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TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference, 2019

NUJ delegates Natasha Hirst, Guy Thornton, Lynn Degele & Ann Galpin   -  © nuj

3 June 2019

Following last year’s conference which called for the Universal Credit scheme to be scrapped, the year has been full of stories about disabled people whose lives have been damaged by the cruelty of the social security system.

Returning to Bournemouth, the TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference coincided with the release of the UN Rapporteur’s highly critical report on poverty in the UK and the launch of the Department for Work and Pensions’ PR campaign, designed to deny the harsh reality of life for disabled people under austerity. The UN report by Philip Alston said the UK's social safety net had been "deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos".

NUJ delegates Lynn Degele, Guy Thornton and Natasha Hirst spoke on a range of issues affecting disabled workers, and delegation leader Ann Galpin chaired the first session of conference on day two.  

NUJ led the way with an emergency motion about the DWP PR campaign, which had been revealed by leaked memo to the Guardian the week before conference. The campaign for promoting Universal Credit included newspaper wraparounds, advertorials and placed features in publications. The motion, written by Ann Galpin, chair of the NUJ’s Disability Council, explained that the intention was to pass off the information as “unbranded”, so they would not look like DWP propaganda; a campaign arguably in breach of the government’s own communications guidelines.

Natasha Hirst, NEC Disabled Members’ seat, moved the motion stating:

“It is a gross injustice and an insult to all disabled people who have shared their stories and to the journalists who have ethically reported on them, for the DWP to dismiss and misrepresent the appalling impact of their damaging system of Universal Credit.”

Highlighting the NUJ code of conduct, Natasha called for support for our “members who face pressure from editors and managers to produce stories and content that they consider to be unethical” and sent a message of solidarity to sister union PCS who represent workers in job centres. Seconded by PCS, the motion has received coverage in several publications including the Press Gazette. The NUJ had put out a statement condemning the campaign including the “misleading wraparounds and features which appeared in the Metro”.

Disabled Workers' Conference
                                           Lynn Degele

First time delegate, Lynn Degele, moved the NUJ’s motion on access to professional development for disabled workers. The motion, which struck a chord with many delegates, identified the issue of disabled workers being overlooked for skills development and career progression in professional occupations. Where private training providers deliver qualifications that are deemed crucial for getting into and progressing in journalism, the lack of access and reasonable adjustments to courses and exam criteria can disadvantage disabled people and obstruct diversity in the industry.

Criticising the government’s emphasis on only getting disabled people off benefits and into any work Lynn said: "If we only focus on getting disabled people into employment, and not supporting career progression, and development, we do not create the pipeline for others to follow in our footsteps. We believe, therefore, that for disabled people to progress in professional careers, we need to draw on success stories, and to ensure external training is accessible to all who wish to develop and grow.”

Lynn said it was important to raise awareness of the problems disabled people face in the workplace. She said she had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and Dyspraxia six years ago and since become the equality rep in her chapel at an academic publisher. "We need to encourage each other to highlight and share our successes, to create role models,” she said.  

Guy Thornton contributed to a debate on developing a social model understanding of mental health. He drew on his experiences of working in the Netherlands and travelling in different countries when speaking to a motion on the standardisation of UK railway stock to ensure consistent standards of accessibility for disabled people.

Disabled Workers' Conference
                 Ann Galpin (lft), chair on day two

Day two of conference started with a session chaired by Ann Galpin in her role as co-chair of the TUC Disabled Workers’ Committee. It is unusual for a smaller union such as the NUJ to take on such a pivotal role on a TUC Committee and the union was proud to support Ann as she raised the NUJ’s profile within the trade union and  disability movements. Ann also organised an excellent social evening for delegates with food and engrossing entertainment from spoken word performer and musician Attila the Stockbroker and poet Janine Booth.

A Community motion on supporting disabled people in self-employment was unusual in drawing a somewhat polarised debate at a conference. Natasha Hirst, a freelance photographer, pointed out the pitfalls of a freelance life, including lack of security, fluctuating incomes, issues with contracts and copyright breaches and fewer access to rights employed workers take for granted, such as holiday pay. Highlighting the growing freelance sector of NUJ, Natasha said: “Being self-employed is attractive to disabled people who want to manage work around their impairment, but it isn’t that straightforward. There is a significant risk of exploitation and erosion of rights in the gig economy.”

