Tribunal rules DWP must release information from secret benefit deaths reviews
Disability News Service (DNS) has won its appeal against the Department for Work and Pensions’ refusal to publish information from 49 secret reviews it conducted into the deaths of benefit claimants.
The decision of the information rights tribunal to allow the DNS appeal means the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should now be forced to hand over all of the information from the 49 “peer reviews” that does not directly relate to the people who died.
DWP has been given five weeks to agree with DNS which information it will release from the reviews, 22 of which took place in 2012-13, 16 in 2013-14, and 11 in 2014-15.
The information it releases will not include details of the circumstances of each death or even the summaries of the findings in each case, but DWP is now required to release most of the recommendations that were made by the authors of the reviews.
This should allow disabled campaigners to hold DWP to account over whether it has implemented changes to its procedures to avoid such deaths happening again.
The information DWP eventually releases should also provide a picture of the policies and procedures that were found to be flawed by its own internal reviews, and which have contributed to claimants’ deaths.
In its decision, the first-tier tribunal allowed the DNS appeal against the DWP’s refusal to release any information from the peer reviews, and the decision of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last September to uphold DWP’s refusal.
Tribunal judge Andrew Bartlett QC, who led the three-person tribunal panel, said in the ruling: “We express the hope that DWP will revisit Mr Pring’s* information request in the light of our decision to allow the appeal and set aside the [information commissioner’s] decision notice and, under the oversight of the commissioner, disclose what should have been disclosed in answer to his request.”
The panel ruled that the information commissioner had made an error in law by agreeing with DWP that it was prevented from releasing the information by section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992.
Section 123 states that a civil servant is guilty of a criminal offence by disclosing “without lawful authority any information which he acquired in the course of his employment and which relates to a particular person”.
But the tribunal panel agreed with the submissions made by barrister Elizabeth Kelsey, of Monckton Chambers, who was acting pro bono for DNS, that DWP had interpreted the phrase “relates to a particular person” too widely.
Bartlett concluded: “DWP, because of its interpretation of section 123, regarded the whole of the reviews as prohibited from disclosure. We have arrived at a different construction of section 123.
“On examination of the reviews, it is plain that there is material in them which does not relate to particular persons in the sense that the content of the information is about those persons.”
DNS has been trying since August 2014 to obtain information contained in the 49 peer reviews, to find out what actions ministers have taken following deaths linked to the withdrawal or non-payment of benefits such as employment and support allowance and to the discredited work capability assessment.
DWP first insisted that it held no information about such deaths, but later admitted that it carried out internal reviews into some deaths and serious and complex benefit-related cases, and that it had conducted 49 reviews of deaths between February 2012 and the autumn of 2014.
DNS appealed to the information commissioner after DWP refused to release any of the information from the peer reviews, but was forced to appeal to the information rights tribunal when the commissioner ruled in favour of DWP.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We have received the tribunal’s decision and are considering the judgement.”
An ICO spokeswoman said: “The commissioner is reviewing the tribunal’s decision and can make no further comment at this stage.”
*John Pring, editor of DNS
14 April 2016
Fears over government links as equality watchdog launches welfare probe
The equality watchdog is facing concerns over links between the government and two of its leading figures as it prepares to investigate whether Tory welfare reforms have breached the human rights of disabled people.
Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) revealed that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was to examine the impact of changes to the welfare system on independent living and poverty.
The announcement was included in the watchdog’s new business plan for 2016-17, which was published by EHRC last week without any publicity.
But concerns have now been raised about the impartiality of two key figures in the commission, who are both likely to play a key role in the inquiry.
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) has come forward to raise concerns over the voting record of Lord [Chris] Holmes, the watchdog’s disability commissioner and a Conservative peer, who voted in the House of Lords in favour of those welfare reforms.
But there are also concerns over David Isaac, the lawyer the government has chosen to take over as the commission’s new chair.
Isaac, a former chair of the gay rights charity Stonewall, is a partner in law firm Pinsent Masons, and specialises in providing advice on “major public and private sector UK and global commercial and outsourcing projects”.
His own profile on the firm’s website states that he “leads teams of lawyers on major projects” for, among others, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
But Pinsent Masons this week refused to say which outsourcing projects Isaac has worked on for DWP, leading to the possibility that he could have been involved in some of the reforms his own watchdog will now be investigating.
Sue Bott, DR UK’s deputy chief executive, said Lord Holmes had voted in favour of the government’s welfare reforms, including cutting payments by £30 a week for new employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants placed in the work-related activity group.
She said: “He is solidly in favour of the ESA cuts, he is solidly in favour of the cuts to PIP [that were later withdrawn by the government] and every other cut to disabled people’s income in recent time.”
But she said these were measures the commission would be investigating as part of its probe into the human rights impact of the government’s welfare reforms, with Lord Holmes likely to take a lead role.
She believes EHRC was pressured into carrying out the inquiry by the work of the House of Lords Equality Act 2010 and disability committee, which concluded last month that government spending cuts were having “a hugely adverse effect on disabled people”.
