DWP waited 18 months to take safety action on ‘vulnerable’ claimant

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) waited 18 months before it took action to ensure the safety of a benefit claimant it had assessed as “vulnerable” because of significant mental health problems.

Mike Owen told DWP that he was a survivor of child sexual exploitation and was experiencing significant mental distress because of that trauma.

He was coping with both the personal independence payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA) systems throughout those 18 months.

But despite being told in May 2017 by DWP’s ministerial correspondence team that he would now be treated as “vulnerable” by both the ESA and PIP departments, that failed to happen.

Owen did not benefit from support from one of DWP’s vulnerable claimant champions (VCCs) for the next 18 months.

During that time, he struggled badly with both the ESA and PIP systems because of DWP’s failure to provide the reasonable adjustments he needed, which caused both his mental and physical health to deteriorate.

Disability News Service (DNS) has seen separate letters to Owen from DWP which show that he should have been treated as “vulnerable” from May 2017, and that “the first recorded instance of your case being referred to [the VCC] was 4 December 2018”.

He was only provided with VCC support in late 2018 after he happened to speak to a couple of senior DWP officers who were both VCCs themselves and told him his PIP claim had been severely mishandled.

Each of them told him he should have been receiving VCC support as early as February 2017, when he first submitted his PIP claim.

Owen is now considering seeking a judicial review of DWP’s safeguarding policies, and he is also hoping that at least four local authorities – in Hull, Leeds, Cardiff and Bootle, each representing areas where a benefit centre dealing with his claims was based – will conduct inquiries into the department’s safeguarding failures.

The Independent Case Examiner is also investigating his complaints about the way DWP has dealt with his PIP and ESA claims.

Owen said he could easily have taken his own life in the 18 months it took DWP to start treating him as a “vulnerable” claimant.

He said: “I now self-harm by punching walls to calm myself down because of everything they have done to me.

“They have institutionally penalised me for their own mistakes. It’s not fair on me, nor is it fair on everybody who has gone through PIP.”

He said the delays he endured showed DWP had failed to learn from the deaths of Jodey Whiting and Stephen Smith, both of whom died following serious safeguarding failures by the department.

Owen said: “They haven’t learned from these deaths. They are putting us all at risk.”

He said this showed the importance of the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition*, which calls on DWP to take urgent action to ensure the safety of all benefit claimants, and which says the department should be seen as “not fit for purpose”.

He said he was also speaking out because of his own professional background as a former safeguarding professional.

He said: “I can’t sit on it with my professional background. I can’t not do anything about it.

“For me to find out I was deemed as vulnerable in May 2017 and for there to be an 18-month delay before they actioned anything, it put my life at risk.”

A DWP spokesperson refused to confirm that Owen was left without specialist support for 18 months, and he refused to explain why that happened.

But he said that Owen “received specialist support during the PIP process and reasonable adjustments have been made to his ongoing ESA claim”, and that he was still receiving ESA, with staff “in regular contact with him”.

He added: “We are committed to safeguarding vulnerable claimants and we keep our guidance under constant review to ensure we provide the highest standard of protection.”

Owen said in response: “The evidence is very clear about what happened. They really need to start being honest.

“They know this is serious and they need to work out exactly how this happened and why it happened.”

Owen pointed to repeated tragedies and research which have highlighted DWP’s safeguarding failures.

Earlier this year, his research showed DWP and its private sector contractors had been failing for years to alert local authorities to concerns about benefit claimants whose safety was at risk.

He found that only 25 of 80 council social services departments across England, Scotland and Wales said they had received a single safeguarding alert from DWP over the last three years.

In January, DNS revealed how ministers had failed to include DWP in a new cross-government plan aimed at reducing suicides, despite years of evidence linking such deaths with the disability benefits system and social security reforms.

The following month, Owen told DNS how he had been informed by a senior Maximus executive that the company did not have a safeguarding policy, nearly four years after taking on the WCA contract.

The same month, the Independent Case Examiner found that DWP had failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to the suicide of Jodey Whiting, a disabled woman with a long history of mental distress who had had her out-of-work disability benefits stopped for missing a WCA, and who took her own life just 15 days later.

