7 things we learned about the EU’s disability rights record

MDAC has been investigating how the EU spends millions of Euros from its “structural funds” on renovating and building residential institutions for people with disabilities. Earlier this year the EU Ombudsman criticised the European Commission for its handling of the funds. We and others have made clear that spending money on institutions for people with disabilities breaches Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Despite this, evidence keeps surfacing that this is precisely what has happened, affecting tens of thousands of people.

United Nations in Geneva.

Yesterday and today, the UN’s CRPD Committee examined the European Union’s compliance with the Convention. It was the first time ever that a regional block has been reviewed by a UN treaty body, and the European Commission (EC) answered numerous questions, with greater and lesser degrees of clarity. Here are seven things we learnt during the session.

1. The EC admits it unlawfully funds segregation

Danish CRPD Committee member Stig Langvad asked “How is it possible that EU funds have been spent on institutionalisation?” The EC replied that, “We had some rules which were a little bit loose in terms of control.” Mr Langvad referred to the Convention, which sets out the right to independent living for people with disabilities, and states that supports should be provided to include them community.

2. The EC did not mention the Ombudsman’s report

The EU Ombudsman wrote a detailed report on structural funds this year, finding that the EC’s management left a lot to be desired in order to protect and promote fundamental rights. Unsurprisingly, the EC chose not refer to this report when answering the CRPD Committee’s questions on structural funds.

3. The EC admits that it is wrong to fund institutions

The EC admitted that it is wrong to fund disability institutions, saying that “We now have a system which is much more tight. If we find a project is not in line with the Convention we can suspend the payment, and we can withdraw the amount of money which is available for that particular Member State. It is quite important for us that the EU funds are not used to support institutionalisation; it is very clearly something we don’t want Member States to do.”

4. But it doesn’t know how much of European taxpayers’ money it has spent on institutions

The CRPD Committee asked the EC what percentage of structural funds in the 2007-13 period was used to fund institutions. The EC said that there was no systemic data collection and they could not answer the question. They said that 75 operational programmes for 25 Member States had participants with disabilities, which is 26% of all “priority axes” for structural funds, amounting to 49.53 billion Euros. All sounds very impressive, but without saying what these projects were, and how the money was spent, this big data is useless. It could be that the vast bulk of the money was spent on institutions; remarkably, the EC simply doesn’t know.

5. And it has no idea how many people’s segregation it has funded

The EC said it now has the power to stop funding which is spent on institutions. The CRPD Committee asked for examples of projects the EC had stopped funding but no examples were forthcoming. The EC said that management of funds is the primary responsibility of Member States, and that groups of people with disabilities are involved in the monitoring process. We know that these are the same governments that are currently building and refurbishing institutions, including with structural funds.

6. The Commission does not like talking about the people whose segregation it has funded

The CRPD Committee asked the EC about the people in institutions which structural funds have financed. Drawing directly on MDAC’s submissions, Committee members asked the EU whether it plans to provide restitution, recognition, reparations and compensation to people with disabilities in institutions that have received EU financing, in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 60/147. The EC representative ignored the question. It does not like to talk about the thousands of people who will spend the rest of their lives segregated from the community, in institutions that have been renovated or built with EC money.

7. Can’t vote, won’t vote

The CRPD Committee asked the EC about the huge number of people under guardianship across the EU who are prohibited from voting in European parliamentary elections. The EC seemed genuinely frustrated with the lack of progress by Member States, as it is governments and not the EC that have the power to change the rules about who is allowed to vote in national elections and therefore also in European parliamentary elections. With change not forthcoming, it looks as if people in institutions under guardianship will be denied the vote for a few more years. This is convenient for politicians, who don’t have to bother working hard to gain these people’s votes.

Next steps

The CRPD Committee will now consider everything it has heard from the EC and will soon adopt a set of concluding observations. These will include recommendations about how the EU should strengthen its implementation of international disability law. In an open letter we submitted to the chair of the Committee, we have suggested the EU should:

  • Re-examine the allocation of Structural Funds since confirmation of the CRPD in 2010, assess the extent to which Funds were used to finance institutional settings and other services for persons with disabilities – including ‘small groups homes’ – and publish the detailed findings.
  • Immediately recall any money sent to a Member State (including any projects still operating under the 2007-2013 funding period) that the Commission reasonably suspects is going to be used on the institutionalisation of persons with disabilities.
  • Commit to providing restitution, recognition, reparations and compensation to persons with disabilities in institutions which have received EU financing, in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 60/147, along with a timetable for achieving this.
  • Take effective measures to consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children and women with disabilities, through their representative organisations, and wider civil society, in the planning, execution and monitoring of Structural Funds at all levels, including in decision-making.

We’ll update as soon as the concluding observations are out.

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