Bott said: “We are concerned about the voting record of Lord Holmes because it is straight down the line voting for the government and we wonder therefore how disabled people are to have confidence in the inquiry whilst Lord Holmes has his position as a commissioner and chair of the EHRC’s disability committee.”
She pointed out that other Conservative peers had voted against the government or abstained from votes on the welfare reforms.
She said: “We think Lord Holmes has some questions to answer as to what his position is. I think that he needs to make his position clear so that it is all upfront and transparent.”
Asked whether she would be concerned if Lord Holmes played a role in the investigation, she said: “I think he should consider his position and whether he feels able to lead such an inquiry, given that he is so clearly in favour of everything the government has done to date.”
Asked whether she also had concerns about Isaac, she said: “It is important that disabled people have confidence in what the EHRC is doing and that there is clear independence and leadership.”
EHRC plans to commission an assessment to “determine how changes to the welfare system have affected equality of opportunity and the human rights of people who share certain protected characteristics”.
It also says in its business plan that it is “not clear whether the government’s reforms to tax, welfare and public spending have taken into account the cumulative impact of these changes on the standard of living of disabled people”.
Asked about the impartiality of Lord Holmes and David Isaac, an EHRC spokesman said in a statement: “We have an ambitious programme of work to tackle discrimination and promote equality of opportunity based on comprehensive evidence about the barriers and unfairness faced by disabled people.
“The fact our business plan includes these priorities underlines that we are fully independent, and we will show neither fear nor favour in how we do our work.
“We have rigorous processes in place to avoid any conflicts of interest. Commissioners are required to comply with the principles of public life [first set out by Lord Nolan in 1995] and our code of conduct, with a register of interests publicly available.
“The strength of our board comes from the diverse range of professional skills, experience, personal qualities and perspectives our commissioners bring to bear on our important work.”
A Pinsent Masons spokesman said that the company’s “professional obligations governing client confidentiality mean we are unable to comment”.
14 April 2016
Capita faces fresh calls to be stripped of PIP contracts after documentary
One of the three outsourcing giants that assesses people for their eligibility for disability benefits is facing calls for it to be stripped of its contract, after revelations in a Channel 4 documentary.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is investigating concerns raised by this week’s Dispatches, which saw an experienced mental health nurse, Noel Finn, go undercover to train as a personal independence payment (PIP) assessor with Capita.
Footage he supplied from a hidden camera showed Capita’s chief medical officer, Dr Richard Peters, telling him during his training that the company needed its assessors “to be doing as many assessments a day as you can possibly manage”.
Peters, who has previously worked for Maximus, another of the three outsourcing companies, also told Finn to “forget your mental health background and park it to one side” when carrying out assessments.
Finn then spent several days gaining experience alongside paramedic and PIP assessor Alan Barham, who Capita colleagues described as “the best of the best” when it came to assessing claimants.
Finn’s undercover footage showed Barham admitting that he sometimes completed his assessment reports before even meeting the claimants, telling Finn that he could usually “completely dismiss” what he was told by PIP claimants, and making offensive comments about an overweight claimant who was unable to carry out her own personal care.
Barham, who also runs his own first aid training company, boasted that in the early days of Capita’s PIP contract in 2013, he and other assessors were earning up to £20,000 a month, at a time when DWP was trying to clear an embarrassing backlog of claims.
Barham said that at the time, Capita – which provides assessments on behalf of DWP across central England and Wales – paid £80 an assessment for the first eight assessments completed every week, then £160 for each of the next six, and £300 for each further assessment.
He told Finn: “We were flying through them because of that money.”
His manager was also seen telling Finn that posters advising claimants that they could record their assessments had been removed from the assessment centre’s public area.
The documentary was directed and produced by the disabled journalist Richard Butchins, who was responsible in 2012 for Dispatches revelations about the work capability assessment contractor Atos Healthcare.
Linda Burnip, a co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), repeated DPAC’s call for Capita to be stripped of its contract.
She said: “It only goes to reinforce what we’ve always known which is that neither Capita nor Atos are carrying out accurate assessments for people.
“When Barham said he did the assessments before seeing the person being assessed, that upholds what many have said about the assessment reports bearing no resemblance to their conditions or needs.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said: “We have been campaigning for private companies to be stripped of having anything to do with the assessment of disabled people from the outset.
“It has become clear [from the documentary] that despite the government’s denials the companies do work to targets and appear to be subject to financial penalties [if they miss those targets]. One of them is lying.”
Caroline Richardson, from the Spartacus online campaigning network, said: “The situation demonstrated by Capita highlights one fundamental problem in the system; that there is no feedback mechanism on assessor performance.
“Their recommendations to the DWP should have a high degree of correlation with the final award.
“I’d consider this to be a key performance indicator (KPI), and the introduction of such a KPI could highlight assessors who are lacking in commitment to providing the excellence expected and required of them.”
PIP, which is gradually replacing working-age disability living allowance (DLA), has been mired in controversy, delays and backlogs ever since its launch in April 2013.
In January, a National Audit Office report showed that 36 per cent of Capita’s PIP assessment reports had failed to meet standards agreed with DWP, compared with the four per cent target set in its contract.