In April came the death of Stephen Smith, months after he was found fit for work by DWP despite being in hospital with such severe health problems that his weight had fallen to six stone. DWP had ignored two separate doctors’ letters about Smith’s serious health problems.

And in June, the information commissioner ruled that DWP had broken the law by destroying a damaging internal report about its failure to ensure the safety of benefit claimants in jobcentres.

*Sign the Jodey Whiting petition here. If you sign the petition, please note you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee

1 August 2019


Anger over appointment of ‘disability hate tweet’ MP as mental health minister

A Tory MP appointed as the new minister for mental health in Boris Johnson’s government is unfit to hold that position because of a disablist message she posted on social media less than two years ago, say disabled campaigners.

Nadine Dorries has been appointed as a junior health minister, replacing Jackie Doyle-Price, with health and social care secretary Matt Hancock welcoming her on Twitter at the weekend as the new “mental health minister”.

But just two years ago, Dorries sent out the following tweet: “Window lickin’ Twitter trolls out in force today.”

That tweet was sent when she was a backbench MP, but her appointment this week as a minister in a disability-related post – she will also have responsibility for suicide prevention – has angered disability hate crime campaigners.

Anne Novis, chair of Inclusion London and an advisor on disability hate crime to the Metropolitan police, said the tweet made Dorries unfit to be minister for mental health.

She said: “As chair of Inclusion London, I would say that we would have great concern over someone who would use the language of hate towards disabled people.

“She should not be minister, definitely not. There would be no confidence in her because of what she has brought across through her offensive language.

“When people use that language, it betrays an attitude that is derogatory and dismissive of disabled people, a negative attitude towards disabled people.”

She said the term “window lickers” was frequently discussed by trainers in disability equality training sessions, who explain how it originated as a term of abuse for people with Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy because they often cannot control their tongues.

Now, she said, it tends to be used as a term to attack disabled people in general.

Novis said: “It indicates not only that Nadine Dorries would use such offensive language but also that her understanding would be very poor about issues faced by disabled people, including mental health issues.

“You wouldn’t accept it around racist, or religious or cultural difference; you just wouldn’t accept that sort of language and expect someone then to go into a post that is meant to be assisting those people.

“There would be no confidence in her. We would have no confidence in this person being a minister because of what she has brought across through her language.”

Stephen Brookes, a former coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, who himself has a mental health condition, said he was concerned about the Dorries tweet and found her appointment “very worrying”.

He also said he did not think she was a fit person to be given the post.

He said: “As somebody who is coming from a mental health background, I do find it disturbing that somebody who issues a tweet like that is given a job relating to mental health.

“I have deep concerns about whether they are going to have respect and concern and are going to be a real supporter of the community they are supposed to represent.

“If somebody tweets something [like that], in the back of their mind they actually mean it.”

He said he found it “very disturbing that some people are given posts when they have no awareness of the implications of varying and fluctuating mental health conditions.

“What we need is someone who understands that and is not just given the job because they happen to be passing Number 10 at the time.”

The Department of Health and Social Care failed to comment by noon today (Thursday), despite promising that it would produce a response to concerns about the tweet and her appointment.

Dorries’ office failed to return messages from DNS by noon today.

Elsewhere, Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, has been reappointed to his post, as has Caroline Dinenage, the care minister.

Amber Rudd stays in her post as work and pensions secretary.

Nusrat Ghani, the minister responsible for transport accessibility, has been reappointed as maritime minister, while disabled MP Paul Maynard has returned to the Department for Transport (DfT), where he was previously rail minister and had responsibility for accessibility issues.

A DfT spokesperson said it had not yet been confirmed which minister would now be responsible for transport accessibility issues.

1 August 2019


Failure to extend ILF transition funding would be ‘another nail in coffin’

The government has failed to ease fears that it plans to scrap a vital grant that has been supporting former users of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) for more than three years.

The four-year Former ILF Recipient Grant was agreed in February 2016, with the government agreeing to provide £675 million over four years to local authorities in England.

The announcement of the grant was a significant victory for disabled activists, whose direct action protests had ensured that the plight of former ILF recipients remained a high-profile issue after the fund’s closure on 30 June 2015.

The recipient grant was not ring-fenced, so councils were not forced to spend it supporting former ILF-users, but it has allowed thousands of disabled people with high support needs to continue to live independently since ILF’s closure.

