A disabled Conservative peer has told MPs that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is “stuck in a time warp” and has a “culture of low aspiration”.
Lord [Kevin] Shinkwin (pictured) said he believed DWP treated disabled people “as maybe people from ethnic minority backgrounds or even women would have been treated by men 50 years ago.”
He was giving evidence to the Commons women and equalities committee, which is carrying out an inquiry into the government’s National Disability Strategy, which was ruled to be unlawful by the high court in January 2022.
The government has appealed against the high court ruling and the Court of Appeal is expected to hear the case later this year.
Lord Shinkwin told the committee he did not believe DWP was capable of coming up with solutions to the widespread inequality that disabled people face and which were described in the strategy in July 2021.
He said he had written twice to the then work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey about the government’s engagement with disabled people and eventually received a “really quite curt, perfunctory response to a letter that had been perfectly warm”.
He said: “I can’t help thinking this was symptomatic of the DWP’s defensiveness and their inability to engage with disabled people as equals, as equal partners.”
He said he believed the co-production approach that has been taken in other parts of the country would be “completely undesirable as far as DWP is concerned”.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, told the committee that the government’s decision to appeal the high court ruling had “wasted 15 months of energy and impetus”.
She said the government had promised to publish a new disability action plan this year, and then carry out a three-month consultation on that plan, while it said the action plan “will be about quick wins and not systemic change” because of next year’s general election.
She said: “It’s like we are going to have a Rolls Royce consultation – excellent – but we are going to have a ‘quick wins’ action plan.
“It’s quite hard to feel optimistic about this process.”
She said the National Disability Strategy had set out the evidence on the systemic inequality that disabled people are facing “very coherently, no holds barred” but then failed to match that with any kind of “systemic challenge”, while social care, education and benefit reform were all omitted from the strategy.
She said: “For a government that should have joined up things, to leave those huge issues out that are fundamental to the life chances of disabled people was very, very strange.”
Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice for Inclusion London, said: “Our expectation was that the National Disability Strategy would look at disability equality from a social model point of view: that we are not disabled by our impairments but by society, and look at these fundamental barriers that we face that government could help to address in a coordinated way.
“It needs a coordinated approach, and we didn’t really see that.
“We want to see real commitment to disability equality, proper engagement mechanisms put in place, so our experiences are listened to and not denied.”
Kotova said there had been better engagement between disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and the minister for disabled people following the high court ruling.
But although the DPO Forum England now had “regular facetime” with the minister for disabled people, Tom Pursglove, and the government had “committed to listening to us”, she added: “We are still not really involved in strategic engagement.”
And she said there had been no engagement around the government’s disability benefits white paper, which was published earlier this month, or on social care reform.
She said: “Although we have face time, it doesn’t necessarily always lead to real change.”
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