In effect from 26 July 2008, EU Regulation 1107/2006 remains widely unenforceable because the U.K. Government has yet to transfer enforcement powers to civil procedure.
As a result of this despicable delay, people with a disability traveling by air do not have recourse against airport managing bodies and airlines.
The disabled, the most vulnerable among us, are once again failed by politicians. Earlier today, I was reading an article written by Joanna Shulman, CEO of Redfern Legal Centre. Ms Shulman, who teaches discrimination law at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, one of the lawyers assisting Ms Sheila King with her disability discrimination claim against Jetstar.
In her article, Ms Shulman writes "The UK, Canada and the US all recognise that relying on vulnerable individuals to take action against discriminatory policies is a flawed process as the majority of these individuals do not have the resources, or persistence to pursue these matters, particularly where there is little or no personal gain. They have introduced models that allow other agencies to pursue discriminatory policies."
The end of her account is everything but close. Comparing apples to apples, let us now see what the actual picture in the U.K. is.
Thanks to EU Regulation 261/2004, passengers traveling from and to the European Union with an EU registered airline get free meals, drinks and two phone calls, emails, telexes or faxes and from €250 up to €600 in compensation when flights have delays of more than three hours.
Under this regulation, airlines cannot look the other way. Air carriers that do not pay will have to pay £5,000 fines for every single passenger they have not compensated.
Because people with reduced mobility and disabled travellers are more vulnerable than abled passengers, one could reasonably conclude that the law protecting their rights is at least as strong as the one we just mentioned. Sadly, this is far from the truth.
EU Regulation 1107/2006, concerning the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air, makes mention that "Member States should lay down penalties applicable to infringements of this Regulation and ensure that those penalties apply; the penalties, which could include ordering the payment of compensation to the person concerned, should be effective, proportionate and dissuasive."
This is where the house of cards comes crumbling down. The U.K. Government assigned the task of complaint handling body to Equality and Human Rights Commission and enforcement powers to the Civil Aviation Authority.
"Equality and Human Rights Commission does not have the power to order any organisation to comply with the law. However, we do have the power to assist you in addressing this complaint, including offering conciliation," Mr Mark Stone, Air Travel Accessibility, Legal Directorate, of Equality and Human Rights Commission told us.
"Although the aviation industry has taken steps to implement the Regulation in the UK, it is not always implemented, and there are instances where the service does not work well for passengers. We do have enforcement powers, but these are limited to the ability to take a criminal prosecution," Dame Deirdre Hutton, CBE, Chair of the Civil Aviation Authority told us.
Many, irrespectively of their political ideology, hoped that, with the election of Mr David Cameron as Prime Minister, the Government would have shown sensitivity towards the issues pertaining people with disabilities. These hopes are long gone, as the occupant of Number 10 seems to have forgotten what he has learned first-hand.
It is no surprise then that 3 years after EU Regulation 1107/2006 has become law, the Department for Transport has yet to lay down penalties and compensation applicable to infringements of the regulation. "It is a recent law, and it takes time to implement it," an employee of the Department for Transport told us last month. "We hope to have it in place in a few months, hopefully in 2012." She added. On the other end, a Barrister with experience in the field told us Government could get the job done in a matter of three/four weeks.
What does this mean? It means that a disabled child who had booked his wheelchair assistance at London Heathrow, and was without assistance because the local service provider was unable to provide proper assistance, is without a legal framework to protect his rights. The EHRC cannot help, the CAA cannot enforce the law and, in this legal vacuum, the airport managing company can bully the family stating that "The airport was not responsible for the events and so I see no basis for any claim either under the EC regulations, the Equalities Act or otherwise."
In other words the disabled humiliated and discriminated against has less protection than the abled traveller whose flight is delayed for over three hours.
We consider Mr David Cameron and his Government morally accountable for once again failing the disabled. People with disabilities do not ask for much. All they want is to have clear cut laws that protect their rights, easily enforceable bearing strong, proportionate and dissuasive fines for those guilty of discriminating and humiliating the disabled and adequate compensation schemes for their victims.
How to move forward? Mr David Cameron must make sure all he has learned first-hand does not go to waste. He can make a difference, he must make a difference. The PM shall give a voice to the most vulnerable, those his government seems to have once again forgotten.