DWP faces nearly 60 disability discrimination tribunal cases in 20 months

The Employment Tribunal has dealt with almost 60 claims of disability discrimination taken against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) by its own staff over a 20-month period, new research has shown.

A database on the Employment Tribunal website shows that, since it began publishing its findings in February 2017, it has dealt with 57 cases that include claims of disability discrimination by DWP across England, Scotland and Wales.

The website’s database appears to show that DWP (with an estimated 75,000 staff) has the worst record on disability discrimination of any large government department, with 20 cases against the Home Office (which has about 30,000 staff), 32 against the Ministry of Justice (about 70,000 staff) and 29 against HM Revenue and Customs (about 60,000 staff).

Of the 57 DWP cases published by the Employment Tribunal, about 30 were eventually withdrawn.

But a leading employment discrimination lawyer said that such cases will “almost certainly” have been withdrawn because the two sides had reached a confidential agreement.

It is not possible to produce exact numbers, but of the other cases, at least a dozen appear to be either still ongoing or to have resulted in a finding that DWP had discriminated against a disabled employee, with at least six concerning discrimination against staff with mental health conditions.

The number of well-founded allegations made by its own disabled staff should prove an embarrassment to ministers, particularly because DWP is responsible for the much-criticised Disability Confident scheme, which aims to help employers recruit and retain disabled employees.

DWP claims to be a Disability Confident “Leader”, the highest of the scheme’s three levels.

Dr Minh Alexander, a former consultant psychiatrist and NHS whistleblower, who carried out most of the research, said the figures demonstrated the department’s incompetence and showed that it did not understand disability, particularly mental health.

She decided to check the tribunal database after hearing how DWP was forcing charities delivering services on its behalf to sign contracts preventing them from attracting “adverse publicity” to the department.

She said: “It made sense that if they are were abusing their power in one area, they were abusing their power elsewhere.

“I was staggered at the number of claims. Just the sheer number suggests there is likely to be an issue with DWP as an employer. They are not managing their people properly.

“It goes to the heart of the agency’s competency. It just implies so much bullying.”

David Gillon, a disabled campaigner and one of the most prominent critics of the Disability Confident scheme, said: “Over and above its Disability Confident Leader status, DWP is the very hub of Disability Confident.

“Its performance around disability should be an example to every other employer in the country.

“Disabled people as its customers have long known this is not the case, with even DWP ministers admitting it has lost our trust; the data from the tribunal service shows that that failure extends to its own employees.”

He added: “Disability Confident, even at its most basic level, commits an employer to work with a disabled employee to retain them in employment.

“A Disability Confident Leader should leave no stone unturned in seeking to keep disabled people in their jobs. Every one of these cases is an instance where DWP failed to do that.”

Gillon also pointed out that the first six months of the cases on the tribunal website were at a time when the government was still charging employees to take cases to tribunal, with fees even higher for discrimination claims.

Those fees were ruled to be unlawful by the Supreme Court in July 2017, and were subsequently scrapped, but the government’s own research had already shown that the introduction of fees in 2013 had seen the number of cases received by the tribunal falling from about 60,000 in the year to June 2013 to about 19,000 in the year to September 2015.

Gillon said this suggested that even more cases against DWP would have been taken to tribunal if it was not for the fees.

Detailed examination of some of the cases in which the tribunal ruled against DWP show at least six of them involved staff members with experience of mental distress.

Only last week, ministers hosted a global summit on mental health, where health and social care secretary Matt Hancock asked the question: “Have we done enough to tackle the stigma, prejudice and discrimination that people with mental health conditions endure?”

Hancock also announced at the summit in central London that the UK had joined Australia and Canada in launching the Alliance of Champions of Mental Health and Wellbeing.

In one case, the tribunal said DWP had produced no “satisfactory evidence” to explain why its Cumbria and Lancashire district had sacked 10 people in 2016 because of “work-related stress”.

The former employee, who described to the tribunal that the way he had been treated by DWP had been “intimidating, demoralising and offensive, degrading, humiliating”, was awarded nearly £50,000 in compensation.

In another “serious case”, a tribunal judge concluded that DWP’s behaviour was “contrary” to its own “mission statements” on supporting disabled employees in the workplace.

A third case in which the tribunal found against DWP involved a work coach with several impairments, including anxiety and depression, who had been working at a Manchester jobcentre.

The panel heard that there had been only eight people in her team when there should have been 12.

Another case saw the tribunal find that DWP had discriminated against a disabled member of staff with long-term mental ill-health, postnatal depression and arthritis, while a fifth case saw a tribunal find DWP had discriminated against a personal independence payment case manager with long-term depression.

A sixth case of disability discrimination involving an employee with a mental health condition saw the tribunal find that DWP had failed to support the staff member “in any meaningful way”, concluding: “She was not given adequate time to recover; her representations about her return to work were not taken into account nor was the point properly medically investigated.”

