The country’s largest disability charities have been accused of “selling out” disabled people, as they look set to play a significant role in providing back-to-work services under the government’s new Work and Health Programme.
Disability News Service (DNS) has contacted seven of the largest disability charities – most of which are not user-led – and none of them has ruled out seeking contracts from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Disabled activists say this means the charities will be unable to campaign effectively on welfare reform, because of the size of contracts on offer.
All seven – the group that in past years were known as the “big seven” disability charities – insist that any contracts they win from the government will have no impact on their campaigning work, including whether they speak up about social security reform, including cuts to disability benefits and back-to-work policies for disabled people.
But their generally supportive responses to the government’s work, health and disability green paper – which was published on 31 October – could suggest otherwise.
One of the seven – Mind – has already been caught lying about its interest in seeking DWP contracts under the Work and Health Programme.
Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief executive, told protesters on 31 October (pictured) that the charity had “no contracts with DWP” and that he was “not interested in future contracts at this stage”.
His lies were exposed when a disgruntled employee leaked internal documents showing that Mind was applying to join a DWP framework that would allow it to bid for contracts.
Last month, the charity’s policy and campaigns manager, Tom Pollard, joined DWP on secondment as a senior policy adviser.
Asked whether winning DWP contracts would impact on its campaigning work, Mind told DNS last week that it “always speaks out about the issues that we believe impact on people with mental health problems, and we don’t enter into financial relationships which would prevent us from doing this”.
The DNS investigation comes as the Charity Commission confirmed that it has written to Mind’s trustees following a complaint about the charity’s close links with the government – and about Farmer’s lies – by Dr Minh Alexander, an NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist.
She told the commission that she was “concerned that Mind’s independence has been compromised through collaboration with the government which goes beyond constructive joint working”.
A Charity Commission spokesman told DNS: “The Charity Commission can confirm that a concern was raised with us regarding the charity Mind.
“The commission is in correspondence with the trustees to highlight the concern and to request more information.
“We have provided the trustees with the appropriate guidance and we are awaiting a response which we will consider in due course.”
But there are also concerns about the future independence of the other six charities.
Leonard Cheshire Disability said that it already provides services under the government’s Work Choice programme, but refused to say if it was seeking contracts under the Work and Health Programme, or if any such contract would impact on its campaigning work.
RNIB said that it was “exploring” possible involvement in the Work and Health Programme as a “specialist sub-contractor”, although only if any programme was “entirely voluntary” because “we don’t support the sanctioning of individuals’ benefits if they do not attend a programme”.
An RNIB spokeswoman said: “We will continue to represent and campaign on behalf of people with sight loss as part of our constructive dialogue with the DWP.”
Action on Hearing Loss said that it “may consider DWP contracts in the future”, but denied that this would impact on its campaigning work.
Scope said that it had “yet to make a decision regarding upcoming opportunities to deliver employment support but hope to make an announcement in the new year”.
A Scope spokeswoman said: “We have been and will continue to speak out on the issues that matter to disabled people.
“We believe that the work capability assessment is fundamentally flawed and doesn’t accurately identify the barriers disabled people face in entering or staying in work and will continue to speak out against this.”
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) said it was too early to say if it would bid for contracts, but if it did “it would likely be in partnership with other disabled people’s organisations”, and that it would “never compromise on being able to speak out about issues of welfare reform”.
Mencap’s head of employment, Mark Capper, said the charity was “disappointed” to see that the framework for the main contracts “appears to favour large businesses rather than third sector providers who can offer specialised support”, and that it would not want to be involved “unless significant changes were made to involve third sector providers”.
But a Mencap spokesman said the charity “may” consider smaller contracts “if we believe they will allow third sector providers to support people with a learning disability into employment”.
Capper said that Mencap wanted to “ensure disabled people receive the support they need to realise their ambitions, and that the government meets its commitment to halve the employment gap experienced by disabled people”.
He added: “Whether this is achieved by working with the government or speaking out against them when we believe they are failing, we will continue to do both.”
But Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) dismissed the suggestion that the charities would speak out strongly against DWP if they won multi-million pound contracts under the new programme.
Linda Burnip, DPAC co-founder, said: “It is clear to everyone that organisations taking money from the government to provide services of any kind will not be in a position to campaign in any effective way against the policies on welfare reform.
“These contracts are rumoured to be worth between £2 million and £30 million and once part of propping up the system, any independence to criticise it will be lost.
“It is shameful that organisations supposedly existing to benefit disabled people are willing to sell them out in such an abhorrent way.”
Freedom of information responses secured by DNS show that six of the “big seven” were invited to DWP’s national launch of its green paper, while the seventh – Scope – hosted the event. Five of the six, plus Scope, attended the event.
The freedom of information response also shows that the government’s guest list of 79 organisations included just six disabled people’s user-led organisations, five of which, including DR UK, attended the launch event.
The green paper includes the possibility that DWP could in future force all sick and disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits to take part in “mandatory” activity, including those in the employment and support allowance (ESA) support group.
But despite this measure – and the horrified response from many disabled people – the reactions of the “big seven” to the green paper last month were generally positive.
Scope even welcomed the green paper’s publication in DWP’s own press release, allowing work and pensions secretary Damian Green to claim in the House of Commons that criticism of the government’s plans was “completely out of touch with those who represent disabled people”.
Leonard Cheshire Disability also welcomed the green paper, and said the government had taken “an important first step towards reducing the disability employment gap”.
RNIB said it welcomed the government’s “aim to tackle the barriers that disabled people face in employment”, although it said that “the proof of the pudding will be in the eating”.
Action on Hearing Loss – formerly RNID – also welcomed the green paper, praising the “collaborative focus of the Department of Work and Pensions and the Department of Health on integrated support for work and health”.
The other three charities were more critical, although none of them could be said to have attacked the green paper.
Disability Rights UK criticised elements of the green paper, pointing to its failure to announce any new incentives or requirements on employers, calling for more enforcement of the Equality Act, and warning that the government appeared to be cutting funding for employment support.
Mencap welcomed much of the green paper but was critical of the planned £30-a-week cuts to ESA, and said that the possible changes to the support group “could cause deep concern to sick and disabled people”.
Mind also welcomed parts of the green paper but, like Mencap, was critical of the support group measure, while it also criticised the government’s failure to consider “a fundamental rethink of the way conditionality and sanctions are used”.