If ‘opportunity’, not ‘capability’, was the focus of welfare to work

If a politician were genuinely serious about halving the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people and reducing the number of disabled people reliant wholly on benefit income to sustain themselves and their families they would focus on opportunity to work, not capability ‘for’ work.

Doing so would lead to two lines of reform.

On the employment gap, the test of public policy and programmes would be the degree to which they widened and deepened opportunity.   Not just more disabled people getting into work, but equally getting on at work and, crucially, staying in work.   Opportunity is multi-faceted.   Government policy should strive to create, nurture or sustain the opportunity infrastructure that widens and deepens opportunity.   Sadly the haphazard reforms of the current government are hacking away at this very infrastructure, drawing no distinction between the enabling supports that create and sustain opportunity and those areas of public expenditure which are emblematic of having failed to do so.   The last government’s anti-regulatory zeal positioned equality law as a barrier to economic recovery, the imposition of employment tribunal fees saw a 45% reduction in disability discrimination cases in one year and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has a budget now significantly less than that of the Disability Rights Commission in 2006-7.

An opportunity-focused agenda would:

  • Address the gaping hole in government policy and programme to close the qualifications gap between disabled and non-disabled people
  • Lead the reform and integration of enabling public service supports around the individual, both through personal budgets and local organizational support, as the Office for Disability Issues had begun to do before 2010
  • Invest much more in enabling supports such as the Access to Work scheme & begin reversing the under and disinvestment in social care.
  • Support and celebrate good employers for doing the right thing, encourage fence-sitting employers to do more and use meaningful sanctions on those that refuse to change, including through removing or significantly reducing Employment Tribunal Fees

A substantial amount of the costs involved could be paid for by cancelling the failed Work Programme as it relates to disabled people.

Regarding social security benefits, opportunity to work, not capability to work, would provide the new metrics for a personalized assessment regime that genuinely avoided the binary distinction of fit or not fit to work.   A work opportunity assessment would be rooted in the understanding of disability included in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

‘disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’

Hence in determining individual eligibility for benefits, the Work Opportunity Assessment would centre on this ‘interaction’ and in doing so take account not only of the functional effects of a persons impairment or health condition, but the disabling barriers that person faces or would face also. This would mean for example, consideration of the realistic chance of workplace adjustments, the availability of human or technological support, whether a person can access the means to travel to and from work and so on, as well as impact on health and well-being. The outcome would not concern ‘fitness to work’ but ‘prospects of work.’

The Work Opportunity Assessment would simultaneously avoid writing anyone off, while at the same time avoiding subjecting people to unreasonable expectations by taking account of the full spectrum of issues shaping their realistic prospects of work.   Through doing so, it would also inform strategies to close the disability employment gap by identifying barriers and acting as a further spur to find ways to remove them.

Plus ça change?

General Comment 5 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concerning persons with disabilities was published in 1994.  In its introduction it clarifies that:

‘The obligation of States parties to the Covenant to promote progressive realization of the relevant rights to the maximum of their available resources clearly requires Governments to do much more than merely abstain from taking measures which might have a negative impact on persons with disabilities. The obligation in the case of such a vulnerable and disadvantaged group is to take positive action to reduce structural disadvantages and to give appropriate preferential treatment to people with disabilities in order to achieve the objectives of full participation and equality within society for all persons with disabilities. This almost invariably means that additional resources will need to be made available for this purpose and that a wide range of specially tailored measures will be required.’

It then goes onto refer to a report by the Secretary‑General of the United Nations which noted how developments over the past decade in both developed and developing countries have been especially unfavourable from the perspective of persons with disabilities:

“… current economic and social deterioration, marked by low‑growth rates, high unemployment, reduced public expenditure, current structural adjustment programmes and privatization, have negatively affected programmes and services … If the present negative trends continue, there is the risk that [persons with disabilities] may increasingly be relegated to the margins of society, dependent on ad hoc support.”

The Committee goes onto remind States that

‘As the Committee has previously observed (general comment No. 3 (Fifth session, 1990), para. 12), the duty of States parties to protect the vulnerable members of their societies assumes greater rather than less importance in times of severe resource constraints.’

The UK government will be examined by the Committee later this year.  Let’s hope these principles are put fully to the test.

