Cross-party MPs have delivered a powerful attack on the government’s discredited National Disability Strategy (NDS), describing it as “a disability strategy in name only”.
A report published yesterday (Wednesday) by the Commons women and equalities committee said the strategy was merely “a list consisting mainly of pre-existing departmental actions with minimal strategic thinking behind how those actions interact”.
The cross-party committee’s report echoes concerns raised by disabled people after the strategy’s publication in summer 2021, and will be particularly embarrassing for Justin Tomlinson, the much-criticised Conservative MP who was minister for disabled people at the time.
Leading disabled campaigners described the strategy on its publication in 2021 as “all front and nothing behind it”, and “full of tweaks and not much substance”, while analysis showed it provided just 28p of new funding for every disabled person in the UK.
This week’s publication – the first of three reports that will follow the committee’s inquiry into the NDS – describes the strategy as a “list of un-coordinated and largely pre-existing short-term policies”.
And it says that only a strategy that integrated policy areas such as education, health, social care, employment and transport would have a “truly transformational effect on the lives of disabled people”.
In its evidence to the committee, Inclusion London said the actions laid out in the strategy “could not be called strategic or transformative”, while Disability Rights UK said it failed to provide “the kind of systemic challenge that was needed to the inequality that the strategy had set out quite clearly”.
The report calls for the government to collaborate with disabled people to develop a 10-year strategy, with an action plan for the first five years that outlined “clear targets and timescales for delivery”.
Again mirroring previous concerns raised by disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), the report says that the government’s process of engaging with DPOs when developing the strategy was “not as good as ministers claimed”.
It contrasts the fate of the government’s DPO Forum – which was abandoned by Tomlinson after just four meetings in 2020 – with its engagement with non-user-led disability charities.
The government met with the Disability Charities Consortium 10 times in the run-up to the publication of the NDS in July 2021, with the consortium’s co-chairs having access to Disability Unit officials throughout the strategy’s development and charity chief executives able to read an early draft.
The committee said the government “needs to improve its engagement with disabled groups, to listen to and act on what disabled people want, if its policies on improving their lives are to be effective”.
The report says ministers should set up a new national advisory group of the DPO Forum England (whose members are all leading DPOs) and the chairs of the government’s regional stakeholder networks to “review disability policy proposals, advise ministers on key issues, and develop, implement and monitor the NDS”.
And it calls for the government’s Disability Unit to have the final say on all disability policy “to ensure that the whole of government works towards the same long-term strategic objectives”, with the power to challenge ministers in other departments.
The high court ruled the National Disability Strategy was unlawful in January 2022 because its consultation process was unlawful, with the government then pausing 14 policies it said were directly connected to the strategy, while continuing progress on another 100.
The committee’s report is also highly critical of the current minister for disabled people, Tom Pursglove*, for failing to set up a mechanism to monitor progress on the 100 actions, and allowing the government to remain “unaccountable to the very groups who relied on the implementation of those policies – disabled people”.
It says that this “failure to update disabled people on those actions that remained ongoing only served to exacerbate confusion and anxiety”, while the government’s decision to appeal the high court judgment “created many months of uncertainty and frustration for disabled people and their representative organisations”.
The Court of Appeal eventually overturned the high court’s judgment earlier this year.
The report also criticises the government’s failure to send a representative to the UN in Geneva in August for a public examination of its progress since being found guilty of grave and systematic violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
The UN committee found in November 2016 that the UK government had discriminated against disabled people on the right to an adequate standard of living and social protection, work and employment, and independent living.
The new report says the government has made “little to no progress” against the committee’s recommendations.
It says the government’s refusal to attend the meeting in Geneva was “disrespectful to both the UN committee and disabled people” and “sends the wrong message, both nationally and internationally,” about the UK’s commitment to upholding the rights of disabled people.
It adds: “The Government should set out why it refused to attend the meeting, how and by when it will implement the UN Committee’s recommendations, and what specifically it is doing to ensure that the whole of Government follows the principles of the treaty.”
Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice at Inclusion London, welcomed the committee’s report.
She said: “We knew from the start the so-called National Disability Strategy was a shambolic PR exercise with no real intent to address the fundamental injustice and inequality we as disabled people face.
“The government chose not to talk to us and then defended this position in court.
“We are pleased to see the committee saw NDS for what it is.
“This report is the first report I have seen that talks about disabled people’s organisations and the need to engage with DPOs in such an extensive way.
“And we welcome the strong criticism from the committee of the failure to make progress towards implementing the recommendations from the UN inquiry, which found welfare and austerity policies leading to grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights.”
She said some of the government’s latest policies – such as reforms to the work capability assessment, increased conditionality for benefit claimants, and changes announced in the disability benefits white paper in March – would cause “further harms”.
Kotova said: “We urgently need the government to listen to disabled people and align its policies with its obligations under UNCRPD.”
Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP who chairs the committee, said: “It is clear disabled people want more influence over the strategies, action plans, and policies affecting them.
“Ministers need to work much more proactively with disabled groups and develop the National Disability Strategy beyond short-term actions that were already in progress.
“The government needs to listen to the concerns that disabled people and their representative organisations had with the strategy and work closely with them to deliver meaningful, long-lasting improvements to the lives of disabled people.”
The government will now be expected to respond to the committee’s report in the coming months.
*Pursglove left his post today (Thursday) to be an immigration minister in the Home Office
Picture: Justin Tomlinson (left) and Tom Pursglove
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