Interview: Anne McGuire MP, new Minister for Disabled People
14th June 2005
Anne McGuire: Before 1997, when I was elected as a member of Parliament, most of my work experience had been in the voluntary sector in Scotland. A great deal of that time was working with disadvantaged groups generally, mainly young people. But I also worked both as a paid employee and as a volunteer with organisations, particularly working with adults and children with learning difficulties. So I've got a fair breadth of knowledge both at practical work experience and as a volunteer.
Geoff A-S: What's your agenda for this job? What are your priorities?
Anne McGuire: I think the principal job I have to a certain extent inherited is the Strategy Unit report (Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People). That was a milestone in extending rights for disabled people, linked of course with our legislative programme, particularly the DDA 2005. There are issues there that obviously have to be taken forward in terms of implementation. So the Strategy Unit linked with the implementation of the DDA are the immediate and medium term goals I've set myself.
Anne McGuire: I think different people in different jobs do them differently. What I would like to do is to pay a real tribute to Maria, who I know was well regarded in the area of work. She was a doughty champion of disabled people's rights, and I certainly hope to continue in that mould if not with that particular style.
Geoff A-S: In terms of the disability agenda, what are the tricky issues for you?
Anne McGuire: Obviously welfare reform, particularly linked to incapacity benefit, will undoubtedly be an issue that we will want to engage with the disability lobby on. I've already started my own engagement with the lobby on that. The message I would like to get out is that this is an agenda that I think disability groups, and disabled people themselves, can support. It's about looking at what they can do and not at what they can't do. For too long, in my own experience, we looked at disabled people in terms of what they couldn't do. I think now we are full square behind trying to have a far more positive approach, both to the working rights as well as the civil rights of disabled people.
Geoff A-S: The Disability Rights Commission for one has criticised politicians and their macho speech about getting 'scroungers' off benefits. You've been very explicit in saying that this isn't about crackdowns, this isn't about vilifying people. But those newspapers that run such headlines must be briefed by somebody - is that somebody completely outside the Government then?
Anne McGuire: I'm not necessarily convinced that newspapers are always briefed. I think that sometimes newspapers have their own editorial agenda. I've been very clear that I want to see, particularly, incapacity benefit reform being placed in a very positive context. I think for disabled people it is a very positive agenda - and linked with our civil rights agenda, I think we have a very strong platform to work across government, to work between government and employers generally and to work with disabled people's organisations. It is a positive agenda and I don't have any hesitation in saying that. Language is important, but I'm not responsible for the headlines in the newspapers - or from the BBC for that matter!
Geoff A-S: In the lifetime of this parliament, what changes do you think people are going to notice in terms of implementing the Government's strategy?
Anne McGuire: We've set ourselves quite a challenging timetable. Obviously we are looking at individual budgets, and I've already started work with the new minister, Liam Byrne, on presenting the first of our reports to the Prime Minister. The PM's taking a very strong personal interest in the Strategy Unit report. I've already met with cross-departmental ministers to look at ways in which we can ensure that there is widespread co-operation and recognition of the issues around the Strategy Unit report. We are getting there. There's a challenging timetable. The first of those landmarks will be reached in July, when we have to make our first report about individual budgets to the Prime Minister. I think individual budgets are a great step forward, but we have to get it right.
Geoff A-S: Realistically, when do you think disabled people will actually be able to move from the current, fragmented system to using individual budgets?
Geoff A-S: Is there potentially a clash between the proposed Office for Disability Issues and your role?
Anne McGuire: The ODI will actually enhance the role of the Minister for Disabled People. It will allow me to have access to the office in terms of the wider strategy. The establishment of the office will also flag up to the rest of society, to government and also to the private sector and the community as a whole, that we are serious about the issue of rights for disabled people. I look forward to working with the Office for Disability Issues. I think it's a great step forward.
Geoff A-S: So where will we be on all of these issues by the time of the next election?
Anne McGuire: I think by that time we will have started to see the development of some of the priorities highlighted in the Strategy Unit report. I've already mentioned individual budgets. We have a plan in terms of the Disability Discrimination Act. We have deadlines there - 2006 is another key date. Over the next four to five years, I think we will have seen a dramatic change founded on the DDA and the Strategy Unit report, linked into the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights - where disability issues will be at the heart. We will start to see a transformation. The achievement of civil rights has always been a long haul: yes, we can change the legislative framework (which we have done), but the big achievement will be to change society's view of disabled people. I think that's our challenge in government, and I look forward to contributing to that challenge over the next four years
Geoff A-S: Do you think more in terms of 'disability cool', or is it about helping unfortunate people?
Anne McGuire: I've never seen disability issues as helping unfortunate people. I've worked with lots of people who, although disabled themselves, never saw themselves as unfortunate. I always thought that I worked with disabled people in an equal way. From that point of view I would be called 'disability cool', although my daughter says that women of my age using the word cool is really uncool!
Geoff A-S: Ouch is running a poll at the moment, asking people to choose their favourite disabled TV characters. Do you have a favourite?
Anne McGuire: I think it would be Donna from River City - played by Paula Sage, who will certainly be known by Scottish people. She actually comes from the home town that I live in, Cumbernauld. She has Downs Syndrome. Last year I was privileged to be in the audience when she won a Bafta for her acting in Afterlife. I understand she's hoping to win an Olympic gold medal for netball later on this year. She's in the West of Scotland netball team. Paula has to be my choice - she's brilliant.
Geoff A-S: Why do you think we live in such a non-inclusive society when, by the DWP's own admission, disabled people have a purchasing power of roughly £80bn a year?
Anne McGuire: I think part of it is - maybe ignorance is too strong a word - that culturally there has always been a view that it's about helping unfortunate people. I think what we have seen in the last number of years is that we have moved beyond that. I can only go from my own experience growing up: disabled people were often kept at home. Because of all sorts of misconceptions about why people are born with or developed disabilities, the rest of society didn't know quite how to work with or support disabled people. In the forties and fifties, disabled people were kept at home and 'looked after'. I think - while I don't want to condemn anybody - that resulted in lots of disabled people never achieving either their aspiration or their potential. I think we've come a long way since then. I've been to quite a few conferences recently, and somebody came up to say to me that achieving equality wasn't just about legal rights or even employment rights, it was about being able to go to the dancing and being able to get clothes that he liked and that were fashionable. And I just thought that summed it up: yes, we can do all the other things, but we've also got to change those attitudes out there. And I think they are changing. You can see they're changing, but we've still got a bit of a way to go.
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