Government agrees four more years of ILF transition cash for councils
The government has agreed to fund former users of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) in England for the next four years, following months of campaigning pressure from disabled activists.
The minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, passed on the news yesterday (10 February) to two former ILF-users at a meeting in his department.
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) yesterday published a six-week consultation on the plans – although it has so far failed to publicise the consultation – which describes the funding it proposes passing on to local authorities over the four years from April 2016.
ILF was funded by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and when it closed on 30 June 2015 it was helping nearly 17,000 disabled people with the highest support needs to live independently.
But ministers decided it should be scrapped, promising instead that nine months’ worth of non-ring-fenced funding would be transferred through DCLG to councils in England and to devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, to cover the period until April 2016.
It has now agreed to extend that funding to English councils for another four years.
After providing protection against inflation, and allowing for the number of former-ILF users to fall slightly every year, DWP wants to provide funding of £177 million to local authorities in England in 2016-17, followed by £171 million in 2017-18, £166 million in 2018-19, and £161 million in 2019-20.
The document also reveals the funding it wants to pass to each local authority over the next four years.
But the consultation document warns that its funding plans could still “have an adverse equalities impact” on disabled people, because the money will not be ring-fenced, which means local authorities will not be forced to spend the money on supporting former ILF-users, or even on adult social care.
Although the funding will not be ring-fenced, the announcement is a significant victory for disabled activists, who have ensured that the fund’s closure has remained a high-profile issue.
And only last month, members of the Conservative Disability Group took the unusual step of launching their own investigation into the impact of the ILF closure.
Tomlinson told two former ILF-users, John Kelly and Paul Reid, about the funding pledge at DWP’s headquarters in Westminster, during a meeting arranged by Bob Neill, the Conservative MP for Reid’s constituency of Bromley and Chislehurst.
After the meeting, Kelly welcomed the funding pledge but said he refused to feel any satisfaction “until we know that disabled people have a right to independent living and that this can never happen again”.
He said: “It’s about young disabled people of the future and their right to live their lives, and we still have a long way to go to get that understanding.”
Kelly said he had urged Tomlinson not to wait until former ILF-users had been “detrimentally impacted” before taking action to protect their support.
He told the minister that independent living was different to social care, with most local authorities seeing independent living from a medical model perspective rather than viewing it as being about freedom, choice and control.
He also told him that the new Care Act “simply isn’t enough to protect our right to independent living”.
Kelly said Tomlinson had wanted to know how much of the concern around the ILF closure was based on fear and how much came from the real experience of former ILF-users.
He said: “I told him that the fear comes out of looking at the evidence. The fears are based on real stuff that is going on.”
Kelly has had his own support package protected for 2015-16, following a battle with his local council, Merton, but many ILF-users have faced cuts to their support packages in the wake of closure, including in Waltham Forest, where 16 of 60 former ILF-users saw cuts of more than half to their support packages.
He said it was important that local authorities know as soon as possible about the government’s announcement, as many are now in the process of reassessing former ILF-users for the support they will receive in 2016-17.
Although the last time Kelly was at DWP was to protest outside the building at the “fitness for work” contract awarded to the discredited US outsourcing giant Maximus, he said he believed it was right to engage in dialogue with Tomlinson.
He said: “To effect real change you have to talk to people you don’t agree with. Sometimes you have to go militant and take direct action and sometimes you need calmness around the table. I believe in both.”
Ellen Clifford, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, who has played a major role in highlighting the impact of the closure, said this week’s announcement was “really positive, because it shows that we can force the government into a retreat”.
She said: “It’s going to make a difference to some individuals. It will be important to every individual whose support package we can protect.”
But she warned that it would not help everyone, because of the continuing problems with the funding of adult social care, and the failure to ring-fence the new money.
Clifford had raised the issue of the ILF closure at a meeting with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith – whose own constituency includes much of Waltham Forest – and two of his constituents last month.
She said: “There will continue to be a postcode lottery because local authorities have handled [the closure] so differently.”
A government spokesman said in a statement: “The funding given to English local authorities for former ILF-users will continue to be protected.
“Local authorities were given just over £180 million in 2015-16 and will be given £177 million in 2016-17.
“The funding will continue every year up until 2020. We are currently consulting on these proposals.”
The Scottish government has set up its own Independent Living Fund, for both existing and new users in Scotland.
