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.
This leads me to feel I need to clarify what I told the House, in good faith, on
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
“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
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
I am referring to an email of
“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
“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
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
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.