Extracts from speech by Richard Howitt
“British Disabled People Are Stronger In Europe.” Speech by Richard Howitt MEP, Co-President of the European Parliament’s All-Party Disability Rights Group 11 March 2016.
So far the European Referendum debate has been dominated – at least in the airwaves – by discussion of Treaties, trade agreements, legal competences.
These are all very important.
But ultimately they are important because of their impact on people in Britain.
And today I want to talk about how people are better off with Britain in Europe.
And in particular how British disabled people are stronger with Britain remaining in the European Union.
I used to work in the Disability Movement before going in to politics and as Vice-Chair and now again Chair of the All-Party Disability Rights Group of MEPs during all my time in the European Parliament, I still see myself as an activist.
I have often told the story about how I was motivated to stand for the European Parliament by being part of a European project where we brought British and Dutch profoundly deaf people together. At first, differences in sign language meant they couldn’t communicate. But within 15 minutes they had spontaneously found a way of doing so – very effectively.
It taught me a lesson about pulling barriers down and how people benefit by doing so.
People with disabilities will always campaign to pull down barriers.
In the European referendum, the Disability Movement should campaign against erecting new barriers.
When I was elected, let me also remind you that there was no provision for Europe to be able to pass legislation for disabled people.
And we campaigned successfully to change that, in what is now known as Article 19.
Why did we do that?
Because discrimination does not stop at borders.
In all the talk of ‘free movement’, what about the right of a wheelchair user to move freely to visit another European country?
The great moves that have been made in accessible tourism. The spirit that Britain brought to hosting the Paralympics.
That’s the same spirit I – as a British politician – take to upholding rights of access and of participation for people with disabilities in the European Union.
And what are some of our achievements by doing so?
Non-discrimination in the right to work for disabled people in all European countries.
Access requirements – never enough but very significant compared with the past – for lifts in public buildings, for web accessibility, now in all major transport modes.
Today, on the table, a European-wide general Accessibility Act.
A ban on all new funding going towards segregating, institutionalisation of people with disabilities, particularly important for people with learning disabilities amongst others.
In addition, the legal exemption from EU state aid rules to allow public authorities to directly contract, provides an important boost for people with disabilities to set up and run their own social enterprises.
Like ‘Norfolk Industries’ in which a group of a group of blind employees produce and sell animal bedding based in Norwich and a computer recycling and repair company ‘Reboot’ formed from a group of people with Aspergers – both from my own East of England constituency.
People in Britain with rare diseases, too few for effective treatments to be developed, have benefitted from European Research programmes being able to do so, when the greater numbers experiencing the same disability are put together across all 28 countries of the EU.
International copyright rules have been established which allow blind people to continue to benefit from talking books and newspapers.
Those who campaign to leave the European Union say Britain could pass these laws on our own.
But disabled people should consider: do you believe that this or any British Government would tear up all these rights and then one-by-one draw up new laws to reinstate them?
Don’t politicians always delay things or water them down?
And what those who would leave the European Union won’t tell you is that this European social legislation is a minimum standard, and there is already a specific rule that says European Union countries can go further?
If there really was such political will in Britain to go even further for the rights of people with disabilities – why hasn’t Britain done so already?
The truth is that the minimum floor of rights created in Europe has actually pulled up standards for all.
And remaining in Europe will see that gradual process of improvement continue in to the future.
Indeed there are examples where British politicians have been tempted to act against or remove rights or benefits for disabled people, which have been and are being prevented by these minimum standards of European law.
The European Non-Discrimination in Employment law meant Britain’s Disability Discrimination Act had to be extended to small businesses too, which had not previously been the case.
British Sign Language only became an official language in the United Kingdom, following years of resistance, after a declaration in the European Parliament of which I was proud to be a co-signatory.
The position of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in the United Kingdom which has been under a barrage of criticism, is protected by the requirements of an ‘indeoendent body’ laid down in the EU non-discrimination directives.
British disabled people are stronger in Europe.
And although I am deeply sad at the abolition of the Independent Living Fund here in Britain, it is worth remembering that the whole concepts of independent living, personal assistance and personal budgets were pioneered in Europe by the Scandinavian countries and can be said to have been imported to Britain from there.
I believe remaining in the EU to be important for keeping the whole concept of ‘independent living’ itself alive.
The lesson for disabled people is that while they may not be truly independent, our country is. This very example shows social security laws – like the vast majority of areas affecting our national life – remain determined at Westminster.
But there is a lesson as well to EU ‘leave’ campaigners, from the experience of people with disabilities.
We all strive for independence. But sometimes a recognition of inter-dependence is important too. Cooperating with others can be a better route to maximising our own interests and welfare, working for and not against them.
Now the last big argument of the EU ‘leave’ campaign is that there is somehow a better alternative outside the European Union.
Could that be true for disabled people?
Just last month I helped host a visit to Brussels by organisations of disabled people from Asia, Africa and Latin America. They didn’t think it was better for them and their countries to create links to Britain if we left the European Union.
Indeed for them, life was better in the European Union and they had come to Brussels to learn from and copy our ways of working.
Add to that the campaign I and so many people have been integrally involved in, over the last decade, to successfully get agreement of a United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.
I know how European diplomacy played a vital role in winning support for the convention. And it is now the first ever UN human rights convention to which the European Union as an institution has become a signatory. Implementation of the convention is improving the lives of disabled people in Europe and in the rest of the world.
Europe wasn’t an impediment to achieving this, it was a powerful tool.
Britain in Europe does look out in to the world and is not held back from doing so.
Europe is a stepping stone, which helps us on our journey and prevents us from falling in the water.
Britain within the European Union is more influential in the world and the world is better off because of it.
Now my mention of human rights does cause me to explain that Eurosceptics deliberately confuse the Court of Justice for EU law with the European Court of Human Rights, which is nothing to do with the European Union.
Nevertheless, when the EU ‘leave’ campaign rails against the powers of the European Court, they should remember the landmark cases where disabled people’s human rights have been upheld.
Like the person with mental health [issues] who won a right to review his detention in a psychiatric hospital, the parents who challenged a hospital decision to put a ‘do not resuscitate’ notice on their severely disabled child or the woman who’d had a stroke who challenged her local authority for cutting her care package to a level which deprived her a minimum level of dignity.
It is a good not a bad thing that ‘the state’ can itself be challenged under the rule of law on such important issues of deprivation of liberty, cruel and degrading treatment and the right to life itself.
And in today’s economy of austerity, where rationing and denial of services has become the norm, never discount the fact that the economic prosperity which comes from Britain’s membership of the European Union is vital, if we are fund the public services which many disabled people believe should be theirs of right…
In the Disability Movement.
We want to pull down barriers not erect them.
We recognise discrimination does not stop at borders.
We want to protect Europe’s very significant achievements for people with disabilities, prevent others from being taken away and provide a platform for the further improvements of the future.
We know we can be independent and inter-dependent at one and the same time.
We know that there is no easy, better alternative – indeed the wider world becomes a better place if we remain in, than if we leave.
Above all, the EU referendum is about people and I have argued that British disabled people are stronger in Europe.
This is a call for people with disabilities themselves to vote in the referendum, to vote for Britain to remain in the EU and – in doing so – to vote for better lives for all disabled people in Britain and across Europe.
Richard Howitt MEP is Member of the European Parliament for the East of England and Co-President of the European Parliament All-Party Disability Rights Group of MEPs.