An announcement by disability charity Scope that it will sell all its residential homes and special schools, and re-position itself as a “social change organisation”, is an attempt to invade the ground occupied by disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), say critics.
The shake-up appears to be designed to distance the non-user-led charity from its roots as a provider of segregated services for disabled people.
But one disabled activist said the decision would mean Scope would “hoover up some of the money” currently going to DPOs, and probably put the futures of many of them at risk.
Another said the move was just an attempt by Scope to “reposition itself in the marketplace”, and compared the charity to “an old pig wearing new lipstick”.
Scope’s new strategy will cut its income by 40 per cent – it was £99.5 million in 2015-16 – and reduce its workforce by two-thirds, by selling off 50 services across England and Wales, including care homes, and special schools and colleges, to other service-providers.
The money from these sales will be re-invested in new services and products, which it says will “help support disabled people and their families from an early age, to live independently and to get and stay in employment”.
Mark Atkinson, Scope’s chief executive, announced the strategy in an article published by the think tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC).
Atkinson said the world had “moved on” since the charity was founded in 1952 – as The Spastics Society – by three parents of children with cerebral palsy and a social worker, and that Scope had been left with “a patchwork of different services that had been established over seven decades” and now reached just a few thousand people.
He said the charity needed to take “radical” steps if it wanted to “become relevant to a far larger proportion of the 13 million disabled people in the UK”.
Its services will now focus on providing information, advice and support, mostly delivered online, while it would also concentrate on campaigning and seeking to influence public policy.
A Scope spokesperson said services would be paid for by “a broad base of funders, including corporate partners, trusts and foundations, individual donors and our network of shops”, as well as “tens of thousands of very committed supporters who we are confident will continue to support our work in the future”.
Although Scope said it would not seek any employment contracts under the government’s new Work and Health Programme, it “may still seek and receive government funding for some specific areas of work, like research, on a case by case basis”.
And instead of taking part in the Work and Health Programme, Scope said it would build on its “current range of independent, specialist, personalised employment support services”.
Last October, Scope backed the government’s new work, health and disability green paper, with Atkinson praising it for setting out “bold ideas for reform” in the Department for Work and Pensions’ own press release.
This allowed work and pensions secretary Damian Green to claim in the House of Commons that criticism of the green paper – which has been heavily-criticised by disabled activists – was “completely out of touch with those who represent disabled people”.
Atkinson said in the article that he wanted the charity to “focus on the areas in which disabled people face the greatest barriers and move away from being a charity that ‘does’ to one that ‘facilitates’”, creating a platform “that allows disabled people, through Scope, to drive change” and so move “ever closer to everyday equality”.
These words are similar to the slogan used by the DPO Disability Rights UK (DR UK), which describes itself as “disabled people leading change, working for equal participation for all”.
Atkinson’s article has raised concerns among some disabled activists that Scope wants to establish itself as the leading voice on disability, and will crowd out disabled people’s user-led organisations with far fewer resources.
When asked if there was an argument for saying that there was no reason for Scope to continue to exist at all, and that it should pass all its resources to DPOs, the spokesperson said: “As our strategy, developed with disabled people and their families, makes clear, life is still too tough for many disabled people.
“We believe that disabled people should have the same opportunities as everyone else. Until then, we’ll be here.
“Scope will continue to work closely with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations and continue to put disabled people at the heart of everything that we do.
“We believe that we can achieve more by working together than we can alone.”
Prominent disabled activists have so far delivered a mixed response to Scope’s announcement.
Dr Theo Blackmore, an independent researcher, welcomed Scope’s move away from segregated provision, but he said its latest rebrand was “a clear attempt to move yet further into the ground that is occupied by the many much smaller DPOs that exist across the country.
“Scope, as a consequence, will undoubtedly hoover up some of the money that is currently going to these much smaller groups, and will probably imperil many of them.”
He said there was still a place for an organisation to work with and support families of disabled children, according to Scope’s original purpose.
But he said there was also a place for organisations run and controlled by and employing disabled people.
He said Scope and other large disability charities had often fought hard for government and council contracts, often against DPOs, “depriving these much smaller organisations of disabled people of much needed funding” and leading many of them to close.
He said the latest changes would “again see Scope in competition with DPOs” but that nowhere in its announcement did it say that it would increase the number of disabled people it employed or had on its board of directors.
He added: “Scope is an organisation with an annual income in the region of £100 million.
“With this much spending power and clout it is easy to see how much of a threat Scope, and other large disability charities, are to DPOs.
“If they, and the other major disability charities, really wanted to make a difference to the lives of we disabled people they could work out how they could better work with DPOs, to strengthen the voice of disabled people at the local level by shifting some of their enormous income to support these local organisations.”
Kamran Mallick, the new chief executive of DR UK, said he welcomed the Scope changes “and the principles that underlie them”.
But he added: “The best, most effective, lasting change comes when it’s driven by disabled people.
“That doesn’t mean that other organisations, concerned about the rights of disabled people, have no impact at all.
“Any organisation which aims to be more relevant to disabled people is a good thing and organisations become more relevant if they are driven by the voices of those with lived experience.
“This is central to the disabled people’s movement, however that alone doesn’t make them disabled people’s organisations.
“We’d like all charities concerned about disability issues to be run by and for disabled people, which includes not just disabled trustees but senior managers and other staff.”
Lorraine Gradwell, former chief executive of the Manchester-based DPO Breakthrough UK, said the changes appeared to be about “offloading sections of the business that are falling out of favour or failing to make money, dressed up as a change of mission and direction”.
She said: “This would be fine if the links with disabled people and their organisations were outlined, and Scope could show how they’ve worked with DPOs to lay out their mission and design their strategy.”
But she said Scope did not appear to have done this and instead had “looked inwards”, and although it may have consulted individual disabled people, there was “no evidence they’ve reached out to organisations”.
She said Scope was “trying to reposition itself” and possibly “establish fresh credentials”, and was attempting to establish itself as “a leading voice” on disability, and has “probably got the resources to do it”.
She added: “I also think a lot of DPOs would be quite willing to work with Scope, and they have said so in the past.”
Bob Williams-Findlay (pictured), a former chair of the British Council of Disabled People, who has written previously of his experiences attending a residential school run by The Spastics Society, said he was deeply distrustful of Scope’s announcement.
He said he saw it as an extension of the new form of disability politics that emerged from New Labour in the 1990s, which “exploited the language and concepts of the social model of disability and transformed them into tools for the neoliberal agenda of commodifying disabled people’s lives”.
He pointed out that Dan Corry, chief executive of NPC, was head of the (New Labour) Number 10 Policy Unit and senior adviser to the prime minister on the economy from 2007 to 2010.
Williams-Findlay said Scope’s talk of “transformation”, “social change”, and “addressing disabled people’s barriers” reminded him of the hypocrisy of disability charities that took part in the Hardest Hit campaign, when they “had their feet on the streets and noses in the government’s feed”.
He said: “What Scope says and what it does are often at odds with each other – look at their embarrassingly pathetic End The Awkward campaign.
“Why would disabled people trust a charity like Scope with a history like theirs?”
He added: “Atkinson’s statement cherry picks their history, still ignoring the charity’s oppressive role up to the present day.
“This shift is not just yet another rebranding exercise, it is an attempt by Scope to re-position itself in the market place and with an array of digital outputs.
“I repeat, why would disabled people trust a charity like Scope; an old pig wearing new lipstick?”