ODI silence suggests ministers think alliance voices will be more to their liking


Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have questioned the government’s willingness to listen to disabled people, following the first meeting of a new “alliance” set up to advise the government on disability issues.

Leading disabled figures who attended a preliminary meeting of the Disability Action Alliance (DAA) were left frustrated by the lack of clear information about how the group would operate, how it would be funded, and what its purpose was.

But they also questioned why the alliance of charities and private and public sector organisations should be necessary at all when there was an existing group of DPOs set up to perform an almost identical task.

The preliminary meeting of DAA took place two weeks ago and was attended by several leading DPOs, companies such as British Telecom and Lloyds Banking Group, three government departments, quangos, and charities such as Mencap and Leonard Cheshire Disability.

The government will now ask these and other organisations if they want to become DAA members, and will also set up a steering group.

The government has said DAA will focus on “delivering action through partnership”, bringing together DPOs with public, private and third sector organisations, and will “operate alongside, and not replace, existing mechanisms for engaging with disabled people”.

But some of those who attended the DAA meeting have been left questioning its purpose, how it will work, and why the government appears to have abandoned its existing Network of Networks (NoN), a collection of 12 DPOs set up under Labour to create “a more efficient two-way communication between disabled people and government”.

NoN completed one consultation on disabled people’s views of the work of the DWP, and passed on the results to the government, but was never given the go-ahead for its next piece of work.

Its members say the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) is now refusing to answer questions about NoN and whether it still has a role. Instead, it is focusing on DAA.

Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), who attended the DAA meeting, said NoN had written to seek clarification from the new Conservative minister for disabled people, Esther McVey.

He said: “My suspicion is that they didn’t like the actual answers that were given in the first consultation.”

He added: “The work the ODI have asked the alliance to do sounds very, very similar to what the ODI were originally going to be asking the Network of Networks to do.”

Melanie Close, chief executive of Disability Equality North West, which is part of NoN but was not invited to the DAA meeting, said ODI appeared to have dropped NoN without telling its members, and was no longer replying to emails about the project.

She said: “It seems like they have looked at those DPOs and thought, ‘We don’t like those answers, we are going to try somebody else.’”

Close said she believed the government only wanted “yes people” to be part of DAA and did not want people “who are going to be a bit more contentious, who are going to challenge”.

She was also angry that there appeared to have been no DPOs from the north of England invited to the DAA meeting.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, who attended the DAA meeting, said she was concerned at the prospect of a DPO-led body like NoN being replaced by one that was not user-led.

She said: “I went along to try to find out more and left with no clearer idea. It was frustrating in its lack of information about the context and the thinking behind the alliance, and how it would work. It seemed ill-thought-out.”

Douglas Gilroy, who attended the DAA meeting on behalf of The National Federation of the Blind of the UK (NFB), but spoke to Disability News Service afterwards in a personal capacity, said he believed DAA would be just “window dressing” for the government.

He said: “I think it is better that NFB gets on with its work, which is campaigning. I really think the disability movement should be led by disabled people and I do not think that this is quite the scenario [with DAA].”

Some of the disabled people who attended were slightly more positive about DAA.

Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said he was “more than happy to give it a go”, although he said he would “not be part of anything that becomes a talking-shop”.

Heather Fisken, who manages the Independent Living in Scotland project, said the DAA meeting was an “interesting event” but there were “still some questions to be answered about how the group will fit in with the work of existing organisations and groups”, although it was still “early days”.

6 December 2012