Minister denies lying to MPs over Disability Confident history

The minister for disabled people has denied lying to an influential committee of MPs about the government’s much-criticised disability employment scheme.

Sarah Newton’s claims about Disability Confident were exposed yesterday (Wednesday) just as her boss, work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, was herself fighting off a Commons motion that would have censured her for misleading MPs about the government’s new universal credit benefit system.

Newton had been asked to write to the Commons work and pensions select committee about Disability Confident, which was launched in the summer of 2013.

She told the committee that just 6,841 employers had signed up to the scheme by 22 June, and she compared that with the 3,340 that had signed up by the end of 2016.

The committee’s chair, Labour MP Frank Field, had asked Newton for a breakdown of “employer sign-ups for every year since 2013”.

But Newton told Field in the letter that, before November 2016, Disability Confident had been merely a “DWP Communications campaign and as such did not have sign-ups”.

A speech by Iain Duncan Smith to the Tory party conference in October 2014 – when he was work and pensions secretary – proves that is not true.

In his speech, Duncan Smith bragged that “over 1,000 employers [have] signed up to our Disability Confident campaign to encourage companies to employ disabled people”.

The following year, following a series of freedom of information requests submitted by Disability News Service (DNS), the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) eventually admitted that fewer than 400 employers had signed up, while only 68 were “active partners”.

The government relaunched Disability Confident in 2016 after it was repeatedly criticised for how few employers had signed up, and for its “patronising waffle”, which activists said ignored “institutionalised disability discrimination” at a time when ministers had been smearing disabled benefit claimants as “workshy”.

A spokeswoman for the work and pensions select committee declined to comment on Newton’s letter, after being approached by DNS yesterday, and even declined to explain why she would not comment.

A DWP spokeswoman denied this afternoon (Thursday) that Newton had lied.

She said: “We do not agree with this claim. The minister has not lied in her letter to the work and pensions select committee.

“When Disability Confident was launched in July 2013, it was a DWP communications campaign and there was no formal scheme.

“In November 2016 we launched Disability Confident as a scheme. Before the launch of the scheme, DWP approached all the employers who had an active registration with the Positive about Disability (Two Ticks) scheme to invite them to migrate to the new Disability Confident scheme.”

But a DWP press release issued in July 2015 said the aim of Disability Confident was “to work with employers to remove barriers, increase understanding and ensure that disabled people have the opportunities to fulfil their potential in the workplace”, while it welcomed Marks and Spencer as “one of the latest major firms to join” Disability Confident and said that “376 UK employers now support the campaign”.

The latest description of the scheme is very similar, stating that Disability Confident “aims to help employers make the most of the opportunities provided by employing disabled people”.

There have been continuing concerns about Disability Confident since its relaunch.

It now has three levels: Disability Confident Committed (the entry level), Disability Confident Employer and – the top level – Disability Confident Leader.

Many critics have argued that it is easy for employers to sign up to the scheme and then continue to discriminate against disabled people, while Labour MP Neil Coyle asked Newton yesterday why employers were able to sign up to Disability Confident when they were not even employing a single disabled person (see separate story).

DWP itself was “validated” as a Disability Confident Leader in November 2016, just days before a report by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities concluded that its ministers had “regularly portrayed” disabled people as “being dependent or making a living out of benefits, committing fraud as benefit claimants, being lazy and putting a burden on taxpayers”.

DWP’s Leader status also came despite a Civil Service survey in 2016 which had shown how more than 1,400 disabled DWP civil servants claimed they had faced discrimination in the workplace, an increase of nearly a quarter on the previous year.

And last month, DNS reported how a Disability Confident company owned by DWP subjected a disabled member of staff to repeated abuse from strangers after it refused for more than 15 months to make a simple alteration to his parking arrangements.

Meanwhile, Labour attempts to persuade MPs to censure McVey yesterday for her misleading response to a report on universal credit by the National Audit Office, and “sanction” her ministerial salary to zero for four weeks as a punishment, was defeated by 37 votes in the House of Commons.

12 July 2018



DWP silence over ‘thousands of ESA claims lost in IT black hole’

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has told a disabled woman whose benefit claims repeatedly went missing that thousands of other claimants have lost their applications in the same departmental black hole.

Vicky Pearson, from Lincolnshire, had to survive for nearly two weeks without food over Christmas and the new year, a distressing experience that she believes caused significant long-term damage to her health.

