Call for help to design a social security system of dignity, respect and trust

Disabled people and others with personal experience of claiming benefits are leading a ground-breaking project to devise a new social security system, in which claimants would be treated with dignity, trust and respect.

The Commission on Social Security, led by Experts by Experience, will seek ideas from other claimants, organisations and academics, before drawing up their own white paper and putting it out for consultation.

They will then launch a campaign to seek public and political approval for their final ideas.

Every one of the commissioners who will produce the white paper has been or is on benefits, and all of them represent grassroots, user-led organisations that fight for the rights of benefit claimants and disabled people.

In a disturbing sign of the current system’s flaws, some of the commissioners have asked not to be publicly named through fear of Department for Work and Pensions reprisals.

They hope that other benefit claimants, thinktanks, academics and civil society organisations will now share their own ideas for how to reform the system after the commission launched a call for evidence, with a deadline of 31 July.

The commissioners have drawn up a list of five key principles on which they believe any new social security system should be based.

They say all claimants should have enough money to live on; should be treated with dignity, respect and trust; should have rights and entitlements; and should have access to free advice and support.

They also say that the system should be clear, simple, user-friendly and accessible, with people with lived experience involved in creating and running it.

Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), and one of the commission’s two co-chairs, told its launch event in London yesterday (Wednesday) that its grassroots, user-led approach could avoid the “mistakes, the harm and the waste that top-down policy-making has led to in recent history”.

She said there was no question that changes to the social security system since 2010 had failed benefit claimants and disproportionately impacted on disabled people.

She said: “The pace of changes to social security that have been brought in, each with their own specific calamitous consequences, has left claimants, disabled people, and the organisations that represent us, fighting a largely rear-guard action as we attempt to mitigate the worst impacts and try what we can to ward off further avoidable harm.

“As a consequence, we can easily come across as anti-everything and as having lost the forward vision that used to characterise the disabled people’s movement.”

She said the combination of complex policy changes and user-led groups losing funding and capacity had led the movement to focus on “what is, rather than what could be”.

She said this was why she and fellow campaigners from Inclusion London and London Unemployed Strategies – a group formed by unemployed people and allies in trade unions and the voluntary sector – were so pleased when the original idea for a grassroots, user-led project on the future of social security was first suggested by Dr Michael Orton, from the University of Warwick’s Warwick Institute for Employment Research.

One disabled activist, who was representing the Unite Community union, and is well-known on Twitter as @imajsaclaimant, told the launch event that he shared stories on social media every day showing “how wrong austerity and the welfare system is”.

He said: “It shows that every day there is something new that has been discovered that shows something wrong with the benefit system.

“The stories we read each week should shame this country… but the longer it goes on, the more it feels like this cruelty is intentional.”

He described how his own experience of the sanctions regime had led to a suicide attempt and left him with enduring mental and physical health problems.

He said: “The safety net we once had is quickly being taken away, and for much of the time I have felt impotent to change the direction this country is heading in.

“This is why I fully endorse this new project today to create a white paper, because it allows us to do more than just moan about what is wrong. It gives us the opportunity to provide solutions.”

He added: “When I go into a jobcentre I start to physically shake. People also tell me that they are scared to go into these places because of the treatment they have received before.

“More and more I am hearing from people who say they are unwilling to claim benefits because of this issue. That is simply wrong.

“Jobcentres ought to be like valued community hubs… people who lose their jobs need to be supported and treated with respect, not treated with disdain and contempt, as happens so often now.”

George Tahta, from Survivors’ Poetry, told the commission’s launch event that walking into a jobcentre turns him from an “articulate and intelligent” person to “a gibbering effing wreck, and that’s what they do to me and that’s what they do to a lot of people”.

He said staff in jobcentres treat claimants “like dirt”, unless they have a supporter or advocate with them, and even then they “go away and stab you in the back” afterwards with a DWP letter.

The commissioners will be supported by Orton and three other academics and researchers: Dr Rosa Morris, who has personal experience of the work capability assessment and last year completed a PhD examining the assessment process and disability benefits; Dr Kate Summers, from the London School of Economics; and Austin Taylor-Laybourn, from Trust for London.

The commission is funded by Trust for London, which provides about £8 million in grants every year for work that aims to reduce poverty and inequality.

The other co-chair of the commission is Nick Phillips, from LUS, who said: “The commission is a great breakthrough for claimants’ rights to have a say in the shaping of a benefits system that affects their lives profoundly.

“We would like as many of those affected as possible to contribute to our call for solutions. This is their opportunity to have a voice and make a difference.”

Bharat Mehta, Trust for London’s chief executive, said: “We’re incredibly excited to be supporting this pioneering project which puts people with experience of the benefits system at the heart of redesigning it.

“The system we currently have is not working for far too many people. This project aims to create a consensus around what a new system that works for our society and the individuals in it, would look like.”

30 May 2019


Inaccessible Peterloo massacre memorial causes protest storm

Disabled activists have criticised a council for pushing ahead with “discriminatory” plans for a memorial to victims of the Peterloo massacre – who died 200 years ago in the cause of equality – that will be completely inaccessible to many disabled people.

