When it comes to the mistreatment of disabled people, the Tories really are ‘the nasty party’

A letter seen by The Independent between a Conservative peer and MP, reveals their preoccupation with costs rather than the need to improve accessibility in the UK

James Moore
Thursday 27 September 2018 16:02
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If you thought we’d reached a low point regarding the flag waving rabble gathering in Birmingham to slap themselves on the back later this week for screwing their own country, I have news for you.

The Tories aren’t just set upon kissing goodbye to the European Union. They’re engaged in a bid to to kick away crutches, smash wheelchairs and shoot guide dogs on their way out, through an attempt to gut a piece of legislation that would go some way to making the lives of disabled Europeans and Britons – lots of us want to be both – a little better.

The European Accessibility Act is an example of what a positive force the Union can be when it puts its mind to it. It would require minimum standards of accessibility in products and services for the benefit of 80 million Europeans with disabilities, 13 million of whom are British, not to mention 190 million people aged 50 and over. Note, the vast majority of the Conservative Party’s membership is in the latter demographic.

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Unfortunately the legislation has been stuck in administrative quicksand, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the British government. This has come to light courtesy of a letter to arch Europhobe “Sir” William Cash, who chairs something called the European Scrutiny Committee, that Lord Henley – a junior something at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – sent in July.

In the letter, the minister explains how the government is playing the role of standard bearer for indecency.

He tells Cash Britain has strongly argued for watering down the European Commission’s plans, in favour of a much weaker text favoured by the bloc’s Council of Ministers.

The European Parliament didn’t much like that, and came up with its own ideas that would actually extend the legislation – if you can hear a noise at this point, it’s the cheers from the accessible seating in Strasbourg.

But fear not “Sir” Bill, the Brits are fighting this too. We’re determined to screw old people, disabled people, veterans – that’s right, a lot of veterans have disabilities. Damn and blast it, we’ll get the costly bally lot of ‘em.

The Bulgarians couldn’t bridge the gap between the various texts. So the Brits and their allies – it seems we still have one or two – have their hobnailed boots at the ready for when the Austrians give it a go. Then it’s on to our glorious Brexit future, when we won’t have to worry any more. Sovereignty über alles!

In a particularly cynical part of the letter, his Lordship says the UK government is very keen to exclude “public procurement and requirements on the built environment” from the final piece of legislation. In other words, the UK doesn’t want to have to worry about pesky accessibility requirements for stuff the taxpayer funds.

But that’s not even the low point. The letter goes on to voice the the minister’s deep concern about how the European Parliament’s additions to the text could “exacerbate the problems that the UK has identified, and lead to increased costs for businesses”.

That’s right. A government that has businesses up and down the country spending billions setting up European subsidiaries, stockpiling goods, shifting entire supply chains and looking to hire customs brokers, is worried about the cost they might incur through putting up a few ramps and maybe an induction loop or two.

When I saw that, I literally had to go back and reread it two or three times, and then prick myself to check I wasn’t in some surreal hallucination brought about by the painkillers I take – for the record, I’m one of the people the government is setting about shafting.

But no, I read it correctly and it’s frankly risible. Except that it’s no laughing matter if you have to live in a Britain that frequently accords anyone with a disability the status of second class citizen.

Lord Henley tritely claims the government has “continued to consult with stakeholders” during the process. Disability Rights UK (DRUK), for one, has called that claim into question. So the letter does rather look like it is being, to quote the late Tory minister Alan Clark, “economical with the actualité”, on that point.

If consultations have been held, they certainly haven’t included the charity which, by the way, is a disabled people’s organisation actually run by disabled people.

Of course, it can be tough to attend meetings with ministers in publicly procured buildings that don’t have to be accessible. But maybe they just didn’t see the email. Blindness eh?

All this from a party that claims to be at the forefront of expanding disability rights, and which made a big song and dance about holding a “Global Disability Summit” in a building that presumably does have ramps.

You won’t be all that surprised to learn the department sees things differently. A spokesman tells me “the UK already has strong existing legislation on accessibility”. I wonder how its ministers would feel about that if they spent a week on wheels.

It also says the UK and other member states “have argued throughout negotiations that the European Accessibility Act risks locking us into today’s ways of solving tomorrow’s accessibility problems – potentially stifling future innovation”.

Which isn’t quite what that letter says. The letter talks about costs.

Disabled people are much less concerned about “future innovation” than about making Britain accessible now.

To me, it all goes to show Theresa May was quite right to coin the phrase “the nasty party” for her Tory peers because, if it provides us with an example of the Britain she and the flag-kissers gathering to listen to her want to create, it will be a cold, ugly and thoroughly unpleasant place.

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