In 2020–21, one in five people in the UK (14.6 million) reported having a disability. A person is considered to have a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities. The definition of disability is included in the Equality Act 2010.

People with disabilities can face a wide range of challenges across several different policy areas, such as accessibility, housing, benefits, employment, education and transport. For example, students with reported disabilities are more likely to drop out from higher education and less likely to achieve a first or upper second-class degree. Disabled students are also less likely to be in highly skilled employment or higher study soon after completing their first degree.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly pronounced for those with a disability. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported that people with a disability in the UK have been more likely to die as a result of Covid-19. In addition, the ONS found the negative social impacts of the pandemic, such as negative mental health impacts, have been greater for disabled people.

The principal piece of domestic legislation governing disabled people’s rights in the UK, is the Equality Act 2010. On 21 June 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the report from the Liaison Committee: ‘The Equality Act 2010: The impact on disabled people—follow-up report’. The follow-up report examines progress made towards addressing the recommendations of the March 2016 report by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability.

1. Legislation on disabilities: The Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act 2010 replaced several pieces of separate legislation covering discrimination, including the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. In the explanatory notes which accompany the act, the then Labour government stated that the purpose of the act was to “harmonise discrimination law and to strengthen the law to support progress on equality”.

The Equality Act 2010 makes provisions for nine protected characteristics, including disability. Discrimination on the basis of one of the protected characteristics is unlawful. The act also states that a person discriminates against a disabled person if they treat that person unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of their disability, and they cannot show that the treatment is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Section 20 of the act makes provisions regarding the requirement to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people in relation to services and public functions, premises, work, education and associations, which is imposed in various parts of the act.

2. House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010

On 11 June 2015, the House of Lords confirmed the appointment of an ad hoc committee “to consider and report on the impact on people with disabilities of the Equality Act 2010”. The Equality Act 2010 and Disability Committee’s report was published on 24 March 2016.

The report found that “combining disability with the other protected characteristics in one Act did not in practice benefit disabled people” and that disabled people’s rights were better protected under the previous legislation. However, the committee concluded that it would be “impractical” to try to reverse the changes by separating the legislation. Instead, they examined “how the Equality Act can be made to work better for disabled people”. The report made recommendations concerning: the public sector equality duty; access to buildings, dwellings and transport facilities; access to justice; and the functions of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The government, then led by Prime Minister David Cameron, disputed the committee’s findings about the Equality Act 2010, arguing that the legislation provided “tangible protections of disabled people’s rights” and stating:

[…] this government is aware of two areas of concern by disabled people about developments under the last government which mean that the current situation is not the same as was envisaged when the act received royal assent—the fee system for employment tribunals; and a small number of un-commenced provisions in the act. All of these are currently under actual review or active consideration. More generally the current government believes that the 2010 act operates as expected and intended.

The report was debated in the House of Lords on the 6 September 2016.

3. Liaison Committee: ‘The Equality Act 2010: The impact on disabled people: follow-up report’

In September 2021, the Liaison Committee published a report examining “the progress which has been made by the government and key stakeholders on the implementation of some of the recommendations” made in the 2016 report.

The committee was “struck by evidence from witnesses” that the Covid-19 pandemic “disproportionately affected” disabled people. It also highlighted the potential impact of an ageing population, noting a direct correlation between an increase in life expectancy and a decrease in disability-free life expectancy. It concluded “action must be taken to improve the lives and uphold the rights of disabled people without delay”.

3.1 Government leadership and strategy

While welcoming the fact that the government had restored the minister for disabled people to the rank of minister of state, the committee argued that “issues regarding the coordination and oversight of policy relating to disabled people remain”.

The committee expressed concern regarding the status of the inter-ministerial group on disability and society. It recommended that the women and equalities minister should be a stand-alone full-time role, based in the Cabinet Office, with the right to attend cabinet. The committee also called for greater detail on the national disability strategy, which had not been published when the committee was producing its report. It called for both the women and equalities minister and minister for disabled people to “continue to work closely together” to deliver the strategy. Finally, it questioned the potential timetable for the establishment of a public service ombudsmen (PSO), arguing that any new relevant PSO should be given an explicit remit to secure compliance with the Equality Act 2010 in the services which it was responsible for.