When she asked a DWP civil servant what she should do over Christmas, she was told to “rest a lot and drink a lot of water”.

Despite being alerted to the concerns on Monday afternoon, DWP had not been able to comment by 1pm today (Thursday).

Pearson first tried to claim income-related employment and support allowance (ESA) last October, after learning that her partner had been made redundant.

The former marketing manager was originally told to apply for the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance instead, and it was only when she arrived at the jobcentre for her first back-to-work session in early November that she was told she was too ill to claim JSA.

She delivered an ESA50 health questionnaire – which had to be filled in with assistance, as she is not strong enough to fill in lengthy forms herself – to the jobcentre later that day.

But there was no written response to her claim, and when she asked DWP what had happened to it, she was told it must have been lost in the post, even though it had been hand-delivered.

The form was eventually tracked down and she was told it had been mistakenly registered to someone else’s account.

She was told to try again and submitted a second ESA50 form. Again it went missing, despite it again being hand-delivered to the jobcentre.

A third form also went missing, and Pearson had still not received a single letter from DWP acknowledging her claim by mid-December, even though she was receiving letters to the same home address about a separate claim for personal independence payment.

By the time she called DWP two days before Christmas she was beginning to panic because she and her partner had no money to buy food.

She was told by an adviser that DWP’s offices were about to close for Christmas and new year and she would have to call back in January, and that there was no emergency financial support available because her ESA claim had still not been officially registered.

When she told the adviser that she could not use the local foodbanks because they only offered processed foods – which she cannot eat for health reasons – she was advised to take plenty of rest and drink lots of water.

As Pearson’s local authority, Lincolnshire County Council, does not offer emergency financial support, she had to send out a plea for help on social media, and begged for help from friends and family.

After the new year break, she was told again that DWP had not received her form.

Yet again – for the fourth time – she had to fill out the ESA50 health questionnaire and provide another sick note from her GP.

This time, she was able to secure an emergency loan of £70 from DWP as her claim had finally been accepted.

But it took another two weeks until she received a backdated payment for £600.

She had also lodged a complaint about her treatment, and weeks later DWP finally told her what had happened.

A DWP adviser told her there was an online “document drive” that contained thousands of ESA50 forms submitted by other claimants.

She was told that all these claimants had also been told their forms had not been received, because of a flaw in the IT system.

But she was also told that there were too many of these cases to deal with individually, so DWP had just left them there.

Despite receiving a compensation payment of just £70 and DWP admitting that it was responsible for the problems she had faced, Pearson has still not received a single letter about her ESA claim.

12 July 2018



‘Scandal’ of new rail station set to be built without step-free access to trains

A new rail station being built as part of a multi-billion pound regeneration programme will not enable wheelchair-users to board trains without the help of staff and a ramp, disabled campaigners have warned.

Brent Cross West Thameslink is being built as part of the £4.5 billion Cricklewood Brent Cross development in north-west London, a partnership between Barnet council and the private sector.

But current plans for the station, which is due to open in 2022, are that it will be step-free from the entrance to the platform, but not from the platform to the train.

This appears to be because building the higher platforms necessary for wheelchair-users to board trains without manual ramps and assistance would mean freight trains would have to slow down when passing those higher platforms.

Campaigners believe that although most freight trains will pass through the station’s dedicated freight platform, some will be routed through passenger platforms, and it could delay the passenger services behind them if they are forced to slow down.

The controversy could prove embarrassing for Govia Thameslink Railway, the company which will run Thameslink services through the station.

Two months ago, the company faced protests after issuing guidance – which it later rescinded – telling station staff that they should not attempt to place “persons of reduced mobility” on a train “if there is a possibility of delaying the service”.

Its Thameslink services are driver-only operated and many of them run without any other staff on board.

This means that any assistance for wheelchair-users who want to disembark from a train at the new station on these services will have to rely on station staff and the use of a manual ramp.

Govia said details on the station plans would have to come from the council or Network Rail.

But a Govia spokeswoman said: “This is set to be a fully staffed station from the first to the last train, meaning that there will be someone available to support people embarking/disembarking at all times.”

She said the platforms “have to be built to cater to the wide variety of trains that pass through the station.

“In central London, the stations which have platform humps only have one class of train passing through so can cater specifically to that type of train.”

