23 April 2015
By John Pring, Disability News Service
ELECTION 2015: Labour’s disability manifesto chaos
Labour’s launch of its disability manifesto has descended into chaos after major disagreements between a shadow minister and a leading disabled election candidate over how far it would go in government to address disability poverty.
The mini-manifesto appears to offer few concrete pledges around empowering disabled people, despite a promise to “restore the concept of independent living to the heart of our public services, tailoring our health, education and care systems to disabled people’s needs”.
It focuses instead on welfare reform, including promises to replace the Work Programme and Work Choice with a new specialist programme for most disabled people claiming employment and support allowance, and to reform the work capability assessment (WCA).
But there is nothing on accessible housing, the enforcement of disabled people’s rights under the Equality Act, the adult social care funding gap, or whether a Labour government would increase the Access to Work budget.
One of the few solid proposals is to force firms bidding for rail franchises to set out how they would ensure access for disabled passengers, while it can only promise that a Labour government would “work to develop a strategy for supporting the long term care and support needs of all disabled people”.
The manifesto also promises a new cross-government committee – which would include disabled people – to develop disability policy.
But after the launch, Emily Brothers, the only disabled election candidate to attend the event, told Disability News Service (DNS) that her understanding was that a Labour government would go much further than the pledges laid out in the disability manifesto.
Instead, she said, it would implement every one of the recommendations made in last year’s report for Labour on breaking the link between disability and poverty, chaired by Sir Bert Massie.
This would mean that – despite its warning of further spending cuts – a Labour government would introduce a sweeping range of policies designed to support disabled people in work, and out of it, and invest in accessible transport and housing.
Labour was criticised last year for appearing to sideline the report of Sir Bert’s Disability and Poverty Taskforce, and refusing to publicise its conclusions.
Kate Green, the minister for disabled people, had even failed to share a link to the report when it was published last year, although she did find time on the day of its publication to tweet a picture of herself welcoming the Easter Bunny to her constituency.
And there were fears this week that the report was, as feared, “dead in the water”, when few of its recommendations appeared in the disability manifesto.
But Brothers, one of Labour’s most prominent disabled election candidates, said she believed that the party backed all the Massie report’s recommendations and would implement all of them in due course.
The Massie report called on a future Labour government to make a “wise investment” in disabled people in order to break the link between disability and poverty, and included recommendations across government work programmes; social security; the extra costs of disability; and disability equality.
Brothers’ comments suggest a Labour government would scrap the work capability assessment; launch a “major drive” to improve the skills of disabled people; and double the number of disabled people claiming Access to Work support.
It would also mean replacing the Work Programme and Work Choice with a new system of personalised employment support; commissioning a detailed investigation into disability poverty; and investing in accessible and affordable housing and transport.
A Labour government, according to Brothers, would also scrap the coalition’s controversial decision to tighten the “moving about” criteria for its new personal independence payment from 50 metres to 20 metres.
There would also be a review of how disabled people’s rights are protected through organisations such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Office for Disability Issues.
And public bodies would be forced to set out “mitigating actions” if they thought new laws and policies, such as spending decisions, would have a negative impact on disability equality.
Brothers, who is standing for Labour against the Liberal Democrat former care minister Paul Burstow in Sutton and Cheam, told DNS that Labour would implement all of the Massie report’s recommendations.
“That is my understanding, that we will – over time – implement the Massie report.
“We agree with the recommendations of the Massie report. The issue is how and when those different recommendations will be implemented. Some will come sooner than others.”
“There will be a detailed implementation plan that will need to be worked through, with disabled people.”
She said that a Labour government would also update Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People, its 2005 disability strategy.
But Brothers said there were some policies that she would have liked Labour to include in its disability manifesto – apart from those in the Massie report – such as a commitment to reopen the Access to Elected Office fund.
She also said she hoped that a Labour government would implement the parts of its Equality Act the coalition had so far failed to introduce, such as measures on accessible taxis, although it is already promising to introduce the act’s “very important” dual discrimination clause, a pledge included in its LGBT manifesto.
And Brothers, who previously worked for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said she hoped a Labour government would strengthen the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty, to “make it a practical, pragmatic tool and not just about process”.
She also said there would have to be a conversation “across the Labour team” over how to ensure that its pledge to build one million new homes would ensure sufficient accessible housing.
“We don’t have all the answers, but we are very clearly saying in our manifesto that we want to engage with disabled people and have those conversations… and that’s why we are going to set up this [cross-government] group, in order to have that conversation.”
Brothers also admitted that there was a “learning point” for the party, after its apparent failure to include a picture of a single disabled person in its main manifesto.
“Showing diversity is important, because we want to deliver a programme in government that reflects all of society.”
But despite Brothers’ words, Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, has since cast doubt on the party’s commitment to the Massie report.
Green said that some parts of the report had been considered by Labour’s national policy forum and last year’s annual conference and were “reflected” in the manifesto, but that . . .
“the recommendations as a whole remain under consideration and I expect the cross-government body we have announced to return to them in shaping our future policies and priorities”.
So far she has not been able to explain the difference between her understanding of her party’s disability policies and that of Brothers.
The party refused to allow DNS to attend the launch of the disability manifesto at National Grid’s offices in London, despite DNS asking at least three Labour party figures – including Green and Brothers – and the party’s press office for details of how to attend.
A spokesman for shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves denied this had been because the party did not want its disability policies scrutinised.
He said there had been “limited space at the event”, because it had been held in a “relatively small room”.
Green, who attended the launch, along with Reeves, Brothers and former Labour home secretary David Blunkett, said the launch had not been a “set piece media event”.
From the written media, only a journalist from the Mirror and representatives of the charity United Response were invited.