But disabled activists have now pointed out that the four years of funding is due to end next April, and there has been no mention by ministers of any extension to the grant.

And when Disability News Service contacted the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government this week, it refused to say if an extension of the funding was being considered.

Instead, a spokesperson said: “The upcoming [cross-government] spending review will be our opportunity to look at funding for local authorities in the round and work is well underway to secure the resources and flexibilities councils need to deliver services for communities across the country.”

John Kelly, a former ILF-recipient and prominent campaigner, who lives in south-west London, said that any decision to end the grant would be “another nail in the coffin”.

He said: “I don’t want to be alarmist, but things are so awful at the moment that we could be saying goodbye to our rights to independent living, where the limited options on offer could be going back to living in care homes.

“Our predictions when ILF closed have all come true. We said it would be a postcode lottery. It is.

“We predicted the closure would be a drip, drip erosion of our ability and rights to an independent full life.

“We said that people’s packages may be cut. Some disabled people’s packages have been cut.

“We said local authorities wouldn’t be able to cope with applying the principles of independent living to our lives, because all they would be worried about was very basic care needs, because their budgets have been cut. That’s happening.

“We’re in a crisis. That’s not our words, that’s the directors of social services saying it.

“We knew local authorities wouldn’t be able to cope with the freedoms that ILF did give. Those freedoms are being threatened more and more.

“And we knew that ILF was working and those freedoms should have been given to more disabled people, not less.”

He added: “In the spending review, they must ensure that that money continues, but critically our rights to independent living must also be reconsidered, protected and actually furthered.

“My life is more than a one-hour call to make sure I am fed and watered.”

Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said the government had been “shamed” into providing the transition grant through the efforts of disabled activists.

One example was DPAC launching a direct action protest in the lobby of the House of Commons, days before ILF was due to close, with activists nearly succeeding in breaking into the main Commons chamber during prime minister’s questions.

But she said the transition funding provided by the government, including the four-year extension agreed in 2016, was never ring-fenced.

Clifford said: “Even before the ILF closed some local authorities started making dramatic cuts.

“It has been a complete postcode lottery from area to area.

“If the grant is ending, it will be a terrible blow to former ILF recipients whose local authorities have been protecting their support packages.

“We would be likely to see an even greater level of re-institutionalisation, neglect, denial of opportunity and dehumanisation of people with high support needs living in the community and a greater pressure to go into segregated institutions against their wishes.”

She called on disabled people and allies to support the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance’s Independent Living for the Future campaign, which calls for a new national independent living service that would eliminate the postcode lottery in support, and finally make the right to independent living a reality.

ILF was originally funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, and when it closed on 30 June 2015 it was helping nearly 17,000 disabled people with the highest support needs to live independently.

But ministers decided it should be scrapped, promising instead that nine months’ worth of non-ring-fenced funding would be transferred to councils in England and to devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, to cover the period until April 2016.

It then agreed to extend that funding to English councils for another four years.

There were separate arrangements in Scotland and Wales.

Scotland set up its own Scottish Independent Living Fund on 1 July 2015, after the closure of the UK-wide ILF.

In Wales, a temporary replacement for ILF, the Welsh Independent Living Grant (WILG) scheme, ran from July 2015 but was due to close this spring and be replaced by a system of council-funded support.

But the closure was paused, after campaigning by disabled activists and allies, to allow all WILG recipients to request an independent reassessment of their new council support packages, with the Welsh government promising to fund the reassessments and any extra support they might need as a result.

1 August 2019


Charities ignore Justice for Jodey evidence

A dozen disability charities have refused to back demands for an inquiry into links between the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the deaths of benefit claimants, despite being reminded of the years of evidence behind those calls.

The 12 charities refused earlier this month to back the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition*, which calls for an inquiry**, and makes other demands aimed at securing justice for those who have died and securing improvements to DWP’s policies and procedures.

Last Friday (26 July), Disability News Service (DNS) and grassroots groups supporting the petition used social media to present evidence to the charities from the last decade that showed the links between DWP and the deaths of claimants, and proved the department’s institutional disablism, safety failings and other serious flaws.