Disability News Service (DNS) began to report on delays and backlogs in the PIP system in late 2013, with some disabled people eventually having to wait more than a year just to be assessed.
In the summer of 2014, Capita launched a huge recruitment drive to cope with its backlogs, amid reports that it was offering staff up to £300 per test – four times the initial rates, and the same figure mentioned by Barham – and was encouraging them to carry out as many assessments as they could.
It then emerged, in January last year, that Capita was making an estimated 80 of its 400 assessors redundant. Five months later it was forced to recruit 90 more healthcare professionals.
And last summer, Capita’s reception staff were sent scripts telling them how to explain to benefit claimants why their appointments had been cancelled.
Weeks later, the company sent out a “very urgent” request for 90 more staff.
By noon today (14 April), Barham had not responded to a request for a comment from DNS.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “DWP is currently looking into some of the comments and issues raised during the programme.
“We will be working with Capita to investigate these issues and concerns.”
Asked about Dr Peters’ comment about “doing as many assessments a day as you can possibly manage”, she said: “Provider performance is measured across a range of service agreements, including quality, performance delivery targets and customer experience.
“Our expectation is that providers meet all of their targets including quality and volume.”
On his comment advising Finn to “forget your mental health background and park it to one side”, the spokeswoman said: “Health professionals are asked to adopt a holistic approach, assessing all the evidence available to them, including their own clinical knowledge to provide advice on the claimant’s level of function and ability across all assessment criteria.”
She added: “DWP demands the highest standards are delivered in terms of its contracted-out services and we are working with Capita to address the issues raised.
“As Capita stated in their response to Dispatches’ investigation, Alan Barham will no longer be working for Capita.”
On the payments Capita makes to its staff, she said: “The remuneration of Capita staff is a matter for Capita.”
Asked whether DWP would be looking again at all the assessments carried out by Barham, she said: “As outlined above, we are looking into the issues raised in the programme.
“Anybody who feels they have been treated unfairly, can ask for a mandatory reconsideration of their case. They can also appeal if they are not happy with their decision.”
Capita has refused to answer a series of questions from DNS about the programme’s revelations, including: what action it was taking; whether Barham mentored any other new assessors; whether other assessment centres had taken down the notices about recording assessments; whether Capita would change its system of paying assessors per assessment; whether the programme’s contents suggested a culture of disrespect within Capita; whether Capita would be looking again at all of the assessments carried out by Barham; what action it would be taking over Dr Peters’ comments; and whether Dr Peters’ comments accurately reflected the company’s policies and procedures.
Capita did say in a statement: “The comments and actions of this assessor clearly fall short of what we expect and are totally unacceptable.
“We are obviously appalled by and sincerely apologise for this individual’s disrespectful comments and actions.
“If individuals do not meet our expectations we will always take appropriate action. This assessor no longer works for Capita.
“All claimants are fully and clearly informed of their right to make an audio recording of their assessment when they are invited to attend their assessment.
“In accordance with DWP requirements, any claimant who wishes to record his or her assessment needs to make arrangements to record the assessment in advance of attending the assessment centre.
“We expect all of our assessors to undertake assessments as outlined by DWP and in line with our training.
“For all face-to-face assessments, the assessment report is never fully completed prior to a claimant attending their appointment with a disability assessor.
“At no point did the chief medical officer for [Capita’s] PIP contract ever suggest that assessments should be rushed, thereby compromising quality.
“His and Capita’s focus is on undertaking quality assessments in an efficient and professional manner as required by the DWP.
“All our assessments are completed according to the requirements set out by DWP.”
But Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the national service-user network Shaping our Lives, said Capita should have to answer all the questions posed by DNS “as a major international outsourcing organisation that expresses a commitment to quality, economy and good standards of practice”.
But he said “the real responsibility continues to lie with the Department for Work and Pensions”.
He added: “It is very difficult for it to maintain a view that the large-scale problems and failings identified in its application of welfare reform can merely be put down to isolated poor practice rather than a seriously defective and irresponsible policy approach.
“There needs to be an independent investigation of the failings identified in the programme as well as the wider failings they reflect.”
14 April 2016
ROFA’s conference call to DPOs is next step towards international influence
A national conference is set to provide disabled people and their organisations across England with an opportunity to come together to discuss key disability rights issues, share their campaigning successes, and secure a collective voice on the international stage.
The Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) is set to take a sizeable step forward at its annual conference on 14 July when for the first time it elects a national steering group.
Tara Flood, chief executive of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), one of ROFA’s founding members, said a vacuum had been created by the lack of a genuinely representative network of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) since the demise of the UK Disabled People’s Council.
She said: “There is a need, in what is an extremely hostile time, for national, regional and local DPOs to come together to feel more united, and think about what we need to do together.”
The alliance plans to extend its influence internationally by applying to become England’s representative on the global organisation Disabled Peoples’ International, and to affiliate with other international organisations such as the European Network on Independent Living.
It is believed to be the first time there has been a network of DPOs representing the interests of disabled people in England, rather than the wider UK.
