Independent Living Fund: Minister’s ‘unbelievable’ failure to prove Commons boast


newslatestThe minister for disabled people has been accused of an “unbelievable” and “very worrying” failure to prove his claim that disability organisations “agree with the government” on its policy to shut the Independent Living Fund (ILF).

Mark Harper told MPs last month that he had “talked to disability organisations… and they agree with the government” that the ILF should be closed and non-ring-fenced funding passed instead to local authorities.

But disabled campaigners strongly questioned his claims of support among disability organisations, and challenged him to name those who supported the government’s position.

In the wake of his comments, both Disability News Service (DNS) and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) made requests under the Freedom of Information Act for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to name these organisations.

This week, replying to those requests, DWP said it had “conducted a search” of departmental records and concluded that “the information you have requested is not held”.

DWP also said that the minister’s private office had confirmed that Harper “does meet regularly with a large number of disability organisations and holds a wide range of discussions, both formal and informal”.

These include monthly meetings with members of the Disability Charities Consortium, and attendance at the government’s Fulfilling Potential Forum.

But Harper’s team declined to say who the minister was referring to when he told MPs that disability organisations “agree with the government”.

Linda Burnip, who put in the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request on behalf of DPAC, said: “It’s very worrying that Mark Harper seems to have no idea who he has actually spoken to about disability issues and in particular who he has actually spoken to about the closure of the ILF.

“Regardless of not knowing who he has spoken to, he still claims that he has been told by someone or some organisation supposedly representing disabled people that closing the ILF will be a good thing to do.

“We know it is not the case that disabled people’s organisations have said this.”

She said that DWP won last year’s court case – which aimed to overturn the closure decision – “based solely on being able to prove that the previous minister for disabled people, Mike Penning, was fully aware of how damaging the closure would be to disabled people’s rights to live independently in the community”, so Harper’s failure to explain who he had spoken to was “unsatisfactory and highly dubious”.

Michelle Maher, from the WOWcampaign, said the FoIA response was “just unbelievable” because Harper had made a “clear claim” that disability groups had endorsed the government’s decision to close ILF and pass the non-ring-fenced funding to local authorities.

She said the fact that no names had been released “speaks volumes”, because DWP would have been “singing their names from the roof tops” if disability organisations were backing its policy.

The FoIA response came as about 100 activists – many of them ILF-users – marched in the rain on Downing Street, held up traffic in Whitehall, and then lobbied MPs, in a last-ditch bid to avoid the planned closure of the ILF on 30 June.

A meeting in Westminster Hall, organised by the Green MP Caroline Lucas, was attended by 19 MPs who expressed support for the campaign to save the ILF – a government-resourced trust which helps about 17,000 people with the highest support needs to live independently – including members of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP.

7 January 2015