Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people has pledged to be a “good listener” and to ensure that her party considers the impact on disabled people of every one of its policies.
Vicky Foxcroft (pictured) was speaking to Disability News Service (DNS) in her first in-depth interview since being appointed as the shadow minister for disabled people by Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer.
She has pledged her commitment to an inclusive education system, and a national – and free – independent living support service for England, an idea proposed by the disabled people’s movement.
Foxcroft also supports calls from grassroots disabled activists – backed by DNS – for an independent inquiry into evidence that the actions of senior civil servants and former ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions are linked to the deaths of countless benefit claimants.
Foxcroft replaces Marsha de Cordova, one of parliament’s few disabled MPs, who Starmer has promoted to shadow secretary of state for women and equalities.
Responding to the COVID-19 crisis has been a priority for her since her appointment less than two weeks ago, Foxcroft told DNS this week.
Among the issues she has been focusing on are the many disabled people struggling to secure food for themselves during the pandemic, which she has raised in a letter to the minister for disabled people; the shortage of personal protective equipment for disabled people and their care workers and personal assistants; growing concerns about the number of deaths in care homes; and the funding challenges facing charities, something she also raised in her previous post as shadow minister for civil society.
She also highlights the need to keep a close watch on the actions of local authorities, after the government’s emergency Coronavirus Act reduced their duties under the Care Act.
Under the emergency act, councils no longer have to carry out detailed assessments of disabled people’s care and support needs, and no longer have a legal duty to meet all eligible care and support needs.
Foxcroft said it was vital to ensure that local authorities do not use the act as a way to reduce disabled people’s support packages.
She is also pushing for the government to make similar increases to legacy benefits – such as employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance – that they have to the universal credit standard allowance, one of the government’s coronavirus emergency measures.
And she says she hopes the government’s temporary halt to face-to-face benefit assessments for personal independence payment – which she says are “not a good experience for most people” and are often “intrusive and derogatory” – could be continued when the lockdown is lifted.
Foxcroft was also speaking publicly for the first time about her diagnosis last June with rheumatoid arthritis.
That diagnosis means she is on immunosuppressant medication that places her among those most at serious risk from COVID-19, and that she will have to remain in self-isolation for as long as the advice from government health experts recommends.
She stresses, though, that – despite having to remain in self-isolation until the crisis is over – she does not currently consider herself a disabled person, because the medication she is taking means the arthritis is in remission and does not have a significant impact on her day-to-day life.
But she believes the health condition will give her more of an insight into the barriers faced by disabled people, although she says she thinks she was chosen for the role because of her previous position as shadow civil society minister rather than her experience of impairment.
Asked what she believes she will bring to the new role, she says: “I think I am quite a good listener. I think that’s important in politics.”
Part of her role, she says, will be to ensure disabled people “feel comfortable and try to get them to be able to confidently give their ideas and thoughts” on policy, and do not feel they are being listened to in a “token” way, and that they believe that she and her colleagues will “do something” with what they are told.
Despite her health condition, and her understanding of the need to be a shadow minister for “disabled people”, rather than for “people with disabilities”, she admits that she cannot yet explain the meaning of the social model of disability*.
But she says: “Without knowing the exact terminology, that is exactly where my views, my experiences… it is about the barriers, rather than judging the person [on their impairment].”
She has started on the process of engaging with disabled people and their organisations, but it has been made much tougher by the COVID-19 pandemic and the UK’s current state of lockdown.
Among those organisations she has spoken with online are her local disabled people’s organisation Lewisham Disability Coalition, and her own constituency Labour party’s forum of disabled people.
She says she is determined to ensure that Labour improves how it engages with disabled people and does it “better and wider”, and that it takes account of disability in every one of its policies, rather than concentrating solely on a disability manifesto.
She says: “Obviously there are challenges at the moment in terms of getting about and seeing people but it’s something I am very keen on.
“I think that things need to be more than just a disability manifesto.
“Right the way through everything, when we are developing policy, there needs to be a test in terms of how disabled people feel and the disabled community feel about things that we are doing.
“The best way of doing that is by doing that in collaboration [with disabled people].”
She adds: “I want us to win the next general election and I think a big part of that will be making sure that the disabled community feel confident that the Labour government will deliver for them.
“And that confidence will be earned by making sure that we have thoroughly engaged with disabled people, organisations, etcetera.”
Foxcroft draws parallels between her new role and her previous work setting up and chairing the cross-party Youth Violence Commission.
She arranged a debate in parliament that called for the commission to be set up, following the deaths of five young people and an increase in knife crime in her constituency.
The commission’s work persuaded the government to take a more public health approach to youth violence, with different agencies working together, a cross-departmental approach that she believes must be repeated with disability policy.
On one of the key disability policy issues, she says she is a firm believer that every child should have the right to a fully inclusive education.
She said: “When you exclude people from mainstream society, you’re making them feel like they don’t fit in.
“Obviously there is a lot of extra investment that needs to go in, but I honestly don’t see why that can’t happen and shouldn’t happen. I think everybody should have the opportunity to be educated [in a mainstream setting].
“I do think it has to be a choice, but it has to be an open choice. I think we have a better society if we do that.”
She is also supportive of the call from the disabled people’s movement for a National Independent Living Support Service (NILSS) for England, with all social care to be provided free, just as healthcare is provided free through the NHS.
Starmer told DNS during his leadership election campaign that he supported the idea of an NILSS, funded by progressive taxation, and that he would want to work with party members to develop the motion backing NILSS that was agreed at last autumn’s party conference.
Foxcroft, who is a former local councillor in south London, and was a trade unionist who led campaigns against low pay and exploitation of agency workers, says she wants disabled people “to know that they can contact us to feed in what they think we should be doing.
“I want to make sure that disabled people’s voices are at the heart in terms of us writing our next manifesto.”
*The social model says that disability is caused by barriers in society rather than by a person’s impairment
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