The new memorial is set to be unveiled on 16 August, the 200th anniversary of the attack by paramilitary and military forces on more than 60,000 peaceful, pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters in Manchester, which led to 18 deaths and nearly 700 serious injuries.

The memorial will be positioned near what was known in 1819 as St Peter’s Fields, the site of the massacre, and will be outside the current Manchester Central Convention Centre, which just a few weeks after the unveiling will host the Conservative party’s annual conference.

It has been designed by artist Jeremy Deller as a series of concentric circles, with members of the public encouraged to climb the steps to a flat top.

But the memorial, which has been funded by Manchester City Council, will be completely inaccessible to many disabled people, even though it has been designed to allow it to be used as a platform for speakers and demonstrators, mirroring those who spoke during the protest in 1819.

Now a string of disabled activists from Manchester have attacked the council’s refusal to ensure that the memorial is accessible.

Brian Hilton, digital campaigns officer for Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP), said: “Manchester City Council (MCC) is failing to deliver a fitting memorial.

“Their chosen stepped design purposefully excludes disabled people.”

In March, the designs were approved by Manchester City Council’s planning department, despite objections from GMCDP and others during the consultation and planning process and meetings with council leader Sir Richard Leese.

Hilton said: “Manchester has a reputation of pulling together and lining up shoulder to shoulder in defiance of injustice, ignorance and segregation.

“We are certain that once the campaign message is more widely heard the public will be as outraged as disabled people are and the council will be forced to listen and make the necessary changes.”

Mark Todd, a former city council access officer, who started a Facebook page to protest at the design of the memorial – and who calls it “a monument to discrimination” – said the group was “angry and shocked” that it was going ahead “despite it being inaccessible to disabled people and others who cannot climb steps”.

They believe this is “an act of exclusion that denies disabled people a voice, a blatant act of discrimination”, with the memorial “set to become a glaring metaphor for inequality and segregation with disabled people at the bottom of the memorial, literally being talked down to”.

The group has called for a “major reworking” of the memorial by Manchester City Council (MCC), to make it accessible to those unable to climb steps, with options “explored in a full, open, transparent and public manner”.

The group said that anything less would be a “breathtaking act of hypocrisy” and “an abandonment of the ideals of liberty and equality which moved those citizens to gather in St Peter’s Fields on 16th August 1819”.

Dennis Queen, from Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “We think MCC choosing to deliberately create a platform inaccessible for all speakers – or signers – sends a clear message against democracy for all in Manchester – the exact opposite of the aims of the memorial.”

Flick Harris, chair of Manchester Disabled People’s Access Group, said she and her colleagues were “shocked” that the council had approved the “newly designed inaccessible and unsafe Peterloo monument”.

She said: “Any new designs and projects should be accessible for everyone or no-one.”

Alan Holdsworth, a former Manchester resident who now lives in the US, where he is a member of the ADAPT grassroots disability rights organisation, said: “As a former Mancunian on behalf of ADAPT we are appalled that in 2019 we still have to fight against segregation and exclusion from the Peterloo massacre memorial.”

Holdsworth, who founded the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN) in the UK, said: “What makes us more angry is that although disabled people were part of the consultation process their voices, ideas and reservations were ignored.

“We call on the council to halt the process and include disabled people and accessibility in the design.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “While DPAC realise that the new Peterloo memorial is to celebrate the martyrdom of 19th century activists it remains totally unacceptable in what is now the 21st century for any sector of our society – in this case disabled people – to be deliberately excluded from access to that memorial.

“We are appalled that disabled people’s concerns have been repeatedly ignored by Manchester City Council and call for an immediate redesign of this structure, together with disabled people, so that all citizens are able to access it equally.”

Although some changes have been made as a result of concerns about access, including the addition of a handrail, it appears that wheelchair-users will still only be able to reach the height of the lowest of the circles via a ramp.

But the council made it clear to DNS yesterday (Wednesday) that it was unlikely that any further major changes would now be made, stating: “We are happy to continue dialogue and explore whether anything further can be done to address concerns but it is unlikely there could be any fundamental changes.”

A council spokesperson said earlier: “We have engaged, and will continue to engage, with people who are disabled in order to make this memorial accessible while recognising that this is not a building or similar structure but a piece of public art.

“Significant changes to the original design were made in response to this dialogue throughout the design’s development including the incorporation of a ramp and handrail and the replacement of tiles covering the memorial with stone to reduce slip hazards.

“The specific design elements which provide information about Peterloo are all accessible.

“We have taken these considerations seriously. While we respect the fact that some people feel that these changes still do not go far enough, we believe we have done the best we realistically can allowing for the constraints of the site, and this is the only feasible site in the original Peter’s Fields area.

“Further mooted changes to the approved and already amended design would require new planning approvals and mean the project couldn’t be completed in time for the 200th anniversary commemorations.”

Deller, whose work often focuses on political and social themes, expressed sympathy with the position of disabled campaigners and told Disability News Service: “I take responsibility for not considering enough the needs of people in wheelchairs.”

He said further changes were suggested to improve access after the memorial secured planning permission, but he said the council had decided they were “so substantial it would have meant total redesign” and so were “not practical” because work had already begun.