It’s high time we abandoned the language of vulnerability

‘To be alive is to be vulnerable’ Madeleine L’Engle

The language of ‘vulnerability’ continues to pervade public discourse regarding disabled people. ‘Vulnerability’ is employed to a number of ends by policy-makers and campaigners alike. In Parliamentary debates regarding welfare reform, politicians refer to the impact of benefit cuts not on disabled citizens but on ‘our most vulnerable citizens’. In relation to crime, disabled victims are often described as ‘vulnerable.’  Human rights defenders include disabled people among ‘vulnerable groups.’  In social care, official terminology describes people as ‘vulnerable adults’ to identify their need for additional ‘safeguarding.’

The term ‘vulnerable’ is a value-laden frame. It conveys weakness, the lack of capacity and agency of a person to look after themselves, the increased likelihood that they might come in harms way or be taken advantage of. In the context of welfare reform it is used to demark a group of people who cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other citizens.   It is employed to invoke compassion and to secure special ‘protection.’ It is also used instrumentally by people – particularly politicians – who wish to make their opponents appear unkind.

I believe that in fact the language of vulnerability makes disabled people less safe, undermines their status and opportunities in society and displaces accountability for their situation.

The paradox of employing the frame of ‘vulnerability’ is that it makes people more vulnerable. It does so by contributing to prejudices about disabled people. An apparently benevolent frame ‘vulnerability’ nevertheless conveys the same weakness and lack of capacity as the horrifyingly evil phrase ‘useless eaters’ employed by Nazi propaganda to win support for systematically murdering disabled adults and children.   It ‘others’ and objectifies disabled people, contributing to the process of de-humanisation that typically lies behind all identity based violence, abuse and neglect.

It undermines status and opportunities by painting people as lacking agency or as not being in possession of any productive potential.   It promotes the idea that society’s primary responsibility should be to act as custodians, not to respect and promote disabled people’s freedoms. This in turn orientates public policy and services towards a culture of liability for disabled people, in which people’s freedom’s are curtailed rather than supported.

And it displaces accountability by locating the vulnerability within the person, not their life situation and circumstances.   Taking people’s benefits away places them in a vulnerable situation. Not believing a person when they report that they have been sexually assaulted places them on a vulnerable situation. Housing a person with a learning disability on an estate where there are high levels of social deprivation and crime and where they have no social networks places them in a vulnerable situation. People become vulnerable when institutions fail and communities exclude. Describing people as intrinsically vulnerable allows the institutions to pass off that failure and communities to carry on excluding.

When I have raised this issue in the past few years people have said ‘yes, but we have no choice but to use these terms to fight the battles we have to fight over welfare reform.’   Yet there is no evidence that the language of vulnerability is effective even within the narrow scope of protecting people’s basic standard of living. Research in the USA carried out by the Frameworks Institute looked at the most effective frames via which to win public support for investment in programmes to promote early childhood development. Campaigners in the field had almost universally used ‘vulnerability’ when framing their policy advocacy and yet when Frameworks conducted research they found that the language of vulnerability actually depressed public support for the proposals.   Infinitely more powerful were frames regarding ingenuity and prosperity.   While to the best of my knowledge similar research has not been carried out here or in the USA into the effect of using the language of vulnerability in conjunction with policies regarding disabled people, I would hypothesise similar results. This – alongside the issues I raise above – is why I have proposed that disability activists avoid the language of welfare, care and ‘spending’ and instead use the language of investment in support, freedom and opportunity.

So, ‘vulnerability’ is potentially an ineffective frame that makes people less safe, cultivates prejudice and displaces accountability, doing profound damage to the well-being, freedom and opportunities of disabled people overall. It needs consigning to the dustbin of history. But what, if anything, should replace it?

It’s high time we abandoned the language of vulnerability

‘To be alive is to be vulnerable’ Madeleine L’Engle

The language of ‘vulnerability’ continues to pervade public discourse regarding disabled people. ‘Vulnerability’ is employed to a number of ends by policy-makers and campaigners alike. In Parliamentary debates regarding welfare reform, politicians refer to the impact of benefit cuts not on disabled citizens but on ‘our most vulnerable citizens’. In relation to crime, disabled victims are often described as ‘vulnerable.’   In social care, official terminology describes people as ‘vulnerable adults’ to identify their need for additional ‘safeguarding.’

The term ‘vulnerable’ is a value-laden frame. It conveys weakness, the lack of capacity and agency of a person to look after themselves, the increased likelihood that they might come in harms way or be taken advantage of. In the context of welfare reform it is used to demark a group of people who cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other citizens.   It is employed to invoke compassion and to secure special ‘protection.’ It is also used instrumentally by people – particularly politicians – who wish to make their opponents appear unkind.

