’s use of the Red Tape Challenge has removed protection for disabled people by focusing on the burden placed on businesses by having to effect change, rather than the burden disabled people have to bear when they fail to do so.

It also looks at public transport, highlighting 20 years of inertia across the sector which it says is “scarcely credible”. It notes that the first plans for Crossrail included seven stations without step-free access; and that some still will not have step-free access when the line opens. The report rightly recommends that all new rail infrastructure must be constructed with step-free access and training for all rail bus and coach staff must be made a legal requirement.

The report also suggests that the government should immediately bring into force provisions in the Act obliging taxi drivers to take passengers with wheelchairs. In instances where taxi drivers fail to comply with the Act, local authorities should withdraw their licences. This recommendation has now been brought into force, which is a positive step, but there’s still much more to be done.

When the Committee questioned the then Minister for Disabled People, Mark Harper, about the provision of disabled access facilities at Britain’s sports ground, even he conceded the current situation was “disgraceful”. It is clear that radical change is necessary to ensure that disabled sports fans are accommodated in all sports venues. Ministers must report on the progress made on stadia, following the Premier League’s promise to upgrade them all by August 2017.

Elsewhere, the report found that many restaurants, pubs and clubs are difficult to access, with many failing to provide basic facilities such as a disabled toilet. To ensure progress in this area, the report recommends that local authorities should be allowed to refuse to grant or renew a premises licence until they effect these changes. The report also recommends that local authorities could mandate that new buildings be wheelchair accessible or adaptable by revising their planning policies.

Also identified were a number of key obstacles, and barriers to access to justice, that those with disabilities face when they try to take legal action. Recent legal developments such as the imposition of fees in tribunals, the reduction in the availability of legal aid and the changes to costs rules have made it increasingly challenging for those with disabilities to use the law to tackle the discrimination they face. The report calls for change in this area and also asks that the government consider changing the law to allow charities and other bodies representing disabled people to litigate on their behalf and bring proceedings in the interest of classes of disabled people who are not themselves claimants. A move we would fully endorse.

The Committee proposes that there should always be an assessment of the cumulative impact of budgets and other major initiatives on disabled people, involving the Government Equalities Office and the Office for Disability Issues. Such a move would provide an added layer of protection for those with disabilities and force the government into keeping the needs of disabled people front of mind when proposing new initiatives.

At Hodge Jones & Allen, we regularly bring claims on behalf of those with disabilities, whose rights under the Equality Act have been breached. Through our work, we see the ways in which those with disabilities are failed in multiple ways. It is clear to us that the Equality Act has a crucial role in our society. It operates to break down the barriers faced by those with disabilities. It seeks to make normal day to day activities such as using public transport, going to the bank, having drinks with friends or watching a football match feasible and enjoyable activities for those with disabilities rather than something that prompts anxiety about whether it will be possible. Essentially, the Act seeks to give those with disabilities a normal life and the security of knowing that they have a place in this world and that they are not an afterthought.

However, the law constitutes mere words on a page if it is not implemented and this is why it is important that the political will is demonstrated to ensure that the law fulfils the ends for which it is written. Similarly, if people are unable to enforce it, it become meaningless.

For the 11 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, it is crucial that the full implementation of the Equality Act is effected so that they may lead fulfilling lives and participate fully and equally in our society.

Brid Doherty, Civil Liberties Team