Web accessibility and Brexit

Last updated 3 February 2020

Relevant digital policies:

General overview:

I wrote for 24 Accessibility with a general overview of the accessibility laws at stake during the Brexit process (December 2018).

A fully captioned and transcripted video of a talk I gave at Accessibility Scotland, based on and expanding that article, is available to view here.

Progress and developments:

In 2016 the EU Internal Market Subcommittee of the House of Lords reviewed the Act. In a foreshadowing of the Brexit vote, they noted that

…every EU Member State, including the UK, had signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, provided below, and that this proposal would ensure that the Member States would meet those commitments in an efficient and timely way…if Member States sought to meet their obligations under the UN Convention without EU coordination then the compliance costs for business would be much higher.

On 1 February 2017 the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons reviewed the European Accessibility Act. They noted the following Brexit-related issues:

There is a Brexit-related context to the matter of access to Council documents. As the Minister notes, negotiations on this proposal are important despite the vote to leave the EU because UK businesses are likely to continue to trade with the EU and will be required to meet the standards applicable within the EU’s internal market. The Prime Minister has made clear her intention to seek a “bold and ambitious” Free Trade Agreement between the UK and the EU. In that light, a substantial amount of the legislation adopted by the EU will continue to be of interest to the UK, but the UK Government will no longer enjoy unfettered access to preparatory documents. It will become reliant on public access to Council documents and may face the same frustrations as other third parties already face. We ask the Minister to tell us whether timely access to Council documents is a matter that has been raised in the Brexit context and to explain what action the Government is taking to improve Council transparency before the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

In relation to Brexit, the Minister also observes that the UK will remain a member of the UNCRPD once it has withdrawn from the European Union. From this, we extrapolate an intention to ensure that the UK is aligned with the requirements of that Convention. We ask that the Minister explain the extent to which its accessibility legislation for persons with disabilities already meets the requirements of the UNCRPD and whether—given that UK businesses trading with the EU would need to apply EU rules—the UK would be likely to draw inspiration from the agreed EU approach.

On 28 April 2017 the Committee reviewed the Act again in light of the General Election bringing a premature end to the committee’s remit. They noted that

…we are content to grant a scrutiny waiver on the condition that the Government negotiates according to the principles it has already set out and on the understanding that the Committee will be updated following the Council meeting in June.* The document remains under scrutiny…Given the broad application of this proposed legislation and the interest shown by various Committees in the implications of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, we draw this Chapter to the attention of the Transport Committee; the Treasury Committee, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee.

In November 2017 the Committee praised the work done on the Act so far.

The January 2018 ESC meeting reviewed the UK’s divergence with the rest of Europe on certain provisions of the Act. In March, the ESC cleared the Act from further scrutiny. In doing so they stated, rather uselessly, that “We note, and accept, the uncertainty as to the extent to which the UK may need or wish to align with this legislation in the future.”

Disability rights, post-Brexit, are thus reduced to a spiteful shrug.

If you would like to read quite a bit of background on the Act, I spoke with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology about what Brexit could mean for its transposition into UK law.

Proposal on the accessibility of public sector web sites

A separate but equally important pice of legislation concerns the accessibility of public sector bodies’ web sites. After careful consideration, the Committee cleared the proposal  from further scrutiny in July 2016.

Additionally, in March 2019 Government confirmed that the UK will ratify the Marrakesh Treaty in the event of a no-deal Brexit. This was elaborated upon in October 2019.