Third in our set of four political interviews Is Kate Green Member of Parliament for Stretford and Urmston and Shadow Minister for Disabilities. I’m keeping to a rule of ‘NO editorialising’ on these interviews so I’ll let the Q&A do the talking.
I’m just back from a very international meeting of disability bloggers and it was fascinating to see how differently (often worse) disability is treated internationally. Do you think that the UK is setting a high standard in terms of disability policy or are the innovations you’d like to bring in from other countries?
We often hear debate about the pluses and minuses of our membership of the European Union. The most common example of the positive influence of our EU membership is in relation to employment rights, and we know that some European countries offer better protection for employees when they become sick or have an accident. We can learn from them.
But being part of the European Union has brought wider rights to disabled people in the UK, as consumers and users of services, and as citizens. Significant progress has been made, for example, in improving access to goods and services, such as adopting European standards for installing lifts in public buildings, Braille labels on medicines, and, most famously, for buses and coaches.
Labour in Europe has been at the heart of the campaign for a fully-fledged European Accessibility Act, which would ensure voluntary European accessibility guidance is turned into binding legal standards. It’s disappointing that the European Commission dithered on producing draft legislation in the previous parliament, but it is something Labour MEPs will be returning to in the new parliament.
Labour also championed the global Web Accessibility Initiative in meetings with the European Commission, and last year fully backed the European parliament’s proposals to require EU countries to increase the number of public websites which are accessible. As we know, in the UK, access to welfare provision is increasingly being delivered online – whether that’s applying for the benefits that are so crucial to disabled people, to obtaining a blue badge, to ordering repeat prescriptions. Ensuring the highest possible accessibility standards is vital to enable disabled people to exercise their rights to social welfare support as smoothly and conveniently as possible – and can also help serve as an exemplar of best practice to commercial sites.
But perhaps most important is to underpin access and participation rights within a legal architecture that embeds the principles of equality and non-discrimination. We’re very proud that it was a Labour government that sighed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is 2009, and that Labour MEPs ensured that the European Union itself, and not just individual members countries, signed up to the Convention. And Labour in Europe has been leading the fight for a comprehensive non-discrimination directive at EU level.
Such a directive, if it had been in place, could have offered some useful protection against the harshest impact of the Tory-led government’s austerity measures. Mechanisms to report on and scrutinise compliance would have helped to expose the disproportionate effect of government policy on disabled people, and would have supported Labour’s call for a cumulative assessment of the impact of policy measures on them. A comprehensive non-discrimination directive is something Labour’s MEPs will be pushing again in the new parliament.
All politicians are used to meeting scepticism from our constituents about Europe, and I acknowledge that disabled voters are no exception. But I firmly believe, as a passionate pro-European Labour politician, that while the EU undoubtedly needs reform, its impact on disabled people and the impetus it creates for further improvements in their rights is one we dare not lose.
Me: As Shadow Spokesperson for Disabled People, you are in a position to see how a wide array of people deal with the effects of disability – is there a story that particularly touched you?
KG: Disabled people don’t need me to be touched – they need me to fight for their rights. The stories that make the strongest impression on me are the ones that make me angry. Like the experience of Paul Rutherford, a disabled grandparent who cares for his severely disabled grandson Warren, hit by the outrageous bedroom tax. Warren needs to have overnight carers, he needs extra space for special equipment to manage his condition, and it’s disgraceful that the family should be affected by the government’s rotten bedroom tax. Paul is showing great courage and determination in pursuing the case through the courts, and I’m hugely admiring of his bravery and persistence. It’s cases like this that inspired and encouraged us in the Labour party to commit to scrap the hated bedroom tax.
Me: As someone who does a lot of work in around a wide range of social care issues – what forthcoming pieces of legislation do you think will have the biggest effects on people with disabilities? Are there any that you think that we should all be watching closely?
KG: The Queen’s speech last week (JR – as shown here, I some of these interviews arrived a little earlier than others, Kate was one of the fastest to respond) showed the Tory-led government’s run out of ideas. There isn’t much legislation to help disabled people. Nothing to address the failing Work Programme that’s getting just 5% of ESA claimants into jobs – worse than if there was no programme at all. Nothing about building the affordable, accessible housing that’s needed by disabled people. Nothing to help with the extra costs disabled people face – for a special diet, extra transport costs, or extra energy costs to keep their home warm, for example. Nothing about cracking down on hate crime against disabled people.
Labour is looking at how we’d reform the Work Programme to offer more personalised, locally commissioned support to get disabled people into work. We’re committed to building 200,000 new homes a year by 2020. We’d axe the bedroom tax and freeze energy bills for two years to help with the rising cost of living. Last year, Liam Byrne announced Labour would toughen up the law on hate crime. A Labour Queen’s speech will be very different from the Tory-led government’s, with measures that will make a real difference to disabled people, their carers and families.
Me: You will doubtless be aware that Care.data has caused some controversy about it’s release program. This is a deep concern for many disabled people because they are obviously much more easily identifiable from medical records than other ‘data subjects’. Can you reassure us that this is an issue that has been looked into by your office?
KG: My colleagues in the Labour health team are responsible for this issue. They’ve already been active in raising their concerns:
- The public awareness campaign has been inadequate
- Inadequate provisions to ensure people with a learning disability, autism or sensory impairments receive accessible information
- For most patients the only way to opt-out is to write to or visit your GP practice
- The Care Act removes the Secretary of State’s responsibility for signing off any uses of data
Labour has therefore called for a number of safeguards:
- A targeted awareness campaign should take place for those people with a learning disability, autism or sensory impairments.
- GPs should be issued with clear guidance to ensure all of their patients are informed
- All patients should be allowed to opt-out by telephone or email, as well as writing a letter
- Secretary of State accountability for the release of potentially identifiable information should be restored and there should be patient representation on the research ethics committee.