The new Conservative minister for disabled people has pledged to work closely with disabled people, improve access and equality and work towards ending disability poverty.
Speaking at a meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group, Maria Miller MP provided few new details about the coalition government’s policies around disability rights.
But Miller, appearing the day before the chancellor announced tough new reforms of disability living allowance in his emergency budget, referred repeatedly to rights, equality and the importance of working with disabled people and their organisations.
Miller hinted that the Office for Disability Issues (ODI) would not fall victim to government spending cuts, despite concerns raised in the Lords last week, stressing its important role as the “focal point” for implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
She said: “Its principles need to become mainstream – the ODI will work with disabled people to make sure that happens.”
She also praised the ODI’s “Roadmap” – which details how the government plans to work towards disability equality by 2025 – as a “very useful tool” in measuring progress towards equality.
The minister made several comments about the importance of consulting and working with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations (DPOs).
She said the government could only remain on course for full equality for disabled people if it had the “expert advice of disabled people and disabled people’s organisations underpinning it”.
Asked by Stephen Hodgkins from the Disablity LIB alliance what the Conservative call for a “Big Society” would mean for disabled people and DPOs, she said that many organisations supporting disabled people were “run on a shoestring by people who have an immense knowledge and commitment”.
She added: “What I want Big Society to do is support an increase in the capacity of those organisations to do more to support disabled people.”
After Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson raised concerns that campaigners could become complacent and stop fighting for equality and inclusion because of the “difficult economic times ahead”, the minister promised that the government’s emphasis on “fairness…comes right from the top of the coalition”.
She gave no new details about the government’s welfare reform agenda, but repeated the pledge of “comprehensive and unconditional support” for those unable to work, and said concerns over the new work capability assessment were “very much uppermost in all of our minds”.
She also repeated the government’s pledge to reform the Access to Work programme, so disabled people would be able to secure funding for workplace adaptations and equipment before they applied for a job.
She also promised that “ending disability poverty” was a “key part” of the government’s “wider social agenda”.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell asked whether the new government would introduce “portability” of care packages – giving “freedom of movement” to disabled people who want to move to a different local authority area.
Miller said she had not yet formed a “clear view” on the issue, but saw “enormous value” in “trying to ensure that wherever possible the packages we put in place are as personal as possible”.
In answer to a question from Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, Miller said access to housing for disabled people was “critical”, but could not yet give any details on future government policy.
She said: “We are going to ensure that disabled people have greater access to housing, transport, healthcare and employment and a whole range of other services.”
She also promised that schools would be “held to account for the progress of all their pupils and not just some”.
In response to a question from the new Conservative MP, Paul Maynard – who is believed to be both the first former special school pupil and the first person with cerebral palsy to become an MP – Miller reaffirmed the government’s commitment to set up a fund to support more disabled people to become involved in public life.
Maynard also asked her about disability hate crime, which he said was an issue raised by “an awful lot of people” on the streets.
Miller said there was a need for ensuring “as much support as we can from the police and other local organisations in local government in recognising and tackling hate crime”.
Labour MP Anne Begg asked if the minister could ensure the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) played “a much more proactive role” in ensuring that anti-discrimination laws were “actually applied”.
Miller said she would take the issue up with the EHRC, because it was “clear” that court action was needed to ensure that “legislation has teeth and that it bites”.
Responding to Lord [Colin] Low’s request for the government to “put its shoulder to the wheel” in ensuring the progress of the European equal treatment directive – particularly the possible inclusion of measures to ensure the accessibility of manufactured goods – she promised to “go away and look at it in some detail”.
Baroness Campbell also announced the all-party group’s new officers. She will continue to co-chair the group, while the new Commons co-chair is Anne McGuire, the former Labour minister for disabled people, who herself has a long-term health condition.
The vice-chairs will be Conservative MP Peter Bottomley and Baroness Wilkins, a Labour peer, with Chris Skidmore – the Conservative MP for Kingswood who defeated the group’s former co-chair Roger Berry at the general election – the new treasurer and secretary.
22 June 2010