The Welsh government has set up its own ring-fenced grant scheme, run by local authorities, which will enable former ILF-users to receive payments at the level they received under ILF in 2016-17, funded by a £27 million grant from the UK government.
11 February 2016
Maximus ‘has falsified results of fitness for work tests’, says MP
The discredited US outsourcing giant contracted to carry out “fitness for work” tests on behalf of the government has been accused by an MP of “falsifying” the results of assessments.
Labour MP Louise Haigh attacked the track record, ethics and even criminal behaviour of Maximus in delivering public contracts in the US, during a debate on the work capability assessment (WCA).
But she also highlighted what she described as a “disconcerting pattern of behaviour” by Maximus in the UK since taking over the WCA contract from Atos last year.
She said: “There seems to be an alarming trend of cases being rejected based on factual errors or even – I hesitate to say this – falsification.
“I have had several cases of people telling me that their assessment report bears absolutely no relation to the assessment that they experienced with Maximus or Atos.
“One or two cases could be dismissed as an honest mistake, but the situation appears to reveal a disconcerting pattern of behaviour that indicates that the trade-off between cost-cutting and profit maximisation is being felt by very vulnerable people.”
Haigh, a shadow Cabinet Office minister, also raised concerns that there was no way for the public to check whether targets set for Maximus by the government – such as the number of serious complaints and the payment of travel expenses within nine working days – were being met.
She said: “That is why we talk about a democratic deficit in outsourced public services, the costs of which have rocketed since 2010 to almost £120 billion, covering vast swathes of services that we all rely on.
“What exactly is the point in setting targets if the public cannot see whether they are being achieved?
“A supplier could manipulate the data, and we would have to rely on an overstretched [Department for Work and Pensions] to pick it up.”
She said that contractors such as Maximus were “undoubtedly failing”, and added: “We will all be forgiven for not wanting simply to trust that all is well when our constituents tell a different story and when well-documented scandals seem to play on a loop.”
Haigh told fellow MPs how Maximus had been fined $30.5 million in 2007 by making tens of thousands of false claims on a payment by results contract which meant that the company “effectively stole money from US taxpayers by making claims for children who had not received care”.
In 2007, she said, Maximus was sued by the Connecticut state government for the “abject failure” of its computer system, which was supposed to provide real-time police record checks, leading the attorney general to say that the company had “minimized quality” and accuse it of “squandering millions of taxpayer dollars”. Five years later, Maximus settled the case for $2.5 million.
Haigh said: “While the US sues companies such as Maximus, which spectacularly fail to deliver the contracts they are required to, we continue to hand over billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.”
The US cases she raised were just two of those mentioned by Disability News Service in 2014 when it first revealed that Maximus was set to take over the WCA contract from Atos, despite a “chilling” record of discrimination, alleged fraud and incompetence.
Haigh called on employment minister Priti Patel to publish regular updates to parliament on Maximus’s performance against its targets.
And she asked for a DWP commitment to publish a cost-benefit analysis for bringing the WCA back within the department, when the contract is up for renewal in three years’ time.
Haigh said: “The fundamental problem is that regardless of which hapless and dubious provider is dragged in, and regardless of the operating system and oversight of the WCA, the need of extremely vulnerable individuals simply cannot come in third place behind a need to cut costs and maximise profit.
“Is not the lesson of this whole sorry episode and the episode before it that profit has no place in assessing need?”
Patel said she could not comment on the performance of Maximus in the US, but insisted that there was a “full and transparent contracting process” that enabled DWP to “fully test bidders” for such contracts.
But Haigh asked whether Patel was “seriously saying that previous fraud and theft from taxpayers cannot be taken into consideration when the government are handing out a very similar contract in the UK?”
Patel eventually promised Debbie Abrahams, the shadow minister for disabled people, she would find out if there was “a requirement in the tendering process for disclosure of previous legal action”, although she said she “would be astonished if [DWP] did not have a system for looking back and assessing companies’ previous conduct before we engage with them”.
But Haigh told her: “As a shadow Cabinet Office minister, I can tell her that the guidelines for considering past performance are completely unsatisfactory.
“It is no surprise to me that a contractor with prior performance as appalling as that of Maximus, which has failed so singularly in the past, has been awarded a contract.”
A DWP spokesman said, after the debate: “This contract was awarded in accordance with the government’s EU procurement guidelines, which included the requirement by the company to declare convictions for bribery, fraud, money laundering and debt.”
