Under-fire Samaritans faces anger over advisory board crammed with Tories

A mental health charity that refused to criticise the government for ignoring links between claimants of out-of-work disability benefits and suicide attempts is facing criticism after it emerged that more than half of its advisory board are influential Conservatives.

Disability News Service (DNS) revealed in December that the Department of Health (DH) had failed to highlight claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) as a high-risk group in its national suicide prevention strategy.

DH had failed to act even though its own survey showed that more than 43 per cent of ESA claimants had said in 2014 that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

But when told about that failure in December, the mental health charity Samaritans – which focuses on suicide prevention and support for those in mental distress, and is itself part-funded by the Department of Health* – refused to criticise the government.

Now mental health system survivors have raised concerns that at least seven of the 11 members of the charity’s advisory board are prominent Conservatives or Conservative supporters, or have close links to the party, including two Tory peers, a current and a former Tory MP, and a leading Tory donor who is married to another Tory peer.

They are particularly alarmed that the newest member of the board is Esther McVey, the new work and pensions secretary, whose appointment to head the Department for Work and Pensions last month caused widespread anger among disabled activists.

McVey appears to have joined the Samaritans advisory board last year, when she was still chair of the British Transport Police Authority (BTPA)**, one of the partners the charity works with to reduce suicides across the rail system.

Many campaigners expressed their alarm and anger through social media this week at McVey’s presence on the advisory board, with many questioning the charity’s judgement and calling on it to end the association.

There was also coverage of her presence on the board in the mainstream, left-wing and local media, and political news websites.

Despite the anger, campaigners have appealed for people in mental distress to continue calling the charity’s helpline if they need support, as its volunteers provide a vital service.

In addition to McVey, other members of the advisory board are the Tory peers Lord Grade and Baroness Wheatcroft; Sir Edward Garnier QC, who until last May was a Conservative MP; and David McDonough, who co-owns the public relations firm Norris McDonough with former Tory minister and London mayoral candidate Steve Norris.

Others include Bill Muirhead, a founding partner of M&C Saatchi, who helped lead the 2010 Conservative general election advertising campaign; and Philip Buscombe, a leading Tory donor and husband of the Conservative peer Baroness Buscombe, who was herself a member of the advisory board until last year.

Another link between the advisory board and the government comes through Jeremy Courtenay-Stamp, a partner with the legal firm Macfarlanes, where justice secretary David Gauke – McVey’s predecessor as work and pensions secretary – previously worked.

Rick Burgess, a spokesman for the user-led campaign group Recovery in the Bin, said the board was full of Tory “party hacks”.

He said: “if the advisory board advises, surely they want a breadth of views and not to be crowded out by Conservatives with little to no mental health expertise.

“Such biased ignorance is lethal, for example their failing to campaign on the increased suicide risk from government welfare reform of ESA and personal independence payment.”

He added: “That they think Esther McVey, a human rights abuser, should be an adviser shows a profound failure of their governance and moral principles.”

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said it was “like putting Cruella De Vil and her acolytes in charge of the kennels”.

He said: “Are they completely ignorant of McVey’s track record and the devastation inflicted upon disabled people with mental health problems under her leadership? It just beggars belief.”

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said the make-up of the Samaritans advisory board was not itself a breach of its rules, but she added: “Trustees have a responsibility to protect their charity’s reputation.

“This includes paying particular consideration to the consequences of working with political parties and their representatives, and being open and transparent about any contact they have.”

The commission’s guidance also says that charities “should consider working with a range of political parties to help ensure public perceptions of neutrality”.

There do not appear to be prominent members of any political party other than the Conservatives on the advisory board.

A Samaritans spokeswoman said its vision was that “fewer people die by suicide” and that it worked “across the political divide to achieve this”.

She said: “Esther McVey joined Samaritans’ advisory board when chair of the British Transport Police Authority, which is one of the partners we work with to reduce suicides in the rail environment.

“The advisory board has no legal or governance role in Samaritans and elects its own chair and members.”

But Samaritans has refused to explain why so many members of its advisory board are members of the Conservative party, and whether that affected its decision not to speak out on the Department of Health’s failure to highlight ESA claimants as being at particularly high risk of attempting suicide.

