FoI reveals EHRC chair’s ‘conflict of interest’ over welfare reform inquiry

The equality watchdog’s new chair, who is set to lead an investigation into whether Tory welfare reforms breached disabled people’s human rights, worked for the government on key contracts at the heart of those reforms, Disability News Service can reveal.

David Isaac was appointed by the government to chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) earlier this year, despite concerns raised by two parliamentary committees over “serious potential conflict of interest” caused by his work as a partner of law firm Pinsent Masons.

He specialises at Pinsent Masons in providing advice on “major public and private sector UK and global commercial and outsourcing projects”, and his own profile on the firm’s website previously stated that he “leads teams of lawyers on major projects” for, among others, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), although the reference to DWP has since been removed.

But his appointment as EHRC’s new chair came as the watchdog announced that it was to investigate the human rights implications of DWP’s welfare reforms on disabled people.

Isaac, Pinsent Masons and DWP have previously refused to say which welfare reform projects he worked on for the government.

But DWP has now been forced to respond to a freedom of information (FoI) request that was submitted by Disability News Service (DNS) nearly five months ago, following pressure from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The freedom of information response shows that DWP projects Isaac led on included, from July 2013, providing “legal services” for terminating the contract of the much-criticised outsourcing firm Atos to provide work capability assessments (WCAs).

The controversial “fitness for work” test has been implicated in hundreds – and possibly thousands – of deaths of disabled people, and in causing significant harm and distress to tens of thousands of others.

Isaac’s team at Pinsent Masons was also involved in legal work surrounding the appointment of the outsourcing company that replaced Atos as the supplier of WCAs, the equally controversial US company Maximus.

And Pinsent Masons was involved in providing legal services in relation to “contracts with third party suppliers for the delivery of services” connected with personal independence payment (PIP), from November 2013.

PIP is gradually replacing working-age disability living allowance, and is again at the heart of the government’s plans to cut spending on disability benefits.

It is not clear what services these “third party suppliers” were delivering, but DWP has told DNS that they were not the main contracts to deliver PIP assessments, which had been awarded the previous year to Atos and fellow outsourcing giant Capita.

PIP has already seen tens of thousands of disabled people have their support cut or removed completely, while disabled activists have described the benefit as “rotten to the core”, and have pointed to growing evidence of the “shoddy nature” of PIP assessments.

DWP’s freedom of information response means that Isaac, through his work at Pinsent Masons, has been closely involved in two areas of the government’s welfare reforms that will be examined by the EHRC inquiry.

There are also existing 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 the government’s welfare reforms and cuts and will also play a leading role in the EHRC’s investigation.

An EHRC spokesman said in a statement: “This FoI request contains information relating to matters prior to David Isaac’s appointment as chair of the commission.

“The commission, the government, Pinsent Masons and David Isaac are entirely content that there is no conflict of interest and have robust procedures in place to avoid any possible or perceived conflicts of interest.

“David will not receive profit from work conducted by Pinsent Masons on behalf of government and he will not be involved in any aspect of advising government clients.

“David has already shown that he is a strong champion for disability rights.

“Tackling disability discrimination is one of his top priorities and he has robustly challenged government to raise its game and take more comprehensive action to improve the lives of disabled people so they can participate fully in society.

“This is why we believe that David will add important value to our forthcoming inquiry to examine issues related to disabled people and welfare reform, as he [does] to all our work.”

Harriet Harman, the Labour MP who chairs the joint committee on human rights, one of the two committees that raised concerns over Isaac’s appointment, said in a statement: “Thank you for drawing my attention to the FoI answer.

“The committee has nothing to add at this point but we will keep this issue under review.

“I would be grateful to be kept informed so that the committee has all the information necessary to continue to scrutinise the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.”

15 September 2016

 

 

ESA figures show ‘very disturbing’ drop in number placed in support group

“Very disturbing” new government figures show a steep fall in the proportion of disabled people being found eligible for out-of-work disability benefits.

Disabled campaigners fear the figures show the government is cutting spending on disability benefits “below the radar”, after being forced to abandon its attempts to reduce expenditure on personal independence payment (PIP) in April.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) statistics, released this week, show the proportion of disabled people applying for employment and support allowance (ESA) who were placed in the support group – for those with the highest barriers to work – plunged by 42 per cent in just three months.

