The death of Errol Graham: Man starved to death after DWP wrongly stopped his benefits

A disabled man starved to death after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) wrongly stopped his out-of-work benefits, leaving him without any income.

Errol Graham weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him. He had just a couple of out-of-date tins of fish left in his flat.

DWP civil servants had failed to seek further medical evidence from his GP, just as in many other tragic cases that have sparked repeated calls for an independent inquiry into links between the deaths of claimants and the actions and failings of DWP.

Assistant coroner Dr Elizabeth Didcock, who heard the inquest, was told that DWP stopped Graham’s employment and support allowance (ESA) entitlement – and backdated that decision to the previous month – after making two unsuccessful visits to his home to ask why he had not attended a face-to-face work capability assessment (WCA) on 31 August 2017.

The inquest heard that it was standard DWP procedure to go ahead with stopping the benefits of a claimant marked on the system as vulnerable after two failed safeguarding visits.

DWP somehow managed to stop an ESA payment that had been due to be credited to his bank account on 17 October, the same day it made the second unsuccessful safeguarding visit.

Its own rules state that it should make both safeguarding visits before stopping the benefits of a vulnerable claimant.

Because Graham lost his ESA entitlement, his housing benefit was also stopped.

His family say he had also been found ineligible for personal independence payment (PIP).

Deprived of all financial support, experiencing significant mental distress and unable or unwilling to seek help, he slowly starved to death. He was 57.

His body was discovered on 20 June 2018 when bailiffs arrived at his Nottingham council flat to evict him for non-payment of rent.

His benefits had been stopped even though he had been receiving incapacity benefit, and then ESA, for many years as a result of enduring mental distress that had led to him being sectioned.

He had also told DWP on an ESA form three years earlier that he could not cope with “unexpected changes”, adding: “Upsets my life completely. Feel under threat and upset…”

He added: “Cannot deal with social situations. Keep myself to myself. Do not engage with strangers. Have no social life. Feel anxiety and panic in new situations.”

DWP told the inquest that because Graham had not seen his GP since 2013, and there was no recent ESA questionnaire explaining his level of impairment, he had been asked to attend a WCA on 31 August 2017, but that he had failed to attend.

But the inquest also heard that he not been asked to complete an ESA questionnaire, even though he had previously completed and returned them – with assistance – for previous claims.

Letters were sent in September and October 2017, asking why he had failed to attend the WCA appointment, followed by a telephone call, a text message, and the two visits, but he failed to respond to any of them.

The assistant coroner said: “There simply is not sufficient evidence as to how he was functioning, however, it is likely that his mental health was poor at this time – he does not appear to be having contact with other people, and he did not seek help from his GP or support agencies as he had done previously.”

She concluded in the narrative verdict, delivered last June, that the “safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it”.

She said: “He needed the DWP to obtain more evidence [from his GP] at the time his ESA was stopped, to make a more informed decision about him, particularly following the failed safeguarding visits.”

She said that a consultant psychiatrist had told the inquest “that Errol was vulnerable to life stressors” and that it was “likely that this loss of income, and housing, were the final and devastating stressors, that had a significant effect on his mental health”.

But she decided not to write a regulation 28 report demanding changes to DWP’s safeguarding procedures to “prevent future deaths” because the department insisted that it was already completing a review of its safeguarding, which was supposed to finish last autumn.

DWP had promised her it would “listen to clients and to those representing them, and… ensure that the DWP were focused on support and safety for vulnerable people”, she wrote.

Dr Didcock insisted that this commitment “must be converted into robust policy and guidance for DWP staff” and DWP must ensure that “all evidence that can reasonably be gathered is put together about a client, before a benefit is ceased”.

But Disability News Service (DNS) has now contacted Dr Didcock to ask if she was aware of the many previous deaths – including two reported by coroners – that have been linked to similar DWP failings (see separate story). She was not available to comment this week.

Over the last decade, the deaths of disabled people have been linked repeatedly to the failure by DWP to secure further medical evidence, and to check on the welfare of claimants seen as vulnerable before removing their benefits, with at least one other claimant starving to death after being found “fit for work”.

These include the deaths of Stephen Carré, Jodey Whiting, Mark Wood, Paul Donnachie, Michael O’Sullivan, David Barr and a woman known only as Ms DE.

The latest case has only emerged now because DNS was contacted by Alison Turner, the partner of Errol Graham’s son, who put questions to DWP at the inquest and has fought for justice for him over the last two years.

