Disabled campaigners have called on the government to tear up its “fundamentally broken” National Disability Strategy, after the high court ruled that the much-criticised document was unlawful.
The high court found that a botched consultation had made it “impossible” for disabled people to “shape” the content of the strategy.
Mr Justice Griffiths found this week (PDF) that the consultation, launched early last year through a national survey, was unlawful because the thousands of disabled people who took part were not given enough information about the government’s proposed strategy to allow them “intelligent consideration and response”.
The government had argued that the survey was just an information-gathering exercise, but the court had heard how the Disability Unit’s own website listed the survey at the time as an “Open Consultation”, while it was hosted on the unit’s “Consultation Hub”, with the promise that responses would inform the strategy’s development.
The court also found that the survey’s multiple-choice format, and the word limit on the small number of questions that allowed free-form responses, “did not allow for a proper response even to the issues canvassed in the Survey”.
Because the court has found that the consultation was unlawful, so is the strategy, which was published last July.
It is not yet clear what action the government will take following the ruling, although a spokesperson said it was considering its next steps.
Doug Paulley (pictured, above, left), one of the four disabled campaigners who took the judicial review* against work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey, said it was “entirely clear” that the consultation had not been “fit for purpose”.
He called on the government to withdraw its “fundamentally broken” national strategy and “start afresh with disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and disabled people at the heart of it, as they always should have done”.
He said: “What I would hope for is they would actually go to DPOs and disabled people and do a proper consultation and focus on what disabled people actually want, which is enforceable and genuine rights.
“What I think they will actually do is appeal the judgement.”
But he said the judgement meant there was “a very clear ruling that the strategy is now unlawful and will remain so until something is done”.
One of the four claimants, disabled activist Miriam Binder (pictured, above, right), died last month, and her family said today (Thursday) that they were “incredibly proud” of the part she had played in the legal victory.
Her daughters said in a statement: “It is a bittersweet moment for us as a family that our mum is not here to see this, but mum didn’t do this for just herself, she took on this fight for every disabled person in the UK.
“We are so incredibly proud of her and her courage.
“She has always been a stalwart campaigner for justice, particularly for disability rights and equality.
“We are elated with the judgement and hope this makes a difference to the lives of those living with a disability.
“This is an extremely fitting bequest and we take comfort in the knowledge that she made a difference.”
In-depth analysis of the government’s strategy by Disability News Service after it was published last summer showed it had been padded out with scores of pledges to “discuss” or “consider” further action, to commission lengthy research, and to carry out reviews of existing policies.
At the time, Inclusion London called it “a cynical re-packaging of current polices and current budgets”, while the DPO Forum England, a network of many of the country’s leading DPOs, said it had ignored bold action on increasing benefit levels, supporting inclusive education, combating the disability employment gap, increasing accessible housing, and reforming social care.
This week, Inclusion London said it was “shocking” that disabled people “have to go to court to force the government to properly and meaningfully engage with us on a central disability strategy which is meant to improve our lives”.
Svetlana Kotova, Inclusion London’s director of campaigns and justice, said the “damning” ruling was a “wakeup call to the government” that it can “no longer get away with [its] unlawful, dismissive, patronising and discriminatory approach to engaging with disabled people and DPOs”.
Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said that a “disability strategy formulated without deep listening to the voices of disabled people is doomed to failure.
“The government must now go back and do what it should have done the first time round: dedicate time and resources to enable disabled people to speak freely and fully on our lived experience, demonstrate we have been fully heard, and share draft strategy proposals with us for discussion and comment.”
Another of the four claimants, Jean Eveleigh, said: “If the secretary of state genuinely wishes to place disabled people’s lived experiences at the heart of the strategy, then she must do so through proper and lawful consultation that provides a meaningful opportunity for disabled people and their organisations to contribute their views.”
The fourth claimant, Victoria Hon, added: “For too long disabled individuals have been infantilised and our views ignored.
“This judgment sends a clear message that the government cannot claim to consult with disabled people if in practice we are not given the proper opportunity to share our views.
“It is time the government listened and learned from what disabled people have to say about our own experiences and lives.”
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “Once again, the government has been forced into a humiliating defeat, even though disabled people raised their concerns numerous times.
“They shouldn’t have had to be taken to court for them to have corrected the failings from their shoddy consultation process.
“Ministers need to urgently clarify how they will correct these failings and ensure disabled people are consulted properly.”
A government spokesperson said: “We engaged with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, carers and others as part of the National Disability Strategy.
“We remain committed to improving the everyday lives of disabled people, and the National Disability Strategy has already made significant inroads.
“We are disappointed with today’s judgment and we will consider our next steps carefully.”
*The four claimants were represented by Jamie Potter, Shirin Marker and Amy O’Shea of solicitors Bindmans, and barristers Steve Broach and Katherine Barnes, of 39 Essex Street chambers
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