But access campaigner and wheelchair-user Ruth Bailey, who lives near the site of the new station, said: “Shouldn’t there be a debate as to why occasional disruption justifies compromising routine, full, step-free access for wheelchair-using passengers?

“What is possible starts with a mindset. The regeneration project involves many engineering feats from building bridges to changing the course of rivers.

“Given the money and expertise this requires, can it really be impossible to find a way to raise and lower a wheelchair-user 10 to 20 centimetres?”

Alan Benson, chair of Transport for All, the user-led organisation which campaigns for an accessible transport system in London, said: “Disabled and older people deserve the same right to access transport as everyone else and this means the freedom to be as independent as they wish.

“This principle is accepted by both government and across the industry, but the argument is always that retro fitting a 150-year-old railway is expensive and will take time.

“It is a scandal therefore when once-in-a-lifetime projects such as this are not delivered with step-free access to the train from day one.

“We see many examples in the UK and abroad where either good design or technology provide fully step-free solutions, yet the industry continues to see access to the platform only as a goal to be reached rather than a minimum to start from.

“With the increasing push to cut costs, reduce staffing levels and introduce ‘driver only operation’ trains we are seeing disabled and older people being denied access to the railway on a daily basis.

“This will only get worse between now and this station opening in 2022.”

Benson added: “It’s time for a clarion call to those responsible to seize this one-off opportunity to build a future-proofed, fully inclusive station fit for 21st century Britain, not something that is an echo of a bygone era.”

Barnet council, which is delivering Brent Cross West in partnership with Network Rail, has secured outline planning permission for the plans, with a detailed planning application due to be submitted this summer.

A Brent council spokesman declined to say why the plans do not currently allow for step-free access from pavement to train.

But he said in a statement: “We welcome residents’ participation in the consultation for the new Brent Cross West Thameslink station and would encourage others to submit their views.

“The planning application for the proposed station will be submitted later this year, when it will be considered by committee members.

“If the application is approved, the delivery team will then start to look at the more detailed elements of the station design.

“Part of this will include looking beyond the current provision of step-free access from pavement to platform, to include step-free access from platform to train for passengers with disabilities and reduced mobility, as well as passengers travelling with prams.”

A Network Rail spokesman said: “This project is being led by Barnet council, who have carried out the initial design process.

“Network Rail is a delivery partner, carrying out work on their behalf.”

He declined to comment on the concerns around step-free access.

12 July 2018



Trio of coach companies agree wheelchair rule changes after legal warnings

Three national coach companies have agreed to change their rules so they no longer prevent wheelchair-users enjoying a “turn-up-and-go” service, thanks to a disabled campaigner.

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) has even threatened to refer National Express, Megabus, Scottish Citylink and other providers to the Traffic Commissioner, who could remove their licences to operate coaches if they fail to comply with the law.

National Express and Stagecoach – which owns Megabus and part-owns Scottish Citylink – previously ignored access laws by telling wheelchair-users that they had to provide 36 hours’ notice if they wanted to travel on their wheelchair-accessible coach services.

The failure to follow the law also exposed their drivers to possible criminal charges.

But wheelchair-user Doug Paulley, a leading campaigner on access to public transport, drew attention to the legal breaches by filming drivers on National Express and Megabus routes refusing him permission to travel in his wheelchair after he had bought coach tickets on the same days he wanted to travel.

He also told Citylink that the policy it described on its website was in breach of the law.

He told DVSA about the legal breaches and the agency has now contacted National Express and Megabus to ask them to explain their apparent breaches of the law.

DVSA has also announced that it will introduce roadside spot checks to ensure that coach operators now comply with the law.

A DVSA spokesman said: “DVSA won’t hesitate in taking action against companies that don’t, including referring them to the Traffic Commissioner who has the power to remove operators’ licences.

“DVSA is investigating a number of cases where it appears coach staff and operators are unclear on the law and is working with the industry to put this right.”

In March, Paulley proved that National Express was refusing to allow wheelchair-users to travel on its services on the same day they bought their tickets.

Executives from National Express have since met with Paulley and have now agreed to change the way the company advertises its services online to wheelchair-users.

A National Express spokesman said: “Following the constructive meeting we had with Doug Paulley in March we have taken a number of steps to identify specific areas where we feel we could enhance accessible travel.

“We have clarified our existing accessibility policy and processes to our customer-facing staff to ensure they are adhered to, particularly with regard to wheelchair-users.”

