Disabled students accuse leading university of institutional failings on discrimination

A world-renowned university is facing claims of “institutional failings”, after an investigation by its own disabled students into allegations of disability discrimination.

The Disabled Students’ Network (DSN) of University College London (UCL) is set to publish a report next week which accuses the university of repeatedly failing to make reasonable adjustments for its disabled students and overcharging them for their accessible accommodation.

The report – which has been welcomed by UCL – includes results from a survey of disabled UCL students, which found two-thirds of them (67 per cent) had experienced disablism by UCL and about three-fifths (58 per cent) said they had been made to feel unwelcome by the university because of their impairments.

Last year, UCL was ranked as the world’s eighth best university, as well as the third best in the UK and the fourth best in Europe.

The survey was carried out in November and December 2019 after DSN was approached by several disabled students with “worrying reports of their treatment” by the university.

Many disabled students told DSN they had experienced a deterioration in their health and had thought about quitting their course, as a result of the treatment they had received.

The report says the testimonies collected by DSN “indicate that the average disabled student’s experience at UCL is likely to include being expected to study in spaces that are not accessible to them, encountering ignorant or offensive statements about disabled people from an academic or administrative staff member, not being informed or being misled about their rights” and having to “spend a significant amount of time chasing after a reasonable adjustment and either having it be denied or significantly delayed”.

The reasonable adjustments that have been refused include requests to secure recordings of lectures and applications for extra time for exams.

The report – Disability Discrimination Faced by UCL Students – says DSN was able last term “to ensure that several students, after months without support, finally receive the reasonable adjustments that the law states should be in place when they start their education”.

It adds: “Without our work several of them would have had to terminate their studies.

“At the same time our work has no power to give these students back the first months of their studies.

“Nor are we able to advocate for students who do not know their rights because they do not come to us when they have issues.”

DSN says it hopes the report will achieve “change on an institutional scale and not just individual victories”.

One disabled student told DSN: “The amount of explaining yourself and how much you have to prove how you are being affected by things can make you feel like you are being treated as though you don’t have a disability.

“Like having to explain that autism is permanent and affects you physically, mentally and emotionally over and over again and that all autistic students are different from each other.”

Another said: “Throughout my whole university experience I’ve felt unwelcome and unheard.

“Whenever I would bring up my situation to my examinations officer he would advise me to either drop out or simply get on with it.”

A third student said: “When my mental and physical health worsened last year, I felt that I needed to take some sick-leave.

“Unfortunately, my supervisor and course organiser did not feel that this was in my best interests, and repeatedly discouraged me from applying for leave, or even seeking external advice on this matter.”

Another told DSN: “Access needs are not being met at all at UCL. I cannot get into and out of any classroom or lecture theatre within UCL’s Institute of Education independently – thus surely failing to meet the legal requirements outlaid within the 2010 Equality Act, entirely.”

One student said: “Because I feel so unwelcome here compared to my last institution I’ve thought about dropping out many times.

“Since the lack of support caused my illness to flare up I might not have a choice.”

Michelle Daley, interim director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), pointed to an ombudsman’s ruling on Richmond council’s failure to support disabled children, published this week (see separate story), and an ALLFIE report on the failure of schools to be fully inclusive for disabled pupils, due to be published next week.

She said: “It’s just the start of the year and already we are starting to see these failures in disabled people’s education.

“It’s scary to think what the rest of the year might be like.”

Among the report’s recommendations, DSN calls for: a new team of trained staff to address the issues raised by its report; disability equality training for staff running UCL’s facilities; all broken lifts to be fixed; a map of toilets on the university’s campuses in central and east London; training for all heads of department by a disability consultancy; regular surveys of disabled students’ experiences; a more streamlined complaints process; and efforts by UCL to inform disabled students of their rights.

DSN also wants the university to set up a system that will ensure that all students who disclose they are disabled when they apply for a place can set up a “summary of reasonable adjustments” before they begin their studies; and for all lecturers to be told they can no longer refuse requests to record their lectures without providing equally good alternatives.