DWP last night (Wednesday) failed to explain why managers in its Cumbria and Lancashire district had dismissed 10 members of staff as a result of work-related stress during 2016.

But in a statement, a DWP spokeswoman said: “DWP is absolutely committed to ensuring all staff, including those with disabilities or health conditions, get the support they need to thrive.

“The department has a duty of care to its employees and aims to lead by example when it comes to the protection of employees from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

“It is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of disability and all employers should abide by UK law, including discrimination legislation.”

DWP also said that the number of tribunal cases was proportionately very small, that it provided a range of mental health support, and had pledged to train another 500 mental health first aiders in 2019-20, taking the total to 700.

DWP also claims to have improved the procedures for managing excessive sickness absence by putting employees at the heart of its decision-making, and to have improved its discipline and grievance procedures, while it said it was also working to improve the quality of its internal appeals.

DWP said it only dismissed staff after extended sick leave and its occupational health experts had indicated that a return to good health and work was unlikely within a reasonable time period.

DWP said it had a comprehensive stress policy and procedures, including a stress self-assessment toolkit and a mental wellbeing toolkit that sign-posts staff to a wide range of support.

And it said it provided a comprehensive range of programmes, workshops and e-learning to support wellbeing, mindfulness and resilience in the workplace.

18 October 2018



Sharp fall in disability hate crime referrals by police

The Home Office has been unable to explain why the number of disability hate crime cases referred to prosecutors by the police plunged last year by nearly a quarter, and why successful prosecutions of such offences fell even more sharply.

In a week when the Home Office published its updated hate crime action plan, and its own figures showed a significant rise in the number of hate crimes recorded by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) figures are likely to embarrass home secretary Sajid Javid.

In publishing his refreshed action plan, Javid said that hate crime “goes directly against the long-standing British values of unity, tolerance and mutual respect” and that he was “committed to stamping this sickening behaviour out”.

But his department has been unable to explain this week why the new CPS annual report on hate crime showed the number of disability hate crimes referred by police forces in England and Wales to CPS fell from 988 in 2016-17 to just 754 in 2017-18, a drop of 23.7 per cent.

This is likely to have contributed to a fall in completed prosecutions of disability hate crime cases from 1,009 to 752 last year (an even steeper fall of 25.5 per cent) and a slump in the number of disability hate crime convictions from 800 to 564 (a drop of 29.5 per cent).

Only last week, Disability News Service reported how the work of police officers in more than half of disability hate crime investigations had been found to be “unacceptable”, following a joint inspection by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services and HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI).

The new CPS figures came as the Home Office’s own figures showed the number of disability hate crimes recorded by police forces rose sharply from 5,558 in 2016-17 to 7,226 in 2017-18.

There is continuing debate over whether the latest significant increase in recorded hate crimes is due to more disabled people willing to report such offences to the police or third-party reporting centres; because of an actual increase in disability hate crime; or because of a combination of the two.

As incidents can take several months for the police to investigate, crimes reported in 2017-18 may not have been referred to the CPS in that period, so the Home Office and CPS figures are not directly comparable.

Separate Home Office figures – taken from the Crime Survey of England and Wales, but less statistically significant than those recorded by police forces because of the survey’s sample size – suggest that the number of disability hate crimes may have fallen slightly.

They showed an average of about 52,000 disability hate crimes per year from 2015-16 to 2016-17, compared with an average of about 56,000 a year during the period 2011-12 to 2013-14, and 77,000 per year during the period 2007-08 to 2009-10.

Anne Novis, chair of Inclusion London and the Metropolitan police’s disability hate crime working group, said it was “very disappointing” to see statistics showing such a steep fall in police referrals to CPS and subsequent prosecutions and convictions.

She said possible explanations included the lack of training for police officers and “a lack of senior police emphasising the importance of recording and investigating appropriately”.

But she also blamed government cuts, which she said had hit police forces hard, including their training budgets.

She said: “Hundreds of staff have gone from the police in London, including many senior staff.

“It is unrealistic that they could provide a service to all of us, let alone a community that finds it hard to communicate with the police because of the barriers that we have to face.”

Despite the cuts, she said, police forces were still letting disabled people down with their performance on disability hate crime.

A Home Office spokeswoman was unable to explain the fall in police referrals and failed to say if the department was concerned and what action it was going to take.

But she said in a statement: “We expect all incidents of hate crime to be taken seriously and we are committed to making sure that police and prosecutors have the powers they need to bring offenders to justice.

“We will continue to work with stakeholders to address what more can be done to tackle disability hate crime, particularly increasing reporting, and how we can support the police response to this vile crime.”

A CPS spokesman said: “The CPS is only able to prosecute cases which are referred to us by the police.

“We note the fall in the number of disability hate crime cases prosecuted this year and will continue to work with the police to understand any emerging trends.

