Defending disabled rights

Defending the rights of disabled people

More than 200 delegates gathered in London in May for the 2013 TUC disability conference, under the banner ‘Jobs, Services, Respect for Disabled People’, reports Susan Skene

Kay Carberry, TUC assistant general secretary, opened the conference by championing key developments of 2012, including the Paralympics and the TUC-led national demonstration against austerity cuts.

She said that the TUC had decided not to join the Office for Disability Issues project, set up as part of the Department for Work and Pensions, because it rejected the DWP's "assault on the rights of disabled people" by destroying jobs, welfare rights and the real standard of living of disabled people.

More than a third of disabled people stand to lose financially, with no real progress having been achieved since 2008, she said.

Carberry said the TUC's Future That Works campaign shows how austerity is failing jobs, growth and a new economy. The campaign aims to defend public services, the welfare state, and to get more disabled people into work and off benefits, delegates heard.

But the government's current policies are achieving the opposite effect. Not only is it harder for disabled people to find a job when there are far fewer vacancies, but they are also being unduly penalised.

Delegates voted to encourage union members to actively recruit disabled workers, who are often unaware of the protection afforded them or what disabled activists have achieved through tough negotiation. Guest speaker, entertainer Francesca Martinez, pointed out that "only 17 per cent of people are born with a disability." The remaining 83 per cent acquire a disability during their lifetime.

The motion, moved by Unison and amended by Unite, also sought "to develop the network of disability champions to share best practice and advice using disabled members structures in unions."

Speakers condemned the government's divisive campaign to vilify benefits claimants in the media, which has hardened public opinion against welfare. They suggested asking journalists who are in the NUJ – and committed to professional and ethical journalism – to do what they can to prevent this.

Trades councils have organised events and resistance to misreporting by building awareness of the law and providing guidance – on the bedroom tax, for example – to prevent the eviction of disabled people.

Many motions focused on the protection of disability rights, but the TUC's disability committee also continues to campaign against the repeal of wider equality rights. Since Section 138, third party harassment and other provisions within the Equality Act have been abolished.

Prospect's Amy Sycha told delegates that these attacks also remove protection for disabled workers: in particular, the systematic failure of public authorities to intervene or prevent harassment, or make the perpetrators face the consequences.

Prospect delegate John Swaney spoke on behalf of the disability committee to defend the Public Sector Equality Duty, a key tool to get justice for disabled people. He called for support from all unions, not just those in the public sector, to ensure it continues.

Swaney also seconded an FDA motion on attendance management. He cited his own personal experience to demonstrate how difficult it can be to persuade an employer to show good practice and introduce a disability leave clause into an absence management policy.

He said it had taken some time to persuade his own employer and stressed it was vital to persuade all employers of the value of adopting good practice and incorporating disability leave into their policies.

Richard Fardell presented a successful Prospect motion on the 'UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability'. It called on the disabled workers' committee to promote, protect and monitor implementation of the convention.

It also urged disabled people's organisations submit their stories to Disability Rights Watch UK, in order to produce a shadow report that reflects the experiences of disabled people. The TUC and affiliated unions were pressed to ensure that the rights of disabled people are included in campaigns against austerity and the cuts.

Prospect seconded a motion from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy supporting the campaign to get more disabled people in Parliament by allowing MPs to job share.

Sandie Maile pointed out that job sharing could be just as advantageous for MPs as for any other occupation, i.e. with benefits including twice the knowledge, skills and expertise; twice the commitment; and continuity of cover. She said: "We need people with a broader range of life experiences to properly represent those with disabilities."

Delegates welcomed the Disabled People against the Cuts campaign group, which was invited to address conference about its direct action campaigning. After conference they showed their support for the group by joining them in an impromptu demonstration with banners and wheelchairs, causing a traffic jam in the middle of London's Tottenham Court Road. It was good publicity, with no arrests.

Conference carried all 20 motions and one emergency motion. They chose a chose a PCS motion on 'Defending the Welfare State and the rights of Disabled People' to go to TUC in September.

Congratulations to John Swaney, who was re-elected to the TUC Disabled Workers' Committee.

Prospect was represented by equality officer Sandie Maile (delegation leader); John Swaney (Scottish Agricultural College), Richard Fardell (BT Doncaster), Amy Sycha (AWE), Robert Potter (Department for Transport) and Ian Park (Department of Health).