The number of staff working in the government’s Office for Disability Issues (ODI) has plummeted by more than two-thirds under the coalition and Conservative governments, new figures released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.
In March 2010, just before the Tory-led coalition came to power, there were the equivalent of 48 full-time staff working in ODI.
By March 2012 that had fallen to 29 full-time equivalent staff.
Although there are no figures for 2013, 2014 and 2015, by 1 January 2016 there were just 20 full-time equivalent staff working at ODI.
DWP insists that part of the reason for the fall is that “elements of the work that was carried out by ODI is now being taken forward by specialist units across government”, such as the Work and Health Unit (WHU), jointly set up with the Department of Health in 2015.
But following the launch of WHU, the numbers continued to fall, to 13.65 in January 2017 and just 11.5 in January this year, although they rose again slightly to 15.45 by May this year.
The numbers were released to Disability News Service by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in response to a freedom of information request.
Meanwhile, the ODI website has not been updated in more than six months.
In all of 2017, the website was updated just three times, compared with five updates in 2016, and 17 in 2015.
Only last month, DWP admitted that none of the bodies it set up to engage with disabled people and their organisations as part of its disability strategy had met in nearly a year.
And earlier this month, DWP refused to say whether it still followed the Fulfilling Potential strategy, which was supposed to describe the government’s commitment to “a society where disabled people can realise their aspirations and fulfil their potential”.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “ODI remains the focal point for cross-government disability issues, working on a range of issues to empower disabled people and enable them to participate fully in society, but their team is [by] no means the only people working on disability issues.
“ODI has an oversight role to provide advice and facilitate engagement, as departments focus upon disability as part of their policy.”
She also pointed to this week’s announcement by Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, of a new “interdepartmental ministerial group on disability and society”, which “will include ministers from a wide range of departments to oversee and drive forward the work of government in tackling the barriers faced by disabled people and to ensure their voice is heard in policy development and legislation”.
No further details of how the group will operate and who will be involved have yet been released.
But there was confusion following the announcement because the coalition had previously announced it was setting up an “inter-departmental ministerial group on disability” in February 2014.
Successive governments have failed to explain what happened to that group, and why it appears to have been scrapped at some point in the last four years.
But the DWP spokeswoman said: “The IMG in 2014 was set up and run under a previous parliament.
“It is normal practice for different governments to set up new structures and protocols.”
She had not confirmed by 9am today (Thursday) when the previous IMG was scrapped.
The DWP spokeswoman added: “This government is determined to build an inclusive society that enables everyone to realise their full potential and as such remains committed to ODI facilitating the work across government for disability issues.”
DWP’s admission of the cuts to ODI staff since 2010 will cast further doubt on the government’s commitment to disability rights and equality, and its pledge in 2013 to make the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) “a living reality for disabled people in Britain”.
Last August, the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities told a UK government delegation – led by ODI – that its cuts to social security and other support for disabled people had caused “a human catastrophe”, which was “totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in”.
The committee later told the UK government to make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights.
In its “concluding observations” on the progress the UK has made in implementing UNCRPD, the committee raised concerns and made recommendations on all but three of the 33 treaty articles it could have breached.
It was, said the committee, the highest number of recommendations it had ever produced for a country undergoing the review process.