Although the family could not afford a lawyer to represent them at the inquest, DWP paid for one of the country’s leading barristers to defend its failures.

Turner, who is disabled herself, told DNS: “It’s truly shocking what the system does to people.

“I have lived in fear ever since wondering what the future holds for me as a disabled person, and my child who will also rely on the system for support, as her autism amongst other conditions means she is unlikely to be able to live independently.

“I truly fear that the failures that let my father-in-law down will one day fail me and my child.”

She added: “I don’t know how these people sleep at night. God forbid any of them should need the system one day.

“I can only say I hope it serves them the same way it’s failed to serve the vulnerable.”

Diana Burton, Errol Graham’s ex-partner, who stayed on good terms with him after they split up more than 10 years ago, said she believed DWP and other agencies should be held accountable for what happened to him.

She said: “In this day and age, this shouldn’t happen. It’s like we have gone back to Victorian times.

“Someone should be held accountable for it. If DWP hadn’t stopped his money, he would still be here today. Definitely.”

She said DWP had tried to “push it under the carpet” with the evidence it gave at the inquest.

And she backed growing calls for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to DWP, which now date back more than a decade, and said: “It should not be happening.”

She said that similar health and safety failings by other organisations would have led to manslaughter charges.

She added: “It is like they are above the law.”

The family has yet to receive an apology from DWP, and one senior civil servant who gave evidence to the inquest even insisted that “based on the evidence available, all actions have been taken appropriately and the law and guidelines have been followed correctly”.

The coroner was also critical of Graham’s GP practice, which had not seen him since 2013, or recalled him for vital blood tests or issued prescriptions since 2015, despite his serious medical conditions, including significant, long-term mental distress and hypothyroidism.

She concluded: “Errol needed the GP to try harder to see him, certainly from 2015 onwards.”

A DWP spokesperson refused to confirm that Errol Graham also had a PIP claim refused; refused to provide an update on the safeguarding review; refused to offer a justification for the department’s safeguarding failures; refused to comment on the similarities between his death and that of other disabled benefit claimants; refused to say which senior civil servants and ministers would take responsibility for his death; refused to say if DWP agreed with the senior civil servant who told the inquest the department had acted “appropriately”; refused to justify sending a highly-paid barrister to the inquest; and refused to explain how DWP was able to stop the ESA payment so quickly after the final safeguarding visit.

He also refused to explain why DWP had not apologised to the family of Errol Graham.

Instead, he said in a statement: “This is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family.

“We take this very seriously and have referred this to our serious case panel, which includes independent members to help scrutinise and establish any lessons.”

23 January 2020

 

The death of Errol Graham: Latest tragedy is linked to 10 years of DWP deaths

A disabled man who starved to death after his benefits were wrongly stopped is the latest in a long line of fatalities that can be linked to failings and deliberate policy decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

This series of deaths now stretches back more than 10 years, with the death of Errol Graham strikingly familiar to other tragedies that have been linked to the department’s refusal to address fatal flaws in its safeguarding and employment and support allowance (ESA) systems.

Disability News Service (DNS) has today revealed (see separate story) how Graham, from Nottingham, weighed just four-and-a-half stone when he was found dead by bailiffs who knocked down his front door to evict him. He had just a couple of out-of-date tins of fish left in his Nottingham flat.

He was found dead eight months after his benefits had been stopped.

But DWP civil servants had failed to seek further medical evidence from his GP, while they also failed to speak to him to check on his welfare after he missed a face-to-face benefits assessment.

Instead, his benefits were stopped after he failed to respond to two letters, a telephone call, a text message, and two “safeguarding” visits.

An inquest heard last June that this was standard DWP procedure, even though Graham had a long history of mental distress, had been sectioned, and had told DWP just three years earlier: “Cannot deal with social situations. Keep myself to myself. Do not engage with strangers. Have no social life. Feel anxiety and panic in new situations.”

DNS can reveal that the death of Errol Graham closely mirrors other tragedies caused by DWP’s repeated refusal to make significant improvements to its safeguarding policies and practices.

Assistant coroner Dr Elizabeth Didcock told the inquest into his death last June: “He needed the DWP to obtain more evidence at the time his ESA was stopped, to make a more informed decision about him, particularly following the failed safeguarding visits.”