For assessments completed during November 2015, 57 per cent of claimants were placed in the support group; but by February 2016 that had dropped by 24 percentage points to just 33 per cent.

During the same period, the proportion of applicants found “fit for work” – and therefore ineligible for ESA – rose from 35 to 49 per cent, while those placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) increased from 8 to 17 per cent.

Fresh cuts to disability benefits spending will see a loss of nearly £30 a week for new ESA claimants placed in the WRAG from April 2017.

Disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale, who wrote a well-received review in 2014 on the failure of the ESA system to increase the number of disabled people in paid work, said the new figures showed “a very worrying trend” which “suggests that the policy of cutting spending on disability benefits is continuing below the radar”.

She said the “sharp drop” in support group awards, combined with the planned WRAG cuts, “will see big reductions in ESA spending, especially from 2017”.

Hale said: “It seems that the government realised that it had exhausted public support for impoverishing disabled people when it lost the moral high ground in the PIP fiasco.

“But it seems to be continuing its austerity agenda via the back door, through unofficial targets.”

She added: “If the back to work programmes for the WRAG really were about removing barriers to the labour market and increasing employment prospects, disabled people wouldn’t fear it.

“Instead, evidence shows, the outlook for disabled people in the WRAG is extremely poor employment prospects, unjust sanctions, a culture of stigma and bullying, and from April 2017, severe financial hardship.”

Debbie Jolly, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “At DPAC we are getting lots of emails where people have gone from the support group to zero points [after being re-assessed], often when their conditions have worsened.

“The first people know of this can be an ‘invitation’ to attend a work-focused interview.

“The outcome of the assessment comes a day or two later in a cruel and heartless pattern, a pattern that seems to happen too often to be coincidence.

“As ever, we hear that the assessment report bears little reality to answers given at assessment.”

She said DWP was guilty of “complete brutality that is pushing people towards greater anxiety, pain and despair”, and suggested that it was “a formula [for] government to move more people into the WRAG in order to position people for £30 per week cuts”.

She added: “There needs to be an immediate and urgent inquiry on what is happening and why.”

Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser with Disability Rights UK, said: “The dramatic fall in the number of disabled people being placed in the support group is very disturbing.

“There has been no recent statutory change to the work capability assessment descriptor scheme.

“In addition, there has been no healthcare professional or decision-maker guidance publically issued by the DWP that would account for the fall in support group numbers.”

Butler is among campaigners and experts who believe the figures can be partly explained by a DWP decision to make it harder for an ESA applicant to qualify for the support group by arguing that any other decision would risk causing them “substantial harm”.

He said: “I suspect that the reduction is related to more restrictive assessment of whether someone meets the provisions of ESA regulation 35 (substantial risk to physical or mental health if found not to have a have a limited capability for work-related activity).

“Earlier this year the DWP was reported to be considering abolishing regulation 35.

“My concern is instead that it may effectively be trying to do the same thing by issuing ‘secret’ guidance to Maximus [which carries out WCAs on behalf of DWP] that restricts support group recommendations.”

The number of claimants placed in the ESA support group because of regulation 35 has seen a fall from 9,500, for claims that started in April 2015, to just 3,000 for claims that began in December 2015.

John McArdle, co-founder of the grassroots campaign network Black Triangle, which has played a significant role in raising awareness of the existence of regulation 35, said the figures showed the WCA system was “more lethal now than at any point since its introduction” in 2008.

He said the only way to address the problem was to persuade police that two former DWP ministers – former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and former employment minister Chris Grayling – should face a criminal investigation.

He and many other disabled activists – backed by Disability News Service – believe Duncan Smith and Grayling should be investigated for the Scottish offence of wilful neglect of duty by a public official, for their failure to address safety concerns with the WCA process, following a coroner’s written warning in 2010 that its flaws risked causing further deaths.

McArdle said: “The misery being inflicted on disabled people right now is immeasurable and it has to stop now before the body count skyrockets.”

Anita Bellows, a DPAC researcher, said the figures showed DWP had tightened the criteria around “substantial harm”, which makes it “almost impossible for a claimant to be placed into the support group” under regulation 35.

She said: “DWP shows as usual a complete disregard for the health and well-being of claimants and is only interested in reducing the claimant numbers and in savings, which have yet to materialise.”

Asked whether DWP was concerned by the support group figures, a DWP spokeswoman said: “The decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough independent assessment, and after consideration of all the supporting evidence from the claimant’s GP or medical specialist.