“The recent HMCPSI report on disability hate crime praised the work of the CPS and particularly our hate crime co-ordinators, so we can be confident the CPS is prosecuting these cases appropriately.”

Two years ago, the then home secretary Amber Rudd was heavily criticised when she published her hate crime action plan for a “totally disrespectful” failure to address problems around disability-related hostility.

The government’s updated hate crime action plan bragged this week of how its efforts since 2016 had “delivered success, including examples of strong police practice in response to hate crime and dealing with perpetrators”.

Among new measures announced this week in the action plan, the Law Commission has been asked to review current hate crime legislation – as the commission recommended four years ago in a heavily-criticised report – following concerns that it does not offer disabled and LGBT people equal protection to that given to other protected groups.

The review is likely to include examining the possible extension of aggravated offences – which have higher sentences and currently can only apply to crimes linked to race and religion – to disability, sexual orientation and transgender identity.

There will also be a national hate crime communications campaign, while the government will work with local groups to raise awareness of disability hate crime and examine how best to promote third party reporting centres, as well as attempting to “increase and broaden our engagement with stakeholders representing disabled people”.

A separate report detailing progress made on the 2016 action plan reveals that a piece of research that aimed to identify the motivation behind disability hate crime had to be “abandoned” because they could not find enough perpetrators willing to work with academics.

Meanwhile, a disabled people’s organisation has welcomed a £373,000 grant from the National Lottery that will further its work in tackling disability hate crime over the next three years.

Disability Equality (nw), which is based in Preston, Lancashire, will use the money to develop disabled-led programmes and partnerships, focusing on the night-time economy, hate crime hot spots and “recruiting more disabled people who have been victims of hate crime to be ambassadors” so they can “spread the word” about how to report disability hate crime.

18 October 2018



New ‘suicide prevention’ minister evades questions on ESA suicide stats

The new “minister for suicide prevention” has refused to say if she will alert agencies across the country to NHS figures that show the high risk of suicide faced by claimants of out-of-work disability benefits.

Last week, mental health minister Jackie Doyle-Price had “minister for suicide prevention” added to her job title, with prime minister Theresa May claiming she wanted to “prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives”.

Part of Doyle-Price’s new role will be to “ensure every local area has an effective suicide prevention plan in place, and look at how the latest technology can be used to identify those most at risk”.

But Doyle-Price and her Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have refused to say if she will take the simple step of highlighting claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) as a high-risk group in the government’s suicide prevention strategy for England.

Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last December how NHS Digital’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey showed more than 43 per cent of ESA claimants had said (when asked in 2014) that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

This compared with less than seven per cent of adults who were not claiming ESA and said they had attempted to take their own lives at some point.

The numbers were first highlighted by activist and consultant clinical psychologist Dr Jay Watts.

But the government’s suicide prevention strategy fails to mention these figures or to highlight ESA claimants as a high-risk group, even though it briefly mentions Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) guidance for dealing with claimants of ESA and other benefits who may be at risk of suicide or self-harm, and the department’s processes for learning from DWP-linked suicides.

In the document, health secretary Jeremy Hunt – now foreign secretary – said he wanted to strengthen the national strategy through “better targeting of suicide prevention and help seeking in high risk groups” and by “improving data at national and local level and how this data is used to help take action and target efforts more accurately”.

But the Department of Health (now DHSC) refused to say last December why it had failed to warn NHS bodies and other local services that ESA claimants were at a hugely-increased suicide risk.

And DNS found no evidence earlier this year that DH had attempted to highlight the information with local areas and agencies or to advise them to include ESA claimants as a high-risk group in their own suicide prevention plans.

This week, DHSC has been unable to say if Doyle-Price will finally alert agencies across the country to the high-risk status of ESA claimants.

DNS asked the DHSC press office last Friday if Doyle-Price would promise to publish an updated version of the suicide prevention strategy that mentions the figures and highlights the fact that ESA claimants are at a high risk of suicide, and if she would alert local agencies to the figures and advise them to include ESA claimants as a high-risk group in their own local suicide prevention plans.

But a string of DHSC press officers have failed to provide a response, with one revealing that the delay was because she was “waiting to hear back from the DWP press office”.

No-one from DHSC had commented by noon today (Thursday), nearly six days after DNS asked the questions.

18 October 2018



Account of sanctions desperation leaves disabled peer in tears at WRAG research launch

A benefit claimant left a disabled peer in tears after describing to a parliamentary meeting how the application of the government’s brutal sanctions regime by a jobcentre adviser had left him so desperate that he attempted to take his own life.

Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson was chairing the meeting, which was held to launch a new report into the government’s “perverse and punitive” regime of benefit sanctions and conditions.

Academics at the University of Essex, in partnership with the disabled people’s organisation Inclusion London, had spent two years investigating the employment and support allowance (ESA) system, and particularly those claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG), for those supposed to move gradually towards paid work.

