Don’t call it red tape: disabled people will miss EU protection when it’s gone

European bureaucracy is much maligned – but for many of us it has meant better access to jobs, transport and quality care. That’s why I’m dreading Brexit

We have read the list of who will be hit hardest by Brexit – and boy is it long: young people who might want to live, work or study abroad; workers whose rights – and jobs – are threatened at home; and the poor, who will pay the price for Philip Hammond’s post-Brexit “new economic model”.

But while the plight of everyone from farmers to financiers has received massive publicity, a more vulnerable group massively threatened by Brexit have rarely been mentioned: the disabled.

Disabled people know how it feels to be left behind – it has taken years of struggle to get to where we are today. Yet to say that the voices of prominent disabled people were drowned out during the referendum campaign when we warned against Brexit, doesn’t come close. Only crude messages of division were broadcast. So no one heard when we asked what would happen to the severely disabled if free movement for thousands of personal carers from the EU was curtailed.

As someone suffering from muscular dystrophy, there are a thousand aspects of the everyday world which significantly affect me. The red tape that many complain about, the legion of EU directives, are often things which have made life so much better for disabled people. They often ensure that everything from products to leisure facilities are disability-friendly, that public transport is accessible, that jobs in the public sector are open to disabled people, and that there is equal access to education.

Who knew Brexit might mean that these fundamentally important rights would have to be won all over again? Or will they be negotiated at all?

There is now terrible uncertainty. The government has failed to confirm that working people from the EU who have settled in this country will be welcome to stay after Brexit; Liam Fox is using them as pawns in a hostage negotiation. This is perhaps the greatest worry for many disabled people, as they are now used to the high standards and good attitudes of EU care workers who dominate the sector.

We know ministers are not going to give EU migrants here the right to remain unless there is reciprocity. There has been long-standing provision to coordinate social security schemes for people moving within the EU and European Economic Area (EEA) – a vital protection for disabled people who reside in other EU or EEA member states.

These coordination rules are there to support free movement, and include allowing a person’s contributions paid in one country to count towards their entitlement to benefit in another, or allowing certain benefits to be taken abroad with them. What will happen in years to come? What about those who have lived and worked in more than one member state and paid national insurance in those countries? At present a person who moves from one EU country to another has access to benefits in the host country if they are economically active or can support themselves. Working EU and EEA migrants are entitled to in-work benefits on the same basis as nationals of the host country.

But this could all change after Brexit.

There are almost a million UK nationals resident in other member states. If there is no certainty for months, many UK nationals living abroad – who may well be elderly and disabled – are likely to return to the UK, where they may need care services and quite possibly supported housing, thus increasing the strain on services.

And soon we face the great repeal bill, which will annul the 1972 European Communities Act and transpose all EU law into domestic law, wherever practical. The difficulty comes when the government decides which laws will be scrapped altogether. The wretched “red tape challenge” does not give us any confidence. This was the idea that many regulations were unnecessarily burdensome on business so must be scrapped – but it didn’t seem to matter that their disappearance might make life more difficult for disabled people.

We have reason to be concerned about losing many hard-won rights – enshrined in product design, air and rail travel, employment, building accessibility, public website accessibility, and many other areas. I don’t know how I would cope, for instance, without my blue badge – a European initiative that enables disabled people to park, and which is valid across Europe, and other things we now take for granted: help for disabled people on planes, special lanes for wheelchair users on Eurostar, accessible hotel rooms. The government must assure us that disabled people will be in the forefront of negotiations on any matter which affects them directly.

Demanding equal treatment in the NHS – this, for Brexiteers, is presumably “red tape”. The EU has made the lives of millions of disabled people easier and fairer. I am proud that the Liberal Democrats, alone among UK-wide parties, are fighting to protect disabled rights by demanding the people have a say on the final deal before the Tories embark on a ruinous hard Brexit.

Find us

Southwark Carers
3rd Floor, Walworth Methodist Church,
54 Camberwell Road, London, SE5 0EW
View map and directions

Contact us

020 7708 4497

Find us

Nearest tube: Elephant & Castle underground station (Northern and Bakerloo lines).

Nearest Railway Station: Elephant & Castle

Buses from Elephant and Castle: ask bus driver for Burgess Park. Bus numbers: 12, 171, 148, 176, 68, 484, 42, 40, 45