“A claimant who disagrees with the outcome of their assessment can ask for the decision to be reviewed.”

She added: “We expected the proportion of claimants placed in the support group to fall as the backlog of new claims reduced, due to fewer claims leaving the benefit before reaching their WCA.

“The proportion being placed in the support group may have fallen in the latest quarter but remains above levels seen in 2013.”

Asked if DWP had issued any new guidance to Maximus that might explain the drop, she said: “The department regularly reviews the guidance provided to healthcare professionals.

“The online version of the WCA Handbook is periodically reviewed and updated to incorporate all recent updates.”

Asked if the overall fall was connected with the drop in the number of claimants placed in the support group because of regulation 35, she said: “The guidance makes clear that if there is a substantial risk to a claimant’s mental health by being placed in the WRAG, they should be placed in the support group.

“Alongside the change in overall outcomes, there has been a fall in the proportion of assignments to the support group using the risk criteria — from 50 per cent of claims started in July-September 2015, to 41 per cent of assignments to the support group for claims started in October-December 2015.”

15 September 2016

 

 

Lib Dems ‘will scrap WCA, PIP 20 metre rule, bedroom tax and benefit cap’

The Liberal Democrats are set to call for the much-criticised “fitness for work” test to be scrapped, as part of a major shake-up of the party’s social security policy.

The annual party conference will next week debate a new policy paper that has been drawn up by a working group that included two of the party’s most prominent disabled activists.

If approved by conference, the paper will become official party policy.

As well as calling for the work capability assessment (WCA) to be replaced, the working group has recommended that a future Liberal Democrat government should abandon another of the coalition government’s most controversial policies.

The policy paper, Mending The Safety Net, says the party should reverse the decision to tighten the walking distance criteria for the upper rate of the mobility costs benefit from 50 metres – under disability living allowance – to 20 metres under its replacement, personal independence payment (PIP).

The policy paper also calls on the party to devolve the provision of employment support to local authorities, which would also be asked to deliver – or contract out – the eligibility test that replaces the WCA.

This replacement test would introduce a “real world” element into the assessment of eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits, so that it takes account of the community in which the disabled person lives and the local employment market.

The working group also calls for action on benefit sanctions so there is “greater scope for discretion with a stronger safety net to prevent sanctions causing extreme hardship”, and so that claimants who are sanctioned can appeal to a tribunal.

The paper also says that a Liberal Democrat government should scrap the benefit cap and the bedroom tax, two other highly-controversial policies that the party was associated with as part of the coalition government from 2010 to 2015, and that it should expand the Access to Work scheme.

Kelly-Marie Blundell, who was vice-chair of the working group and will be moving the motion at conference on Monday, is also vice-chair of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association, and has been selected to fight the marginal Lewes seat at the next general election.

She was joined on the working group by George Potter, who was another key critic of the impact of austerity policies on disabled people while the party was in coalition.

Blundell said the paper was the result of 18 months’ work, and builds on some of the papers written by her and other disability activists in the party, including Potter, since 2010.

She said the reversal of many of the coalition’s key social security policy was an admission that the party had had to “compromise” as the junior partner in government and was “a move back to good old, solid Lib Dem values where we don’t have to fight against the Tories all the time”.

On the WCA and the harm it has caused claimants, resulting in hundreds – and possibly thousands – of suicides and other deaths, as well as significant harm and distress to tens of thousands of other disabled people, she said that “where we localise it, we want to include huge attention to mental health, as that is such a major issue”.

She said: “What we want to do is address it [through] an approach that is really bespoke to the individual, and that will be helped greatly by being localised.”

Although a policy paper cannot include detail on implementation, she said the party would “do all that we could to make sure that it was as suitable as possible and reduced as many deaths as possible”.

But there could be concern over another of the paper’s policies, which would see the UK and Scottish governments introduce a system of unemployment insurance and income protection insurance, providing those who sign up with either a top-up to out-of-work benefits or a replacement that provides a more generous safety net if they lose their jobs.

This policy would see employers “either arranging company-wide insurance products for employees, as some employers already do, or auto-enrolling employees into such insurance products, with the option for employees to opt out”.

Many disabled activists are likely to be alarmed at the suggestion of expanding the role of providers of income protection policies, which have been blamed for undermining the system of out-of-work disability benefits.

