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

1.  Introduction

1.  The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) came into force on 3 May 2008. The Optional Protocol (which provides for individual petitions alleging a violation of the Convention by a State Party to be considered by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) entered into force on the same day as the Convention. The Government was closely involved in the negotiation and agreement of this Convention and was one of its first signatories, signing on the day the Convention opened for signature.[1] Although the UK has signed, it has not yet ratified the Convention.[2]

2.  The monitoring body for the Convention, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, was elected after the first meeting of the Conference of State Parties (which took place on 3 November 2008). Twelve members of that Committee have been elected, although a further six members will be appointed after 80 states have ratified the Convention. Only States that have ratified the Convention were able to participate in the formation of this monitoring body, including by proposing or electing Committee members.

3.  We examined the UNCRPD during our recent inquiry into the human rights of adults with learning disabilities. We concluded that the Convention presented a "valuable opportunity to confirm that disabled people, including adults with learning disabilities, are entitled to respect for their human rights." We recommended that the UK ratify the Convention without delay.[3]

4.  In May 2008, in response to our Report, the then Minister for Disabled People, Anne McGuire MP, confirmed that the Government intended to ratify the Convention by December 2008. However, the Government indicated that it was considering several reservations to the UNCRPD, including in respect of service in the armed forces, immigration and education.[4]

5.  Reservations or interpretative declarations are statements that a State makes on signing or ratifying an international treaty which, in short, may limit the effect of that treaty.[5] Article 46 UNCRPD permits reservations to the Convention only in so far as they are compatible with the object and purpose of the Convention.

6.  On 28 August 2008, we wrote to the then Minister for Disabled People to ask for further information on progress towards UK ratification of the Convention.[6] We specifically asked for:

  • details of each and every reservation or interpretative declaration being considered by the Government and the reasons for them;
  • how each reservation could be considered compatible with the object and purpose of the Convention;
  • how the Government was working with the European Community (which is also a signatory to the Convention) on ratification;
  • what barriers existed in domestic law to ratification and whether the Government intended to publish the results of its internal review of the compatibility of existing domestic legislation and administrative practice;
  • whether a recent decision of the House of Lords, which narrowed existing protection for people with disabilities (Malcolm) rendered our existing domestic anti-discrimination legislation incompatible with the requirements of the Convention, and if so, whether the government intended to bring forward a remedy;[7] and
  • whether the Government had identified any benefits of, or barriers to, ratification of the Optional Protocol which accompanied the UNCRPD.

7.  The then Minister responded on 24 September 2008.[8] She said:

"The process involved in ratification is both a very complex and a very challenging one. It is my intention to make a further announcement on progress after Parliament has resumed in October. We are still considering the implications of the work that needs to be done and I will indicate my expectations for the timetable then."

8.  She outlined the Government's view on a number of issues and promised to write again with a more detailed response, explaining that:

  • Reservations or interpretative declarations to the Convention were being sought by the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Discussions were continuing in respect of the exercise of legal capacity and in respect of cultural services (interpretative declarations were being considered).
  • Although the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) was coordinating the UK ratification, individual departments have been responsible for their own positions on reservations and interpretative declarations. Full rationale would not be provided until the final package was announced. This would be in the final Explanatory Memorandum laid before Parliament immediately before ratification.
  • The Government did not underestimate the importance of the House of Lords decision in Malcolm. If legislative measures were necessary, a consultation would take place before any remedial measures were included in the forthcoming Equality Bill.
  • The UK traditionally saw "little practical benefit" in the right of individual petition. Explaining this comment, the Minister said "decisions of the relevant UN Committee are not binding and are not, therefore, equivalent to judicial decisions."
  • The Government proposed to appoint the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the Scottish Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission as parts of the national independent monitoring mechanisms required by Article 33 of the Convention.

9.  In the light of this new position, and the fast approaching December 2008 deadline, we decided to call the new Minister for Disabled People, Jonathan Shaw MP, to give oral evidence. We published our correspondence and issued a call for evidence on 14 October 2008. We asked for submissions on:

  • timetable for ratification;
  • proposals for reservations and interpretative declarations;
  • ratification of the UN Convention by the European Community;
  • compatibility of existing UK laws and practices with the UN Convention; and
  • ratification of the Optional Protocol and the right to individual petition.

10.  We received a significant number of submissions from individuals, organisations of disabled people and for disabled people (and coalitions of NGOs), the EHRC and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). We publish these, together with our correspondence with the Government and others, with this Report. We took oral evidence from Jonathan Shaw MP, Minister for Disabled People, on 18 November 2008.

11.  Both we and our predecessor Committee have often commented on the need for greater parliamentary scrutiny of treaties with significant human rights implications before they are ratified by the Government.[9] We welcome the Government's recent commitment to enhancing parliamentary scrutiny of international treaties prior to ratification.[10] We hope to demonstrate in this Report the importance of parliamentary scrutiny in ensuring that the process leading to ratification of treaties by the Government is transparent, accountable and informed by the views of those who will be most directly affected.

1   The Convention was agreed on 13 December 2006 and opened for signature on 30 March 2007. Back

2   Ratification of the Convention would make the UK a full party to the obligations in the Convention. Ratification will not incorporate the Convention into domestic law in the UK, but domestic courts would, following the common law, take the provisions of the Convention into account when interpreting domestic law. Back

3   Seventh Report of Session 2007-08, A Life Like any Other?: Human Rights and Adults with Learning Disabilities, HL Paper 40-I/HC 73-I, paragraphs 62 - 70. More information about the Convention can be found in this recent report, See for example, Annex 1. Back

4   Cmd 7378, Government Response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights Report, A Life Like Any Other? Human Rights and Adults with Learning Disabilities, pages 4-5; See also [Last accessed 16 December 2008]. Back

5   Where the effect of a declarative statement relating to a Convention is to exclude or modify the legal effect of the obligations in the Convention, it is considered to be a reservation, regardless of the label adopted by the State. See Article 2(1)(d), Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.1969. See for example, General Comment 24, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Issues relating to reservations made on ratification or accession to the Covenant (ICCPR), 4 November 1994 CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.6, paragraph 3. Back

6   Ev 16, Ev 19 Back

7   Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Lewisham v Malcolm [2008] UKHL 43 Back

8   Ev 19, Ev 21 Back

9   See for example Twenty-third Report of Session 2005-06, The Committee's Future Working Practices, HL 239/HC 1575; First Report of 2006-07, The Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, HL 26/HC 247; Nineteenth Report of Session 2005-06, Work of the Committee in the 2001-2005 Parliament, HL 112/HC 552 Back

10   Cm 7170, The Governance of Britain, July 2007; Cm 7342-II, Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, March 2008. Back

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