The aim was to persuade just one of the charities to change its position and back the petition.

But the charities – Action on Hearing Loss, Epilepsy Action, Parkinson’s UK, Leonard Cheshire, Mencap, the MS Society, the National Autistic Society, Rethink, RNIB, Scope, Sense, Turning Point – failed to respond to the contact via social media or make any attempt to defend their position.

One manager from Mencap asked on Twitter who DNS had contacted at the charity about the petition, but then failed to follow up her query when DNS asked her to email for further information.

The only other contact from one of the charities this week came from Sense, which emailed a press release to DNS asking for coverage of a series of new fundraising shops.

The non-user-led charities’ refusal to support efforts by disabled people and allies to secure justice for those who have died, ensure DWP improves its record on safety, and enable a recognition that the department is institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose angered many campaigners.

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, which backs the petition, said: “The lack of response from charities speaks volumes about their priorities and continuing lack of commitment to the lives and safety of disabled people.

“However, we’re sure their CEOs will sleep comfortably in their beds knowing that their own vastly inflated salaries are safe.”

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said: “A so-called ‘charity’ that does not stand up and speak out forcefully for our citizens with the impairments they represent can only be described in one way: parasites.

“They are taking pay cheques off the back of the suffering of those whom they were set up to defend.

“We call upon all our people with relevant impairments whom these ‘charities’ pretend to fight for to mount letter writing, petitions and telephone campaigns demanding the resignations of these corporate parasites without delay.

“They are the betrayers of disabled people. Enough is enough.”

Cllr Pam Thomas, a disabled city councillor in Liverpool and a former activist with the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), said on Twitter: “There is a long history of charities not supporting disabled people’s activism.

“Although they may be happy to take the credit and pretend it was all their doing when disabled people’s campaigns are successful.”

Another long-time disabled activist, artist Tony Heaton, said on Twitter: “The usual suspects… remember the fight for anti-discrimination legislation back in the 1980s…?”

He added: “Too scared to bite the hand that feeds them the crumbs…”

Some claimed the charities’ silence was due to a fear of losing government funding, or because of being “in the pockets of Government”, “feathering their own pockets”, or being “self serving businesses”.

Others suggested it was linked to lobbying laws introduced by the government.

One Twitter-user asked Scope: “I wrote and asked why aren’t you supporting this? You didn’t respond. I emailed, no response.

“Could you respond here on Twitter please? It makes people like myself hesitant to approach you as a charity professing to support disability. Thanks.”

Four days later, Scope had failed to respond to his tweet.

One disabled campaigner said: “By not supporting the inquiry they are just saying their #DutyofCare to their #ServiceUsers is diminished due to gov influence. Hang your heads in shame!!”

Other Twitter users said the charities’ silence meant they were “complicit” in the hostile environment for disabled people created by the government.

Many Twitter users said they would no longer donate to the charities because of their failure to support the petition.

Jodey Whiting died in February 2017, 15 days after she had her out-of-work disability benefits mistakenly stopped for missing a work capability assessment.

The Independent Case Examiner concluded earlier this year that DWP was guilty of “multiple” and “significant” failings in handling the case.

But her death was only the latest avoidable tragedy to be linked to DWP’s actions, with previous deaths stretching back nearly a decade.

*Sign the Jodey Whiting petition here. If you sign the petition, please note you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee

**Although not supporting the petition, Mencap has said it backs an “independent examination” of DWP policies and practices in relation to “vulnerable claimants”. Epilepsy Action supports an inquiry, but also does not back the petition

1 August 2019


Anger grows as police force edges towards releasing DWP ‘sharing agreement’

Disabled activists will meet this week to discuss how to respond to a police force that has admitted it has an agreement to share information with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about benefit claimants who take part in protests.

Concerns about links between DWP and police forces such as Greater Manchester Police (GMP) – and the impact on disabled people’s right to protest – first emerged last December after Disability News Service (DNS) reported that forces had been targeting disabled people taking part in peaceful anti-fracking protests across England.

But the concerns have now spread beyond anti-fracking protests to other pieces of direct action and protests in which disabled people have taken part.

DNS has been trying for months to confirm that there is a written agreement in place that allows GMP to share information with DWP about protesters who may be claiming disability-related benefits.