Flood said: “We are aware that disabled people in England currently have no voice in Europe or outside the European Union.”
She is hoping that as many disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) as possible will join ROFA and attend the annual conference in Sheffield on 14 July, an event that last year was attended by nearly 40 DPOs.
The conference will focus on independent living, equality and inclusion, the crisis in mental health, direct action and using the law to protect disabled people’s services and rights.
It will also highlight the work of individual DPOs, such as the Equal Lives campaign around cuts to social care, and the success of Hammersmith and Fulham Coalition Against Cuts (HAFCAC) in overturning home care charging and persuading the local council to ring-fence funding for former users of the Independent Living Fund.
Flood said: “We want to learn from what people are already doing so there is no reinventing of the wheel.”
Inclusion London, Equal Lives, ALLFIE, People First, Sisters of Frida and Disabled People Against Cuts first came together in 2012 to host a conference “to raise the policy and political concerns of disabled people and English DPOs”.
Progress in developing ROFA was partly delayed by a lack of funding, but also by the work members put into developing their own manifesto in 2013 and then an English shadow report in summer 2014 in response to the UK government’s report to the UN on its progress in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
ROFA plans to continue working with its sister organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to monitor progress on the convention and to “develop collective influence to the problems disabled people are facing across the UK”.
14 April 2016
Disabled people ‘still not safe in Luton’ after second ‘assault’ in three years
The family of an autistic man say they believe disabled people are still not safe from their local police force, after two officers were finally sacked for gross misconduct for “shocking” behaviour during an incident in 2014.
Despite the sackings, Bedfordshire police has quietly cleared other officers over their role in an earlier incident in similar circumstances and involving the same autistic man, Faruk Ali, from Luton.
An eight-day misconduct hearing found that PCs Christopher Thomas and Christopher Pitts had breached police standards around honesty and integrity; authority, respect and courtesy; and discreditable conduct, in relation to the 2014 incident.
Thomas was also found to have breached equality and diversity standards.
Both officers had already been acquitted of criminal charges after a crown court trial.
The family of Faruk Ali have been campaigning for justice since he was attacked and chased into his own home on 20 February 2014 as he put out wheelie-bins at the front of his own and neighbours’ homes in Luton, as he did every Thursday morning.
Thomas and Pitts later claimed they thought that Ali was attempting a “robbery”, even though he was wearing his slippers and was apparently just standing by a wheelie-bin.
One person who witnessed the incident later told Disability News Service (DNS): “All he was doing was standing next to the bin. He wasn’t posing any threat. The passenger [in the police car] got out and didn’t even introduce himself.
“All he did was he looked at him and he grabbed him by the neck and hauled him to the floor. Faruk screamed and called out for his mum. He dragged [Faruk] across three or four bins.”
After one of Faruk’s brothers came out of the house and shouted that his brother had an impairment, the officer let go of him, and Faruk ran into the house, but the two officers chased after him.
Mary Cunneen, a commissioner with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, said: “This case illustrates the importance that police officers should be held to account for their actions.
“There is no place in policing for the shocking behaviour exhibited by these officers.”
Faruk’s brother Dhobir said the family were “very happy” with the “positive outcome” of the misconduct hearing.
He said the 2014 incident had affected his brother’s “very bubbly” personality, but that he was now gradually “getting better”.
But he said he was unhappy that the force had also cleared its own officers of any wrongdoing over the earlier assault, in 2011, which they reinvestigated in the wake of the 2014 incident.
Faruk had been stopped by a police officer who had asked him his name after a member of the public claimed that he “looked suspicious”.
When Faruk responded by saying that he was going to eat “fish and chips”, one of the officers accused him of “taking the piss” and pulled him to the floor.
Faruk begged them to stop, and even though neighbours who knew him told the officers that he was autistic, they handcuffed him and placed him in a police van. He became so distressed that he wet himself.
Bedfordshire police’s own professional standards department subsequently found no wrongdoing by the officers over the 2011 incident, even though the force agreed to place a marker on its system to alert officers to Faruk’s impairment, told the family he should carry a red “autism alert” badge, and promised to improve how its officers were trained.
Faruk was wearing his autism alert badge when he was assaulted again in 2014.
An internal review of that investigation has now found that there was “no case to answer regarding the conduct of the officers” in 2011.
Dhobir Ali said: “The use of force on Faruk on that day [in 2011] was not justified.”
He is set to raise the 2011 incident at a meeting with the force’s chief constable later this month.
He said: “My first concern will be to reflect on 2011 to ask if that was justified. I feel it wasn’t properly investigated, particularly the use of force.”
Dhobir said he did not believe that Faruk and other disabled people in the area were safe and questioned why there did not appear to have been improvements in the force since 2011.
He said: “I am deeply concerned, I really am, because the attitude and behaviour of the two officers [in 2014] was shocking.”
He also plans to ask the chief constable what measures the force was taking so that “other people like Faruk will not be in the same situation”.
