When it comes to improving the lives of disabled and neurodiverse people, the UK government says a lot but does very little. They seem to be making an effort trying to shrink the disability employment gap. However, their progress is sluggish at best. I understand negative opinions and reluctance can slow progress, but the government could be doing more. They should be leading by example.
With that in mind, you can imagine my reaction when I saw this BBC headline circulating back in late January: “Government ‘consultation’ on disability strategy unlawful, High Court rules”.
I felt a lot of emotion towards this headline and others like it. Mostly sadness, but also exhaustion. Even, dare I say it, a bit of hope.
So, what makes this newsworthy? Well, that’ll be because four disabled people took the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to court.
And they won.
I need to give some context to emphasise why this is such a win for the disabled community.
The government has been preparing a highly anticipated document called the ‘National Disability Strategy’. It’s a strategy outlining steps to improve access to education and work opportunities for the disabled community. It also emphasises that the government’s goal is to improve disabled people’s daily lives.
All seems good so far—nothing we haven’t seen before. Every government has plans like these. The strategy used a survey as its basis. Over 100 multiple choice and some open-ended questions went into forming it. However, claimants, Jean Eveleigh, Victoria Hon, Doug Paulley and Miriam Binder, say that the survey’s lack of clarity potentially caused answers to be vague. They say if they had known how their answers would inform the strategy, they would have given more in-depth answers. Bear in mind that these aren’t isolated opinions and that the strategy generated mixed reviews.
It’s worth mentioning whilst the survey was live for 14 weeks, it only gathered 16,000 responses. Of those, only 14,000 responses informed the survey. This, in my opinion, is a low number considering there are an estimated 14 million disabled people in the UK. Also, the survey was open to “[D]isabled people, people with caring responsibilities (including carers) and members of the general public with interest in disability.” See the UK Disability Survey research report for more details and a breakdown of the survey.
Therese Coffey, the Secretary of State, argued. She claimed that the survey only gathered opinions. That it wasn’t intended to be a consultation. However, in a press release related to the survey, it was said that “your views will inform the development of the National Strategy for Disabled People.” The closing also stated that, “your views will be used to inform the delivery of the plans we set out.”
The judge took the wording of the press release and other information into consideration before reaching his opinion. His ultimate ruling was that the nature of the survey meant it was a consultation. By extension, Coffey had a duty to fulfil and did not do so correctly, which was to the detriment of all involved.
As a result, the survey and the document created from it are “unlawful”.
Eveleigh and the other claimants were happy about the result. The government was disheartened and said they would evaluate their next steps carefully.
My thoughts on the matter:
I’m always disappointed when something meant to help the disabled community backfires. It happens so much I often feel like we’re in a one step forward, three steps back scenario.
I’m saddened because the government isn’t doing as much as it could. They have so much time and ample resources to make effective change. Yet, we’ve seen little progress. Yes, you could argue that the pandemic has slowed progress. However, that excuse can only carry so much weight.
Mostly, I feel that their actual goal is to appease with goodwill. We see the government rolling out plans and improving disability statistics, but it feels empty. They may be pushing for better disability employment rates but are doing little to set an example.
They’re pushing for businesses to be more disability-inclusive, which is excellent. At the same time, they’re manipulating and gaslighting the disabled community.
You can’t ask for a disabled person’s opinion based on creating change, then say it’s not a consultation. That’s precisely what it is.
On a more positive note!
I’m glad that the claimants got to go to the High Court for this. Do I think it will change much? No, not immediately. However, it shows accountability levelled against the government that rarely gets seen. More importantly, it’s a minority getting the chance to defend themselves.
It lets others know that disabled people can and will stand up for themselves. I hope the government is genuine when they say they’ll carefully consider their next steps. They should use this opportunity as a learning experience.
At the very least, the following survey should be better circulated. Also, the disabled community need more in-depth participation. After all, change for disabled people needs to come from the opinions of the disabled community. Anything less is a failure. If the government disagrees, they need to re-evaluate themselves.
Bua was founded to increase disabled and neurodiverse employment and inclusion. Bua offers disability and neurodiversity workshops for organisations seeking to change their culture. Get in touch to book yours.
About the Author
Lauren is a freelance writer from Falmouth. After graduating from university, she took a keen interest in writing about disability, so her story and others like it could be told with passion and conviction.