I believe that in fact the language of vulnerability makes disabled people less safe, undermines their status and opportunities in society and displaces accountability for their situation.

The paradox of employing the frame of ‘vulnerability’ is that it makes people more vulnerable. It does so by contributing to prejudices about disabled people. An apparently benevolent frame ‘vulnerability’ nevertheless conveys the same weakness and lack of capacity as the horrifyingly evil phrase ‘useless eaters’ employed by Nazi propaganda to win support for systematically murdering disabled adults and children.   It ‘others’ and objectifies disabled people, contributing to the process of de-humanisation that typically lies behind all identity based violence, abuse and neglect.

It undermines status and opportunities by painting people as lacking agency or to as not being in possession of any productive potential.   It promotes the idea that society’s primary responsibility should be to act as custodians, not to respect and promote disabled people’s freedoms. This in turn orientates public policy and services towards a culture of liability for disabled people, in which people’s freedom’s are curtailed rather than supported.

And it displaces accountability by locating the vulnerability within the person, not their life situation and circumstances.   Taking people’s benefits away places them in a vulnerable situation. Not believing a person when they report that they have been sexually assaulted places them on a vulnerable situation. Housing a person with a learning disability on an estate where there are high levels of social deprivation and crime and where they have no social networks places them in a vulnerable situation. People become vulnerable when institutions fail and communities exclude. Describing people as intrinsically vulnerable allows the institutions to pass of that failure and communities to carry on excluding.

When I have raised this issue in the past few years people have said ‘yes, but we have no choice but to use these terms to fight the battles we have to fight over welfare reform.’   Yet there is no evidence that the language of vulnerability is effective even within the narrow scope of protecting people’s basic standard of living. Research in the USA carried out by the Frameworks Institute looked at the most effective frames via which to win public support for investment in programmes to promote early childhood development. Campaigners in the field had almost universally used ‘vulnerability’ when framing their policy advocacy and yet when Frameworks conducted research they found that the language of vulnerability actually depressed public support for the proposals.   Infinitely more powerful were frames regarding ingenuity and prosperity.   While to the best of my knowledge similar research has not been carried out here or in the USA into the effect of using the language of vulnerability in conjunction with policies regarding disabled people, I would hypothesis similar results. This – alongside the issues I raise above – is why I have proposed that disability activists avoid the language of welfare, care and ‘spending’ and instead use the language of investment in support, freedom and opportunity.

So, ‘vulnerability’ is potentially an ineffective frame that makes people less safe, cultivates prejudice and displaces accountability, doing profound damage to the well-being, freedom and opportunities of disabled people overall. It needs consigning to the dustbin of history. But what, if anything, should replace it?

It’s time to make disability equality relevant again.

The period between the early 1990s and 2010 saw huge leaps forwards in law to prohibit discrimination and to advance equality for disabled people.  From the first Disability Discrimination Act 1995, twenty years ago this year, to the Disability Rights Commission Act in 1999, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2002 which saw the DDA extends across schools, further and higher education, the extension of the DDA’s employment provisions to all employers in 2002, the implementation of the duty on service providers to make adjustments regarding physical access in October 2004 and the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, which extended the Act’s provisions to transport providers and to public functions, expanded the duties of landlords and introduced a duty on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people.  The Equality Act 2006 replaced the Disability Rights Commission with the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  The Equality Act 2010 incorporated into a single piece of equality legislation the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act’s albeit maintaining most of the features that distinguished them from other areas of equality legislation related to gender, race, age and so on.  The latter act also extended the reach of disability discrimination law, extending duties to provide auxiliary aids and services as a reasonable adjustment to schools, prohibiting the use of pre-employment health questionnaires by employers and clarifying that direct disability discrimination applied to those associated with disabled people, such as carers, or perceived to be disabled, whether they actual are or are not.   .

From the early to late ‘noughties’ ‘disability equality’ framed the agenda regarding disability policy in the UK.  Developments in the UK mirrored those internationally during this time, with laws to prohibit disability discrimination being enacted in North America, Australasia and across the European Union.  Today in the UK it sometimes feels like a forgotten agenda from a bygone age, which is why it’s so heartening to see the House of Lords choose to focus a ‘post-legislative scrutiny committee’ on the impact of the Equality Act 2010 for disabled people.

What has emerged in the intervening period is a yawning implementation gap.

In the absence of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) and the ever more weakened Equality and Human Rights Commission (now smaller than the DRC was in 2005/6) there has been little if any official promotion or systematic enforcement of the law since the production of Equality Act guidance in 2010.

