The European Union (EU) has been influential in the development of disability rights legislation in the UK. There is now a very real danger that Brexit will result in a dismantling of human rights currently safeguarded by the European court of human rights, as well as the withdrawal of much-needed financial support from European structural and investment funds.
Reduction in human rights protection
In 1995, the UK introduced its first disability discrimination legislation, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). It covered education, transport and employment, among other services. However, under the DDA, businesses with fewer than 20 employees were protected if they discriminated on the grounds of disability.
The first piece of EU legislation against discrimination was the framework directive for equal treatment in employment and occupation in 2000, which set out to protect individuals in employment against direct and indirect discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, religion and disability. Unlike the DDA, the directive did not provide protection for smaller companies, which is why the UK had to adapt its legislation in 2004.
The EU had a further impact on UK disability legislation in 2008. As a result of a European court of justice judgment, it became unlawful to discriminate against employees because of their relationship to a disabled person.
UK carer Sharon Coleman said she had been obliged to resign from her job because of her disabled son. The European court of justice ruled in Coleman’s favour, saying that the European employment equality directive means the prohibition of direct discrimination is not limited only to people who are disabled.
Disability benefits are another area where the EU has had an impact on UK policy. Thanks to the 2004 regulation on the coordination of social security systems, people from the UK can live in other EU countries and receive benefits, such as personal independence payments.
In December 2015 the EU proposed the European Accessibility Act, which aims to improve the functioning of the internal market for accessible products and services for people with disabilities and older people by removing barriers created by divergent legislation. If the UK leaves the EU it will not be bound by this directive.
If the UK was to leave, EU law would also no longer prevent UK governments from rolling back the positive changes resulting from EU legislation. Brexit would also remove the possibility for UK citizens to resort to the European court of justice if they felt their equality rights had been contravened, and UK citizens would not automatically benefit from future legislative developments.
Some of these issues are covered in, for example, the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, but this is not enforceable. EU countries, by contrast, have two years to transpose directives into their national legislation and citizens in the member states can apply to the courts to have these rights implemented.
Reduced funding for social and employment programmes
Brexit will also jeopardise financial support for UK disabled people from European structural and investment funds, which have been changed to place more emphasis on anti-poverty and social inclusion measures.
At a recent seminar with the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group, chief executives of disability charities discussed their concerns about the continuity of funding for disability programmes, as the government has not committed to continuing funding these programmes after 2020.
David Finch, director of international development and research at National Star, said the organisation was nervous about the sustainability of the European programmes it runs. National Star is studying different models of support for young people with disabilities in education with partners in Norway, Finland and Belgium, with the aim to develop a training programme, which could be implemented after 2019, but it may not be able to if it cannot access funding.
National Star has just been awarded Erasmus+ funding for a programme on assisted technology for people with disabilities at work with partners from Croatia, Greece and Finland. However, after the UK leaves the EU, organisations based in the UK will be able to partner but not lead Erasmus+ programmes. This means that UK organisations will not be able to take the initiative or shape the way projects run, and will instead be subservient to the interests and needs of other European partners.
There are further significant challenges ahead for employment services for disabled people. Between 2014-20, the European social fund (ESF) and European regional development fund are investing around €11.8bn across the UK. The ESF share, which supports access to employment for people with disabilities, accounts for €4.9bn and is funding six programmes in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Gibraltar. It is unclear where funding for these programmes will come from in the future.
There has not yet been any assessment of the ongoing availability of European grant funding or the impact of its withdrawal for people with disabilities. The government has committed to honour its current agreements and fund programmes until 2020, as these funds were agreed in 2013. The UK is a net contributor to the EU so such funding would theoretically be available beyond this date, but there has been no commitment or discussion as to what might happen afterwards.