And she added: “There must be guidance that ensures all evidence that can reasonably be gathered is put together about a client, before a benefit is ceased.”

These comments closely match those of two other coroners, in 2010 and 2014.

In March 2010, coroner Tom Osborne told DWP, following an inquest into the death of Stephen Carré, who had taken his own life after being found “fit for work”: “I feel the decision not to seek medical advice from the claimant’s own GP or psychiatrist if they are suffering a mental illness should be reviewed.”

Four years later, following an inquest into the death of Michael O’Sullivan, who also took his own life after being wrongly found fit for work, senior coroner Mary Hassell told DWP there was a risk of further deaths unless it took action to ensure that its decision-makers requested further medical evidence in such cases.

Other cases, like those of David Barr and Ms DE, both from Scotland, have also been linked to DWP’s failure to ensure that detailed medical evidence is obtained before finding someone with a history of mental distress fit for work.

But DWP has repeatedly refused to make the changes to policy and guidance that are needed to ensure the system is safe, particularly for people with mental distress, autistic people and people with learning difficulties.

There are other key similarities between DWP’s failure to protect Errol Graham from harm, and the deaths of other claimants.

Dr Didcock concluded in her narrative verdict last June that Graham had starved to death after his benefits were removed, just like Mark Wood.

Wood, from Oxfordshire, died after being found ineligible for ESA, even though he had never been able to cope with the demands of a job, and his GP had said he was completely incapable of working.

The decision to find him fit for work after a work capability assessment (WCA) caused him extreme anxiety and distress and exaggerated his eating disorder.

DWP’s failings in the Graham case are also disturbingly similar to those that led to the death of Paul Donnachie, from Glasgow.

His body was discovered by bailiffs who had been sent to knock his front door down in January 2016, but he is believed to have taken his own life in November 2015 after failing to attend a WCA and losing his ESA.

DWP failed to contact Donnachie’s GP to ask for detailed information about his mental health, but it also failed to ensure someone spoke to him to check on his welfare before removing his benefits, just as in the case of Errol Graham.

23 January 2020

 

The death of Errol Graham: Activists left ‘enraged’ and ‘sickened’ by latest DWP death

Disabled activists have been left sickened, shocked and enraged after hearing how a disabled man starved to death when the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) wrongly removed his out-of-work benefits for missing an assessment.

One campaigner said the level of cruelty shown in the treatment of Errol Graham (see separate stories) was “outside of anything that would happen in a civilised society” and showed that DWP “continues to treat the lives of people who live with mental distress as disposable”.

Others – including Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, a former shadow work and pensions secretary – said the death provided further evidence of the need for an inquiry into links between DWP and the deaths of benefit claimants.

Denise McKenna, co-founder of the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), said the network was “absolutely devastated and saddened beyond words to hear of the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Graham”.

She said: “We are enraged that the DWP continues to treat the lives of people who live with mental distress as disposable.

“This level of cruelty is outside of anything that would happen in a civilised society.

“The fact that Mr Graham had not responded to attempts to contact him following his failure to attend the work capability assessment (WCA) should have raised alarm bells over his safety, but instead the DWP took the opportunity to stop his social security entitlements.”

She said it was not surprising that Graham had stopped engaging with his GP, as specialist mental health services had been “decimated and most people with severe and enduring mental health problems have been left with virtually no support.

“There is now virtually no attempt to help anyone with a serious mental health problem, indeed there is wilful denial of its very existence.”

McKenna said MHRN would do all it could to bring the “sad and needless” death of Errol Graham to the public’s attention.

She said: “The government is well aware that the social security system is causing deaths.

“There should be a criminal investigation into Mr Graham’s death. We can no longer say that such deaths are accidental or due to some error.

“This is deliberate and therefore goes beyond manslaughter.”

Bob Ellard, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said it was “another pointless, needless death of someone whose only mistake was to ask for help from a cruel and heartless government.

“Another death, another name of someone I never had the chance to meet etched on my memory. Will this drumbeat of desperation, fear, humiliation and death ever end?”

Linda Burnip, another member of the DPAC steering group, pointed to the loss of vital community mental health support that might have halted DWP’s “cruel and incompetent” actions.

She said: “Particularly in view of this safety net disappearing, we must renew our campaigning to force DWP to exercise due care before they effectively sentence more disabled people to death by wrongly removing their social security payments… there is no safety net anymore due to cuts.”

