Over recent weeks, SPECTRUM Centre for Independent Living has been asked whether we would be taking a position on the EU referendum. We felt that it was important for people to know what impact Europe has had on Disabled People’s lives. We commissioned John Evans who was President of the European Network for Independent Living for 14 years to help us with task. His thoughts are below and we urge all voters, whether Disabled or not, to read what he has to say. Following this, and further discussions with the staff team and our Management Committee, we are supporting the ‘Stay in’ campaign.
The Advantages and Benefits for UK Disabled People Remaining in the EU by John Evans OBE
The focus of the debate on the EU referendum until now has been mainly on the economy, trade agreements, employment, legal issues and immigration. There has been hardly any key media coverage on Disabled People and their livelihood within or without the EU, except an article by Richard Howitt MEP in the Guardian.
This briefing paper is to make clear some key issues and benefits for Disabled People by remaining in the EU. I have had over 30 years of experience as a disabled activist being involved in Europe and want to share what some of those main advantages and benefits for Disabled People are.
Why Disabled People are stronger in Europe
The UK disability movement has prospered by being part of the wider international disability movement since the early 1980s when it was formed through DPI (Disabled People’s International). In particular, through being actively engaged with the European disability movement we have seen a wealth of positive changes happen which have improved the quality of Disabled People’s lives in the UK. We have been much stronger by working together with the European Network of Independent Living (ENIL) and the European Disability Forum (EDF) campaigning for independent living, equal rights and an accessible environment, which has enabled Disabled People to have a positive influence on the EU. Below are some examples.
The Rights for Disabled People in Employment and Freedom of Movement
Over the years we have seen many positive changes in combating discrimination and advances in strengthening equality for Disabled People and other disadvantaged groups. Working together with our European disabled colleagues we have contributed towards bringing in an important European wide non-discrimination directive, which protects the rights of disabled people in employment and enables Disabled People to work in other European countries. The EU also supports freedom of movement for Disabled People to live and work in other EU Member States. At a time that Disabled People in the UK are facing unprecedented levels of financial hardship and high rates of unemployment, we cannot afford to lose this hard won support.
The UK has been one of the pioneers in the development of the Independent Living movement across Europe. We have learned much from the many ideas and exchanges we have had with Disabled People in other countries and, together, have successfully influenced EU support for Disabled People having the right to control our own lives. However in the last five years we have seen some big threats to Independent Living in the UK with the closure of the ILF and the austerity measures affecting local authority budgets to support Independent Living. Our future for Independent Living would be stronger by remaining part of the EU and keeping the support of the European disability movement and the EU structures and policy.
Inclusion of Disabled People
The EU is also supporting Independent Living by the policy initiatives towards stopping European funding for renovating and building new institutions which segregate disabled people. Deinstitutionalisation is now a very positive development in encouraging the funding for more community-based services for Disabled People so they can live inclusively with others in local communities. This is an issue of vital importance for Disabled People as we have seen, for example with the terrible abuses inflicted upon People with Learning Disabilities in Winterbourne View and other care institutions.
European Social Funding
There has been much debate about how much the UK pays into the EU but little is said about the significant sums of money that the EU provides to support Disabled People and other disadvantaged groups in the UK. 87,000 British Disabled People were supported by the European Social Fund last year, helping them towards the world of work. For many years Disabled People have also been able to access EU funding to set up projects, organisations and conferences and a range of other support. In addition, the legal exemption from EU state aid rules to allow public authorities to directly contract, provides an important boost for Disabled People to set up and run their own social enterprises. As funding sources in the UK become ever tighter, this European funding will be a vital lifeline for Disabled People that we can ill afford to lose.
Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
The EHRC has been subject to a barrage of criticism’s threatening its position, but it is protected by the requirements of being an “Independent body” laid down by the EU non-discrimination directives. Since the closure of the Disability Rights Commission the EHRC has been the main organisation supporting the protection of rights for Disabled People in the UK and this protection could well be weakened by leaving the EU.
European Accessibility Act
The forthcoming European Accessibility Act will mean there will be a duty to make sure that all services and products will be accessible regardless of disability or age in the EU. This will include air, rail and sea passenger transport services, banking services, telephone services and audio visual media services. If the UK exited from the EU we would not benefit from this new act. We should also not forget that it was a European directive, which supported us getting accessible buses in the UK in the late 1980s onwards.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD)
Although the UK government signed up to this UN Convention, which aims to protect our rights, it has been widely criticised for failing to properly implementing it. The EU has also signed the Convention and we would be better off having our rights protected with the support of the EU as well, due to the lack of commitment of the UK. It was the united voice of European Disabled People along with others from around the world which influenced the creation of the Convention and these are important rights that we need to protect.
In conclusion, these are just a few of our successes being in the EU. We want to continue to work together with our disabled colleagues throughout Europe with the support of the EU. We want to pull down barriers not erect them. We recognise discrimination does not stop at borders. We want to protect Europe’s very significant achievements for disabled people, and prevent others from being taken away and provide a platform for the further improvements for our future.
In today’s economy of austerity, where rationing and denial of services has become the norm, never discount the fact that the economic prosperity which comes from Britain’s membership of the European Union is vital, if we are to find the public services which many Disabled People believe should be theirs of right.
John Evans OBE
6 April 2016