Once the existence of that agreement is confirmed, campaigners are likely to ask whether DWP has similar “sharing agreements” with other police forces, and what information they allow officers to share with the department.

Manchester’s deputy mayor has this week asked Greater Manchester Police for information about the document, months after she was promised by senior police officers that no such agreement existed.

The force’s press office has also finally admitted that the document exists, blaming a “misunderstanding” for its previous denial that it had such an agreement with DWP.

Today (Thursday), the force’s information management department appeared to be in the final stages of preparing the document for its release to DNS.

Last week’s DNS story that the information management team had confirmed that the “sharing agreement” existed has sparked anger among disabled people and their allies.

Some described the force’s actions as “shameful”, “disgusting”, a “disgrace”, and “deeply disturbing” and “anti democratic”, while others suggested on Twitter that GMP was breaching disabled people’s human rights.

Rick Burgess, of Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts (MDPAC), told DNS that he and his colleagues were “shocked and dismayed” at the “attempt to intimidate us into not protesting”.

He said: “I know there are people who will not come to protests because of this, because of fear of being reported to DWP and then becoming penniless and homeless just for exercising our democratic right to protest. It’s despicable.”

MDPAC is meeting this week to discuss what action it will take.

GMP’s press office finally commented on the agreement last night – after refusing to do so last week – and appeared to accept that there was a sharing agreement.

A GMP spokesperson told DNS: “Can I clarify that we’ve solved the misunderstanding around the choice of words we’ve used about a ‘sharing agreement’?

“I hope you understand that by this we mean the agreement to share information between agencies, which is what we did under [section 29] of the Data Protection Act, which allows agencies to share information for a policing purpose.”

But it has failed to explain why GMP previously denied the existence of any such sharing agreement.

The force press office itself said in February that there was no formal sharing agreement in place with DWP.

But an information compliance and records management officer with the force has told DNS that he has now obtained a copy of the information sharing agreement and is preparing it for release.

A previous GMP freedom of information response stated that any information shared with DWP was “done under data protection legislation, not as part of a formal agreement policy (ISA Information Sharing Agreement)”.

And senior police officers told Greater Manchester’s deputy mayor for policing, Baroness [Bev] Hughes, in February that there was “no formal ‘sharing agreement’ in place and that the police act on a case by case basis, sharing information in accordance with the Data Protection Act”.

The GMP press office had failed by noon today (Thursday) to explain how this could be described as “a misunderstanding around the choice of words” rather than a deliberate intention to mislead, but insisted that “we have not intentionally misled you”.

DNS contacted Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) this week to ask whether Baroness Hughes was concerned about the force’s admission when she was assured by senior officers in February that there was no sharing agreement with DWP.

A GMCA spokesperson said: “We are awaiting information on this from Greater Manchester Police.”

1 August 2019


Equality watchdog’s ‘head in sand’ failure to listen, after MPs call for ‘bolder’ action

The equality watchdog has been accused of a “head in the sand” failure to respond to significant criticisms by MPs about its failure to enforce anti-discrimination legislation.

In a new report, the Commons women and equalities committee calls on the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to “overcome its timidity”, “refocus its work”, “be bolder” in using its powers, and increase its enforcement of the Equality Act.

But the commission has refused to respond to the criticisms in the report, and instead has issued a statement praising its own performance.

The report says repeated inquiries have found EHRC “failing to act in areas of significant inequality and unable to provide an adequate explanation of why it appears not to be able to fulfil the role of a robust enforcer of equality law”.

The committee asked a series of witnesses if they thought organisations and businesses worried about EHRC taking legal action against them. Not one of them thought they did.

The report says that the commission has never used some of its unique legal powers.

It says the commission has applied for injunctions to prevent unlawful discrimination on just seven occasions, none of which the committee could find information about on the EHRC website.

And there has been just one formal investigation since 2009-10 and no assessments of how organisations are complying with the public sector equality duty, which was brought in by the Equality Act 2010.

The report concludes: “The result of this is that the burden of enforcement has been borne by individuals, even where the EHRC has become involved.”

It warns that disabled people and other individuals are facing discrimination “because employers and service providers are not afraid to discriminate, knowing that they are unlikely to be held to account”.