3.2 Public sector equality duty

The committee reiterated recommendations from the 2016 report regarding the public sector equality duty (PSED), the legal obligation on public authorities to take proactive steps to eliminate discrimination and advance equality. The 2016 report identified flaws in the PSED, particularly related to ‘due regard’ principles mentioned in the 2010 Act. It suggested changes to the Equality Act 2010 and replacement of the Equality Act (Specific Duties) Regulations 2011 in order to make the PSED more effective.

3.3 Reasonable adjustments

The committee was critical of delays in commencing provisions of the 2010 Act concerning reasonable adjustments to common parts of buildings such as blocks of flats. It called the government’s arguments for the delay in implementing section 36 “unconvincing” and called for a timetable for commencement in the government response to the report. In addition, the committee reiterated calls in the 2016 report for more work to be done on making sports grounds accessible to disabled people.

The 2016 report found that transport, by whatever means, was one of the greatest challenges to disabled people. It was particularly critical of the speed with which the government had commenced sections which applied to reasonable adjustments to taxis. The Liaison Committee highlighted a continuing issue with a failure to commence section 163 of the act. Section 163 would make taxi licences conditional on accessibility regulations. During the course of the committee the government stated that one of the problems with section 163 was that it only applied to taxis, and not to private hire vehicles (PHVs). However, the committee argued that “identification of a loophole in section 163 regarding PHVs does not justify inaction. Rather, it predicates closing the loophole and thus ensuring that PHV licences are also conditional on accessibility”. The committee stated the government “must take action to ensure that all public transport is accessible to disabled people as a matter of urgency”.

3. Access to justice

The committee reiterated the 2016 recommendation that: “The Civil Procedure Rules should be amended to apply qualified one-way costs shifting to discrimination claims under the Equality Act”, stating that this should be actioned within six months of the report’s publication. It welcomed the government’s review of the fees remission scheme, and recommended that the Ministry of Justice give “clearer guidance” to legal aid authorities about the importance of extending this funding to discrimination cases.

4. Government response

The government responded to the Liaison Committee’s report on 29 November 2021, reiterating that the “government is committed to improving disabled people’s everyday lives” and arguing that the UK was “a world leader in this legislative area”.

4.1 Government strategy and leadership

The government drew attention to the ‘National Disability Strategy’, published on 28 July 2021 which, it said, included “a wide range of tangible, timebound actions” to improve the lives of disabled people across a range of sectors. It said that the strategy would be driven by the minister for disabled people and committed to publishing an annual report which would review progress and delivery. It also drew attention to the work of the inter-ministerial group of disability champions.

The government stated that it did “not anticipate bringing forward legislation” regarding a public service ombudsman “at this time”. In relation to recommendations regarding the women and equalities minister the response noted that portfolios of ministers “are at the prerogative of the prime minister”.

4.2 Public sector equality duty

The government said that there was not a consensus amongst stakeholders about proposed changes to the PSED. It expressed concern that changes to the main duty would require opening up the Equality Act 2010 as a whole to amendment. Any amendments to the PSED should “in due course be considered if and when any more general decision is taken to revise or replace the act in the future”.

4.3 Reasonable adjustments

The response included a pledge to consult on the details of the implementation of section 36 of the Equality Act 2010, which relates to reasonable adjustments to common parts of buildings. This would ensure “proper account” was taken of concerns and suggestions “as we move towards commencement”.

However, it rejected calls for a government bill to provide better access to sports stadia for disabled people and stated it would continue to work with the football authorities to ensure all clubs meet their legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled spectators.

The government accepted that “in some parts of the country there are too few wheelchair accessible licensed vehicles to meet the needs of passengers”. However, it repeated its “long-standing position” that the answer lay in the range of vehicles in fleets of taxis and private hire vehicles, rather than in the commencing section 163 of the act.

4.4 Access to justice

The government stated that work on the issue of access to justice for disabled people had been delayed by the pandemic, “we propose to set out a way forward on this issue in the coming months”.

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Cover image by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.