Disabled People Against the Cuts and others are trying to force a choice upon organisations such as Mind that provide or might in future provide services under contract with the government: stop doing so or forego your voice in debates about policy.
In a piece written by John Pring of the Disability News Service, Linda Burnip, the founder of DPAC, is quoted as arguing:
“It is clear to everyone that organisations taking money from the government to provide services of any kind will not be in a position to campaign in any effective way against the policies on welfare reform…These contracts are rumoured to be worth between £2 million and £30 million and once part of propping up the system, any independence to criticise it will be lost…It is shameful that organisations supposedly existing to benefit disabled people are willing to sell them out in such an abhorrent way.”
The irony of the position being taken by DPAC and others is that it is exactly the same as some of the most right wing figures in government: that charitable/not for profit organisations providing public services under contract with the State should play no role in ‘lobbying’ with respect to policy. There have already been many steps in this direction. As the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector found:
‘‘Gagging clauses’ are being used more widely, the new Lobbying Act has had a silencing effect on many charities and further restrictions have been placed on the ability of NGOs to support individuals challenging government decisions in the courts.”
In fact, the majority of disability organisations, from the ‘large charities’ such as RNIB, Mind, Mencap and Action on Hearing Loss through to small local Disabled People’s Organisations provide services often under contract with branches of national government such as Job Centre Plus and with local government. Were voluntary organisations providing public services prohibited from engaging in advocacy, it would in practice mean local DPO’s providing services such as direct payments support under contract with the council not being able to challenge local authority cuts, just as national charities providing employment support under contract with DWP would be prohibited from challenging government policies on welfare reform.
This would of course suit national and local government just fine, as despite being service providers most of big national disability charities have and continue to use their considerable power and influence to very publicly challenge the government, whether in relation to welfare reform or its failure to fund social care adequately for example. They have not, to the best of my knowledge, adopted positions which differ radically from those of grassroots campaigners when it comes to questions such as the WCA, cuts to PIP or the use of sanctions and they have been robust in their opposition. The effect of their not doing so would be catastrophic for those campaigning against punitive and ineffective welfare reform.
The alternative option is to stop providing services under contract, in which case the landscape of disability charities and organisations would soon look very empty indeed. Moreover, government contracts will continue to be issued, but they will be won and run solely by the Atos’s, G4S’s and Maximus’s of this world.
What this dispute really seems to be about is modes of influencing. Where some disability campaigners adopt protest, and believe that any form of engagement amounts to ‘collaboration’, others – including DPO’s as well as national charities – continue to believe engagement to be a more productive approach to securing change. That includes seconding staff into government departments in the hope that their insight and expertise might help shift policy in a more positive direction. It also includes striving to secure government funding to invest in more evidence based approaches to supporting disabled people, led by people with expertise and experience in the hope that this will influence practice more generally.
I believe that both protest and engagement each have a vital role to play. Both can be successful and both can fail.
What is certain in my mind is that disability campaigners turning on other disability campaigners over tactical disputes is a sure fire way to hand victory to those who have only one agenda – to disinvest in disabled people.