A leading disabled people’s organisation (DPOs) is hoping to persuade the first elected mayor of Greater Manchester to make the region a trailblazer for disability rights in England.
Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP) believes the devolution of powers from the UK government to the Greater Manchester area, which will choose its first elected mayor on 4 May, has provided “a unique opportunity to develop groundbreaking initiatives to tackle disability”.
It has drawn up a manifesto of policies on disability rights that it is sending to each of the mayoral candidates, including calling for the new mayor to set up a regional version of the Independent Living Fund (ILF).
GMCDP is hoping the new elected mayor could make Greater Manchester “a model for others to follow” by accepting the policies laid out in its manifesto.
Greater Manchester is one of six mayoral combined authorities across England that will elect mayors on 4 May, and each of them will exercise a range of powers devolved from central government.
Joe Whittaker, chair of GMCDP, said: “The scope for gains on rights for disabled people is tremendous – whether in areas such as transport or policing, where the mayor will have direct powers, or areas like health and social care where there is scope to work with and influence existing bodies.”
The manifesto is being sent to each of the mayoral candidates this week, and GMCDP will be seeking their formal responses*.
One of the policies GMCDP is calling for mayoral candidates to adopt through the disability manifesto is to create a Greater Manchester Independent Living Fund, modelled on a scheme set up by the Scottish government after the UK government closed ILF two years ago.
GMCDP would lead on work to set up the scheme, working with the 10 Greater Manchester districts.
GMCDP also wants to engage with other Greater Manchester DPOs about the impact on disabled people’s independent living caused by the pooling of social care budgets across Greater Manchester and the merging of health and social care.
Whittaker said: “GMCDP are seriously concerned about the impact of significant cuts in local authority budgets in relation to adult and social care and the adverse consequences for disabled people and the finance to support their independent living.
“We want to create a radical way of financing and ensuring independent living to support the rights of disabled people to live and contribute to the society in which they live.”
He added: “The battles disabled people have fought to secure lifestyles away from institutionalisation have been hard won.
“Disabled people are increasingly fearful of their rights to independent living being eroded, to such an extent that institutionalisation is being seen, by this government and many local authorities, as a way of dealing with ‘the problem’ of disabled people who require ‘too much support’.”
He said that GMCDP would work with the mayor’s office to ensure that disabled people in Greater Manchester “have the support required to demonstrate the significant benefits to the economy and society from having fully participating and contributing disabled people”.
He said that the devolution of “significant funds and power” to the mayor would enable Greater Manchester to “demonstrate a model of success”.
On transport, Whittaker said GMCDP had tried to concentrate in its manifesto on practical measures, including calling for a transfer hoist system at Manchester Airport and requiring taxi drivers and operators to have their licenses removed if a driver refused to accept a fare from a disabled person.
The manifesto also calls for bus companies to do more to enforce the priority for wheelchair-users in the space set aside for them, and for the mayor to work with Network Rail and train operating companies to ensure that all Greater Manchester train stations are step-free from entrance to platform within five years.
In further education and training, Greater Manchester already has “significant experience in moving away from segregation to inclusion”, said Whittaker, but GMCDP now wants to see disabled learners given “appropriate support” across “all curriculum areas”, as well as “meaningful work experience and mainstream apprenticeships, followed by good employment opportunities”.
He said the mayor would have the chance to show how the whole of Greater Manchester would “flourish” when “inclusive education is recognised as a right” and “all learners are recognised as having equal value within the further education and training sector”.
Among the other suggested policies is for the mayor to work with DPOs and other voluntary organisations to develop a strategy that would ensure “adequate access to information, advice and advocacy”.
Another is for the new mayor to work with planning authorities to ensure that all private sector new-build homes are built to meet Lifetime Homes standards on accessibility, with 10 per cent of them wheelchair accessible and “truly affordable”.
The manifesto also calls on the mayor’s office to lobby the UK government to ensure that disability hate crime is treated equally to other hate crimes.
GMCDP, which was founded in 1986, wants the new mayor to set up an advisory body, with members drawn from Greater Manchester’s DPOs, to “develop and progress” these and other initiatives to tackle disability.
Whittaker said: “GMCDP has a very powerful history for promoting the human rights of disabled people.
“We know if the mayor’s office recognises our critical thinking contributions and recommendations, Greater Manchester could indeed be a safe, prosperous and fair place for disabled people to live.”
Meanwhile, research by BBC Radio Manchester has found that more than two-fifths of former ILF-users across Greater Manchester’s 10 local authorities have had their support cut since the ILF’s closure.
One former ILF-user told the BBC that her support package had more than halved, and said: “I don’t feel like a person anymore. It’s like nobody cares about it. The quality of life has just gone.
“I can’t even go in the garden. I used to do that quite a bit. I can’t even do that now because I’ve got no support for it.”
The answers to freedom of information requests submitted by the BBC to the councils showed that of 662 former ILF-users in Greater Manchester, 280 had had their support cut since the fund closed.
Jackie Driver, chair of Manchester-based DPO Breakthrough UK, told the BBC: “When the packages are being cut, people are not getting the full support they need to live independently, living in the community like all of us take for granted.
“It’s resulting in a very basic ‘clean and feed’ model of social care. It’s not acceptable in today’s society.”
Like GMCDP, she pointed to the mayoral election as an opportunity “to do things differently” and to take “very seriously the health and wellbeing of its citizens, including disabled people”.
*A mayoral hustings event will take place at GMCDP’s offices in Moss Side, on Saturday 8 April. Anyone interested in attending must book in advance
Picture: Disabled activists protest outside the Tory party conference in Manchester in 2015