By Anne McGuire MP, Shadow Minister for Disabled People
Governments love “strategies”. However, they not only have to develop them, but also ensure that they are delivered. In 2005, having established the Disability Rights Commission in 1999, the Labour Government produced “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People”, its groundbreaking disability strategy. It was different in three ways. Firstly, it was developed by disabled people working as full participants with the Strategy Unit in No 10. Secondly, it had a vision with a clearly defined roadmap which everybody bought into. And thirdly, it had clear and measurable milestones with named ministers specifically charged with its implementation and reporting annually to the Prime Minister on progress achieved.
The Coalition Government, after three years in power, has only recently published its “Fulfilling Potential” report, apparently a step on the road to producing its own strategy. The report states that: “A wide range of outcome measures show improvement from their baseline. There have been significant improvements in educational attainment, in the employment rate and a reduction in the employment rate gap. There have also been improvements in other factors contributing to quality of life, for example in access to transport and access to goods and services. Attitudes towards disabled people have also been improving in some cases.”
So why is it that I constantly hear disabled people saying that their world is going backwards; that they feel they are not valued; that they feel demonised in the tabloid media; and that they are now the victims of greater levels of hate crime? Why is it that the Joint Committee on Human Rights stated recently that: “There seems to be a significant risk of retrogression of independent living and a breach of the UK’s obligations [of the UN Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities].” Why are disabled people increasingly in the courts challenging government policy and not inside No 10 helping develop it?
Where is the disability strategy? What is it? “Fulfilling Potential”, as it stands, is little more than a research paper, often advising the reader of progress since 2005, without recognising that progress was made because the “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People” strategy was not just an analysis of the challenges but a roadmap to breaking down the barriers. Disabled people could plot the progress as it affected their lives. I wonder if the reluctance of the current government to commit to its own disability strategy is that they do not want to be held to account by disabled people?
Is it little wonder that disabled people feel disengaged and resentful at what is happening? I suspect that they have made up their own minds as to what the government’s strategy is. To them, it is one that sees a raft of changes in the benefits system without considering the cumulative impact on their lives – abolition of DLA, reductions in support for families with disabled children, the bedroom tax, cutbacks in social care and support, and a Work Programme that is not delivering for them. What kind of progressive strategy thinks that an equality duty is a burden on business, rather than an encouragement to break down barriers?
The UK used to be seen across the world as a beacon for the progress it had made towards equality for disabled people. Sadly, action speaks louder than words, and as Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the DRC, once said: “Many disabled people have been invited to look up to the stars…only to find the ground opening up beneath them.”