We were closing in on the agreed beginning of the Brexit transition period, due to have commenced on 29th March 2019, but with Parliament gridlocked we’ve now agreed an extension to 31st October 2019; Halloween. The departure as PM of the architect of the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’, Theresa May, and the impending leadership election for her replacement, has once again increased the likelihood of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, the UK leaving the EU without any agreements in place at all. As Ben Elton used to say… “Ooh, a little bit of politics there!” so buckle up for my current take on where we’re at with disability and Brexit… especially if there is ‘No Deal’.
On the 23rd June 2016, the population of the United Kingdom voted in the EU referendum to answer the following question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The result was that 52% voted ‘leave’, while 48% voted ‘remain’. Brexit became the word of the year, and the Government started negotiations for the UK to leave the EU. Those negotiations resulted in Theresa May’s deal, faltering and stumbling from one defeat to the next in Parliament. The news is still filled with Theresa May offering the UK Government view, while Michel Barnier, representing the European Union offering an often starkly different perspective. There seems more to be resolved than ever… and ‘Brexit Day’ is now almost once again in touching distance.
But what does all of this mean for those living in the UK with additional needs or disabilities, or their families? How will this sector of the UK population continue to be affected by Brexit? This blog post explores some of the key areas, not to open up Brexit divisions further (if that is possible!), but to provide some insight into the implications of Brexit, for better or worse, for children and young people with additional needs or disabilities, and their families.
It will explore these implications under three broad headings, ‘Disability rights’, ‘Travel’, and ‘Funding’. Many of these are linked to progressive social policies that flow across several or all of these areas, but we will focus on where it is most appropriate. This blog post doesn’t set out to be exhaustive, but to provide a starting point for continued debate and individual research, as well as raising awareness about this important but perhaps often overlooked area.
The United Kingdom has been a full member of the European Union for decades, and as a result the UK’s legal framework has become ever more closely linked to that of the EU. Legislature that has been introduced by the EU has been adopted by default within the UK.
There is a raft of EU legislature that has relevance to disability rights, with the following list being just a starting point:
- Equality Law
- EU Parking Badge (allowing disabled people to use disabled parking places across the EU)
- Braille labelling on medicines
- Access to benefits while living in other EU countries (see under ‘travel’)
- EU Air Passengers Regulations 2006
- Access to the European Court of Justice (note: this is different to the European Court of Human Rights – see later in this article)
The EU has made it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their disability, or because of their relationship to a disabled person (important for parents of a disabled child for example). Many of the hard-won rights that have been provided through membership of the EU are rights that exist and are harmonised across the whole of the EU. While the ongoing Brexit negotiations may well retain some of these rights, there is no guarantee, and the UK will not benefit from future developments and innovations in these rights.
In December 2015 the EU proposed the European Accessibility Act, which aims to improve the functioning of the internal market for accessible products and services for people with disabilities, by removing barriers created by divergent legislation. As the UK is leaving the EU it will not be bound by this Act.
UK citizens currently have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which over the years have strengthened disability rights. While the ECHR sits outside of the main EU courts, and so Brexit doesn’t detach the UK from its protection straight away, the current Government has been a very vocal critic of the ECHR, with the most recent Conservative Party election manifesto stating that they would ‘consider our human rights legal framework when the process of leaving the EU concludes’ (page 39). This could be read that both repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 and withdrawal from the ECHR remain very much on the medium-term agenda, and are less complicated after Brexit. Such a withdrawal could weaken the legal protection offered to disabled people and make bringing human rights claims against the UK Government much harder.
A very serious concern is access to medication if a ‘Hard Brexit’ happens and no deal is in place to allow the trade in medication with our European neighbours. Talk of medication being stockpiled, of lack of supply, of alternatives being sought, all create huge anxiety for people relying on medication, and their families. The implications of wide scale shortages of vital medication don’t need spelling out here.
Current Brexit negotiations include what kind of border controls and freedom of movement will be in place once the UK leaves the EU. ‘Hard’ border controls could mean delays and access issues travelling to/across Europe, including the Republic of Ireland where the ‘Backstop’ issues have almost derailed Brexit entirely several times.
People with disabilities or reduced mobility enjoy specific rights and protection under European passenger rights legislation, including the EU Air Passengers Regulations 2006, at the airport and during air travel throughout the EU. It is unclear at this stage whether these protections will continue after the UK leaves the EU.
The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) provides the right to access state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in another European Economic Area (EEA) country, or Switzerland. The EHIC covers treatment that is medically necessary until the persons planned return home. It currently works both for UK citizens travelling or resident in Europe and other EU citizens travelling or resident in the UK. At present, the negotiating position seems to be that this will continue for those in-country when the UK leaves, but there is no agreement for new post-Brexit visitors.
Currently UK citizens enjoy access to benefits, including disability benefits such as PIP, while living in other EU countries. It is unclear at this stage whether these rights will continue after the UK leaves.
When considering EU nationals currently residing in the UK, many are employed in the NHS, care homes, and other places that people with disability or additional needs, or their families, disproportionately access. Due to uncertainty about a post-Brexit future, and the lower exchange rate, many are returning to their country of origin which could result in staffing challenges ahead.
There are a wide range of EU funds, many of which are to some extent focused on social inclusion, poverty reduction, and other areas where people with disability or additional needs have benefitted disproportionately over the years, including some of the funds shown below.
- European Social Fund
- European Regional Development Fund
- European research funding for Universities
The EU has, for example, provided funding to improve accessibility to social amenities and tourism for disabled people, disability friendly children’s play areas, and much more.
Once again it is unclear whether the UK will be entitled to benefit from these funds having left the EU, or whether they will be replaced with a UK based equivalent. A continued post-Brexit downturn in the GDP of the UK will make this harder to budget for, and indeed proposals in last years’ Conservative Party election manifesto, and their actions since, suggest that further welfare cuts are more likely.
National Star has just been awarded Erasmus+ funding for a programme on assisted technology for people with disabilities at work, with partners from Croatia, Greece and Finland. However, after the UK leaves the EU, organisations based in the UK will be able to partner but not lead Erasmus+ programmes. This means that UK organisations will not be able to take the initiative or shape the way projects run, and will instead be subservient to the interests and needs of other European partners. (Quoted from The Guardian, 14-08-17)
In conclusion, while the decision for the UK to leave the EU has been made, and there is some agreement about the transition phase starting in March 2019, there are significant implications to consider for everyone with additional needs or disability, and their families, whether children, young people or adults. It is important that awareness of these implications is increased while there is still time to bring pressure to bear on those making further decisions on all of our behalf for the future…
29th March 2018, updated 29th January 2019 and again 29th March 2019
Image rights: Authors own
Sources for this blog post include The Guardian, the BBC, The Conservative Party, Christians on the Left (particular thanks to Matthew Judson), Through the Roof (particular thanks to Ros Bayes), The EU, Gowrings Mobility, and members of the Additional Needs Alliance, E&OE.