There are over 11 million disabled people in the United Kingdom, and the number grows year by year. Disability affects us all—as disabled people ourselves, and as the carers, family, friends, employers, colleagues, and educators of disabled people—and it is the task of all of us to remove the barriers that prevent some from participating fully, and equally, in society.
The Equality Act 2010 is the legislative framework. We have been examining whether it adequately supports the fight against disability discrimination. Our conclusion is that much more needs to be done. Our witnesses, who included wheelchair users, blind and deaf people, and some with learning difficulties, were almost unanimous in believing that it was a mistake to have attempted to deal with discrimination on grounds of disability, sex, race and other protected characteristics in a single Equality Act. Life, they told us, had been easier with a dedicated Disability Discrimination Act and with a single Disability Rights Commission, rather than a Commission covering all inequalities and human rights. But it would now be impractical to try to reverse this. We have therefore been looking to see how the Equality Act can be made to work better for disabled people.
Many of the laws and practices which help disabled people require action from public authorities, employers and others. All too often the Government has characterised this as red tape, and made changes under the Red Tape Challenge which increase the problems of disabled people. These must be reversed. The Government, instead of concentrating on the burden on businesses, should be looking at the burden on disabled people.
When the Government and public authorities are formulating their policies, they have a duty to “have due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity. This wording allows them to consider all the evidence, but still to pursue plainly discriminatory policies. We recommend that the wording should be strengthened, so that the discriminatory consequences of their decisions can no longer be ignored.
Provisions on the carriage of wheelchair users in taxis have been on the statute book for twenty years, and still the Government refuses to bring them into force. Its reasons for not doing so do not stand up. It should now bring into force these and other provisions of the Act which have been ineffective for so long.
Employers and providers of services have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled people. It is scarcely credible that the first plans for Crossrail included seven stations without step-free access; some will still not have step-free access when Crossrail opens. We have made recommendations for changes which the Government, train and bus companies could make to reduce the burden on disabled people when they travel. They include speeding up the process of installing audio-visual annunciators.
Many of the pleasures which most of us take for granted are denied to disabled people. Access to sports grounds is one of them. The FA Premier League has, not before time, given an undertaking that its clubs will comply with the accessible stadia guidelines by August 2017. The Accessible Sports Grounds Bill, which was passed by the House of Lords but blocked in the Commons, would have ensured that this would happen.
Too many restaurants, pubs and clubs are difficult to access; many do not provide such basic facilities as a disabled toilet. A one-line amendment to the Licensing Act 2003 would allow local authorities to refuse to grant or renew their licences until they make the necessary changes. The design of new dwellings is another area where local authorities could, simply by revising their planning policies, require new buildings to be wheelchair accessible or adaptable. London has done so; others should follow.
Where there is discrimination, it should not be for disabled people alone to seek to assert their rights through the courts. Here the Government, by imposing tribunal fees, withdrawing legal aid and changing the costs rules, has hindered, not helped. There are improvements that can be made, some of them cost-free. We have called for changes so that disabled people are not prevented from starting litigation by the fear of becoming liable for excessive costs of the other party. We also believe that charities representing disabled people should be allowed to litigate on their behalf.
We have examined how the Equality and Human Rights Commission could do more to support disabled people. In 2012 the Government removed its helpline, and gave the work to an external company. This has been much criticised. The responsibility for providing advice should be restored to the EHRC. The EHRC used to have the power to arrange conciliation in non-employment cases, the majority of which are disability cases. This was one of the casualties of the Red Tape Challenge. We would like to see that power restored.
Communication is a perennial problem. There is too little awareness of the needs of disabled people, especially among the Government departments and public bodies on whom we all rely, and whose websites and documents often ignore those with particular access needs.
The needs of disabled people are many and complex. Much more could be done with additional resources. But we recognise that we live in a time of austerity, and our recommendations bear this in mind. Many are for changes which are simple, and cost-free to the taxpayer. Most could be rapidly implemented. We urge the Government to make this happen.