He said he still hoped that “once the memorial is built there might be a way to adapt it for wheelchairs”, but he had not responded by noon today (Thursday) to the council’s position that it was probably too late for further major changes.

A spokesperson for the Peterloo Memorial Campaign, which campaigned for years for a memorial to be built, said disabled people were “right to be frustrated and angry about the lack of access to the monument”.

He said: “In addition to commemorating the massacre, the memorial has been designed as a platform for speakers and demonstrators, but people using wheelchairs or unable to climb steps cannot use it fully.”

He added: “We accept our share of responsibility for not immediately spotting this issue when the design was unveiled.

We have worked with the council, the artist and disabled people involved in or supportive of the Peterloo Memorial Campaign to try and find a ‘retrofit’ solution.

“We are disappointed to be informed by the council that no solution is viable in the limited time left available.”

The names of those who died, and the villages and towns of the protesters, will be engraved on the memorial, while those visiting will be shown the direction of other parts of the world where significant protests have taken place, such as Tiananmen Square, Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Gdansk in Poland.

A smaller circle at ground-floor level will reproduce the information so that those who cannot climb the steps will be able to read it.

30 May 2019


 McVey failed to respond to letter about benefit deaths cover-up, DWP admits

A Tory leadership contender left her job as work and pensions secretary without answering key questions from an MP about links between her department and the deaths of benefit claimants, her former department has confirmed.

Esther McVey resigned her position last November in protest at the prime minister’s Brexit deal.

But she left more than three months after receiving a letter from Stephen Lloyd, then a Liberal Democrat and now an independent MP, about claims of a possible cover-up by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

He had written to her after Disability News Service (DNS) reported how DWP was refusing to say if it showed key documents linking the deaths of claimants with the work capability assessment (WCA) to Dr Paul Litchfield, the independent expert the government hired to review the test in 2013 and 2014.

He carried out the fourth and fifth reviews of the WCA but has refused to say if he was shown two letters written by coroners and a number of secret DWP “peer reviews”.

Litchfield, who was recognised by the prime minister with a CBE in last June’s birthday honours, published his two reviews in December 2013 and November 2014, but neither of his reports mentioned the documents, which all link the WCA with the deaths of claimants.

In his letter to McVey, Lloyd said he found it “astonishing” that Litchfield appeared not to have been shown the documents.

He added: “In light of Dr Litchfield being awarded a CBE, could you please confirm whether or not he was shown the documents linking the government’s WCA program with the deaths of benefit claimants?”

Weeks later, having failed to receive a reply, the MP wrote a follow-up letter to McVey.

He never received a reply.

This week, DWP claimed it could not comment because McVey was no longer with the department, while McVey’s office claimed it was for DWP to answer any questions about the failure to reply.

A DWP spokesperson said: “As his letter was sent to Esther McVey I can’t say why a response wasn’t sent.”

But a spokesperson for McVey said: “Although the letter was addressed to Esther, the ministerial correspondence team will have forwarded it to the correct person to respond.

“In this case, it would not have been the secretary of state.

“I am sorry I am not able to provide further information, it would be a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions to address.”

Lloyd said this week: “It’s absolutely deplorable that Esther McVey, when she was secretary of state at the DWP, simply didn’t bother to respond to my letter which was first sent on the 2nd of August last year.

“My office even followed her up twice, but still nothing.

“This showed a total reluctance by her and the DWP to engage on what were and are shocking allegations.

“To think that she’s now trying to become the new Conservative leader and even, god help us, prime minister, beggars belief.”

Since DNS revealed the existence of the documents in the years after Litchfield’s final report was published, concerns have grown that senior DWP civil servants and ministers deliberately covered-up evidence showing the fatal impact of the assessment on disabled people.

The admission that McVey failed to respond to Lloyd’s letter adds weight to calls in the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition* for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to DWP failings, and for evidence of criminal misconduct by civil servants or government ministers to be passed to the police.

It also calls for MPs to recognise that DWP is institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose, and for DWP to “urgently change its policies and administration of social security benefits to make the safety of all claimants a priority”.

The cover-up over the benefit deaths documents appeared to be confirmed earlier this month when DNS revealed how DWP had finally admitted failing to send Litchfield’s review team the coroners’ letters and the internal reviews.

The admission came in DWP’s response to a complaint lodged by DNS with the Information Commissioner’s Office about the department’s failure to confirm if it passed the information to Litchfield.

A senior ICO case officer told DNS: “Consultation with the ex-review team elicited statements that no such information was received from DWP nor were any physical files sent to stores.”

The coroner’s letters followed the deaths of two men with mental health conditions in 2010 and 2013; they were sent to DWP in the spring of 2010 and early 2014, each warning of further such deaths if changes were not made to the WCA.

Peer reviews – now known as internal process reviews – must be carried out by DWP civil servants into every death “where suicide is associated with DWP activity”, as well as other deaths and serious and complex cases that have been linked to DWP activity.

DWP has admitted that at least seven peer reviews written in 2012 mentioned the WCA, and there are almost certainly more that were written by the time Litchfield wrote his final report in late 2014.

One of the aims of a peer review is to “determine whether local and national standards have been followed or need to be revised/improved”, so DWP would find it hard to explain why they would not have been shown to Litchfield, whose job it was to review how the WCA was working.

