Fighting for everyone’s rights

By Ann McGauran | 01 July 2020

Cllr Gavin Harding is a trailblazer who has devoted his life to improving the rights of learning disabled people, and their care. He has achieved this through his work for NHS England, his contributions to Government plans and programmes, and as a local politician.

In 2011 he became the first person with a learning disability to be elected as a Labour councillor in his home town of Selby in Yorkshire. Four years later he became the UK’s first mayor with learning disabilities, and in that same year he was awarded an MBE for his work for services to people with learning disabilities.

He helped the Government draw up a three-year plan on learning disability, Valuing People Now, in 2009. In 2014 he became co-chair of the Transforming Care programme to improve standards of care for people with learning disabilities.

Cllr Harding is one of the people featured in a new book highlighting stories of success by people with learning disabilities – in their own words. In Made Possible, he is one of eight individuals who present their authentic experiences, and show how people can make invaluable contributions to society when their potential is acknowledged and supported by those around them. Made Possible is edited by social affairs journalist Saba Salman, who is a trustee of the charity Sibs, and has a younger sister with a learning disability.

In the book, he says one of his proudest moments was when he was asked to help run the Transforming Care Board in 2014, set up to oversee progress in getting people out of places like Winterbourne View. His passionate opposition to institutional care came after mental health difficulties in his early twenties led him to spend several years in a number of secure hospital units.

As co-chair he worked alongside the Minister of Care and Support at the time, Sir Norman Lamb, who says in the book that Cllr Harding was an ‘enormous help to me personally’.

Sir Norman adds: ‘I thought that it was vital to have input from someone with a learning disability – and someone who had experienced what assessment and treatments units (ATUs) were like. Gavin brought that incredible insight…Gavin subsequently worked on the green paper called No Voice Unheard, No Right Ignored. His input into that green paper was again invaluable. Civil servants in the department enjoyed working with Gavin.’

In 2015 he became the first person with a learning disability to be employed by NHS England. His job, says Gavin, ‘is to help make sure that the NHS improves the way it cares for and treats learning-disabled people.

‘It’s my responsibility to help make sure that their views are represented in the health system.’

Informed by his personal experiences, he advocates to make sure people held in ATUs get the right care, are not in placements a long way from home, and are not in hospitals unnecessarily.

His outstanding drive and dedication has led to the organisation employing six more people with learning disabilities and autism. In the book he says his ‘office feels like the headquarters of a learning disability campaign group within the NHS because of the way we work to influence people’.

Speaking to The MJ, he is very positive about the focus NHS England has put on recruiting learning-disabled people – some of whom, like Cllr Harding, are full-time employees in Band Eight senior roles. He says it’s high time local authorities took a similar approach. ‘That’s what I’m saying councils should do – they need to give people proper jobs.’

‘If a national institute such as NHS England can employ people, why can’t local authorities employ them in serious roles, instead of offering them training places, and in doing gardening for £4 a day?,’ he continues. ‘They need to pay them proper wages.’

Is the system addressing the rights and needs of people with learning disabilities better now than they were a decade ago? He tells The MJ: ‘I would say we are heading in a better direction now because people are getting it now. And the way we are changing commissioning is absolutely phenomenal.’

He is currently Selby Town Council’s disability officer for the Constituency Labour Party. He says it is about ‘getting yourself known in the town for your work. And it’s not just about representing people with disabilities, because you are representing the whole range of the public. It’s down to sorting out dustbins, it’s down to sorting out social issues. It’s about representing all the people in that town.’

Returning to Sir Norman Lamb, he emphasises in the book that there has been a significant wider impact as a result of ‘involving Gavin and others like him at a senior level within government’.

Local government would do well to take note of Cllr Harding’s record – and ask what more it could be doing to fully harness the talents, insights, drive and skills of people like him.

Made Possible: Stories of Success by People with Learning Disabilities – in their own words, is edited by Saba Salman and published by unbound

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