Harish Patel: No matter the outcome of Brexit disability rights and services must be protected

European Union legislation guarantees many of the UK’s disability rights. There is now a real risk that Brexit could see rights upheld by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) eroded, as well as doubt over whether the UK’s disability rights will remain on a par with the EU’s. Brexit also endangers vital funding for disabled people provided through European investment and structural funds.

These issues have the potential to negatively impact Unite members, which is why the union is campaigning for a Brexit that protects and maintains EU-derived rights and calling for the government to ensure that disabled people’s living standards and services are not adversely affected by leaving the EU.

The positive effect of EU legislation on disability rights was first seen after the UK’s initial disability discrimination protections were made into law in 1995. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) covered a range of services including employment, transport and education. However, the DDA only covered businesses with 20 or more staff – those with fewer were exempted from the law if they discriminated against employees because of disability.

When the first piece of EU discrimination legislation – the framework directive for equal treatment in employment and occupation – was introduced in 2000 it provided protection for all disabled employees regardless of the size of the firm they worked for. The UK updated its own legislation to comply with the European standard in 2004.

In 2008 more improvements were made to the UK’s disability rights because of the EU. An ECJ ruling found that it was against the law to discriminate against an employee due to their relationship with someone who is disabled.

The ruling came after Sharon Coleman, from the UK, said she was made to resign from her job because she was a carer for her disabled son. The ECJ found for Coleman, ruling that the EU employment equality directive also prohibits discrimination against people who are not disabled.

UK disability benefits have also been positively affected by EU legislation. In 2004, new regulations on the coordination of welfare systems meant disabled people from Britain could receive benefits like Personal Independence Payments while living in other EU member states.

The European Accessibility Act, proposed by the EU in December 2015, is designed to improve the functioning of the single market for services and products for disabled and older people by getting rid of impediments caused by multiple legislations. Brexit means that disabled people in Britain may not benefit from the European Accessibility Act because the UK will no longer have to abide by EU directives.

Not only is there a risk that beneficial EU legislation will not be adopted after Brexit – potentially leaving Britain with second-rate or outdated protections – but there is also a danger that the UK government will be free to scrap positive EU laws that are already in place. Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Bill – designed to allow the government to change repatriated laws without parliamentary oversight – would give the Tories the power to do just that.

Nor is it clear what the UK’s relationship to the ECJ, which ensures member states properly apply EU laws on equality and other matters, will be after Brexit. Currently EU citizens, including people from Britain, can take their cases to the ECJ if they believe their rights are not being upheld. In the future ECJ rulings on legislation may not apply to Britain – which could result in UK citizens having worse rights than people living in Europe.

Brexit also risks EU funding for disability projects and services in the UK, many of which are geared towards reducing unemployment, social isolation and poverty.

For example, the European Social Fund (ESF) is investing €4.9bn between 2014-20 in six programmes in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar. These programmes support access to employment services for people with disabilities, however the future for them remains uncertain.

At a recent Voluntary Organisations Disability Group meeting, leaders of disability charities expressed their worries that funding for such programmes and services could dry up after 2020 – which is when the current round of EU funding comes to an end.

The government has not committed to directly support disability projects that rely on EU funding beyond 2020, nor has it given any indication of what the future may look like for EU-related initiatives for disabled people in the UK past that date.

Disabled people in the UK have already suffered through seven years of Tory attacks on their quality of life. If handled incorrectly, Brexit threatens to make things even worse. Disabled people must not be made to paid to pay the price through more punishing austerity if Theresa May’s administration fails to negotiate a deal with the EU.

Regardless of the outcome of the talks, Unite is demanding that the government ensures disability rights are protected and maintained and that services for those with disabilities are not further eroded.

Harish Patel is Unite’s national officer for equalities.