The government has failed to include any proposals to address the inequality faced by disabled people in its list of legislation that it plans to introduce over the next year.
In what is likely to be the last king’s speech before a general election, there was no attempt to address the crises in adult social care, accessible housing or disability poverty.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak also appears to have dumped plans to reform the Mental Health Act, and ignored long-standing calls by the Law Commission to strengthen disability hate crime laws.
The only substantive mention of disabled people in a government briefing on the speech (PDF) came in a section on plans for a draft rail reform bill.
The draft bill will lay out plans to transfer powers to Great British Railways, the new over-arching body that will – eventually – run the rail system.
This “will ensure that accessibility on the railway is improved and the experience for disabled passengers is enhanced”, with specific accessibility duties for the industry.
But as it will only be a draft bill, the measures will not become law by the next election, while the government’s advisers on accessible transport have previously told ministers they do not believe their proposals will be enough to deliver an accessible railway.
The briefing document also confirms that the national accessibility audit of all 2,578 British railway stations has been completed, and that the government is still developing a new national rail accessibility strategy.
Disabled people’s organisations criticised the government’s failure to use the king’s speech to address the significant barriers disabled people are facing.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, said: “Nothing in the legislative programme will improve opportunities and outcomes for disabled people, despite the deep inequalities disabled people face.
“However, some of the bills do hold threats for disabled people, such as the strengthening of anti-social behaviour eviction grounds in the renters reform bill.”
She added: “Later this month on 22 November, we will have the budget statement and this could include provisions that impact disabled people.
“We have already had an extremely callous proposal to remove criteria from the work capability assessment (see separate story), which if implemented… would drive some disabled people on to lower benefit levels.”
She also pointed out that the government’s new Disability Action Plan is expected to be published in the next few months.
Amy Wells, senior communications and operations manager for National Survivor User Network (NSUN), said: “Though we were not confident that the Mental Health Act reforms went far enough, or would be backed by sufficient funding, people with lived experience of mental ill-health, distress, and trauma have campaigned for decades for reforms that could have gone some way to improve the state of inpatient care and address unacceptable racial disparities in the use of the act.
“People’s time, energy and expertise engaging with the drawn-out process of legislative reform over the past several years has been disregarded and disrespected by the failure to include a mental health bill within the king’s speech and implement the promised reforms.
“It confirms what we already knew, amidst a broader context of policy developments that make life harder for disabled people and people with lived experience of mental ill-health, distress and trauma – mental health, including the unacceptable state of inpatient care, but also the decimation of community care and alternatives, is far from being a priority for this government.”
Bob Ellard, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, also highlighted the failure in the king’s speech to address the barriers faced by disabled people.
He said: “Disabled people? What disabled people?”
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, told fellow MPs yesterday (Wednesday) that “not much in the king’s speech delivered for disabled people”.
She said: “After 13 years of Conservative-led governments, disabled people feel that they are an afterthought and that their rights are not fully protected and promoted in this country.
“It is shocking that we are still having these conversations in 2023. Progress has gone backwards, not forwards.”
There were no Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) bills outlined by the king on Tuesday, although the speech did include the following sentence: “Proposals will be published to reform welfare and support more people into work.”
Despite repeated requests, DWP declined this week to clarify what this referred to, although the department provided background about its plans to scrap the work capability assessment (WCA) after the next general election, and its plans to restrict eligibility to out-of-work disability benefits by tightening the WCA.
The department confirmed again that the legislation needed to implement measures laid out earlier this year in its Transforming Support white paper – including scrapping the WCA – would not be brought forward until after the general election.
A consultation on the plans to tighten the WCA ended last week, with the department saying yesterday that more than 1,300 individuals and organisations had responded, while there had also been 14 public consultation events.
DWP said it had yet to decide whether to take forward any reforms.
But Stephen Timms, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, told MPs yesterday: “The government have been undertaking a rushed consultation lasting only eight weeks over major proposals to change the descriptors for the work capability assessment.
“There will have to be legislation to make whatever changes are decided on, but there is no mention at all in the king’s speech of a bill to do it.
“There is a puzzle here, because the government have announced that they plan to abolish the work capability assessment in a couple of years anyway.
“That will require legislation, but there is no bill to do any of those things in the king’s speech.
“There are press reports that the government intend to inspect benefits claimants’ bank accounts regularly.
“That will also require powers, but there is nothing in the king’s speech that would have that effect either.”
Picture: King Charles delivering the speech on Tuesday
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