And it wants the university to contact all disabled students with information about overcharging for accessible accommodation and how they can secure reductions in their rent.

UCL welcomed the report and said it would “take seriously all issues raised” and “implement any necessary improvements to ensure its policies and practices meet best practice and that teaching, learning and student life at UCL are inclusive and accessible”.

A UCL spokesperson said: “We are committed to fostering a welcoming and caring environment for all of our students.

“Ensuring excellent student experience and academic outcomes for all disabled students is an absolute priority for us.

“The wellbeing of disabled students at UCL is of utmost importance and we will be working with the group to make sure their concerns are addressed and the best possible support is in place.”

16 January 2020

 

Expert links DWP ‘fitness to work’ decision to death of Jodey Whiting

The sudden decision by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to remove a disabled woman’s benefits probably had a substantial impact on her mental health immediately before she took her own life, a leading consultant psychiatrist has concluded.

A report by psychiatrist Dr Trevor Turner* says Jodey Whiting’s mental state was likely to have been “substantially affected” by DWP’s decision to remove her out-of-work benefits for missing a work capability assessment she did not know about.

The report’s conclusions are believed to be one of the few times that a medical expert has drawn clear links between a DWP decision to withdraw benefits from someone with mental distress and their decision to take their own life.

The report details Whiting’s long history of mental distress, and concludes that, on the balance of probabilities, she would have “experienced distress and shock at the withdrawal of her welfare benefits, given her ongoing difficulties, isolation and pain”.

It also highlights DWP’s failure to implement measures it had put in place to protect people in vulnerable situations, which were confirmed by an Independent Case Examiner (ICE) investigation last year.

The report says: “On the balance of probabilities… I consider that there was likely to have been a causal link between the DWP failings outlined in the enclosed ICE report and Jodey’s state of mind immediately before her death.”

Dr Turner concludes that, on the balance of probabilities, “it is likely that her mental state at the time of her death would have been substantially affected by the reported DWP failings”.

The report was prepared as part of an application to the attorney general by Whiting’s family, who are seeking permission to ask the courts to order a second inquest into her death.

Whiting took her own life on 21 February 2017, 15 days after she had her out-of-work disability benefits mistakenly stopped for missing a work capability assessment.

ICE concluded last year that DWP was guilty of “multiple” and “significant” failings in handling her case.

But her inquest, in May 2017, lasted less than an hour and failed to investigate DWP’s potential role in her death.

Disability News Service has been given permission to view Dr Turner’s report by Whiting’s mother, Joy Dove, and her legal team at Leigh Day solicitors, on the understanding that sensitive personal information is not published.

Dr Turner’s conclusion that DWP’s failings probably contributed to her mental distress at the time she took her own life is likely to be challenged by DWP if the case reaches court, but it could be helpful to the families of other disabled people who have taken their own lives following the withdrawal of their benefits, and who are also fighting for justice.

Leigh Day stressed that the findings in Dr Turner’s report would only be directly relevant to another case if that person had a similar impairment, support needs and circumstances to Jodey Whiting.

The report is also likely to add weight to growing demands for an independent inquiry into links between DWP’s failings and the deaths of disabled claimants.

DWP has previously refused to comment on the family’s application for permission to seek a second inquest, but it has referred to previous statements on the case, which can be accessed by searching on the DNS website for “Jodey Whiting”.

Dr Turner has lectured and written widely on mental health, has been a clinical adviser to many independent inquiries, is a former vice-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and was clinical director of East London and the City Mental Health NHS Trust from 1999 to 2007

16 January 2020

 

Anger after new business charges £100 to record benefit assessments

A new business that charges benefit claimants £100 to record their disability assessments has been accused of exploiting disabled people’s fears about social security reforms.

Disability News Service (DNS) was contacted this week by the Liverpool-based business, which says it provides “professional” recordings of face-to-face assessments.