Paula Peters, a fellow steering group member, said the cuts to support for people in mental distress in the benefit and healthcare system were “ideological and targeted”.

She said: “It’s tragic, it’s bloody outrageous. The safety net in the welfare state – and this includes the NHS – is being totally ripped away and people in mental distress are paying with their lives.

“Where the hell is the outcry?”

Members of WOWcampaign were also shocked and horrified by the details of Errol Graham’s death.

WOW’s Michelle Maher said: “How many more people have to die being terrorised and abandoned by this government? How many more families destroyed?

“DWP consistently claims lessons have been learnt but the deaths keep happening.

“They can find the money to fund a top barrister [to defend DWP’s failings at the inquest into his death last June] but not the money to care for disabled people.

“Lessons have not been learned in the last 10 years.

“They keep claiming they change practices, and nothing changes. If anything, it is getting worse. When did lives mean so little?”

Carole Ford, also from WOW, said it was “shocking” that “alarm bells” failed to go off in the heads of DWP civil servants dealing with Errol Graham’s case when he failed to respond to their safeguarding checks.

She said: “Instead of alerting the emergency services when visits were unanswered (a common sense action that anyone would do), the department stopped his benefit, resulting in bailiffs being called in.

“Result: a client found dead from starvation by said bailiffs.”

Her fellow WOW campaigner Ian Jones said: “I find it very difficult to  comment on yet another death caused by DWP indifference to the needs of sick and disabled people, because nothing I can say would be original – everything I could say I’ve said about countless other DWP deaths.

“The regular deaths connected to DWP decisions cannot do anything other than suggest these decisions are a causal factor.

“How many more people have to die before this heartless government calls a public inquiry into this scandal?”

Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, said the death of Errol Graham was “appalling and tragic”.

She said: “Once again the DWP has failed in its safeguarding responsibilities towards people with significant health issues.

“To leave someone with no income whatsoever and for that decision to result in a man slowly starving to death simply should not happen.

“This is not the first time that the DWP has promised to review its procedures following a person’s death and nothing has improved.

“This is why I have met with the Equality and Human Rights Commission and have requested that they investigate the deaths of social security claimants who have died after being found fit for work, or had a personal independence payment claim refused and reduced.

“I’m pleased that they have agreed to look at this as part of their future work plan and hope they will launch such an investigation.

“Any government’s first duty is to protect their citizens, and once again the DWP has disastrously failed.”

23 January 2020

 

Schools are failing legal duties on accessibility plans, says report

Secondary schools across England are breaching their legal duty to publish plans showing how they will improve access for disabled pupils, according to new research published today (Thursday).

The research, carried out on behalf of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), says the government, the education watchdog Ofsted and local authorities are all failing to monitor how schools are meeting their legal duties to publish these accessibility plans.

The legal duties have been in place since 2002, with the first plans published in 2003, and new versions due to be published in April 2021.

Schools are supposed to use the plans, described as “a hidden secret”, to show how they will improve access – including the impact of noise, lighting and physical barriers on disabled pupils – and develop an accessible curriculum.

But the research found that many schools have made little effort to publicise their plans, so disabled students and their parents are often unaware they exist and unable to use them to challenge disabling practices.

Of 127 local authorities in England that responded to a freedom of information request, almost two-thirds did not know how many schools in their area had accessibility plans in place.

Those plans that do exist often fail to comply with legal requirements and are more of a tick-box exercise, with promises unfulfilled and meaningless in practice, according to the report.

The report, by disabled academic Dr Armineh Soorenian, who herself had experience of mainstream and segregated education and home schooling as a child, says schools are breaching their duties under equality laws and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Her report was due to be launched at the Supreme Court today (Thursday) as ALLFIE held a day of action to draw attention to the failure of schools to be fully inclusive of disabled pupils.

ALLFIE was also due to hand in a petition at 10 Downing Street that has been signed by more than 107,000 people and which calls on the prime minister and the education secretary not to “shut disabled people out of mainstream education”.

It came as Ofsted this week published its annual report, which raised concerns of “a lack of coherence and coordination” and “fractures in assessment and planning” in the provision of education for disabled children.

The ALLFIE research included input from more than 400 respondents, through focus groups, interviews and surveys with disabled pupils, their parents and education professionals.

Many of the parents did not realise that schools were legally required to provide lifts, ramps or other reasonable adjustments.