Changes to legal aid,  judicial review, the introduction of employment tribunal fees, the absence of alternative dispute resolution in relation to goods and services and the general decimation of the advice sector have cumulatively placed the law beyond most people’s reach.

Where the Disability Rights Commission’s helpline handled around 120,000 inquiries in its final full year of operation, the Equality Advisory and Support Service (which handles calls in relation to all the grounds covered by the Equality Act) now handles between 40-50,000 inquiries a year – a fraction of what the DRC did (interestingly 62% of those inquiries relate to disability).

Through secondary legislation the government has eroded the influence and effect of the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) in England.  Once explicit duties on public bodies to involve disabled people in the discharge of their disability equality duties – duties which research showed had enjoyed the a transformative effect -are now only implied in guidance. Explicit duties to conduct equality impact assessments regarding policies and decisions are not only gone, the very step itself has been attacked by the Prime Minister David Cameron as unnecessary red-tape, a sentiment echoed by the Chair of the PSED review, despite having found no evidence to sustain his argument.  The ‘red-tape challenge’ leading to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act also unhelpfully positioned anti-discrimination law as a constraint on enterprise and economic growth, rather than as a vehicle for ensuring that Britain draws on all of its talent.

Away from government and public bodies a principal point of engagement between disabled people’s organisations and the Act has been to seek to utilise the Public Sector Equality Duty as a bulwark against spending cuts and policy reforms.  While this has led to some successes in slowing the pace of reform and in exposing potential impact it has generally failed to halt damaging policy implementation, as has been seen in relation to the Independent Living Fund.  A succession of such cases has arguably further weakened the influence of the Duty itself, with each case revealing its limitations as a ‘process duty’ (that is, so long as public bodies follow the right steps they can lawfully implement decisions which set disability equality back).  Moreover, the duty is now largely characterised almost solely as a tool to frustrate the implementation of government policies, rather than a vehicle for policy implementation.  What political support it may have enjoyed has as a consequence been eroded further still.  I have little doubt that a Labour-led government between May 2010 and May 2015 would also have become intolerant of a succession of such cases.

Of course the key difference is between equality in a time of growth and a government committed to unprecedented increases in public spending and equality in a time of recession and a government committed to unprecedented spending reductions.  It is perfectly understandable that people should look to the law to protect them from reforms which will without doubt damage their wellbeing and set disability equality back.  But it would be unwise – in my opinion – to continue to allow the equality agenda to be cast solely in those terms.  Doing so further creates the imperatives for government to block routes to redress and enforcement and to cast the law as a burden.  We need to be able to demonstrate the central role of equality law, policy and practice in building an opportunity society in which everyone can flourish and in creating and sustaining inclusive economic recovery.  Government must once again regard equality law, policy and practice as a means to its own policy ends, not always at odds with it.

Regarding disability equality, an opportunity lies in what appears to be have been largely overlooked: that the Conservative Party manifesto committed to halving the employment gap between disabled and non disabled people.  People are right to be fearful of how this commitment might be used to justify further, largely unrelated reforms to disability benefits as indeed is being touted in relation to benefit rates of those in the Work Related Activity Group.  But the opportunity is to re-assert the question of discrimination and labour market disadvantage – to ensure that its influence on disabled people’s job prospects is not ignored and to set forward proposals for how discrimination and structural disadvantages can be addressed as part of a comprehensive new approach designed to help achieve the government’s goals, not to stand in their way.

Disability equality can equally be re-asserted in relation to the achievement of other policy aims, such as implementation of the Care Act 2014 or the NHS Five Year Plan, where issues of accessibility and inclusion are instrumental to achieving prevention and well-being.

Without this I fear all the gains of the 1990s and 2000s risk becoming a curious footnote in  history.  The Equality Act itself will remain, but like a long dormant volcano, it will have little bearing on disabled people’s futures. As a starting point I encourage as many people as possible to submit evidence to the House of Lords Committee.

Disability equality is too important to give up on.  It’s time to make it relevant once again.

Is the welfare state responsible for prejudice towards disabled people?

In truth, we do not know what motivates people to exhibit hostility towards disabled people, from general incivility though to name calling, harassment, abuse, violence and in some cases killing.  As Katherine Quarmby has reminded us, the last government accepted the recommendation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to carry out research into the motivations of perpetrators, but it has thus far failed to honour that commitment.  Hence what I am about to write must be regarded as speculation.

