In contrast to previous party conferences, where fringe meetings have usually been dominated by charity lobbyists, many of the questions at this week’s events in Manchester came directly from disabled people.
People First England (PFE) sent two self-advocates: Gary Bourlet, the organisation’s co-development lead, and Vicky Hiles, who won a PFE competition to secure a place at the conference.
And the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) – whose members include Inclusion London, Disabled People Against Cuts, and the Alliance for Inclusive Education – sent four leading disabled activists: Tara Flood, Tracey Lazard, Simone Aspis and Ellen Clifford.
Lazard delivered a speech to the Disability Labour fringe event, focusing on ROFA’s own manifesto, calling on Labour to commit to ROFA’s six key pledges, including a fully inclusive education system and a legal right to independent living, and to “stop seeing money for social care as dead money”.
Lazard said: “We are looking for a party that stands up for us, that stands up for equality and inclusion.
“The fundamental message from disabled people to the Labour party is, ‘Do you have the political courage and leadership to be bold and to connect with this desire for a different kind of society, and in doing so make our rights a reality?'”
Aspis told a fringe meeting organised by the Care and Support Alliance that it was impossible to separate people into categories of “moderate” or “severe” needs.
She said: “A lot of people with learning difficulties might have a mild need but unless you meet that need it becomes more substantial.”
She said that providing social care could enable work, education, or other aspects of people’s lives.
She said: “We are finding a lot of disabled people are not able to access educational opportunities because they are not getting the support that they need.”
PFE secured meetings with – among others – Kate Green, the shadow minister for disabled people; Dame Anne Begg, the disabled chair of the Commons work and pensions committee; Anne McGuire, the former minister for disabled people; and Liz Kendall, the shadow minister for care and older people.
Hiles said the experience of attending a party conference was “amazing”.
She said: “I didn’t expect any of this. I thought we were going to be in a meeting room. I didn’t realise it was a conference on TV.
“It’s been really good. When I talk to the MPs… they are all nice people. I thought I would never get a chance to do it as someone with a learning difficulty.”
She said that because MPs had “taken a bit out of their schedules to talk to us”, it made her feel that they were “actually going to do something about learning difficulty and take it on board”.
Bourlet and Hiles were supported by Kaliya Franklin, herself a disabled activist and Bourlet’s fellow co-development lead.
To decide which fringe meetings to attend, Franklin had drawn up a list of disability-related subjects, and Bourlet and Hiles had chosen which ones they wanted to attend.
The trio had to produce their own easy-read agenda because the party’s information was, said Hiles, full of “massive words, posh NVQ words”. Hiles suggested political parties should devise an easy-read version of their conference mobile phone apps.
Despite the success of the PFE experiment, Bourlet said there were still not enough people with learning difficulties at the conference, partly because so many self-advocacy groups were struggling with funding.
He said that Green “needs to hear from a lot of other people with learning difficulties as well as us. Including people with complex needs.”
Among their successes, they secured an offer from the Centre for Social Justice to work with PFE on future research.
Bourlet also put across his views on the government’s Work Programme, including how he was given no support from Jobcentre Plus to fill out forms, and was then told he would be sanctioned if he failed to complete them.
PFE also talked to Green about disability hate crime, and to Kendall about the need to close down the much-criticised assessment and treatment centres, like the scandal-hit Winterbourne View.
They secured a promise from Kendall that, if she became minister, she would set a date by which every centre would have to close.
Bourlet said: “I think that is a good decision. It must also cover all other kinds of institutions. It is about getting people back into the community.”
Bourlet also won praise from the journalist, commentator and writer Will Hutton, after asking the panel at a fringe meeting about the £20-a-week limit on permitted work, which affects many people with learning difficulties and has not been increased “for years”.
Hutton told him that society was “not good” at disability, and added: “The only way to correct it is to turn up to places like this and ask questions like this, because it makes us all bloody uncomfortable.”
Lazard said disabled people had been “very, very, very sidelined” from the platforms at the conference fringe events on disability, while there were “hardly any black people at the conference either”.
She said: “I think Labour has some distance to go on looking at its own diversity and inclusion.”
Lazard added: “It was really important that we were there, but somehow we need to get across the issue that they really need to be talking to us.”
Flood said the only fringe meeting she attended where disabled people were on the speakers’ platform was the one organised by Disability Labour, and she pointed out that neither Scope nor Leonard Cheshire had a disabled person speaking at their fringe events.
But she said there had been “real value” in ROFA attending the conference, with the strong possibility that they would hold a fringe event of their own next year.
She said: “I do feel much clearer now about what we need to do to engage with the opposition [on inclusive education] in the run-up to the general election.”
Flood said the general Labour view was that “we support inclusive education… where it’s possible”, so she would now need to find out over the next few weeks “who it is they think inclusive education is impossible for, so we can really break down the vagueness”.
25 September 2014