No voice heard, all rights ignored?

by stevebroach

The train to the Housing and Support Alliance annual conference on independent living and people with learning disabilities seems an appropriate time to set out some thoughts on the Government’s response to the No voice unheard, no right ignored green paper.

‘Not best pleased’ would be one way to summarise the reaction from ‘stakeholders’ (ugh) to the response. Another way would involve plenty of expletives. The title of this post, without the question mark, was the pithy summary from @socialworkops on Twitter.

To understand the frustration it’s important to remember the context for the Green Paper. The former Minister, Norman Lamb MP, had reached a view that all the concordats and agreements in the world were not going to be enough and that legislation was required to give new hard-edged legal rights. There was plenty of room to debate what those rights should be (I had my tuppence here) but the principle seemed clear – new legislation was needed.

However after the General Election Mr Lamb was no longer Minister and the new government seems rather less enthusiastic about legislating in this area. The response was delayed and when it finally arrived it could be summarised (fairly?) as ‘issue some guidance and kick the rest into the long grass’. Or in the language of the consultation, the proposals ‘should be seen as part of an ongoing and evolving dialogue’ (p6, para 7). Let us know when you’re ready to stop talking and actually do something.

Another part of the frustration, as Rob Grieg puts very well here, is that we’ve had very good strategies and guidance for learning disability for years in the form of Valuing People and Valuing People Now. We don’t need another strategy or more guidance, we need some real action to deliver these shared goals.

So does the response meet the two tests in its title? In terms of voices heard, Chris Hatton has done some excellent comparisons between the Valuing People Now consultation and this consultation. Chris shows that the Department has heard from far fewer disabled people this time round – which is unacceptable as government should be getting better over time at engaging with the people their policies affect, not worse. As Chris says, when properly analysed ‘The numbers of people responding to the NVUNRI consultation start to look perilously small’.

And on the second test – well, it’s pretty clear that the Minister’s vision of new hard-edged rights has been ignored. In legal terms, guidance can be very important. It all depends on its legal force – some guidance must be followed by decision makers in the absence of a considered decision that there is good reason not to do so, other guidance (‘have regard’ guidance) is just something that decision makers must take into account.

However it’s surprising (to put it mildly) that the Department doesn’t appear to know yet which laws it will use to issue the guidance here. See para 8, p6; ‘we will rapidly determine the most appropriate powers under which to act to have the best and strongest effect’. Again, let us know when you’ve made your mind up.

So whether the guidance is likely to be legally important depends on what the Department eventually decide in relation to the powers they will use to issue it. But what about its practical effect? Experience suggests that the likely fate of more guidance is to end up on more shelves. I’m not saying for a moment that if Parliament passes new laws they are automatically followed (hello, Care Act 2014) but the chances of cultural change must be must higher when there is new primarily legislation, not merely further guidance. Surely? Please let this be true or we are wasting a lot of money on those MPs…

Also, guidance cannot create new legal rights and duties – it can only reflect existing law. So if (as we are told at p14, para 41) there was ‘strong support for proposals about NHS commissioners sharing duties to promote individual wellbeing in the Care Act 2104 with local authorities’, why not get on and legislate for this now?

It is also concerning that even phase 1 of the proposals (which includes the new guidance) will take place ‘during the current financial year (2015/16) and into 2016/17’ (p9, para 15). So we may have to wait quite a while even to see the guidance. The grass for the guidance may not be long, but it could certainly use a trim.

There are some more interesting ideas in phase 2, including the named social worker proposal (*cough* funding *cough*) and the idea of extending Care and Treatment Review principles to local authority-led placements. However there is no timeframe for this phase. We are told at para 16, p9 that ‘This phase will involve further consultation with stakeholders, with any resulting legislation to be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows’. So not only will there be more consultation (why?), but the real mischief here is that there is no legislative slot allocated for any Bill in the Parliamentary timetable. Doesn’t look from this like there is any chance of new legislation until the end of next year at the earliest – hope I’m wrong.

Phase 3 is described as ‘more radical solutions’, however the summary only lists two:

  • ‘monitor implementation of the new service model for commissioners of health and social care services, and of CTRs on care planning, admissions, transfers and discharges and consider the need for further legislative proposals in response to review of impact’. I’ve read this three times and I’m still not sure I understand what it means.
  • ‘further consideration in principle of whether and how the Mental Health Act should apply to people with learning disabilities and/or autism and if this remains appropriate’. I know this is a controversial issue but surely the point of the Green Paper consultation was to allow the Department to reach a view on the principle here, subject to further consultation on the detail? As I read this it essentially means ‘no change’. Note also (p21, para 81) that ‘some stakeholders, especially individuals, their families and supporters, and the voluntary and community sector were keen on the principle that some sort of change was needed’ (emphasis added). No voice unheard?

So that’s the government response. I’d contrast it to the coherent package of new rights that we have set out in the second draft of #LBBill, with input from a wide range of disabled people, families, professionals and allies. Of course a key difference is that #LBBill is trying to improve the legal framework so disabled people can realise their right to independent living and community inclusion generally, and the Green Paper response is trying to fix one part of the problem for one specific group of disabled people (supposedly ‘the people who need most help’, see the response at p12, para 31). Even if I fundamentally disagree with the second approach, it is still terrible to see the opportunity to strengthen the rights of this group lost.

Two slivers of light:

  1. New guidance won’t necessarily be useless. It all depends what it says and even more importantly what statutory force it has. Let’s hope it is strong and clear guidance with the greatest possible legal force.
  2. The Law Commission are working up proposals for a new scheme to replace the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards which may yet result in legislation that contains some of the #LBBill ideas. Given the Department’s response, there’s now a huge amount riding on the Law Commission’s draft Bill due in 2016.

Other than that, looks like it’s back to the private members’ bill ballot for #LBBill in summer 2016.

I can’t let this piece end without highlighting something said in the Minister’s foreword to the response (p4). Towards the end of his piece, the Minister (Alistair Burt MP) says; ‘As a country, a key measure of our success will be how we care for the weakest and most vulnerable in our communities’. There are so many things wrong with this sentence it’s hard to know where to begin – so I’ll just suggest that if anything makes people with learning disabilities ‘weak’ and ‘vulnerable’ it’s government policies and state actions, from cutting social security and legal aid to detaining people without lawful authority. It’s hard to see how any real change can come from a position where disabled people are perceived as weak and vulnerable victims needing to be saved.

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