Parents said they often met discriminatory attitudes and obstacles that denied them the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding their child’s education, the report found, and were sometimes forced to choose a special school or home schooling because they feared their child would receive inadequate support at a mainstream school.

Disabled young people who took part in the research described how the reasonable adjustments they tried to secure for exams and assessments were “unpredictable and inconsistent” and sometimes even led to “blatant refusals”.

The pupils spoke of teachers’ “negative attitudes and lack of understanding of their diverse needs”.

Parents of disabled children described how they were met with “non-compliance and inflexible attitudes” when they tried to persuade staff to address access barriers.

Some even spoke of being “coerced” into signing letters accepting “part-time” contracts for their child or endorsing their child’s non-attendance at school.

One mother described how her disabled son repeatedly refused to miss a day of school despite being severely bullied, including being beaten up, thrown in a river, attacked in a lane, and bullied on social media, and even being put in a bin (in an incident caught on CCTV). The report says such incidents were disability hate crimes.

Among its recommendations, the report calls for Ofsted to be given a new legal duty to monitor the implementation and impact of accessibility plans, while it says the Department for Education (DfE) must monitor, promote and enforce their development and implementation.

Other recommendations include the incorporation of disability history into school curriculums; disabled pupils to be given regular opportunities to express their views on teaching practices; and schools to be “created, built and planned with the needs of Disabled young people in mind”.

ALLFIE called for new national guidelines on accessibility plans for schools.

Dr Soorenian said: “Schools should involve parents in developing and reviewing their accessibility plans.

“They should promote them rather than hiding them away in the furthest reaches of their website.

“Crucially, schools clearly need to turn the fine words often set out in those plans into meaningful support for disabled pupils and their parents.”

Ofsted had not responded by noon today (Thursday).

A DfE spokesperson declined to say if the government supported the recommendations on ensuring Ofsted had a legal duty to monitor accessibility plans; for new national guidelines for schools on accessibility plans; and to ensure that DfE itself monitors, promotes and enforces accessibility plans.

But she said in a statement: “The Equality Act 2010 places a duty on all schools to support disabled children and young people.

“Schools must have accessibility plans which set out how they will improve access to the curriculum and make sure their buildings enable disabled pupils to take full advantage of the school.”

DfE said it was investing £365 million between 2018-19 and 2020-21 through the Special Provision Capital Fund, which will support local authorities to make capital investments in provision for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in mainstream and segregated provision.

It said this funding, as well as the basic need allocations provided to local authorities, and funding for new free schools, would “make a real difference” to disabled children attending those schools.

But ALLFIE said the percentage of pupils with SEND in mainstream schools had fallen by 24 per cent since 2012 while the number in special schools had risen by nearly a third as the government was planning “costly new special schools”.

Michelle Daley, ALLFIE’s interim director, said: “Accessibility plans must focus not only on the removal of physical barriers in schools, but on challenging attitudinal, systemic and other obstacles within the admissions process so disabled learners can attend their preferred school and achieve their full potential.

“That is an internationally-recognised human right.”

The research was funded by DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning), a £5 million research programme funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and delivered by Disability Rights UKDisability Action (in Northern Ireland), Inclusion Scotland and Disability Wales.

23 January 2020

 

Judge’s PIP comments suggest thousands have had claims wrongly stopped

Thousands of disabled people could have had their benefit claims stopped unlawfully, campaigners believe, after a judge found that letters sent out by government contractors were failing to stress the serious consequences of failing to attend a face-to-face assessment.

Upper tribunal judge Nicholas Wikeley said he believed that letters sent out to claimants of personal independence payment (PIP) by the government contractor Atos* did not make a “clear and unambiguous” statement that the disabled person must attend the assessment.

Instead, the letters said that “it is important that you attend this appointment” and that failing to do so without a good reason was “likely” to lead to the claim being disallowed.

In its evidence to the upper tribunal appeal, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) argued that it was necessary to strike a balance between clear communication and “the likely consequences of failure to attend” without “frightening claimants into being so fearful of punitive action that they will attempt to attend an appointment” even if it is “difficult or impossible” to do so because of their impairment.

The judge made it clear that his comments about the letter were not part of the legal basis for his decision on the tribunal appeal – published last week – and that he did not even know if Atos still used this wording in its letters, or if it was used by the government’s other PIP contractor, Capita.

But his comments were picked up by the disabled people’s organisation BuDS (Buckinghamshire Disability Service)**, which said they suggested that DWP may have been acting illegally by stopping thousands of PIP claims of disabled people who had failed to attend their assessments.

