UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:08 pm on 25th June 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Wilkins Baroness Wilkins Labour 7:08 pm, 25th June 2007

My Lords, as is repeatedly the case, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke for securing this debate and for his relentless pressure on the Government to secure the human rights of all disabled people. I also add my thanks to the Minister, Anne McGuire, and her predecessor, Maria Eagle, together with their official, Liz Tillett, for their commitment in bringing the UN convention into existence. Most important, I pay tribute to Rachel Hurst of Disability Awareness in Action and Richard Light for their years and years of tireless work in producing the evidence, arguing the case and lobbying for the need for a UN convention to protect the rights of the 650 million disabled people throughout the world.

Our Government can be proud of their role in developing this UN convention and for being one of its earliest signatories. With this history, will my noble friend the Minister tell the House what justification there can possibly be why we should not be high on the list of the 20 nations needed to ratify the convention and so ensure that it becomes binding on all UN countries?

Other noble Lords have addressed the breadth of this debate, so I hope that they will understand if I concentrate on just one area, which I consider fundamental to meeting disabled people's human rights. David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said at this year's EU seminar on housing as a human right:

"It cannot be possible to have a meaningful concept of human rights until it is accepted that having a warm, dry and secure home is a pre-requisite to ensuring civil, political, cultural, social and all other human rights. Indeed the right to a home is more basic to human dignity than any other rights we discuss".

At the European level, there is growing acceptance that human rights must be the basis for social policy. Scotland was the first place in Europe to make the right to housing enforceable by law, and last Christmas France followed its example. The DRC has called on the Government to use their leverage to ensure that the newly formed fundamental rights agency conducts research and gathers data on the rights of disabled people across the European Union, which I totally endorse.

Public discussion of housing in the last few years is as likely to talk of "investment opportunity" as recognise that our home is the very foundation of our social and psychological well-being. It is the base that should enable us to take our place in the world around us, healthy, rested, clean and ready to use our talents. Yet home for many disabled people is neither liberating nor comforting. Too often it is the bare four walls, with a bed, table and cupboard, of a residential care home; or where your bed and commode are in the family sitting room, as the only accessible space. It can be the place that is impossible to leave because of the flights of stairs to the outside world, or where the damp walls provide a daily threat to your asthma and thus your life. A disabled person's home conditions every aspect of their life—their health, ability to work and economic status, social opportunities, ability to contribute and whole well-being.

In Britain, we have a housing crisis which impacts disproportionately on disabled people due to their relative poverty and restricted opportunities. The facts are worth repeating. In 2003, the charity John Grooms conducted a survey of physically disabled people across England and Wales. It found that more than 20 per cent of respondents lived in houses that were either difficult to move around or get in and out of, that 40 per cent of respondents felt that their housing situation made them unnecessarily dependent on other people, and that 24 per cent of wheelchair users were prisoners in their own home because of poor access and location.

What measures are the Government taking to meet Article 9 of the UN convention, which calls for measures to,

"enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life"?

It calls on states to take appropriate measures to ensure that disabled people have equal access to the physical environment, including accessible housing.

Yesterday's statement by the incoming Prime Minister that,

"housing will be a priority", and that the Housing Minister will sit in Cabinet could not be more welcome. He went on to say that,

"we need to build homes not just to own but to rent .... we can make affordable housing for all one of the great causes of our time".

I ask my noble friend to ensure that the new Housing Minister is aware that disabled people's needs must be integral to that policy if our human rights are to be met and disabled people are to have any hope of taking an equal part in society.

It is not enough just to build more houses, although more are undoubtedly required. That new housing stock needs to be fully accessible and adaptable. The building industry will continue to ignore that need unless it is forced to act, and to date the Government have refused to require all new housing to meet the lifetime home standard. Merely making it a recommendation is not enough to get developers to act. Furthermore, the shortage of accessible housing is an issue that the Barker review completely ignored, and there is no coherent government strategy to tackle it.

The Government have cause to be immensely proud of their part in bringing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into existence. As the DRC says, the fact that we were one of the first signatories sent a strong signal of support for making human rights a reality for disabled people. The right to a secure, warm, dry and accessible home is one of the most basic of those rights. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can assure the House that the Government will soon set out their policy to meet Article 9 and that they will ratify the convention at the earliest possible date, with—as the noble Lord, Lord Low, said—as few derogations or reservations as possible.