Only this week, a new book by disabled activist Mo Stewart has detailed the influence of the US insurance giant Unum over successive UK governments, and how it led to the introduction of the “totally bogus” WCA, which she says was designed to make it harder for sick and disabled people to claim out-of-work disability benefits.

She warns in her book, Cash Not Care, that Unum has been pushing successive governments to undermine the social security system in order to boost the market for its own income protection policies.

But Blundell said: “The logic behind it is we have this ever-increasing welfare bill that is causing a lot of issues and there is a high number of people who end up unemployed for a very short period of time.

“The idea with an opt-out like this is that it protects people who are in that short time scenario, without further eating into what is becoming more and more limited government reserves.

“I can’t comment on individual companies delivering it, but the logic and methodology behind it isn’t dissimilar to the way the [government’s] new pensions scheme NEST works.

“The idea is that there would be multiple providers to give people the choice of what they opt into, so if one company has a bad reputation then we would hope that there would be other companies that people could go with instead.

“It’s not to undermine the [social security] system, it’s to take into account the changing nature of the world we live in [since the welfare state was devised] as much as anything.”

She said there had been no discussions with Unum by the working group.

The working group also calls for an expansion – with more emphasis on mental health – of the government’s discredited Two Ticks scheme, which recognises employers that say they are “positive about disabled people” but which has now been replaced by the equally discredited Disability Confident scheme.

Blundell said the same recommendations would apply to Disability Confident if it had replaced Two Ticks by 2020.

15 September 2016

 

 

McDonnell promises DPAC ‘a seat at the heart of government’

Disabled activists have been promised a seat “at the heart of government” if Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected as Labour leader and the party wins power at the next election.

The pledge was made by shadow chancellor John McDonnell at an international disability rights conference hosted by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), the final event in its Rights Not Games week of action.

McDonnell, who made repeated references to the need to co-produce policies with disabled people during his speech, told the conference in London that it would be vital to ensure that disabled people were represented “at every level of decision-making”.

He added: “That will mean bringing organisations like DPAC and others into government to advise us on the development of policy so you will be at the heart of government, sitting alongside ministers and others, advising them on how to implement these policies.”

And he promised that DPAC would also have “a fundamental role in advising us on the policies that need to be developed” by Labour in preparation for government.

He added: “You will be advising us on what priorities there are when we go back into government… for those people who say that this country can’t afford a decent living for disabled people we have got to challenge that as well.”

He said there would need to be legislation that ensured disabled people had “a right to an income upon which they can have a decent quality of life, a right to the appropriate accommodation, a right to access to work when they feel it is appropriate [and] a right not to be discriminated against”.

He said: “The levels of hate crime against disabled people have been a disgrace to be frank over recent years so we want to be sure that in legislation, in law, we have all those rights established very clearly.”

He also pledged that a Labour government would act to ensure those rights could be enforced, for example by reversing cuts to legal aid and removing charges for taking workplace discrimination cases at employment tribunals, while also improving access to free legal advice.

McDonnell said Labour was in the “first stages” of a discussion of whether some form of basic income – a flat-rate benefit paid to everyone, and otherwise known as unconditional basic income or universal basic income – could be introduced to replace most of the social security system, and was awaiting the outcome of pilot experiments taking place across Europe.

He said: “Any benefits system or any form of basic income will only work if it is designed by the people who use it.

“We won’t move forward on that without your involvement in how we design the system.”

Action on replacing support that was cut by the Conservatives in government would be funded through “a fair and just taxation system”, which he said meant tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance.

He warned that if a Corbyn government was elected, it would need organisations like DPAC to defend it from attacks “from the establishment that will do all it can to retain its wealth, its resources, and its power, to prevent the redistribution of that wealth and that power right the way across society”.

McDonnell repeatedly praised the work of DPAC, which was founded in the autumn of 2010, following the anti-austerity protests that took place outside the Conservative party conference in Birmingham.

He said disabled people had previously been represented largely by organisations that approached government “with a begging bowl approach”, whereas DPAC was “an organisation that said, ‘We are not coming here to beg, we are not coming here as supplicants, we are coming here as citizens to demand our rights’”.

He also praised DPAC’s frequent use of direct action, which he said had been “incredibly successful” in “raising the level of awareness” and showing that disabled people “aren’t going to take it anymore”.

McDonnell said he believed the government would not have been forced into retreats on policies such as further cuts to personal independence payment if it had not been for the direct action protests that had taken place.