Outlining the financial obstructions for disabled people whose incomes may already be very low she said Access to Work was notoriously difficult to obtain, especially on part time hours. Many disabled people were not eligible for Direct Payments and were losing DLA/PIP and other benefits. “We are punished when we don’t work and obstructed when we do," she said. “Collectivism and unionisation of self-employed workers are vital, to overcome isolation, increase awareness of rights and to provide support in challenging situations.”

Other issues debated included the disability pay gap, with calls for reporting to be mandatory as with the gender pay gap.  A TUC analysis found the disability pay gap – the difference between what non-disabled and disabled workers earn – is 15 per cent, or almost £3,000 a year; and even higher for disabled women. In November 2018 ministers published a voluntary code to encourage employers to disclose the number of disabled people they employ, along with their career progression and pay. But the TUC said that without a legally binding requirement on companies to publish their pay gaps – and what action they are taking to address them – progress will be too slow.

Motions calling for greater access and inclusion in education, reasonable adjustments in workplaces, on austerity and disability assessments and for menopause to be included within the interpretation of the Equality Act, were passed.

The issue of having a  National Independent Living Support Service (NILSS) was the subject of a panel discussion on day two, with speakers from across the UK disability movement and the European Network on Independent Living. They introduced the concept of a NILSS, funded by progressive taxation and sitting alongside but separate to the NHS. It would be administered nationally but delivered locally in partnership with disabled people’s organisations with disabled people being integral to design and delivery of the system. Allowing for the priorities and lessons learned by devolved governments, the panel saw a National Independent Living Support Service as vital to address the significant disadvantage that disabled workers face.

Paul Nowak, the TUC’s deputy general secretary, said radical changes were needed: “Disabled workers have been hardest hit by a decade of austerity, welfare cuts and – for those lucky enough to be in work – stagnant wages. All this points to the need for real change – a decisive break from the free-market fundamentalism that has enriched too few and failed too many."

Motions proposed by NUJ

DWP Campaign - Universal Credit (passed)
Moved by Natasha Hirst, seconded by PCS and speeches of support from Unite, Bakers’ Union, GMB, Equity.

A Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) memo of 2 May 2019, leaked to the Guardian newspaper, reveals that DWP chiefs plan to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on a PR campaign to defend Universal Credit (UC) - a cruel policy not fit for purpose.
The memo describes a nine-week PR campaign launching on 31 May 2019 containing a giant advert wrapped around the cover of the free Metro newspaper, and a further four-page advertorial feature inside. These “features” will be unbranded and won't look or feel like they're from the DWP or about UC. NUJ members will find themselves in an invidious position unable to challenge advertising content from the Government.
This comes at a major cost to taxpayers, disabled people and UC in-work claimants, and despite the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions conceding in February 2019 that UC payment delays had left people resorting to food banks.

Stop and Scrap Universal Credit – was passed by TUC Congress in September 2018.

Conference calls on the TUC and affiliates to:

•    Condemn the DWP for using taxpayers' money to defend this unworkable policy.
•    Continue to campaign to scrap Universal Credit.
•    Support the NUJ and its Code of Conduct.

Note: The proposal for this motion was put forward to DMC by Ann Galpin. The motion and content of the speech also had input from Phil Morcom (PRCC) and Adam Christie (NEC). The motion had a great deal of impact and attention and the NUJ was quoted in a large number of  newspaper articles on the subject.

Access to professional development for disabled workers’ retention of talent and reducing the disability pay gap (passed)
Moved by Lynn Degele, seconded by Equity and speeches of support from GMB, NEU and CPS.

Conference believes that government policy directs efforts at moving disabled people off benefits into any kind of work to reduce the disability pay gap.

Retaining the skills and experiences of disabled workers is vital to a thriving economy and reducing inequality. Disabled workers are not provided with sufficient opportunities to access professional training and skills development. Employers overlook disabled workers for leadership roles, progression and miss opportunities to retain workers.

From its 2016 research Cardiff University suggests disabled people are “not expected” in skilled professional careers. In 2017, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported pay gaps experienced by disabled people arise largely from the barriers they face getting into and progressing at work.

If disabled people cannot access professional roles and progress their careers, the disability pay gap will not improve. NUJ members report not being able to access or complete professional qualifications delivered by private training providers.

Conference calls on the TUC to:
i) lobby private training providers to ensure courses and accreditation systems are inclusive and accessible.
ii) work with unions to promote best practice for employers to take positive action to remove barriers and provide support for disabled workers to retain their jobs and progress their careers.

Report & photos by Natasha Hirst

Tags: , tuc, disabled workers' conference, disabled members’ council, universal credit, disability pay gap, training, dwp