With the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looming, groups representing disabled people have joined a variety of politicians and organisations in supporting the case for a public decision on the final deal.
In an open letter to The Independent, disability campaigners, including former Olympic star Tanni Grey-Thompson and a string of leading academics, warn that the “chaotic, uncertain and discordant” atmosphere surrounding the Brexit negotiations could be “psychologically damaging” for disabled people.
While the government gave assurances ahead of the EU referendum that a Leave vote would not place the rights of the disabled population at risk, the letter warns that these are now looking “increasingly tenuous” as concerns mount over medical staffing, legal protections and benefit provisions.
“The time has come to demand much more detail – and, as it now seems likely that Brexit will lead to reduced quality of life, we should join the rising clamour for a people’s vote on the terms of any ‘Brexit deal’,” states the letter.
Citing chronic cuts in social care, campaigners say recently announced funding for the NHS provides “very little assurance” to disabled people.
Since the June 2016 vote, there has been a 96 per cent drop in nursing applications from non-British EU citizens and one in five EU doctors have made plans to leave the UK.
They also warn that it is “disconcerting” that the recent Withdrawal Act, which removes the link to the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights from British law, gives power to government to amend the equality laws without consulting parliament. “The quality of life of millions is in jeopardy,” they state.
James Partridge, founder and former chief executive of charity Changing Faces, told The Independent: “To call for a second referendum is something you need to be sure about it. It’s not a view that you can take lightly.
“But we feel that the assurances we were given during the campaign, and particularly the NHS and assurances about rights, are looking pretty difficult to support now. We need to be assured that leaving is not going to be damaging to disabled people’s prospects and health.”
He added: “The staffing issues in the NHS and the care sector is a really worrying issue. There’s been a phenomenal drop in nursing applications and if that’s shared across the care sector an awful lot of disabled people are going to find it very difficult.
“The boost for the NHS isn’t looking quite so likely now. We are ever concerned about the trade negotiations and the risk that disabled people who are already disproportionately out of work and could find themselves in an even worse position.
“The notion of a second vote is one we all agree with because we think now that the terms are becoming clear, we should have the chance to say do we agree.”
Tom Shakespeare, professor of disability research at East Anglia University, raised concerns that a no-deal could lead to shortage of medical supplies that are vital for disabled and people and those with long-term illnesses.
“People rely on imports of drugs, catheters and other vital medical supplies, many of which come from overseas,” he told The Independent.
“In theory they will be available in the event of a no-deal, but things like insulin need to be very carefully imported, and many people are worried there will be a shortage in supply.
“Many disabled people were initially optimistic; they believed the assurances from government and thought it was great. But the fact is in the modern independent world we all rely on trade and to leave the biggest free trade network in the world is an ideological idiocy.”
It is not the first time concerns have been raised that proposals put forward for Brexit could have a negative impact on disabled people.
A report by the Work and Pensions Committee earlier this year warned that the loss of the European Social Fund (ESF), which provides £500m per year of EU funding to programmes providing support for disadvantaged groups, would be “disastrous” for disabled people.
A separate report by Disability Rights UK warned that people with disabilities could “slide back” into nursing homes if Brexit restricts the numbers of care staff coming from the EU and funding for support services is reduced.
The charity said the impact of Brexit on disability rights has “barely been mentioned” in policy debates, despite disabled people making up one in five of the British population.
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