The spokeswoman said: “Our advisory board was formed by a group of friends of Michael Varah, who died in 2007.

“Michael was the son of Samaritans’ founder, Chad Varah, and his friends wanted to support the charity in an informal way in his memory.

“Our advisory board continues to provide informal support to Samaritans, helping us increase our potential to influence and fundraise.”

Asked whether the charity was concerned that having so many members of one political party on its advisory board might be breaching Charity Commission rules, the spokeswoman said: “We are confident that having an informal group of people, with no legal or governance role, supporting us to ensure that more people can access our services so that we can save more lives, is fully within Charity Commission rules.”

But Burgess said: “The Samaritans are being disingenuous. The board advises, as such it should have a diverse membership. It clearly does not, so its advice will be poor.”

*Now renamed the Department of Health and Social Care

**She resigned as BPTA chair after being selected to fight the Tatton seat for the Tories at the 2017 general election

1 February 2018



Activists explain why they ‘clashed’ with minister after PIP debate

Two disabled activists have explained why they “clashed” with the minister for disabled people at the end of a parliamentary debate on personal independence payment (PIP).

Paula Peters and Keith Walker, from Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), decided to confront Sarah Newton over the government’s record because of the “dismissive” way she had responded to concerns about PIP raised during the debate.

Their decision to challenge the minister as she left the room has been backed by Laura Pidcock, the Labour MP and shadow labour minister, who had secured the debate in Westminster Hall.

Peters told Disability News Service (DNS) that she and Walker had “clashed” with the minister.

She said they had wanted to challenge her over the government’s failure to accept the 11 recommendations made in November 2016 by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which found it guilty of “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights.

They also wanted to highlight the “tragic human cost of the cuts and the horrendous distress that PIP and employment and support allowance are causing”.

As Newton left the debate, Peters stepped in front of her and confronted her over the government’s record, accusing her of being “in complete denial” of the “tragic human costs” of the cuts.

She said the atmosphere became “really heated” and “tempers got frayed”, with Walker also confronting the minister.

Peters said: “We were just infuriatingly angry at the dismissive way they just denied people’s distress, denied the horrendous process people are subjected to.”

On the official recording of the parliamentary session, Walker can be heard shouting several times “we are dying”.

He pointed his finger at a couple of MPs, and told them that “people are dying, friends of ours, they are dying due to these cuts”.

Peters said that Newton insisted that she did care and would meet with Walker to talk about it, “and then she disappeared down the corridor”.

Two members of House of Commons staff then ushered Walker away from the public gallery.

Soon afterwards, he and Peters were briefly spoken to by police officers about the incident.

Walker said he had asked one of the Conservative MPs who had been “laughing all through the debate on his phone if he thought it was funny that we are losing our friends, who are dying.

“He didn’t answer me and just went off at a fast pace.”

He said he told Newton that disabled people were dying because of her government’s policies and he asked her what she was doing about it.

“She just said, ‘I will sit down with you.’”

He stressed that his behaviour was not threatening, although he said he had raised his voice.

Pidcock told DNS last night that she had been appalled by the minister’s “pathetic” failure to answer a series of questions that had been put to her by opposition MPs during the debate, despite Newton speaking for nine minutes.

She said the minister’s nine-minute response had been “deeply patronising” and had made her “really, really angry”.

She said she also understood the anger of Peters and Walker and could see why they had decided to “heckle” the minister at the end of the debate.

Pidcock said: “I can completely understand that. I was close to tears, I was so angry at [Newton’s] response.”

She said: “It’s kind of a red flag to people. What they are presenting is absolutely the opposite of what all of the people that we know are experiencing.”

She said she had helped guide Walker out of the room because she “didn’t want him to get into trouble for the sake of them. I completely understood his anger. I just wanted to get him out of there as quickly as possible.

“I am certainly not going to judge him for heckling, but I also didn’t want him to get arrested. They are not worth it.

“That heckling is because of the strength of feeling and nothing else. Protest is part of the democratic system.”

She said disabled people were “experiencing a kind of terror across the nation when [they] receive a brown envelope from the DWP”.

