A disabled people’s organisation has defended its decision to draw together a new “disability alliance” on behalf of the government, but has called for “dialogue” with parts of the disability movement that have criticised its involvement.
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) has faced heavy criticism for convening the new Disability Action Alliance (DAA), and for helping the outsourcing giant Capita win a lucrative disability assessment contract.
Liz Sayce, DR UK’s chief executive, has also faced fierce attacks over a report she wrote last year that recommended ending government support for the remaining Remploy factories, and closing those factories which were “not viable”.
Sayce and Phil Friend, DR UK’s new chair, spoke to Disability News Service (DNS) this week in a bid to explain the organisation’s position on the three toxic issues, and to appeal for dialogue with parts of the disability movement that have been critical of its relationship with the government.
Sayce insisted that the new alliance would not replace existing engagement between disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and the government, and that its role would be to advise on “implementation” of government policy rather than suggesting new policies.
There had been confusion and concern after the government said DAA would be considering “thousands of suggestions” put forward by disabled people as part of a consultation on the coalition’s new disability strategy, while DR UK itself had said the alliance would be tasked with developing a “co-produced set of policies or principles”.
But Sayce said DAA would focus on how existing policies could be improved at a local level, for example how DPOs could be more involved in the new health and wellbeing boards.
She said: “If I thought it was to be advising on policy and supplanting the role of the disability sector being able to talk directly about policy with ministers, I would be very worried.”
Friend said Disability Rights UK – which was formed this year from the merger of RADAR, the National Centre for Independent Living and Disability Alliance – had decided it would “rather be in the tent talking to the government than outside the tent chucking stuff in”.
But he pointed out that DR UK does help lead the Hardest Hit alliance, which campaigns against the coalition’s cuts, while many of its staff joined the TUC’s anti-cuts march in London under the Hardest Hit banner.
Sayce said Disability Rights UK was a “non party-political organisation” and would “work to achieve disabled people’s rights whatever government is in power”.
The alliance’s first meeting will take place this week, and DPOs signed up so far include Equalities National Council, People First (Self Advocacy) and the National Survivor User Network.
Sayce said no companies would be allowed to join “for commercial gain”, and added: “If Atos joined, I would have to resign from the alliance.”
She had earlier addressed a Disability Rights UK conference and egm (extraordinary general meeting), at which Friend was confirmed as the new chair.
She had told members that DR UK would focus its campaigning efforts on addressing disabled people’s lack of power and control in their lives, disability poverty, and the freedom to live independently.
Sayce told DNS later that DR UK and grassroots campaigning groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) – which has led a string of direct action protests against the cuts – “all want the same thing” but were just “different in their tactics”.
She said that if the disability movement had only protested in the 1980s and 1990s – and had not engaged with the Conservative governments of Thatcher and Major – “we would never have got direct payments, we would never have got the Disability Discrimination Act”.
Friend said he felt the current government did not care about how disabled people would be affected by the cuts and that the disability movement needed to “sit down and really reflect on how we are going to wake them up”.
He added: “Some of that is direct action, some of that is sitting in rooms with civil servants, and some of it is getting Esther McVey to actually hear what we are saying.”
Sayce warned that divisions within the disability movement over how best to campaign on disability rights would just “play into the hands of the government”.
And she said that, as well as campaigning against the “unprecedented threats to disabled people’s income”, Disability Rights UK needed to look for “opportunities where we can” within the government’s agenda, “just as we campaigned against the last government’s coercive mental health policies but still worked with them to achieve gains in disabled people’s rights”.
She pointed to the proposed rollout of personal health budgets, which could increase choice and control for people with long-term impairments and health conditions and ensure they were “much less likely to be stuck away in an institution”.
Sayce also explained why there had been confusion over DR UK’s role in helping Capita secure one of three regional contracts to assess claimants of the new personal independence payment.
The tender document submitted by Capita to the government in May appeared to show DR UK had played a significant part in helping to secure the contract.
Sayce admitted her organisation had been involved in discussions with Capita to explore ways of “improving disabled people’s rights”, but that its trustees had decided – after the tender document was submitted to the government – that they would restrict their involvement to providing “rights-based information” about PIP.
Sayce and Friend also defended Disability Rights UK’s decision to back the withdrawal of government funding from Remploy’s remaining sheltered factories.
The RADAR board had supported Sayce’s decision to write a report on disability employment programmes for the government, said Friend, even though there was “a chance that her report would recommend closures of Remploy facilities and that would mean disabled people would be badly hit”.
But he said: “I am still of the view that the long-term future for disabled people is not separate workplaces and at some point that was going to have to be considered.”
Sayce added: “I believe the government was going to close the Remploy factories anyway. I think I got commitments to a lot of things from the government. We have to be vigilant in ensuring they actually implement them.”
They both raised concerns about whether those commitments were being implemented.
Friend said he was not yet sure there had been “vigorous enough efforts to support employees in turning Remploy factories into social enterprises”.
15 November 2012