In its marketing material it offers to record “PIP and work capability assessments” as well as “DLA and ESA assessments” and warns disabled people not to risk undergoing their assessments without recording them, and not to trust the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Former sound technician Alan Davies, who runs The Truth Recordings, denies exploiting disabled benefit claimants, and has told DNS that he is just offering a service and that people are under no obligation to use his service.

He said: “It’s easy to point the finger. Do I want to make a living from it? Yes, I do. I’m not going to do it for free.

“If you had a plumber coming to fix your pipes: £80 call out. You can say, ‘what’s that about?’ but whether you’re able or disabled, that’s the price.

“We could all pull a face about it but that’s the price and that guy is making a living and that’s how I’m making a living, and the world turns.

“We could all pick holes in everything, couldn’t we, if that service is there and you have got to pay for it and you don’t like it…”

He told DNS he charges £100 per booking for a morning or afternoon slot, which includes his time spent setting up the equipment, waiting for the assessment to be completed, and packing up the equipment and producing the recordings at the end.

Davies says an assessment can last 90 minutes, so a single job can take as long as three hours.

He says the idea for the business came because of a disabled relative who had a “bad experience” at a personal independence payment (PIP) assessment.

He has recently been spreading the word about his new service to local solicitors, Citizens Advice and “Disability Services”.

He told DNS yesterday that providing a recording was a “game changer” for claimants and that assessment providers ensure they have “the best man on the job” if they know an assessment is going to be recorded.

He has three second-hand NEAL 5000 recorders, which he says can each provide two identical copies of a recording of an assessment, as required by DWP.

He said: “I understand £100 is a lot of money but also it is someone’s time. I have got to pay wages.

“I’m not cashing in on somebody else’s problem but it is their problem and it is a service and I have to pay for my time, or somebody else’s time, and I have to pay for travelling.”

Davies says the number of assessments he and a colleague who works for him have recorded so far is “in the 20s” over the seven or eight months they have been offering the service in the Liverpool area.

Most of them, he claims, have been commissioned by solicitors acting for claimants who have had bad experiences in the past with their assessments.

But disabled activists have pointed out that the Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, Dan Carden, has bought recording equipment of his own so that disabled people can borrow it free of charge to record their PIP assessments*.

In October, grassroots activists from Disabled People Against Cuts Sheffield (DPAC Sheffield) responded to the government’s continuing failure to deal with the dishonesty and inaccuracy of the PIP process by launching a scheme to help more disabled people record their own assessments.

The scheme saw DPAC Sheffield launch a fundraising campaign to pay for recording kits at £105 a time – which has so far raised more than £900 – so other organisations can lend them to disabled people without charge to record their PIP assessment to the necessary technical specifications demanded by DWP.

The grassroots groups Recovery In The Bin and national DPAC are also building a map of locations where equipment is available, including the kit being loaned out by DPAC Sheffield.

The business start-up in Liverpool appears to be an attempt to profit from these efforts and disabled people’s concerns about the honesty of the healthcare professionals carrying out assessments for government contractors Atos, Capita and Maximus.

Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts (MDPAC), which was the first grassroots group to provide recording kits free of charge, three years ago, said it was “appalled at this exploitative profiteering” by The Truth Recordings.

An MDPAC spokesperson said: “For £100, people can make their own kit and then help others.

“The disabled people’s movement is built on solidarity, supporting each other.

“Those seeking to profit from DWP, Atos, Capita, and Maximus abuse cannot be considered part of our movement.

“We advise people to create their own recording kits and notify us so they can be listed on the website so others may borrow it, for free.”

A DPAC Sheffield spokesperson added: “DPAC Sheffield are outraged and disgusted by news that a so-called ‘new start up business’ in Liverpool is cynically charging claimants £100 a time to use recording kit which is already available for free in the city!

“We will fight such cynical and disgraceful exploitation of disabled people’s fears.”

The spokesperson added: “It’s not about ‘doing it for free’, it’s about showing support and solidarity to each other at a time of need.

“We’re proud to have campaigned on this project with MDPAC and to ensure that disabled people facing the harrowing PIP process are as well supported as possible without being charged a single penny wherever our ‘On The Record’ kits are in place.

