Exactly how, or perhaps now whether, the UK leaves the European Union is a decision that affects us all. But in amongst all the economic, social, and political arguments, it is absolutely vital that the interests and well-being of all our people are protected. However, disabled people – who make up one in five of our population – have barely been mentioned throughout all of the discussions over the last two and half years. This is not only an affront to the rights and lives of almost 14million people in the UK, it also sharply threatens the UK Government’s claim to be a world-leading champion on disability. To truly claim this title, the Government must both realise and react to the wide-ranging and serious implications of Brexit that risk disproportionately affecting the lives of disabled people.
As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Disability I am calling, in essence, for an impact assessment on Brexit with regards to the rights and wellbeing of disabled people. This was the conclusion of Disability Rights UK’s report on Brexit and it is something the Government has not delivered on. In fact, after the referendum in 2016, the Government confused the public, and itself, about the existence of any assessments regarding the impact of leaving the EU. In any event, none were released. But the very nature of Brexit means that it poses risks; risks that the Government has a duty to acknowledge and mitigate. The risks to the rights and well-being of disabled people, unacceptably, have been neither acknowledged nor mitigated.
For example, seventy thousand staff who work in Social Care are EU nationals. Depending on how free movement is either maintained, curtailed or outright rejected in the future, this number could radically change, potentially leaving disabled people in a serious deficit of available personal assistants and carers. These dedicated staff are crucial to the lives of many disabled people who depend upon them to live independently, outside of care institutions. But because they are not currently classified as “skilled” workers – which they most certainly are – they are at risk of not meeting the proposed standards of skilled immigration under Prime Minister May’s current deal.
This suggests that the impact of the loss of the EU workforce on disabled people’s independence must become part of the debate on freedom of movement – alongside the importance of staff in health and social care more broadly. Indeed, the risks to care staff are not isolated: since the 2016 vote, there has been a 96% drop in nursing applications from non-British EU citizens and one in five EU doctors have made plans to leave the UK. Alongside potential drug shortages, the ability of the Health and Social Care Department to deliver satisfactory care for disabled people looks like it will be seriously damaged. In going back to the EU, as the Prime Minister is now, these thoughts should be at the forefront of her mind, and it is a shame that they almost certainly are not. The Prime Minister is diabetic herself, and has made clear she understands that her insulin comes from the EU. This makes it only the more disappointing that these considerations have been largely neglected over the last two and a half years.
Quite apart from health and social care, leaving the European Union presents a number of other risks that certainly deserve more consideration than they have been given. Leaving the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, and no doubt distancing ourselves from the European Convention on Human Rights, means that greater emphasis will be placed on domestic legislation in terms of tackling discrimination. This could be accounted for by reviewing our own legislation, or giving greater precedence to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but neither of these steps have been taken. In fact, the UNCRPD has a higher status in EU law than in domestic law, meaning that, once we are outside of the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction, the protections offered by the UNCRPD will be even further reduced in the UK.
The risk of real damage to the rights and wellbeing of disabled people is severe. Indeed, the Work and Pensions Select Committee has rightly pointed out that the loss of the European Social Fund is an incredibly important source of funding for programmes for supporting disadvantaged groups. The Government must seriously consider offering funding itself to fill this gap, which campaigners have said poses a “disastrous” risk to disabled people. This is alongside a multitude of other concerns, for example missing out on the European Accessibility Bill, which promised a coherent and universal standard of accessibility for disabled people everywhere.
However, the real damage being done to disabled people is in the fact that these potential impacts of Brexit are not taking centre stage in discussions about how or whether we leave the EU. It is clear that Brexit should not be seen as an opportunity to reduce equalities protection, but it also carries with it duties about maintaining and strengthening rights and well-being. In fact, Brexit may present an opportunity for the Government to make good on its claim to be a world-leading champion on disability. Taking back control of laws and money could include passing legislation and establishing funding that empowers disabled people and protects their rights. The APPG for Disability is currently pursuing work across a multitude of campaigns, including Changing Places accessible toilets, the Department for Transport’s Inclusive Transport Strategy and disability in education. Better regulation and more serious funding in any of these areas would be welcome progress.
I therefore reiterate my call for the Government to stop for a second and consider the rights, interests and wellbeing of almost fourteen million disabled people in the UK as we finalise leaving the EU. There are serious risks to be acknowledged and mitigated, but if the Government looks closely, Brexit, if it happens, also presents sure opportunities to earn the title is has awarded itself. To be a champion on disability is in the Government’s grasp if it acts conscientiously to do so.