“I would have liked [Newton] to show some kind of humility and to show that what she is in charge of is a much bigger beast than she is willing to recognise.”

During the debate, Pidcock had told fellow MPs that she had received more than 600 emails and 1,500 messages on Facebook and Twitter after announcing that she had secured the debate.

She said: “Individually, their stories are shocking; collectively, they shame the government and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). They are testament to a broken and cruel system.”

She also became one of the first MPs to highlight concerns, investigated by DNS over the last year, that many claimants have reported how healthcare assessors have written dishonest PIP assessment reports.

Pidcock said: “Many feel as if they have been lied about in their reports – that is all part of the same inadequacies.

“A whole community out there has been frightened, mistreated and intimidated by the government, the media and the DWP.

“There must be consequences for inaccurate assessment reports about people’s health conditions, and we should redesign the assessment process alongside disabled people so that it accepts a social model of disability, not a medical model.”

Another Labour MP, Sharon Hodgson, told the debate that one of her constituents has been living on biscuits since being found ineligible for PIP six weeks ago, and has been unable to afford to turn her central heating on, despite freezing temperatures.

But rather than answering questions raised by MPs in the debate, Newton accused them of “scaremongering” and said she was concerned that “people who really need support will be put off from going to jobcentres or contacting us to get the benefits that they need and richly deserve”.

She said the government was “working hard” to fix the problems in the system.

Newton said: “Myths have been cited repeatedly that we are cutting spending on supporting people with disabilities or health conditions.

“Independent data shows that that is simply not true. Every single year since 2010, the coalition government and now the Conservative government have spent more and more money, and we are committed to spending more.

“Expenditure on the main disability benefits has increased by more than £4.1 billion in real terms since 2010 and is set to reach a record high of more than £23 billion this year.”

Pidcock had pointed out during the debate that the Conservative-led coalition had brought in PIP with the intention of cutting spending by £1.5 billion.

She pointed to a House of Commons library briefing, which describes how DWP said in December 2012 that, by 2018, around 607,000 fewer people would receive PIP than would have received DLA, a 28 per cent reduction.

Marsha de Cordova, the shadow minister for disabled people, had added: “From the outset in 2010, the government’s fundamental aim for the new benefit was to make savings and to reduce the caseload of disability benefit claimants. That is a fact.

“The expectation was to make a saving of 20 per cent, which equated to around £1.5 billion. It is untrue to say that that was not the case.”

Asked by DNS about the incident at the end of the debate, a House of Commons spokesman said: “Following a minor disturbance in the public gallery, a man was escorted from the gallery by doorkeepers.”

1 February 2018



Labour must act on ‘shameful’ lack of disabled people on NEC, says party activist

A leading Labour activist has called for action to address disability discrimination within the party and the “shameful” lack of disabled people on its ruling national body.

Emily Brothers has told Disability News Service (DNS) that she will be seeking one of nine seats available on Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) for candidates representing local constituency parties (CLPs), when the elections are held later this year.

She believes that none of the 41 current voting members of the NEC publicly identify as a disabled person*.

Brothers said: “It is not only frustrating but also quite shameful for a party that talks about being in the vanguard of social justice and diversity not to have disabled people at the table.

“If we are to be a party that really, truly reflects society, we do need to grasp that issue around diversity.

“We need disabled people at the table in order change the culture and practices of the party, so it becomes inclusive.”

She added: “We have seen great strides in representation in parliament with women and BME [black and minority ethnic] and LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] but we are not seeing that really with disability and we are also not seeing it in our party structures.”

She said disabled people need to be standing as Labour candidates in winnable parliamentary seats “and shaping our programme for government”.

To be representative, Labour would need more than 50 disabled MPs in the current parliament, she says, rather than the current two or three.

And she believes there are only 9,000 party members who have identified themselves as disabled people, out of a Labour membership of about 570,000.

Brothers stood unsuccessfully for the Sutton and Cheam seat at the 2015 general election – she was Labour’s first transgender parliamentary candidate – and was a Greater London Assembly candidate the following year.

She is also elections co-ordinator for LGBT Labour and serves on the executive committee of Disability Labour and the centre-left Fabian Society.

