One of the architects of the last Labour government’s “life chances” strategy has described how “broken promises” by successive governments have shattered disabled people’s hopes of a genuine right to independent living.
Dr Jenny Morris, who led the independent living section of Labour’s Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People strategy, said its publication in 2005 had been a “moment of hope”.
But she described how that sense of optimism “seemed to disappear almost overnight”, following the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the 2010 election, which led to a Tory-led coalition government.
She said that she and others working on Life Chances had made a “fatal error” by not stressing the need for a nationally-funded independent living system “based on the principle of entitlement”, and had not paid enough attention to the growing focus within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on “getting people off benefits”.
Morris was delivering the first Lorraine Gradwell Memorial Lecture, in memory of one of the key figures in the disabled people’s movement, who died in September 2017. It is hoped the lecture will become an annual event.
She was unable to attend in person but a film of her delivering the lecture – which Morris called Broken Promises: Looking Back on “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People” – was shown in Manchester on Friday (8 March), followed by a question and answer session.
Morris described how DWP’s emphasis on cutting the number of benefit claimants had been demonstrated by the employment chapter in the 2005 Life Chances report, which spoke of work being “a component of good health” and emphasised the “beneficial health effects of work”.
In the same year, DWP released research that would form the basis of the work capability assessment (WCA), which she said focused on “getting people off benefits”, “scrutinising whether people are ‘fit for work’” and “people’s supposed attitudes and motivations”, instead of workplace barriers and equal opportunities for work.
Worse than that, she said, was “the denial of people’s own experiences of illness and/or impairment”.
In the last decade, the greatest challenges to the WCA and the introduction of personal independence payment, she said, had often come from people with chronic illness, such as members of the Spartacus network, and, more recently, the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project.
Morris said that she and others working on the Life Chances report had made a “fatal error” in their proposals by failing to recognise that the Independent Living Fund “had more potential to deliver a right to independent living than any reform to local authority social care”.
Although they had “floated the idea” that independent living should be funded nationally and “taken away from local authorities”, they did not challenge the government’s insistence that this would undermine local accountability.
Instead, the Independent Living Fund was closed by the coalition government, and the “self-determination” promised by the introduction of personal budgets had mostly “failed to materialise”.
The current social care system, said Morris, was incapable of delivering the right to independent living set out in article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
What was needed, she said, as proposed by the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, was “a national independent living service, funded from general taxation, free at the point of delivery, and delivered locally in co-production with disabled people”.
She also warned of the failure to realise one of the key proposals of Life Chances, for there to be a national network of user-led disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), modelled on centres for independent living.
This, she said, “was never fully realised” and since 2010 many local DPOs had had their funding cut and had “found it increasingly difficult to hold onto existing contracts to provide direct payments support services”.
She added: “Such local organisations are a vital part of any nationally-funded independent living service.”
And she said: “It’s at the local level and amongst disabled people ourselves that we will develop innovative ways to enable people to live ordinary lives.”
Picture: Some of the audience in Manchester after the lecture, with a picture of Lorraine Gradwell
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