The chief executive of the UK’s most prominent national disabled people’s organisation (DPO) has announced that she is to retire from her post.
Liz Sayce has headed Disability Rights UK (DR UK) since it was formed in 2012 through a merger of three other organisations – RADAR, the National Centre for Independent Living, and Disability Alliance – and was previously chief executive of RADAR.
She said that she had decided that “the time is right to retire from full-time work” and “work at a different pace”, and would leave her post at the end of May.
But Sayce (pictured) said this morning (Thursday) that her retirement was not connected with the current recruitment of a new disability commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – an appointment due to be announced by the government this month – after a source suggested that her name had been on the shortlist.
Sayce had not clarified by 1pm today whether she had been on the shortlist, or indeed whether she was set to be EHRC’s new disability commissioner.
Earlier in the week, she told Disability News Service that she was most proud, firstly, of helping to bring together “three organisations of quite different cultures and priorities” and creating a single organisation with “one clear philosophy and objectives, and an organisation that is led by disabled people” and has “real influence and strength”.
Sayce said that 86 per cent of DR UK’s trustees and more than three-fifths of its staff had lived experience of disability, while all of its voting members were disabled people or DPOs.
Secondly, she said, she was proud of securing funding for “innovative work” such as the DRILL programme, which is “about disabled people creating our own knowledge, which I think could have far-reaching impact”.
She said: “As well as the important campaigning, what we want to do is really move the agenda forward and I think we have made a start on that.”
She said: “It feels like an important first stage for the organisation has been achieved.
“For me, personally, it feels like the right time to move on. I am ready for a different phase of life.
“I am going to remain very interested in disability rights, but it’s time for me to move on from being in an executive role running an organisation, having done that for 10 years.”
Sayce said that she would like to do more “writing and thinking” after her retirement, although she has not yet decided what she will write about.
She confirmed that her replacement would be another disabled person, and said that DR UK’s board would be likely to recruit a replacement who would take forward their strategic plan for 2016-19.
She added: “Having said that, the world is always changing, and a new person will come with new ideas.”
She said that one of the biggest challenges facing her successor would be how to ensure that DR UK “has real presence and networks and engagement across the country and is not just a sort of London-based, policy-type organisation but really has links and networks around the country”.
One of her regrets, she said, was that she had not been able to spend more time herself with other DPOs around the country, something the board had said would be a priority for DR UK’s “next phase”.
Another challenge will be to ensure there continues to be a “diverse funding mix”, as DR UK had “worked quite hard to ensure we are not overly dependant on resources from one particular source” and to “spread the income for purposes of sustainability”.
She said that DR UK was now in a “sustainable financial position”, and was expecting to report a financial surplus this year (as it had last year), following past concerns about the charity’s pensions deficit.
That deficit arose unexpectedly following fluctuations in the financial markets, as a result of a final salary pension scheme which been closed to new members by RADAR years before DR UK’s formation, a situation which she said had been “very challenging” and had meant spending “a huge amount of time and energy on sorting that out”.
Sayce accepted that DR UK had not had a close relationships with the disabled people’s anti-cuts movement, such as Disabled People Against Cuts, but she said there were signs of improvement.
She said: “There has been some fragmentation [across the sector]. I think there are the beginnings of a desire for more coming together to see where there are areas where we can agree and where we can push in a more united way.”
One such group, she said, had been convened by the disabled crossbench peer Lord [Colin] Low.
Lord Low’s Disability Fightback group, which also involves Sayce, Sir Bert Massie, Baroness [Jane] Campbell, and more than 30 disability charities, as well as a representative of the Spartacus online campaign group, and the DPO Inclusion London, representing the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA), a national anti-cuts network of user-led organisations.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said Disability Fightback appeared to involve only two DPOs, and was focused more on “getting the charities to up their game and be more vocal in their oppisition to government”.
She said: “If it was a genuine attempt to get a group to really involve DPOs it is woefully falling short.
“DPAC is not represented and we are the only DPO representing ROFA.”
She said Inclusion London would continue to be involved in Disability Fightback but would not waste energy trying to encourage non-user-led charities to be more critical of the government “because they have shed-loads more resources than we have and we are far more effective in being the authentic voice of disabled people and their organisations”.
But she said ROFA would “welcome the charities working on the priorities of disabled people themselves and that’s the purpose of our involvement in Disability Fightback, along with [pushing] the principles of the social model of disability and a human rights approach.”
Sayce said there had also been a meeting of chief executives of DPOs and of members of the Disability Charities Consortium, to “explore whether there are areas where we can speak more with one voice”, although one of the DPOs that attended said it had not reached agreement on any key issues.
She said: “Sometimes there are differences of view [across the sector] of what we are actually aiming for.
“Often there are differences of view about how we should go about things and I think if we can debate those, sometimes we can do things in a very complementary way.
“I think the beginnings of those dialogues are really, really important. Long may they continue and grow.
“Very often the objectives are the same, but people go about things in different ways and then disagree about that.”
Sayce had said earlier, in a statement, that she and DR UK had “worked with partners to shape debate, inform policy and campaign” during her time in charge, including raising the profile of peer support for employment, as well as “influencing apprenticeships to be more inclusive and campaigning successfully for specific changes to proposals on issues including personal independence payment, housing benefit and social care”.
But she warned that there had been “a damaging slippage in debate on disability to seeing support in terms of protecting so called ‘vulnerable’ people – rather than support being a springboard to equal participation, an investment in people’s potential.
“And the prevalence of poverty amongst disabled people places deep restrictions on participating in ordinary activities in our communities.
“On top of that, many DPOs struggle financially with sustained cuts in public funding.”
Anna Beales, chair of DR UK, paid tribute to Sayce’s work, and said: “We’re very sorry to see Liz go, but appreciate the reasons why and wish her all the very best in her retirement from full-time work.
“We are grateful for the time, energy and commitment she has brought to both RADAR and Disability Rights UK over the years, as well as the wider sector.
“She will leave us with a solid legacy which we will continue to build on, and ensure that DR UK continues to be ‘disabled people leading change’.”