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Reliant on kindness? How austerity is undermining the 2010 Equality Act

Reliance on kindness, in law and in public services, has no place in a democracy based on equal citizenship – but it’s the consequence of austerity.

We rent a flat and our son Tom, aged fourteen, uses a powered wheelchair. As anyone will know who has tried to rent a wheelchair accessible property, such properties are few and far between. Happily, we found a suitable flat, but the parking space is very tight indeed for a wheelchair accessible van. In fact, when the other spaces are filled, it’s actually impossible for Tom to get into the van and to get the van in or out.

I contacted the management company to ask about possible solutions to the parking problem, and, unwisely, suggested a solution. They replied that the proposed solution was impossible, that I was aware when I rented the flat of what the parking arrangements were, and that they were unable to assist me any further in this matter.

Like many carers and people living with disability, I was weary from fighting other more important battles. So I just shelved for the time being the relatively small parking problem.

Then a new management company took over. Our first contact with them was when my son’s wheelchair accidently caused some damage to the wall in the lobby. I phoned, expecting to have to pay for the damage. The new company could not have been nicer. No, the site manager said, it was accidental damage; we’ll make good the wall and put some kick plates on it to improve the lobby for wheelchair users. I also mentioned the parking problem. Within 48 hours two site managers came to visit and saw a solution. They asked about my son; one of them said that her son has autism and she is passionate about the rights of people living with disabilities. They asked whether the flat and access to it was suitable, and whether there was anything else they could do.

The second company’s very helpful attitude transformed my week. It was a breath of fresh air. It was also, only what the law requires. The 2010 Equality Act would have given us protection from the attitude of the first company, had I followed it up. That company were legally required to be more helpful; required specifically by Section 20 of the 2010 Equality Act. The Act applies to any person or organisation providing goods, facilities or services to the public.

The 2010 Equality Act is a game changer, in our experience: a line in the sand, a statement that people living with disabilities and difference are equal citizens; and that reliance on arbitrary acts of helpfulness or unhelpfulness is unacceptable.

Shortly after the parking episode, Tom took part in a Duke of Edinburgh Award camping trip, run by his school. The afternoon before the trip the local authority school minibus provider phoned the school to say that one of the minibuses that the school was planning to use was broken down and not available.

The consequence of this would be that one of the students who uses a wheelchair would be denied the educational opportunity of going on the trip. Inclusion is fundamental to the school and it was unthinkable that a student would be excluded. The deputy head, who had a pile of reports to write that evening before accompanying the students on the overnight camping trip the next day, spent two hours phoning round to locate another minibus, which he eventually managed to do.

Why was the minibus broken down and no replacement available? Because underfunding means the education service is relying on minibuses which are old and unreliable.

A second example, this time from the NHS. Tom is taking a pioneering new genetic drug, that’s normally delivered to our house. A glitch when we moved house recently meant that he urgently needed a new prescription from his consultant.

Problem – we discovered that the consultant was on holiday and there was no cover for him. Oh, and his secretary was on long-term sick leave, and there was no cover for her.

After several frantic phone calls to various hospital departments, a registrar helped us, over and above her workload. She phoned us back at 7pm, after her shift, and met us the next day, in between her appointments.

Tom’s basic medical need was met was through the goodwill of a public sector employee prepared to do (more) unpaid overtime. And this is an example from genetic medicine: how can the UK be a world leader in developing genetic medicines if the NHS is so underfunded that it relies on goodwill to deliver pioneering treatments to patients?

So-called ‘austerity’ – in other words, funding cuts – means public service users are reliant on kindness to access services to which they are entitled.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea of 2010, “to help people to come together in their neighbourhoods to do good things”, coincided with 25% cuts to public services. The net political message was that “doing good things” could plaster over the cuts in public service funding. After 2013 Cameron no longer mentioned the Big Society but the idea continues in zombie form. Reliance on kindness appears to be the government’s answer to the delivery of public services.

The examples given here are small, everyday incidents – but incidents like these are happening across public services every day and they impact in two ways.

On a human level, they are an abuse both of service users and of conscientious public service workers, who know that if they do not put in extra help to compensate for the lack of funding in public services, then the people who rely on those services will lose out. The next time we saw Tom’s consultant, a highly skilled and experienced doctor, he told us that cuts to administrative support had made his job so unmanageable that he had decided to take early retirement. The human cost becomes an economic cost as well.

On a political level, incidents like these, across public services and every day, are undermining the principle of equal citizenship in public life. The principle of the 2010 Equality Act also underpins access to public services. Service users are entitled to public services on the basis of being equal citizens. Reliance on kindness, in law and in public services, has no place in a liberal democracy based on equal citizenship. The funding of public services should reflect that.

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