Below is the text of the speech made by Anne McGuire, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions, on 22nd September 2005.
There are important challenges we must face if our society is to become more equal – and if all parts of our community are to be able to fulfil their potential.
Today’s event is about the public sector disability duties in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 – and about how the new duties will help public bodies to rise to meet those challenges.
The event will hopefully give us all the opportunity to learn about what the new duties will require and to think about what they will mean for your organisations – as well as giving you the chance to ask a few questions.
The need to think ahead and plan is, of course, fundamental to these duties – and I know for many of you here today, you’ve already started thinking and this event is a vital part of that process.
I hope my contribution this morning will help to set these duties in context for you – to explain where they come from, what they mean and why we think they were necessary.
When we took office in 1997, disabled people had only limited civil rights.
Where those rights were in place, they had only been granted reluctantly – after many frustrated attempts to bring forward legislation. So our challenge in Government, after years in opposition, was to put that right.
I think we made a good start in establishing the Disability Rights Taskforce – to recommend the changes that needed to be made to advance disability equality in our country.
Amongst other things, the Taskforce recommended that we establish the Disability Rights Commission – to act as a champion for disabled people.
Well we did that – and this year the DRC celebrates its fifth anniversary. With the new legislation establishing the Commission for Equality and Human Rights to replace the current equality commissions, we are working to ensure that disability will be at the heart of the new Commission.
I’m delighted that the DRC are represented here today – because in their short five years of existence, they have played an important role in helping us develop the duties, and in producing the code of practice which will shortly be laid before Parliament.
And, of course, we have worked very closely with the DRC in delivering the biggest extension of disability civil rights this country has ever seen.
So there has been progress towards our goal of equality for disabled people. The legislative measures we have taken have driven real change in the way that both public and private organisations conduct their business.
Thankfully, I think we are also starting to see that society as a whole is starting to change.
I think everyone in this room would agree that it can’t change fast enough. Some might even say that, in spite of advances, the pace of change has been painfully slow.
The challenges are certainly still enormous.
Disabled people are still more than twice as likely to have no educational qualifications.
Disabled people are still less likely to be in work – and when they do work, they earn less than non-disabled people.
Disabled children are still more likely to live in poverty – and the children of disabled parents are more likely to live in poverty.
Here in London, the Greater London Authority found that one in three disabled people face discrimination on a regular basis. Half experience abuse or bullying – being laughed at, spat at and even physically attacked.
Shockingly, disabled people are still more likely to die from conditions unrelated to their disability than other people.
We must ask ourselves why – for example – people with learning difficulties are many times more likely to die young from physical illnesses which have nothing to do with their impairment.
Many of you will be all too familiar with these facts. But I set them out because they demonstrate the scale of the challenge that faces us.
And they also demonstrate that in areas where the public service has a key role – in education, in healthcare, in work – disabled people still do not get:
– the same services and opportunities;
– the same support; and
– the same treatment that non-disabled people get.
It is not just in those areas of course. Wherever you look, you will find that disabled people are comparatively worse off.
There can be no single answer for overturning generations of disadvantage – as a Government, as a Minister, there is no magic formula for making equality a reality.
But we have put measures in place which enable disabled people to challenge discriminatory behaviour and the cultures which perpetuate exclusion.
Around 10 million people have individual rights under the DDA to get adjustments made when it is reasonable to do so – and to obtain compensation when these rights are breached.
Yet, as I hope I’ve already demonstrated, disabled people still face disadvantage in public services.
One reason for this is that individual rights cannot easily address a fundamental generic issue which leads to many of the problems faced by disabled people.
That is – how do we ensure that the culture of our public institutions is one where consideration for disabled people, the barriers they face and how they are overcome is integral to how people do their jobs.
We know that this does not always happen now. Everyone – from the Chief Executive to the shopfloor – needs to ask difficult questions of ourselves as individuals and of our organisations.
Do we give enough thought to the impact of new policies, new procedures and new services on disabled people’s lives?
Worse, might we, in fact, be putting fresh barriers in place which prevent disabled people from enjoying opportunities we all take for granted?
Let me give you a real life example of what I mean.
A local authority – I’ll spare their blushes by not saying which one – contracted its refuse collection service on the basis that all residents would leave their rubbish at the border of their property, dragging their wheelie bins up their garden paths for collection.
No regard at all was given to the fact that some residents would find that difficult or impossible.
The local authority then – in order to avoid discriminating against disabled people – needed to either negotiate a change to the contract or make alternate provision, both of which were costly.
A simple example, but if things had been done differently – if, for example, the need to ensure disabled people get their refuse collected without unreasonable difficulty had been a priority at the beginning – the local authority need not have been burdened with the extra costs of putting things right.
The bottom line is quite simple – proper regard should be had to the needs of all residents, whether disabled or not, 100% of the time.
The measure that we are discussing today is designed to ensure that this happens. From December next year, the DDA 2005 places a legal duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people.
It will no longer be legal for public bodies to design services or carry out functions without thinking about how disabled people are affected.
Public bodies will have to demonstrate that – in everything they do – they are considering the impact on disabled people and that they have due regard to the best ways of eliminating discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity.
These new duties must make us work and do things differently. If they result in box-ticking exercises – without effecting real change to the lives of disabled people – then sadly we will have failed.
I said that making our society more equal was a great challenge: in fact, it is a central challenge for the public sector.
We in Government are not complacent – and the new DDA 2005 is only part of a broader strategy.
However, I can reassure you that I am not asking you as representatives of public authorities to do something that we in national government are not prepared to do ourselves.
Earlier in the year, the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit published a report called “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People” which set out our ambition.
An ambition that – within a generation – disabled people should have the full opportunities and choices necessary to improve their quality of life.
An ambition that – together – we can build a society where no-one is written off.
A key part of the strategy we have set to help achieve that ambition is the reform of Incapacity Benefit. We want to make sure that disabled people have the appropriate support – financial, advisory and rehabilitative – when they need it, when they want it, which would allow them to move towards work.
The Strategy Unit report also sets out other practical measures including:
Establishing an Office for Disability Issues to help coordinate and promote change across Government;
Creating a National Forum for Organisations of Disabled People to ensure that disabled people are involved in developing policies that impact on their lives; and
Moving towards individual budgets – leading to more choice for disabled people about the way they receive the support that is provided for them.
As with the new public sector duties, we know that disabled people must be right at the heart of all these initiatives if they are to make a difference.
I want to be very clear about our agenda. It is not about burdening public authorities with extra layers of bureaucracy: it is about achieving greater opportunity and fairness in our society.
The principle behind the new duties is that we must plan for a more equal future – where the needs of all our citizens are anticipated and, where possible, accommodated.
We must address the ignorance and prejudice which holds disabled people back. And we must give disabled people confidence that they can rely on public services – and not be an afterthought, as has often happened in the past.
This is a massive challenge. The legal framework is there – what we now have to do is to change the culture of our organisations as a step towards changing society. This challenge is one that I’m sure very many of us welcome. It is one that I am confident we will all rise to meet.