The government is failing in its duty of care to Britain’s 11 million disabled people, peers have said, in a House of Lords report published on Thursday.
It identified a series of government failures, from inaction on long-standing provisions of the Equality Act designed to help disabled people, to repealing others that favour reducing business regulations over their rights, to the impact of spending cuts, as having a “hugely adverse impact” on those with disabilities.
Coming less than a week after Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation sparked a U-turn by the chancellor over budget proposals to save £4.4bn through disability benefit changes, the report will put further pressure on the Conservative government to examine the impact of welfare cuts on disabled people.
It recommends the Treasury produce an analysis of the cumulative effects of “budgets and other major initiatives” on disabled people. And it calls for the minister of disabled people to be given a seat at the cabinet’s social justice committee, to ensure they have a voice at the centre of government.
Lady Ruth Deech, chair of the Equality Act and disability committee, said she was struck by how disabled people are being let down across the whole spectrum of society. They face discrimination in every sphere, she said, from inaccessible public transport, housing, sports stadia, to restaurants and pubs without facilities as basic as disabled toilets, to access to justice, making it also harder to fight discrimination when it arises.
“The government bears the ultimate responsibility for enabling disabled people to participate in society on equal terms, and we believe it is simply not discharging that responsibility” said Deech.
“In the field of transport alone, we heard of an urgent need to meet disabled people’s requirements – whether it’s training for staff or implementing improvements to trains and buses – and we’re calling for all new rail infrastructure to incorporate step-free access in its design from the outset.”
“In every development that is being planned, from new stadia, new buildings, new train stations, people should think about access for disabled people.”
The report, “The Equality Act 2010: the impact on disabled people”, concluded that laws designed to protect disabled people are not working in practice and that employers, service providers and public bodies are still not adapting to their needs.
Lady Deech said some provisions to help disabled people, for instance requiring taxi drivers to take people in wheelchairs, had been on the statute book for 20 years but had never been brought into force.
“They have hesitated because they have said it’s a burden on taxi drivers,” she said. “But what we want government and others to consider is the burden on disabled people.”
The analysis identified a “fundamental flaw” in public sector equality duty to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination, a duty it said should be strengthened.
It has made a number of recommendations, including a reversal of changes made under the goverment’s Red Tape challenge, which it described as a “pretext for removing protection” for disabled people, in favour of reducing the burden of regulation on business.
It found an almost unanimous belief among groups that it was a mistake to deal with discrimination on the ground of race, sex and disability in a single Equality Act, rather than a dedicated disability act, but concluded it would be too impractical to change it.
The government is expected to respond to the Lords report within two months, the report said.
Disability groups said the report showed the gulf between the rights of disabled people and the reality of daily living.
Liz Sayce at Disability Rights UK, said: “20 years ago, after many years of campaigning, the Disability Discrimination Act was born, giving new rights and new hope to disabled people.
“Many of those rights remain dormant because of inaction by government. If disabled people were given the support and opportunities they should be, they would be more economically active and at less risk of poor health and isolation.”
Tom Pollard, policy and campaigns manager for the mental health charity Mind, said he welcomed the findings of the report, which highlighted the “missed opportunities” in the implementation of the Equality Act. Pollard said:
“We support the committee’s recommendations around making reasonable adjustments for disabled people, including those with mental health problems; ensuring people have access to justice; and recognising the impact of government policy on their lives. We hope the government engages with this report and continues to work with disabled people and their representative organisations to tackle inequality and disadvantage.”
Cross-bench peer Tanni Grey-Thompson said: “It’s very worrying to see how little progress there has been for disabled people since the replacement of the Disability Discrimination Act with the Equality Act.
“Disabled people have been marginalised too much for too long. The government needs to do what it should be doing, and help create a level playing field.”
Rob Holland, parliamentary manager at Mencap, the learning disability charity, said: “People with a learning disability face inequalities in every aspect of their lives, and this report shows that a lack of awareness about the protections in the act and implementation issues means discrimination continues to be widespread.”
The Lords report also came as new analysis from the House of Commons library showed that government spending on disabled people is set to decline in real terms over the course of this parliament contrary to reassurances from Stephen Crabb, the new work and pensions secretary.
Crabb, who took on the role after the dramatic resignation of Iain Duncan Smith over proposed cuts to disability benefits, assured MPs in the House of Commons on Monday: “We are increasing real support for disabled people, in real terms, over the lifetime of this Parliament”.
The same argument was repeatedly used by Treasury sources to justify the proposed cuts to Personal Independence Payments for disabled people, which were subsequently “kicked into the long grass,” as opposition mounted on the Conservative backbenches.
But analysis carried out by the House of Commons library for Owen Smith, the shadow work and pensions secretary, suggests that even taking together all benefits, including the housing benefit paid to disabled people, total spending is set to decline in real terms, from £48.6bn in 2015-16, to £47.4bn in 2019-20.
Smith said: “Even after the U-turn over cuts to personal independence payments, disabled people are set to see a real-terms cut of £1.2bn a year across this parliament. The prime minister and Stephen Crabb have been trying to dig themselves out of a hole by claiming that spending across this parliament would rise in real terms. This is simply not true.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said its calculations excluded housing support, adding: “We are supporting disabled people in leading independent lives. Spending on the main disability benefits will increase over the course of this parliament.”
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