But neither of Litchfield’s reviews mentioned either the peer reviews or the coroners’ letters, although the second coroner’s letter was not written until he had begun work on his second review.

Professor Malcolm Harrington, who carried out the first three WCA reviews in 2010, 2011 and 2012, has told DNS that he believes he was shown neither the first coroner’s letter nor any WCA-related peer reviews.

To sign the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, click on this link. If you sign the petition, please note that you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee

30 May 2019


 Activists begin direct action over universal credit newspaper ads

Disabled activists across the country have removed thousands of copies of a national newspaper from their public distribution points after it began publishing a series of advertising features that will air-brush concerns about universal credit.

Members of Sheffield Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) are now promising to “step up the campaign” against the Metro free newspaper.

They have even offered a prize of a DPAC tee-shirt for the most creative way in which an activist can recycle or reuse a copy of the Metro, and so prevent the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) advertising features being read.

Photographs show all the copies of the Metro at Sheffield train station being removed in a suitcase – while a similar action took place in Ipswich – with Sheffield DPAC encouraging people to “get to your local Metro newspaper stands and help us by removing the Metros from the shelves”.

It adds: “Re-use them, recycle them, just don’t leave these LIES on the stands.”

And it warns: “This nonsense is going to be going on for nine weeks from this week and each week we will be stepping up this campaign […] we are absolutely not giving up […] if anything it just makes us angrier and more determined.”

Sheffield DPAC has also warned all the companies advertising in Metro that thousands of potential readers would not see the adverts they had paid for because DPAC activists “have removed thousands of copies of the newspaper” from stations, buses, trains and trams around the UK.

A spokesperson for Metro – which is run by the company that owns the Daily Mail – said: “Metro is a non-partisan newspaper, which carries advertisements for a range of clients, including government departments and unions.

“Metro takes advertising standards seriously and requires our advertisers to comply with all laws and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) code.

“The Department for Work and Pensions has informed us that the advertising was reviewed by the ASA’s copy advice team prior to publication.

“Metro is happy with this process.”

The protests come as DPAC is set to release a report detailing “the reality of universal credit”, with links to hundreds of newspaper stories from across the UK that have reported on the real damage caused by UC, and were published over a period of just 16 weeks between 20 January and 12 May 2019.

The report contains “harrowing stories of people forced into debt, rent arrears, homelessness, crime, prostitution, hunger, people unable to afford fares to get to food banks, parents unable to get essentials for their babies, child poverty, worsening mental health, ex-service people considering suicide and even cases of actual suicide”.

Meanwhile, Disability News Service (DNS) has confirmed that DWP breached Civil Service guidelines when it decided to launch the nine-week series of “unethical and misleading” adverts without including a government logo.

The Government Communication Service’s “branding guidelines” make it clear that “all government campaigns and comms should be government branded to ensure transparency and accountability”.

The guidelines also say: “It is important that the public is easily able to recognise the work of government, departments, their agencies and Arms Length Bodies.”

But the first of DWP’s universal credit advertorials published by the Metro newspaper last week included no government logos.

The second advertisement feature, which appeared yesterday (Wednesday) in the Metro, also failed to include a government logo.

The only reference to the source of the advertorials is a line – which is even less obvious on the Metro website – that states: “ADVERTISEMENT FEATURE FROM THE DEPARTMENT FOR WORK AND PENSIONS.”

A leaked DWP memo, signed by three senior servants – including Neil Couling, director general of the universal credit programme – proves the failure to include a government logo on the advertorials was intentional.

The memo admitted that the nine-week series of advertorials in the Metro were designed to be misleading.

It said: “The features won’t look or feel like DWP or UC – you won’t see our branding, and this is deliberate.”

The Metro advertorials are part of a nationwide DWP campaign to “myth-bust the common inaccuracies reported on UC”.

They will cost DWP hundreds of thousands of pounds, and have already led to complaints being lodged with ASA.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for overseeing the guidelines, said they were “at the end of the day guidelines and this is a DWP campaign”.

She said the Cabinet Office was “content that the materials clearly stated that it was an advertising feature from DWP”.

She pointed to information provided to DNS last week by DWP, which stated that advertising features “are generally developed to give the same look and feel as the publication they are being placed in – while clearly stating who produced the material”.

DWP also said last week that its first advertorial “clearly stated that it was an advertising feature from the Department for Work and Pensions”.

But Natasha Hirst, chair of the equalities council of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), who also has the disabled members’ seat on NUJ’s national executive council, said: “There appears to be a breach of the government’s own guidelines on communications, as raised by the NUJ last week.

“The advertorials are shockingly poor practice but are not the only problem.

“We are concerned that the integrity of journalism could be called into question by biased and uncritical features in publications.

“It is vital that journalism remains independent of political interference.

“The erosion of trust created by orchestrated visits to jobcentres and government-placed advertorials that dismiss people’s harsh experiences of universal credit is something we must all fight.

“It is incredibly poor judgement for the Cabinet Office to show no willingness to criticise misleading communications from the DWP.”