I think it is probably safe to say that a great deal of such hostility is a manifestation of prejudices towards disabled people that are widely held.  For the most part people do not act on those prejudices in a fashion that is experienced by disabled people as hostility per se.  Such prejudices do nevertheless shape behaviours towards disabled people, some of which can become institutionalised and which manifest themselves as, for example, the way disability is framed in public discourse (‘our most vulnerable citizens’), discrimination by employers and services providers, low expectations of disabled pupils in school and so on.  To these ends hostility can be viewed as part of a continuum, informed by the same well of prejudice that underpins discrimination or generally derogatory views regarding disabled people.

Various campaigners and commentators have suggested both that disability hate crime is on the rise and that the primary driver is so called ‘scrounger rhetoric’ (the claim or implication in media reports or the comments of politicians that people are evading their obligations to work, preferring instead to live off the welfare state).  There is in fact no  evidence that disability hate crime is rising.  According to the most comprehensive analysis is has remained broadly stable since 2007, albeit at a shocking 72000 incidents per year.  We do not know the scale of disability hate crime before that date as it was not measured, but we do know that it existed sufficient to make the case for legislation to recognise hostility towards disabled people as an aggravating factor in the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Given that disability hate crime was not was recorded by the police until 2007 it is unsurprising that recorded disability hate crime has risen since (from zero).  This is especially so given the prominence of the issue in the media, in government policy and programmes, the EHRC’s major inquiry into disability related harassment and the prominence given to it by the police and Crown Prosecution Service.  But after 8 years recorded disability hate crime still amounts to less than 2000 a year of the estimated 72000 incidents.   The real story is not that recorded disability hate crime is rising, it’s that it is not rising fast enough and that police performance across the country is extremely patchy.  Those leaping on statistics such as that quoted by the Scotsman last week (portraying a rise in recorded disability hate crime from 48 in 2011 to 177 at the end of last year as a ‘270%’ rise in disability hate crime) are unwittingly helping to obscure institutional failure.  The real story in Scotland is that 97% of incidents go unreported, un-investigated and unpunished.

Does ‘scrounger rhetoric’ create a hostile climate for disabled people in which prejudices are shaped or given more legitimacy, or in which misunderstanding is more likely to spill into hostility?  That seems likely I think, just as there are spikes in hostility towards people of Asian origin in the light of terrorist attacks and media reports surrounding it, or which correlate to anti-immigration messages in the press of from politicians: it helps create a ‘suspect community’.  Certainly many people have reported hostility in which their status – real or perceived – as a benefit claimant has featured.  Yet there is no evidence of a spike in disability hate crime since 2010.

As I have said before, laying blame for disability hate crime at the door of welfare reform and the rhetoric surrounding it is therefore deeply spurious, instrumentalising without an evidence base  disability hate crime to the ends of challenging welfare reform.  For scrounger rhetoric to be a primary driver of disability hate crime the statistics require that it would have played a central role not just in the past 5 years, but for the past 10 or more.  This is not to suggest that it plays no role.  Rather that it is not primarily responsible for disability hate crime and therefore focusing on it risks ignoring the real causes and undermining the search for solutions.

I do think it is likely is that the prejudice underpinning hostility is rooted in long held views of disabled people as of less worth, and it would seem obvious that scrounger rhetoric might compound rather than challenge such views.  However, the response to ‘scrounger rhetoric’ is equally problematic for rather than emphasising disabled people’s worth it commonly emphasises their ‘vulnerability’ and ‘weakness.’  Such ideas are invoked to invite compassion.  Yet I fear they compound the idea of disabled people as being of less worth – as objects, not citizens.

And this is, I believe the far deeper problem we face of which so called ‘scrounger rhetoric’ is one manifestation: that to be legitimately disabled is to be weak and vulnerable.  Those not conforming to such stereotypes, yet seeking society’s support via social security or charity  become objects of suspicion – falsely claiming disability benefits and withholding their productive potential from the world of work.  Vik Finkelstein, a veteran of the anti-Aparthaid movement and key architect of the UK’s disability rights movement predicted this 40 years ago when he said of plans for a specific disability benefit:

‘The State, of course, will automatically be in conflict with us for it will seek to limit its handouts, otherwise there would be no one at work. State Charity, therefore, creates a conflict of interests between the State and its social administrators on the one hand and physically’ impaired people on the other. Thus the (Disability) Alliance logically sees the need to establish objective criteria which would enable the State’s social administrators to determine the “degree of disability” and to exclude the malingerers from benefit.’

