The minister for disabled people’s final public words before he was sacked in a reshuffle have raised fresh concerns about the government’s failure to engage with the disabled people’s movement.
Justin Tomlinson told MPs last week that he would be asking Disability Rights UK (DR UK) – which he described as the equivalent of a “trade body” for disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) – to choose which DPOs should have access to ministers.
He said there were “thousands and thousands” of DPOs, so the government would ask DR UK to “organise events throughout the year where they choose which of their DPO members will attend”.
He said that he or other ministers would attend those meetings.
Although DR UK is a DPO itself and has about 450 organisational members, only about 50 of them appear to be DPOs.
Tomlinson also told the meeting that he attended all the “bi-monthly” meetings of the Disability Charities Consortium, a powerful lobby group of non-user-led disability charities, which DR UK quit in June.
Tomlinson made the comments as he gave evidence to a meeting of the work and pensions select committee (pictured), hours before he was sacked and replaced by Norwich North MP Chloe Smith.
He had been questioned about complaints that have been raised about the way he and his government engaged with disabled people and DPOs in the lead-up to the publication of last month’s National Disability Strategy.
Among those concerns was his decision to shut down his own advisory forum of DPOs after just three meetings.
Some of England’s leading DPOs reacted to this decision by setting up their own independent DPO Forum England.
Tomlinson’s comments to the committee have caused concern among leading DPOs.
Tracey Lazard, speaking on behalf of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA), a network of DPOs, said his comments showed again the government’s “marginalisation and disdain towards DPOs”.
She said that ROFA – whose members include Inclusion London, Disabled People Against Cuts, The Alliance for Inclusive Education and Sisters of Frida – was “concerned” that Tomlinson appeared to have “taken it upon himself to decide who is the representative DPO he will be working with”.
And she called on DR UK to clarify its understanding of Tomlinson’s description of it as a “trade body” for DPOs, and to work with other DPOs and DPO Forum England “to ensure a united and collective DPO voice that genuinely represents and reflects the needs and wishes of disabled people and DPOs”.
ROFA and other parts of the disability movement have repeatedly pointed out that the government’s failure to engage with DPOs is a breach of its duties under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
Lazard added: “We’ve had enough of cynical, tokenistic engagement and demand nothing less than the meaningful, resourced, strategic engagement required in the CRPD.
“We will also be writing to the new minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith, to invite her to meet DPOs, with the aim of doing what we can to re-set the terms of engagement between DPOs and the government.”
Disability News Service had not been able to clarify with DR UK by noon today (Thursday) whether it had agreed Tomlinson’s approach to DPO engagement.
But Fazilet Hadi, its head of policy, said in a statement: “As a DPO we always welcomed engagement with the minister in our goal of affecting positive, meaningful change for disabled people.
“We have, and will, always seek to amplify the voices of disabled people, including the DPOs we work with, and to encourage government to engage with disabled people and DPOs directly in the widest and fullest ways possible.
“We have never used the terms ‘trade body’ or ‘gatekeeper’ to describe ourselves, and whatever the previous minister chose to think is now history.
“The new minister will have her own ideas on dialogue and we will raise the issue with her at the first opportunity.”
A DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “We are committed to working with disabled people and their organisations to put lived experience at the heart of policy-making.”
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