There is an “urgent” need for research into the hidden issue of disabled people’s organisations across the country that are being forced to close because of funding problems, say campaigners.
Shaping Our Lives (SOL), the national network of service users and disabled people, spoke out this week after further “worrying” figures showing the falling number of user-led organisations.
SOL is seeking funding, and partners, for a major piece of research to uncover the scale of the problem.
Its own figures suggest that more than 60 user-led groups that were members of its network have been forced to close since 2014.
Those figures come just weeks after the National Survivor User Network (NSUN) was facing possible closure because of funding problems, although it later secured £60,000 short-term funding from two grant-making bodies to allow it to stay open for the rest of the year.
NSUN warned in March 2017 that 221 of its 822 members – most of them user-led groups and all of them smaller, voluntary sector mental health groups in England – had closed since January 2015.
Shaping Our Lives told Disability News Service that there was “increasing evidence” that the problems facing NSUN were “just the tip of the iceberg”.
Professor Peter Beresford (pictured), SOL’s co-chair, said that user-led organisations (ULOs) – often the third sector organisations that are most valued by disabled people – “undoubtedly seem to be facing a worsening environment” because of government cuts.
He said this was happening at a “critically difficult” time for disabled people, with “worsening welfare reform and social care service reductions”.
He added: “There are no official efforts even to monitor the scale of the problem and the effects it is evidently having.”
He said that Shaping Our Lives was “committed to undertaking a large-scale survey to get a clearer picture of the scale of the problem”, which he said was “of urgent importance and should be a priority for funding organisations”.
He said: “We would be happy to partner an academic institution to build such a reliable and up-to-date body of evidence.
“Meanwhile it would be a terrible mistake to suggest that lack of evidence means lack of problems for countless valued local ULOs and the disabled people who have depended on them.
“We cannot continue to ignore this major problem.”
Eamon Andrews, SOL’s network officer, said the figures were “worrying”.
He said: “Disabled groups are constantly concerned about future funding and their energies are spent looking for and applying for funds.
“With reduced services and the lost expertise this makes it difficult to sustain any presence in an ever-increasing hostile environment.
“This impedes what service-user groups do and what is necessary, which is to support and empower the service-user voice, which in turn makes it increasingly difficult to challenge the daily onslaught of the erosion of the rights of disabled people.”
He pointed out that organisations that took part in a review of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in 2016 “described a constant battle between their missions set by their communities, and their need to chase funding priorities set elsewhere”.
Inclusion London, which supports Deaf and disabled people’s organisations across London, said it had been concerned “for a number of years” about the threat to Deaf and disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs) “in the current climate”.
Tracey Lazard, Inclusion London’s chief executive, said: “There are now a number of London boroughs without any DDPO.
“There is also the issue of increased strain on those that remain as they battle increased demand with funding cuts and growing fear of reprisals for speaking out against their local councils.
“We know that DDPOs provide significant added value alongside the benefits of peer-led approaches but too often we now see commissioners focused on short-term budget savings to the exclusion of all else.
“There needs to be a better understanding of the benefits of investing in our sector and we would like to see use of procurement regulations that allow commissioners to ring-fence tenders to user-led organisations.”
The Department for Work and Pensions had failed to say by noon today (Thursday) whether the Office for Disability Issues was aware of and concerned about the closure of DPOs, and whether it was taking any action.