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

3.  Progress to ratification

23.  The Government first publicly stated that reservations to the Convention were being considered in its response to our Report on the treatment of adults with learning disabilities, in May 2008, more than a year after it signed the Convention. Despite our call for a full explanation of the Government's views on the compatibility of domestic law with the Convention, we were then provided with little detail on the reservations being considered or the Government's approach to the process.[23]

Involvement of people with disabilities

24.  The Centre on Human Rights established by Disability Action told us that it was:

"Disappointed at the lack of information from Government regarding the ratification process and the outcome of its review of the compatibility of domestic legislation and administrative practice with the UN Convention. The information available to the public about these processes and the precise form of reservations and declarations is extremely limited. This has a freezing effect on the public debate of highly significant issues."[24]

25.  The EHRC added its concern that this approach was incompatible with the spirit of the Convention, which required that disabled people be involved in decision-making and the implementation of the Convention. It was also concerned that its position had been compromised by its engagement with the Government on a confidential basis:

"The Commission finds the lack of transparency and consultation by Government concerning proposed reservations and interpretative declarations deeply regrettable and out of keeping with the Convention's emphasis on disabled people's involvement at all levels as required by article 4(3) of the Convention. Whilst the Commission has been [apprised] of the general detail of other proposed reservations and interpretative declarations the confidential nature of this information has had an extremely limiting effect upon the Commission's ability to act on it…The Commission therefore proposes that the outcome of the Government's review of compatibility of domestic legislation, policies, practices and procedures, including proposed reservations and interpretative declarations, action plans for promotion is published for consultation prior to ratification."[25]

26.  We put these concerns to the Minister and asked him what steps he now proposed to take to make progress towards ratification more transparent. He told us:

"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.[26]

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.[27]

We have had discussions - it is not fair to say that we have had no discussions with disabled people or their organisations; we have had that, and we have received advice from the [EHRC] and the advice from Equality 2025, a body that we have set up of disabled people to provide us with that advice. It is not fair to say that we have operated in a silo, divorced of any discussion with disabled people or their organisations."[28]

27.  The Minister went on to argue that the Government needed time to formulate its policy in private. When the Government had formulated its view, it would be communicated to Parliament and the wider public. Then, he explained, this would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and "doubtless civic society will have discussions and input into where we have got to".[29] Under the Ponsonby Rule, the Convention must be laid before both Houses of Parliament at least 21 sitting days before ratification. The power to ratify, and to propose reservations or interpretative declarations, remains a prerogative power of the executive. After laying the Convention before Parliament, the Government will be free to proceed with its proposals, despite any objections raised by parliamentarians or others.

28.  After hearing the evidence of the Minister, the UN Convention Campaign Coalition wrote to us with its reaction to the Minister's views. The Coalition remained concerned about the lack of transparency during the ratification process and the lack of consultation with disabled people and their organisations. It explained:

"Equality 2025 is a group of individuals appointed by the Government to advise them on disabled issues and to act as a conduit. They are not a representative organisation. Equality 2025 has had to struggle quite hard to be allowed to provide any advice on this issue. The Government has only held one meeting with representative disabled peoples organisations since adoption on 30 March 2007. This was on 4 December 2007 and despite numerous requests for further meetings none has yet been called. In its Statement on the Purpose of Equality 2025, [Equality 2025] says "The network will not replace any existing government consultation mechanisms nor be used by Government instead of consultation.""[30]

29.  We asked for further information on the steps taken by the Minister or his officials to consult with either Equality 2025 or other disabled people or their organisations, including details of specific meetings or discussions. The ODI told us:

  • Although the Minister referred in his evidence to discussions that he or officials had had with disabled people and their groups, this should not be equated with a formal consultation process.
  • Engagement with groups had taken various forms as work on ratification progressed.
  • Prior to the Statement of Anne McGuire MP, former Minister for Disabled People on 6 May 2008 (when reservations were first publicly proposed) this had included "broad updates in the course of various general meetings".
  • Subsequently, Equality 2025 requested meetings with a number of Departments. They met with official(s) from the Ministry of Defence on 23 June; the DCSF on 2 July; and the Home Office on 23 July. They met an official from the Department of Health, to discuss compatibility of the treatment of people with mental health conditions with the Convention on 24 June.
  • As a result of these meetings draft texts were provided to Equality 2025 by both DCSF and the Home Office. The Ministry of Defence agreed to discuss the wording of its proposed reservation with the ODI.
  • ODI officials also met with Disability Action (in Northern Ireland) on 25 June and with SCOPE on 2 September (at the request of those organisations). During these meetings the Statement was "discussed in detail".
  • At two general meetings with organisations of disabled people (including on 26 June and 29 October), the former Minister and the Minister for Disabled People had each discussed progress towards ratification of the Convention, including discussion of reservations.
  • DSCF had discussed the text of its proposed reservation with the Council for Disabled Children on 8 July. After this meeting, the Council proposed an alternative text.[31]

30.  We are concerned that there has been limited active engagement by the Government with disabled people and their groups. While we understand that discussions have taken place between the Minister and his predecessor, officials and disabled people and their organisations, it appears that these discussions were largely at the instigation of the groups themselves and based on relatively little open information. As the ODI acknowledges in its supplementary evidence, these discussions are not a substitute for consultation. We are disappointed that, although drafts of some proposals for reservations were available in June and July, these were not published in response to our August request for further information and that the Minister has since been reluctant to place drafts in the public domain. There would be clear benefits in consulting people with disabilities and their organisations on whether or not reservations to the UNCRPD are necessary. In our view, these would include increased confidence on the part of disabled people in the Government's approach. In addition, open discussions with the people most affected by the potential reservations and interpretative declarations may help persuade Government that they are unnecessary. If, after consultation, Government consider that reservations are appropriate, it will be in a better position to address individual objections and concerns during parliamentary scrutiny.

Transparency and engagement

31.  We asked the Government to publish the details of the reservations being considered and the reasons for them, together with the outcome of the Government's internal review of the compatibility of domestic law and practice with the requirements of the Convention.[32] The former Minister refused to publish this information, indicating that it will only be published, if at all, when the Government's position is settled and the Explanatory Memorandum for ratification is published.[33]

32.  Scope told the Committee:

"The problem of lack of information for, and consultation with disabled people has been an ongoing problem in the period since signing. For example trying to find out about the details of the various reservations suggested in the Minister's letter was very difficult making the possibility of having a meaningful input very limited. Organisations such as Scope were left to contact the individual Government departments whose willingness to enter into a dialogue varied considerably. As a result there was a lot of misinformation about the exact details of proposed reservations and interpretative declarations."[34]

33.  We asked the Minister to consider publishing draft reservations or a draft Explanatory Memorandum for consultation now. The Minister was unable to make this commitment, but promised to reflect on our concerns.[35]

34.  We consider that progress towards ratification of the Convention by the UK has so far lacked transparency and has unfortunately alienated disabled people and their organisations. This is unacceptable in the light of the clear Convention commitment which the Government intends to make to the involvement of disabled people in the development of policies and laws which affect them. This approach undermines the previous role that the UK Government has played in championing equality for disabled people and their leading role in negotiating the terms of the UNCRPD.

Joined-up government and the ratification of treaties

35.  Our predecessor Committee observed in 2005 that cross-Government coordination on human rights treaties lacks coherence. It recommended that the then Department for Constitutional Affairs Human Rights Division (now at the Ministry of Justice) should take on a coordinating role in respect of the implementation of all international human rights treaties.[36] Anne McGuire MP, the former Minister, explained:

"Individual Departments and Devolved Administrations have been responsible for deciding upon their own positions. However, the Office for Disability Issues has co-ordinated this, and has stressed the need for Departments and Devolved Administrations to have careful regard to the need for any reservations and interpretative declarations to be compatible with the object and purpose of the Convention."[37]

36.  The Committee recently asked the Home Secretary about the reservation being sought by the Home Office, but she said that she had not considered a reservation.[38] On the other hand, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) submitted evidence to this inquiry, explaining in more detail why it considers that Article 24 (right to education) of the Convention might, in its view, prevent it from lawfully continuing with the Government's current policy on education for children with disabilities.