“New locations are being added each week at the moment so there’s really no need to take money off people. We absolutely cannot condone anyone doing that.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “People applying for employment and support allowance (ESA) or the sickness component of universal credit (UC) can request that their assessment is recorded.

“PIP assessments can also be audio recorded, with equipment provided by the claimant, however claimants should inform the assessment provider in advance that they wish to do so.”

DWP is still considering the findings of a trial of video-recording PIP assessments as well as other options for how best to improve “trust and transparency”.

Acceptable formats for recording PIP assessments include CD and audio cassette, but they must produce two simultaneous copies of the assessment, says DWP.

DWP says it does not carry out face-to-face assessments for disability living allowance (DLA).

DNS spent months investigating allegations of dishonesty by PIP assessors in late 2016 and throughout 2017, hearing eventually from more than 250 disabled people in less than a year about how they had been unfairly deprived of their benefits.

These reports of dishonesty have persuaded many claimants that they should record their face-to-face assessments, but the government has refused so far to fulfil its pledge to make recording PIP assessments “a standard part of the process”.

It continues to hear from disabled people who describe how healthcare professionals lied about what they had been told when writing assessment reports.

*Anyone who would like to borrow Dan Carden’s recording equipment for a PIP assessment can contact his office in Liverpool, via email at dan.carden.mp@parliament.uk or by phoning 0151 284 1160

16 January 2020

 

Scope accused of ‘exploitation’ after seeking disabled writer to work for free

A disability charity has been accused of “exploitative” and “disgraceful” behaviour after asking disabled journalists to write an article for its website without payment.

The charity Scope sent out a message on social media this week seeking a “disability blogger” who could write an article about sex and relationships on a “voluntary” basis for its online disability forum.

The request caused anger among a string of disabled writers, who reminded the charity that disabled journalists were often “devalued” and exploited and asked to provide free content.

Natasha Hirst, the disabled members’ representative on the national executive committee of the National Union of Journalists, told Disability News Service (DNS): “Disabled journalists are often expected to provide free content.

“This is a common problem for freelancers but disabled journalists especially are devalued and this needs to be challenged.

“The National Union of Journalists firmly believes that if work is worth publishing, it is worth paying for.

“We would hope that Scope, as a disability charity, seeks to change their approach going forward and pay disabled contributors if they are commissioning pieces of work.”

Writer and film-maker Richard Butchins said: “Unfortunately it’s not at all unusual for corporate organisations to blag free written content, on the grounds it’s good exposure for the writer.

“If they really want a writer they should be prepared to pay. This is just a way for them to get free content they don’t care about.

“It makes them look caring and inclusive while the actual work is carried out by some disabled person in a dark cellar full of words.

“If they want content, especially from disabled writers, then it should be paid for.”

Another disabled writer, Eleanor Lisney, told DNS that Scope “milks disabled people for all it can”, both as objects of pity to secure donations and also as free labour, and on this occasion “by expecting us to produce stories as ‘peer to peer’ support” without payment.

Journalist and access and inclusion expert Mik Scarlet said on Twitter: “You’d think that any charity that campaigns to get disabled people into work could hire them and pay freelancers. Devaluing our input doesn’t look good or sit well.”

Writer Sasha Saben Callaghan said Scope’s behaviour was “exploitative and disgraceful”.

She said on Twitter: “Here is a major charity, which gives a fortune to its top management, but is apparently expecting a disabled writer to work for a mention on social media.

“If Scope wants this piece written, then they ought to pay the going rate. They can afford it.”

There was also anger from other disabled campaigners.

Natalya Dell said on Twitter: “It is not OK for charities to commission writing and not pay for it at market rates.

“Scope is not poor, Scope can afford to pay people for their time, knowledge and expertise.

“We need to keep calling this nonsense out. Scope is big enough and has enough money to pay people for their time and efforts.”

Another criticism of the charity, which is not run and controlled by disabled people, came from @Bubblejet, who said the payment issue was “pure #cripsploitation”.