He added: “For a number of years it has been our policy to recommend wheelchair-users contact us 36 hours before travelling so we can carry out checks, but if they want to book travel on the day we will make all reasonable efforts to carry out those checks on the day.”

He said it had been “quite clear that not all of our staff knew our policy or applied it correctly” and that there “have been poorly written instructions on the internet that have given people the wrong information”.

He said those “poorly written instructions” had made it clear that wheelchair-users “must” book 36 hours in advance.

A Stagecoach spokeswoman said that both Megabus and Citylink had now changed the wording on their websites so they no longer stated that wheelchair-users “must” give 36 hours’ notice to travel, although they still advise customers to “provide advance notice where possible to avoid a situation where the wheelchair space on a service may already be occupied”.

She said: “We have had a positive relationship with Mr Paulley in the past, and disability user groups more widely, and in particular these groups have welcomed our supportive approach to access to wheelchair spaces on local bus services.

“We look forward to welcoming Mr Paulley on to our services in the future.”

Although many coaches do have accessible spaces, they are usually covered by temporary seats which need to be removed if a wheelchair-user wishes to travel.

Transport laws state that any company that has already introduced accessible coaches – even though it is not obligatory for coaches to be accessible until 2020 – must ensure that those vehicles provide a space for wheelchair-users to travel in their wheelchairs.

Separate laws state that a coach driver is committing a criminal offence* if he or she does not allow a wheelchair-user to access that space, if it is not occupied by another disabled passenger and the coach is not full.

Paulley welcomed DVSA’s action and the changes made by National Express, Megabus and Scottish Citylink, but warned that they would not solve the problem for all wheelchair-users.

When he tried out the new National Express policy, he was told he must still prove his wheelchair had been crash-tested, which his has not.

This meant he was still refused permission to travel, “but for a legal reason, not an illegal one”.

National Express also checks that the coach stops involved in the passenger’s journey are accessible for its wheelchair lift.

Paulley said: “I’m under no illusions: any wheelchair-users turning up at Britain’s coach operators without booking well in advance still face a very lot of hassle before they can travel.”

And even when they do travel, he said, they still have no access to on-board toilets or even toilet stops.

Meanwhile, the Department for Transport has launched a consultation on its plans to improve accessible information for bus passengers.

It plans to introduce regulations that will force bus operators to provide audible and visible information on local services.

The consultation closes on 16 September 2018.

*This is a breach of the Public Service Vehicles (Conduct of Drivers, Inspectors, Conductors and Passengers) (Amendment) Regulations 2002, and contravention of this regulation is an offence under the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981

12 July 2018



Disability Confident employers promise less than one job each on average

Nearly 7,000 employers that signed up to the government’s much-criticised Disability Confident jobs scheme have promised to provide just 4,500 new jobs for disabled people between them, less than one per employer.

The figures emerged as the minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, and work and pensions secretary Esther McVey were giving evidence to the work and pensions select committee yesterday (Wednesday) for its inquiry on disability employment.

Newton had been asked to write to the committee about the Disability Confident employment scheme (see separate story), which was launched in the summer of 2013.

The scheme has three levels – Disability Confident Committed (the entry level), Disability Confident Employer and Disability Confident Leader (level three) – but it is only at level three that employers’ pledges and claims on employing disabled people are assessed independently.

In a letter to Labour MP Frank Field, who chairs the committee, Newton said that 133 employers across the UK had reached the level of Disability Confident Leader, while this number had risen by just 35 in the last six months.

In all, 6,841 employers had signed up by 22 June, with more than 4,000 at the lowest level, and just four employers in total signed up in Northern Ireland.

Employers had, by the end of March 2018, committed to provide a total of 4,586 paid jobs, 2,871 apprenticeships and 1,223 traineeships, as well as work experience, work trial, job shadowing, student placement, sector based work academy and paid internship opportunities.

Labour MP Neil Coyle, who asked Newton about the figures, said that with the current rate of progress it would take nearly 1,000 years to meet the government’s target of securing jobs for another one million disabled people in the 10 years to 2027.

He asked why employers were able to sign up to Disability Confident when they were not even employing a single disabled person.

Newton said employers that signed up were on “a journey”, which also included offering supported internships, apprenticeships and work experience.

She said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was now commissioning research which would ask employers how Disability Confident had changed their behaviour.