Their research concluded that the system of sanctions and conditions imposed on disabled people placed in the WRAG – who can see all their benefits cut for weeks if they fail to carry out certain activities to the satisfaction of their jobcentre adviser – has a “significantly detrimental” effect on their mental health.

Researchers told the meeting that this approach was “psychologically toxic”, intellectually “incoherent”, counter-productive and “arbitrary”, and that it “rendered people into a state of almost constant anxiety”.

DWP’s approach is supposed to nudge disabled people in the WRAG towards work.

But the 15 participants in the study – all current or recent ESA WRAG claimants – instead told the researchers how the “perverse and punitive” conditions imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) undermined their self-confidence.

The report, Where Your Mental Health Just Disappears Overnight, says the impact of sanctions has been “life-threatening” for some of those in the WRAG.

It adds: “The underlying fear instilled by the threat of sanctions meant that many participants described living in a state of constant anxiety.”

While those taking part in the study wanted to engage in work and vocational activity, their presence in the WRAG forced them into less meaningful tasks, and even to understate their previous achievements on their CVs.

Ellen Clifford, Inclusion London’s campaigns and policy manager and a co-author of the report, told the meeting that she feared the continuing roll-out of the government’s new universal credit benefit system would “further entrench the conditionality approach”.

She said DWP’s “direction of travel is towards more conditionality and more sanctions”, which was “one of the key reasons disabled campaigners feel universal credit needs to be scrapped”.

One of the 15 WRAG claimants who took part in the research, Andy Mitchell, from Somerset, explained to the meeting how DWP had told him he would have his benefits sanctioned if he did not remove his degree from his CV.

But Mitchell also described how the system of unfair sanctions had left him penniless and had driven him to despair and a suicide attempt.

He had been claiming the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance for just four months after a redundancy when a jobcentre adviser arranged for him to attend a business start-up course, paid for by DWP.

But when he returned from the two-week course – with “loads of ideas” for starting a small baking business – a new adviser told him he should have been carrying out job-search activity while he was on the course… and handed him a sanction.

His benefits were stopped immediately, but he was unable to confirm with DWP that he had been sanctioned, and so could not apply for a hardship payment.

When his payments suddenly stopped, and with just £5 left, his pre-payment electricity soon ran out, as did his food, and he soon had to survive by helping himself to free fruit at the job club he attended, visiting the centre every day just so he had something to eat.

His physical and mental health began to deteriorate, he couldn’t even afford toilet paper to clean himself, and as Christmas approached he was no longer well enough to leave the house to carry out the work activities DWP was telling him he needed to complete.

On Christmas Day, he sat in his house all day waiting for it to get dark so he could go to bed, trying to ignore the families he could see through his window enjoying the festivities.

He was only able to switch the electricity back on after Christmas when an aunt sent him £20 as a birthday and Christmas present.

When he returned to the jobcentre after the Christmas break, the same adviser who had sanctioned him told him his sanction had shown her that he did not have a work ethic, even though he had worked all his life from the age of 16 until he had been made redundant.

He left the jobcentre, went home and attempted to take his own life.

Because of the impact of the sanctions regime on his mental health, he was eventually moved into the ESA WRAG.

After he finished speaking, Baroness Grey-Thompson struggled to speak as she wiped tears from her eyes and told him: “More people need to listen and understand the harsh reality.

“This is why something needs to change.”

The co-leader of the Green party, Jonathan Bartley, was even more outspoken, telling the meeting that the system of sanctions and conditions imposed on disabled people, and Mitchell’s experience, was “a fucking disgrace”.

He gave his “whole-hearted support” to the report and said his party would be “spreading this report as far and wide as we can”.

He said: “One of the things I love about this report is that it breaks through the noise and tells the stories that need to be told.

“Our vision is about a welfare system that liberates, empowers, facilitates, not something to be ashamed of but to be as proud of as we are of the NHS.”

He said his party would scrap sanctions, and pilot a universal basic income system, with top-ups for Deaf and disabled people who needed extra support.

Dr Danny Taggart, a lecturer in clinical psychology and co-author of the report, said the idea that the WRAG regime of sanctions and conditions would help nudge disabled people towards paid work “just isn’t good science”.

Instead, he said, the “perverse and punitive” incentives “rendered people into a state of almost constant anxiety”, with some talking of how the fear of sanctions cast a shadow over every aspect of their lives.

In some cases, he said, the impact of sanctions was life-threatening.

He told the meeting: “A number of participants described a quite rapid deterioration of their mental health as a result of sanctions.”

One of them told the researchers: “I feel as if someone has put a knife through my stomach.”

Taggart said: “More research needs to be undertaken to understand how to best support disabled people into meaningful vocational activity, something that both the government and a majority of disabled people want.

“This study adds further evidence to support any future research being undertaken in collaboration with disabled people’s organisations who are better able to understand the needs of disabled people.”