Linda Burnip, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said the “disgraceful and fabricated” Metro ad campaign “shows just how much UC is a total failure” and how concerned DWP is about its roll out and consequences.

She added: “However, even for Rudd and her DWP minions this is beyond contempt.”

30 May 2019


Second newspaper group could be targeted over universal credit articles

A second national newspaper group is facing a boycott and possible direct action protests over a Department for Work and Pensions campaign that aims to improve the reputation of its “toxic” universal credit benefit system.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) is calling for a boycott of Reach, the largest national and regional news publisher in the UK, while other disabled activists have called for direct action aimed at the publisher.

A campaign of direct action is already underway against the publisher of the Metro free newspaper, which is being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds by DWP to publish a series of advertorials praising UC (see separate story).

Now Reach, the newspaper group which publishes titles such as the Manchester Evening News, Birmingham Mail and Bristol Post, but also the national Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Sunday People, Daily Record and Daily Star, is also facing the possibility of a boycott and direct action protests.

Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how regional Reach newspapers were criticised for running at least three positive and misleading articles about universal credit, which all focus on local DWP staff praising the impact it has had locally and either dismissing or ignoring its well-publicised flaws.

Two of the articles were re-published by other newspapers in the same group, with one of them published by at least 15 other newspapers.

Now another article published by a regional Reach newspaper has emerged, which gives a glowing account of the efforts of DWP staff to support disabled people who have been found fit for work, and the impact of universal credit (UC).

In the wake of the articles, Bob Ellard, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said: “DPAC has seen the succession of articles, which are little more than advertisement pieces for universal credit, copied across local titles owned by Reach.

“People need to be informed that this is a campaign of propaganda rather than news and we suggest that people do not buy Reach titles.”

And Sheffield DPAC, which has led the campaign against the Metro, said it would also like to see action taken against Reach publications.

Another leading disabled activist, who tweets at @imajsaclaimant, also called for direct action protests targeted at Reach publications.

He said: “I am so angry about it. The thing is that Reach seem to have got away with it [compared with the Metro].

“I see what Sheffield DPAC have been doing [with the Metro]. We should be doing the same [with Reach publications].

“They should not be able to get away with it.”

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has made it clear that it will not support calls for boycotts of newspapers because they may affect the livelihoods of fellow journalists, including disabled journalists.

But Natasha Hirst, chair of NUJ’s equalities council, who also has the disabled members’ seat on the union’s national executive council, said: “We are concerned that the integrity of journalism could be called into question by biased and uncritical features in publications.

“It is vital that journalism remains independent of political interference.

“The erosion of trust created by orchestrated visits to jobcentres and government-placed advertorials that dismiss people’s harsh experiences of universal credit is something we must all fight.”

The concerns about the Reach articles come as DPAC is set to release a report detailing “the reality of universal credit”, with links to hundreds of newspaper articles from across the UK that have reported on the real damage caused by UC, and were published over a period of just 16 weeks between 20 January and 12 May 2019.

The report contains “harrowing stories of people forced into debt, rent arrears, homelessness, crime, prostitution, hunger, people unable to afford fares to get to food banks, parents unable to get essentials for their babies, child poverty, worsening mental health, ex-service people considering suicide and even cases of actual suicide”.

The Newcastle Chronicle article – which was also published by the Bristol Live website, with minor amendments – is headlined: “What happens when the DWP deems a disabled person fit for work – according to Jobcentre worker.”

It says the government has “come under fire for deeming people who are living with disabilities fit for work”, while the paper has “reported numerous stories about North East residents being faced with the daunting prospect of returning after being declared fit for work” by DWP.

It then says: “As more people are put onto Universal Credit, we met with staff at Newcastle Jobcentre to find out what happens when a person with a disability is deemed fit?” [sic]

The rest of the article is a series of comments by a DWP disability employment advisor, with no attempt to put them into context, or secure comments from welfare rights experts or campaigners who have spent years highlighting the flaws and dangers of universal credit.

The advisor even suggests in the article that, rather than disabled people found fit for work being forced unfairly into employment, they are often just asked to attend “pie and socialising” clubs or walking groups.

She insists that DWP “have to go with what people are telling us they feel able to do”.

The reporter who wrote the article, Kali Lindsay, told DNS she had written numerous articles over the last four or five months that were critical of DWP and UC – including one just three weeks ago about a man with a chronic lung condition who had his benefits cut after being found fit for work.

She said DWP had invited her paper to send a reporter to speak to jobcentre staff, which had allowed her to “find out what they were saying and put to them what people’s criticisms were of the service” and “explain how they felt about it”.

She said that DWP had a “right of reply” to the previous stories that had been written by her newspaper.

Lindsay said she did not believe there had been any pressure placed on her paper by DWP to run the articles, which were part of a series being published by the Chronicle on various aspects of the jobcentre’s work, and that her paper had seen it as a “good opportunity to go inside the jobcentre and find out more details”.

But she insisted that she was personally angry with how DWP treated people, and will “fight their corner”, and that she had put questions from stories she had covered over the last two years to the advisor when she spoke to her, with the advisor’s answers appearing in the article.

Lindsay said she had not yet seen a leaked DWP memo which revealed that the department was engaged in a “front-footed strategy” to fight back against what it called “negativity and scaremongering” by the media and “tackle misconceptions and improve the reputation of UC”.

