Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has been accused of lying to his own party conference about the success of his campaign to encourage employers to be more “disability confident”.
Duncan Smith (pictured) told last year’s conference in Birmingham that more than 1,000 employers had “signed up” to the Disability Confident campaign, which was launched by the prime minister in the summer of 2013.
But a series of freedom of information requests by Disability News Service (DNS) has exposed the truth: that fewer than 400 have signed up, while only 68 are currently “active partners”.
It is the latest embarrassing revelation about the campaign, which was launched in July 2013 and aims to “debunk the myths around employing disabled people and encourage employers to take advantage of the wealth of talent available”.
Duncan Smith has been criticised for the campaign’s “patronising waffle”, which activists say ignores “institutionalised disability discrimination” at a time when he and other ministers have been smearing disabled benefit claimants as “workshy”.
And in July, DNS revealed that the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, risked ridicule after announcing that Swansea had become the country’s first “Disability Confident City”, even though he was unable to explain why it had been chosen.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has already admitted – in a press release issued earlier this summer to mark the campaign’s second anniversary – that just 376 organisations had supported Disability Confident since it was launched in July 2013.
But even this exaggerated the number of employers that have “signed up” to the campaign.
DWP has now confessed that the true number of “active partners” is just 68.
And of those 68, at least 33 are disability or diversity organisations, such as Arthritis Care Scotland, Essex Coalition of Disabled People and Mencap.
This leaves just 35 mainstream “active partners”, including recruitment and training companies and a small handful of big corporate names such as National Grid, Marks and Spencer, Honda and Asda.
When asked in a freedom of information request why ministers claimed that 376 organisations supported the campaign, when a link to the campaign’s partners lists just 68, the department explained that the figure of 376 referred only to those organisations that had supported the campaign at some point since its launch.
DWP said in its freedom of information response that the 68 organisations were the campaign’s “most active partners”, those that have “contributed to events, shared stories and case studies, or published their own articles and blogs about work they do to support disabled people into work”.
When asked why Duncan Smith had vastly exaggerated the success of his campaign last autumn, the Conservative party refused to comment.
But a DWP spokeswoman claimed that the figure of 1,100 referred to the number of “representatives” who showed their support for the campaign by attending a Disability Confident event.
She said: “To date, 376 employers have registered to be official supporters of Disability Confident. We are happy to make this clear.”
Disabled activists have lined up to criticise Duncan Smith, following the latest revelations.
A Disabled People Against Cuts spokeswoman said: “It comes as no surprise that Duncan Smith has been telling porkies yet again.
“He has lied about his education, his career, he has misinformed the House of Commons on numerous occasions and regularly makes claims that have been exposed as lies years ago, in media interviews.
“We will only be surprised on a day we discover he’s told the truth. DPAC’s own investigation has turned up a number of astonishingly bold outright lies, and we began cataloguing new ones as they appeared, only to find that the workload was too great to keep up.”
David Gillon, a disabled activist and blogger, who has been critical of the Disability Confident campaign, said: “It’s worrying when a minister with disabled people’s lives in his hands has so cavalier an approach to the facts.
“How can we trust anything he says, when even his statements to his own party ring false?
“His entire ministry has been riddled with falsehood, evasion and deliberate distortion ever since he took charge.
“Whether it be the figures for fit for work deaths, or claiming overwhelming support for policies disabled people have overwhelmingly rejected, or tabloid tales that 75 per cent of us are faking, DWP clearly takes its cue from its lord and master.
“Massively exaggerating claims for Disability Confident support is simply more of the same.”
Gillon said the number of Disability Confident supporters was “pathetic”.
He said: “Even if we accept the figure of 376 companies associated with Disability Confident in some way (does this simply count every company to have attended an event? I wonder), this is still less than one company every two days over the course of the two years-plus that Disability Confident has been in operation.
“You could probably get more expressions of interest just by stopping random passers-by outside DWP HQ.”
He said the list of active partners included just one NHS trust, one big high street name, no pharmaceutical giants, one electronics company, and an absence of major recruiters, all of which showed “an astonishing lack of ambition and achievement”.
He said: “What are these companies signing up to do? Are they simply expressing an interest? Ticking a box to look good on the Corporate Responsibility section of their annual report? Are they looking for business to come their way?
“How many are signing up because they’re in business relationships with DWP? How many are actually doing something positive to challenge workplace discrimination and get disabled people into work in non-token roles?
“How many are challenging the status quo to bring forward disabled people as the next generation of leaders and managers? How many are actually confident about disability?”
He added: “In the end I’m left bitterly disappointed, as is usual with Disability Confident.
“Disabled people face a massive structural problem in accessing employment and it is vital we challenge that, but Disability Confident is failing on every front.
“It can’t get employers to sign up, it can’t get disabled people to sign up, and what messages it does put out serve to reinforce the problem, not challenge it, by their insistence on portraying us as ‘inspiring’.”
Peter Beresford, co-chair of the national service-user network Shaping Our Lives and professor of social policy at Brunel University, said the figures showed “clear evidence of a senior minister repeatedly telling yet more lies about disabled people and his failed disability policy”.
He said: “Iain Duncan Smith must be brought to book and with a new Labour leadership and shadow cabinet it is to be hoped we now have an effective opposition that will commit itself to acting to curtail such shenanigans.”
Ian Jones, co-founder of the WOWcampaign, said the failings of Labour’s Positive about Disabled People scheme should have shown politicians that “it is not enough to simply tell people how wonderful disabled people are in the hope it would change attitudes”.
He said that Disability Confident was another “chocolate teapot scheme” which would have no impact on closing the disability employment gap, which was “stubbornly fixed at around 30 per cent fewer disabled people (2008-2013) being in work compared to non-disabled people”.
He said: “The time for talk and trying to convince people to change has passed. Now is the time for positive action to enable talented disabled people to join a workforce that prejudice actively excludes them from.
“Disability Confident is just that, a con, and Iain Duncan Smith implying disabled people are abnormal (on 8 Sept 2015) will not advance the cause of inclusion.”
Mark Harrison, chief executive of the user-led organisation Equal Lives, said: “This is a Mickey Mouse scheme from a Mickey Mouse minister.
“We need enforceable action for employers who exclude disabled people because of the barriers to employment in their companies.
“We don’t need cheap gimmicks – this is just an example of the emperor’s new clothes.”
And Pat Onions, founder of Pat’s Petition, said: “We aren’t surprised that so few employers have signed up to Disability Confident.
“We have no idea what Disability Confident means and we doubt if employers do.”