18 October 2018



DPO’s report uncovers pattern of council failings on social care

A user-led organisation says its research has uncovered a pattern of behaviour by a local authority that has undermined the ability of disabled people in the borough to access the support they need to live independently.

The disabled people’s organisation Merton Centre for Independent Living (MCIL) this week published a 96-page report into the flaws and failings of Merton council’s adult social care provision.

The report says that a growing number of people are resorting to legal action against the council to secure the support they need, in some cases leading to judicial reviews.

It warns that the council appears to be carrying out reassessments and reviews of people’s care packages with the aim of cutting their support.

And it says that some people previously supported by the Independent Living Fund (ILF), which closed in 2015, were seeing their support cut, with most seeing their care charges increase this year.

One service-user told MCIL: “When they stopped the ILF, everything became difficult.”

Another former ILF-recipient said: “My life has changed, I have to worry from day to day. It certainly impacts on my health. I spend hours indoors where I don’t want to be indoors.”

The report also says it has seen examples of the council refusing to carry out assessments of people’s care needs.

It says: “Our overall conclusion is that there is a pattern to the challenges people are experiencing and these are not one-off incidences.

“Moreover, the impact on individuals is significant, and must be addressed.”

It says there is “a growing feeling among service users that when re-assessments and reviews take place, they are focused on cutting people’s support packages and do not give full consideration to changes to their circumstances”.

One service-user said: “It feels like a personal attack. There was no explanation why. I was told by the assessor on the phone she didn’t understand why, she said: ‘I have to cut it.’”

Another said: “Now I have to pay extra if I wake up my carer to take me to the toilet in the night.

“If I am going out in the evening and having a drink, I have to decide if I should pay more money to get up in the night or if I should wear a [incontinence] pad instead.”

Some service-users even believe they have been targeted for cuts to their support because they have spoken out about their concerns.

The report also warns that the council could be leaving some disabled people at risk of abuse and neglect.

In the first six months of this year, MCIL submitted as many safeguarding alerts to the council (eight) as it did in the whole of last year (2017-18), which itself was a sharp increase on the five it made in 2016-17.

The report says: “A particular feature of the alerts made so far this year is that they are on people who are experiencing issues following a reduction in care, or they are people on whom a previous alert was made and not resolved.”

It says that this is “unprecedented since the organisation first started running advice and advocacy services in 2013”.

The MCIL report, Choice, Control and Independent Living: Putting the Care Act into Practice, raises concerns about the council’s assessment process, its policy on care charges, and its approach to direct payments and safeguarding.

It is based on a detailed review of 45 cases in which Merton CIL has supported disabled people to access services in the borough, as well as eight in-depth interviews, and conversations with union staff and former social workers, as well as meetings, focus groups and evidence from other local organisations.

It says that care charges are having a “major impact” on the lives of service-users in the borough, while the council’s policies on direct payments, including its focus on the use of pre-payment cards, are “limiting choice and control”.

Merton CIL says it decided to write the report after repeatedly attempting to bring the issues to the attention of council officers and councillors.

The report warns: “Social care is one of the front-line prevention services of the welfare state.

“When people do not get this practical assistance, it can lead to death, health crisis, hospital admission, institutionalisation, fractured families and police action – all of which is more expensive and less effective than early support to stay strong and independent.”

The report estimates – from NHS figures – that 1,300 users of social care in Merton do not feel they have control over their lives and the services that support them.

The council’s own survey of residents last year found that 28 per cent of disabled people were dissatisfied with “the way the council runs things”, more than double the 13 per cent rate for non-disabled people, although the council failed to ask any questions in the survey about social care.

Among its recommendations, the report calls on the council to work towards scrapping all care charges – as another London council, Hammersmith and Fulham, has done – and to carry out research to provide a stronger evidence base on adult social care services in the borough.

It also calls on the council to monitor care assessments to ensure they comply with the Care Act; to “be clearer that pre-payment cards and bank accounts are both acceptable options for managing direct payments”; and to review and improve its safeguarding policies.

MCIL is due to host a panel discussion on its report next Thursday (25 October) at its agm.

A Merton council spokeswoman said: “As a council we provide grant funding to Merton Centre for Independent Living (Merton CIL) to provide advice and advocacy services to disabled people.

“We were unaware that this report was going to be published and we were not consulted on the report prior to publication.

“It is therefore too early to comment on the contents of the report except to say that it is based on a small number of social care users and cannot therefore be a representative or balanced view of social care provision in Merton as a whole.”

18 October 2018



Labour resists ‘scrap universal credit’ call, as Tory blames ‘fecklessness’ for food bank use

Labour has failed in a bid to force the government to publish secret papers that would show the true financial impact of universal credit on benefit claimants.

In a debate lasting nearly four hours yesterday (Wednesday), Labour and SNP MPs lined up to highlight the negative impact of the new benefit system on disabled people and other constituents, while many Tory MPs praised the system and accused their opponents of scaremongering.

