The government’s reputation on disability equality has suffered a further damaging blow, after it admitted that none of the bodies it set up to engage with disabled people and their organisations as part of its disability strategy has met in nearly a year.
The Fulfilling Potential Forum, set up “to discuss how disabled people can fulfil their potential”, has not met since November 2016.
The Disability Action Alliance (DAA), launched by the government in 2012 to offer advice on the implementation of its disability policies, also appears to have been discarded, and its steering group has not met since last May.
A third body, the Fulfilling Potential Advisory Service, which was set up alongside the forum in 2014 to provide expert advice on disability-related issues, was scrapped soon after it was launched.
The government’s original intention was that the three bodies would replace Equality 2025, its high-level committee of disabled advisors, which it ditched in 2013.
A series of admissions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) raise further serious question-marks over the government’s commitment to the co-production of its policies with disabled people and their user-led organisations, and to the cause of disability equality and rights.
Last month, Disability News Service (DNS) reported that ministers appeared to have ditched their cross-departmental disability strategy, Fulfilling Potential, and abandoned any idea of replacing it, after refusing to say what had happened to a review of the strategy announced by a minister nearly two years ago.
Fulfilling Potential was supposed to be aimed at “improving the lives of disabled people” and making the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) “a living reality for disabled people in Britain”.
Although it has not met since November 2016, DWP insisted this week that the Fulfilling Potential Forum had not been scrapped and no decision about its future had been made.
But nearly 18 months on, it has still not uploaded the minutes of the November 2016 meeting onto its website, with the forum’s web page only showing minutes of meetings up to March 2016.
DWP has told Disability News Service (DNS) that it will upload the minutes from the November 2016 meeting to the website “over the next few weeks”.
It claims the forum has now “evolved into a wider stakeholder group” that met three times during 2017.
This refers to widely-publicised meetings hosted by its Office for Disability Issues (ODI) in the lead-up to last autumn’s examination by the UN of the UK government’s progress in implementing the UN disability convention.
DWP insists that ODI is “currently considering how to develop a flexible, inclusive and timely mechanism for engaging with disability stakeholders on cross-government issues, and in particular with regard to the [UNCRPD]”.
The forum was launched four years ago, and its membership of about 40 included representatives from leading disabled people’s organisations, as well as many of the UK’s large non-user-led disability charities.
The aim was to allow its members to discuss and provide input into the government’s “strategic priorities and direction” around Fulfilling Potential.
But Tara Flood (pictured), director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, said the forum had been a “sham” and “a clever distraction by the government from all of the important things that needed talking about” and was “an absolute waste of my time and effort”.
She said the “final nail in the coffin” had been a meeting when she and other disabled people had wanted to discuss the upcoming examination of the government’s progress in implementing the UN convention “and yet the Office for Disability Issues wanted to talk about the new pound coin”.
She subsequently refused to attend any further meetings.
She said: “They don’t want to hear from disabled people who are going to challenge their thinking on anything.”
Even though there have been no meetings of the forum since November 2016, Flood said the government had still used it as an example of how it was consulting with disabled people when questioned in Geneva last August about its progress in implementing UNCRPD.
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), was less critical of the forum than Flood but just as dismissive of the government’s attitude to engaging with disabled people.
She said she had found the forum meetings “useful and constructive” as they had been attended by representatives of different government departments, and she said she could not see “any logical reason why they should be abandoned”.
But she said DWP’s explanation that the forum had “evolved into a wider stakeholder group” was “absolute nonsense” and “scraping the barrel”.
She attended one of these three stakeholder meetings in 2017 and she said it was simply linked to the UN examination and unrelated in any way to the Fulfilling Potential Forum.
Bott said DR UK had become concerned about the government’s failure to engage with disabled people and their user-led organisations.
She said: “We are very concerned and we have discussed it internally.
“It appears to us that there is very little engagement with disabled people and our organisations taking place at all.
“The message that we are getting from government is that ‘we do not need to engage with you in a joined-up way because all of the departments have their own mechanisms for engaging with disabled people and their organisations’.
“We do not think that such mechanisms exist in reality but to prove the point we are requesting information from ODI as to what those mechanisms are for each department.”
She added: “They said in their evidence to the UN committee back in August that they were considering improving methods of engagement, and absolutely nothing has happened since.”
Bott said she had “no idea” whether the government still had a disability strategy, and added: “If they have one, I cannot see any point in being secretive about it.
“I think the reality is that the government is just not focused on disability issues and disabled people at all at the moment.”
None of six members of the Disability Action Alliance contacted by DNS had heard anything about the body since last autumn.
Even DR UK, which previously ran the secretariat but now has no role within the alliance, said it had no idea what had happened to the network.
DR UK received government funding to run the secretariat and develop a long-term strategy – after ODI announced that it would no longer provide four part-time members of staff to run it – but that money ran out early last year, and its steering group has not met since May 2017 when the last update was added to the DAA website’s news page.
Tara Flood said DAA had also been “a sham” and that it would be “insulting” to call either DAA or the forum “anything close to co-production”.
She said: “It is closer to coercion than it is to co-production. We are a long way from anything close to engagement, let alone co-production. It is not even window-dressing.”
If the forum and DAA have been ditched, she said, it would at least prevent the government from “hiding behind them as examples of consulting with disabled people”.
She added: “They want to speak to non-disabled people about disabled people. Clearly by their actions they have rejected any commitment whatsoever to ‘nothing about us without us’.”
DNS has been unable to find any of DAA’s former members who know what has happened to the network, although Stephen Brookes, a former member of its steering group, suggested that the membership held some of the blame for its failure to thrive, as did DWP.
When asked why the decision was taken to stop funding DAA and what was replacing it, a DWP spokeswoman said that ODI – which is part of DWP – “remains the cross-government focal point for disability issues, facilitating work with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and other voluntary sector organisations to influence government policy and promote disabled people’s full participation in society”.
And she said the minister for disabled people had also appointed 11 “disability sector champions” – including Brookes, who leads on rail issues – to “tackle the issues disabled people face”, and they were “using their influential status as leaders in their sectors to drive improvements to the accessibility and quality of services and facilities in their sector”.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “ODI’s role is still to support the development of policies to remove inequality between disabled and non-disabled people.
“We understand the importance of working in co-production with disabled people and continue to advocate this approach to other government departments to do the same.”
The ODI website was updated with just three documents during 2017: one press release, one news story and one UN-related policy paper.
The last time the ODI site was updated with any disability-related statistics was September 2015.