A Maximus spokesman said in a statement: “The quality of our assessments is incredibly important to us; the decisions we take impact upon people’s lives and we are committed to providing a high quality and fair assessment for all our customers.
“Our assessments are independently audited and there is absolutely no evidence to support the unsubstantiated and misleading allegation that any of our reports contain ‘falsified’ data.
“By contrast, the recent National Audit Office report confirmed that we are meeting the vast majority of our quality targets.
“We are determined to continue to improve standards and are investing in improved training and support for staff in order to do this.”
11 February 2016
Abrahams drags New Labour into Stephen Carré suicide report cover-up
The shadow minister for disabled people has implicated New Labour in an apparent cover-up of the government’s failure to respond to a coroner’s report on the suicide of a disabled man found “fit for work”.
Debbie Abrahams has repeatedly refused to criticise – or even comment on – the failure of Iain Duncan Smith to respond to the report into the death of Stephen Carré, despite being shown clear evidence that the Tory work and pensions secretary failed to do so.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been trying since last November to secure a comment from Abrahams on Duncan Smith’s failure to respond to the report, and take measures that would almost certainly have saved many other lives.
But apart from expressing sympathy with “Stephen Carré’s family and friends” and calling for improvements to the work capability assessment (WCA), Abrahams has refused to say anything about Duncan Smith’s role in the scandal, despite DNS showing her team clear evidence that ministers failed to respond to the report.
She briefly mentioned the concerns about the missing Stephen Carré report in a parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on Wednesday (9 February), but even then appeared to mislead fellow MPs by claiming that she was only provided with information about the case “just before I came to the debate”.
In the same debate, Natalie McGarry – an independent MP who has withdrawn from the SNP party whip while she attempts to clear her name over allegations of financial misconduct – said the government “had failed disabled people and have abjectly failed to learn the lessons from their mistakes”.
McGarry said: “The consequences of that are potentially disastrous. How many people could we tally who have lost their lives subsequent to those cases in which professionals such as coroners gave early warnings?”
DNS has been trying to persuade Abrahams to take up the Stephen Carré case since November 2015, and sent the evidence to her team – after they finally agreed to look at it – six days before the debate.
Last week, DNS showed how two government departments – and the judiciary – appeared to be conspiring to prevent the release of information that would show how ministers ignored an opportunity to deal with clear flaws in the WCA system, and save the lives of other disabled claimants.
Questions submitted under the Freedom of Information Act were due to be answered by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) by 20 January, but the department’s response is now three weeks overdue.
Both the Ministry of Justice and the Judicial Office have produced misleading responses to DNS questions, while DWP’s press officers have so far refused to answer questions until their departmental colleagues respond to the freedom of information request.
The report by coroner Tom Osborne was written in late March 2010 following an inquest into the death of 41-year-old Stephen Carré, from Eaton Bray, Bedfordshire, who had taken his own life in January 2010*.
There are concerns that Abrahams is trying to protect New Labour figures within her own party, who devised the WCA and were in power at the time Stephen Carré died.
The user-led grassroots campaign group Black Triangle said it was “profoundly disappointed and somewhat confounded” that Abrahams had failed to demand answers from ministers.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said: “When Jeremy Corbyn was elected to lead the Labour party we believed that Labour had turned the corner and we could now look forward to seeing the party truly fight back for us.”
But he said Labour “seems to have reverted to type and business as usual”, and was “offering nothing more than road trips to solicit disabled people’s views yet again while issuing hand-wringing platitudes about how awful the Tories are”.
He said: “Debbie Abrahams and Labour now have all the evidence they need to string IDS and the DWP up over the scandal of the WCA and the deaths and suffering it continues to cause.
“If they, inexplicably, continue to refuse to act upon this information we can only be led to one conclusion: that this opposition is no opposition and that they are indeed complicit in the catastrophic harm being meted out to us on a daily basis.”
Debbie Jolly, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Government departments and ministers have an interest in trying to cover this up due to their own complicity. But they will not succeed.
“Labour, and in particular Debbie Abrahams and [shadow work and pensions secretary] Owen Smith, must act immediately on this issue.
“At the very least there must be a call for immediate changes based on the evidence presented, and a public inquiry into these (and other) needless deaths.
“Iain Duncan Smith’s inaction must be publically challenged.”