Despite all the progress made in building an agenda for disability equality and inclusion since Finkelstein outlined these risks, they continue to overwhelm our ability to escape this completely destructive conception of what it is to be disabled.  Rather than State support being regarded as an investment in disabled people – like education, health or transport – it is cast almost solely as the cost of looking after the weak and vulnerable.  And it is the idea of disability as a category of ‘need’ – rather than a form of social oppression – that is so entrenched and which continues to dominate public understanding and discourse.

Scrounger rhetoric is not – in my estimation – responsible for disability hate crime.  Rather, both draw from the same poisoned well that continues to regard disability as an intrinsic deficit.  To have strengths and assets is to not be disabled enough and hence to be legitimately suspected of faking it.  To be disabled enough is to be regarded as weak and vulnerable – an object of compassion (disguising prejudice which can find expression in hostility).

We have to challenge and move beyond this modern day ‘ducking stool.’ ‘Work for those who can, security for those who cannot’ is a divisive force that no longer serves disabled people’s interests whether capable of paid employment or not.  In the face of the challenges ahead there should be no more demands for ‘care and welfare’ – the fight must for investment, support and inclusion for all.  Only then will we genuinely begin to get the roots of prejudice and to build a safe and genuinely inclusive society.

Lazy misreporting of startling rises in disability hate crime disguise institutional failure

Disability hate crimes in Scotland have not risen by 270% in five years as so misleadingly reported in the Scotsman.  Overall incidence of disability hate crime has – according to an authoritative report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – remained stable year on year since 2007 (at an estimated 72000 per year for England, Scotland and Wales combined). Based on the size of Scotland’s population we might therefore reasonably estimate around 6000 incidents per year in Scotland.

What the data reported by the Scotsman shows is a rise in the number of such crimes reported to and recorded by the police, not in overall incidence.  Based on the estimated 6000 incidents a year this amounts to an increase in the proportion of such crime reported to and recorded by the police from around 0.8% of all such crimes in Scotland in the year ending March 2011 (48) to just under 3% of all such crimes last year (117).  This suggests progress, of a sort.  But looked at another way it continues to mean that around 97% of such incidents are not reported to or recorded by the police or other agencies.

That should be the story – not that disability hate crime is going up (there is no evidence that it is), but that it is not going down and that criminal justice agencies are failing to ensure the rights of disabled people to live their lives in safety and security.

Yet too often the data is being leapt on and completely misrepresented to serve other narratives regarding the impact of welfare reform and the rhetoric surrounding it, without any hard evidence, as in this recent piece by Frances Ryan in the Guardian.

The facts are that:

  • There is no evidence of a rise in the incidence of disability hate crime since 2010 – it has remained broadly stable at 72000 incidents per year since 2007
  • While there may be sound anecdotal evidence which must be taken seriously, there is no hard evidence that a primary driver of disability hate crime is so called ‘scrounger rhetoric’ (important to note that we know very little about the motivations of perpetrators and that the last government promised and then failed to carry out research into the issue).  I will write separately about this.
  • The numbers of crimes reported to and recorded by the police and other agencies has risen, as have the number of prosecutions, since they first began to be recorded in 2007.  This seems quite natural, as not only were they not being recorded before that date, awareness has risen substantially and there have been national policies and programmes to address it.  As I say above, the real story is how little difference these appear to have made.

Such misreporting is dangerous and damaging.  Not only does it promote unnecessary fear of personal crime, it smoothes the way for broken criminal justice institutions to pass off their failure as being a product of a ‘broken society.’

Fantasy disability manifesto

So the General Election is upon us.  We’ve seen what the Party’s have to offer disabled people.  It’s been somewhat disappointing, both in tone and content.  Here are five things that the various manifestos perhaps still offer an opportunity to pursue.

Independent Living reboot

Legislation to codify Article 19 of the UNCRPD, requiring local councils to lead on the production and implementation of independent living strategies within a national framework for action.  A duty to involve disabled people. Support for a national network of independent, user led Access to Living Centres.  Investment in social care, recognised as part of the national infrastructure.  Reform of the Mental Capacity Act to codify models of supported decision making.

Inclusive economic growth

Action to narrow the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people embedded in national, regional and local economic growth strategies, and extracted from ‘welfare to work.’  DWP dissolved as a department of government.  Personal employment support budgets replace the work programme and expert brokerage widely available.  Significant increase in investment in the Access to Work scheme.  A major focus on up-skilling disabled people, in particular those age 16-24 including through apprenticeships

Action on disability related costs of living

A holistic plan targeting the causes and consequences of extra disability-related costs of living.  Includes strategic use of national and local government procurement power to drive down the costs of specialist equipment and technologies, incentives to business to innovate in producing inclusive products and services, ‘asset-based’ interventions such as supporting home ownership and the changing of rules, such as in relation to social care charges, which act as a disincentive to saving.

