Equality Act 2010 (Amendment) (Disabled Access) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:20 am on 24th November 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Shinkwin Lord Shinkwin Conservative 11:20 am, 24th November 2017

My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. I commend her and her committee for their excellent report on the Equality Act 2010 and disability. I declare an interest as a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. As we are discussing the duty to make reasonable adjustments, I should also tell the House that 20 or so years ago I had life-saving neurosurgery. I took three years to learn to talk again. I am still trying to teach my body to co-operate and speak more quickly, but I beg the indulgence of the House during the debate if I do not speak as quickly as I would like.

I thank my noble friend Lord Blencathra for the service he has done your Lordships’ House, disabled people and society at large in introducing the Bill, as my noble friends Lord Borwick and Lord Wasserman made clear in their contributions, thereby giving the Government the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to disability equality and to keeping the flame of our party’s landmark disability rights legislation, the DDA, alive. As we have already heard, the Bill is pragmatic, principled and practical. As a wheelchair user, I agree with everything that has been said. Having served on the National Disability Council, set up to advise the Government on the implementation of the DDA more than 20 years ago, I am more sorry than I can say that your Lordships’ House is still debating such a modest Bill.

I will address my remarks to a matter to which my noble friend Lord Blencathra and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, referred—the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It was the profound sense of frustration with the lack of access highlighted by my noble friend’s Bill that drove me to respond to an advert for the specific post of disability commissioner on the commission. I applied and I was interviewed for that post because I wanted to lead in making tangible progress, such as the very measures highlighted in the Bill, as well as to contribute to securing positive change on equality generally.

On 21 April this year I received a letter from Justine Greening, in her capacity as Equalities Minister, inviting me to join the commission. Within 24 hours the chair of the commission had rung to congratulate me. At no point did either of them mention the intention to abolish the position of disability commissioner, for which I had applied and been interviewed.

This leads me to feel I need to clarify what I told the House, in good faith, on 29 June at Hansard cols. 624-25. Firstly, Written Answers to a number of Parliamentary Questions asked in the other place have since established that, contrary to what I had been led to believe by the chair and deputy chair of the commission when they met me on 9 May, the board of the commission had not already decided to abolish the position of disability commissioner. The board decided to do so only on 11 May, two days after I had been told that the board’s decision had already been taken and two days after I had pleaded with the chair and deputy chair of the commission to urge the board to reconsider.

I now have evidence—I thank a Member of your Lordships’ House for procuring this information—of deliberate concealment that the matter was even discussed in the board’s unminuted pre-meeting of 11 May. Whereas the first draft of the main board minutes refer to the fact that the unminuted pre-meeting discussed the role of the disability commissioner, the eventual, sanitised version of the draft board minutes instead state:

“In the informal pre-meeting session, the Board had discussed the Disability Advisory Committee and the role of its chair”.

I mention this example because it is symptomatic of the commission’s tendency to conceal and to misrepresent. Consistent with this approach, on 25 October the chair of the commission told the Women and Equalities Select Committee in another place that he was sorry that I had decided not to engage with the commission. As I have since made clear to him in a six-page letter, which I would be very happy to place in the Library of the House should any Member ask me to do so, nothing could be further from the truth.

I have touched on the commission’s shocking behaviour. However, what has shocked and, indeed, saddened me perhaps even more is the evidence that has come into my possession about the Government’s involvement in this sorry situation. On 29 June on the Floor of the House I asked the Government not to get involved. I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they were not already involved. Today, I have to clarify my remarks of 29 June because evidence I have been given and which I have shared with the Prime Minister shows that the Equalities Minister was involved in the process that led to the abolition of the disability commissioner.

I am referring to an email of 28 March from the director of the body my noble friend Lord Blencathra mentioned, the Government Equalities Office, updating colleagues on a meeting between Justine Greening, in her capacity as Equalities Minister, and the chair of the commission. The email states that the chair of the commission told her that he had attended a meeting of the commission’s disability committee the previous day, and,

“they were anxious about there being no one in the Disability Commissioner role currently”.

The email does not record the chair of the commission as saying that the commission’s disability committee was urging him to press for the abolition of the disability commissioner role—quite the opposite. The email records that the Equalities Minister confirmed, and again I quote,

“the decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin”.

Barely a fortnight later, after the chair of the commission had pressed the Equalities Minister for an announcement on a new disability commissioner and learned that I was to be appointed—a decision I stress I was not aware of—a memo sent to Justine Greening from the Government Equalities Office, dated 13 April 2017, states,

“it is now intended that Lord Shinkwin will be appointed as a general Commissioner”.

