Businesses are putting their opinion forward, as are politicians. The public is still divided over the issue, and if we’re honest, nobody really knows what will happen to the UK before, during and after Brexit.
But for one group of people Brexit holds particular worries and fears, and that is the disabled community. The EU has been hugely influential in the development of disability rights over the past few years. But now, campaigners for disability groups are genuinely concerned that the impending split with Europe could undermine years of hard work, and erode some of those rights entirely.
The European Court of Justice
Many of the rights afforded both able-bodied and disabled people in the UK are safeguarded by the European Court of Justice. However, once the UK goes it alone, that support will be taken away, and we will be relying on the British legal system to ensure both existing and future rights are not whittled down. There’s also the withdrawal of financial support too, as EU investment funds dry up.
The UK introduced the first disability discrimination legislation (The Disability Discrimination Act) in 1995. But this law had one very big loophole, and that was it allowed businesses with fewer than 20 employees to discriminate on the grounds of disability. This was challenged in 2000 by the EU with the framework directive for equal treatment in employment and occupation, which was designed to protect employees against both direct and indirect discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. Unlike the 1995 UK legislation, it did not allow for SMEs of fewer than 20 employees their previous exemption, so the UK had to amend its own legislation in 2004 to bring it in line with the EU legislation.
It happened again in 2008, when a European court ruling specified that it was unlawful to discriminate against an able-bodied employee on the grounds of their relationship with a disabled person. This may seem like common sense, but enshrining it in law meant that unscrupulous employers couldn’t make morally reprehensible decisions without the full force of the law coming to bear.
Is the Great Reform Act really that great?
Fast forward to today, and while all of this legislation is still robustly enforced in the UK, and with the backing of the European courts too, there are fears that the ‘Great Reform Act’, which has promised to basically copy/paste all existing EU rulings into British law, may not be enough to keep these protective laws in place further down the line.
It also means that disabled people can no longer refer a case to the European Court of Human Rights if they feel their disability rights have been contravened, and any future EU legislation protecting the rights of both able-bodied and disabled people in the UK would not be applicable.
This is not to say that any replacement legislation introduced by the UK would undermine any rights, but it does take away a level of recourse that had previously been available.
Losing the benefits of EU membership
Another worry, which is just as important as the legislative side of things, is the benefits system currently in place for disabled people. Thanks to the 2004 EU ruling, disabled people from the UK can live in any other EU country and still receive benefits such as personal independence payments. Once we leave the EU, that could stop dead, potentially forcing many UK nationals to relocate back to the UK.
Funding could also take a big hit, as EU structural and investment funds dry up. Volunteer groups are concerned that social inclusion projects and mobility funding could be hardest hit, further isolating disabled people. This is a very real worry too, as the UK government has already indicated that it is not committed to funding these kinds of projects after 2020.
Links to disabled groups in other parts of Europe could suffer, especially among groups for young disabled people that focus on cross-border training programmes. These popular schemes introduce young disabled people from different countries to one another. Such ‘hands across the borders’ projects could take a hard knock if funding dries up, once again isolating a whole generation of young disabled people and taking away the opportunity for them to travel and have new experiences.
Who pays the Social Funding bill?
Over the next few years, the European social fund (ESF) and European regional development fund are investing around €11.8bn across the UK. The ESF share, which supports access to employment for people with disabilities, accounts for €4.9bn and is funding six programmes in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, and Gibraltar. But once that funding ends, there is no indication where additional or future funding will come from.
Brexit, then, could mark a sharp decline in the number of opportunities available for disabled people, whether that’s applying for social funding for inclusion projects, protecting fundamental rights in the workplace, or helping young people meet new friends and experience different cultures. This impact seems to be a little under the radar at the moment and swamped by other Brexit-related debates. But as the exit date draws ever nearer, it may be time for the disabled community to start shouting a little louder, so that they are not left behind in a post-Brexit society.