The minister for disabled people is refusing to pay the chairs and members of nine new regional groups she is setting up to bring the views of disabled people and their organisations closer to government.
The refusal to pay for their work and time has angered disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and follows a string of embarrassing failures to engage with disabled people and their user-led organisations in what critics say is a clear breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
When the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) announced last month that it was setting up a new Regional Stakeholder Network, it said it wanted to “provide a channel for disabled people and their organisations to share their views and experiences about policies and services that affect them”.
But when Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, published information about the new roles last week, she made it clear that all of those taking part – including the nine chairs – would have to work for free, apart from travel expenses and funding for disability-related costs.
The information also reveals that non-disabled people and charities and other organisations not run and controlled by disabled people would be invited to join the network, potentially even as some of the regional chairs.
Newton herself – who has been repeatedly criticised for her lack of commitment to disability rights – appeared to demonstrate the lack of importance she gave to the roles by writing a ministerial foreword for the information pack of just 12 words, telling potential applicants: “Thank you very much for your interest in the Regional Stakeholder Network.”
The network will cover nine different regions of England, with each of the groups led by an independent chair and consisting of between 10 and 40 members, who will all be “either disabled people, charities or organisations that represent disabled people”.
The nine groups will only be funded to meet once a year and will have to pay for any further meetings they arrange themselves, but ODI will still expect them to provide input throughout the year via email.
The chairs will also be expected to meet with Newton “to hear about the views and priorities of the members of each group”, with this work also unpaid apart from travel expenses and funding for disability-related costs
And the network members themselves will be expected to “engage with and feed back to other local organisations”, with this work again unpaid.
Brian Hilton (pictured, right), digital campaigns officer for Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP), said: “The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ comes to mind.
“The government should not expect to draw upon the collective expertise of a DPO for free but that is precisely what it is trying to do.
“GMCDP, like the majority of DPOs, has felt the harsh effects of austerity and as a result now has fewer staff and resources.
“It therefore cannot afford to undertake ongoing work without some financial remuneration.”
He added: “Our movement has repeatedly called on successive governments to consult directly with DPOs.
“However, this network fails to do so, as it is open to organisations regardless of whether they are user led or not.
“The government says the network will ‘represent disabled people’s views’ but if organisations on the network are not themselves controlled by and accountable to disabled people, how can they legitimately represent us?
“The government has a dreadful track record when it comes to engaging with disabled people and this latest move does nothing to improve that reputation and perhaps it is an indication of the importance (or lack of it) they place on listening to what disabled people have to say.”
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, itself a national network of disabled people and service-users, said no-one would be fooled by the government’s new network, which was “the worst kind of phoney engagement”.
He said the government was setting up its new network even though it was “well aware” that an already existing independent sector of user-led organisations was “currently being dissolved by lack of resources”.
He said: “If anything offered clear confirmation that this government is set to destroy the user involvement that has been emerging as the jewel in the crown of social policy since the 1980s, then it is its proposed regional stakeholder network.
“As much-valued user-led organisations face increasing crisis and closure, so this government takes the cynical step of creating a tokenistic alternative.
“It won’t add a respectable veneer to its widely condemned welfare reform policy. It won’t divert attention from the collapsing state of social care.
“It is a system that should be boycotted, but even if it isn’t it will carry no credibility, while wasting vital funding that could be helping to make health, care and other public services more cost-effective, sensitive and responsive.”
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, was another who was critical of the failure to pay those taking part in the new network.
She said: “We can see there may be a benefit to a regional network of disabled people feeding in to government policy – if the DWP are going to take people’s views seriously.
“But it sends a poor message when people involved in the new network are not going to be paid for their time and expertise.
“It inevitably shrinks the available pool of potential applicants to a small number who have both the time, and financial ability, to take part.
“The government’s ambition to halve the disability employment gap is welcome. It’s hard to take it seriously, though, when it demands that disabled people work for nothing.”
Dr Victoria Armstrong, chief executive of Disability North, was supportive of the idea of a new network, but critical of how Newton had gone about setting it up.
She said: “I welcome any opportunity which encourages and promotes meaningful engagement between the government and disabled people, particularly given the government’s recent catalogue of failures to engage with disabled people.
“However, for that engagement to be meaningful and prompt much-needed change, disabled people and the organisations which they steer and lead must have parity of esteem in the discussion.
“This means paying people and organisations for their work and ensuring that there is fair representation of disabled people and disabled people’s organisations.
“Many disabled people don’t always feel that larger and non-user led national charities represent their needs and views, and so there is a risk that it will only be those bigger players contributing to this debate which will result in a ‘glossing over’ of important issues.
“It would be helpful to understand more about what the government seeks to achieve with this network because a further concern is that it’s just paying lip service to important disability issues in our society when they should be at the foreground of any discussion and debate.”
An ODI spokesperson said: “The aim of the Regional Stakeholder Network is to ensure that the voices of disabled people are better factored into policy development and service design across government.
“The network provides an opportunity for disabled people to share their life experience and provide insight into the barriers they face in day-to-day life.
“The role [of the chair] will not be paid because we want to ensure the independence of the chair.
“Expenses for attending meetings and any accessibility needs will be paid for.
“We are running a fair and open recruitment process and would especially welcome applications from disabled people and disabled people’s organisations.
“We expect that the majority of chairs and members will be disabled people.
“However, we do not want to exclude people that don’t have a disability and feel that they can bring valuable knowledge and experience to the network.
“This could be people that have personal experience such as a parent of a disabled child or partner of a disabled person.”
Earlier this month, campaigners were left “shocked and appalled” by the government’s decision to hold a workshop on the barriers facing disabled people without inviting a single DPO to take part.
Last week, a coalition of DPOs wrote to the Cabinet Office to express their “deep dismay and concern about the total lack of engagement” of DPOs in the workshop.
In November, the Department of Health and Social Care wrongly insisted that it had been complying with the UN convention by consulting on its mental capacity (amendment) bill only with non-user-led charities like Mencap and Sense.
And in August, 14 prominent disabled leaders were forced to write to Newton after she refused to meet a coalition of DPOs to discuss the UK’s failure to implement the UN convention.
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 its general comment number seven, which was adopted in September.
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