Tory peer warns Boris Johnson over ‘disdainful’ treatment of disabled people

Kevin Shinkwin

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) treats disabled people with “palpable disrespect”, a Conservative peer and disability rights campaigner has said.

Lord Kevin Shinkwin said he was concerned the new National Strategy for Disabled People, aimed at making the UK a fairer society, would not succeed if it was entrusted to the DWP alone.

Lord Kevin Shinkwi a Conservative member of the House of Lords warned Boris Johnson that his government’s new disability strategy has “discriminated” against the people it is intended to help and treated them with “disdain.”

Kevin Shinkwin, who chairs the Centre for Social Justice’s Disability Commission, wrote in an open letter to the prime minister that the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) engagement with disabled people has been “offensive and disrespectful” as well as “a PR exercise, and not a genuine listening exercise.”

He predicted that ministers are risking a rerun of the U.K.’s widely-criticized race disparities report if they do not delay the launch of the strategy in order to consult properly.

Lord Shinkwin has raised concerns with ministers on numerous occasions throughout the first half of this year, complaining that disabled people are not being sufficiently included in the process.

In his letter to Johnson on Monday, he wrote: “We have been discriminated against in the strategy’s development by the very department of which we are the primary stakeholders. If any other protected characteristic group had been treated with such disdain, there would have been an outcry. We have been treated as invalids, not as equals.”

“This outdated perspective delegitimizes the National Disability Strategy before it has even been published. Unless and until you intervene and ensure there is meaningful dialogue before its publication, in the eyes of many disabled people, your disability plan will be invalid.”

In particular, he highlighted that the DWP has declined to accept his recommendations in full and that a review of literature on disabled people’s experiences is not due to conclude until later this year — after the strategy has been finalized.

Lord Shinkwin called on the government to delay the strategy in order to allow wider consultation, until after the publication of the government’s flagship “leveling up” policy paper, expected in the autumn. He argues the disability strategy ought to form a key part of that agenda, which seeks to redirect investment to previously neglected regions of the country. 

A DWP spokesman said: “We are absolutely committed to improving the lives of disabled people, and the National Disability Strategy will set out an ambitious cross-government plan for the future, removing barriers and creating a fully inclusive society.

“We have undertaken the biggest listening exercise on disability policy in recent history with over 15,000 responses to our survey, ensuring the views and lived experiences of disabled people are reflected and their priorities are addressed.”

Separately, a group of disabled people is currently seeking permission to proceed with legal challenge against the work and pensions secretary over what they see as a failure to engage with key stakeholders.

On 15 January 2021, the UK Disability Survey was launched to ‘gather views’ for the development and delivery of the National Strategy for Disabled People. The Cabinet Office’s Disability Unit stated that the National Strategy ‘will transform British Society by improving opportunities and outcomes for disabled people’ with a focus on ‘practical action that will make a tangible difference to disabled people’s day-to-day lives.’ The areas covered by the Strategy will include education, housing, transport and the justice system.

However, virtually all questions in the survey were multiple-choice. Only four questions allowed free text responses, three of them being limited to 100 words and the other to 250 words. At no point did any of the questions outline any proposed content for the strategy or seek views on such content. The survey closes on 23 April 2021 and the proposed publication date of the National Strategy is spring 2021.

The Secretary of State has stated in a formal letter that the survey does not constitute a consultation, nor are they under an obligation to consult disabled people. This is despite the fact that the Disability Unit’s own website lists the survey as an ‘Open Consultation’, and a previous blog from the Disability Unit described an ‘ongoing consultation.’

One of the Claimants in this challenge, said:

“The Secretary of State’s approach to consulting disabled people, on a National Strategy which aims to ‘transform’ the lives of disabled people, is immensely disrespectful. Disabled people are best placed to say what changes would improve their own lives. This survey has not given disabled people any meaningful opportunity to do so, and therefore any strategy developed from the survey will be imposed on disabled people without their voices being heard.”

Solicitor at Bindmans, Shirin Marker, who represents the Claimants said:

“It is disappointing that the Secretary of State has taken this approach to consulting on a national strategy of potentially huge significance to disabled people. It is clear from the Claimants’ perspective that the survey is wholly inadequate in seeking their views on the National Strategy. We hope that the Secretary of State will reassess her position and commit to carrying out a lawful consultation. Any further delay in carrying out a lawful consultation will only delay the National Strategy, an undesirable position for all those in need of this strategy.”

The Claimants are seeking an order that the consultation is quashed and declared unlawful, requiring the Secretary of State to consult lawfully before she adopts a new strategy for disabled people.

A DWP spokesman said the government was “absolutely committed to improving the lives of disabled people.”

The National Strategy for Disabled People, being drawn up by the Cabinet Office’s disability unit, aims to remove barriers to participation in everyday life and particularly the workplace.

It was originally slated for publication in the spring but has been pushed back several times. A senior government official said it was “very nearly there,” raising expectations it could be released before parliament breaks for the summer on Thursday.

Last year, Johnson wrote to every Cabinet minister asking them how their department could help lower barriers faced by disabled people, outlining his intention for the strategy to be “the most ambitious endeavor on disability in a generation” and deliver the “greatest contribution to the lives of disabled people in our nation.”

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