This column appeared in the Friday 10th September 2021 edition of the South London Press.
As some of you may know, as well as being MP for Lewisham Deptford I am Shadow Minister for Disabled People. It’s been a steep learning curve (especially when the pandemic has had such a profound impact), but I am really enjoying it.
Ever since I took on the role in April 2020, we have been waiting for the Government to release its National Strategy for Disabled People.
It was initially promised in the Queen’s Speech following the 2019 general election. I asked repeatedly for updates, only to be told we would have it “soon”. “Soon” turned out to be July 2021, conveniently just after the Commons broke up for summer and we could not ask any difficult questions in Parliament.
The strategy includes 100 pledges and is backed by £1.6 billion in funding. It focuses on the workplace, tackling inclusion and cutting the disability employment gap (which currently stands at a shocking 28.6%). Ministers say the proposals contained within the strategy will deliver more accessible housing, easier commuting and better job prospects for disabled people.
So why has it been met by such a lukewarm response from disabled people, charities and campaigners?
Despite the encouraging words, I am concerned that – as usual – this is a case of too much talking and not enough action. The strategy is full of promises to “explore”, “encourage” and “consult”, but there is a distinct lack of any firm commitments.
Much of the £1.6 billion in funding is, in fact, not new money – more than £1 billion was already announced in last year’s spending review as part of an increase in funding for special educational needs. The strategy is yet to confirm where most of the other £500 million will be allocated.
It does promise money for several new projects, including an autism awareness campaign, improved audio-visual information on buses and new Changing Places toilets. But this adds up to around £4.13 million – a paltry 29p spent for each of the 14.1 million disabled people currently living in the UK.
From my meetings with disabled people, campaigners and charities, I know many feel they were not adequately consulted on the strategy and that the questions asked were not fit for purpose.
The strategy also fails to acknowledge the devastating impact of the pandemic and the long-term repercussions it is certain to have for many disabled people.
During my time in this job, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of co-production and ensuring that disabled people are at the heart of policy making. As my Labour colleagues and I start to develop policy ahead of the next general election, we are consulting widely and ensuring we work cross-departmentally, right from the outset.
A future Labour government will promise real change for disabled people, not just warm words.