She added on Twitter: “Not only is there the payment issue, but I’ve had 35 years of being asked to tell strangers about my sex life ‘as an example’. I’m sick of it! It’s intrusive & othering!”

Warren Kirwan, head of communications at Scope, said: “Our online community is an open and honest forum where disabled people can come together and offer peer to peer support.

“That’s backed up with monitoring, advice and expertise from our staff.

“It’s a platform for disabled people and their families and – like our information and advice helpline – it’s free to use and not monetised in any way.

“We’ve seen the responses on Twitter and we’ll consider the feedback.”

16 January 2020

 

Johnson ignores working-age care… again, and suggests further delays to reform

The prime minister has again ignored the needs of working-age disabled people when asked about his plans for social care funding reform, and has suggested that those reforms may take as long as five years to implement.

Boris Johnson was asked about his plans by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in prime minister’s questions yesterday (Wednesday).

Corbyn said that it had been three years since the government promised to publish a green paper on adult social care, and seven months since Johnson “stood on the steps of Downing Street and said he had prepared a clear plan to fix the crisis in social care”.

But Johnson’s reply, and answers he gave earlier in the week, suggested that he did not yet have a plan prepared and that he was focused – like many other politicians – on the needs of older people, rather than those of working age.

He said there was “a growing consensus” on the need to “tackle the issue of social care, so that everybody has dignity and security in their old age and nobody has to sell their home to pay for the cost of their care”.

He added: “With the help and co-operation of the Labour party and other parties in this House, we will go ahead with a fantastic plan for social care.”

Johnson’s comments came days after he told a BBC interviewer that the government would be “bringing forward a plan this year” but that it would be implemented by the end of the current parliament, suggesting it could take as long as five years.

During the general election campaign, international trade secretary Liz Truss admitted that she did not believe the government’s long-awaited green paper on adult social care even existed.

And in October, a Tory cabinet minister admitted there was not even consensus within the government on how to solve the adult social care funding crisis.

The latest exchanges came days after disabled people again spoke publicly about the impact of further proposed cuts and increased charges on social care provision.

Activists told Greenwich council that its planned changes would force some disabled residents to cut spending on food and clothes, and could lead to some taking their own lives.

They have threatened the council with legal action and want to see an inquiry into how its social care is funded.

Last August, Disability News Service reported that disabled campaigners had warned that the council’s proposals to increase care charges could force them and others to quit their jobs and stop their volunteering work, and push many others into poverty.

One influential campaigner warned then that she could be forced to reduce her care from 63 hours a week to just seven, and might have to consider residential care, if Greenwich council went ahead with its plans.

16 January 2020

 

 

Archive shows how Labour’s five would-be leaders have highlighted rights

The five candidates to be the next leader of the Labour party have raised issues such as accessible transport, the closure of the Independent Living Fund and the deaths of benefit claimants over the last 10 years, a new analysis has shown.

Disability News Service (DNS) has examined its archives to show how often the five candidates who have reached the next stage of the leadership contest – Sir Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry – have stood up for disabled people’s rights.

Although it is a crude measure of their overall commitment to disability rights – as it only includes DNS news stories – it does demonstrate many of the issues the candidates have addressed since DNS was launched in April 2009.

Slightly more than half of the mentions came through the MPs’ work as shadow ministers – or, in the case of Starmer, as head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – but probably more significant are the occasions they have spoken out in their roles as MPs.

Last month, it emerged that Starmer, an MP since 2015 and a current frontrunner in the contest, had been working behind the scenes for several years to seek justice for the family of his constituent Michael O’Sullivan, who took his own life after being unfairly found fit for work.

Welfare rights expert Nick Dilworth said last month that the MP had been working “tirelessly” with the family to piece together a case against the Department for Work and Pensions and its contractor Atos.

Nandy’s efforts on disability rights – mostly related to access to transport – have been mentioned four times by DNS since she was elected for the first time in May 2010.