He said: “They thought they could focus the cuts and austerity measures on those people they thought couldn’t fight back, in particular disabled people.

“They now know as a result of what you’ve done that disabled people aren’t taking it anymore; they are going to fight back and they will support the election of a government whose policies will be designed by disabled people, implemented by disabled people, on behalf of disabled people and at the end of the day protected by disabled people.”

He also pledged that a future Labour government under Corbyn would work with DPAC to “establish the wider disability movement right the way across Europe and across the globe, and resource it effectively”.

15 September 2016

 

 

Grammar school plans ‘ignore impact on disabled pupils’

The government failed to take any account of the impact on disabled pupils of its “discriminatory” plans to expand grammar schools in England, say campaigners.

A government consultation paper published this week, Schools That Work For Everyone, includes plans to remove the ban on opening new grammar schools in England.

But there is not a single mention of disabled pupils in the consultation paper, and the Department for Education (DfE) has failed to carry out an equality impact assessment of its proposals.

Inclusive education campaigners say that expanding grammar schools – secondary schools which select pupils via an entrance test – will discriminate against disabled children and lead to more segregated education in special schools.

And they say the plans are a clear breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with new UN guidance making it clear that all segregated education should end and be replaced by “inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate supports”.

There are currently 163 grammar schools in England, educating about five per cent of state secondary pupils, while 10 local authorities have wholly selective education systems and another 26 have one or more grammar schools in their area.

Laws currently ban any new selective schools and prevent existing non-selective schools from becoming selective, but prime minister Theresa May – and education secretary Justine Greening – want to expand existing grammar schools, create new selective schools and allow non-selective schools to become selective.

They say this will only be allowed if “action to expand existing selective schools or establish new selective schools is accompanied at the same time by support to ensure good quality non-selective places locally”.

But The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) said the policy of increasing selective schools, and the consultation paper itself, discriminate against disabled children.

It highlighted DfE’s failure to carry out an assessment of the impact of the policy on disabled children and other groups protected under the Equality Act 2010.

ALLFIE said the consultation paper was “an onslaught on disabled children and young people’s social mobility, and on their parents’ rights to choose a good mainstream school placement”.

Simone Aspis, ALLFIE’s policy and campaigns coordinator, said the consultation paper was “obviously discriminatory”.

She said: “They obviously have not thought about what the implications are for disabled children.

“For disabled children and their families, it means less choice and more segregation.

“What will happen is more and more disabled children are going to be forced into segregated education provision.”

ALLFIE pointed out that disabled children with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) or statements of special educational needs represent only 0.1 per cent of grammar school pupils, despite making up 1.8 per cent of the secondary school population.

And disabled children without statements or EHCPs make up only 4.2 per cent of grammar school pupils, but 12.4 per cent of all secondary school pupils.

ALLFIE said the government’s existing education policies over the last six years had led to a steady increase in the number of disabled children being educated in special schools.

Aspis said: “If mainstream schools become selective, where will disabled children go?

“They will have no choice other than to attend a special school against their own and their parents’ wishes, which is scandalous, especially if the prime minister talks about creating one nation.

“This government has ratified the United Nations Convention on Persons with Disabilities, including article 24 that makes it clear that disabled children’s access to mainstream education is a human right and that an education system that separates and segregates disabled children is a violation of their right to mainstream education.”

When a DfE spokesman was asked by Disability News Service about the failure to mention disabled pupils in the consultation paper, he said: “The top line is schools that work for everyone, that’s the point. When we talk about everyone we [mean] everyone.”

He refused to answer a series of questions about the alleged discriminatory nature of the consultation paper, why DfE had failed to carry out an equality impact assessment, and whether the policy would lead to greater segregation of disabled pupils in special schools.

Instead, he said the consultation paper “looks at how every child should have access to a good education. As such, that should be understood to include those with special educational needs and disabilities.”

He added in a statement: “Every child, regardless of background or ability, should have access to an excellent education.

“We know that grammar schools provide a good education for their disadvantaged pupils and we want more pupils from lower income backgrounds to benefit from that.

“Our proposals will ensure that any new and existing selective schools will prioritise the admission of disadvantaged pupils and that they support other local pupils in non-selective schools to help drive up educational outcomes.

“As set out in the consultation document, we are clear that relaxing restrictions on selective education can and should be to the betterment, not at the expense, of other local schools.”

