The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


18 NOVEMBER 2008

  Q1 Chairman: Good afternoon, welcome to our evidence session on the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. We have Jonathan Shaw, MP, who is the Minister for Disabled People, and he is joined by Richard Timm, the Deputy Director, Civil and Human Rights Division in the Office for Disability issues in the Department for Work and Pensions, and Ms Simmy Viinikka, who is the Senior Legal Officer in DWP Legal Services. Welcome to all of you. Jonathan, do you want to make any opening remarks?

  Jonathan Shaw: Chairman, thank you very much, I would like to make an opening remark. We very much welcome the Committee's interest in the UN Convention, and this opportunity to talk about the Convention and where we are in terms of progress towards ratification. Perhaps it is helpful if I address what is probably the most pressing issue first: will we ratify it by the end of this year? The short answer is that I regret to say "no". Since the day that we signed the Convention in March 2007, the Government's intention has been to achieve ratification at the very earliest opportunity. In saying that, my predecessor Anne McGuire set an enormously challenging task when we said we wanted to ratify it by the end of 2008. I say that because the average length of time to ratify such conventions is more like four years. We have made good progress, however, and we will have the opportunity to explore this and what remains to be done during the course of our discussion. Given the steps that remain, my ambition is to ratify in the spring of 2009. I know that this will come as a disappointment to disabled people and their organisations, who have been frustrated at the pace of the ratification process has not been quicker; and indeed it may have appeared that it might not happen at all. Therefore, I would like to make very clear both my personal commitment to the Convention and confirm that whilst it is not achievable this year, it does remain the Government's intention to ratify. I know there will also be frustrations about the terms on which we ratify, and a sense that if we do so with reservations or interpretive declarations, that this is an indication of failure of commitments to the principles of the Convention and that is absolutely not the case. The Committee will know that the MoD are considering a reservation in respect of armed services. The Home Office is considering another reservation in respect of immigration. DCSF are considering a declaration and a reservation in respect of education. In addition, Chairman, the DWP has identified an issue in respect of benefit appointees, and is considering a reservation of Article 12(4). This is a small package of possibilities that will need to be agreed collectively across Government. If there are reservations, when we ratify this it does not imply any lack of respect for human rights for disabled people. The Government has always recognised that the Convention is a powerful and compelling statement for disabled people both in the United Kingdom and abroad to be able to enjoy the same human rights as anyone else. That is why we signed the Convention and will ratify it.

  Q2  Chairman: Thank you for that. We will be asking you some more detailed questions about the timetable and the questions of reservations, and we will deal with declarations later on. You have focused on the downside in a way. Can we start on the more positive side and ask you how you think people will benefit from the ratification?

  Jonathan Shaw: The Convention, as you will all know, Chairman, is a very detailed document, and I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to my officials and my predecessor for the hard work they have undertaken in order to boil down to a few reservations. If you look at the detail of the Convention, it covers all areas, and the Government is content that our existing policy and legislation fits in with that Convention. I suppose it is a demonstration that the Government is committed to working at home and abroad to ensure that human rights are enjoyed by all people, all disabled people. Importantly as well, the Convention will provide an important part of the analysis and benchmarking as we develop our policies going into the future. I think it also enables us to reflect, with some justification, on the progress that we have made so far in areas such as housing, lifetime homes, access to education, particularly higher education, and our recent policy on our independent living strategy, and also the Welfare to Work Programme.

  Q3  Chairman: Can we look at some of the problems now! The UK has been closely involved in the negotiation of the convention. There was a great trumpeting of the fact that we were signatories to the Convention on day one.

  Jonathan Shaw: Yes.

  Q4  Chairman: Yet it was only more than a year later in the Government's response to our report on adults with learning disabilities that the question of reservation was first hinted at. Why has it taken a year to get to that position, bearing in mind how much work had been done earlier in terms of negotiating the Convention? You must have known—not you personally but your predecessors, or the department must have known at that stage what the concerns were, having signed the thing and negotiated it. Why was it over a year before you actually came forward and said there were these problems?

  Jonathan Shaw: First, I think the reservations for the MoD will not come as any surprise to the Committee given it does not have to comply with the DBA. In terms of signing the Convention and the journey towards ratification it has required an enormous amount of work. In my predecessor's letter to you in May she referred to a number of areas, for example cultural services in independent living that there might be reservations on; but you have not heard me refer to those in my opening statement. It is the job of work we have been getting on with. Colleagues from the Office of Disability Issues and indeed my predecessor Anne McGuire worked very hard across all Government; and when one looks at all of the articles that Government departments need to consider, and then seeking clearance and agreement with colleagues, it is a huge task. I think Anne did give an indication of areas we were working on, and of course during those discussions other areas have come up. We take these conventions extremely seriously and go through the detail and drill down, and things come up as well, and obviously that requires discussion and legal advice. I have referred to benefit appointees and power of attorney.

