National Disability Strategy: Where do we go from here?

By Mary Sadid, NSUN Policy Officer

Yesterday, the House of Commons returned from recess. A £20 a week cut to Universal Credit, the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and raising National Insurance to fund ‘social care’ are just some of the key issues on the agenda.  

All of the legislation and changes above will significantly impact the lives of Disabled people, but the National Disability Strategy (NDS), quietly released after the start of the summer recess, is unlikely to be subject to the same level of public scrutiny.

Alongside the Health and Disability Green Paper: Shaping Future Support, the strategy outlines the direction of travel for disability strategy nationally, a crucial indication of how seriously the Government takes improving opportunities and outcomes for 14.4 million Disabled people.

New funding for the strategy, shown by Disability News Service analysis to be 29.5p for every disabled person in the UK, tells us how serious it is.  

The strategy reads as a list of bug fixes, tweaks to be made to optimise a system, with an inherent assumption that the system is more good than bad, fixable and not so broken that a sea-change in approach is needed.

It is near silent on key issues such as independent living and social care.

What is in the National Disability Strategy?

It offers ‘100 immediate commitments’, ranging from introducing entitlement to one week of unpaid carer’s leave to ensuring MI5, MI6 and GCHQ will have a ‘fully representative’ workforce by 2030.

Many are repeated pledges, citing existing budgets with few proposed legislative changes.

As breakdowns of the strategy show, many proposals are too piecemeal to make a meaningful difference. Bringing ‘into force’ the Equality Act 2010’s provision that gives tenants the right to compel landlords to make common areas accessible whilst many tenants remain liable for the costs is one example of many inadequate, recycled proposals.

Promises of a UK-wide campaign to “increase public awareness and understanding of disability, dispel ingrained and unhelpful stereotypes and promote the diverse contributions disabled people have made – and continue to make – to public life” fail to recognise that social attitudes reflect our institutions and systems that continue to fail Disabled people.

Lived experience, user-led organisations and the NDS

Disabled people’s experiences reflect the inadequacy of the current system that generated this strategy, as does the ongoing judicial review on the Disability Unit’s failure to adequately consult Disabled people, and the disbanding of the Disabled Persons Forum set up for the strategy after three sessions.

Fundamentally, strategy without adequate consultation of those with lived experience – in all their diversity and heterogeneity – cannot be a serious national strategy. Disability is not a monolith and policy makers’ understanding of disability has a long way to go.

So, whilst the strategy’s proposal to create a Disability Commissioning Taskforce ‘of disabled people’s user-led organisations’ to improve disability organisation’s access to government contracts is a positive one, it is marred by the failure to adequately listen to Disabled Persons Organisations (DPOs) in producing the strategy.

User-led groups, often examples of spaces where Disabled knowledge and experience are collectively held, face increasing pressure, and many have folded over the last few years. Increasingly, lived experience is brought ‘in house’, and DPOs continue to face precarity.

If user-led groups are excluded from influencing funding and challenging spending decisions, they remain unequal parties, whose involvement is part of a government box-ticking exercise instead of being meaningful stakeholders.

Mental health and disability

In 2020 50% of working-age people receiving ESA and 41% of working-age people receiving PIP/DLA had a main condition related to mental ill health/distress. There is clearly a need to think deeply about the diverse needs of claimants, and whether the system is equipped to meet the needs of those who face mental ill health/distress as part of their disability.

Mental ill health, distress and trauma rarely occur in isolation. Many people facing challenges related to both physical health and mental ill health/distress, and may struggle to access appropriate care.

The strategy mentions mental health in two main areas: modernising the Mental Health Act and access to housing through the Care and Support Specialised Housing (CASSH) Fund which includes adults with a learning or physical disability, older adults and those dealing with mental ill health/distress.

A key issue with Mental Health Act modernisation is the lack of an intersectional approach and reckoning with the structural inequality that is reflected in mental health data. The National Disability Strategy is no different in this regard.

Social care

“This strategy does not ignore the need for social care reform, which will be led by DHSC with proposals published later this year.”

We’ve reached ‘later this year’ with today’s announcements on social care: a cap of £86k, a tapered ‘floor’ of £20-£100k and a 10% (1.25 percentage points) rise in National Insurance. 15% of the tax rise will fund social care. This is not social care charging. This is an NHS levy after years of insufficient funding and dangerous backlogs with an inadequate social care aspect.

Of the £5.4bn for social care, £2.4bn covers the care cap which leaves £2.9bn over 3 years for reforms. The Department of Health and Social Care’s C19 Taskforce states “The restoration of mental health related adult social care budgets to 2010/11 levels is a priority; in 2018 this was estimated at an additional £1.1 billion per annum”. In 2019-20 alone, around £2bn was spent on local authority arranged care related to mental health. These figures dwarf the proposed offer. Before reforms have even begun, we can see that they will most likely be inadequate for those whose social care includes support with mental ill health/distress needs.

Social care is critical to independent living for many. What is on the horizon is not promising, it is a regressive tax that disproportionately affects those on the lowest incomes.

This announcement, amid reports of care workers leaving their underpaid roles to work for Amazon and other, better paid opportunities, shows us that the social care crisis may be unfolding further, and tarnish the quality of life for many of us for years to come.

Where do we go from here?

As consultations circulate and responses are prepared, the response to piecemeal offerings may not lie within spaces where we are invited to tick a consultation box, but rather in strengthening the voice, power, and sustainability of the user-led sector. Work led by Disabled people is key. DPOs, user-led groups and others who work to speak truth to power, challenge outdated and inadequate policy and organise for a just future.