The minister for disabled people took part in just a handful of meetings with “external” organisations during each of the first four months of the pandemic, government figures have revealed.
Analysis of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data shows that Justin Tomlinson (pictured) attended only seven such meetings during March 2020, four in April, three in May and six in June.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) data would later show that three-fifths of coronavirus-related deaths during the pandemic were of disabled people, with more than 27,500 coronavirus-related deaths of disabled people between 2 March and 14 July 2020.
The new analysis came as a report from the government’s own benefits advisers, the social security advisory committee (SSAC), called yesterday for “culture change” across DWP in the way it engages with disabled people.
But it also emerged last night (Wednesday) that the government’s Disability Unit – headed by Tomlinson – cancelled both last month’s and this month’s meetings of its new Disabled People’s Organisations Forum, which it launched last July to “strengthen its engagement with disabled people”.
The government published its Coronavirus Action Plan on 3 March, but the DWP data shows that during that month, Tomlinson held only seven meetings with external organisations, including just one that involved a disabled people’s organisation (DPO), Disability Rights UK (DR UK). Four of those meetings are believed to have taken place virtually.
The following month, at the peak of the crisis, he held just four virtual meetings, including only one with a DPO, again DR UK.
In May, there were just three meetings – including one joint online meeting with six English and Scottish DPOs – and in June just six, including a solitary meeting with a DPO, Action Disability Kensington and Chelsea.
Disability News Service (DNS) has previously reported on criticisms of Tomlinson’s lack of meaningful engagement with DPOs during the early months of the pandemic, but it has not previously been clear just how few meetings he held with any individuals or organisations other than government colleagues.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said: “Justin Tomlinson has been criticised before about his inadequate and seemingly tokenistic levels of engagement with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations.
“With the news today that the Disability Unit has cancelled the January meeting of the DPO Forum (after cancelling the December meeting too – all without explanation) it’s looking like the minister and the government cannot be bothered to carry out even the most basic engagement with DPOs.
“Considering we are still in an ongoing pandemic in which nearly 60 per cent of COVID-related deaths were disabled people, we should expect and are demanding more.
“Deep structural inequalities that have gotten worse after a decade of austerity have eroded the quality of life experienced by our community and put back our rights and inclusion.
“Disabled people, especially those that are multiply marginalised, need real change.
“Meaningful engagement between DPOs and the government is key to getting our quality of life, rights and inclusion back on track.
“Rather than cancelling meetings, now more than ever the minister should be working with us.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “As disabled people lay dying in their thousands, just where was our minister and what was he doing for us?
“These figures, which show a dwindling of engagements with any organisation representing disabled people during the crucial months of the first lockdown, reflect the disdain and disinterest of this pathetic government of clowns in our rights and wellbeing.”
Ian Jones, from WOWcampaign, pointed out that last July he had said how events that month, including the failure of Tomlinson’s Disability Unit to announce any measures to support disabled people during the pandemic, suggested that disabled people do not “matter as much to society” as others.
He said: “It seems we need to add that it is apparent from Justin Tomlinson’s disinterest in engaging with us that disabled people do not even seem to matter to the Tory minister for disabled people.
“I challenge him to call for a police-led investigation into how care homes for disabled, elderly and other people were seeded with COVID-19 by his government.
“Show us he cares.”
Speaking before it emerged that the Disability Unit had cancelled the two meetings of the DPO Forum, a DWP spokesperson refused to explain why there had been so little engagement with external organisations by Tomlinson in the early months of the pandemic.
She pointed instead to Tomlinson’s initial response to the SSAC report, which includes a claim that he has “personally led significant engagement with both national and local charities for disabled people and disabled people’s organisations, as well as from disabled people themselves” over the last 18 months.
The SSAC report says the level of trust between DWP and disabled people has clearly “deteriorated over a period of successive administrations”.
But SSAC – which is now chaired by Stephen Brien, the “architect of universal credit” – also claims that there is “clear evidence that DWP is not just ‘talking the talk’, but is beginning to ‘walk the walk’ in terms of engaging disabled people around the UK”.
It says this new approach is “relatively recent and exploratory” and that, despite DWP’s claim that it is committed to co-production with disabled people, it is “not clear that co-production is what the Department actually means, and it was not what we saw happening, in the sense of an equal relationship between the DWP and other players”.
SSAC also concludes that there is a need for “culture change” across DWP.
And it says there is a “need for greater consistency and ground rules” in engaging with disabled people, and that much of DWP’s engagement is with large national charities “for” disabled people, rather than user-led organisations “of” disabled people.
It adds: “However professional or well informed an organisation might be, it cannot be treated as speaking for disabled people unless it is set up to do so.
“There are also clear risks that disabled people’s voices will be filtered through the policies of the organisations.”
It recommends that DWP sets up a large panel of disabled people “with experience of social security that it can consult regularly, and draw from, to work on detailed projects”.
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