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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Peter Atkinson
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Dobson, Frank (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Henderson, Mr. Doug (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia (Leicester, West) (Lab)
Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con)
Jones, Helen (Warrington, North) (Lab)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Riordan, Mrs. Linda (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Shaw, Jonathan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Winnick, Mr. David (Walsall, North) (Lab)
Chris Stanton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 21 April 2009

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) Order 2009
4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) Order 2009.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. The order specifies the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities as a Community treaty for the purposes of the European Communities Act 1972. The provisions of section 2 of the Act, which provide for the general implementation of Community treaties, will apply in relation to the convention, and will be available for implementation of its provisions should the needs arise. In my view, the provisions of the order are compatible with the rights of the European convention on human rights.
The need for specification arises due to the involvement of the European Community, which is a signatory to the UN convention, and its proposals to become a party to it in accordance with article 44 of the convention. Once the Community becomes a party to the convention, its provisions—in so far as they are within the Community competence—will form an integral part of the Community’s legal system. Matters covered by the convention lie partly in the competence of the European Community by virtue of, for example, Community law on discrimination, and partly in the competence of member states. It is accepted practice, and agreed with the European Commission, that mixed agreements such as the UN convention, which may give rise to directly effective rights, are specified as Community treaties.
The order ensures that the UK is in a position to give effect to Community obligations falling on it as a result of the UN convention’s incorporation into the Community legal order. Specification allows directly effective rights to take effect immediately, and enables the provision of section 2 of the 1972 Act to be used to implement any Community obligations that may arise as a result of the convention’s incorporation into the Community legal system. It also enables expenditure to be incurred out of the Consolidated Fund for that purpose.
While no implementation measures under the powers conferred by the specification are at present required, the order must be in place before the UN convention can be ratified. The order is therefore a crucial step in achieving the UK ratification of the convention.
As the Government set out in the explanatory memorandum on the convention that we laid before Parliament on 3 March, we propose to ratify the convention on the basis of a handful of reservations and one interpretative declaration. The explanatory memorandum also explained that the UK’s reservation in respect of the armed forces and a complementary one proposed by the European Commission in respect of its proposals through European Community conclusion—ratification—would be the subject of a discussion. Following and reflecting the discussion of the European Commission, the Government propose to enter a reservation in respect of the armed forces in the following terms: “The United Kingdom accepts the provisions of the Convention, subject to the understanding that its obligations relating to employment and occupation, shall not apply to the admission into or service in any of the naval, military or air forces of the Crown.”
There has been a slight change to the wording, but not to the substance and rationale for the reservation. The provisions are required to preserve the combat effectiveness of the armed forces. The armed forces are called upon to perform a wide range of different tasks, and great damage will be done if the base requirement for physical fitness is abandoned.
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD) rose—
Jonathan Shaw: Let me finish my speech and then I will take interventions.
With regard to education, we propose to enter an interpretative declaration to make it clear that the UK general education system includes both mainstream and special schools, thereby clarifying how the UK Government interpret the convention. We propose to enter a reservation to allow for circumstances in which disabled children’s needs may be best met through specialist provision, which may mean that such children will have to be educated outside their local community. The order also maintains parental choice for schools outside the local community.
On immigration, a general reservation is proposed to retain the right to apply immigration rules and to introduce wider health screening for applicants entering or seeking to remain in the UK, particularly in the event of a global health emergency, if it is considered necessary to protect public health. However, the Government are committed to reviewing the reservation 12 months after the UK has ratified the convention to assess whether there is a continued need for it in practice. Disabled people and their organisations will be consulted at an early stage to ascertain how they can be involved in formulating the review.
It is important to address such an issue, and we will be engaging again with relevant stakeholders, including disabled people and their organisations, as our work on the review of the arrangements progresses. That reservation is not about limiting an individual’s ability to exercise their legal capacity. Rather, we are considering the appropriate safeguards in cases in which an appointee has been appointed, so that there is a safeguard of regular review, as we believe the convention requires.
I recognise that some people hold the view that the UK should not have any reservations or interpretative declarations. However, the Government believe that it is better to ratify the convention now with a small number rather than delay in the hope that such reservations will not be needed. Those who want to see them withdrawn can continue to make their views known as the parliamentary process for ratification continues. Afterwards, they can go both to the responsible Departments and the UN Committee that will monitor the convention.
Ratification is not the end of the story. The UK Government will have to report on the implementation of the convention to the UN monitoring committee within two years of the convention coming into force within the UK. Disabled people and their organisations, the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission and Parliament’s own Joint Committee on Human Rights will take a close interest in the convention and will be looking closely at the UK’s implementation after ratification. However, until the UK has ratified the convention it cannot be enforced in the UK, so ratification will be a huge step forward. Moreover, ratification will help to send a very strong and clear message to both disabled and non-disabled people that disabled people have, and should be able to enjoy, the same human rights as others.
Our objective is to ratify this important convention as soon as possible. Specification of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities as a Community treaty for the purposes of the European Communities Act 1972 is a prerequisite to achieving that ambition, and I therefore commend the order to the Committee.
4.39 pm
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. First, it is worth putting it on the record that the Conservative party fully supports the aims of the convention and the reservations and interpretative declaration that the Government have outlined today. I should like to take the Minister up on a number of issues, and I want to say one or two things about those reservations and explain why we support the Government’s position on them.
I raise that substantive point because the statement made by the Minister’s predecessor last year outlined the areas where the Government were planning to enter reservations. Almost a year later it seems that nothing much has changed in the nature of those reservations—the areas in which the Government were going to enter reservations seemed fairly clear, as did the nature of those reservations. Will the Minister set out what has been taking place since May last year in terms of fleshing out the details in those areas?
Another issue is the extent to which there has been consultation with outside organisations during that period. The Minister said that when the need for a number of reservations was to be reviewed, there would be full consultation with outside organisations and groups representing disabled people. I wanted to check the nature of that. The Minister will know that the disability committee of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has, in its submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, made it clear that it had not been formally consulted by the Department on the proposed reservations and declarations.
In January this year, Baroness Campbell, then chair of the disability committee of the EHRC, wrote on behalf of the committee to a number of Ministers to ask for details of the reservations. The committee received information on the nature of the areas, but it did not get those details and it seems that that level of consultation was not adequate given the length of time that it has taken to get to this point. Will the Minister explain the reason for that?
That point was raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights when it responded to the Government’s response to its original report:
“We remain of the view that the Government should have consulted on both the justifications for and the precise terms of the reservations and interpretative declaration it proposes to make to the Convention, either before the Convention was laid before Parliament, or for a specified period after the Convention was laid and before ratification. It is not acceptable for the Government to claim that consultation cannot take place now because of the need to ratify as soon as possible, when the Government delayed its own timetable for ratification in order for departments to agree their positions.”
Given where we are, there is not much that can be done about what has happened in the past. However, where consultation takes place with organisations on the review of some of the reservations, we must ensure that it is robust and comprehensive.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I am following closely what my hon. Friend says and I largely agree with him. Will he take the opportunity to pay tribute to all those disabled servicemen and women who have been re-employed in some way by the Ministry of Defence and who carry out useful jobs?
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