Mayor takes Liberty with demand for money from hard-up charities


Disability charities already facing the fall-out from the government’s spending squeeze were asked by London’s mayor to bid thousands of pounds for the right to use one of two stalls at the capital’s annual disability arts festival.

One charity, Disability Law Service (DLS), wanted to use a stall at the Liberty festival on Saturday 3 September to provide vital free legal advice for disabled people suffering from the effects of spending cuts.

But the mayor, Boris Johnson, effectively created a “sealed bid” auction to find the two highest bids from charities for the available stalls outside the Southbank Centre on the southern bank of the Thames.

The other stalls had already been reserved for public sector organisations and unions – paying £5,000 each – and organisations connected with the running of the festival, which have not been asked to pay.

DLS has attended the festival on several occasions in previous years, and its staff are always “inundated” by disabled people seeking legal advice.

DLS has never been asked to pay for a stall before. Instead, it has used its extensive contacts to publicise the festival.

But it was told by one of the mayor’s staff that he had to obtain the maximum income possible for the two stalls. He said all the charities were being asked to put in closed bids, and refused to suggest a reasonable sum for DLS to offer.

A DLS spokesman said: “We have always enjoyed the opportunity of contributing to the festival by providing free legal advice. That has always been something that we have valued.

“If they want equality, they should be chosen through a lottery. It should not be an opportunity for City Hall to make money from disability organisations, which are having a hard enough time as it is.”

The mayor’s office did later back down, following criticism, and has now offered DLS a free stall in exchange for publicising the event.

A spokesman for the Mayor’s office said it was “not correct” to state that disability charities “are being asked by London’s mayor to bid thousands of pounds” for the stalls, but he repeatedly declined to clarify what had taken place.

He said there was “a finite amount of space to accommodate stalls, but we have been working towards a solution and the Disability Law Service will be taking a stall at the Southbank Centre”.

He added: “As for public sector organisations, a number will have a presence at the event as sponsors, which helps towards the cost of staging the event, which is free to those attending.”

The mayor is already facing criticism for holding this year’s festival on London’s South Bank – home to the National Theatre and the Southbank Centre – when the eight previous festivals had all been held in Trafalgar Square.

Liberty has established itself as an important date on the capital’s disability arts calendar, and has become a tourist attraction in its own right, raising awareness of disability rights and boosting the profile of some of the country’s most talented disabled artists.

4 August 2011