Rick Burgess, co-founder of the New Approach campaign, which wants the WCA abolished and replaced with a fair system, said the opposition had “a moral, legal and constitutional duty to hold the UK government to account, not just for Mr Carré’s death but the thousands of other deaths the WCA is implicated in”.
“Anything less will make the opposition appear an accessory to the massive scale of these human rights abuses.
“This is their chance to apologise for their historic role in introducing the WCA and to now oppose it and unambiguously call for the immediate halt of assessments, the abolition of the WCA and its replacement with a safe system of social security.
“Debbie Abrahams must also ask for a judge-led public inquiry into the actions of Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP, with a view to prosecutions.”
Osborne’s report was addressed to Labour’s work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper, but arrived in her office just a few days before the general election was called for May 2010.
The responsibility for responding to the report shifted to Iain Duncan Smith, who was appointed as the new work and pensions secretary after the coalition government was formed.
DNS has seen a series of letters – which have been shown to Abrahams’ team – that demonstrate how Osborne gave Duncan Smith’s new department all the information it needed to carry out an urgent review of the safety of key aspects of the WCA. But that review was never carried out.
Just weeks after Osborne’s letter arrived, ministers moved to roll out the WCA to hundreds of thousands of existing claimants of incapacity benefit (IB), many of them with long-term mental health conditions.
One of those ministers, Chris Grayling, appointed Professor Malcolm Harrington to carry out an independent review of the “fairness and effectiveness” of the WCA, and later told him he wanted to push ahead with plans to roll out the assessment to IB claimants, despite Harrington suggesting this should be delayed by a year.
Despite his crucial role, Harrington was never shown the coroner’s letter by Grayling.
The following year, in December 2011, a long-term IB claimant – Ms D E – took her own life after being told she was not eligible for ESA.
Her case was linked by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland to similar failings within the WCA process to those that led to the death of Stephen Carré.
And in 2014, another coroner wrote an almost identical letter to Osborne’s, again warning of concerns about the safety of the WCA, after the death of a north London man, Michael O’Sullivan, who also took his own life after being found fit for work.
Last November, government-funded research concluded that the programme to reassess people claiming IB using the WCA could have caused 590 suicides in just three years.
*Osborne ruled that the trigger for Stephen Carré’s suicide had been DWP’s rejection of his appeal against being found “fit for work”, and he called in his Rule 43 letter for a review of the policy not to seek medical evidence from a GP or psychiatrist if the claimant has a mental health condition.
Neither the Atos assessor who assessed Stephen Carré, nor the DWP decision-maker who subsequently decided that he was fit for work and therefore ineligible for the new employment and support allowance, had sought information from his GP, his community psychiatric nurse or his psychiatrist.
11 February 2016
Charity lobby ban ‘shows government is trying to muzzle its critics’
Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have accused ministers of attacking freedom of expression and trying to muzzle their critics, after announcing new rules that will ban charities from using government grants to lobby politicians and civil servants.
DPOs say that the new rules, announced by the Cabinet Office, will make it even harder to campaign to promote the rights of disabled people.
The new rules say that all government grant agreements from 1 May will forbid charities from spending money on work that is intended to influence “parliament, government or political parties”, or “legislative or regulatory action”.
But there has been Cabinet Office confusion over whether the new rules would apply to charities responding to government consultations, or trying to improve proposed legislation as it passes through parliament.
And the Cabinet Office risked ridicule after it told Disability News Service that government departments would be holding their own consultations on the new rules in the lead-up to their introduction on 1 May.
This holds out the prospect of charities being asked to comment on a policy that could prevent them taking part in such consultations in the future.
Asked whether this suggested “double standards”, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: “I don’t really see a problem at all.”
Henrietta Doyle, policy office for Inclusion London, said the new rules showed that the government “dislikes criticism” and was “trying to clamp down on the voluntary sector highlighting the damage their policies are causing”.
She said: “For [Cabinet Office minister] Matthew Hancock to call it ‘the farce of government lobbying government’ shows little understanding that charities provide government with an independent opinion about the impact of their policies on the population.
“The proposal inhibits the democratic process. Government policy should be examined by the third sector, which includes disabled people and their organisations.
“If a policy is damaging disabled people’s lives then government should be informed of this and voluntary organisations play a vital role in providing this feedback to government and it should not be inhibited in any way, regardless of where the funding comes from.”
Tara Flood, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said the new clause was “appalling”.