She is just the latest disabled member to raise concerns about disability discrimination within the party.

Last September’s annual conference saw calls for the party to end years of “blatant discrimination” against its own disabled members, while there were also complaints about “inexcusable” access failings at the conference in Brighton.

Brothers said: “With the Tories closing the Access to Elected Office Fund, Labour needs to step up by investing in disabled people’s representation.

“From providing specialist equipment to paying for support workers, making buildings accessible and meetings more inclusive, training for disabled candidates and developing a team of allies, there is much for Labour’s NEC to do.”

But she said there were also attitudinal barriers within the party.

She told DNS: “There is quite a bit of people feeling harassed and all kinds of abuse going on that can be difficult for disabled people, but particularly if you have a mental health condition.

“We need a different, kinder, gentler politics, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, and we seem to have been shifting away from that very laudable ambition.”

She said she had been bullied herself within the party, with “shouting, hectoring, quite aggressive behaviour”, although she declined to provide further details of where this had happened.

Brothers said: “There have been times when I have felt excluded and at times I think that is a common experience for many members, particularly disabled people.”

As someone with a transgender history, she also said it was “very concerning” that transphobia within the party appeared to have worsened over the last two years, with “increasing numbers of transphobic comments by Labour party members”.

Some of this has been linked to attempts to stop party members with a transgender history from standing on all-women shortlists or becoming women’s officers.

Brothers said: “That is why I had to think long and hard to decide if [seeking election to the NEC] was the right thing to do. I came to the conclusion it was.

“It is not right to be intimidated not to take part in a democratic process, even though it is going to be tough, potentially.”

She said the increase in transphobia has also been seen in the national media, with negative stories and comments “virtually on a daily basis”.

She said there was “a case for each equality strand to be directly represented on the NEC”, but even if that happened, just one disabled NEC member would not be enough.

Two disabled party activists, Sarah Taylor and Nicola Morrison, learned last month that they had failed to win seats when the party voted to elect three new CLP representatives onto the NEC, although they had secured nominations from 18 CLPs between them.

These three, and six other CLP places on the NEC, will all be up for election later this year.

The deadline for securing nominations is 22 June, and Brothers believes she has a chance of winning one of the nine places.

Winning a seat on the NEC has become even harder for “independent” candidates like Brothers because of the re-emergence of “slates” of candidates representing particular factions within the party, such as Momentum, Labour First and Progress, which she said were failing to take account of the need for their chosen candidates to be diverse.

She said: “I am not a great fan of slates. I don’t think they help democracy. That’s why I am hoping to seek nomination as an independent.”

Brothers appealed for both wings of the party to work together, and to put aside their highly-publicised differences.

She said: “Just as gender isn’t as binary as many might believe, Labour is more than about left and right.

“Many in our party feel isolated by these divisions, with many accounts of bust-ups and bad behaviour. That’s my bruising experience too.

“A lot of the politics around this is unnecessary and it is energy-sapping. As the movement of solidarity, surely we can be better than this.

“The key issue is do we really want power, and if we do then we need to be more disciplined and more respectful that there are differences in approach and views, but we can find ways of accommodating people’s different views.

“I don’t think the differences are as wide as people might believe.”

She says she fears that “elements of the left” and new members brought in by Momentum “may see equality solely through income inequality and not be so tuned into identity politics”, although she recognises that income inequality is a real problem and “is getting wider” and also points out that some on the right of the party are also dismissive of “identity politics”.

She points to recent disputes and tension around Jewish Labour and gender identity, although she is pleased that the party leadership appears to be supportive of people’s right to self-identify their gender.

She also points to comments from some party members about other groups such as gypsies and travellers that she “would not think appropriate for the party of social justice”.

But she is also concerned about the tendency – across the party – to “dismiss disabled people” and “treat disabled people as victims” who “need to be looked after”.

She says there is not “a sufficient rights-based narrative” about disabled people “working, having a family, participating in politics or sports, or whatever ticks their boxes”, and there is too much emphasis on cuts and not enough on rights.

She said: “Yes, Tories have done terrible things in targeting disabled people. We should be shouting about it, holding them to account, but that could be done by taking a stronger rights approach rather than reinforcing victimhood.