And it calls on EHRC to “significantly increase the volume, transparency and publicity of its enforcement work by making much greater use of its unique enforcement powers, publicising that work and reducing its reliance on individual complainants”.

Although the committee acknowledged that the commission had had its budget cut by nearly £42 million since 2007, it said it was still repeatedly underspending on its budget, with a forecast underspend of £689,000 for 2018-19.

The committee also said it was “deeply concerned” by the way the commission had handled discrimination claims made by its own staff during its latest restructuring programme.

Despite the criticism and multiple recommendations relating to its work, EHRC refused to say if it welcomed the report, if it agreed with the committee’s conclusions, or if it would consider the recommendations for improvement.

Instead, it issued a statement describing itself as a “confident and robust defender of people’s rights”, although it failed in the statement to give any examples of how it had tackled disability discrimination.

A spokesperson said EHRC had doubled the number of legal cases it had taken in the last few years, and that it had “helped more individuals and started a number of high profile investigations”.

The only recommendations it welcomed were those where the committee had agreed with its own previous calls for action on access to justice and strengthening the public sector equality duty.

The spokesperson said the commission was “always looking to improve” and was already planning to “focus on larger, longer-term interventions to achieve greater impact and make more use of our unique powers to ensure justice for those whose rights are breached”.

The committee received written evidence from more than 200 individuals and organisations for its Enforcing the Equality Act report, including several disabled people’s organisations.

It also heard oral evidence from disabled campaigners Doug Paulley, Esther Leighton and Jeanine Blamires – who discussed the challenges they experienced when they took organisations to court for disability discrimination – and Mike Smith, a former EHRC disability commissioner.

The report concludes: “While individuals must still have the right to challenge discrimination in the courts, the system of enforcement should ensure that this is only rarely needed.

“This requires a fundamental shift in the way that enforcement of the Equality Act is thought about and applied.”

Paulley welcomed the report and said he agreed with its conclusions on disability rights and the law, EHRC and enforcement of the Equality Act 2010.

But he said EHRC’s response to the report had avoided the significant criticisms of its work by the committee.

He said: “The EHRC’s ‘head in the sand’ avoidance of the significant reasoned and evidenced criticisms in the report is redolent of the very behaviour that is subject to the criticism: failure to engage with issues and concerns in a proactive way, and failure to embrace opportunities to better serve the disadvantaged people they purport to support.”

As well as criticism of EHRC’s work, the report also calls for regulators, ombudsmen and inspectorates to take more action to enforce the Equality Act.

And it calls on the government to make a “fundamental shift” in how it enforces the act, and act on its own legal obligation to “embed compliance and enforcement” into “its most significant strategies and action plans”.

The committee said it had seen “repeated examples” of government strategies that have failed to recognise discrimination “let alone contain actions to secure compliance with the Equality Act”.

The report says the government’s failure to do this in connection with its recent focus on improving the workplace “beggars belief”.

It adds: “This failure leaves the Government at serious risk of breaching the public sector equality duty in its most important strategies and means that individuals facing discrimination continue to bear the full burden of enforcement, even in policy areas that the Government has identified as of central importance to the country.”

Maria Miller, the Conservative chair of the committee, said: “Employers and service providers are not afraid to discriminate, knowing that they are unlikely to be held to account.

“We need a critical mass of cases to build a culture where compliance with the Equality Act is the norm.

“The EHRC must overcome its timidity. It has unique powers, limited resources and must use them for maximum impact.

“It should make regulators, inspectorates and ombudsmen not only key partners in creating a critical mass of enforcement action but also key targets for enforcement action when those same regulators, inspectorates and ombudsmen fail to meet their own equality duties.”

1 August 2019


Ministers’ plans on ‘toxic’ impact of driver-only trains fall way short, says DPTAC

The Department for Transport (DfT) is falling “a very long way short” with its plans to ease the “toxic” impact on disabled people of running driver-only trains through unstaffed stations, according to the government’s own accessible transport advisers.

A letter from the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), obtained by the Association of British Commuters (ABC) through a freedom of information request, has revealed DPTAC’s deep concerns about how the government’s rail policies will affect disabled passengers.