The force’s failure to improve since the 2011 incident is even more concerning as that was the same year that two major inquiries reported into the disability hate crime death of Michael Gilbert, who was held captive by members of the Watt family in Luton for 10 years and was regularly beaten, stabbed, tortured, treated like a slave and had his benefits money stolen.
Gilbert was eventually murdered in January 2009, and his body dismembered and thrown into a lake. Bedfordshire police was one of a number of organisations that were seriously criticised for their failings over the case.
A spokeswoman for Bedfordshire police, which this week apologised to the family for the actions of Thomas and Pitts, said: “The incident [in 2011] was thoroughly reviewed and was found to have been properly investigated, with there being no case to answer regarding the conduct of the officers.”
She said the force was “committed to being autism aware” and had launched “autism hate crime cards”, designed by autistic people, which aim to make it easier for them to report hate crime.
She said the force also recognised “the social and communications difficulties associated with autism and the importance of improving the communication between our communities and police officers”.
She added: “The officers were both cleared of assault [following the 2014 incident] and in the court case the judge made the observation [during] the crown court trial that it was of no relevance whether Faruk had a badge or card as it would have been impossible for the officers to have seen from where they were.”
Asked why its treatment of disabled people did not appear to have improved since 2011, she said: “The force is committed to improving the way we deliver services to people with diverse needs in our communities.
“We continue to work closely with leading charity Autism Anglia, which will deliver autism awareness training across the force and is part of a wider programme to educate officers about different aspects of mental health.
“The partnership follows the success of an earlier pilot scheme with Autism Bedfordshire, which delivered similar training.”
14 April 2016
MPs must accept fundamental flaws of personal budgets, says Beresford
A leading disabled academic has urged MPs to dismiss the conclusions of the public spending watchdog and accept instead that the government’s strategy on social care personal budgets is “fundamentally flawed”.
Peter Beresford, professor of citizen participation at the University of Essex and emeritus professor of social policy at Brunel University, has told the Commons public accounts committee that the National Audit Office (NAO) misunderstood the impact of personal budgets on social care.
He told the committee: “The implications are too important for the service and appropriate use of public resources for me not to act.”
NAO concluded in its report on personal budgets in social care last month that personal budgets and direct payments were “an important way of giving care users more choice and control over their services”.
But Beresford said NAO had failed to realise that while the use of direct payments – which enable service-users to take a cash payment to manage their own support – had been a success, the same did not apply to personal budgets.
Direct payments were introduced in 1996, while personal budgets – originally defined as an up-front allocation of cash that would empower service-users to choose how they received their support – were introduced nationally in 2008.
But the way that personal budgets were introduced and developed means that this up-front allocation simply provides an “indication” of how much funding a service-user will receive to pay for their support, while frontline social care staff usually ignore this figure when setting someone’s actual personal budget.
In written evidence submitted to the committee, Beresford says: “Councils have created the bureaucracy to deliver up-front allocations in order to claim they have reached their targets, but they have not changed the way needs are assessed and resources allocated.”
He said this meant that personal budgets for social care had become a “phantom policy”.
Beresford submitted his written evidence as the committee prepared this week to take oral evidence from civil servants and care organisations for its own inquiry into personal budgets in social care.
The Care Act made personal budgets for social care mandatory for all eligible users from April 2015, while the Department of Health wants between 50,000 and 100,000 people to have a personal health budget by 2020.
Beresford said that the five per cent of service-users who use direct payments to employ their own personal assistants, and are given large enough payments to meet their leisure, social and personal care needs “consistently enjoy much better outcomes”.
But he said this had nothing to do with personal budgets and their use of an “up-front allocation”.
He said the three-fold increase in the number of users of direct payments since 2010 had been mostly due to service-users who use them to pay invoices for traditional services they would have received anyway, and there was evidence that this group achieved no better outcomes “than any other recipient of regulated services”.
Beresford, who is co-chair of the national service-user network Shaping our Lives, warned the committee that the consequences of not abandoning the government’s current policy on personal budgets would be “a continued very large waste of public effort and resource”.
He argues in his written evidence for a new “personalised” system of assessing the needs of service-users that would allow for the “full individuality” of their “lived experience of need” that would set “a level of well-being that is right for them”.
He said: “This cannot happen under [the current system] where ‘need’ has to be fashioned to match resources.”
He said that a new system must acknowledge that there is a “cash limit” on the provision of social care.
This would mean there would have to be “an ability to acknowledge if there is not sufficient public funding to meet all assessed needs” through the resources provided.
He said: “The acknowledgement of unmet need will ensure the democratic process is fully informed about the real cost of enabling all to have a level of well-being that is right for them.”
Beresford told Disability News Service that the personal budget system makes it easier for local and national government to disguise the unmet need in social care.
He said: “The social care system is in total melt down and the talk of personal budgets is still as if there is a wonderful system out there (which some local authorities are failing to do properly) that makes life great for disabled people.”
But he said that personal budgets were instead a “smokescreen” or “fig leaf”, which disguises the fact that unmet need “rises and rises”.
He said this had implications not just for social care, but also for the NHS, where personal health budgets were “a terrifying Trojan horse and inherently destroy any idea of universality and the meeting of need”.