Tackling prejudice and promoting understanding

Seed resources provided by government to establish an organisation to co-produce and lead the implementation of a national plan to tackle prejudice towards disabled people and to promote understanding.  Begins with in depth research to understand the nature of prejudice towards disabled people and the kinds of methods that are likely to prove effective in uprooting it.

Access to justice

There will be no financial cost of bringing a case to employment tribunals and consideration will be given to creating equality tribunals that will also hear cases regarding discrimination in the field of access to goods, facilities and services.  A truth and reconciliation process will be established concerning the historic institutionalisation and ill-treatment of people with learning disabilities.

 

On Conservative proposals on or affecting disabled people

Yesterday I blogged about Labour’s ‘mini manifesto’ aimed at disabled people.  The Tories haven’t to the best of my knowledge produced an equivalent so the comments below are based on those elements of their manifesto that appear most immediately relevant, namely employment, social security, health and social care, human rights and equality and the Paralympic legacy.

1. Starting on the positives, I think the ambition here is really welcome: ‘we will aim to halve the disability employment gap: we will transform policy, practice and public attitudes, so that hundreds of thousands more disabled people who can and want to be in work find employment.’  Of course people will be worried about how this plays into welfare reform (see below) but I’m personally pleased to see closing the employment gap so visibly back on the agenda and I welcome the emphasis on policy, practice and attitudes.  But the Tories need a better plan than CSR-lite Disability Confident to bring this about.  Ensuring that the plan to create 3 million new apprenticeships is inclusive will be critical. Restoring easy access to employment tribunals for those who have experience discrimination would be a way for the Tories to celebrate their own legacy in having introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 20 years ago this year.  Expanding rather than contracting the Access to Work scheme is central to making this work.

2. On welfare, well what can one really say without any of the detail other than £12 Billion more cuts will be devastating and undermine pretty much every other objective – employment, health, social care.

3. On social care, the proposals are entirely focused on older people and as with Labour the Tories propose integration with health, as well as devolution to City Regions.   And as I commented with respect to Labour proposals, my concern is of social care becoming a subset of the heath system, ignoring the role social care places within a wider framework of promoting independent living.  While the Care Act includes a set of well being outcomes which do situate social care within such a framework, the devolution and integration of health and social care indicates that they may not get much of a look in in future, especially in the light of the ageing population.  Moreover the big figures quoted come nowhere near addressing the social care funding gap.

4. On education it is appalling to see the Tories celebrate creating ‘2,200 more special schools places through our free schools programme’, confirming my fears that the political shibboleth of parental choice is going to undermine further progress on inclusive education – a key building block of an inclusive society.

5. Talking of inclusive societies it is curious that the commitment to build on ‘our Olympic and Paralympic legacy’ includes no proposals regarding disability sport or anything concerning disabled people at all.  Odd as I thought that had been a big focus of the Office for Disability Issues in recent years.

6. Finally – and critically – The Tories propose to scrap the Human Rights Act in order to ‘break the formal link’ between British Courts and the European Court of Human Rights.  Hence in future British Courts would not be required to take account of the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, which in recent years has made groundbreaking judgments affecting disabled people – jurisprudence that is increasingly taking account of the UN Disability Rights Convention – such as in relation to hate crime, institutionalisation and independent living.  Would our own Courts be as prepared to push the boundaries for disabled people’s human rights?  I don’t think so and disabled people should be very concerned about these proposals.

All in all, good ambition on employment and like the framing of an inclusive economy, but most of the policies in here will undermine the opportunities of many disabled people to take advantage of economic growth, as well as generally leading to a further depreciation in people’s well being and their enjoyment of basic human rights.

A better future for disabled people?

Today Labour launched its ‘mini-manifesto’ on disability.  Here, for what it’s worth, are my immediate thoughts:

I really welcome the framing – emphasis on what disabled people contribute and have to contribute, on opportunity and independent living. This about ambition for people, not simply ‘looking after’ them.  It has felt as though this vision of disability rights had been parked in 2010.  Making this the true test of policy is exactly what’s required to jolt us out of the downward spiral of welfare toughness that has blocked out the light for far too long.

But how far do the proposals go to advance such an agenda?