Newton told the committee: “We will be asking people about the number of people they have brought into employment.

“If there are changes that need to be made [to Disability Confident], we will make them.

“It’s a campaign about helping employers understand the benefits of employing people with disabilities and enabling them to do that.”

She said the research would examine whether employers have done what they said they would do.

Coyle pointed out that it was now five years since the scheme was launched by the coalition government in 2013.

Labour’s Steve McCabe said critics had said it was too easy to sign up to Disability Confident, and asked Newton what had been done since ministers pledged to “put some teeth into the programme”.

Newton said the government wanted to make the initial step onto the scheme “deliberately very straightforward” for employers that want to sign up.

But she said they were then taken “on a journey” with increasing levels of support, and when they reach the top level [Disability Confident Leader] their commitments to the scheme are “independently, externally verified”.

Field said that if the 7,000 Disability Confident employers all employed five disabled people, it would still only add up to 35,000 disabled people.

He said: “We have a long way to go [to reach the target of one million more disabled people in work].”

12 July 2018



MPs’ approval of Seni’s Law provides hope for traumatised service-users

Traumatised disabled people who have been restrained in mental health units have spoken of their hope that legislation approved by MPs will lead to greater protection and support for other service-users.

The mental health units (use of force) bill has been guided through the House of Commons by the Labour MP Steve Reed in honour of Seni Lewis, a young man from his Croydon North constituency who died in 2010 after a prolonged period of face-down restraint at the hands of 11 police officers.

It took seven years for his parents to secure an inquest into his death, with the coroner finding last year that there had been “severe failings” by the police and mental health services, and warning of a risk of future deaths unless action was taken.

Reed’s bill, which is supported by the government and covers England and Wales, still has to be debated and approved by the House of Lords but it is now likely to become law, a rarity for a private members’ bill.

Once law, it would ensure that mental health units: provide proper training for staff on the use of force; introduce a policy that aims to reduce the use of force; publish information on patients’ rights; keep a record of all incidents involving the use of force by staff; and ensure all police officers entering the unit wear body cameras.

The bill would also ensure deaths and serious injuries on mental health units are properly investigated, while the secretary of state for health and social care would have to publish annual statistics on the use of force by staff.

Disabled campaigner Deborah King welcomed the bill’s passage through the Commons.

She said: “As a teenager I was subjected to the use of force in a mental health unit.

“I was frightened for my life and the experience left me vulnerable to mental illness as an adult.

“We need staff to think creatively about alternatives to force. This is likely to require an increase in the numbers of mental health nurses.

“Steve Reed’s new law will start to define the contours of permissible force in a mental health context. Hopefully it will lead to a reduction in the use of force.”

Another disabled campaigner, who has spent time in a mental health unit and is part of the Recovery in the Bin collective, said: “I hope this will protect people like me who have been restrained from unnecessary and excessive force being used.

“I hope, as well as protecting patients going forward, it will lead to greater acknowledgement and recognition that many mental health patients at their most vulnerable have been brutalised by the people who are meant to care.

“I hope this will lead to better support for patients who are still traumatised by restraint (assault) experiences at the hand of the state.”

She added: “I am delighted that it got through and grateful that Seni’s preventable and unnecessary death may help many future patients not to be traumatised.

“And I really hope it will lead to an apology or at least acknowledgement from mental health professionals about how they’ve treated us.”

She said that many examples of restraint were not even a response to violence but a result of staff forcing medication on patients, which the Mental Health Act allows staff to do even if the patient has capacity to refuse it.

Reed told MPs on Friday: “Although the bill is called Seni’s Law, in honour of Seni, it has affected many people beyond Seni who have lost their lives or been injured simply because they were unwell, and the purpose of the bill is to make sure that that cannot happen again.”

He had said in the bill’s second reading last November that face-down restraint had been used more than 9,000 times in the previous year, including 2,500 times against children as young as seven.

And he said a disproportionate number of deaths following restraint in mental health hospitals were of black men and women.

Luciana Berger, speaking for the Labour Campaign for Mental Health, said on Friday that new research by the charity Agenda showed that, between 2012-13 and 2016-17, 32 women who had been detained under the Mental Health Act had died after being restrained.

12 July 2018



MPs raise concerns with McVey over ‘stress and poverty’ caused by WRAG cuts

Cross-party MPs have raised a series of concerns with work and pensions secretary Esther McVey about the government’s treatment of disabled people on out-of-work benefits.