He said: “Nothing will happen to sort out the disastrous funding situation and Poor Law principles of social care so long as personal budgets in their present hopeless form continue to act as a diversion.
“One day, because of fundamental demographic change, a government will have to put social care on the same footing as the NHS and challenge the ludicrous present divisions in terms of principles and funding.”
14 April 2016
Latest ‘reckless’ DSA reforms could leave disabled students without support
New government reforms to support for disabled university students are “rushed and reckless” and could lead to many young people being left without the assistance they need to complete their degrees, say campaigners and industry experts.
On Monday (18 April), the government is introducing a “quality assurance framework” (QAF), which sets out a series of new requirements for support workers for students claiming disabled students’ allowance (DSA).
These new requirements mean that many professional support workers will have to spend years securing new qualifications or achieving membership of professional bodies to work with new students, although they will be able to continue to work with students they are already supporting.
One provider of student support, Randstad, has accused the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) of “a reckless approach threatening the support system which students depend upon”.
The government’s reforms and cuts of nearly £30 million a year to DSA have been heavily criticised by disabled campaigners, who have described them as part of “a wider ideological attack on disabled people accessing education at any level”.
Universities and science minister Jo Johnson announced last December that – following a public consultation – many of the cuts to the DSA system would go ahead for new claimants starting courses after 1 September 2016.
But the latest changes affecting providers of support services to DSA claimants – which were not subject to a public consultation – have raised fresh fears.
In a submission to BIS, the Association of Non Medical Help Providers (ANMHP) said its members believed the new criteria were “not appropriate” and “not workable”.
Among the findings of a survey of its members, they found that 96 per cent of notetakers did not hold the relevant qualification, 93 per cent of specialist mentors for students with autism did not hold the relevant qualification, and 55 per cent of specialist mentors for students with mental health conditions did not hold the relevant professional membership.
One of ANMHP’s members, Randstad, which helped 28,000 disabled students last year, said the changes were “rushed and reckless” and would lead to staff and skills shortages.
It said that many support workers would be unable to register to work with new students after the 18 April deadline, which could leave many disabled students without the support they needed.
Tara Flood, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said she feared for those disabled students preparing to start their university courses in September.
She said: “This is already within a context of disabled students knowing their chances of accessing DSA are diminishing.”
She pointed to a Randstad survey two years ago which showed that four in five disabled students said they were more likely to drop out of university if the government pressed ahead with its DSA reforms.
She said: “The same will be true if the thought of not getting access to the right support quickly is likely, particularly students with high levels of support needs.
“They will either be put off from going to higher education or they will be at a huge disadvantage because they will not be able to start with the same support as other students.”
Flood added: “The government is keen that university returns to ‘the good old days’ when it was an opportunity for a very small elite group, and I think disabled people do not fit the government’s vision for higher education.”
Victoria Short, managing director of Randstad Student Support, said: “Existing workers have amassed crucial experience and skills through their time within the sector – but the value of this has been completely overlooked.
“For employees who have spent years dedicating their careers to helping young people achieve their goals, it will feel like a kick in the teeth.
“It’s a shake-up which the sector isn’t ready for – and the government need to realise that.”
She added: “Rushing through changes amounts to a reckless approach threatening the support system which students depend upon.”
A BIS spokesman admitted that the QAF had not been subject to a formal consultation because it was “an administrative issue in terms of the application of DSA and does not alter the amount of support available to students”, but he said BIS had had “extensive engagement with stakeholders over the change”.
BIS said it had developed the QAF through discussions with “higher education institutions and disability charities”, but has refused to say which ones, or to explain why it did not appear to have consulted providers like Randstad or organisations like ALLFIE.
The BIS spokesman said: “The aim of the Quality Assurance Framework is to ensure that support workers are competent to provide specialist support to disabled students who need it.
“The framework responds to widespread concerns expressed by stakeholders about the need for competent support workers.
“We have worked closely with higher education representatives to develop the framework, with a focus on improving the quality of support.
“We recognise that some stakeholders have concerns about the introduction of mandatory requirements, particularly with regard to mental health mentoring.
“We are exploring this with stakeholders to ensure that no students will miss out on the support they need, including whether an alternative accreditation system would be possible.
“Any support worker currently providing a student with non medical help support can continue until 31 August 2018, or until that student finishes their current higher education course, whichever is sooner.
“So no students will experience any disruption to the support they currently receive.”
14 April 2016
Government ‘must see disabled people as innovators and contributors’
Disabled entrepreneurs have told the government’s business department that it is not doing enough to make its programmes accessible.
In a meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group, a senior civil servant listened as disabled entrepreneurs lined up to express their concerns at his department’s lack of support for them.
Jacqueline Winstanley, who runs consultancy Universal Inclusion and chairs Fluidity, a charity which facilitates inclusive self-employment, told the meeting that there needed to be a “paradigm shift” from “seeing disabled people as a care burden to seeing them as innovators and contributors to the economy”.
