Lord Shinkwin speaks about disability commissioner role being abolished 36 hours before first board meeting

My Lords, I intend to focus my remarks on an important subject which

transcends the policy areas covered by today’s debate, disability equality. Some Noble Lords may have heard that I have a new status since last we met. I have been abolished. For those Noble Lords who missed the piece in last weekend’s Sunday Times, I am referring to the fact that having applied successfully in response to an advert specifically for the position of Disability Commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I was told by its Chair 36 hours before my first Board meeting that the Board had decided to abolish the role. In his words, “the role was redundant”.

I was then pressured by the Chair to accept that the Disability Commissioner was no more and that I would therefore not chair the Commission’s important Disability Advisory Committee. In other words, as the Sunday Times put it, my role as champion of the nation’s 11 million disabled people had been abolished.

I resolutely refuse to accept what I regard as a retrograde and deeply regrettable decision. Perhaps I can share with the House why I am so concerned. In the excellent report recently produced by the ad hoc select committee on the Equality Act 2010 and disabled people, it states that ‘the committee concluded there had been a loss of focus on disability discrimination’ and that ‘we believe that combining disability with the other protected characteristics in one Act [- the Equality Act -] did not in practice benefit disabled people’. Nowhere in the report is there the slightest suggestion that one way to reassure disabled people would be to reduce the focus further, which is exactly what the abolition of the Disability Commissioner post would do.

My Lords, I am also concerned about the Commission’s interpretation of equality. As NLs may recall, I argued in the last Session that disability equality before birth is fundamental because unless a disabled human being’s equal right to exist is respected, all other rights are academic.

One needs to be born to exercise them. Otherwise, the situation whereby, after birth, I am somehow good enough for YLH, but, before birth, I am only good enough for the incinerator – because of my disability – that situation, that discrimination on grounds of disability is perpetuated.

My Lords, I have been told by the Commission’s Chair in effect to shut up on the issue of disability equality before birth. His exact, rather sinister, words were, ‘I appreciate this approach [i.e. the Commission’s approach] would be a departure from your previous engagement in this field’. What is the Commission’s approach? He states: ‘…the Commission would have to agree its position based on an analysis of all relevant rights affected and consider whether and how to act on the issue through a prioritisation process based on strategic objectives.’

Since when was equality, and especially a disabled human being’s

equal right to exist, based on a prioritisation process and being

weighed against the rights of other groups? Does this apply to other protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act? Is it ok to deny their equal right to life, specifically because of their protected characteristic? I think not, ML.

This is inequality. This is disability discrimination perpetuated by the very equality body which I – and every other human being diagnosed with a disability before birth – should be able to rely on to defend our intrinsic equality. Yet I have sadly discovered that I cannot do so.

Within the last few hours, the Commission Chair has rushed out a letter to stakeholders highlighting the Commission’s work on disability, presumably in anticipation of my speaking in this debate. But that simply confirms to me that the Commission is missing the point: volume of activity is no substitute for a nominated disability champion in the form of a disability commissioner. It does nothing to lessen my fear that some non-disabled people see themselves as passionate advocates of equality, but it’s equality on their terms, on non-disabled people’s terms. That has to change, and as Disability Commissioner I would ensure that it does change.

My Lords, in conclusion, perhaps the most chilling aspect of all of this is that no one was meant to know about the situation in which I find myself, because I was meant to acquiesce. Indeed, I have been asked not to speak to other disabled people about it for fear it would leak.

I am not requesting that Government get involved. This is a struggle for equality between the Commission and me as a disabled person. But I do want to thank all Noble Lords who have encouraged me to stand my ground, to refuse to accept that this is a done deal, and who have asked how they can help. Please make your support for my position known because the fact remains we need a strong Disability Commissioner and a genuine Equality and Human Rights Commission now more than ever.

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