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The Politics of Disability: A Forgotten Minister for Forgotten People

The real danger is that disability is regarded as a niche issue which only affects a small group who can easily be ignored, writes Stephen Unwin

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, Health and Work Mims Davies. Photo: Flora Thompson/PA/Alamy

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The news last week that the Prime Minister had decided to do without a dedicated Minister for Disabled People came as a punch in the guts to many, with the journalist and campaigner Frances Ryan describing it as the “perfect final middle finger” from a dying Government which has spent the past 13 years “impoverishing and humiliating” them.

The announcement a few hours later – possibly in response to the uproar – of the appointment of Mims Davies as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, Health and Work (alongside her responsibilities in the Department for Work and Pensions for, apparently, social mobility, youth and progression) did little to assuage the hurt.  

The awkward truth, however, is that whoever takes on this role, none of this will make much of a difference, largely because the Government’s record in this area is so lamentable.  

Some context might be useful.

It was the disability pioneer Alf Morris who was Britain’s first Under-Secretary of State for Disablement in Harold Wilson’s 1974 Government. Margaret Thatcher’s administration tried to take disabilities seriously, and John Major’s even passed the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. From 1997, there were some fairly effective ministers under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, as well as welcome initiatives such as ‘Valuing People’, the white paper on learning disabilities, in 2001.

Since 2010, the role has changed status and responsibility five times with 10 different ministers and secretaries of state being appointed. Taking on responsibility for the lives of disabled people seems to be simply an early stepping stone in a ministerial career.

David Cameron’s experience as the father of a profoundly disabled young man may have shaped his personal priorities but, in 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities concluded that his Government’s breaches of the treaty were “grave” and “systematic”. A further review in 2018 discovered that, while modest progress had been made, successive administrations were still failing in their core duties (as further evidenced by their refusal to even attend a key UN session this year to discuss their ongoing failures).

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The Government produced its 2021 National Disability Strategy (2021) in response, full of warm words, eager commitments and noble aspirations. What is striking is the emptiness at the heart of its recent Disability Action Plan for 2023-24. This boasts of the now discredited Down Syndrome Act (the flaws of which Ramandeep Kaur and I outlined in these pages), as well as the British Sign Language Act, the basic stipulations of which, a recent survey found, were ignored by more than half of government departments. 

The challenges faced by disabled children and their families are getting worse.

Most of the commitments made in the 2014 Children’s and Families Act have not been delivered and the key reform – the replacement of the Statements of Special Needs by the Education and Health Care Plans (EHCP) – has been implemented in such a haphazard way that disabled children are consistently let down.

Thousands of families have found themselves involved in expensive tribunals (which they nearly always win) pitted against local authorities which plead poverty while spending (in 2022-23) an astonishing £92 million on legal fees. 

The Government’s SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) review of 2021 – described as “a response to the widespread recognition that the system is failing to deliver” – was greeted by the Alliance for Inclusive Education as an “all-round failure”, while Disability Rights UK insisted that the plans weren’t radical enough and that investment in the future was “wholly insufficient”.

The revelation that the Department for Education had allegedly been instructed to cut the numbers requiring an EHCP by an arbitrary 20% stoked the suspicion that a disabled person is regarded by this Government as an expensive burden, not as a fellow citizen who may need some help.

Every month, we hear new stories of abuse, neglect and cruelty towards disabled people, especially in institutions supposedly set up to care for them. In addition to the many residential and supported living places deemed ‘inadequate’ by the Care Quality Commission, many learning disabled and autistic people are still confined in deeply unsuitable assessment and treatment units.

When the decision was taken to close them down in 2018, they held 2600 people; five years later, that number has only reduced by 20. Of these, 215 have been detained for at least five years, and a 135 for more than 10. These people have committed no crime and a government that genuinely cared about disabled people could have solved the problem.

The already perilous state of disabled people’s lives has been exacerbated by the triple whammy of Brexit, COVID and the cost of living crisis. The recruitment crisis in the NHS and the care sector has had a particularly negative impact on disabled people and, as the Office for National Statistics explains, disabled people were at significantly greater risk of death from COVID-19.

Indeed, according to Public Health England, mortality rates for learning-disabled young people with no significant comorbidities were six times higher than the average. Thus, when Boris Johnson declared in one of his breaks from partying at Downing Street that they should “let the bodies pile high”, it was the disabled as well as the elderly that he was consigning to death. 

The cost of living crisis has had devastating consequences for disabled people, who often need special equipment, personal assistance and reasonable adjustments to be able to live decent lives.

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But the fact that the new Under-Secretary also has responsibilities for “health and work” has caused concern – it suggests that the planned replacement of the Department for Work and Pensions’ clunky work capability assessments with a new system which will find more people suitable for work, is being actively pursued.

One activist dubbed this reform “a smokescreen for cuts” and it sometimes feels that disabled people might be tolerated so long as they can be employed. Otherwise, well, it’s every man for himself, frequently driving the less able into poverty, isolation and abject despair. 

Even problems that could easily be resolved are left unattended. For instance, almost £66 million of state and private investments held in child trust funds set up for disabled children cannot be accessed by their beneficiaries because they lack ‘capacity’. A simple adjustment in the process could sort this out. But nothing ever happens.

And when it does, as in the change of tack over the planned closure of ticket offices at railway stations, it’s only in response to a massive outcry by some very vocal physically disabled campaigners. It’s never because the people making the original decision had thought through the impact.  

This furore about the status of the politician responsible for the welfare of disabled people is possibly a distraction. After all, if (as is evidently the case but often ignored) disability is a fundamental part of the human condition, do we really need a minister with specific responsibilities? Or should all parts of government have to engage with disability as clearly mandated by the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and the Equality Act (2010)? 

The real danger is that disability is regarded as a niche issue which only affects a small group who can easily be ignored. How do we ensure that the disabilities that so many of us experience is front and centre? We certainly don’t need any more ministerial photo ops, trumped up ‘listening exercises’ or the further erosion of our inalienable human rights.  

The troubling fact is that most disabled people and their families feel that their lives are increasingly restricted and threatened. As they listen to powerful voices accusing them of being scroungers who must learn how to keep up in the great race of life, they sense the louring clouds of eugenics blotting out the sun, and ushering in a darker, colder time not just for them, but for all of us.   

Stephen Unwin is a theatre and opera director, writer and teacher

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