The concerns about the wording of the Atos letters may also apply to those sent out by Capita, DWP’s other PIP assessment contractor.

But it is not clear yet whether they apply to appointment letters sent out by “fitness for work” contractor Maximus, and claims for employment and support allowance (ESA) that were stopped for failure to attend face-to-face work capability assessments.

The tribunal appeal had been brought by a disabled person with a form of epilepsy that cannot be controlled by medication, and who had previously been claiming disability living allowance (DLA).

But after he attempted to move onto the new PIP benefit in 2017, DWP stopped his claim because he had failed to attend a face-to-face assessment with an Atos healthcare professional.

This decision was confirmed by the first-tier tribunal when he appealed against that decision, but the upper tribunal has now ruled – after an admission from DWP – that he did have good reason for missing the assessment and should have been entitled to the enhanced rate of both the daily living and mobility PIP components.

The judge said that a letter from his consultant stated that his seizures arose “unpredictably and without warning, leaving him ‘confused, disoriented and drowsy and… therefore in a position of significant vulnerability’”.

The upper tribunal judge ruled that there was now “ample evidence of the severity and significantly disabling and daily effects of the claimant’s various medical conditions”.

He also ruled that the first-tier tribunal had made a mistake in law by not having a copy of the appointment letter from Atos to hand when it made its decision.

The appeal ruling applies to a period of nearly a year when the claimant did not receive PIP, before a new claim was successful in early 2018, also at the enhanced rates for both mobility and daily living.

BuDS said that claimants who had received a letter with the same wording and had had their claim stopped for failing to attend an assessment should now ask DWP to reconsider that decision.

It said that DWP should now allow such people a new assessment, although they would not be automatically entitled to PIP.

But they could be owed back-payments if they lost money because their claim was illegally stopped.

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “How many years do they need to improve their assessment processes?

“They all seem to be totally failing, at great cost to tax-payers.”

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) refused this week to answer questions about the case, including whether the letter was still being sent out by Atos in the form criticised by the judge; how many claimants might be affected; and whether a similarly-worded letter was also being sent out by Capita and Maximus.

But DWP said in a statement: “We will consider these findings as we continue to improve our assessment processes.”

The department also suggested that the judge’s ruling was non-binding and required no changes to its procedures.

An Atos spokesperson said: “We are considering the contents of the judgement.”

Capita had not commented by noon today (Thursday).

Maximus failed to respond to requests to comment.

*Atos delivers its PIP assessment contracts through Independent Assessment Services, a trading name of Atos IT Services UK

**To make a donation to BuDS to fund the work of its BuDS Benefit Information Project, please click on this link

23 January 2020

 

Ministers secretly launch panel to probe links between DWP and claimant deaths

Ministers have secretly launched a new panel that will examine deaths linked to serious failings by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), apparently without informing MPs and peers.

Its launch only emerged when DWP admitted that the circumstances surrounding the death of Errol Graham (see separate stories) had been referred to the panel.

Graham starved to death after DWP wrongly removed his out-of-work benefits, leaving him without any income.

He weighed just four-and-a-half stone when he was found by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him.

DWP civil servants had failed to seek further medical evidence from his GP, just as in many other notorious cases that have sparked repeated calls for an independent inquiry into links between the deaths of claimants and DWP failings.

But when Disability News Service (DNS) asked DWP about his death this week, a spokesperson said only: “This is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family.

“We take this very seriously and have referred this to our Serious Case Panel, which includes independent members to help scrutinise and establish any lessons.”

When asked for further information about the panel, including its purpose, aims and membership, and why MPs and peers do not appear to have been told about its launch, the spokesperson said DWP had “nothing further to add”.

There appears to have been no mention of the panel by ministers since last September’s spending round document stated that DWP had been given £36 million to ensure that its decision-making was accurate, its application processes “straightforward and accessible”, and to improve safeguarding “by creating a new independent Serious Case Panel”.

DWP refused to provide any further information about the panel in September and Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, refused the following month to discuss the plans when questioned by Marsha de Cordova, his Labour shadow.

Now DWP has refused for the third time to offer any details about why the panel was set up, what its terms of reference are, and who its members are.

23 January 2020

 

Confusion over government’s policy on election access support

Government policy on supporting disabled candidates to stand for elected office is in chaos after the Cabinet Office suggested it could offer funding to those standing to be police and crime commissioners (PCC), but not potential local councillors.