Winstanley, who set up her own business because she lost her job after developing a health condition, appealed to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to open up its programmes to disabled people, and ensure they had the support needed to be entrepreneurs, including “equitable access to finance”.
She said BIS offered disabled people a route to “achieving their aspirations” as “contributing citizens who will grow our economy”.
She was among those who raised concerns about the Access to Work (AtW) programme, which is run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and pointed out that if disabled entrepreneurs are not able to prove their business is viable within two years they are not able to claim AtW and cannot reapply for another five years.
Lord Addington, who chairs the assistive technology experts Microlink, and uses assistive technology himself, said there needed to be a “massive” cultural shift.
He said that only half of government websites are compatible with assistive technology, while disabled users of assistive technology often find themselves “stranded in the middle of a process” because of these compatibility problems.
Gary McFarlane, a disabled entrepreneur and co-founder of the mobility assistance app assist-Mi, said he had been repeatedly let down by UK Trade and Investment – the government body which works with UK businesses to ensure export success – which had failed to make its events accessible for disabled people.
He called for more expertise on disability in BIS, and for it to employ more disabled people, and provide more support for disabled entrepreneurs both domestically and with the export market.
Another disabled entrepreneur told the meeting about the “absolutely ridiculous hoops I have had to jump through” to continue her AtW support after moving from being an employee to setting up her own business.
She set up the business at the start of the year, but was told by DWP that she had to show she would make a profit of £5,500 in the first year in order to receive AtW.
She said DWP had forced her to draw up extensive business plans that were “much more than a bank would want” in order to claim AtW as a disabled entrepreneur, while she was forced to pretend to carry out interviews with a support worker who had been working with her for years.
She said: “I don’t know why they are running it in this way. It’s really poor. Why put so many barriers up? I almost feel I am being accused of lying.”
Philip Connolly, policy and development manager for Disability Rights UK, which runs the secretariat for the all-party group, said the meeting’s focus was on how disabled people “create wealth and opportunity for themselves and other people” and on looking at how government spending can influence that.
He said the government spent between £90 and £180 billion in direct support to the private sector every year, and it was important to ask how to ensure that reaches “disabled entrepreneurs starting businesses, running businesses and getting access to research and development grants so they can bring products and services to the market that will enable them and many others to work”.
A senior BIS civil servant, who was standing in for business and enterprise minister Anna Soubry – who had to cancel her attendance because of the crisis in the steel industry – said BIS had no specific schemes for disabled entrepreneurs, but did “try and monitor” how many disabled people took part in its programmes.
He said: “I take away a lot of messages that services are not consistent or good enough. We are trying to make sure services are fully accessible.
“You heard Lord Addington say sometimes processes lead you to a certain point and leave you stuck – that is clearly not good enough.”
He said it was clear that the government, the private sector and disability organisations needed to work together, but that the problems were “not going to be solved overnight”, and he committed BIS to “listen and to engage”.
He added: “On Access to Work I will take it back to the minister. I heard someone say if you don’t prove your business is viable in two years you are locked out of the scheme for five years.
“That is news to me. That is clearly something I would want to explore.”
14 April 2016
Former students of scandal-hit charity are still at home, four months on
Former pupils of the Royal School for Deaf Children Margate (RSDCM) have still not been found a suitable new school, more than four months after it closed.
The school was forced to close in December for financial reasons, after the care watchdog uncovered evidence that disabled young people at the neighbouring Westgate College for Deaf People, run by the same charity, had been exposed to “serious harm”.
The John Townsend Trust, which ran the college and the school, was placed into administration after the Care Quality Commission decided the trust’s leadership had failed to prevent “shocking examples of institutionalised failings and abuse” at the college, and forced it to close.
But four months after the closure, many of the children and young people from RSDCM and the college have still not been found new educational placements.
Many former pupils of the school are profoundly Deaf users of British Sign Language (BSL) and have additional support needs, and their parents say local authorities are unwilling to fund places in the few schools able to support them properly.
After last week’s story, in which the trust’s administrators claimed that the majority of former pupils had found new school placements, one parent, Kimberley Alexander, contacted Disability News Service (DNS) to dispute that claim.
She said: “Sadly the administrators, the trust, local authorities and government are covering up the sad fact that the majority of children and young people do not have suitable school places.
“Most are at home with no support and losing vital education.”
She said her 12-year-old daughter Sasha and other former RSDCM pupils funded by Kent County Council were still spending their days at home because of the council’s failure to fund suitable placements.
The only education Sasha is receiving is three sessions – totalling eight hours a week – that are run privately by former RSDCM staff, and which the family have to pay for themselves.
Even though Kimberley gave birth to her third child by caesarean on 22 December, the council refused for three months to provide them with any support, because of the family’s refusal to accept what they saw as an unsuitable placement in a local special school.
Eventually the council grudgingly provided three weeks of back-dated support through direct payments, she said, but only because the school the council wanted Sasha to attend would not have been ready to take her until 26 January.
The family have now found what they believe is a suitable school for Sasha to attend, in Brighton, but the council is refusing to fund it.
They believe that they and other parents will have to go to a tribunal to force their local authorities to fund suitable places for their children.