“Remember that I live on benefits, so this isn’t about dismissing what good work Labour does in this area.

“I just want us to be more strategic and embrace the rights agenda with more vigour.

“Even if financial inequality is substantially narrowed, the environment and information will, for instance, remain largely inaccessible should we not address the root causes of exclusion.”

*By noon today (Thursday), the Labour party had failed to comment on her concerns, or confirm that there are no disabled members of the NEC

1 February 2018



DWP promises no-one will lose out in huge review of 1.6 million PIP cases

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has promised that no disabled people will have their benefits reduced because of its decision to review 1.6 million personal independence payment (PIP) claims.

The review follows last month’s decision by the new work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, that she would not appeal a court ruling that found new rules introduced last year by DWP were unlawful, “blatantly discriminatory” and breached the UN disability convention.

The rules, which were rushed into law by the government last March, had meant that people who were unable to plan or undertake a journey due to overwhelming psychological distress would receive fewer qualifying points when assessed for PIP, with many receiving a lower level of financial support as a result, or even no PIP at all.

The new rules were only introduced because an upper tribunal ruling had found that DWP was wrong to say that such PIP claimants should not be entitled to those points.

Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, announced this week that, following McVey’s decision not to appeal the court ruling, DWP would review every one of the 1.6 million PIP claims that have been made since the benefit was introduced in 2013 to see how many had been wrongly assessed and were now entitled to backdated PIP payments.

The review will include all those previously found ineligible for the benefit after being assessed by DWP and its contractors, Atos and Capita.

The cost of implementing the court judgement is estimated to be up to £3.7 billion over the next five years.

Newton announced the review on Monday in a written answer to a question from Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams.

Newton said the following day – in response to an urgent question from shadow disability minister Marsha de Cordova – that no-one would see their benefits reduced as a result of the review.

But De Cordova told her that the “mess is one of the government’s own making” and was “a clear example to this government of the dangers of seeking to undermine both the independent judiciary and the House of Commons”.

Stephen Lloyd, the Liberal Democrats’ work and pensions spokesman, said that “the government’s attempt to prevent those with mental health issues receiving the higher mobility rate was, frankly, nothing but a shoddy attempt to save money” and “a disgrace”.

Newton promised that no-one would need to have another face-to-face assessment because of the review, which will be based on “existing information”, although DWP may need to contact some claimants and their doctors for further information.

She told MPs: “Nobody is going to be called in for a face-to-face assessment, and nobody is going to have money taken away from them.”

Most of the 1.6 million people who have tried to claim PIP since 2013 will not be awarded any extra support as a result of the review, but Newton said DWP had estimated that about 220,000 could see higher payments.

She said the department had “already started to recruit more people at DWP to help with the PIP review”, but she promised that the department would not have to make savings elsewhere in its budget to fund the work and the extra PIP payments.

A DWP spokeswoman said later that the review process would have “no effect” on the speed of the continuing roll-out of PIP, which has gradually been replacing working-age disability living allowance (DLA) since 2013.

Ellen Clifford, campaigns and policy manager for Inclusion London, said: “We are pleased the government is not going to waste yet more taxpayers’ money on appealing the high court ruling and are taking responsibility to review all current PIP claims.

“This could have a significant, far-reaching impact on hundreds of thousands of people who experience psychological distress, for once in a positive rather than an adverse way.

“However, this is an enormous undertaking with as yet no clear timetable or information about how it will proceed and we are concerned that this means further anxiety and uncertainty for disabled people.

“At Inclusion London we have already had several phone calls from individuals who are affected who are currently missing out on essential benefits and all we can tell them is to wait.

“This whole debacle is symptomatic of a PIP assessment system that is dangerously dysfunctional.

“It is also a terrible indictment of how the system is failing disabled people that it took an individual woman living with mental distress to have to put herself through the ordeal of taking a court case against the secretary of state for work and pensions in order to over-turn unlawful and ‘blatantly discriminatory’ government policy.”

Philip Connolly, policy manager at Disability Rights UK, said: “Many disabled people have lost out because of changeover from DLA to PIP, and we welcome the announcement that the government is going to review 1.6 million cases.

