The minister for disabled people is facing fresh criticism for failing to carry out “meaningful” engagement with disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) during the coronavirus pandemic.
Three DPOs have this week criticised the failure of Justin Tomlinson and his new Disability Unit to draw up an engagement strategy with organisations led and controlled by disabled people.
They say this failure means the government is breaching clear duties under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
There was confusion this week over exactly how many times Tomlinson had met with DPOs in the first months of the pandemic.
A DWP response to a freedom of information request from Disability News Service (DNS) suggested that he had not had any online meetings or phone calls with a DPO until 20 May.
But it later emerged that he had met one DPO, Disability Rights UK, on 16 March, as well as taking part in a meeting with the Disability Charities Consortium on 27 April. DR UK is the consortium’s only DPO.
The freedom of information response says that Tomlinson did not meet any DPOs until 20 May, when he took part in a meeting – likely to have taken place online – with six English and Scottish DPOs, including Cheshire Centre for Independent Living, DR UK and Lothian Centre for Inclusive Living.
In June, there was just a single meeting with a DPO, the London-based organisation Action Disability Kensington and Chelsea.
It was not until later in July that representatives of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (RoFA) of DPOs – and at least three of its members – were finally able to speak to the minister about the impact of the pandemic, at the first (online) meeting of the Disability Unit’s new Disabled People’s Organisations Forum.
A DWP spokesperson did not dispute the accuracy of the department’s freedom of information response this week, despite the reports of earlier meetings with DR UK.
The DNS freedom of information request was submitted following mounting concern about the government’s repeated breaches of disabled people’s rights during the pandemic, and its apparent failure to engage during the crisis with organisations run and controlled by disabled people.
The Disability Unit – for which Tomlinson is responsible – failed to make a single announcement in more than three months after 2 April, while more than 20,000 disabled people were dying from COVID-19.
RoFA – whose membership includes some of the country’s most influential DPOs – first raised concerns in July that the government was failing to work with DPOs on COVID issues.
Despite its inaccuracy, the DWP freedom of information response appears to show that RoFA was right to be concerned about Tomlinson’s continuing failure to engage with DPOs.
Tomlinson tried to paint a different picture about his efforts to engage while giving evidence to the Commons women and equalities committee last week (pictured), as part of its inquiry into access to services for disabled people during the pandemic.
He was told that DR UK had described the government’s efforts to consult with disabled people and their organisations on the pandemic as “inadequate”.
He said this was “a bit of an unfair comment” because he had met with DR UK “personally on a number of occasions during the COVID19 [crisis]”.
And he said the new forum had met monthly, as a way to “empower their voices”, but he failed to point out that the first of these meetings had not taken place until 22 July, and that he himself had not attended last month’s second meeting.
RoFA has repeatedly raised concerns that successive Conservative governments have failed to meet their obligations under the UN disability convention* to “closely consult with and actively involve” DPOs when developing laws and policies relating to disabled people.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, a RoFA member, said: “Though we welcome the news that the government has set up a DPO forum, after five long years of no engagement between government and DPOs, the forum, which has only met twice, still has a very long way to go before it meets the requirements of the UNCRPD for meaningful engagement with DPOs.”
She added: “The DPO forum must be strategic – working on the policy issues that matter most to disabled people, it must have real influence and it must resource DPOs to be engaged in it.
“As it stands, it is none of these things.
“We will work with the government over the short term to try and make the forum what it needs to be, but we have no interest in taking part in a window-dressing exercise and will withdraw from it if the forum does not start meeting the requirements set out by the UNCRPD.”
A DR UK spokesperson said that, although it had “very good access” to Tomlinson and the Disability Unit itself, it was concerned that the government does not have a wider engagement strategy with DPOs, as highlighted by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities in 2017.
She said: “The regional stakeholder network is under-resourced, with some areas not having met.
“The DPO Forum has been set up for a specific task, to inform the government’s Disability Strategy.
“We need government to bring forward a comprehensive engagement plan, which is based on genuine dialogue and co-production with disabled people.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, another RoFA member, said Tomlinson’s record on consulting with DPOs was “as one might expect, absolutely pathetic”.
She added: “Do we ever hear anything useful from him? Or even anything not useful?
“From his inability to meet anyone representing disabled people before May 20th, it would appear that, option A: Justin Tomlinson was following in his leader’s footsteps and hiding in a fridge, or option B: Justin Tomlinson, as was the case when he was minister before, doesn’t have any interest in disabled people or in safeguarding their lives or rights.”
A DWP spokesperson declined to comment when asked how Tomlinson explained his lack of engagement with DPOs.
She said DWP did “not have anything further to add” to the freedom of information response.
*The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities makes it clear that, when developing laws and policies relating to disabled people, governments “must closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organizations”. It defines “representative organizations” as those that are “led, directed and governed by persons with disabilities”, a definition which the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities included in general comment number seven
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