Our government has no intention of improving the lives of disabled people – the national disability strategy proves it

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Disabled charities have condemned the national disability strategy
Disabled charities have condemned the national disability strategy

Rejoice disabled Britons! Your lives are about to be transformed.

What? You’re saying you’re a mite sceptical about the new “national disability strategy” given the way the government has sat on its arse while Covid has cut a swathe through our numbers? O ye of little faith. Didn’t you know you can be James Bond in a wheelchair now?

Yes, as part of the much ballyhooed policy launch, the spooks have been told to bring in some crips for job interviews. MI6 has even been set an “interim target” of getting us up to 9 per cent of its workforce. You don’t need to be GCHQ level clever to see that that is someway short of the 12 per cent of Britons who have some form of disability. But I suppose finding disabled people who a) went to public school b) went to Oxbridge c) are communists and d) are in the pay of a hostile foreign power could prove to be something of a challenge.

Before a mysterious caller, perhaps from MI5, which is also supposed to increase the number of disabled people in its ranks but hasn’t been given a target, tells me off for my “out of date” view of how things are done in the intelligence services these days, I’m aware that they have changed since the Cambridge Five were betraying their country.

But this does rather speak to the farcical nature of what’s going on here. Setting targets for public sector employment could be a genuine game changer when it comes to the consistently wide disability employment gap. I’ve been calling for them for years. However, limiting them to an organisation with a (presumably) rather small and quite select workforce, the actual size of which is probably an official secret making the target difficult if not impossible to monitor, speaks volumes about the government’s approach.

You want to make a difference? Set a target for the NHS, or education, or, hell, the civil service, against which results can be judged. This is just a half arsed attempt to grab a headline.

When Boris Johnson used the word “transformational”, he was deploying his forkiest of forked tongues, the one that Labour’s Dawn Butler got kicked out of the House of Commons for calling attention to when she dared to use the word “liar” in connection with the prime minister.

The only thing this “strategy” is going to transform is how the government responds the next time its rotten record on disability is called out and someone approaches the DwP for comment. “The government is committed to transforming disabled people’s lives with our £1.6bn disability strategy blah, blah, bleeeurrrgh.”

Yes, there’s a cash number attached to this and it looks big and impressive. And if you’ve spent any time watching the way this government works you won’t be remotely surprised to learn that the disability charities I’ve been speaking to say it’s chock-full of spending that has already been announced. Really, the whole thing is nothing more than a mouldy block of cheddar cheese you can pick holes in with the aid of an old pencil.

I suppose one thing to be welcomed is that the government has at least produced the document in a range of alternative formats, but that only adds to the frustration created by its 100 pages being full of mostly meaningless verbiage.

Lord Shinkwin described it as a “broken promise”, saying he did not believe it would prevent disabled people from being shut out of society. If you can’t get a Tory peer who pals around with Iain Duncan Smith onside with your policy it simply isn’t worth the name.

You want to know how committed the government really is to the cause of disability rights? A matter of hours after the document was published, a judge ruled that the glaring absence of any British sign language interpretation for coronavirus “data briefings” on 21 September 2020 and 12 October 2020 constituted discrimination. Of course it did. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all recognised that and laid interpreters on. But apparently it was beyond Michael Gove, the minister the judge was ruling against.

The sense of disappointment within the disabled community was palpable. The sector’s charities tried to find the occasional positive to put in their reactions, because they have to work with the government to get things done. But they clearly struggled.

Scope said it liked the consultation on getting employers to put out figures on how many disabled people they employ, the promise of action to improve public transport, and the creation of a taskforce to look at the extra costs that disabled people face. But it described the whole package as little more than a one year action plan dressed up as a strategy. Disability Rights UK said it was “disappointingly thin”.

Perhaps the sharpest response, however, came from the MS Society which correctly identified the most glaring omission from the document: poverty. That, Mr Johnson, is a state many disabled Britons find themselves in and, needless to say, most of them aren’t getting jobs with MI6 or MI5 or GCHQ.

Policy manager Anastasia Berry archly stated that a disability strategy with nothing to say about financial support is like “a transport strategy with nothing to say about roads”.

“Perhaps the biggest insult for disabled people is being told, ‘the impact of the coronavirus has been distressingly disproportionate’. If the government really believes this, why have over 1.9 million disabled people on legacy benefits, including Job Seekers Allowance and Employment Support Allowance, been denied a £20 per week lifeline to get through the pandemic?”

PS: even those “fortunate” enough to have been upgraded to Universal Credit, to which the extra 20 quid applies, are going to have it withdrawn in September. Yet another government decision that will only further handicap – and I use that dated word because it’s appropriate for the government’s thinking – the lives of Britain’s disabled people.

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