37.  We asked the Minister for further information on his coordinating role, including whether he, his predecessor or their officials had taken steps to persuade other Government departments that reservations were unnecessary. He explained:

"We have had discussions and I am not averse, and certainly my predecessor would not have been averse, to twisting a few arms when necessary, but we would not twist arms in public; we would have those discussions with colleagues in private. We would not have these disagreements in public because that is not the way that collective Government does its business."[39]

38.  We were encouraged to hear the Minister explain that he considered that his role and the role of his officials included providing advice to other Departments and agencies on the requirements of the Convention and attempting to change their minds when reservations appeared to be unnecessary or incompatible with the spirit of the Convention. Unfortunately, when we questioned the Minister in greater detail about his role in relation to the reservations being sought by individual Departments, his responses suggested that the coordinating role of the ODI was relatively limited. For example, in respect of reservations being sought by the Home Office, the Minister explained:

"[The Home Office] will explain in detail their reservation when we publish the explanatory memorandum. It is for departments to determine…whether or not they have reservations.[40]

I, as Minister for the Disabled, have a coordinating role, but I cannot seek to provide the position on detail for that of the Home Office."[41]

39.  Although the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) has adopted a coordinating role in Government on ratification of the UNCRPD, it is unclear exactly what this role has been. The evidence which we heard from the Minister for Disabled People suggests that each Department has been asked to forward its concerns and a "wish list" of reservations to the ODI. Collective responsibility means that the Minister must defend the need for reservations publicly, but it is unclear whether anyone within Government has ever scrutinised these departmental requests to ascertain if they are strictly necessary, or seriously challenged their compatibility with the Convention. In the light of the lack of transparency that has accompanied progress towards ratification, we consider that this approach is unsatisfactory.

Timetable for ratification: next steps

40.  The Minister told us that the Government intends to press ahead with ratification of the Convention as soon as possible and set a date of Spring 2009, with such reservations as the Government considers necessary.[42]

41.  The European Commission has now published its proposals for ratification of the Convention.[43] The former Minister explained that:

"The Government will need to consider the implications of the Commission's proposals for UK ratification, and in particular, will want to consider whether the Commission's competence claims have any specific implications for the package of any domestic reservations and interpretative declarations."[44]

42.  A number of submissions, including by Scope and the EHRC, told us that waiting for European Community (EC) ratification to be complete was unnecessary, not least because the UK would be involved closely in the terms of the EC ratification and other States had not seen any problem with early ratification before the Community. The Minister for Disabled People confirmed that the United Kingdom would not wait for the ratification of the Convention by the EC.[45]

43.  There was general support in the evidence which we received for ratification of the Convention by the UK as soon as possible. Disappointment was expressed that there had been any delay on progress towards ratification and that the UK had not been among the first group of states to ratify,[46] including because this detracted from the enthusiastic support that the UK had expressed for the treaty and the message it sent to disabled people.[47] Others expressed the view that the UK had a positive reputation for treating people with disabilities well and that the Government's reluctance to ratify sent a message to other states that there were problems inherent in the Convention.[48]

44.  We are extremely disappointed that the Minister has failed to meet the Government's original goal of ratification by the end of 2008. We are particularly concerned that this failure means that the United Kingdom has not been involved in the establishment of the monitoring mechanisms for the Convention from the outset. We welcome the Minister's acknowledgement that the United Kingdom need not wait for ratification by the European Community before proceeding to ratify.