The memo said this included writing to journalists like those at the Chronicle to “come and see for themselves the great work we do”.

Reach refused to comment on its latest article, but said it stood by last week’s comments, in which it defended its decision to run one article, and said the company frequently syndicated articles of interest, while it had published more than 1,100 articles in the last 12 months on UC, most of them “critical”.

But it has still refused to respond to questions about the DWP memo, and suggestions that the company has become caught up in DWP’s “myth-busting” campaign, and it still insists that there has been no “undue pressure, financial or otherwise” to publish any of the stories.

The positive account given by the disability employment advisor the Chronicle spoke to about DWP’s fit-for-work processes contrasts with years of evidence linking the deaths of disabled people with DWP decisions to find them fit for work.

In 2015, government-funded research by public health experts from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford concluded that the programme to reassess people on incapacity benefit through the WCA was linked to 590 suicides in just three years.

Only three months ago, the Independent Case Examiner concluded that DWP was guilty of “multiple” and “significant” failings in handling the case of mother-of-nine Jodey Whiting*, who had her out-of-work disability benefits stopped for missing a work capability assessment, and took her own life just 15 days later.

DNS has reported on many other such cases, including that of Alan McArdle, who had been placed in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance and had a fatal heart attack an hour after being told DWP was threatening to stop his benefits.

Then there was Luke Alexander Loy, who died just three months after being found fit for work and then having his benefits sanctioned, despite his doctor explaining that he was not currently well enough to work.

Other deaths linked to DWP’s fitness for work process include that of Moira Drury, reported by the Guardian in 2015; Sheila Holt, whose death was reported by the Daily Mirror – part of the Reach group – in March 2015; Karen Sherlock, who died in 2012 after fighting for two years against the injustice of the WCA regime; and Mark Wood, who starved to death in 2013 after he was found fit for work through the WCA system, and lost his out-of-work disability benefits.

DNS also reported last month how DWP destroyed a damaging internal report about its failure to ensure the safety of benefit claimants in jobcentres, preventing it being released under freedom of information laws.

*To sign the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, click on this link. If you sign the petition, please note that you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee

30 May 2019


Activists call for closure of all long-stay hospitals after Whorlton Hall scandal

Disabled people from across Europe have called for the closure of long-stay institutions, after the latest in a long series of abuse scandals was uncovered by the BBC.

Four European disability organisations – including the umbrella organisation representing 80 million disabled people across the continent – have joined UK disabled activists in calling for action to end institutionalisation and forced treatment.

A Panorama documentary, which included undercover footage shot at the private Whorlton Hall hospital for people with learning difficulties and autistic people in County Durham, caused outrage after it was broadcast last week.

Seven men and three women – all members of staff – have been arrested by Durham police and are being questioned about offences relating to abuse and neglect, while the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the health and care watchdog, was criticised for failing to spot and halt the abuse.

Now disabled people and their user-led organisations have called again for the government to take action and close all such long-stay institutions.

Disabled activist Simone Aspis, director of the consultancy Changing Perspectives, who campaigns to free disabled people from institutions, said: “There is something very fundamentally wrong about these institutions and they have to close down.”

She added: “We can’t make a fundamentally flawed system work better by simply having a better ratio of staffing, more resources put in, or more training, or better recruitment practices.

“A system that compels people into treatment they don’t want and denies them their fundamental human rights cannot train people to deprive people of their human rights in a positive way.

“What we need is the transferring of resources into support that people need to be part of their communities.

“It is an absolute disgrace that in this country we are allowed to have such barbaric torture and practices going on.”

She said there was no “political will” to find a solution and no urgency from the NHS to remove people from institutions.

Instead of “thinking creatively” about new placements, she said, NHS commissioners “just want to shove people in wherever there is a bloody bed, not thinking creatively about how we can support these people to live in the community”.

Aspis also said she was “very disappointed” with the failure of CQC and the Children’s Commissioner to recommend the closure of such institutions in their latest reports earlier this month.

People First (Self Advocacy), which is run and controlled by people with learning difficulties, said it was horrified to learn of the new abuse scandal.

It pointed out that promises were made after a previous scandal at Winterbourne View in 2011 to close all such institutions, and that the government had failed to live up to its promises or meet targets set by NHS England after Winterbourne View.

It is calling on the government to introduce a legal right to independent living for disabled people, by incorporating article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into UK law.

People First’s #CloseATUs campaign is calling for the closure of all assessment and treatment centres and for people to have the advocacy and support they need in their local communities, as well as for the government to draw up a national action plan for all ATUs to be closed within two years.

Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), said: “As with Winterbourne, the news of Whorlton Hall brought tears, upset and anger to me and many other people I know.

“Our thoughts go to all of the people who experienced this abuse. We need to make sure this does not happen again.

“Moving people to other closed institutions like Whorlton Hall is obviously not the answer.

“People are being sent far away from friends and family at great cost to the authorities and at even greater and more tragic cost to people with learning difficulties and their loved ones.”

Kat Humble, communications officer for Autistic UK, which is run by and for autistic people, said the latest revelations were “horrifying, though unsurprising”.