“This review highlights the ongoing and persistent failures of the assessment process, which is badly designed and implemented.

“Huge amounts of tax payers’ money is being wasted on poor quality assessments which deny disabled people benefits that they qualify for – that’s one of the reasons the success rate at appeal is so high.

“We urge all disabled people who are turned down for benefits they believe they should get to use the independent appeals process.”

Meanwhile, the Motability scheme – which is only open to recipients of the enhanced/upper mobility rate of DLA or PIP – has told Disability News Service that it has no way of knowing how many of its former customers lost their entitlement to a vehicle and had to return it because of the way the government applied the PIP rules on overwhelming psychological distress.

Motability said this was because it “has no role in determining who receives DLA/PIP, and we don’t receive any information on the details of someone’s assessment, their disability, or how many points they received in each area.

“Since the introduction of PIP, we have seen a changing mix of people joining the scheme, and in particular, an increase in customers with mental health conditions.

“We expect this to increase further following the recent announcement.”

1 February 2018



Concern over balance of major end-of-life conference

Disabled campaigners have raised concerns that a major conference on “end of life choice” – being organised by the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) – appears to be tilted in favour of speakers who want to legalise assisted suicide.

Of speakers lined up to speak at the conference who have previously expressed their views publicly on the legalisation of assisted suicide, seven have said they are in favour, while just three have made clear their opposition.

The conference on 9 February, in central London, would have been set to hear from just two people opposed to legalisation, but the user-led group Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK) contacted RSM last month to express its concern that it had not been asked to speak.

NDY UK was not originally invited even though it played a significant role in the high court’s decision last October to reject the latest attempt to change the law.

Juliet Marlow, from NDY UK, will now speak at next week’s conference, but she appears to be one of just two of 17 speakers who are disabled or who have a long-term health condition.

The conference line-up includes Mark Jarman-Howe, a director of Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for legalisation, and barrister Victoria Butler-Cole, chair of Dignity in Dying’s sister organisation Compassion in Dying.

The conference will also hear from the widower of a terminally-ill woman who chose an assisted suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, and the widow of a terminally-ill man who wanted to end his life at the clinic but was not able to.

Another speaker will be Dr Catherine Sonquist Forest, who takes part in assisted suicides as a physician in California, where the practice is now legal, and has campaigned for legalisation.

As well as Marlow, the conference will hear from two other opponents of legalisation, Professor Rob George and Baroness Finlay, both professors of palliative medicine.

A press release issued by RSM says that “polling suggests a large majority of the public want more choice and control when facing the end of life, sometimes including assisted dying”, and claims that “cases where patients and their families are frustrated about the options available to them are increasing”.

RSM says the event will “bring together key figures from many sides of these important issues” and that there has been “a cultural shift away from paternalism and towards the empowerment of patients to make decisions about their own care”.

Marlow said she was concerned that there were more pro-assisted suicide speakers lined up to contribute to the conference than those opposed to legalisation.

She said NDY UK was pleased to be invited to speak but was “concerned however that we had to ask to be included and feel strongly that we should have been invited from the outset”, although she said “this may have been an oversight on the part of the organisers”.

She said: “In our experience we have often been ignored for such events, despite the fact that Not Dead Yet UK is the only user-led organisation that opposes assisted suicide in the UK.

“We are a well-established group that was founded in 2006 and we offer an important voice to end-of-life discussions.”

She added: “We hope that any future events will include us as a matter of course and look forward to an honest and balanced conference.”

An RSM spokeswoman said the organisation had “a long-standing and strong reputation for maintaining balance in its educational programmes”.

She said that four other speakers known to oppose assisted suicide had been invited but were not able to attend.

She said: “Not Dead Yet UK were added to the programme as soon as they contacted us.

“This is an educational programme for doctors and clinicians. It includes a broad range of speakers including palliative care specialists, patient representatives, lawyers, the General Medical Council and the Crown Prosecution Service.

“We believe the presentations given by Professor Paul Cosford and Juliet Marlow will give a strong voice to those with a long-term health condition or disability.

“Strong chairmanship to facilitate balance during all RSM conference sessions is essential and for this meeting chairs with opposing views [Professor Clare Gerada is in favour of legalisation and Professor Simon Wessely is opposed] will lead each session.”

