by John Pring Disability News Service 3rd November 2016
Disabled activists have welcomed the decision of the equality watchdog’s disability commissioner not to seek a second four-year term.
The decision of Lord [Chris] Holmes was only revealed after the Department for Education (DfE), the sponsor department of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), advertised for “one or more” new commissioners.
The advert says that one of the successful candidates will be the new disability commissioner, and that – like the commission’s previous disability commissioners – they will be someone who is or has been a disabled person.
The closing date for the appointment was on Tuesday this week (1 November), with interviews set to take place next month.
As well as acting as an EHRC commissioner, the successful candidate will also chair the commission’s disability committee, although the committee is set to be disbanded in 2017 and replaced by an advisory group that will not have the same legal powers to make decisions on issues affecting disabled people.
Concerns about the tenure of Lord Holmes were first raised when he was made a Conservative peer, only seven months after his appointment as disability commissioner in 2013.
These concerns resurfaced earlier this year when EHRC announced that it had commissioned a major piece of research into whether the government’s welfare reforms had harmed the human rights of disabled people and other minority groups.
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) pointed out that Lord Holmes had voted in favour of many of those reforms after he joined the House of Lords, including cutting payments by £30 a week for some new employment and support allowance claimants, and it raised concerns over how disabled people could have confidence in the inquiry “whilst Lord Holmes has his position as a commissioner and chair of the EHRC’s disability committee”.
The following week, a letter calling on him to resign as disability commissioner was sent to EHRC by disabled activist Susan Archibald, after being signed by several leading disabled people and campaigning organisations, including Disabled People Against Cuts, Black Triangle, Pat’s Petition and the Spartacus online campaigning network.
Several of the disabled activists who signed the letter have now welcomed his decision not to seek another term as disability commissioner.
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the national service-user network Shaping Our Lives, said: “Lord Holmes’ decision not to seek to renew his miserable term as EHRC disability commissioner is important for only one thing.
“It means that the government will be forced out into the open about its official attitude to disabled people’s human and civil rights by the kind of appointment it supports.
“This is what we should be watching very carefully and doing all we can to raise the profile of the decision-making process.
“We can expect little of this government given its record so far.
“But we may be able shine some light onto the reality of the prime minister’s rhetoric of her support for people’s rights and freedoms.”
Archibald said: “I am very happy he has decided to finally resign, as now disabled people in UK can get someone worthy of this title.
“He gave up the right to be recognised as a disability leader when he decided to vote against the very people he should be representing in the House of Lords.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, added: “This early resignation shows how little commitment he had for the job and supports our view that he should never have been appointed.”
Before that appointment, Lord Holmes had been director of Paralympic integration for the London 2012 organising committee LOCOG, and served as a commissioner with the Disability Rights Commission for more than five years.
A commercial lawyer, he won nine Paralympic swimming gold medals, including six at the Barcelona Paralympics of 1992.
Among his achievements as disability commissioner, he championed a new engagement strategy for the committee, with meetings each year in Scotland, Wales and in one of the English regions, when previously they were all held in London.
He has spoken out on issues such as disability hate crime, the inaccessibility of many Premier League football stadiums, the safety of shared space street developments, and the “disappointing” number of disabled people on the boards of the country’s major disability sports organisations.
He also criticised his own government for refusing to reopen the Access to Elected Office Fund, which provided financial support for disabled people who want to stand for election to parliament or local councils.
But the commission has appointed non-disabled people to the disability committee for the first time under his leadership, while he has also been unable to prevent the government deciding to scrap the committee and replace it with an advisory group.
Lord Holmes declined to talk to Disability News Service about his decision to quit the watchdog, but he said in a statement: “It has been an honour to serve as disability commissioner over the last four years, and I am very proud of the work we have done in this time across many issues which impact upon disabled people every day.
“This has included inquiries into disability hate crime, ensuring access to Premier League football stadia, promoting greater diversity in broadcast media, and our continued work on improving access to public transport, to name a few recent examples.
“We have an excellent group of experts around the table at the [EHRC’s] disability committee who I was privileged to bring on board. After four years, it feels like the right time to move on.
“My commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion remains complete as demonstrated in much of my other work, not least in relation to shared space.
“I wish the new disability commissioner, when they are appointed, every success.”