The Government, Voluntary Action and History Repeating

28/09/2012

It has been reported that the Office for Disability Issues wants to form a new umbrella body for disabled people – the Disability Action Alliance (DAA). Allegedly Disability Rights UK (DRUK) will be appointed as the organisers of this cooperative ‘which will be tasked with producing new disability policies for the coalition’.1

Now, before I go into the history of this, let me put some cards on the table. I quite like the people I’ve met from DRUK, both through the pages of crusty old documents and in person. They have been extremely helpful in my research both in allowing me access to their archives and through providing an outlet for me to disseminate my findings.2 I am, therefore, open to accusations of “bias”, though I have also received help from the UK Disabled People’s Council, severe critics of the plan, as part of my work with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. I hope that this serves as a balanced overview of the situation, as viewed by an interested observer.

This decision has caused a bit of a stink. RNIB, UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC), Scope and Inclusion London have all spoken out against it. They are concerned that the appointment was not transparent and puzzled as to why this decision to create the DAA in the first place was not done in public.

There are a number of things which immediately stand out as an historical, outside observer.

The name

“Disability Action Alliance” is awfully similar to “Disability Alliance”. DA was an umbrella group established in 1973 to campaign for better social security for disabled people. Established by Professor Peter Townsend, they pulled away from the largest pan-impairment organisation at the time – the Disablement Income Group (DIG) – because they felt DIG was not critical enough of government.

DA merged with RADAR and the National Centre for Independent Living in 2012 to become Disability Rights UK. The same organisation now tasked with heading this new DAA. One question I have as an outsider is: is this coincidence, or does this suggest DRUK have had a central role in developing this policy strategy?

The insiders

This is not the first time a government has attempted to create a new voluntary organisation to facilitate better contact with disabled people. In 1977, the Central Council for the Disabled and the British Council for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled were merged to create “RADAR”, or the Royal Association of Disability and Rehabilitation.

The merger was done at the behest of the late Alfred Morris, then Minister for the Disabled. Believing there was no pan-impairment group representing all the concerns of disabled people, he and the Department of Health and Social Security felt that a new organisation would allow better communication with disabled people. It would also give the government a first port of call when it wanted to consult on issues affecting disabled people.

RADAR split opinion in the disability lobby. To some they were a “super group” of two well-respected organisations. They worked well with other charities and lobbyists at the time, including DA and DIG. It is undoubtedly the case that RADAR had a big impact of government behaviour in the 1980s and 1990s – my research goes no further than 1995.

However, groups such as the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP) were not so keen. RADAR was seen as the epitome of the non-disabled experts controlling charities for disabled people and pressing their agenda with government, NOT that of disabled people on the front line.

BCODP is now UKDPC. RADAR is now DRUK. The same organisations (if with different staff today) involved in the same argument. To me this is historically intriguing.

So, what’s new?

If DAA is really there to produce new disability policies, this is radically new. RADAR may well have been experts providing information to government, but they never dictated policy. Indeed, they often clashed with government. The story of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 best highlights this.

RADAR were the office for the Rights Now! coalition. This pushed anti-discrimination legislation in Parliament. It was largely successful when the Conservative government disgracefully used underhand tactics to block the legislation while trying to save face.

The government then made its own legislation, against the wishes of disabled people. It was far less radical than the Rights Now! coalition wanted. BCODP were furious when RADAR decided to back the government. RADAR sent in their own lawyer to help draft the legislation while other groups battled vainly to have the old, more radical Bill accepted.

The positive to having DAA formulate policy is that the best can be made of a bad set of choices. Regardless of political opinion, I think it is difficult to argue that the Disability Discrimination Act wasn’t made better by RADAR’s presence.

But the inevitable downside is that the legislation would still be unacceptably weak for many disabled people.

So, the dilemma here is: do you take inadequate policies which are better than they might be; or continue to fight outside for policies that are adequate but which the government will never accept?

One other important piece of information – traditional charities like Scope and RNIB agree with disabled people’s organisations like UKDPC and Inclusion London.

Historically, the charities – groups run on behalf of disabled people – have often been at odds with disabled people’s organisations – groups run by disabled people themselves. Undoubtedly the charities have made great strides towards greater inclusion of disabled people on their management committees, but tensions continue to run high.

That these groups would be united in their scepticism shows, I believe, two things. One, they are concerned that power should be concentrated in a single group. And we don’t know how that single group got the job.

Two, there is a profound level of mistrust from disability organisations towards this coalition government. Whether or not that is deserved (!) is immaterial. Anything this government does is viewed with suspicion. That is perhaps why ODI have decided to form this DAA. But I wonder whether in “public relations” terms this was the best way to go about it – secretly and without the involvement of the disability movement.

Conclusions

It is not for me to answer these questions about what is right for disabled people. I am a non-disabled academic in his “ivory tower”.

All I can say is that things have undoubtedly improved since the 1960s because groups like DIG and RADAR were able to nuzzle their way into the corridors of power. They may have got too close to government, but by being there policies were strengthened.

The problem is that change has been unbearably slow. It is no comfort to the disabled person of 1977 to tell them that by 2012 things will be better than they were. People are being poorly treated now and a solution is needed now.

I do not think that this DAA has to necessarily be a “bad thing”. But I am incredibly sceptical with the information I have to hand at this point. Indeed, history would suggest that this debate has gone on for decades with no satisfactory conclusion. Voluntary organisations are right to be cautious, but positives have come from greater co-operation between the voluntary sector and government.

References

1 The Fed Centre for Independent Living, DWP silent on which organisations were tipped off about new ‘alliance’ (28 September 2012, 10:59).
2 Gareth Millward, Lord Jack Ashley – 52 years in Parliament and Disabled People (Disability Rights UK, 26 April 2012).

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