Frances O’Grady – 2003 Speech to TUC Disability Conference

Below is the text of a speech made by Frances O’Grady at the TUC Disability Conference which was held in Blackpool on Tuesday 9th December 2003.

The TUC is delighted once again that the minister for disabled people has joined us for our conference. I know that you have always demonstrated a strong commitment to the same causes that the TUC supports, and that the work you have been doing to advance the rights of disabled people has been very important – even if we may sometimes have disagreements over some aspects. I am very pleased that you have been so interested in hearing our views, and that you recognise that the TUC is a strong and principled voice for equality, and that the people we represent have experiences that are really important, and have opinions based on real life that certainly help us at the TUC to arrive at our conclusions. We are very pleased as well that you have always agreed to stay to take questions from our delegates, because that way you get, directly, a flavour of what these experiences are, and what our members’ views are.

I know that the whole conference will be looking forward to hearing from you this afternoon, and I imagine that you will be telling us a little bit about the new disability bill that you announced just last week. At this conference last year, delegates were keen to discuss what changes need to be made to existing disability law, and no less keen that, as soon as possible, the Government should deliver on its undertaking to reform the DDA. At the previous year’s conference, so strongly did the conference feel about this, that it voted to select, from all the motions agreed at the conference, a motion calling for a strong new disability bill to submit to the TUC Congress – where as you may know, it was debated and carried unanimously. Last year, we were very disappointed that up to that time, no progress had been secured in this vital question.

Now, since this has been the European Year of Disabled People, it has been especially appropriate that we will now have a draft bill to consider. We know, of course, that the prejudice and discrimination faced by our disabled citizens cannot be removed just by having good legal rights – although having good legal rights would be a step forward indeed! That is why we will listen very closely to what you have to say about the scope of the new bill, and why I can promise conference that the TUC will consult closely with the unions as we go into the New Year to prepare a submission to help make the bill as strong as possible.

Conference will know too that as part of the TUC’s commitment to achieving equality for disabled people, we have been campaigning on several fronts during the last year. We have organised training for thousands of workplace representatives to deal with the connection between disability rights and health and safety issues in the workplace. We have continued to advance the arguments for improvements to the benefits system, as part of our approach of making it more possible for those disabled people who are out of work, but who want to work and who can work, to move into work.

But the biggest public thing we have been doing this year has been our petition, and on behalf of the TUC I want to thank every union here that helped us in this campaign for their contribution. Through promoting this petition, we have taken the message to thousands of trade union members, disabled but also non-disabled, that the TUC wants the law changed, that we want it changed as soon as possible, and that we want it changed significantly, so that some of the most serious problems with the DDA are got rid of. And our members have responded powerfully, and we have the petition here with us, and Maria [Eagle MP], in a few moments, it will be my privilege and honour to present it to you on behalf of the British trade union movement.

But as I have already said, however good we manage to make the law, the challenge we all face is much deeper. We know that at a time when employment rates in Britain are as good as they have ever been, the proportion of disabled people of working age who want to work but are out of work has moved up, but only by a small percentage. We are worried that for every step of progress made in climbing this mountain, where employers come to understand the value and the need to recruit disabled workers, at the other end of the scale other disabled workers are being forced out, made redundant, given early ill health or disability retirement. Many of those who do find work are to be found in low paid and insecure jobs, in so many cases unable to afford to contribute to pension funds. So the cycle of poverty continues into retirement even when people do find employment. There are many other issues, too, that relate to this crucial challenge, and it was a motion on this topic that the conference selected last year to send to the 2003 TUC Congress.

What are the answers? Well, if ever there was a need for a joined-up approach, this is it. We need at least to promote the benefits of employing more disabled people at the same time as improving legal protection against discrimination on grounds of disability. Easily stated, of course, but as both we and the Government have seen, quite hard to achieve. Because as well as changing the law, we know it requires a big change of attitude. There isn’t a magic wand to wave that will overcome so much commonplace ignorance and prejudice in a flash. So we welcome most sincerely the promise in the new bill to introduce a public duty to promote disability equality. This could be a critical step in helping change attitudes, too.

But what about private employers? It may be getting a bit tedious to have to keep repeating the same old message, but we have argued for a long time that schemes like Access to Work, where they have been used, have been a fantastic success, but not enough people know about it, and despite the very welcome increases in the budget that the Government has organised, year after year, the potential demand is still vastly greater than the supply, yes, but the potential impact on increasing employment rates for disabled people is greater still.

Workstep, too, has witnessed increases in its funding, and this is most welcome. But again, potentially, the number of more severely disabled people who could possibly benefit from such a scheme vastly exceeds the few thousand who do, a number too which has not increased. There are other important issues too about the way Workstep now operates that unions have brought to our attention, issues we have raised with Government. But the key message I want to get across here is that these are measures where the Government, directly, can make an impact, can help to tackle the problems disabled people have in getting properly paid, secure employment. Of course they cost money, but in terms of cost benefit, it is a small price to pay.

We have also made the case that the problem must be tackled from the other side. It isn’t a secret that a lot of disabled people currently on benefit are themselves reluctant to take up work, for the very real fear that if the employment doesn’t work out, they will find themselves facing even greater problems than they faced when on benefit in the first place. The TUC has proposed ways to deal with this, and has welcomed several of the Government’s initiatives to reform the way the benefits system works. Let’s press on with easing the path from unemployment into work with all the powers available to us. But to meet this challenge isn’t cost-free, either, and we need to see significant improvements in the funding for schemes like the New Deal for Disabled People. And while we continue to urge more resources for measures such as these, nor must it be forgotten that there are large numbers of disabled people who have retired, or are very unlikely ever to be able to work, for whom providing the support needed to maintain respect and dignity along with an adequate standard of living are key indicators of a civilised society.

Of course it’s easy to set out the problems, and to make a list of things we believe should be done, not quite so easy to actually do them. So it would be rather one-sided of me if I didn’t at least acknowledge that trade unions too have a way to go before we can claim to be properly accessible, properly representative of our disabled members and potential members. As you know, the TUC carried out an equality audit earlier this year, that was reported to Congress. Our audit found that while some great progress has been made by trade unions over recent years, there was also much still to be done. And in this hall, too, you will know that at least as far as disability is concerned, time to take the next steps towards proper accessibility is strictly limited – next October, in fact, when the new disability regulations come into force that apply to unions both as employers and as trade associations. I am delighted to tell you that the TUC has looked at this, and has drawn up some advice for unions on how to comply with the new regulations, and on how to build on the law as a minimum standard. We will be looking at this at our Executive next week, then circulating it to trade unions. After all, when we talk to Government about what needs to be done for disability equality, we need to be sure that we are doing all we can, too, to be inclusive. I am confident that with all your help, we can and will meet this particular challenge.

So conference, I know you will be discussing a wide range of important questions over the next couple of days, and I can confirm that the TUC will pay full heed to your advice. I will close by wishing you all a very successful and enjoyable conference, and I know you are with me as I take this moment to present to you, Maria, on behalf of the TUC and the trade union movement, this petition with its ten thousand signatures that urge the Government to legislate quickly, but also effectively, to secure another vital step towards equality for disabled people in this country.