15 September 2016

 

 

Premier League clubs ‘will break access pledge’ despite billion pound transfer spree

Football’s Premier League will break a pledge that all of its stadiums would be accessible to disabled football fans by next August, despite its clubs spending more than a billion pounds on player transfers this summer.

The Premier League, the governing body for the top 20 club sides in England and Wales, delivered a high-profile pledge last year that every one of its members would meet strict access standards by August 2017.

But peers heard last week that seven Premier League clubs were set to break the pledge to meet standards laid out in guidance 12 years ago in The Accessible Stadia Guide (ASG).

ASG includes guidelines on car parking, accessible information, the minimum number of wheelchair spaces for spectators, location of viewing areas for disabled supporters, and staff training.

And today (Thursday), the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) revealed that the Premier League had acknowledged in meetings that many clubs would miss the August deadline.

Lord [Chris] Holmes, EHRC’s disability commissioner and himself a retired Paralympian, said: “All clubs agreed to make the minimum recommended improvements for disabled fans over two years.

“We are now at half-time, and for many teams, the performance is simply unacceptable.

“Football teams are legally obliged under the Equality Act to ensure disabled fans are not disadvantaged.

“Where it is found that little or no progress has been made toward improving accessibility, we will consider using all our strong legal powers to ensure compliance; all options are on the table.

“We will be writing to each club to ensure they do not go back on their commitment given last year, and we will be receiving a report every six months from the Premier League on progress being made.”

He added: “The English Premier League is the richest league in the world; in a year when club signings are reaching stratospheric levels, Premiership clubs simply cannot continue to leave disabled fans by the sidelines.”

Joyce Cook, chair of the disabled supporters’ charity Level Playing Field, said there had been improvements by some clubs.

She said: “Just like last season on the pitch, champions Leicester City are leading the way, while many other teams such as Manchester United have shown clear commitment towards reaching the ASG standards of accessibility by next year.”

But she told Disability News Service (DNS): “It is quite simply time for Premier League clubs to do the right thing by its disabled fans.

“You made us a promise and we are now counting on you to stay true to your words.

“All we want is the right to follow the game we love – surely that is not too much to ask of some of the richest clubs in the world.”

The Premier League’s promise to act on access – following a series of embarrassing media reports into the discrimination faced by disabled supporters – was welcomed last year as a “huge achievement” by the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson.

The Premier League also promised to deliver a progress report to the government by July this year.

But Home Office minister Baroness Williams admitted last week that the government was “disappointed” by the progress report it had now received from the Premier League and would be asking for “a far more detailed report, giving a club-by-club breakdown”.

Tomlinson, who has since been sacked, had promised that the government would publish the report.

This week, nearly two months after the report was sent to his successor, Penny Mordaunt, the Department for Work and Pensions said it did not yet have a publication date and “can’t yet comment on the contents”.

The Labour peer Lord Faulkner, LPF vice-president, has led parliamentary efforts to improve access to sporting events.

He said he had been told that the progress report “says very little and contains no detail about the real progress at each club”.

He told fellow peers last week: “The excuses being put forward by clubs as to why they will not meet this are, frankly, unacceptable.”

He was particularly critical of three Premier League clubs: Liverpool, Watford and Crystal Palace.

Last weekend, Liverpool opened its new main stand, which it says is “one of the largest all seater single stands in European football” and features “premium facilities for fans inside the stand”.

But Lord Faulkner said the club “seems far more interested in providing general hospitality places than in installing sufficient disabled fans’ seats to comply with football’s own minimum standards”.

He said Watford “seems to be removing disabled fans’ seats at a time when we should be seeing an increase”, while Crystal Palace “believes that it needs only to come up with a plan by August 2017”, rather than comply with the access guidelines.

He said: “It is more than 20 years since the introduction of [the Disability Discrimination Act]: it is law that they are required to provide that accommodation, and it is disgraceful that they have not done so.”

And he said it was “clear that the Premier League appears to have no intention to penalise or sanction clubs that do not meet the pledge”.

Cook said today that some of the most “shocking” concerns were around the availability of wheelchair-accessible seating at West Ham United, even though the club has this season moved into the stadium which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies, and athletics, at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and was widely-praised at the time for its access.

She added: “With the Paralympic Games taking place currently in Rio, how can we talk of the positive legacy of London 2012 for disabled people in the UK when even the Olympic Stadium will no longer be fully accessible? It truly beggars belief.”

