Government announcements on how it is engaging with disabled people have been dismissed as “business as usual” and proof that it is continuing to breach the UN disability convention.
Days after Disability News Service reported concerns about the failure to engage with disabled people’s user-led organisations on its planned new disability strategy, the government’s new Disability Unit quietly issued three new announcements.
One described how the government was engaging with disabled people; the second described the regional stakeholder network it has set up to engage with disabled people across England; and the third summarised the government’s progress on developing its National Strategy for Disabled People.
There was little new information in the second and third documents, as the chairs of the regional networks had already been announced and were accompanied at the time by criticism that only two of the eight chairs appeared to represent disabled people’s organisations.
In the third document, the Disability Unit said it was reviewing its plans for developing the national disability strategy, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the first announcement revealed that the Disability Unit – based at the heart of government, within the Cabinet Office – has been forced temporarily to focus its engagement efforts with disabled people on digital communications, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Disability Unit also said it was setting up a new forum between some of the leading disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), some of the regional stakeholder network chairs, and some smaller DPOs, to meet regularly with the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson.
And it said there would be “roadshows around the country to allow disabled people to talk directly to policy makers and to share their insights and lived experiences” – although these are certain to be postponed until after the pandemic crisis has been resolved – as well as “digital engagement” such as online surveys and video meetings.
But the Disability Unit also said it had been holding meetings between Tomlinson and “the 10 disability charities that make up the Disability Charities Consortium”.
Mark Harrison, a member of the steering group of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) – which has been highly critical of the government’s efforts to engage with disabled people and their user-led organisations – said this was the most “significant” information released by the Disability Unit.
The Disability Charities Consortium makes few if any public announcements, and has no website, but is almost entirely made up of non-user-led charities.
Its 10 members are Mencap, the National Autistic Society, Mind, Leonard Cheshire, Scope, Action on Hearing Loss, RNIB, Sense and the Business Disability Forum, as well as a single DPO, Disability Rights UK.
Harrison (pictured, second from right) said: “From ROFA’s point-of-view it feels like business as usual.
“The only group that the government has consulted with in terms of the disability strategy is the charities’ consortium.
“It’s as though they seem to confuse businesses for disabled people (with charitable status) with people who actually understand anything about disability, rather than about their own business interests.”
Harrison said it was only after ROFA raised the issue around the lack of consultation with DPOs that the government appears to have accepted that ROFA and other DPOs “should have a seat at the table”.
He said: “The point ROFA has been making is that engagement should be based on what the government signed up to in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which is meetings with representative organisations of disabled people.”
Harrison said the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities was so concerned at the lack of engagement with DPOs by governments around the world that it adopted general comment seven in September 2018*.
He said: “We suggest that the Disability Unit and government departments follow this guidance rather than making up their own.”
He added: “We don’t think that the disability charities and members of the DCC [apart from DR UK] are either representative or can speak on behalf of disabled people.
“They can speak on behalf of their own business interests but that should not be confused with the authentic voice of disabled people.”
But he said that the success of an open letter – signed by hundreds of DPOs, disabled people and allies – raising concerns with the NHS about disabled people’s right to treatment during the coronavirus crisis (see separate story) showed how organisations of disabled people and the non-user-led charities could work together.
He said: “This initiative has demonstrated an unprecedented level of unity and cooperation between Deaf and disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs) and organisations for disabled people.”
He said he hoped this alliance “will now get behind ROFA’s call for the government to enter into strategic and resourced engagement with representative organisations of disabled people” to draw up the national disability strategy in line with UNCRPD and general comment seven.
The Disability Charities Consortium (DCC) refused to say how long it had been taking part in the meetings with the minister and how useful they had been in influencing the government’s new disability strategy.
Instead, in a joint statement for DCC, Mark Hodgkinson, chief executive of Scope, and Neil Heslop, chief executive of Leonard Cheshire, said the consortium’s 10 members “routinely engage” with ministers and government officials.
They said: “It is vital government make sure that disabled people, DPOs and others are involved and engaged in the development of the strategy.
“Government must also make sure the way to respond is fully inclusive by integrating offline submissions, as well as online.”
Kamran Mallick, DR UK’s chief executive, said his organisation had been involved in the DCC meetings with the minister for disabled people for “a number of years” and “very much welcome the widening of engagement” outlined by the Disability Unit.
He said: “It is good to see the extensive engagement with disabled people that the Disability Unit intends to put in place.
“DR UK particularly welcomes the increased contact with disabled people’s organisations through the regional stakeholder forums.
“We also welcome the proposal to set up a new national consultative group made up of DPOs and chairs of regional forums, which will meet regularly with the minister for disabled people.”
*The UNCRPD makes it clear that, when developing laws and policies relating to disabled people, governments “must closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organizations”. It defines “representative organizations” as those that are “led, directed and governed by persons with disabilities”, a definition which the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities included in general comment number seven.
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