The most recent was when she appeared last September on a panel alongside the mother of Jodey Whiting, who took her own life after unfairly having her benefits stopped.

Nandy told the audience that successive Tory-led governments had “picked on disabled people” and “kicked them off PIP and they denied them the right to the benefits that they needed, thinking that these were the people that were least likely to be able to fight back”.

But she has also raised issues of access to transport for disabled people on at least three occasions in parliament.

In October 2011, she secured a Commons debate on accessible transport, and later raised concerns about the access arrangements made by the Commons authorities for the debate.

She had earlier been reported describing how disabled young people had spoken to her of the “indignity and humiliation” they faced when they tried to travel by train.

The following year, Nandy supported disabled activists who were raising concerns about inaccessible bus travel, and the impact of the government’s planned cuts to disability living allowance.

In 2014, Thornberry raised concerns in a Commons debate about the impact of the planned closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) on disabled people in her north London constituency.

She said: “Although the local authority has undertaken to continue that support next year for those currently in receipt of ILF, the authority cannot give any guarantee that that funding will go on in future, in particular given that Islington council is facing 40 per cent cuts over the year.

“Discretionary funding such as for independent living will be difficult to find.”

The latest mention of Thornberry, an MP since 2005, came following an appearance on BBC’s Question Time in October 2018, when the host David Dimbleby and two panellists were criticised for mocking the idea of using “silent applause” to make political events more accessible for autistic people.

Thornberry showed some sympathy to the actions of a students’ union that had encouraged members attending democratic events to use British Sign Language (BSL) applause instead of clapping.

She said: “I think there are people, particularly on the autistic spectrum, who find it very difficult to go to places that are noisy and where there may be something about democracy going on.”

But she added: “They may be excluded. I can see where this is coming from. The difficulty is that it is very deeply engrained in our culture that we clap, so I don’t know.”

Rebecca Long-Bailey, another frontrunner and seen as the favoured candidate for those on the left of the party, has been mentioned just once by DNS, although she has only been an MP since 2015.

She was reported by DNS as attending a protest organised by Disabled People Against Cuts that had been held outside parliament to mark the death of its co-founder Debbie Jolly and to call for an end to the government’s welfare reforms, although there was no report of any comments made by the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.

The protest was also highlighting the government’s “outrageous” refusal to accept any of the 11 recommendations made by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which in September 2016 had found the UK guilty of “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights.

The fifth candidate, Jess Phillips, has not been mentioned by DNS since she became an MP in 2015.

Starmer was also mentioned frequently in his previous role as head of the CPS and director of public prosecutions (DPP) between November 2008 and 2013.

He was first mentioned by DNS in July 2009, when as DPP he responded to a demand by the Law Lords that he must clarify the law on assisted suicide.

The interim guidance he produced in September 2009 was heavily criticised by disabled activists, who said it sent out “disturbing signals” about how disabled people are treated, although the response to the final guidance the following year was less critical.

In December 2009, a CPS annual report showed the number of disability hate crime cases prosecuted in the courts had more than doubled in a year.

Starmer also had to respond to concerns in August 2009 that CPS was often failing to allow people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties to give evidence in court.

He said that they “must have the same opportunity as anyone else to give evidence and to have that evidence treated seriously”.

In September 2011, he responded to a report by the equality watchdog, which found that a “culture of disbelief” was preventing authorities from addressing disability hate crime. Starmer described the report as “an important benchmark for the challenges facing us”.

The following year, he was able to welcome figures that showed CPS had achieved a sharp rise in the number of successful convictions for disability hate crime.

He also appears to have played a part in ensuring CPS took forward prosecutions of care workers who ill-treated disabled people at an NHS day centre, following a DNS campaign, after prosecutors had originally refused to prosecute.

CPS was heavily and repeatedly criticised for its failings in dealing with the case, including a failure to attempt to persuade the judge at the eventual trial that two care workers who were found guilty of abuse should be sentenced for disability hate crimes.