Kimberley said: “The council paid £75,000 a year at Margate, but the other school [which the council wants them to accept] will cost £40,000 a year.
“Just think how much they have saved in the last five months of her not being educated.
“It is always about money and that is what so frustrates me. No-one here says what is in the best interests of these children. The children are being treated horrendously.
“Personally I think Kent rubbed their hands together when the school shut, because they saved a hell of a lot of money.
“I am really, really angry and frustrated that they cannot look at the child and look at the best interests of the child rather than the best interests of the pocket of Kent County Council.”
She has joined with other families of former RSDCM pupils through Facebook to share their experiences and offer mutual support, and says many of them have had similar experiences, both with Kent and other local authorities.
Kent County Council said it had 14 pupils in the school at the time it closed, out of a total of about 55, and another six in the sixth form.
The council said it was still in discussion with “a handful” of families of former pupils, but would not say exactly how many, although it said “every child has either been offered a school place or we are arranging alternative provision”.
Alexander said she bumped into John Colyer QC, the retired judge who chaired the trust, at the school after its closure, and he told her that he had met with prime minister David Cameron and education secretary Nicky Morgan to discuss the plight of the trust’s former students.
She said: “I would love to sit round a table with parents and speak to David Cameron directly about how it is, and then he can sit there and tell us exactly why all the children cannot have the same education they had previously.”
A Kent County Council spokeswoman said it was “regrettable” that it had not been able to find a school place the family agreed with.
She said: “In cases where more than one school can meet needs, and where there would be no detrimental impact on the education of other children placed in the school, the council must then take into consideration the most efficient use of public resources.
“If parents disagree with the placement offered they are able to appeal to a tribunal for special educational needs and disability and we encourage them to do so.
“Once we were made aware of the imminent closure of the school in November 2015 we worked very quickly to ensure alternative arrangements were put in place for all children and young people in the school at the time of its closure.”
The council insisted that it had “acted swiftly to identify onward pathways for the children and young people receiving education at the school”, and sent DNS a list of 13 actions it had taken, such as collecting information on each pupil, making former trust staff aware of job opportunities, and securing funding of £120,000 for building adaptations at East Kent College so that some students could move there.
The spokeswoman added: “It is proud of what it has achieved in such a short time to secure appropriate provision that is resourced to the right standard to meet the needs of these unique learners.
“Whilst the council is rightly pleased with the swift and highly effective actions it has taken, it remains highly conscious of the need to finalise placements for all the learners who were previously at the [school and] college and this remains a priority.”
Another parent, Alison Moutiq, from Bedford, said her son, 17-year-old Aidan – who was living in school accommodation and being educated by the college at the time the trust went into administration – was also still at home without a new placement.
Aidan, who is both autistic and profoundly deaf, had been at RSDCM since he was seven.
She said that Bedford council had been “absolutely no use whatsoever”, and had refused to provide any home tuition for Aidan.
Aidan’s social worker requested a care package for the family, but the bid was turned down by the council.
The two placements suggested by the council would have been “considerably cheaper” than Margate, but neither would have been able to meet both his BSL and autism support needs, she said.
The family now hope the council will agree to fund a placement at a college run by Doncaster Deaf Trust, which would be more expensive than the council’s options.
Moutiq said: “I know I am going to have a fight and I am prepared to fight it to the nth degree.”
But she added: “I am articulate and educated, and not every parent is. They don’t have the tools to fight.”
A Bedford council spokeswoman said: “We find a suitable package for children we can support.
“Ridgeway School [one of the two placements suggested by the council] is well-renowned for providing excellent care and development opportunities to young people with autism.
“We also are able to offer support and packages through local post-16 providers, and we are working to resolve this case.”
A third parent contacted DNS this morning (14 April) to describe how her son, who was a service-user who lived in the trust’s accommodation, had been in “emergency respite” since the closure, with “no activities, no structure, no friends and the council charging him more than he gets in employment and support allowance for the privilege”.
She said that local authorities were using the closure of the school and college as an opportunity to place former pupils and students in cheaper settings.
Commenting on last week’s DNS story about the CQC investigation, she said: “We need a follow-up article on what has happened to all the traumatised students and young people who had to leave their school/college/home so suddenly and whose councils are callously using this disgraceful situation as an opportunity to save money.”
Some of the parents have been supported by The National Deaf Children’s Society.
Catriona Filmer, the charity’s deputy director of support and advice services, said: “We are aware of children and young people who are still without long-term placements, and we are supporting some of these families to try and resolve matters.
“Local authorities have a legal duty to provide education for these children and if a placement can’t be found they have to find alternative full-time provision.
“We are aware of many families who are only getting part-time home provision and this is having a knock-on effect on parents’ abilities to care for their child.
“We are very concerned as to what the longer term option may be for these children, as specialist provision is few and far between.”
A spokesman for the trust’s administrators said: “The assessment and placement procedures are a matter for each local authority to assess. The joint administrators are not privy to these.”
Both Number 10 and the Department for Education had failed to comment by noon today (14 April).
14 April 2016
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com