One Deaf Labour candidate who stood in last month’s general election said she was “speechless and angry” at the government’s suggestion.

The Government Equalities Office has already been accused of breaching the Equality Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities after refusing to ensure a level playing-field for disabled candidates in last month’s general election.

It insisted instead that it was the responsibility of political parties to meet the disability-related costs of their candidates.

Because of this insistence, many general election candidates were forced to pay for these extra costs themselves, even if they had high support needs.

The government has now suggested that it could offer retrospective payments to disabled candidates who stood in the general election, after initially refusing to pay those costs.

It is also considering providing funding for PCC candidates standing in elections in May to 40 posts across England and Wales.

But it is refusing to offer the same consideration to disabled people seeking to stand in May’s local elections, even though they will be taking place on the same day in more than 100 local authorities in England.

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said: “Disability Politics UK is concerned about the confusion in the government’s proposals.

“Local elections are a vital part of the democratic structure in the UK and disabled people may need support for their additional costs in order to stand as candidates.”

She added: “Putting responsibility for funding disabled candidates’ extra costs onto political parties won’t work.

“A permanent government fund which pays the disability-related expenditure that some disabled candidates have will ensure a level playing-field.

“It ought to be a fund which covers all paid elected offices.”

King also called for a change in the law to allow job-sharing in elected office, including for MPs.

Kerena Marchant, who stood against Maria Miller, the Tory former minister for disabled people, in Basingstoke at the general election, said she was “speechless and angry” after being told the government’s new position by Disability News Service (DNS).

Marchant, who is Deaf, spent thousands of pounds paying British Sign Language interpreters during the campaign.

She said the Cabinet Office appeared to assume that disabled candidates could spend thousands of pounds on their own support during election campaigns “without any guarantee that it will be paid back”.

She said: “Tory candidates may have assets and money or big donors but not all candidates do.

“I’m a widowed single parent with a disabled child to support and I’ve really struggled to pay for support.

“Thankfully the Labour party gave me a candidate bursary and people fundraised and volunteered.”

She added: “My campaign was compromised as I didn’t have enough support from selection to election.

“There has to be a system that is accessible, transparent and not reliant on privilege that can support a disabled candidate from selection to election.”

Last month, David Buxton, a Deaf Liberal Democrat candidate in the general election, had to raise thousands of pounds to cover the cost of sign language interpreters during the campaign. He has since threatened legal action against the government.

Buxton and two other disabled politicians achieved a “partial victory” over the government in 2018 after taking a legal case against the decision to close the Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) in 2015.

They forced the government to set up the temporary EnAble fund after their lawyers warned that its failure to reopen AEOF breached the Equality Act.

AEOF was set up in 2012, following Liberal Democrat pressure on their Tory coalition partners, and it funded disability-related costs for candidates in parliamentary and other elections, before it was closed by the Conservatives after the 2015 general election.

But the EnAble fund, which runs out in March, was not open to candidates standing in the general election.

Buxton said the government’s latest announcement was “shocking but unsurprising”.

He said: “The PCC elections are on the same day as local council elections so it’s incongruous that disabled candidates may have their disability-related costs covered for one set of elections but not the either.

“We have to keep pressuring them until they understand the inequitable and discriminatory position they are putting people in.”

He said the government’s actions were “clearly discriminatory – contravening both the Equality Act and the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“Are we to be further marginalised and excluded from the political scene?”

Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), which administers the EnAble fund, said: “Disability Rights UK is adamant that it is right that people are able to stand for election without incurring costs related to their disabilities and impairments where reasonable adjustments can be made.

“DR UK believes it is right that such costs are covered by the EnAble fund.

“DR UK has campaigned for a considerable time, and continues to campaign, for the EnAble fund to cover the costs of local council, PCC and general elections.

“DR UK understands that the current restrictions on the fund are frustrating to potential candidates.

“DR UK has shared in this frustration and is actively pushing for such candidates to receive ongoing parity of funding.

“The Government Equalities Office had, and now the Cabinet Office has, our detailed request for resources, and we are actively engaging with the Cabinet Office to support candidates.”

Last week, the Cabinet Office bragged about changing the rules to allow disabled candidates for police and crime commissioner elections to exclude their disability-related expenditure from campaign spending limits. The exemption had already been applied to other elections.