In March 2011, Starmer was praised for a speech on disability hate crime, in which he said CPS was doing a lot of good work but was “still in the foothills” when it came to tackling the issue and supporting disabled victims and witnesses.

Thornberry was mentioned twice in her previous role as a shadow care services minister.

In May 2011, she accused a Liberal Democrat minister of making “false claims” about cuts to care and support services.

In a Commons debate, she said she had surveyed directors of adult social services in England and found that 88 per cent were increasing charges and 16 per cent were tightening eligibility criteria, and that the failure to address funding shortages in social care was “reckless and wrong”.

The following month, she raised concerns that a report into social care funding reform was to be “strangled at birth”.

16 January 2020

 

Strong criticism of council by ombudsman in latest SEND failings report

An ombudsman has “strongly criticised” a local council’s children’s services provider for failing to provide educational support to three disabled children.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman said there was also cause for concern about “systemic failures” between Richmond council and Achieving for Children, the social enterprise that provides services to the council in areas including education, social care and health.

The ombudsman’s investigations uncovered evidence of three disabled children missing out on support and education between 2015 and 2018.

Richmond council was Tory-run until May 2018, when the Liberal Democrats swept to power.

In one case investigated by the ombudsman, a sixth-former with experience of mental distress was “repeatedly let down” and missed out on education because the council took too long to provide her with support.

In the second case, a disabled child at primary school missed out on support because the council took nearly a year to complete his education, health and care plan (EHCP).

The third case saw a teenager with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) who was about to sit her GCSEs missed out a year’s education at a private special school because the council failed to tell her parents it had agreed to fund it.

A visit by the ombudsman to the council uncovered documents that were often named or filed incorrectly.

The ombudsman also discovered that the council had three separate IT systems for managing information, and one of them could only be accessed by a single staff member.

In one of the three cases, the ombudsman was only able to discover the truth because the family had kept its own records.

The council has agreed to apologise to all three families, and to pay thousands of pounds in total in costs, as well as compensation for the missing provision and distress caused by its failings, and the time and trouble the families spent bringing the complaint.

The council has also agreed to audit all the children for whom Achieving for Children is responsible, to identify if others have been affected in the same way, and to report back to the ombudsman within six months.

Michelle Daley, interim director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, said: “While we should be shocked by the report, it is sad to say that given the repeated catalogues of reports that came out last year this comes as no surprise.

“The key question we need to be asking is when are we going to be taking action, when are we going to be giving disabled people real equality, real human rights, real protection, real opportunities within the education system.

“This example is not isolated and we will see it again until the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is fully implemented in domestic law.”

Last October, the ombudsman added to increasing concerns about the SEND system in England after revealing that it had been upholding an “exceptional and unprecedented” number of complaints, which suggested a “system in crisis”.

The ombudsman, Michael King, said this week: “The three cases highlighted in my report give rise to serious concerns that there may be systemic failures within the processes operated by the London Borough of Richmond and Achieving for Children.

“I have published this report in part because other families may very well be affected by issues similar to those I have raised.

“I have now asked the council to undertake a full audit of its education provision and report back to me about what it finds.

“If the council finds other children have been affected, it should take steps to ensure they do not miss out on the services they are entitled to receive by law.”

Ian Dodds, the council’s director of children’s services, said that implementing the government’s 2014 Children and Families Act reforms had been “an enormous challenge for all local councils” without adequate government funding.

He said the council accepted the report in full and said it “clearly shows that there were significant failings for some children and young people between 2016 and 2017” and that the council and Achieving for Children were “slow to recognise the increased demands of the 2014 act”.

He said there had been “significant investment” by the council since the ombudsman’s investigation, with “new leadership in place”, while the council had doubled resources for its SEND services; improved training, support and supervision of SEND team members; and commissioned scrutiny of its services by external experts.

He said the council was also making “significant efforts to listen to the voices of parents, carers and young people”.

Dodds said the additional investment was “already making a difference”, with 95 per cent of its EHCPs completed within the 20-week deadline, compared to 60 per cent nationally.

16 January 2020

 News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com