THERESA May’s promises of a new commitment to tackling barriers faced by disabled people have been met with scepticism by leading disability groups.
Higher accessibility standards for new housing, an overhaul of statutory sick pay, and greater workplace support were among measures she announced as she prepared to exit Number 10.
New national outcomes data for disabled people will also be published, she pledged, shining a light on injustices and driving action to tackle barriers they face.
With around a fifth of the working age population living with a disability, Mrs May said a new cross-government disability team would be formed.
Incorporating the Office for Disability Issues, the new team would sit alongside the Government Equalities Office and Race Disparity Unit in a new Equalities Hub at the heart of government.
Mrs May promised the team would work closely with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and charities to develop a new approach to disability, with their views and experiences at the forefront of any new policy.
Further measures would be set out later this year.
Mrs May said: “We all have a crucial role – businesses, government and civil society – in working together to ensure that disabled people get the support they need, and go as far as their talents can take them.
“Recognising too many disabled people are still living in unsuitable homes, the Government will consult on mandating higher accessibility standards for new housing. This could help deliver up to 300,000 new accessible and adaptable homes every year.
“Guidance will also be published to help councils meet current standards for accessible housing in England.
“A consultation on new measures to help employers better support disabled people and those with long-term health conditions in work will also be published.
“These include reforming Statutory Sick Pay so it is better enforced, more flexible to encourage a phased return to work, and covers the lowest paid.
“The Government will also consult on offering small and medium employers a conditional rebate to support those who manage staff on sickness absence and help them get back to work.
“The Work and Pensions Secretary will also explore how to improve support for those on disability benefits through a Green Paper, for which her department will engage extensively with disabled people’s organisations and charities.”
Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said: “Disabled people encounter too many challenges in life and I want to see these end.
“We want to change the landscape for disabled people and to make sure there is always a level playing field for them.
“We intend to support disabled people in all phases of their life so that the pursuit of equality is a shared goal.”
Richard Kramer, chief executive for the disability charity Sense, said: “This announcement is a significant one for disabled people. For too long now, disability policy has been focused on what benefits or services disabled people do or don’t access, rather than the lives they want, and have a right to lead.
“We know that this is just the beginning of the journey, but we look forward to working with the government as this work takes shape, and ensuring it is led by and centres around disabled people to truly deliver meaningful change.”
Mark Hodgkinson, chief executive at disability equality charity Scope, said: “We know that half of disabled people feel excluded from society, and are too often shut out of work.
“Life also costs more if you are disabled, and Scope research shows that these costs add up to on average £583 a month.
“We have long-called for a concerted effort from government to improve the lives of disabled people in this country. It is therefore positive to see recognition from Government that a joined up approach is needed and necessary.”
David Isaac, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “The creation of a cross-government team to coordinate disability policy is a bold statement from the Government to tackle these problems and a very welcome move.”
Communities Secretary Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP said: “Every person, whatever their ability or age, must have the opportunity to succeed in life – that means providing new homes that meet the everyday needs of whoever lives in them.
“However, too many of the homes built in the past have not lived up to this basic promise, which is why we’re looking very closely at strengthening accessibility requirements, including making them mandatory for all new homes.”
DISABLED people’s organisations have reacted with suspicion and some hostility to the departed Prime Minister’s attempt to shore up her “legacy” with a series of disability-related announcements, writes JOHN PRING
Although some of the measures announced by Theresa May were welcomed, many user-led organisations questioned why she had left it until the last days of her time in office to launch what she said was a “new drive to tackle barriers faced by disabled people”.
In last October’s speech of more than 7,000 words to her party’s annual conference, Mrs May failed to make a single mention of disability or disabled people.
But as she prepared to be replaced as Prime Minister by Boris Johnson, she announced a “new approach to disability”.
She failed to point out that the Government has issued no updates or progress reports on its discredited Fulfilling Potential disability strategy since November 2015 – eight months before she became PM.
Her “new approach” includes a pledge to publish new figures on “outcomes” for disabled people, but she failed to mention that the Government has not published any updates to previous outcome figures since 2015.
That report revealed that the proportion of disabled people who said they frequently had choice and control over their lives plunged from 77% in 2010 to 66% in 2013.
There was tentative approval from disabled people’s organisations to the announcement that the Office for Disability Issues would move in November from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Cabinet Office, as part of a new “equalities hub at the heart of government”.
But there were still concerns that this could see the Government’s focus on disability equality further weakened.
One widely welcomed announcement was that the Government could finally tighten mandatory accessibility standards on new housing, although this will still be subject to a consultation.
This is likely to mean changes to building regulations so that the optional M4(2) accessibility standard – a series of design criteria intended to make homes more easily adaptable for lifetime use – becomes instead a mandatory minimum standard for all new housing.
The former premier also ignored the issue during her
own Conservative conference speech, making no mention of the need to build homes to inclusive design standards, despite her devoting a significant chunk of the speech to housing.
BRIAN Hilton, digital campaigns officer for Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said: “We are yet to be convinced that these announcements will amount to any real positive changes.
“The more cynical amongst us might argue that this is a desperate attempt by a Government in its final throes trying to paper over more than a decade of harsh and vindictive cuts rained down upon disabled people.”
He added: “GMCDP would be overjoyed if there was any real evidence of a commitment from central government to improving housing for disabled people, but sadly there is not.
“The Government says it will consult on new measures, but the evidence is already available as to what is needed and that is action, not kicking the problem into the long grass of consultation and industry prevarication and extended implementation periods.
“What we need are ambitious targets that redress the current imbalance and significant fines for developers that fail to deliver.”
Mr Hilton said GMCDP would engage with the Government’s new equalities hub but, he added: “If they want to draw upon our skills, knowledge and experience we will insist on being reimbursed for our time.”
DISABILITY Labour said the announcement was “a cynical ploy pretending to improve disabled people’s lives without looking at the root causes for our exclusion and increased death rate”.
Fran Springfield, Disability Labour’s co-chair, said: “What is needed is a reform of the benefits systems and the scrapping of universal credit so disabled people are not sanctioned or denied the right to benefits while they challenge the target driven refusal of their claim.
“The new ‘equalities hub’ sounds good on paper, but will it have enforcement powers?
“Will DPOs (disabled people’s organisations) and disabled people really be involved and have their expertise respected and included in all decision making?
“There needs to be disability impact assessments, with implementation criteria in every government department for every government policy or initiative.”
She added: “Will any of these policies actually be followed through by her successor or will they be quietly forgotten?”
PROFESSOR Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, said Mrs May was trying to invent a legacy when she had been a “massive failure” as Prime Minister.
He said: “It’s good to see now that at her leaving, when she has no power, she has suddenly discovered a raft of policies that could benefit disabled people and reduce the exclusions and discrimination we face, which her Government helped make worse.”
PAULA PETERS, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said Mrs May’s announcement “smacks of total hypocrisy”.
“This Government are guilty of violating our human rights under UNCRPD and causing a human catastrophe in disabled people’s lives. This announcement is a huge insult to disabled people who are living in poverty due to this Government and have become further marginalised in society.”