Two years ago the government committed, through its Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People strategy, to achieving a user-led organisation in every council by 2010. This recognised the view that local groups run by disabled people are the best providers of empowering support services to enable disabled people to live independently.
User-led organisations have been at the forefront of every important social policy advance in the past 25 years and single-handedly battled for direct payments that are now hailed as fundamental to the future of provision.
It seemed the government had finally accepted evidence that independent living and user-led organisations were cost-effective solutions to the needs of disabled people.
However, as an LSE report highlights, council funding for direct-payment support services dropped by 11% between 2003 and 2005. This statistic supports the difficulties that user-led organisations are having in surviving in the face of council funding cuts and the roll out of procurement systems that fail to recognise the value of user-led service provision.
It seems that at the brink of success we are in grave danger of snatching defeat. User-led groups are being pushed to the edge of extinction at the same time that the government is trying to encourage their development.
The LSE report highlights that less than 5% of eligible service users receive a direct payment, citing three factors that hinder progress: concern about managing direct payments staff resistance to direct payments and difficulties finding enough people to work as personal assistants.
So what needs to be done? First, we must ensure councils sign up to the life chances strategy and the impending recommendations of the Independent Living Review.
If user-led organisations are valued, we must place a duty on local authorities to fund them (at a time of financial pressure local authorities will not fund unless they have a duty to do so).
Tendering for services cannot be the only method to fund user-led groups. Many are small and are unable to meet the technical requirements, let alone compete with large organisations that employ tendering teams. If we accept that locally based, user-led organisations are best at progressive social policy advances, then we have to provide a funding environment in which they can exist. The price of failure will be a generation of disempowerment.
Ian Loynes is a service user and chief executive of the Southampton Centre for Independent Living.