She said it was already becoming more difficult for campaigning organisations like ALLFIE to secure meetings with government decision-makers, and to find the time and resources to respond to the frequent consultations sent out by government departments, such as the Department for Education.
She said: “There is a real resistance, particularly among politicians, to meet with those of us who are going to challenge what politicians say.”
Flood said the new clause would also intensify the competition for grants from the few organisations that still fund campaign work, while some charities may just decide to stop campaigning completely.
Disability Rights UK said the new clause “fundamentally undermines the value of the third sector in bringing insight and feedback from the people we represent”.
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “It goes against open policy-making and is counter to the ideas of co-production where those affected by a policy have the opportunity to help shape it.
“We think this attack on the freedom of expression undermines good policy-making and in the end, far from being good for taxpayers as it is claimed, will do the exact opposite, as poor policy will result.”
She said the new clause also contradicts the Compact, the agreement between the government and voluntary organisations across England to ensure that they “work effectively in partnership”.
Clause 1.1 of the Compact states that the government will “respect and uphold the independence of civil society organisations to deliver their mission, including their right to campaign, regardless of any relationship, financial or otherwise, which may exist”.
11 February 2016
Anger at Osborne’s working-age benefits freeze
Campaigners say the government’s decision to enforce a freeze on working-age benefits from April – even though older people will see their pensions increase by 2.9 per cent – will further entrench disability poverty.
The annual “uprating” of working-age benefit rates were decided last October, and are based on the CPI (consumer price index) rate for September, which showed that measure of inflation at minus 0.1 per cent.
CPI has since risen to 0.2 per cent in December, and could rise higher over the next few months.
But because of the “triple lock” rules introduced under the coalition, pensions will rise by 2.9 per cent, equivalent to the increase in average wages.
There was already anger at a freeze to many working-age benefits that will last until 2020, which was announced by chancellor George Osborne in last summer’s budget.
But Osborne’s freeze did not apply to benefits such as disability living allowance (DLA), personal independence payment (PIP), attendance allowance (AA) and the support group component of employment and support allowance (ESA).
Now, thanks to the decision to follow last September’s CPI, working-age benefits including DLA, PIP, AA and the ESA support group component will be set at exactly the same rate in 2016-17 as they were in 2015-16.
There was little or no attention paid to the announcements last autumn, even though they are likely to mean a real terms cut in benefits for working-age disabled people, compared to a sizeable real terms increase for older people.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “This is another insidious cut being made to working-age benefits by utterly unscrupulous politicians.
“The real rate of inflation is already hidden by the use of CPI in determining benefit uprating amounts.
“This additional attack will only lead to even greater levels of poverty.”
Geoff Fimister, RNIB campaigns officer, said: “Freezing and below-inflation upratings have become familiar measures in recent years.
“The real value of benefit incomes is being steadily eroded and these methods should be taken seriously in any discussion of living standards.
“Its semi-concealed nature, during a period of relatively low inflation, does not alter the fact that over time, poor people are being made poorer and now compensation for the extra costs of disability is effectively being reduced.
“It seems unlikely that above-inflation increases will be offered to restore the situation as the economy improves, so we are concerned that many blind and partially-sighted people will continue to experience a decline in their standard of living.”
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman said: “Disability benefits rates are reviewed every year and will rise in line with inflation, making sure their value stays the same when compared to prices.
“We continue to spend around £50 billion a year on benefits to support people with disabilities or health conditions.”
She said the government spends about 2.5 per cent of GDP on disability benefits, which is more than six per cent of overall government spending.
Victor Martin Hunt, from Abergele, on the north Wales coast, who raised concerns about the new rates with Disability News Service, said he was appalled when he discovered the freeze after calling DWP to find out what the next year’s benefit payments would be.
Hunt receives a pension, so will not be seriously affected, although he also receives the higher mobility and care components of disability living allowance.
He said he was concerned about the impact on younger disabled people.
He added: “To me what they are doing is proving what their policy is: that they are not interested in people with disabilities.”
11 February 2016
DPO calls for urgent inquiry into council’s ‘systemic failure’ on social care
A disabled people’s organisation has called on the care watchdog to carry out an “urgent” inquiry into a council’s “systemic failure” to meet its legal duties under the Care Act.
Equal Lives has accused Norfolk County Council of “reckless” behaviour which has left many disabled people prisoners in their own homes, and it wants the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to investigate.