A Premier League spokesman told DNS that the report it sent to the government “gave a general progress update without naming individual clubs”.

He said: “We are not currently able to say what the situation will be in 11 months’ time.

“Clubs are aware of the commitments they made and are working hard to improve disabled access in a variety of ways.

“Clubs are working hard to improve their disabled access provisions at stadia and will continue to do so in the coming months and years.”

When asked whether the Premier League would punish clubs that did not meet the pledge, he said: “We are not able to second guess what the position will be in August 2017.

“Each club’s situation will be carefully considered at that time.”

A spokesman for Watford said: “Watford Football Club is very confident in its ability to be fully compliant with the Accessible Stadia Guide by August 2017.

“The club has worked and continues to work very hard to ensure that its stadium facilities can be enjoyed by all supporters visiting Vicarage Road.

“We are fully focused upon delivering our part of the Premier League’s public commitment.”

A Crystal Palace spokeswoman said: “Crystal Palace Football Club are fully aware of their obligations to meet the requirements of the Accessible Stadia Guide (ASG) and the deadline of August 2017.

“The club has met with architects, is working diligently on all aspects of the ASG and will continue to do so over the coming months.

“We have recently appointed a disability liaison officer who is maintaining regular contact with [the club’s disabled supporters’ association] and Level Playing Field and will work closely with them on this matter.”

West Ham United and Liverpool had not commented by 11am today (15 September).

15 September 2016

 

 

Minister ‘misled peers’ over EHRC’s request to run equality helpline

A minister is facing accusations that she misled the House of Lords over the government’s “devastating” decision to allow a security firm with “an appalling history of abuse and mismanagement” to run the national equality advice helpline.

The Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) was set up in October 2012 to replace the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) own helpline, and the government has now handed the contract to G4S.

But a report by the House of Lords Equality Act 2010 and disability committee in March concluded that EASS – currently run by the outsourcing giant Sitel – should be returned to the EHRC, “either in-house or as the contract managers for a tendered-out service”, a conclusion that was strongly supported by the EHRC.

Despite that support, the government’s response to the report claimed the EHRC “did not express an interest” in taking the service in-house.

In last week’s Lords debate on the report, the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell said that government claims that the EHRC did not want to bring the service back in-house were “not true”.

She said: “The EHRC flatly refutes this, saying it strongly supports our recommendation, and made clear to the government its concerns about EASS, and its desire to take back responsibility or at least greater control.”

But when the Conservative Home Office minister Baroness Williams responded to the debate, she claimed that the EHRC “did not bid to operate the helpline itself, nor did it propose operating it in discussions with the [Government Equalities Office]”.

Asked this week why Baroness Williams appeared to have misled peers, and whether she would be apologising to the House of Lords, a government spokesman refused to answer the question.

Instead, he issued a statement claiming there had been “an open and competitive tender process, amongst providers who had expertise in running a helpline”, and that G4S had “offered the most cost efficient tender”.

An EHRC spokesman confirmed that the commission had asked the government to bring EASS back in-house.

He said: “We wanted responsibility for running the service and we have been clear to government on that.

“We have been very clear that we wanted responsibility for running the service, whether in-house or managing the service.”

Baroness Campbell told peers last week that when the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), for which she was a commissioner, ran its own helpline, it was “one of the DRC’s prime assets, enabling it to monitor the kind of problems disabled people were experiencing”, while some of its key legal cases “started with a call to the helpline”.

She said: “The new contract has now been awarded to G4S, which is devastating news.

“It beggars belief that a company with such an appalling history of abuse and mismanagement could have been appointed to provide such an important and sensitive service.”

A petition calling on the government to reverse its decision to hand the service to G4S and allow EHRC to run it instead has so far attracted more than 60,000 signatures.

And more than 40 disability, equality and human rights organisations – including Inclusion London, Equal Lives, Liberty and Sisters of Frida – have written to the parliamentary chairs of the joint committee on human rights and the Commons women and equalities committee to express their “profound concern” at the award of the contract to G4S, which they said had “earned a reputation for serious, systemic mismanagement and discrimination”.

Their letter calls for “a parliamentary investigation into both the tendering process and the suitability of G4S to deliver this vital service”.

Last July, the Government Equalities Office published a memo which showed that, of all the enquiries made to EASS, 62 per cent related to disability.

