What the EU elections mean for disabled voters

Neil Heslop, CEO Leonard Cheshire

The looming European Elections on Thursday 23 May have been hitting the headlines before we even knew we’d be voting in them.

During all the pre-polling revelations, political comebacks and protests, what you may not have read is: what these elections mean for disabled people in the UK; how the issues of the European Parliament’s next term will impact disabled people; and what a future outside the EU could look like for disabled people.

Disabled people need representatives who can advocate for, at times, radical thinking to address the massive shortfalls in equality across all walks of life for disabled people.

Neil Heslop, CEO Leonard Cheshire

So first off, what do these elections mean, beyond the fact we are now heading for a Halloween Brexit? As well as endorsing a political or politically independent representative as your MEP, giving a big thumbs up to their associated domestic values, you’re also choosing your representative for contributing to EU directives and to debates that will determine our future.

For the many disabled voters our charity works with, the EU plays a pivotal role in how they experience society. From enhanced employment rights and accessibility legislation to intervening in disability benefits, the EU has acted in disabled people’s interest. While we remain a member state we need MEPs that can lobby for further improvements.

Within the UK, our charity knows that from the social care crisis, to better access to the welfare system, to employment and transport barriers, disabled people need new thinking from its elected representatives, stronger legislation and clearer funding strategies.

Many of these challenges are also faced by other EU member states and there are opportunities to work together in exploring innovative solutions. In more concrete terms, new EU-wide legislation could continue to boost the inclusivity of member states and increase the dignity and autonomy with which disabled people live their lives.

The big, global issues facing the next term of the European Parliament are also areas with significant implications for disabled people in the UK, so we need to elect representatives well-placed to tackle these.

Top of these priorities is the likely parliamentary focus on inequality, poverty and austerity, with tough decisions to be made across the bloc. Given the recent Equality and Human Rights Commission’s findings, which put severely disabled people amongst the biggest losers from a decade of austerity in the UK, disabled people need representatives that will keenly see how decisions taken at a macro level will affect some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Disabled people also need representatives who can advocate for, at times, radical thinking to address the massive shortfalls in equality across all walks of life for disabled people. As our charity said in response to the UN’s Philip Alston’s damning verdict on the UK’s welfare system:

'[Alston] repeats what we and the rest of disabled community have been saying for years: that austerity has pushed disabled people into further poverty, ill health and social isolation.'

The next European Parliament will also have to manage the current climate for populism, nationalism, polarised opinion and shifting attitudes towards democracy. Given this background, discrimination against disabled people will be a big issue for these MEPs to consider.

Regulations for the big tech companies will also be an increasing challenge for the EU. At a domestic level, our charity recently highlighted the need for tech companies to do more to make disabled people feel safe online, after finding a 33% increase in reported online disability hate crime across England and Wales. This and much wider questions about how we regulate our digital world will demand MEPs who can keep pace.

Finally, climate change looks set to be the greatest challenge facing the EU. Funds and resources will need to be directed from elsewhere and this issue will intersect with virtually all other aspects of domestic and EU governance. When shaping our collective future, there must be MEPs at the table who can stand up for disabled people and make their voices heard too.

And what about if and when we leave the EU? The UK must not roll back the rights of disabled people and must find new funding for the previously EU-funded projects for disabled people. In terms of legislation, it is true that, in some respects, currently there is a 'double lock' protecting disabled people’s rights, where EU and UK laws overlap.

However, there are areas that are particularly vulnerable. For example, without EU employment laws, employers of 20 or less members of staff would be able to discriminate on grounds of disability.

At present, disabled people are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, along with the EU accepted UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. They also benefit from the work of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. No UK equivalents are anywhere near as comprehensive. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also raised concerns about the lack of legal safeguards once our EU-derived equality laws no longer apply.

The MEPs we elect this month need to fight on behalf of disabled people across the UK. And whatever kind of Brexit we do or do not face, and whenever that happens, it will put an onus on all our political representatives to ensure disabled voices shape our future.