It took part in fresh protests this week as a council committee prepared to discuss a further £50 million in cuts to adult social care over the next three years.
Equal Lives said the council had removed payments meant to support people’s well-being from their personal budgets in 2014-15, even though guidance in the Care Act states that local authorities “must promote wellbeing when carrying out any of their care and support functions in respect of a person”.
It said that council cuts had fallen “disproportionately” on disabled and older people, many of whom had been left without even basic care.
Jonathan Moore, chair of Equal Lives, said: “Social care in Norfolk has suffered huge cuts over the last five years and cannot take any more.
“It is reckless to even consider making another £50 million cuts over the next three years.”
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, added: “Norfolk County Council has failed to reshape its services effectively in the last five years, meaning its devastating cuts have fallen disproportionately upon disabled and older people.
“In the year the Care Act came into being, Norfolk County Council cut too far and too deeply, leaving its service-users without the basic care as demanded by parliament.”
Equal Lives has produced six cases studies of disabled people whose wellbeing has suffered as a result of council cuts, and which it says demonstrate how the council has breached its duties under the Care Act.
One of the six, Tania White, has just won her case with the Local Government Ombudsman after she complained about how the council had assessed her needs.
She had originally received a personal budget for personal assistant hours for domestic tasks, grocery shopping and meal preparation, but was then told she was no longer eligible for council support.
The ombudsman’s investigator, Gillian Earles, concluded: “The council’s failure to address Miss X’s concerns about managing her nutrition or explain how her needs will be met without access to the internet or sustainable support from her family amounts to fault.”
The council said it disagreed with the claims by Equal Lives and rejected the allegation that it had behaved “recklessly”, but has launched an urgent review of the six cases, because it was “concerned about any suggestion that we are not following the requirements of the Care Act”.
It also admitted that it was “seeking independent scrutiny of some of our processes and practice relating to personal care budgets”.
The council admitted that it had reduced the amount of funding in personal budget calculations that was not linked to direct care, but said that it had not removed “all of the elements that are described as covering ‘wellbeing’”.
Harold Bodmer, the council’s executive director for adult social services, said: “The care we provide is as set out in the Care Act and we dispute any suggestion that we are not following this.”
He said that some disabled people had seen their personal budgets reduced, but others had seen them increase.
Bodmer said that adult social services would have to deliver proportionately less than other departments in savings, while other departments had also been hit proportionately harder in previous years.
Spending on adult social care is due to rise by £4.65 million in 2016-17, but the department will still have to make savings of £50 million a year by 2019 because of rising demand, inflation and cuts in government funding.
CQC said it had no legal powers to carry out an inquiry into the council without being directed to do so by the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
Harrison has written to Hunt to ask him to order CQC to carry out an inquiry.
11 February 2016
Macclesfield access ban raises fears over safety of older shopping centres
Campaigners have raised fears that ageing shopping arcades around the country could be putting the lives of disabled customers at risk, following an incident in which shoppers with mobility impairments were temporarily banned from their local centre.
The Grosvenor Shopping Centre in Macclesfield secured national attention after it suddenly introduced a ban on wheelchair-users and other mobility-impaired shoppers, following an inspection by the local fire and rescue service.
Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service told the centre on 27 January, following an inspection, that it had “serious concerns” that if a fire broke out “some people would simply not be able to get out”.
Emergency exits from individual shops are up a steep flight of stairs at the rear of the units, while the shopping centre reportedly has low ceilings and no sprinkler system.
After security staff working for Grosvenor – which is believed to have been opened in the late 1960s – started barring mobility-impaired shoppers from entering the building, the equality watchdog wrote to the centre to warn that its actions could be breaching the Equality Act.
The ban was lifted on Friday (5 February) after Grosvenor agreed to introduce interim measures across the centre and its 32 shops.
The shopping centre said it had simply agreed to introduce “more communication” between centre staff and retail staff and “more radios”, but the fire and rescue service has so far been unable to confirm this.
Laura Smith, chief officer of Macclesfield’s Disability Information Bureau, which runs the town’s Shopmobility scheme, said they only found out about the ban after shocked members told them what was happening, even though the scheme is only “a stone’s throw away” from the shopping centre entrance.
She said: “Nobody told us. The majority of people using scooters [in the shopping centre] are from our service. The lesson to be learned is you need to communicate better.”