But there was no mention in the announcement of the EnAble fund.

When DNS asked the Cabinet Office if the end of the EnAble fund would expose disabled people standing in PCC and local and general elections to further discrimination, a spokesperson said it was considering if the fund could be used to provide funding for PCC candidates after 31 March.

She said the government was also “looking at options to provide retrospective payments” to eligible disabled candidates at last month’s general election.

But when asked why it was considering funding for candidates in PCC elections but not local or future general elections, the Cabinet Office refused to comment further.

It has previously insisted that the interim EnAble fund was “intended to give political parties room to establish their own processes” and that the parties were “fully informed that the fund was for a limited period, and strongly encouraged to put support for their candidates in place”.

23 January 2020

 

News round-up: Prescription forms, Brexit, disability arts, hate crime… and ferries

The Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS Business Services Authority are finally about to publish new versions of a form that will allow disabled people claiming universal credit to show their pharmacist if they are entitled to free prescriptions.

They said this and other changes, which will be introduced more than two years after the government promised to change the documents, would be included on forms to be introduced gradually from this month in England.

The disabled people’s organisation Disability Wales is leading a £72,000 project, funded by the Welsh government, that aims to ensure disabled people have “adequate support and knowledge” to prepare for the likely negative effects of the transition period that will follow this month’s exit from the European Union (EU).

The Brexit transition period will last through 2020, and the Welsh government believes it could impact disabled people disproportionately.

Areas of concern include the supply of medicines and medical devices; travel and accessibility; legal rights; the employment of personal assistants from the EU; and the settlement of disabled citizens from the EU and in the EU.

The project will include two regional events next month that are aimed at disabled people, their organisations and allies.

Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales, said: “Our project will enable concerns to be raised with and addressed by key decision-makers as well as provide up-to-date, accessible information, the lack of which so often fuels fear and anxiety.”

Arts Council England has announced grants of between £75,000 and £100,000 for 12 disabled-led arts organisations, as part of £4.3 million in National Lottery funding aimed at improving the diversity of the arts and cultural sector.

The funding has been provided through the Elevate programme, which aims to increase the diversity of the arts and culture sector by building the capacity of diverse-led organisations to deliver their mission, develop new partnerships and increase levels of income.

The user-led charity Changing Faces has today (Thursday) published the results of a survey of more than 1,000 people with a visible difference which found more than a quarter of them (28 per cent) have experienced a disability hate crime because of how they look.

Nearly seven in 10 (68 per cent) have experienced negative behaviours because of their visible difference, 42 per cent have had negative experiences online, and one in 10 say they are repeatedly harassed on social media.

The charity has released a film as part of its new hate crime campaign, #VisibleHate.

The Department for Education has announced £300,000 plans to fund trials of “ground-breaking” assistive technology for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities in up to 100 schools and colleges in England.

The pilots will run from April 2020 until July 2021 and will assess the impact of different types of assistive technology such as text-to-speech and speech recognition software and eye-gaze technology.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation has found that the negative impact of universal credit (UC) is greater in some parts of the country, such as Liverpool, than others.

Across the UK as a whole, 46 per cent of benefit-recipient families will lose out, while 39 per cent will gain from the switch to UC, rising to 52 per cent losing out in the Liverpool city region and 32 per cent gaining.

But if there is a disabled person in the family, 60 per cent of families will lose out across the UK, compared with just 29 per cent gaining.

Disabled people’s organisations including The National Federation of the Blind UK (NFBUK) and Disability Rights UK are calling on the BBC to keep its red button TV text service, which is set to be withdrawn at the end of this month.

They say that although the service has largely been replaced by internet use, it is still a “vital service” for visually impaired, D/deaf, disabled and older people and other hard-to-reach social groups, many of whom do not have internet access.

A report into employment barriers faced by black disabled people living with sickle cell disorder found they often face “structural issues in employment, work and welfare which are acting as barriers to inclusion, empowerment and citizenship”.

The report, which is accompanied by a new guide for employees and employers, is part of the DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning) research programme, which is funded by the Big Lottery Fund.

The Department for Transport yesterday (Wednesday) published new guidance for maritime transport operators in England and Wales on how to improve accessibility for disabled passengers and staff, and how to comply with passenger rights regulations.

Producing the guidance was one of the commitments made by the government in its Inclusive Transport Strategy, which was published in 2018 and updated last year.

23 January 2020

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com