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ODI director defends government on UN convention

A senior civil servant has publicly defended the government’s record on disability, after disabled activists criticised its programme of spending cuts and attitude to human rights.

Tim Cooper, director of the Office for Disability Issues (ODI), was speaking at the launch of Disability Rights Watch UK, a new user-led project that is compiling evidence on how the government is complying with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Ray Ludford, a member of Lambeth Pan-Disability Forum, said disabled people were facing “catastrophic cuts to their standard of living”, and added: “We are right on the bottom rung. I am really afraid for the future for all the people in this room and for all the people outside.”

Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), said his “interpretation” was that “the government do not believe in the UN convention”, and he said he was concerned that MPs had described disabled people as “scroungers”.

Sandy Marks, a member of Disability Action in Islington, pointed to the government’s plans to cut spending on working-age disability living allowance by 20 per cent, and the attitude of Atos Healthcare, the company paid by the government to test disabled people’s “work capability” and which appeared to believe that “if you are able to breathe you are able to work”.

Cooper said the government had signed up to the convention and had it “very clearly in their sights”, while part of the ODI’s role was to “take forward practical measures that do address the perceptions and stereotypes”.

He pointed to a language guide produced by ODI to help MPs, cabinet ministers and peers “understand the issues”.

Cooper, who himself is deaf, said: “I heard your anxieties and fears… Similar views are being articulated by disabled people and disabled people’s organisations up and down the country.

“Clearly the coalition government has identified reduced public spending as one of its key political objectives.”

But he said the ODI’s role was to “ensure that as best we can that disabled people are not disproportionately affected by these public spending cuts. We will do that job to the best of our ability.”

But he warned that the “political reality” was that the “vast majority” of UK citizens would be affected by the cuts.

Afterwards, he told Disability News Service that he believed both Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, and Chris Grayling, the employment minister, were committed to the rights of disabled people. 

He added: “We are at a point where a number of key decisions have not been made. Some of the anxieties come from the fact that ministers are not able to say yet: ‘This is definitely going to happen.’”