Straight Talk

Dr Simon Duffy discusses the recent Citizen Jury held by the Learning Disability Alliance and how people with learning disabilities have a right to be considered as true citizens.

Dr Simon Duffy, Director, The Centre for Welfare Reform

Learning Disability Alliance (LDA) England will seem a very new organisation to many readers, but it links together both some new and some very well-established organisations, in a way that is both ground-breaking and potentially very powerful. It provides a way in which service providers and professionals can come together alongside self-advocates and families: providing them with backup, but not getting in their way.

A powerful example of this new way of working is the first LDA Citizen Jury, held in Central London on 2nd April. The jury was made up of people with learning disabilities and family members and the jury heard presentations from each of the five main political parties in England; they asked challenging questions, and then decided who would best stick up for the rights of people with learning disabilities. However, when it came down to it, one party didn’t actually turn up.

The Conservative Party was noticeable by its absence, despite a high profile letter to the Prime Minister and on-going efforts to seek a representative from Conservative Central Party Office. Compare this to the Labour Party, who sent along Kate Green, their disability spokesperson. It is hard not to conclude that the Conservative Party had decided that their track-record on disability is so poor that it would be better not to turn up and to avoid being accountable to people and families.

Although the Conservatives did not turn up the Jury did hear a presentation about their record and all parties were marked and given an overall satisfaction score. The Greens won (81%), Labour were second (71%), Liberal Democrats came third (58%), UKIP fourth (36%) and the Conservatives came last (18%).

For many in the learning disability sector this approach will seem far too political and direct. We are used to a gentler approach. Many charities, who may have started life as campaign groups, have now become part of the establishment, and they find it difficult to challenge bad policies made by central or local Government. Yet this must change.

The severity of our problem in the UK was brought home to me while working in Australia recently. There I met politicians who were astonished by the way in which the UK Government was targeting disabled people and families for cuts. In Australia, such policies would have been political suicide. For, in Australia, the disability movement had brought service providers, self-advocates and families together. Funding for disability support was popular and parties of both Left and Right knew that it needed to be protected.

How different to the UK. Here, even the Labour Party has struggled to take a strong line to defend the rights of people with learning disabilities. I suspect that this is why – despite a strong and personable presentation from Kate Green – Labour still came in second to the Green Party. But it is not the Labour Party who is responsible for the fact that the media and the political elite believe that there are no votes in disability.

Service providers, charities and campaigning groups must take the brunt of the responsibility for this problem. Since the Community Care reforms of the early 1990s too many organisations have slipped into the role of being a mere ‘servant’ to the Government. There are now many chief executives with super-high salaries, and many workers on very low wages. Instead of campaigning for rights and to defend services, too many organisations are simply preparing for the next ‘re-tendering’ exercise either to defend themselves, or take over from some other organisation.

The birth of LDA England marks an important stage in reversing this trend. Some charities and community organisations are now taking courage by coming together with self-advocates and families. They do not need to stand alone, they can start to be more honest and to confront some of the real problems we face.

The other reason the LDA was created was to start focusing on all the issues that matter to people with learning disabilities. The LDA manifesto is not just about health and social care, it’s about incomes, work, education, family life and community – issues of everyday human rights. As people with learning disabilities step forward, despite all the obstacles put in their way, to claim their rightful place as full citizens they challenge us to look at all aspects of our society.

More information about the process and the details for voting can be found on the LDA England website:

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