She said: “Whether it’s Winterbourne View, Whorlton Hall or who knows how many others, there is a level of contempt that we face as autistic people and people with intellectual disabilities when it comes to our long-term health that is shortening our lifespans and damaging the lives that we live.

“There is a very good reason why the suicide rate amongst autistic people is nine times higher than the national average.”

She called for “ground up” reform of CQC, which she said was “ineffective” and had “no protective instinct”.

In a joint statement, the European Disability Forum – an umbrella organisation of disabled people’s organisations – and three European disability organisations (Inclusion Europe, Autism Europe and European Down Syndrome Association), also called for the closure of such institutions.

They said: “This kind of treatment and abuse is widespread in institutions.

“Too many times, we have heard and seen footage like this. Too many times we have witnessed attacks on the most basic human rights of persons with disabilities. Too many times we have witnessed governments failing to act.

“Institutionalisation has to end. Forced treatment has to end. These flagrant abuses of the most basic human rights have to end.”

But Whorlton Hall is only the latest in a long line of such scandals that stretches back to the 1940s.

Calls to address the scandal of people with learning difficulties living “inappropriately” in long-stay institutions date back more than 70 years to when the National Council for Civil Liberties launched a campaign against eugenicist laws that led at their peak to the institutionalisation of more than 50,000 people in long-stay hospitals.

A series of scandals through the late 1960s and 1970s highlighted concerns similar to those uncovered by Panorama and other more recent scandals, with inquiries reporting cruel ill-treatment, inhumane and threatening behaviour towards patients (at Ely Hospital), the “harmful over-use of drugs” (Farleigh Hospital) and the use of tranquilisers and “side-rooms” – or solitary confinement facilities – at South Ockendon Hospital.

They were followed by the Longcare abuse scandal, uncovered by the media in 1994, and others including allegations of neglect at Fieldhead Hospital in Wakefield in 2004, and of abuse at the Solar Centre in Doncaster in 2010, Cornwall Partnership NHS Trust in 2006, Winterbourne View near Bristol in 2011, Mendip House in Somerset in 2016 and Atlas Project Team in 2017.

Cygnet Health Care said in a statement that it was “shocked and deeply saddened by the allegations made against members of staff at Whorlton Hall, part of the Danshell Group, which Cygnet recently acquired.

“We take these allegations extremely seriously, have suspended all members of staff involved, and informed all relevant authorities including the police, who have instigated an inquiry, and we are cooperating fully with their investigation.

“We have a zero tolerance of this behaviour. This appalling behaviour is entirely inconsistent with our values and high standards, and we have transferred all the patients to other services.

“Until the conclusion of the police investigation, we are unable to comment further.”

30 May 2019


 Should DRC rise again? Sir Bert asks in posthumous autobiography

An autobiography by one of the most influential disabled people of the last 50 years – published posthumously – could ignite calls for the return of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), 12 years after it was merged into a new equality watchdog.

In A Life Without Limits*, Sir Bert Massie – who was DRC’s chair throughout its seven years – writes in depth about his time leading the equality body and then as a commissioner on its successor, the multi-strand Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

He suggests EHRC has failed to protect disabled people and that many disabled people believe responsibility for disability rights should be taken away from the organisation, with a new DRC set up alongside EHRC.

Sir Bert, who died in October 2017, is highly critical of EHRC’s first chair, Trevor Phillips, who he says was “not a team player” and “made policy on the hoof” while other commissioners were “supposed to step into line”.

He concludes: “I have sat on many boards larger than that at EHRC, but none so badly chaired.”

Although a staunch and long-standing Labour party member himself, Sir Bert is also critical of the number of commissioners with strong Labour party links who were appointed to EHRC’s board under the last Labour government.

In the book, Sir Bert is critical of the Labour peer Baroness [Margaret] Prosser, EHRC’s vice-chair at the time, who became a “very loyal supporter” of Phillips.

He writes at length on the concerns of himself and other board members about Phillips’s conduct and leadership at EHRC, which contributed to six commissioners resigning in 2009.

Sir Bert is also critical in his book of the lack of resources given to EHRC’s disability committee, which led to disabled people receiving “a much inferior service” than they had received from DRC.

He reveals that he had been “unenthusiastic” about merging DRC with other equality bodies to create EHRC in 2007, but that other DRC commissioners who were in favour of the decision “might well have been right” and that an independent DRC could have been abolished under the coalition government elected in 2010.

But he also points to the attack on disability rights under successive Conservative-led governments since 2010, and to a 2016 Lords committee report that concluded that EHRC was failing to protect disabled people.

He adds: “Perhaps in the future we do need a debate on whether disability issues should be removed from the mandate of the EHRC and [given] to a commission with a single focus.

“That is what many disabled people want.”

Kaliya Franklin, who worked with Sir Bert on the commission on disability and poverty he chaired for the Labour party, supported his call for a debate on whether there needed to be a new vehicle for ensuring disabled people’s rights were upheld.

She told Disability News Service: “Disability rights are part of a wider human rights issue, but without the specialist knowledge and peer support provided by a body like the DRC, the risk is that the barriers to achieve those rights are too significant for disabled people to surmount alone.