  Q5  Chairman: Why was this work not done at the time of negotiation of the Convention, before signature?

  Jonathan Shaw: We sign up to the principles of a convention and then it is for state signatories to go through the detail. Obviously, before the Convention is ratified it is subject to scrutiny, and it will be subject to scrutiny by both these Houses.

  Q6  Chairman: It is obviously disappointing to hear about the delay. What is your intention? Do you think it is better to try and get rid of all reservations so far as you can, which may delay ratification; or to ratify the reservations first and then work through the reservations, as has happened with the Convention of for Rights of the Child for which the Home Office is now going to lift the reservation?

  Jonathan Shaw: There are opposing views on this and I am aware of that, but I believe the advice from the Commission on Human Rights said to us that they thought we should ratify obviously with reservations. That is our intention. Obviously, we want there to be as few as possible and that is why we have undertaken the work that we have.

  Q7  Chairman: What is your deadline now for ratifying?

  Jonathan Shaw: Chairman, you will be aware that there will be important debates and scrutiny within Parliament, and we are aiming to get the Convention ratified by spring. I cannot give you an exact date of spring, but that is what we are aiming for.

  Q8  Chairman: Before the Easter recess?

  Jonathan Shaw: In spring, Chairman.

  Q9  Dr Harris: Would July count as spring?

  Jonathan Shaw: I would not say July would count as spring, Dr Harris! Blazing June—that does not give a spring descriptive!

  Q10  Chairman: I think we would be extremely concerned to hear it was not to be ratified by the Easter recess, which is very late spring really!

  Jonathan Shaw: Your concern is noted, Chairman.

  Q11  Chairman: We would probably expect to see you again, if you are still in the same position bearing in mind re-shuffles and so on pretty soon after the Easter recess, if there was not ratification by Easter.

  Jonathan Shaw: Thank you Chairman.

  Q12  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Would you ask your officials to brief you on what happened in 1974 to 1976, when I was adviser to the Government and we ratified both the UN international covenant on civil and political rights—a vast document—and the UN Convention on economic, social and cultural rights within two years from scratch—from scratch? Those were massive documents, and I do not understand at all why it is not possible to do this comfortably within two years on a convention that is already covered by domestic law quite admirably. Could you explain to me what it is that is causing this extraordinary slowness in the process, because I do not understand it, having been involved previously, as I say, more than thirty years ago? I do not understand this four years thing or any other reason for slowness. What is the real explanation?

  Jonathan Shaw: The explanation, Lord Lester, is as I have set out to the Committee in answering the Chairman's first questions. We have undertaken this process of discussion within the Government across all the different departments. You will know better than I, but in terms of what sets us apart from other conventions is that it is practical and systematic barriers that we have to address that stand in the way of disabled people's enjoyment to equal human rights, and so we have to look at how this applies across the whole of the education sector, how it applies across all of the health sector, the employment sector, everything that is part and parcel of public policy and delivery. Obviously, departments have to consider those very carefully. I guess, if we are to make a comparison of some countries—I think Jamaica ratified on the very day of their signature to the Convention, and other countries—the Scandinavian countries—have signalled that they will take quite a lot longer than ourselves. Across the board it varies. The explanation that I have given to you was the one given to me, so I am appreciative of your advice and at the appropriate moment I will ask my officials.

  Q13  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I want to ask you about involvement with disabled communities in considering ratification, reservations and so on. We know that the Equality Human Rights Commission has been consulted confidentially by your Department about these matters. We know that the Commission has complained that they are inhibited by the confidentiality of that process from really being effective in dealing with it. That has given some cause for concern to us, as it has to the Commission. Leaving aside the Commission itself, and what you say about that, what steps are you now taking to be more transparent, or to be in any sense transparent about exactly what you are proposing with those who are most affected by what you are doing, namely the disabled in this country?

  Jonathan Shaw: We have engaged with disabled people and their representatives. I have heard the criticism that it may not have been as much as people are accustomed to, but obviously we have Equality 2025, which we established as part of our commitment to ensuring that disability issues are addressed across Government; and that body, which is made up of disabled people, have been providing advice to Government departments, as have my own officials in the Office of Disability Issues. Government departments need to have some degree of confidence that their discussions are confidential in order for them to discuss policy options; that is the normal custom and practice. The job of work has been one where we have had discussions internally in order that we can then provide the Committee, Parliament and the wider public with our position going forward. That will then of course be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and doubtless civic society will have discussions and input into where we have got to. I feel it is reasonable for me to emphasise that the number of reservations on one interpretation is a modest amount when considering all of the articles within the convention.

