As I have previously written, we are reaching a critical moment regarding the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), with the UN expert committee in the rights of persons with disabilities expected to begin its examination of the UK in autumn 2014 and conclude in the spring of 2015. Of course this raises the dizzying prospect of the UN giving its verdict on the UK’s performance on disability rights months – weeks even – before the 2015 General Election, which may help explain what I tell you about later in this blog.
The principle of involvement runs through the CRPD like the word ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. Without involvement, any steps to implement the Convention are robbed of meaning and validity. Involvement and participation are both the means and the ends of achieving the goals of the Convention: that disabled people should enjoy human rights without discrimination. The Office for Disability Issues has in the past been a keen supported of involvement and co-production.
The preamble of the Convention says that ‘persons with disabilities should have the opportunity to be actively involved in decision-making processes about policies and programmes, including those directly concerning them.’ Article 4 of the Convention which concerns the steps governments are required to take to implement the Convention says ‘In the development and implementation of legislation and policies to implement the present Convention, and in other decision-making processes concerning issues relating to persons with disabilities, States Parties shall closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organizations. And Article 33 of the Convention which requires States to ensure that there is an infrastructure for monitoring implementation of the Convention says ‘Civil society, in particular persons with disabilities and their representative organizations, shall be involved and participate fully in the monitoring process.’
Top marks then to the four organisations who together have been designated as the ‘independent mechanism’ under the UNCRPD for the UK: the Scottish Human Rights Commission, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland for seeking to place the involvement of disabled people at the heart of the approach they wish to take to to promoting, protecting and monitoring implementation of the UNCRPD.
Yet sadly the EHRC’s efforts to support disabled people and their organisations to actively participate in the monitoring process are presently being thwarted by government, which has declined the Commission’s bid for funding to support capacity building in relation to monitoring CRPD (and other treaties). In declining its bid the government said that:
‘“We have more fundamental concerns about those bids that focus on capacity building or the funding of social partners… These bids raise value for money issues because of the difficulty of ensuring productive outcomes and that the money is well spent across a range of NGOs, charities and trade unions; and also because these bids share some common features with the EHRC’s former grants programme for which HMG withdrew specific funding at the end of 2011/12… On bid 5, whilst the government has no problem in principle with capacity-building in NGOs around treaty monitoring, it appears that many of the bids constituent parts may already be provided by others, including the voluntary sector.”
Baroness Prosser asked a question about this response in the House of Lords this week: To ask Her Majesty’s Government which of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s proposed programme bids will be funded; and, for those that will not be funded, why not.
The Minister, Baroness Northover replied: My Lords, the process for the commission to access additional programme funding is set out in its framework document. The Government have now approved, in whole or in part, more than half of the bids submitted by the EHRC under this facility. The main reason that the remaining bids were not approved was concern over their value for money.
Baroness Prosser followed up saying ‘I thank the Minister for that reply. In light of the Government’s recent successful application for membership of the UN Human Rights Council, could she explain how she hopes the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is recognised by the UN as the independent watchdog for human rights in Britain, will work with civil society to monitor our compliance with the human rights treaties to which the Government are a signatory? Will the Government, as they indicated in their application to the UN, actively support the commission in this work and thereby reconsider the decision not to allocate funds for capacity-building in NGOs around UN treaty monitoring?’
The Minister replied ‘I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for the work that she has done in this area. As she knows, the EHRC has its core funding for its core responsibilities and, obviously, in relation to the UN Human Rights Council, that is part of what it is doing. The grants that were rejected were rejected because they either duplicated what others were doing or were regarded as poor value for money. On building capacity for NGOs to contribute to UN treaty monitoring, there was a concern about duplication because many of the bid’s constituent parts may already be provided by others, including the voluntary sector.’
Ergo, the government will not fund Britain’s National Human Rights Institution and independent mechanism to invest in support for disabled people’s organisations so that they can participate effectively in the monitoring process. The very same government that promotes the ‘Big Society’ and which has as the centrepiece of its disability programme the‘Disability Action Alliance’ argues that ‘These bids raise value for money issues because of the difficulty of ensuring productive outcomes and that the money is well spent across a range of NGOs, charities and trade unions.’ Furthermore it argues that EHRC supporting such activities would be duplication. I am very happy to be advised of the capacity building efforts already underway with respect to engagement with the CRPD monitoring process or of other sources of funding for such work which I have overlooked.
Rather I think this decision needs to be understood in the context of something wider and deeply troubling. The EHRC is having to ask the government for programme funding line by line, project by project. And we are expected to simply have faith that a government, the dominant section of which wishes to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, which has done everything within its power to weaken the Equality Act and the EHRC, and which has lost any trust or support that it may have hoped to enjoy from disabled people and their organisations will make decisions as to whether or not to allocate budget for such work on purely abstract value for money grounds.
When the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concerns to UK government Ministers last year about the proposed reforms and deep budget cuts to the EHRC, Maria Miller sought to give assurance that the EHRC was by comparison not all that badly effected. A ‘core’ administrative budget had been determined and in addition to this figure of around £18 million, the Commission would be able to bid for up to around £7.8 million for programme budget to carry out specific projects. What she neglected to say was that the government could decide (and appears to have done so) to provide as little of that £7.8 million as it liked. To date, it has agreed to fund a major piece of (welcome) work on pregnancy discrimination (a piece of work which gets Miller and Cameron out of a political fix and which the government has already claimed as its own) and a few smaller projects.
While the EHRC like any public body must account for the way it uses or plans to use public money, it is nevertheless impossible to see how this budget-allocation process can in any way meet the requirements of the UN Paris Principles (against which the EHRC’s ‘A’ status as national human rights institution is determined) a central requirement of which is that:
‘The national institution shall have an infrastructure which is suited to the smooth conduct of its activities, in particular adequate funding. The purpose of this funding should be to enable it to have its own staff and premises, in order to be independent of the Government and not be subject to financial control which might affect its independence.’
The government has clearly calculated that this standard is met through the Commission having a core operating budget. But it is clearly not if the process by which the EHRC secures the budget it requires for programmes, such as in the area of human rights education for example, enable the government to decide whether or not the Commission will do human rights education work.
As the UK claims to be a ‘passionate, committed, defender of human rights’ in its bid to secure a seat on the Human Rights Council, here is yet another example of the its conduct at home falling way short of standards that we would expect of other countries. Moreover, alongside developments such as the Lobbying Bill, cuts to legal aid, reform of judicial review, the review of the public sector equality duty, regulatory reform and plans to repeal the Human Rights Act, this strengthens even further the view that a government that came into power saying it would be the most transparent and accountable in history is now striving, by a thousand cuts, to be the least.