I believe that there is a case to be made for a standalone Disability Rights Commissioner for England as part of a wider reform of our equality and human rights infrastructure. The post (and its supporting infrastructure) would be akin to our existing Children’s Commissioners or Older Persons Commissioner in Wales. The post-holder would be appointed by and report to Parliament.
I would suggest that the Commissioner has powers of inquiry and investigation (including powers to enter institutions), to carry out research and policy development, promote ideas and good practice, make grants and otherwise support innovation, was able to make submissions to the Courts, Parliament and government, the Council of Europe and the United Nations, and to conduct public campaigns. Its frame of reference would be the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
It would not have powers to assist individuals or to enforce domestic equality or human rights law – both would remain the mandate of Britain’s national equality body and national human rights institution (presently the Equality and Human Rights Commission), with which it would work closely.
There can be little doubt that, while the Equality and Human Rights Commission has made a number of important and welcome contributions to advancing the rights of disabled people (and disability rights has fared comparatively well in terms of the overall allocation of resources within the EHRC), the benefits of allocating disability rights in its entirety to a single body as a replacement for the previous Disability Rights Commission (DRC) have been seriously outweighed by the costs. The chief benefits that have accrued to disability rights derive not from incorporating disability rights within a wider equality perspective, but from the addition of powers to promote human rights – powers which could and should be provided to a Disability Rights Commissioner were one to exist.
The transition from the DRC to the EHRC has – despite many people’s (including my own) best intentions and effort – resulted in a catastrophic loss of focus on disability rights in Britain – both at the level of practical action and wider public and political discourse, leaving disabled people exposed at a moment of extreme vulnerability following the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent pursuit of austerity measures.
The one size fits all experiment has failed and the massive decline in resources and autonomy experienced by the EHRC (the EHRC is only today marginally better funded than the Disability Rights Commission was in its final year of operation 7 years ago) has weakened it even further. A single equality and human rights body (or for that matter, a separate single equality body and human rights body) would continue to play an important role in promoting and enforcing equality and human rights law, but disability rights requires in addition a strong independent champion.
Although Britain can count much progress, the challenges facing disability rights remain profound, diverse and complex. This is why a Disability Rights Commissioner, and an Office for the Disability Rights Commissioner, should be given active consideration