Disability Rights and Services, Post Brexit

29th June 2016 by Catia Neves

What is the impact?

I think it’s safe to say that the Leave result of the EU Referendum last Friday sent shock-waves across the country, regardless of which way you voted. We’re already starting to feel the ramifications, but if and when article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is enacted and we start the withdrawal process from the EU, these are the potential impacts leaving the EU will have on Disabled people.

The NHS & Care Workforce

In brief: A block on skilled EU NHS workers and carers working in the UK would lead to a staffing crisis, meaning many Disabled people would go without the support they need.

A huge number of EU migrants work in our medical and care sectors- EU migrant workers make up about 5% of the of the 1.2 million staff in the English NHS, which equates to 55,000 trained professionals such as doctors; nurses; paramedics; pharmacists; support workers and administrative staff[1]. Whilst 5% of the 1.45 million workers that make up the adult social care sector are also EEA citizens, equivalent to 72,500 people [2].

Across the UK, EU immigrants make up 10% of registered doctors and 4% of registered nurses. are citizens of other EU countries, according to the English Health Service’s Electronic Staff Record.

So what does this mean for our vital services? A staffing crisis is fairly inevitable if there are restrictions on free movement of labour and skilled workers are blocked. With the ever growing need for qualified staff, many roles are filled by EU staff, as the figures above clearly indicate. Over the last couple of years the NHS has experienced serious nurse shortages; however the exponential growth of migration of EU nurses to join the NHS workforce (growing by around 7,000 nurses each year), has enabled us to keep up with the Health Service’s demands and provision of services. There are also arguments to suggest that staff may leave preemptively in case of changes to migration law, no longer allowing them to remain/ work in the UK with the same level of rights. Similar to the Junior Dr’s contract change, this situation too would ultimately compromise patient safety and the quality of service provided by the NHS.

So knowing that the success of our health care services are reliant on being able to recruit staff effectively from the EU, it’s vital that free movement of labour is protected, which is obviously a worry seeing as it was a key part of the Brexit campaign. However we also know the success of the NHS is heavily reliant on a strong economy- it’s growth and sustainability is dependant on receiving the projected budgetary investments, which face reduction in times of economic downturn. The strength of the economy is reliant on having access to the single market, something that no country has without freedom of movement. The UK will be no exception, as already suggested by Angela Merkel, who stated that “access to the single market requires acceptance of all four freedoms” referring to the EU principles on the free movement of capital, labour, services and goods. So the Brexiteers may well have been checkmated on that count and have their hands tied…fingers crossed!

“The ability of the social care sector to recruit and retain an effective workforce is of particular concern. The contribution of every care worker matters and the ability for employers to recruit non-British EU citizens as part of the social care workforce, will be particularly important for many homecare providers. It is an issue over which UKHCA will be fully engaged.”-


Mike Padgham, Chair of the United Kingdom Homecare Association

Economic Downturn and Impact on Disabled People

In brief: Austerity and recession hits Disabled people the hardest, this economic downturn is no different.

There’s been a noticeable and worrying impact on the strength of the British economy since the Leave result, wiping more than $2 trillion of value from stock markets around the world and causing the value of the pound to plunge lower than it has been in the last 31 years. Moderate losses on the FTSE 100 quickly deepened and at one point sterling was down 3.5% against the dollar, at $1.3122, its lowest level since 1985. Against the euro, the pound was down 2.4% at €1.19.

None of this looks or sounds good but what impact does this have on the general public? Mortgages, pensions, wages and house prices are just a few of the things that will be affected by a crumbling economy. Taxes will be increased and cuts deepened. As councils receive lower budgets, vital services will likely become underfunded (even more so!) and unsustainable. During the campaign, chancellor George Osborne said he would have to slash public spending and put up taxes in order to plug a £30bn “black hole” if the UK voted to leave. £15bn would have to come from massive cuts to the NHS, schools and defence, whilst the remaining £15bn from higher taxes, including a 2p rise in the basic rate of income tax to 22%. Spending on local government would also be reduced by 5% having a knock on effect on local services.

Every aspect of this hurts disabled communities who rely on vital services, and are always disproportionately affected by austerity and recession. Disabled people are statistically more economically vulnerable, thus increases in taxes, reduction of wages and less job opportunities pose vast challenges to achieving fair access to society. Figures indicate that 46.3% of working-age disabled people are in employment compared to 76.4% of working-age non-disabled people– a 30.1% gap . Whilst living condition statistics indicate that 19% of individuals in families with at least one disabled member live in relative income poverty, as opposed to 15% of individuals in families with no disabled member [3]. Several experts have predicted that the economic shock of leaving the EU would cause unemployment to rise in the UK. That would reduce the pressure for wage growth. The Treasury estimated that wages will be between 2.8% and 4% lower at the point of maximum impact, with a typical worker at least £780 a year worse off [4]. This, on top of the challenges and disadvantages Disabled people already face in terms of cuts to welfare budgets, employment and living standards, is frankly a very scary prospect.

Cuts to Research and Innovation Funding

In brief: The UK will lose a huge amount of funding for research, development and innovation programs, stunting vital medical and social advancements.