Members of the Commons work and pensions select committee were questioning McVey more than a year after her government introduced cuts of nearly £30 a week to payments to new claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG).

Ministers were ridiculed when they first announced the cuts and argued they would “incentivise” those in the WRAG to find work.

Claimants placed in the WRAG have all been found able to carry out some work-related activity but have been found not fit for work.

The minister for disabled people, Penny Mordaunt [now the international development secretary], later promised to find a way to cut the living costs of people in the WRAG and “mitigate the £30”.

But by the time the cuts were introduced, in April 2017, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) appeared to suggest that Mordaunt’s only success on living costs had been to ensure that new WRAG claimants would be told by their jobcentre work coaches how to secure the cheapest BT telephone tariff.

Yesterday (Wednesday), SNP’s Chris Stephens asked McVey what work had been done to look at the additional costs faced by WRAG claimants.

But she did not appear to have an answer and claimed instead that the cuts had been aimed at sick and disabled people who could “definitely do some work” and had allowed her department to invest more funds into supporting them into jobs.

Stephens said the committee had received “a lot of witness evidence” that the cuts were “increasing stress and poverty for people in the WRAG” and had provided a “disincentive to get to work”.

He said: “There’s a very real concern that people are moving into hardship if they are on ESA in the WRAG.”

McVey said DWP was “testing and ensuring people aren’t going into hardship” but that its “focus” was to get those in the WRAG into work.

She claimed that the proportion of families that included a disabled person and were living in absolute poverty had fallen since 2010.

She said it was “not easy and we are learning as we go, we are learning from what we do. We are very focused on getting those people into work”.

Tory MP Heidi Allen raised concerns about disabled people who claim the new universal credit and face the possibility of strict benefit conditions – such as being forced to carry out hours of job searches every week – as they wait for a work capability assessment.

James Wolfe, DWP’s director of disability employment and support, said work coaches had “discretion” to make changes to conditionality for disabled people in this position.

But asked by Allen if the work coaches making these important decisions about whether a claimant was well enough to meet these conditions were “health care experts”, he said instead that they were “skilled in knowing what someone can do and what the best steps are for them to get back into the labour market”.

He added: “We are looking very closely at the whole health journey in universal credit.”

He said there were not yet large numbers of people with health conditions coming onto universal credit so DWP was still “testing and learning, very carefully deciding who we might want to apply some conditionality to and then looking at what happens before those large numbers start coming through”.

Asked by Allen what options DWP was looking at to ensure that not everyone was treated the same, he said: “The instructions our people have is very much to be cautious about this at the moment.

“This is something that is going to evolve over a period of time as we start to get the numbers through. We are looking at it very closely.”

But Allen said the committee was hearing of too many cases in which “discretion is not being fairly applied”, and she said: “I just worry. We have to get it right.”

A previous session of the committee in May had heard from one disabled claimant of universal credit who told MPs how he had been sanctioned by DWP after missing a work-related meeting in a week in which he had been hospitalised twice because of multiple seizures.

McVey claimed DWP was “monitoring closely” how different areas, job centres and work coaches use this discretion.

Labour’s Neil Coyle told McVey, and Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people: “In order to get more disabled people into work, there has to be trust with the department and with jobcentres in particular.”

He told them that disabled people had seen DWP cut support for half a million claimants of disability living allowance in the move to the new personal independence payment.

And he said that half a million disabled people were set to lose out financially in the move to universal credit, and that there had been a cut in the number of disability employment advisers, problems with Access to Work, and increased pressure through benefit sanctions and inaccurate disability benefit assessments.

He asked what efforts ministers had made to assess the cumulative impact of all these cuts on disabled people’s ability and readiness for work.

Wolfe did not answer this question, but said the proportion of disabled people in work was increasing, and the proportion of disabled people in absolute poverty had fallen.

He added: “What I don’t accept is the sort of caricature of the department as being somehow the enemy of disabled people.”

Coyle replied: “I can only go on my surgery [for constituents] and the feedback we have had here. It’s about trust.

“The question is what assessment has been made of that impact of the changes on disabled people’s preparedness for work.”

Wolfe suggested again that the cuts had led to an increase in the number of disabled people in work, telling Coyle: “The outcome is there in the disability employment statistics.”

