Wiltshire Council cuts funding for Wiltshire and Swindon Users Involvement Network

Ten years ago, when we were setting up our local service user group, one of the first tasks was to seek out similar organisations around the country for examples of best practice and to learn from their experiences.

Our ambitions, by today’s standards, were quite low. We were simply looking for ways to ensure that users’ voices could be heard by service providers, which in turn meant that we were just looking for ways to organise effective networks. When we contacted the Wiltshire and Swindon Users Involvement Network, we felt like the Tolpuddle martyrs might have done had they stepped forward in time and visited a modern trade union headquarters.

We met disabled people who had levels of self-confidence, ambitions for the network – and for themselves – which we couldn’t have imagined. These were people who were managing their own independent organisation and offered advice, information and advocacy to other service users as well as consultancy to strategic planners and service providers. In short, they gave disabled people a strong voice in service planning and delivery. They employed their own workers and had enough funding to ensure that the organisation could be democratic and effective.

Although we felt that we couldn’t hope to emulate their organisation in the short term, they did give us a role model. Their achievements were something for us to aspire to, not least in terms of working in partnership with health and social services, rather than being just another adversarial pressure group.

Now, Wiltshire is to cut the funding for its Users Involvement Network for everything except administrative work, as well as all direct payments for leisure activities. At a time when central government is seeking to reduce social exclusion and empower disabled people, Wiltshire has decided, in effect, that disabled people who need help are entitled only to an existence, rather than a life, and that they can do without a service-user perspective.

Next week, I will look at how this has happened, and what implications this decision might have.

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