Five of the nine regional networks created by ministers to “amplify” the voices of disabled people have not held a single meeting, nearly two years after the government announced they were being set up.
The aim, the government said, was to “bring the views of disabled people and local disabled organisations across England closer to government”.
Today (8 October), it is exactly a year since Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, named the new chairs of the nine networks.
And it is more than six months since the government’s new Disability Unit announced that the networks had finally started work across England.
But by 24 September, as the country struggled with a pandemic crisis that has led to thousands of disabled people losing their lives – and with the government accused of repeatedly breaching the rights of millions of other disabled people – five of the networks have yet to have their first meeting.
Two of the four networks that have met – those for London and the north-east – only had their first meetings towards the end of last month, according to a freedom of information (foi) response to Disability News Service (DNS).
The Disability Unit has also been forced to admit in the foi response that it has not even seen the minutes of the few network meetings that have taken place.
The foi response is likely to put yet further pressure on Tomlinson (pictured), particularly because last month he appeared to mislead MPs on the women and equalities committee about the success of the networks.
He told them the networks were allowing “all voices, particularly of all sizes of disability organisations” to “share their real lived experience and help us improve our policies, our communications”, and that he found it “a very, very rewarding part of my role”.
At that point, only two of the nine networks – those in the north-west and in Yorkshire and Humber – had held any meetings.
Tomlinson and his new Disability Unit came under further criticism this week after it emerged that they had posted just one announcement on their website in the last six months.
This near-silence came at a time when disabled people and disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) were calling for national leadership, co-production with DPOs, clear information and timely guidance from the government during the pandemic.
The foi response from the Cabinet Office – the government department that hosts the Disability Unit – said that planning and arrangements for the regional meetings were “impacted” by the 2019 general election, and the move of the Office for Disability Issues (which was incorporated into the Disability Unit) from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Cabinet Office.
The foi response added: “Work to arrange the network meetings (one in each of the nine regions) was progressing in early 2020, but had to be halted due to the outbreak of the Corona Virus Pandemic.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, told DNS: “It’s not a surprise to find that the regional stakeholder structure this government chose to pursue instead of meaningful engagement with DDPOs* is not working.
“These regional stakeholder networks are not DDPO networks, they are not resourced, they operate in a complete policy vacuum and they are simply not compliant with the UNCRPD**.
“It now transpires a year on that most haven’t even met yet.
“The government needs to stop this window-dressing approach and start to seriously and strategically engage with DDPOs.
“COVID has revealed just how deep and structural disabled people’s inequality goes and the government must in response set up engagement mechanisms with us that are genuinely up to the challenge of tackling the structural discrimination and inequality we experience.”
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “The government’s claim it regularly engages disabled people and disabled people’s organisations just doesn’t stack up.
“The government must do better when it comes to genuine engagement and involvement from disabled people on issues that affect them.
“Disabled people, the experts by experience, deserve to have their voice heard.”
And Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said: “In 2017 the UNCRPD committee criticised the UK government for its lack of engagement and coproduction with disabled people-led organisations.
“Now, after three years of almost total inaction, all that has happened is that four out of nine regional stakeholder networks have met and no minutes have been kept [by government] of their discussions.
“There is a major question regarding whether setting up unfunded networks with unpaid chairs demonstrates a genuine commitment by government to engage with disabled people.
“However, given that setting up regional networks was the government’s chosen engagement route, it does seem to have proved singularly ineffective.
“With the [government’s] national disability strategy being published next spring, there is a real urgency to create a dynamic and transparent engagement process with disabled people.
“Without this process, it is hard to see how the strategy will be credible.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson refused to explain why the Disability Unit had been so quiet during the pandemic; why it had not asked to see the minutes from the few regional network meetings that had taken place; whether ministers believed that regular meetings of the networks would have been useful during the pandemic; whether Tomlinson agreed that his comments to the women and equalities committee had been misleading; and whether Tomlinson accepted responsibility for these failings.
The spokesperson said: “We have nothing further to add to the foi you have.”
*Deaf and disabled people’s organisations
**The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) 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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