1. Good to see emphasis on independent living through integrated services, but it worries me that this will be integration into health rather than an integration which accords parity to  the range of outcomes described in the Care Act.  It also seems limited to health and social care, when what we really need to get back to is the thinking and principles which underpinned the ill-fated Right to Control.   Basic point: services may be fragmented, but people’s daily lives are not.  Liz Kendal gets this I think and I hope Labour will be brave enough in office to go further with an integration agenda based on the principle of giving people a life, not a service.

2. Obviously positive to see the commitment regarding Assessment and Treatment Units, but really need to see Labour’s plan.

3. I’m sure the commitment on teacher training is welcome, but it would be good to know what the broader position of Labour now is on inclusive education, especially in the new context of free schools and uber parental choice.

4. Scrapping the Work Programme and localising support is welcome (after all, there’s very little Labour could do to make the current system worse!).  As per my first point, I’d like to see Labour experiment at least with personalisation in relation to employment support, along the lines of proposals Liz Sayce and I produced in 2013, which would put disabled people seeking work and employers in the driving seat as commissioners of the support they need.  I hope Labour doesn’t again bow to the influence and pressure of the big employment support providers, wasting more £millions of public money on block contracts and including the perverse incentives to skim and park of the Freudian payment by results.  Perhaps they should be brave enough to scrap DWP altogether and move national leadership for employment support to the department leading on business and skills, linking it to enterprise and growth rather than the dead hand of benefits reform?

5. On hate crime, I feel like a stuck record, but disappointing to see Labour repeat the myth that the incidence of disability hate crime has risen.  It has not – the only known rise has been in reporting, which is most likely to be a sign of progress.  I don’t know if making it a freestanding offence will make a radical contribution, but it certainly won’t do alone and what is really required is a major initiative to tackle prejudice towards disabled people to prevent hostility before it happens.

6. On the WCA – my own view is that the problem isn’t with its ‘flawed operation’ but with the fact that it is based on flawed logic.  But I don’t expect much change here so anything that makes the system fairer and more humane within its existing terms is I guess to be welcomed.

7. On the costs of living, the cancellation of the ‘bedroom tax’ and a freeze on energy bills may benefit some disabled people disproportionately (but nowhere near as many as figures banded about suggest).  I can’t see how the proposals for rail operating companies and bus providers shift us from where we already are, but I may be missing something.  It’s perhaps telling that the commitments on PIP are in the previous section on social security, with only a commitment to administer assessments more speedily.  PIP is a benefit designed to contribute towards the extra costs of disability.  Hundreds of thousands of people will lose it (and with it their passport to other benefits such as motability severely limiting people’s life opportunities) while many others who would have received DLA will not received PIP in future.  This is a cost of living crisis in the making, about which the manifesto says nothing at all.

8. It’s welcome that Labour will commit to conducting equality impact assessments.  It would be more welcome if they committed to restoring impact assessment as an explicit requirement of all public bodies under the Equality Act, as they proposed during the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill debates in Parliament in 2013.  It would also be good to see proposals on supporting people to access courts and tribunals when they have experienced discrimination, and proposals to beef up enforcement via the EHRC or alternative mechanisms.

9. It’s also welcome to see Labour’s proposals regarding involvement.  It will be useful to see how the detail of the proposal for a Committee distinguishes it from Equality 2025, established by the last Labour government.  It would also again be good to see Labour reinstate the specific duty on public bodies to involve disabled people in meeting their obligations under the Public Sector Equality Duty.

10. With respect to 8&9 these are largely about restoration of previous policy.  Labour has linked these to a commitment to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  As the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights concluded in 2012, while both are important they are insufficient alone to bring implementation about.  Indeed, a succession of Court cases since 2010 has demonstrated how these ‘process duties’ can allow public bodies to show ‘due regard’ to disability equality while at the same time implementing policies which do huge damage, such as closing down the Independent Living Fund without concrete alternatives to replace it.  Hence if Labour are genuinely serious about a ‘better future for disabled people’ they should use the occasion of the UNCRPD Committee’e examination of the UK – expected 2016/17 – to co-produce a national action plan for implementation of the Convention, replacing the vague, un-measureable ‘Fulfilling Potential’ with a set of genuine goals and milestones.

All in all, very welcome framing and rhetoric from Labour, but many of the specific proposals underlying it are modest and mostly about tinkering or some light restoration rather than large scale refurbishment or building anew.   Maybe in the closest election fought in my lifetime that’s unsurprising, but on the other hand given the scale of the challenges faced I hoped for a bit more of the vision thing.