McVey said an extra £9 billion in real terms had been spent on supporting disabled people and those with health conditions with benefits [since 2010] and that the number of disabled people in work had increased by 600,000 [between 2013 and 2017].

12 July 2018



Universal credit leaves claimants with mental health problems ‘tangled in bureaucracy’

People with mental health problems are becoming “tangled up” in the bureaucracy and flaws of the government’s new universal credit benefit system, a committee of MPs have heard.

Members of the public accounts committee heard this week that claimants were facing “considerable hardship and considerable deterioration in their mental health” because of universal credit.

Sophie Corlett, director of external relations for the mental health charity Mind, told them: “They struggle with the process, but they end up tangled in the process and unable to dig their way out of it.

“They struggle with the online application, they struggle with the conditionality that comes while you wait for your work capability assessment (WCA), they struggle with waiting for their first payment and if they are able to get an advance payment they struggle to pay that back.”

She also highlighted concerns about the role of the government’s work coaches, who are based at jobcentres and have “discretion” about whether they make adjustments to the process, including whether to relax the conditions placed on disabled claimants.

A key concern, said Corlett, was the period between the start of a universal credit claim and the WCA, during which claimants can be forced to carry out the usual 30-plus hours of jobsearch activity while waiting to be assessed for their “fitness for work”.

Carrying out this jobsearch activity was “a huge barrier” for many people with mental health problems, who were often not even well enough to visit their jobcentre.

She said work coaches were often not using their discretion in such cases, which meant claimants ended up being sanctioned.

Under the sanctions system, benefit recipients have part of their payments temporarily stopped if they fail to meet strict work-related conditions, such as failing to attend a work placement, or being a few minutes late for a jobcentre appointment.

Corlett said that many claimants with mental health problems were struggling with the online “journal” that universal claimants must keep updated, because of fears that they will be “caught out” by one of the requirements that keep “popping up”.

She told the committee: “People talk to us about the fear of something popping up on that that they might miss and that they need to be eternally vigilant and constantly looking at it.”

Corlett, whose evidence was based on reports from the charity’s 130 local groups across the country, said the “bureaucratic entanglement” of universal credit meant people with mental health problems “struggle financially” and their “trust in the system and their trust in the work coach is really undermined and it has a massive impact on people’s mental health”.

Emma Revie, chief executive of The Trussell Trust, which runs a national network of 400 foodbanks, told the committee that disabled people were among the groups “over-represented” among users of foodbanks.

She said that foodbanks in the areas where universal credit had been fully rolled out for at least a year had experienced an average increase of 52 per cent in the number of people using the services in the 12 months after the full rollout began.

But those in areas that were either not subjected to the universal credit “full service”, or had been subject to the full rollout for less than three months, had shown an average increase of just 13 per cent in users over the same period.

Revie warned that the universal credit caseload would at least “quadruple” when DWP began introducing “managed migration”, when claimants on existing benefits whose circumstances have not changed in the meantime – including a large number of disabled people on employment and support allowance – are moved over to universal credit.

Managed migration is expected to begin next summer.

Revie said: “At the moment we are not managing to target and provide the right support to the right people, to prevent them facing having no food.

“We need to try and fix this before we get to managed migration where it might be too difficult to pull it back.”

Alison Greenhill, director of finance for Leicester City Council, said her local authority was already dealing with two eviction notices from landlords, just three weeks after “full service” began in the city.

She said: “It was a shock to me how private landlords were nervous about the impact of universal credit, particularly on the delay in rent payments.”

Tony Kirkham, director of resources for Newcastle City Council – which has been coping with universal credit full service for about 18 months – said: “Landlords are basically saying they will not accept people on universal credit.”

He said the level of rent arrears among people with a rent account with the council who were now on universal credit had more than doubled from £1 million to £2.1 million since its introduction.

And he said his council was dealing with people on universal credit who were being left with just £12 a week to feed themselves.

In a separate evidence session, DWP’s permanent secretary, Peter Schofield, told the committee that he did not know why the number of people using foodbanks was increasing in areas with “full service” universal credit but he said it was a “very complex situation”.

He added: “I would much rather that we were in a situation where people did not need to go to food banks.”

He said he had talked to a “very good food bank in Hastings”, which had a good relationship with the local jobcentre.

Schofield said: “As far as I know, at no point has the food bank said to the jobcentre that there are issues with universal credit that are causing an increase in take-up at the food bank.”

12 July 2018


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