Of roughly 2,200 enquiries a month made to EASS since 2012 – the memo revealed – 24 per cent were about a failure to make a reasonable adjustment for a disabled person.

15 September 2016

 

 

Disabled researcher’s book exposes ‘corporate demolition of welfare state’

A string of activists, academics, politicians and journalists have welcomed the publication of a new book by a disabled researcher which exposes how successive governments have planned the “demolition of the welfare state”.

Mo Stewart has spent eight years researching the influence of the US insurance giant Unum over successive UK governments, and how it led to the introduction of the “totally bogus” work capability assessment (WCA), which she says was designed to make it harder for sick and disabled people to claim out-of-work disability benefits.

Stewart’s book, Cash Not Care: The Planned Demolition Of The UK Welfare State, published this week, argues that the assessment was modelled on methods used by Unum to deny protection to sick and disabled people in the US who had taken out income protection policies.

She says in her book that the WCA was “designed to remove as many as possible from access to [employment and support allowance] on route to the demolition of the welfare state”, with out-of-work disability benefits eventually to be replaced by insurance policies provided by companies like Unum.

She warns that the UK is now close to adopting that kind of US-style model.

Stewart is a former healthcare professional and a female veteran and self-funded her six years of research, which has been repeatedly referenced in parliamentary debates, and has been highlighted by Disability News Service (DNS) for nearly five years.

She describes in her book how Peter Lilley, secretary of state for social security in John Major’s Conservative government, hired senior Unum executive John LoCascio to advise the UK government on how to cut the number of claimants of long-term sickness benefits.

She says that Mansel Aylward, the chief medical adviser in Lilley’s department – which was later to be renamed the Department for Work and Pensions – went on to co-author an academic paper with LoCascio in 1995 which argued that GPs should be side-lined from advising on claimants’ fitness for work.

Both Aylward and LoCascio went on to contribute to a conference held at Woodstock, near Oxford, in November 2001, which examined so-called “malingering and illness deception”.

The conference papers were later published, says Stewart, and argued that “malingering” was a lifestyle choice for many claimants of long-term sickness benefits.

She argues in the book that the conference was hugely influential in pushing the idea that claimants of out-of-work disability benefits were “guilty until proven innocent, regardless of diagnosis or prognosis” and provided “justification for the future demolition of the welfare state”.

She adds: “There was no evidence of the presumed mass ‘malingering’ of course, but that suggestion was enough to introduce American designed government funded medical tyranny into the UK.”

Stewart told DNS: “My last research report was published in January 2015 and then friends suggested that perhaps I could write a book, which would combine the results of the years of research into a detailed text.

“I started the research back in 2008 when I’d had a bogus WCA from a staff member from Atos Healthcare, when I’d been expecting a review of my war pension, which is unrelated to out-of-work benefits.

“By 2009 I realised that the evidence I was discovering about the WCA would benefit other disabled people, and I began sharing the research evidence with disabled people’s organisations.”

She added: “I hope the research will offer sick and disabled people more ammunition to challenge their bogus WCAs, that people will alert their MPs to the overwhelming evidence that the WCA is dangerous and should be stopped, and that academics will pursue this research further.

“To date, I’ve had seven requests by PhD students to quote from my reports in their research, so the evidence is slowly spreading when the UK national press will not touch it.”

Those praising her years’ of research include Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission; Professor Danny Dorling, author and Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford; Guardian journalist and author Mary O’Hara; and Dame Anne Begg, former chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee.

Another to praise her work is Debbie Jolly, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, who says in the book that Stewart’s “groundbreaking and tenacious research has led the way in exposing the destructive force of the corporate state on the concept of welfare” and has “traced the twists and turns of the devious tricks played on the British public”.

Jolly adds: “It has exposed the duplicity, harm and abuse these actions have caused to disabled people with the courage of truth.”

Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the service-user network Shaping Our Lives, says in a foreword to the book that Stewart’s research exposes “the realities behind the populist rhetoric of ‘welfare reform’”.

He says that it shows “the hidden, often dubious relationships between policymakers and international corporations; the questionable independence of supposedly neutral ‘experts’ and most of all the scale and severity of the suffering of innumerable disabled people, in some cases resulting in their deaths”.

Cash Not Care is published by New Generation Publishing and is available from Amazon, including via Kindle, and from Waterstones and other book stores

15 September 2016

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com