Last week we saw further evidence that in the Britain of 2019, thousands of disabled children and adults have their freedom, right to family life and privacy removed by the state at an enormous financial cost to taxpayers.

“All too often those disabled people are then subjected to physical and mental torture by those employed to ‘care’ for them.

“This abuse is not new, yet every time there is a new expose of such human rights violations, the same tired excuses of vulnerability, risks and costs are trotted out by the charity, medical and public sectors with a vested interest in continuing the status quo.

“The immoral trade in disabled people continues unabated.

“A dedicated disability rights enforcement body with the specialist rights-based knowledge and lived experience to support people and their families is one important way in which this ongoing abuse, and many other forms of disability discrimination, could be more successfully challenged.”

Sir Bert’s book also describes his childhood in Liverpool, how he caught polio in the late 1940s and spent time in Alder Hey children’s hospital and experienced “perpetual violence, or a nagging expectation of it” at the hands of staff at the Greenbank residential special school.

There are detailed descriptions of his experience of education, further and higher education, and employment as a disabled child, teenager and young mans in the 1960s, and his first experiences of disability activism with the Disablement Income Group, Liverpool Association for the Disabled, and the Disabled Drivers’ Association.

He writes about his work at RADAR, which he led before heading the new DRC, and he defends RADAR from criticisms made at the time by the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP) that it was not a legitimate representative of the disabled people’s movement.

In the final pages he was able to complete before his death in 2017 – the book was completed by Bob Niven and Ann Frye, two of his former colleagues, who describe him as one of the leading post-war social reformers – he suggests that privatisation of the NHS is “to some extent inevitable” if the Conservatives remain in power, while he predicts there will be further cuts to social care.

“Disabled people,” he says, “will need to develop mechanisms to either defend current systems or create new ones.”

But he adds: “Many of the major structural changes achieved in recent decades are probably sufficiently embedded to survive.”

But he warns that these changes could still be weakened, as has happened with accessible housing standards.

*A Life Without Limits, by Sir Bert Massie, is published by Mereo Books

30 May 2019


Inclusive education campaigners back SEND crisis march

Inclusive education campaigners are supporting parents and their disabled children today (Thursday) as they take part in marches around the country to highlight the special educational needs and disability (SEND) funding crisis.

Parents are calling for reform of the SEND system, increased funding, and improved accountability and assessment, as well as an end to a culture which “encourages the blaming, shaming and dismissal of parents of young people with SEND”.

Marches are set to take place across England and Wales, in more than 25 locations including Liverpool, Yorkshire, Sussex, Birmingham, Derby, Reading and Widnes, with one leading to the handover of a petition in Downing Street.

The SEND National Crisis campaign has been set up by two parents of disabled children, and it has been backed by The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), which said disabled pupils had been increasingly excluded from schools and pushed out of mainstream education.

Simone Aspis, ALLFIE’s policy and campaigns coordinator, said: “The funding cuts are creating rife disablism and disability-related discrimination in our mainstream education system.

“For the first time in history, more disabled pupils with [education, health and care plans] are being educated in special schools than in mainstream ones.

“This needs to stop right now – this government has a duty to promote inclusive education among disabled pupils.”

Nadia Turki, one of the founders of SEND National Crisis, said: “We have decided to act instead of repeatedly say the words ‘we need to do something’.

“I’ve been saying this for almost two years now and nothing has changed to the effect of making a positive difference to education provisions and access for disabled children and young people.

“We believe that now is the time to stand together and let our voices and the voices of our young people be heard.”

She added: “This crisis is leaving thousands of individuals emotionally and physically exhausted due to the direct failings of our local authorities and the discrimination faced when trying to access their fundamental right to an education.

“There are so many of us struggling and battling an unfair system for our children or the people we care for and it is an exhausting process that hammers us into the ground daily.”

Next month, ALLFIE is also supporting a judicial review case being taken at the high court by three families with disabled children.

The families believe inadequate government funding is not allowing councils to fulfil their legal obligations to support disabled pupils.

ALLFIE wants the court to make “an explicit declaration” that the government’s level of funding of SEND is unlawful because it fails to provide the support that disabled pupils need to “flourish within mainstream education on a par with their non-disabled peers”.

It also wants new guidance that will make it clear that the government has to ensure sufficient funding for schools and councils to fulfil their legal duties to “promote the presumption of mainstream education free from disability-related discrimination”.

In response to plans for the march, children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “Our ambition is for every child, no matter the challenges they face, to have access to a world class education that sets them up for life.

“Funding for the high needs budget is a priority for this government and we know that councils and schools are facing pressures – that’s why in December, we provided an extra £250 million up to 2020 to help manage these costs.

“This takes the total amount that we have allocated for high needs funding to £6.3 billion this year, compared to £5 billion in 2013.

“At the same time, the education secretary has been clear that we are working closely with the sector as we approach the spending review, we have launched a call for evidence to make sure the funding system is getting money to the right places at the right time and we are revising the SEND code of practice to improve ways to identify and meet special educational needs.”

His department said it also planned to spend £31.6 million to train more educational psychologists, who play an important role in identifying special educational needs and contributing to education, health and care needs assessments.

30 May 2019


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