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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:42 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Liberal Democrat 6:42 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, I want to use the opportunity of the humble Address to raise the issue of disability. It touches on many government departments, most of which are the subject of today’s debate. There was a moment in the glory and glow of the 2012 Paralympics where we got it as a nation: it felt inclusive and it felt wonderful. We were super proud of our athletes’ achievements and then, well, not a lot happened. That window seemed to close.

Throughout my political life, I have always been an equalities campaigner. In the 2005 to 2010 Parliament, I led for the Liberal Democrats on the Equality Act. During the coalition, as well as being a Home Office Minister, I was the Minister for Equalities. There, as some of your Lordships will know, I was the originator and architect of the same-sex marriage Act. I produced the first transgender action plan in the whole world and then I was reshuffled to DfID where I spearheaded and introduced the Government’s work on FGM. However, the work I am perhaps most proud of is the inclusion of disability at the very heart of DfID’s work across the developing world, ably helped by my noble friend Lord Bruce of Bennachie, who was then chair of the Select Committee.

The first lesson I learned when I made disability my priority as a DfID Minister was, “Nothing about us without us”. Key members of the disability lobby became my incredible advisory board. I took Ade Adepitan, the gold medal wheelchair basketball player, with me to Uganda on my mission to mainstream disability into DfID. He played basketball with the local Kampala team. The side he was on won by about 100 to one, which was not surprising because he was amazing. At the end of the game, the players were able to ask questions. They said that they could not play properly because their wheelchairs were so bad. Ade gave them what for. He said, “I practise for eight hours a day shooting 600 baskets. That is why I am good. Practice is what makes you good, not your wheelchairs”. That evening, both he and I gave speeches to the invitees at a vast party. Afterwards, a guy from the World Bank came up to me and said, “I’m building 300 schools here. I had not thought about this, so I will go back and change all our plans to make them fully accessible”. A guy from G4S came up to me and said, “I have a budget for corporate responsibility in Kampala, and I am going to buy the whole team new wheelchairs”, so they got them anyway.

What I have learned from my campaigning and my work is that, where there is political will, there is a way, and now disability is embedded in the DfID framework. While I have campaigned on women’s rights, trans rights, gay rights and international disability rights, it is glaringly obvious to me that there is one protected characteristic in the United Kingdom that is lagging behind in the equalities agenda, and that is disability. We in this House are fortunate to have amazing disability champions. I cite the noble Baronesses, Lady Campbell and Lady Grey-Thompson, my noble friend Lady Brinton, the noble Lords, Lord Low and Lord Shinkwin, my noble friend Lord Addington and many others, as well those who have unseen disabilities. There are others, and I offer my apologies for any omissions.

But how do you or I make the Government make this a priority? When it happens to you or someone close to you, you suddenly understand the hideous unfairness of what life deals out and the inequality that follows. The world may say the right thing—it may even have an Equality Act and a Disability Discrimination Act—but the lived experience is one of struggling. Some of your Lordships may know that two weeks ago, my noble friend Lady Ludford lost her husband, Steve Hitchins. She has given me permission to raise this here. Steve made an incredible contribution to political life as leader of Islington Council and more recently as chair of the Whittington Health NHS Trust, a role from which he had only recently stepped down. Three years ago, following a near-death illness, he had to have his whole leg amputated. Steve and my noble friend discovered, as have many before them, just how bad so many things still are when disability touches you or yours. I know that my noble friend will herself have much to say on this when she returns, particularly about transport.

There are of course many wonderful charities which fight this corner: Scope, Disability Rights UK, Leonard Cheshire, the RNIB and literally hundreds of others, all fighting for equality. The noble Lord, Lord Low, has said that:

“We must get away from the perception that disability rights are something that we in society out of the goodness of our hearts give ‘them over there, those poor disabled people’”.

He went on to say that,

“The advancement of disability rights is a shared task for all of us … for the rest of society no less than disabled people and their organisations”.

I could not agree more.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to say to the Government and to the Minister, who has just taken her place again, “Not good enough—not nearly good enough”. There is nothing in the Queen’s Speech that would remedy the lack of enforcement of the Disability Discrimination Act, help further with levelling the extra costs of disability, right the wrongs of the benefit system for those with disabilities or address any of the other campaigns of the disability charities. So I say to them: if you want to restore any semblance of decency to a Government which have in recent times appeared to be harsh and uncaring, perhaps making this resistant inequality a priority would help.