Few Labour MPs followed the example of shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who did not speak in the debate but told a journalist last week that universal credit should be scrapped.

Most Labour MPs, including shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood, called only for the government to “stop the roll-out of universal credit” and correct its flaws.

But one of those who did call for universal credit to be scrapped was Maria Eagle, a former minister for disabled people, who told MPs: “My constituency is about to experience a tsunami of further hardship and poverty because of the roll-out of universal credit.

“It is not enough to slow the roll-out; universal credit must be scrapped. It will never work. It will punish the poor and create more destitution.”

Another was Swansea West Labour and Co-op MP Geraint Davies, who said: “Universal credit combines three massive computer systems – the Inland Revenue system, the jobcentre system and local council systems – and, inevitably, it will not work.

“The whole system is a way of cutting corners and cutting benefits for the most vulnerable.

“Universal credit should be scrapped, because it simply will not work.

“In Swansea and elsewhere it has led to sleepless nights, empty stomachs and shivering families. It is leading to poverty and despair.

“I believe it is simply a Trojan horse for further cuts.”

Labour’s Danielle Rowley, the MP for Midlothian, said she had been sent a message from the manager of her local Citizens Advice bureau, saying: “Universal credit’s big impact is on people’s mental health.

“We are seeing so many people who cannot deal with UC due to the fragility of their mental health.

“It’s making underlying mental health worse. We are aware of clients attempting suicide due to the anxiety of the whole thing.”

Fellow Labour MP Anna Turley said figures from the House of Commons library showed that the full rollout of universal credit in her area would affect about 3,500 households that include disabled people.

She said: “Thousands of vulnerable people in my area are going to be moved on to a benefit that has been beset with payment delays and has seen food-bank use skyrocket by more than 50 per cent in areas of full roll-out.

“Yesterday, in response to my question, the minister could not reassure me that my constituents would not be worse off.”

Labour’s Shabana Mahmood, who said her staff spent “most of their time every single day on the phone trying to sort out difficulties arising from universal credit”, was another to highlight the impact on disabled constituents.

She said: “There is a particular difficulty in my constituency relating to constituents with autism and… mental health conditions moving on to universal credit, often because they have failed the assessment – they had previously been in receipt of employment and support allowance (ESA) – having not been supported as they tried to navigate a very complicated online system.”

Labour’s Mike Amesbury, the shadow minister for employment, warned that the universal credit rollout would be “a disaster” for disabled people, with 750,000 set to lose out financially.

But he called on the government to “stop, fund and fix” universal credit rather than scrapping it, although he did suggest that “the policy may well already be beyond fixing”.

The SNP’s Neil Gray said: “The biggest problem with universal credit is that, for years, it has been an all-consuming cash cow for Treasury cuts to social security.”

He said the experience of one constituent receiving mental health crisis care in hospital highlighted how universal credit “completely fails to support people with mental health conditions”.

The young man’s mother was told that unless her son signed his universal credit “claimant commitment” he would have to apply for jobs from his hospital bed if he was to avoid a sanction.

Work and pensions secretary Esther McVey defended universal credit and its “strong merits” but admitted that there were “areas that we need to improve”.

She had said earlier in the week that the so-called “managed migration”, which will see claimants of existing benefits such as ESA moved onto universal credit, would not now begin in January 2019, but “later in the year”, and would only affect about 10,000 people in 2019.

The “slow and measured” rollout would then “increase” from 2020 onwards, she said.

A string of other Conservative MPs lined up to praise universal credit, including St Austell and Newquay’s Steve Double, who claimed that jobcentre staff “love it, and claimants like it” and that “one of the problems is all the scaremongering, primarily from the Labour party”.

But he also admitted that the government needed to “make sure it has the funds it needs to work and achieve the outcomes we all want to see”.

Fellow Tory Alex Burghart, a member of the Commons work and pensions committee, said: “I can say that universal credit was rolled out in my constituency a number of months ago, and it is working extremely well.

“We have had nothing but praise for it from the work coaches who administer it, and we have had very high satisfaction rates from people using it in Brentwood and Ongar.”

One of the most shocking interventions in the debate came from Gordon Henderson, the Tory MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey in Kent, who tried to argue that the move to universal credit was not responsible for a significant rise in the use of foodbanks.

He said he had secured information from a local foodbank about claimants who had faced difficulties with universal credit, and he claimed he had discovered that many of them were “living in a local hostel that provides temporary accommodation for homeless adults”.

He said that it “soon became obvious that some of them suffered from underlying problems that affected their ability to manage the transition to UC, and that forced them into using the food bank”, such as “drug addiction, alcoholism, mental health problems, an inability to manage money, or plain fecklessness”.

