Brexit: what does it mean for disabled people

No matter what side you were on, remain or leave, Brexit has bought about a high level of uncertainty for us all. But what does it mean for disabled people in particular? Estifanos Habtesellasie discusses the ins and outs of this complicated situation.

#Brexit&disability – join in the conversations @DHorizons

It all seemed so simple, Brexit was going to be avoided. When I went to sleep on the night of the referendum, it seemed like remain voters were going to win. Even Nigel Farage had given up. But in morning, the result sent Britain into a state of political anarchy, albeit temporarily.

Disabled groups were hoping for a remain win as they believed that the rights of disabled people were best protected within the European Union. Now the political dust has settled, with Theresa May consolidating her power as I write, what are the consequences of Brexit for disabled people.

How the EU works and how it affects us

First, let us look at exactly how the EU influences legislation and what institutions are used to enforce them.

A directive is a type of legislation that must first be passed by the European Council, which comprises all member states (currently including the UK) of the EU. It must then be passed through the European Parliament before being made law. After this, the onus is on the parliaments of each member state (so each country) to put the directive into place in their country within a 2 year period.

A directive only sets out a minimum standard, so if a member state wants to pass a directive that is more comprehensive, they’d be free to do so. The European Court of Justice (now known as the Court of Justice of the European Union) works to ensure EU directives are equally applied through the different member states, and intervene if they’re not.

EU legislation for disabled people

There are a number of directives originating from the EU that have had on impact on disabled people. For example, the Framework Directive for Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation (2000) helps protect disabled people against discrimination in employment. And in 2008, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that these rights must be extended to carers as well. In addition, between 2006 and 2011 a number of directives were passed to increase assistance for disabled people on transport. 

These examples show how important the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is when it comes to enforcing people’s rights when EU legislation is passed. A consequence of Brexit would be that British courts would no longer be able to refer cases to the ECJ, so they would have to decide for themselves without consultation. This could mean legislation is not implemented at all, or as fairly.

Disabled campaigners’ concerns

Disabled campaigners against Brexit are concerned that the pace of pro-disabled legislation may slow down and that enforcement will not be as rigorous. However, they should keep in mind legislation that has been passed by British Government alone, without the help of the EU.

For example, there is the Transport Act 2000, which grants free travel on public transport, the Equality Act 2010, and the updating of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. These are examples of the British Government passing laws without being directed by the EU to do so, but due to pressure from the disabled rights movement.

No longer having any, or at least reduced access to EU funding for social projects or disabled charities, is also a worry.

Protected non EU disability-related legislation

One very important legislation that won’t be changed by Brexit is the Human Rights Act 1998. The Act is enforced by the British courts as well the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), an institution that is unrelated to the EU and has a larger membership. This means that it won’t be changed simply by us leaving the EU.

Having the ECHR involved also means we have more ways to fight for our rights. Take the case of Paul Rutherford as an example. Paul, a grandfather and carer of a disabled child, has taken the Government to court over the bedroom tax, citing the Human Rights Act and claiming it’s discriminatory.

Unlike the European Court of Justice, people can directly file cases with the ECHR once they’ve exhausted appeals with their countries’ court, so have a second chance for their rights to be heard. Enforcement of any judgement of the ECUR is still the responsibility of domestic courts though.

Theresa May as Prime Minister

The new Prime Minister Theresa May has been Home Secretary for the past 6 years and on a number of occasions during her tenure has expressed her frustration with the ECHR and Human Rights Act. She has in fact said that she wants to repeal the Act altogether.

Whether this is just politics at play or whether she’s serious is unclear. In any event, it would be very difficult for her to achieve this. She would first have to pass it through the House of Commons, where the conservatives only have a small majority and the more liberal conservative MPs, alongside the other parties, are not likely to support it.

Even if it did pass through the House of Commons, it would still need to get through the House of Lords, where the conservatives are again in the minority. The Lords have the power to delay legislation for up to 2 years, and would no doubt do so. Civil libertarians and disabled campaigners would stage a mass uprising if a repeal of the Act were attempted, hardly a fight Mrs May needs.

Brexit and disabled people

Overall, my opinion is that the consequences of Brexit will have a negative effect on disabled people’s rights as, if implemented, Britain would no longer be receiving a legislative impetus from the EU on areas that benefit disabled people.

However, as I said earlier, EU directives already passed are still the law of the land. Britain has a very strong disabled rights movement that has been campaigning for decades and will continue to do so in spite of Brexit. The UK has an independent and competent judiciary that enforces citizens’ rights. The potential effects of Brexit are less significant than they would be in other countries where disabled rights aren’t as strong.

Brexit is a process and it hasn’t even started yet. But when it does, it’ll probably be just another bump in the road.

By Estifanos Habtesellasie

What are your thoughts on Brexit and how it might affect disabled people? Join in the conversations on Facebook and Twitter @DHorizons using the hashtag #Brexit&disability.

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