45.  Mixed views were expressed over whether ratification should go ahead with reservations or interpretative declarations. A number of witnesses argued that if the Government could not be persuaded to ratify without reservation, ratification should go ahead in any event and as soon as possible. Others were reluctant to support ratification with any reservations or interpretative declarations. The EHRC has told us that:

"Whilst the Commission's Disability Committee is opposed to reservations and interpretative declarations, it does not favour opposing indefinitely ratification on these grounds and wishes to see ratification at the earliest opportunity."[49]

46.  In contrast, the UN Convention Campaign Coalition is campaigning to ensure that the UK only ratifies the Convention without reservations. It explained:

"By ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People with reservations the UK government would be declaring its willingness to accept less than the agreed international standard for the protection of the individual rights of disabled people in the UK."[50]

47.  The Coalition went on to explain its view that ratification with the reservations currently envisaged would be incompatible with the spirit of the Convention, would fail to recognise the concept of progressive realisation (explained in paragraph 73 below) and would not be compatible with the Government's policy intention to achieve equality for people with disabilities by 2025. It stressed that reservations, once in place, could take decades to remove.[51]

48.  We recommend that the Minister publish the current text of each of the reservations and interpretative declarations being considered by the Government without delay to allow full consultation to take place with disabled people and their organisations. The publication of these drafts and the reasons for the Government's concerns before the proposals for ratification are laid before Parliament should not unnecessarily delay progress towards ratification. Even allowing for a 4-6 week period for consultation, the Minister's target of Spring 2009 should be achievable. The Government has discovered, since May 2008, that a number of interpretative declarations or reservations are not needed. A further period of open scrutiny may persuade the Government that its position on the remaining proposals for reservations, developed in isolation, has been unduly cautious.

49.  We share the view of the EHRC that ratification of the Convention ought to take place as soon as possible. Significant delay by the United Kingdom will undermine its standing in the international community, may reduce its ability to participate in the further development of the monitoring mechanisms for the treaty and may undo some of the positive and encouraging developments in the Government's perception as a leader in the campaign for policies and laws which enable disabled people to live independent and equal lives. However, we consider that the number of reservations currently being considered by the Government may send a negative impression to the other State Parties to the Convention and to disabled people in the United Kingdom.

50.  Whilst we welcome the new goal set by the Minister of ratification by Spring 2009, we would be extremely disappointed if ratification were to proceed without any further opportunity for consultation and scrutiny by disabled people and their organisations.

23   Ev 19, Ev 20 Back

24   Ev 37 Back

25   Ev 40-41, paras 3.10-3.11 Back

26   Ev 3 Q13 Back

27   Ev 4 Q17 Back

28   Ev 4 Q20 Back

29   Ev 3 Q13 Back

30   Ev 14 Back

31   Ev 67-69 Back

32   Ev 17 Back

33   Ev 19-21 Back

34   Ev 59 Back

35   Ev 4-5 Q24-Q26, Ev 7 Q39 Back

36   Nineteenth Report of Session 2004-05, The Work of the Committee in the 2001-05 Parliament, paragraph 185.  Back

37   Ev 19 Back

38   Q 104, HC-1142, 28 October 2008, Uncorrected Transcript. She later wrote to clarify that the position was being considered by officials and that she would write soon with further information. Letter from the Home Secretary to the Chair, dated 10 November 2008. This letter will be published shortly in our Second Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of the Committee in 2007-08, HL Paper 10/ HC 92. Back

39   Ev 6 Q35 Back

40   Ev 7 Q38 Back

41   Ev 7 Q43 Back

42   Ev 1 Q1 Back

43   COM (2008) 530/final/2 VOL. I, Proposal for a Council Decision concerning the conclusion of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 16 September 2008. COM(2008) 530 final VOL. II, Proposal for a Council Decision concerning the conclusion of the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 12 September 2008. Back

44   Ev 20 Back

45   Ev 8 Q48 Back

46   Ev 25, Ev 27 para 2.5, Ev 33, Ev 35 Back

47   Ev 33, Ev 37, Ev 39 Back

48   Ev 54 Back

49   Ev 41 para 3.12 Back

50   Ev 53 Back

51   Ibid Back

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