He said that making universal credit perfect overnight would not “solve their mental health problems” and issues with drugs and alcohol and “would not make them less feckless” and that “they would still have the same problems, whatever benefits system was put in place”.

He said he was glad that such people were “in the minority” and appeared to suggest that those with mental health problems – and seemingly people with learning difficulties – were to blame for their difficulties with universal credit, after adding that there were also “some people who have genuine concerns”.

A vote by Labour to attempt to force the government to publish its evidence on the financial impact of universal credit was lost by 20 votes.

Meanwhile, DWP announced this week that as many as 180,000 ESA claimants will now be entitled to receive backdated benefit payments as a result of the botched migration of former claimants of incapacity benefit and other benefits to the new ESA from 2011 onwards.

The department had failed to realise that many of the claimants were entitled to income-related ESA – and therefore to associated disability premiums – rather than just the contributory form of ESA.

DWP had originally said that about 70,000 disabled people were likely to have been affected by the underpayments.

Previous estimates suggested DWP would have to pay back about £500 million, but this week’s report says the final sum is likely to be about £970 million, with average payments of £5,000.

But future ESA payments at higher levels will push the total bill even higher for several years – by a total of about another £700 million, although this is just an estimate – until all claimants eventually move onto universal credit.

DWP expects to finish the process of reviewing the cases of claimants who could be entitled to a backdated payment by the end of next year.

It is just one in a series of major blunders by DWP senior civil servants relating to disability benefits, with the department now believed to be carrying out six separate trawls through its records to find disabled people unfairly deprived of benefits.

18 October 2018



Disabled shadow minister calls for government to fund access to all rail stations

A disabled shadow minister has called on the government to do more to improve its “inadequate” record on improving access to rail travel, and to provide enough funding to ensure all train journeys are accessible “from end to end”.

Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people and the MP for Battersea, was speaking three months after Disability News Service revealed that spending on the government’s rail station access improvement programme had been slashed over the last five years.

Those figures, released through a freedom of information request, showed spending on the Access for All scheme fell from as much as £81.1 million in 2013-14 to just £14.6 million last year.

The cuts are set to continue this year and next year, although spending is due to rise to up to £50 million a year over the following five years, with an additional £50 million in deferred funding.

De Cordova, who had secured the debate on step-free access to stations in her constituency, asked transport minister Nusrat Ghani why three of the four stations in Battersea were not accessible to wheelchair-users.

She told the minister that the three stations – Battersea Park, Queenstown Road and Wandsworth Town – had no step-free access, even though they served 7.5 million passengers a year.

Although Clapham Junction, the country’s busiest station in terms of rail traffic, has step-free access to all its platforms, there is still no step-free access onto the trains themselves, she said.

Battersea Park has had Access for All-funded work delayed, while Queenstown Road and Wandsworth Town are both due to have fully-accessible new entrances, even though there will still be no step-free access to the platforms.

De Cordova said: “What is the point of having an accessible step-free entrance, but no step-free access to the actual train platform?”

She added: “Step-free access to stations can mean the difference between the ability to lead a fulfilling and flourishing life seeing friends and family and going to work, and being left isolated at home, unable to travel and excluded from participation, from leading a fulfilling and flourishing ​life, and from the world of work.

“That is the reality for far too many disabled people.”

She said progress in making all stations accessible to disabled people through Access for All – founded by the Labour government in 2006 – had been “too slow”, with only one in five stations across the country fully accessible.

She called for the Access for All programme to receive enough funding to ensure that all stations are step-free.

De Cordova said: “Train journeys must be accessible from end to end. That means that someone can get to the station, on to the train, off the train and out of the station at the other end.

“I call on the government to put in the investment needed to build an inclusive railway, including accessible stations in Battersea.”

She said the “unreasonable” requirement for disabled people to book assistance in advance “prevents spontaneous travel and removes the ability to turn up and go”, while the removal of guards from trains meant the railway system was becoming more inaccessible.

Ghani said the government’s aim was to ensure disabled people “have the same access to transport as everyone else” by 2030, to “ensure that we come into line with the UN’s ambition to ensure accessibility across all modes of transport”.

She said: “People should have the same access to transport and the same opportunity to travel as everyone else, and this is an important measure to reduce social isolation and create opportunities ​for people to play a more active role in society.”

She said the Access for All funding announcement meant design work would “restart on all deferred projects from April next year, and once the designs are completed, Network Rail will confirm the construction date for Battersea Park”.

Ghani said the rail industry had been asked to nominate stations for new Access for All funding by 16 November, with the money to be allocated “based on annual footfall and weighted by the incidence of disability in the area” and taking into account local factors such as distance to a hospital or availability of third-party funding.

And she said there would be “a fair geographical spread of projects across the country”.

She said that neither Queenstown Road nor Wandsworth Town had previously been nominated for Access for All funding.

And she said the government was pressing the industry to “comply with its legal obligations to ensure that work at stations meets current accessibility standards”, including on major projects such as Crossrail and the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street, and on other work such as ensuring that replacement bridges have lifts or ramps.