In other words, the countdown to the abolition of the position of disability commissioner had begun, and the Equalities Minister had effectively helped start the stopwatch towards its abolition.

Sadly, the cynicism of the whole situation is underlined by the fact that another Written Answer, WA 4778, in the other place, has since revealed that the very disability committee whose desire for an announcement of a new disability commissioner the chair of the commission had cited in his meeting with Justine Greening on 28 March was not even consulted about the abolition of the role of disability commissioner. Why? The reason given was that the interim disability advisory committee was not constituted at the time the chair and commissioners were considering this issue. So much for taking heed of what disabled people—indeed, of what the commission’s own disability committee—thought. Why not wait until the committee had been reconstituted? How else could the commission present me and everyone else with a fait accompli on the abolition of the post of disability commissioner as quickly as possible?

I should make clear at this point that none of this should come as a surprise to the Government or, indeed, to the Prime Minister, with whom I have exchanged letters on the matter and shared all the evidence. Moreover, I completely understand why the Prime Minister said in her letter to me:

“I do hope … that you are clear that the Government had no involvement in the EHRC’s decision to abolish the disability commissioner role”.

Of course the Prime Minister hopes that but, as I told her in my reply, the evidence points in the other direction. I am not going to dance on the head of a pin here: the Equalities Minister did not take the actual decision to abolish the role—it was not in her power to do so—but all the evidence I have seen points to the fact that the Equalities Minister, Justine Greening, was involved in the process that led to the abolition of the position of disability commissioner.

I do not intend to detain the House for much longer, but I think noble Lords will want to know that in my reply to the Prime Minister of 21 November, I also told her that I would like to be able to say in this debate today that I have received a written assurance from her that she was not made aware of the last-minute decision to seek the abolition of the crucial role of disability commissioner, made after my appointment to the commission, as I have explained; that she totally dissociates herself and the Government from the position’s abolition; and that she will write to the chair of the commission to urge him to reinstate the position of disability commissioner, to appoint me, in that capacity, chair of the commission’s disability advisory committee and to allow me to lead in the recruitment of new members to that committee. I also told her with great sadness that if I had not received such assurances, and a copy of her letter to the chair of the commission, before today’s debate, which I have not received, I would have to fight for disability equality and for the reinstatement of the position of disability commissioner from the Cross Benches.

Today, I am deferring my decision to give the Prime Minister, whom I want to believe was not personally involved or even informed by her Equalities Minister of the process she herself had helped set in train, the opportunity to stop this grubby cover-up. My message to the Prime Minister today, with all due and sincere respect, as one Conservative parliamentarian to another, is this: please give me and Parliament the assurances I seek and show us the evidence that the Equalities Minister did not go behind my back, the backs of the UK’s 11 million disabled people, the 800,000 wheelchair users that my noble friend mentioned, and, Prime Minister, behind your back. Please release all communications between the Government Equalities Office and/or the Equalities Minister and/or the commission concerning the disability commissioner position and prove to me and to Parliament that the Equalities Minister did not collude in weakening the voice of disabled people—and making the measures that my noble friend has set out in his Bill so much harder to achieve—by helping to set in train the process to remove the position of disability commissioner.

In conclusion, I say to the Prime Minister, I have shown you the evidence of the Equalities Minister’s involvement. Please show me and Parliament evidence that the Equalities Minister, as her role obliges her to do, did absolutely everything in her power to stand up for disabled people and to dissuade the chair of the commission from pushing for the abolition of the disability commissioner role after he had been told that I was to be appointed. The burden of proof is now on the Prime Minister, because if she cannot counter the evidence I have shared with her and now with your Lordships’ House and provide the assurances I seek, then I fear that I can reach only one conclusion: the very fact that the Equalities Minister has allowed the position of disability commissioner to be abolished on this Government’s watch means that the Equalities Minister has acted in flagrant dereliction of her duty to me as a disabled person and to all disabled people. The Equalities Minister’s position will therefore be untenable, and she will have to resign.

I finish with this question: what message does it send to the UK’s 11 million disabled people, to the 800,000 wheelchair users who would benefit and to the parents of young children who would also benefit from my noble friend’s Bill, if a Conservative Equalities Minister colludes in the abolition of the UK’s disability champion, the disability commissioner? I await the Prime Minister’s considered response to my remarks in this debate. I will then decide whether I can continue to serve with integrity the party I love.