Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) across the country say they are “shocked and dismayed” by the government’s failure to engage with them, as ministers prepare to publish their long-awaited disability strategy.
The concerns came after the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, announced a new National Disability Survey, and said the results would feed into the strategy, which will be published this spring.
But Tomlinson (pictured) gave disabled people and their organisations just four weeks (by 13 February) to respond – in the middle of a pandemic crisis – if they want their answers to influence the strategy, even though the survey remains open until 23 April.
DPOs say that Tomlinson’s Disability Unit failed to provide any advance written information about the strategy, or its plans for engagement, to members of its new Disabled People’s Organisations Forum (DPO Forum), despite promising to do so.
The government could now face legal action over concerns that it has breached its duties under the Equality Act.
The government has not had a working disability strategy since apparently abandoning Fulfilling Potential, which was first launched in December 2011 but has not been updated or subject to progress reports since November 2015.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, a member of the DPO Forum, wrote this week to the Disability Unit to say that she was “shocked and dismayed” about the latest failings.
She said the forum had received no warning of the 13 February cut-off point, and were provided with no written information about the strategy or how the government planned to engage with disabled people and DPOs on its development “despite assurances from the Disability Unit that they would do so”.
Lazard said the repeated failure to improve engagement with the DPO Forum represented “a huge lost opportunity for DPOs to feed into the strategy”.
And she said the decision to cancel the last two meetings of the forum – for December and January – at short notice was “inexplicable” so close to the February deadline.
She added: “The above can only be described as a failure to carry out the most basic engagement with disabled people and our organisations in what will be the first disability strategy since 2011.”
She highlighted how three-fifths of COVID-related deaths were of disabled people, and that disabled people were now experiencing “deeper structural inequality that is eroding our quality of life and putting back our rights and inclusion”.
Lazard called for the Disability Unit to extend the strategy’s development period to allow for “specific DPO engagement”.
Michele Scattergood, chief executive of the Manchester-based DPO Breakthrough UK, another leading member of the DPO Forum through its membership of the Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel and the government’s North West Regional Stakeholder Network, said her organisation “whole-heartedly” supported Lazard’s comments.
She backed the call for the strategy’s development period to be extended and for the Disability Unit to draw up a plan for “specific DPO engagement to take place in this extended development phase”.
Linda Burnip, a founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said she was “appalled” by Tomlinson’s actions and said the survey contained many “very divisive” questions and restricted those taking part to naming only three things that would improve their lives and “only 100 words to outline the many, many vital factors that the survey omits”.
She added: “If you want your views to count in any meaningful way you have less than four weeks to reply.
“We are currently seeking legal advice as we believe this all contravenes the public sector equality duty.”
Joe Whittaker, a trustee of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, said: “ALLFIE fully supports the very clear and detailed criticism made by Inclusion London to the government’s Disability Unit.”
He said it was “increasingly apparent” at the DPO Forum that the Disability Unit does “not know how to meaningfully involve and engage with DPOs”.
He said there appeared to be a “reluctance to take seriously the basic protocols of coproduction and consultation with organisations where there exists years of accumulated knowledge and experience of key issues related to the continued systematic discrimination against disabled people.
“The failure of the Disability Unit to involve and engage, in any meaningful way, with DPOs is clearly a direct reflection of this government’s fundamental denial of the legitimate concerns raised by disabled people across the UK.”
Mark Harrison, from the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, also endorsed Inclusion London’s concerns, and the call for more time to respond to the survey.
He said the government “continues to treat DPOs with contempt”, with the notice cancelling the December meeting of the DPO Forum sent out on the international day of disabled people.
He added: “The Disability Unit has now launched a consultation for their National Disability Strategy without any reference to the DPO Forum – so much for ‘nothing about us without us’.”
The Disability Unit refused to tell Disability News Service (DNS) if it would extend the development period, why there was no warning given to the DPO Forum about the 13 February cut-off point, and why there was no written information shared in advance with the forum.
But a spokesperson for the Disability Unit said the survey was “only one element of our engagement”.
She said: “Over the last year we have also undertaken workshops, cross-cutting groups, lived experience research with disabled people, discussions with the Disability Charities Consortium, the Disabled People’s Organisations Forum, Regional Stakeholder Networks and others, to widen the range and number of views we receive and ensure the lived experience of disabled people is central to the strategy.
“The many contributions made by these individuals and organisations are feeding not only into the development of the strategy but also its delivery post publication.”
But much of this engagement has already been heavily criticised, with DNS reporting earlier this month how Tomlinson took part in just a handful of meetings with “external” organisations during each of the first four months of the pandemic.
And in October, DNS reported how five of the nine regional stakeholder networks created by ministers to “amplify” the voices of disabled people had not held a single meeting, nearly two years after the government announced they were being set up.
The government spokesperson said the DPO Forum’s meetings had been “paused” while it looked at improvements to the way it works to ensure “the best use of our partners’ skills and experience”, following “comments and suggestions a number of members have made at meetings”.
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