Smith said that security staff at the shopping centre had shown a lack of sensitivity, empathy and knowledge of disability.
And when she asked Grosvenor how disabled staff in the centre had coped while the ban was in place, she was told that they had never had any disabled members of staff.
Smith warned that other such shopping centres across the country could have similar safety concerns that have yet to be uncovered.
She said: “I think this could have a knock-on effect [elsewhere] and that could be a good thing.”
Lord [Chris] Holmes, disability commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Service providers have a responsibility to plan in advance for the needs of disabled people and ensure they can get in and out of their premises safely.
“We have asked Grosvenor to send us written confirmation of what action they are taking to meet their legal obligations and ensure that people with disabilities can use their shopping centre easily and safely.”
Simon Gibbins, head of fire protection for Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: “We have been able to reach agreement with the owners of the Macclesfield Grosvenor Shopping Centre on interim measures to ensure the safe evacuation of those with mobility issues from the premises and we believe that the centre is now fully open.
“We will now continue to work with them to reach an agreement on a permanent solution which will fully satisfy our concerns on public safety.”
The centre has been unable to explain why it took so many years to uncover the safety concerns, although it said that they had previously “not been considered an issue”.
It also refused to explain why there were no disabled people employed in the centre; why Grosvenor failed to contact the Shopmobility scheme before introducing the temporary ban; and why its security staff were apparently so poorly-trained in disability equality issues.
But in a statement, Grosvenor said: “The centre considered all options to meet the requirements of the authority (including centre closure) and ultimately considered that temporarily restricting access to those at risk, rather than closing completely, was the most proportionate approach.
“This took into account the interests of customers, staff and retailers, including those retailers whose primary source of income is from the businesses they run from the centre.”
11 February 2016
Police duo jailed over failure to protect disabled murder victim
Disability hate crime campaigners have welcomed a judge’s decision to jail two members of police staff whose failures allowed the murder of a disabled man who had begged officers for protection.
Avon and Somerset police constable Kevin Duffy and community support officer Andrew Passmore were jailed at Bristol Crown Court this week after being convicted of misconduct in public office.
Duffy was jailed for 10 months, and Passmore for four months, as a result of their failures in dealing with Bijan Ebrahimi in the hours and days before his murder in 2013.
Ebrahimi had repeatedly begged the police to protect him after he was threatened by his neighbour, 24-year-old Lee James.
James claimed Ebrahimi was filming his daughters because he was a paedophile, when he was actually compiling evidence of anti-social behaviour by youngsters he thought had been vandalising his hanging baskets.
Ebrahimi was beaten and kicked unconscious and then set alight by James, who lived just a few doors away in Capgrave Crescent, Brislington, on the edge of Bristol.
James pleaded guilty to murder in 2013 and was sentenced to a minimum of 18 years in prison.
Steven Norley, who helped him set light to Ebrahimi’s body, was jailed for four years after pleading guilty to assisting an offender.
Simon Green, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said Duffy and Passmore had “completely failed to recognise that what Bijan was going through was hate crime and ignored it” and that they had “failed to take the actions that could have possibly saved his life”.
He said he had reported disability hate crime himself and had been “ignored and treated as a nuisance” by police, while he had “heard many more horror stories” in his work as a campaigner.
Green said: “Glad to say that more recently the vast majority of officers I come across do have a greater understanding and more awareness, but I am hoping the above sentences will make those less aware and who care less to step up and take action, no matter how they feel towards the victim.”
Steven Brookes, another coordinator of the network, also welcomed the sentences.
He said that Duffy and Passmore had been found to “have failed the victim in a massive way”, while the case showed that too many forces were “quite simply being appalling in their handling of cases relating to anything about disability through massive lack of awareness”, and were therefore guilty of institutional discrimination.
After internal police disciplinary proceedings against 15 members of staff and officers are completed, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will publish two reports, one covering the events that took place in the weekend leading up to the murder in July 2013, and another examining “dozens” of contacts Ebrahimi had with the force over the preceding six years.
It is believed that Ebrahimi, who was Iranian, had been subjected to a campaign of race- and disability-related harassment which forced him to move from his previous home.
Campaigners have previously drawn comparisons between the case and the kind of multi-agency failings that led to the deaths of some of the most high-profile disability hate crime victims of recent years, such as Francecca Pilkington, David Askew and Steven Hoskin.
11 February 2016
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com