18 October 2018



High streets ‘need to wake up to the need to communicate with disabled people’

Struggling high street businesses need to “wake up” to the need to communicate with disabled people and their potential £200 billion spending power, according to the founder of an accessibility information website.

Dr Gregory Burke told Disability News Service that he still sees many of the same physical access barriers in high streets that he faced as a wheelchair-user when he launched DisabledGo 18 years ago, and that he believes disabled people’s quality of life has probably fallen during that time.

In the two decades since he launched the business, it has grown to the point where it has 60 employees and is used by more than 1.5 million people each year to plan a visit or trip by checking detailed accessibility information on venues such as cafes, hospitals and cinemas throughout the UK.

Burke was speaking this week as DisabledGo launched a new website and mobile phone app and announced that it was changing its name to AccessAble*.

In a survey released to mark the launch, 99 per cent of the disabled people and carers questioned said it was important to know about accessibility before visiting somewhere new, while almost as many (98 per cent) said they would search for accessibility information in advance.

But only 14 per cent of people said they found the access information they were looking for and 80 per cent said they found the information they did track down to be inaccurate.

Burke says he was still shocked by how little attention businesses paid to providing good access information about their services.

He says: “What frustrates me the most is that businesses are resistant to communicating with a market worth £200 billion a year.

“With high streets struggling, you would think most businesses would want to tap into that.

“Businesses need to wake up. The disability market has always been here, but businesses need to wake up to it.”

Burke started DisabledGo in 2000 after spending several years in hospital, rehabilitation and respite after a severe case of encephalitis as a teenager.

He says it was only when he emerged after his rehabilitation that he realised that he was disabled. “Trying to access anywhere was fraught with difficulty and frustration.

“I’m a pretty confident guy but I found that my social ambit was shrinking, was getting smaller and smaller and I wasn’t going out anywhere where I hadn’t been before because I couldn’t trust what the access was like.

“If I did try somewhere new and it didn’t work out, which almost invariably it didn’t, that experience would eat in at me and eat at my confidence, and I was becoming more and more a hostage in my own home.”

It was these experiences that motivated him to start DisabledGo.

For the first couple of years, he travelled the country, listening to disabled people as part of a national consultation exercise, “asking why we were not more visible in society and in education and why we weren’t down the pub more.”

What he was told was that society was generally inaccessible, but that there were many places that were accessible to some disabled people, if those disabled people could only find out about them.

Burke says that listening to disabled people in this way has been at the core of DisabledGo’s success, with local steering groups set up whenever it produces an area guide “so local people can feed into what we’re doing all the time”.

Nine years ago, he decided DisabledGo had reached a position where it was “very strong, very robust”, with multi-year contracts with a number of large businesses and organisations and an annual turnover of £2 million, and so he decided “to become a barrister and see if I can help people in a different way”.

After just three years’ training, he was called to the bar and stepped down as chief executive of DisabledGo.

He is now head of employment and discrimination at Seven Bedford Row, a leading barristers’ chambers in London.

If he had one request of government, he says, it would be to set up an inspectorate to ensure businesses comply with the Equality Act.

He says: “The Equality Act is a fantastic piece of legislation – most disabled people don’t realise how powerful it is – but if you have less favourable treatment from a service or a venue you have to bring your own civil claim and that’s exhausting and expensive and time-consuming and can be frightening, although it shouldn’t be frightening at all.

“Most people are put off by it, so the government should recognise that just as we have a health and safety inspectorate, hygiene inspectorates and things like that, we should have an access inspectorate too.”

Burke believes that disabled people’s “quality of life index” would “show a downward trend” 18 years on from the launch of DisabledGo, following years of cuts to state support and media reporting of “benefit cheats”, which he believes has had “a hugely detrimental impact on how society views disabled people”.

He says: “To taint disabled people with the brush of a cheat or a scrounger is just plain wrong.”

The AccessAble survey found that less than two-fifths (37 per cent) of the 845 disabled people and carers questioned thought that public attitudes to disability and access had improved in the last five years.

But one thing that has changed disabled people’s lives for the better since 2000 is technology, he says, which had “always been a friend to disabled people”.

He hopes that AccessAble’s new app will help disabled people who find that acquiring an impairment “can often feel like the death of spontaneity”.

The website has always helped disabled people plan their journey before they left home, but the app will tell the user where the nearest accessible venues are when they are already out and about.

Burke, who still owns AccessAble, hopes his team will double its reach to three million users a year by 2020.

“We need to commit to changing a situation where disabled people and carers are being excluded from everyday life and recognise that access begins online,” he says.

“Everyone’s accessibility needs are different. Providing trusted accessibility information should be seen as an integral part of providing a great customer experience.”

*AccessAble is a DNS subscriber

18 October 2018


News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com