She added: “Our position is always to be a forum for debate and discussion on healthcare topics and we remain firmly committed to our independent stance and do not produce policy statements or lobby any political parties or pressure groups.”

1 February 2018



DWP breaks promise again to stop harassing abuse survivor over benefit claim

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has again broken its promise to stop harassing a traumatised benefit claimant while he waits to give vital evidence in a child abuse trial.

Disability News Service (DNS) has been reporting on the continuing harassment of David* by DWP since 2016, when former minister for disabled people Justin Tomlinson faced calls to resign after threatening to stop his benefits if he failed to co-operate with an Atos reassessment.

David is a key witness in the trial and has been told by police not to discuss his case with anyone, or to allow DWP or Atos access to his medical records, because court proceedings are live and the case is sub-judice.

He has severe post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by the horrific sexual abuse he suffered as a child, and which has led to several suicide attempts.

The toll of the criminal investigation on his mental health has also been harrowing, resulting in a series of self-harm episodes.

Last year, DWP broke its promise not to harass David, after Atos asked him to attend a face-to-face personal independence payment (PIP) assessment.

Atos made it clear that DWP had failed to include any note asking it not to contact David on the file it received about his PIP claim.

Now David has been contacted again, with DWP sending him a text message last week warning him that he would be sent a PIP2 How Your Disability Affects You form, which he would need to complete and return.

David said that DWP’s behaviour “completely dehumanises me, violates my privacy and strips away any remaining dignity”.

He added: “Their actions are abhorrent with seemingly zero accountability.”

He said he had never received a personal apology from DWP and had never been given a named contact so he could confidentially update them on his situation with confidence, knowing they had “the skill set to ensure any duty of care”.

Alice Kirby, co-founder of the user-led organisation Disabled Survivors Unite (DSU), which supports disabled survivors of abuse and sexual violence, said: “It is completely unacceptable that the DWP has continued this campaign of harassment against a disabled man during an extremely difficult time in his life.

“The DWP need to fully investigate why they have repeatedly failed to stop contact despite promising to do so and renew their policies on supporting claimants in vulnerable positions, or write a policy if one doesn’t already exist.

“Disabled Survivors Unite has recently advertised a research project** which is looking into how survivors of sexual violence have been treated since the social security system was reformed in 2012.

“It is research we very much welcome and hope can improve, or create, policies to support survivors claiming benefits.”

A spokesman for David’s MP, who is not being named to avoid identifying David, said: “DWP have never told us – despite requests for assurances in the past – that he will not be subject to the regular DWP demands for information and reassessments, which most people feel rightly harassed by.

“The Labour position is that already vulnerable and struggling people should not be subjected to this DWP harassment.”

When DWP was asked by DNS about the latest harassment, a spokeswoman appeared to accept that David had again been wrongly contacted, and she said DWP had now extended his PIP award by another year, to June 2019.

But she refused to apologise for the latest harassment or confirm that the text message was sent mistakenly.

She said in a statement: “In January 2018 we asked [David] to fill in a form to enable us to assess his needs and ensure he gets the support he is eligible for beyond June 2018, when his current PIP award is due to end.

“We contacted the claimant to ensure his support was not stopped in June without warning.”

She added: “We’ve extended [David’s] PIP award for a further 12 months to June 2019.

“It is important that we are notified if the court case is still ongoing past this date, and we would therefore encourage [David] to keep us updated so we can ensure he receives the appropriate support.”

David’s treatment yet again throws a harsh light on DWP’s policies and procedures for dealing with claimants in vulnerable situations.

In 2016, the department was finally forced to publish redacted versions of 49 secret “peer reviews” into the deaths of benefit claimants.

Those peer reviews showed that ministers were repeatedly warned by their own civil servants that their policies to assess people for disability benefits were putting the lives of vulnerable claimants at risk.

*Not his real name

**The research focuses only on women survivors

1 February 2018



Home Office IT failure stalls disabled civil servant’s career, MPs hear

A disabled civil servant has told MPs how her career has stalled because of the failure of the IT systems in the Home Office to cope with the assistive technology she needs to do her job.