As we know, the term ‘Disability’ is nebulous in it’s meaning, used to cover a wide range of physical disabilities, learning differences, mental health issues, sensory impairments, and long term health conditions etc. Much of the research conducted in view of improving the lives of Disabled people, such as medical advancements in pain relief and treatments, or technologies that can assist with independent living, are all important and much needed. The UK receives a huge amount of EU funding both for the NHS and subsidiary research units to conduct this vital research. Funding that is now jeopardised. One example includes, a project called Horizon 2020 which put £232m into NHS providers last year (and a planned £7.5bn over the next 5 years), including Great Ormond Street children’s hospital, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University Hospital Birmingham and NHS Blood and Transplant.

Other funding streams such as the Innovative Medicines Initiative, the Active and Assisted Living programme and European Co-operation in Science and Technology (COST) are channelling millions of pounds into UK Higher Education, NHS organisations and industry to develop new technologies that benefit all of us.

Disabled Focused Projects

In brief: From local community projects to huge policy projects, funding will be lost and good work halted, hindering participation and equality of Disabled People.

There are many projects led by and for disabled people that have been funded by the EU that may not otherwise exist, for example the power-hockey club in Leeds (see BBC video below). This was started using money from the European Social Fund (ESF), which during 2014–2020, alongside the European Regional Development Fund are investing around €11.8 billion across the UK in social projects.


Over the coming years, the ESF is supporting projects to increase job opportunities and fairer living standards- a mandate of widening participation and inclusion in our society. Initiatives addressing the long-term unemployed, the economically inactive and those at risk of poverty and social exclusion, include tackling barriers to entering and staying in work by providing skills training. It is particularly focused on supporting communities that are often marginalised: disabled people, ethnic minorities, young people, ex-offenders and women needing childcare provision.

Another project whose future may be compromised, ‘Inclusion Training in Intellectual Disability for Educators in Europe (ITIDE)’ (poorly titled, but that’s another matter!), is entirely funded by the EU. The project is centred around boosting the potential and learning attainment of Disabled individuals, ensuring education practitioners across Europe have had adequate training on Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), ultimately helping create a more inclusive and accessible learning environment for all. They’re aiming to meet Europe’s 2020 target of reducing early school leaving, protecting younger generations rights to education and opportunity.

The final project I’ll mention is the far reaching and important European Disability Strategy 2010–2020, which promotes accessibility and inclusion for the 80 million Europeans with a disability. The European Commission, is working to break down these barriers and empower Disabled people to reach their potential and participate fully in society.

Human Rights Protections

In brief: The option to call on the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFR)and other relevant EU directives will be lost.

From a legal standpoint it has been argued that untangling British from European law will cause ‘constitutional havoc’, meaning years worth of work to rework EU legislation into our own legal frameworks. Dissecting the European Communities Act (ECA) and other primary legislation implementing EU laws which are incorporated directly into the devolution statutes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will again cause a massive legal upheaval and headache. In terms of EU legislation that directly relates to and protects the rights of Disabled people, the CFR charter is at risk of being lost in the divorce:

  • European Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFR), Article 21- Non-discrimination: “Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.” The charter also includes many wider social and economic rights, such as the rights to fair and just working conditions, to healthcare and to have personal data protected.

Legislation enshrined in domestic British law includes:

  • Equality Act 2010- This Act consolidates a large amount of legislation, including those relating to other protected characteristics
  • European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Article 14, enshrined in our Human Rights Act. Prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability (Article 14), in amongst other protections.
  • UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which guarantees equality of rights of disabled people on issues such as health, education and independent living.

British citizens will still be able to call on the acts above and and a string of other internal positive legislation for the protection of the rights of those with disabilities.

The take-away according to Fiona McGhie, Solicitor at Irwin Mitchell is that British disabled people would not benefit from any further directives or regulations that the EU issued on disability rights and would be reliant on domestic legislation and common law:

What Brexit would affect is the ability to potentially rely on the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFR)… If disabled people wished to try and strike down UK legislation as incompatible with rights under CFR under EU law — that avenue would not be available after a vote to leave.

Ultimately, it can be conceded that EU law has provided Disabled UK citizens with little protection from the systematic cuts and attacks from the Conservative party. Over the course of their time in Government they have continually undermined the rights, services and welfare provision for Disabled people across the country. It has been an ongoing battle to fight for equality, and either ‘In’ or ‘Out’ of the EU this will remain a key issue for Disabled people as long as the Tories are in power.

Concluding Statement

We have a shared responsibility to protect the voices and rights of Disabled people who will be disproportionately affected by Britain’s divorce from Europe. Vying to halt the exit, many have written to their MPs urging them to use their sovereign power to block the parliamentary vote which will trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.

In the likelihood that Brexit does go ahead, we must stand united and do all within our power to shield Disabled communities from more cuts and damage to welfare. Organisations like Disability Rights UK and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) are lobbying groups who stand up for disability rights, and do so much to battle the injustices disabled people face at the hands of Government. We must get behind them: we have been fighting for a long time and we will continue to fight, until equality is felt and our voices are heard.

[1]Data sourced from: https://fullfact.org/immigration/immigration-and-nhs-staff/

[2] Data sourced from: http://www.skillsforcare.org.uk/Document-library/NMDS-SC,-workforce-intelligence-and-innovation/NMDS-SC/State-of-2014-ENGLAND-WEB-FINAL.pdf

[3]Data sourced from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/disability-facts-and-figures/disability-facts-and-figures#fn:7

[4]Data sourced from: https://www.gov.uk/government/…/hm_treasury_analysis_the_immediate_economic_impact_of_leaving_the_eu_web.pdf

Author: Raphaele von Koettlitz


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