For a short while Ian Macrae entertained the hope that a departmental move might change ministerial attitudes, responsibility and emphasis.
There was a brief moment in the breathless days after Theresa May’s accession to the UK premiership when it looked as though a Minister for Disabled People might not have been appointed.
Several options were up for discussion. Had the post – as apparently a previous one had – literally fallen out of reckoning when a Post-It failed to make it on to the reshuffle wall chart? Was May about to drop the disability brief quietly in the hope that no one would notice or comment?
But, just for a moment, I entertained the hope of something bolder. Would ministerial responsibility for disabled people move to another department altogether?
In the event the appointment of Penny Mordaunt was confirmed by the DWP press office and, after the usual mixed flurry of speculation and despair, things went back into default mode.
But for me that fleeting possibility stayed in my mind. Why not consider something different?
While the conventional view has always been that the best route to rights and equality for disabled people is via legislation, the impetus for achieving those rights and that equality has come not from legislators but from among ourselves. Tory ministers of the 80s and 90s were persuaded towards enacting the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) by lobbying from those disabled people who had made it on to the inside. Meanwhile campaigning for rights of a different, more direct and vociferous sort was being conducted on the streets by groups such as the Campaign for Accessible Transport (CAT) and DAN (The Disability Direct Action Network).
But prior to all of this, in government circles and in the legislation they framed, disabled people had been viewed and treated as a burden. We may have been a necessary and deserving burden but the approach was to provide for us. Alf Morris’s concern for disabled people was genuine but it was also primarily paternalistic and we were seen and grouped together with those who were “chronically sick” in the nomenclature of the act he brought to the statute book.
Since then, though a framework for rights, and no more than a framework, was created by the DDA, throughout the Blair and Brown governments, into the coalition and up to the present day, the perception of us as a burden of the more or less deserving kind has remained.
We have continued to be seen as “in need” either of social security benefits or requiring at best assistance, at worst encouragement into work. And so the responsibility for disabled people has stayed with the Department for Work and Pensions. The difference was that the old paternalism was transmogrified by a harder line breed of politician into something more hard-line in its turn. The old mantras of “can’t work will be made to work” and “work-shy scroungers” are familiar enough not to need further reiteration here.
But my hope in those new May-in-July days was that perhaps someone might see how to move this whole thing on, stop thinking of disabled people as a burden, and recognise that what we truly need is more rights and greater equality. So why not move the responsibility for us into the newly constituted Equalities Department, now part of Justine Greening’s Education Ministry?
In that way the emphasis could be changed from trying to find enough money to meet the needs of a lumpen group which, in government terms, lacks any clear identity. The task would be more about ensuring that our rights to better treatment not just in the system but in society were recognised and met in order that new opportunities for employment could be created.
Once established in this different area the new minister could feel properly empowered to work towards disabled people gaining the status as social assets and being recognised as such.
In the event my hope was a false hope, but from the political turbulence which lies ahead who knows what might emerge in future.