Jo-Ann Moran, a senior executive officer in the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, told the work and pensions select committee yesterday (Wednesday) that she had been encouraged to apply for promotion but declined to do so because of the IT problems she was facing.

She told the committee that it had been a “culture shock” to “all of a sudden be denied access” after 30 years of full-time employment.

Moran, who has a degenerative condition that affects her hearing and sight, said: “I am a top performer in my grade and I keep getting told, ‘Come on, go for it,’ but I can’t because I am just not going to be reliable.”

She added: “We just can’t get the assistive technology to work. It’s not through the [lack of] trying, it’s just about the infrastructure being able to cope with the additional technology.”

The evidence session was part of the committee’s inquiry into the role of assistive technology in improving disabled people’s employment rates.

Moran said she feared that if she applied for a job working for a minister, that minister would not be able to accommodate her if she had to say, ‘Sorry, my computer’s not working today.’

“So that’s where my barrier is at the moment. I have employment, I have over 30 years of full-time employment, but I am now too scared to go for promotion.

“I have always done well, I have always been able to overcome, so this has been a real culture shock for me to all of a sudden be denied access.”

She said she was working with a team in the Home Office that was trying to build a new IT system that would allow her to use “as many mainstream integrated systems as possible”.

If that works, she said, “I will be promoted and I will be in SCS [senior civil service].”

Moran was one of four disabled people who gave evidence to the committee about assistive technology.

Another was Dr Stephen Duckworth, a consultant who was previously chief executive of the personal independence payment (PIP) division of the troubled outsourcing giant Capita.

He told the committee that he had tried to recruit disabled people to Capita but found that he was unable to employ blind people because the technology that the Department for Work and Pensions had imposed on Capita through its PIP contract was inaccessible to them.

He said he would like to see a new scheme set up, similar to the existing Motability vehicle scheme, but for those with assistive technology needs.

He said this scheme would be open to disabled people who receive the PIP daily living element, who would then be able to use their monthly payments to fund expensive assistive technology.

Duckworth said this would give “autonomy, power and control back to individuals so they can choose and control how they use that money to invest in their future”.

He said this would “help them take responsibility, not just for independent living, but also for their future employment and contribution that they make back to society”, while it could prevent disabled people being charged one thousand per cent interest rates on loans from payday lenders to fund the purchase of assistive technology equipment.

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at the technology and disability charity AbilityNet, told the committee the government should do more to enforce existing obligations to ensure digital accessibility under the Equality Act.

He said: “We would want to see government embracing that very, very strongly, to be able to get a seismic change in the landscape.

“Historically, the government have not seen it as their remit to enforce that area of the Equality Act, so it is left to disabled individuals or organisations like RNIB to do class actions.”

He said the legal requirement under the Equality Act is for websites of service-providers to achieve the “double A” level of accessibility, but 95 per cent of sites in the UK do not even meet the lower “single A” level, 20 years after protection was first introduced through the Disability Discrimination Act.

He also told the MPs that the government’s Access to Work scheme was only “scratching the surface” of what was needed in funding disabled people’s workplace adjustments.

And he said that AbilityNet and ClearTalents will be trialling the use of the ClearTalents diversity profile – which provides “tailored reasonable adjustments” for disabled people, as well as those who face recruitment barriers for other reasons, such as cultural factors, transgender status or caring responsibilities – in a number of jobcentres in London.

He said it was “really, really important” for employers to be “much more proactive” in the provision of reasonable adjustments.

And he said that organisations that use the ClearTalents system increase the “disclosure rate” of such barriers from about two to three per cent to between 60 and 65 per cent.

Consultant Simon Wheatcroft told the committee that there needed to be “far more integration” of IT systems and assistive technology, because there are “so many systems, there are so many assistive technology solutions”.

He has to use three separate devices, because none of the systems he uses will work in every situation.

He said: “It’s very task dependant. No one system exists that can help me in every situation.

“I have to spin my work out across three different devices and three different operating systems just to perhaps achieve the same task that someone with sight might use.

“If there was a more integrated approach I could use one system, maybe one device, and be far more productive.”

1 February 2018


News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com