The government has been called out for not paying disability panel members. About time

Not paying disabled people for important roles that require skills and expertise to perform has become an infuriatingly persistent theme when it comes to government and public sector roles

James Moore
Saturday 08 August 2020 10:59
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Tanni Grey-Thompson warns disabled people 'expendable' after coronavirus bill

Hannah Barham-Brown is smart, highly qualified and super industrious. She’s a doctor, now in training to become a GP, and deputy leader of the Women’s Equality Party.

As if that weren’t enough, she’d also very much like to chair an important body charged with overseeing an effort by the NHS to make progress on disability equality.

She’d be an ideal candidate for the role because on top of the qualifications and expertise she has, she’s disabled. All that being the case, it’s hardly surprising that she’s been taking calls from people saying, “apply, apply!”

But there’s a problem. The people in charge of setting up the Workforce Disability Equality Standard Steering Group – these things are never very snappily named but bear with me because, while it sounds like a bureaucratic punchline, it matters – want the chair to do the job unpaid.

Publicly stating, via Twitter, that she “cannot support organisations asking disabled people to work for free” will probably see her removed from quite a few Christmas card lists. And she accepts that.

But if it’s any consolation, her principled stance means she’s now on mine.

Not paying disabled people for important roles that require skills and expertise to perform, not to mention the investment of a great deal of time, has become an infuriatingly persistent theme when it comes to government and public sector roles.

Last year I wrote about the government’s creation of what’s called the “Regional Stakeholder Network”. I know, I know, ugh. There’s another awful sounding name. The nine bodies it comprises of – one for each English region – were billed as putting disabled people, and disability, at the heart of policy making. Their work would be fed into top civil servants and ministers.

Informed by long experience, my initial view was that the network’s creation was just a PR stunt designed to polish up the reputation of former prime minister Theresa May’s fairly callous government. When the Tory party and its supporters see a wheelchair they think, “let’s let the tyres down”.

But there were some former Whitehall types I spoke to who told me that I was being too cynical and it had the potential to do some good.

Trouble is, just like the body Barham-Brown would like to chair, its members, and in particular its chair, were to be unpaid.

Tory candidate says disabled people should learn less because they don't understand money

And if you’re not willing to pay someone for work then you clearly don’t value it.

This devaluing of disabled people and the work they do sends out a very bad message. It’s one I fear is being heard at the worst possible time.

Britain faces a jobs crisis and the implications for disabled people are frankly frightening. According to charity Scope, disabled people were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as able-bodied workers when Britain enjoyed near full employment.

Despite the government promising to halve what’s known as the disability employment gap, it barely moved between 2008 and 2018. It is in motion now. Just not in a good way.

A report by Citizens Advice earlier this week found that one in four disabled people who are in work are currently facing redundancy. The figure rose to 37 per cent of those who said their disability had a large impact on their day-to-day life.

Half of those shielding, through disabilities or long-term health conditions that leave them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, were at risk of redundancies.

The crisis that Britain’s workers face, as the report’s title states, is a profoundly unequal one.

The government still claims it wants to help disabled people into work. If that’s the case, then the very least it and other public bodies could do is set an example by paying those like Barham-Brown for the work they are being asked to do.

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