  Q14  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I understand that and we will come to that later, but I do not understand when you talk about discussions with the Equality and Human Rights Commission being internally. The Commission is an independent watchdog of human rights and surely they should be uninhibited in being able publicly to criticise policy developments that they disagree with? They are concerned about that and I would like to ask you whether you share that concern?

  Jonathan Shaw: I am sorry if I was inadvertently mixing up Equality 2025 with the Commission—that was not my intention. Can I ask Mr Timm to provide a bit more clarity on the specific role of advice and the Commission?

  Mr Timm: As the Minister has said, we are working within Government to try to remove the need for any reservations and interpretive declarations, and those discussions have been in confidence within Government. As you rightly say, because we have the Equality and Human Rights Commission as an independent watchdog—for want of a better phrase, we did want to talk to the Commission, but when I approached the Commission it was on the basis that we were talking in confidence, and that enabled me to explain to them what the detail of the concerns of various departments were. It enabled them to have a think about it and come back with some ideas that I was then able to use. As far as I was concerned, it was part of the process of working through the list of potential reservations and declarations. That was why, when I first approached the Commission, it was on the basis of confidentiality.

  Q15  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I do not understand the need for secrecy! We are not talking about terrorism or nuclear secrets; we are talking about whether a convention creates a particular practical problem so serious that we need to enter into a reservation of the kind the European Commission and others have not done. Why is that a matter of secrecy? All you have to do is publish a paper that highlights the problem, and then ask everyone, including the disabled, what their responses are, in advance of your taking decisions.

  Jonathan Shaw: As I said to you, Lord Lester, the convention covers every aspect of Government policy, and Government departments whose decision it is to sign up or to say whether they want interpretations or reservations as it is also that of the devolved administrations as well. So in order for us to reach an agreed position, and where there might be differences in a discussion, we develop that policy internally, in the say way we might develop a health policy or an education policy internally before providing our thinking to the public. That is where we are now, as we are on the cusp of entering into the parliamentary scrutiny.

  Q16  Chairman: It is not exactly open government, is it? Look, for this session we pulled out the evidence and lots of disabled organisations have written to me with their views about what they think and the reasons for their reservations and what their answers to them are. It may well be that if you actually got involved with consulting organisations directly a lot of your fears and concerns would have been dealt with reasonably easily and quickly by their responses, saying X, Y and Z—this clearly is misinterpretation, or this is what we can and cannot do. A lot of the problems you have spent 18 to 24 months now wrestling with would have gone away a lot earlier. As Lord Lester says, this is not a huge state secret. What is the problem in saying, "Look, we have got a problem and we will come to this in more detail later on; the Army says they want to make sure they do not have people who are blind so they go on the front-line—what is your answer to that?" Well, that is pretty well the answer. It is self-evident. The MoD spent the best part of two years arguing about it.

  Jonathan Shaw: What I want to say to you, Chairman, is that we need to look beyond the boundaries of Whitehall, and that of England.

  Q17  Chairman: That is exactly what I am saying to you. Why have you not asked the disabled organisations their views on what your problems are?

  Jonathan Shaw: We have had discussions with disabled organisations, both my predecessor and I; and they have made clear their views on a number of the points you have just made. However, in order to develop policy, particularly as we live in a devolved world where there are administrations of other political persuasions, it is important that we are able to develop policy. Each of the parties involved in that can have a degree of confidence that that discussion is confidential. Otherwise, one could envisage a whole series of rather unpleasant scenes within which the matters that we are focusing on could be delayed somewhat. As I say, we have arrived at a position where there are very few reservations. That has been our thinking and that is the way we have approached it.

  Q18  Chairman: That is Alice in Wonderland, is it not?

  Jonathan Shaw: I do not agree.

  Q19  Chairman: It has been delayed for the best part of two years through this process, whereas you might have had the answers much more quickly. I am not saying you have to tell us exactly what you talked about with the Scottish administration or the Welsh administration, that is fine; but if you say, "We have got a problem with this particular thing; this is what the problem is; is there an answer to it?" you would have got the answer in a matter of weeks, like we have when we put out our call for evidence—or an answer.

  Jonathan Shaw: We did. We have received advice, and now what we have come forward with will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and scrutiny and debate in wider society.

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