DPTAC – most of whose members are disabled people – wrote to two transport ministers after reading a report by consultants Steer, and associated guidance produced by DfT, on how different methods of operating trains affect disabled people.

In the letter (PDF), sent on 9 April, DPTAC chair Keith Richards expresses repeated concerns about the Steer research, and warns that its conclusions should be used only “with extreme caution”.

It warns that the “mitigation” suggested by DfT – based on the research – for situations where there are no rail staff available to assist disabled passengers is “wholly inadequate”.

And the letter reminds the two ministers – Nusrat Ghani and Andrew Jones – of DPTAC’s “frequently-stated concern over staffing levels and, in particular, the potentially toxic combination of driver-only operated [DOO] trains and unstaffed stations”.

The DPTAC letter says the mitigations suggested in DfT’s guidance fall “a very long way short” of the objective of allowing “disabled people to use the rail network on a non-discriminatory basis”.

But the letter does say that the Steer report shows there are “only very limited opportunities” to provide such mitigation if staff are not available either on board the train or at stations to assist disabled passengers.

DPTAC says that the “availability of staff to provide assistance is crucial to the ability of many disabled passengers (and indeed older passengers more generally) to make rail journeys”.

It also warns DfT that it should take legal advice on whether forcing disabled passengers to travel on DOO trains to unstaffed stations would breach the Equality Act and other laws and regulations.

And it calls for a “fundamental review” by DfT to ensure that disabled passengers “are able to use the rail network on a non discriminatory basis”.

Almost 12 months ago, ABC published letters, minutes of meetings and responses to public consultations – again obtained through the Freedom of Information Act – which showed the government had repeatedly ignored warnings from DPTAC about the “toxic combination” of running trains through unstaffed stations without a member of customer service staff on board.

Ann Bates, a leading transport access consultant and former rail chair of DPTAC, told Disability News Service: “I was delighted that DPTAC seem so alert to the dangers reducing staff would have to the frequently and rightly stated aim that disabled passengers should have an equal right to travel as other passengers.

“DPTAC’s letter to the ministers dated 9 April 2019 is entirely correct in stating that, especially in the toxic situation of DOO trains travelling to staffless stations, there would appear to be no easily implemented mitigation available.

“This confirms work that ABC and others have been researching for years in that running trains with well trained staff would be the most pragmatic and reliable way of ensuring access for the full range of passengers with both visible and invisible disabilities.”

ABC’s Emily Yates said: “After three years of rail strikes we’ve had enough of the government’s charade.

“Train operating companies must guarantee the second safety critical member of staff on trains and the Department for Transport must provide the full details of their secret policy [to allow more DOO trains].

“If they fail to do this, both will be complicit in breaching the Equality Act and excluding disabled people from the right to spontaneous travel.”

Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT rail union, said: “RMT has fought the government and the train operating companies tooth and nail to defend a second safety critical member of staff on our trains and we’ve stepped up the campaign to put more staff back in our stations.

“The new rail minister must publish this report, put an end to this disgraceful exercise and put staff back at the heart of a fully accessible railway.”

A DfT spokesperson had refused by noon today (Thursday) to say if the department accepted and understood the concerns about the combination of DOO and unstaffed stations raised by DPTAC, and if it accepted DPTAC’s recommendations to take legal advice on potential breaches of the Equality Act and to carry out a review.

But he said in a statement: “Disabled passengers should have the same opportunities to travel as everyone else, which is why we expect all train operators to have clear plans in place for how they will help passengers who need it.

“We continue to work with DPTAC on this issue and will look to publish the [Steer] report in due course.”

Meanwhile, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has published new guidance for the rail industry aimed at improving access to Britain’s railway for older and disabled people.

The new guidance, which follows two public consultations, tells train and station operators what they “must” include in their own Accessible Travel Policies – which are replacing Disabled Persons’ Protection Policies – as well as setting out recommended good practice that those policies “may” also feature.

ORR says operators must set out in their Accessible Travel Policies how they will ensure they spend enough on assisting disabled passengers through the Passenger Assist service.

And it describes how the notice that disabled passengers must give to book assistance in advance must gradually be cut until the minimum is just two hours from 1 April 2022.

ORR says train operators must set out a policy on carrying mobility scooters and “make the reasoning behind their policy clear”, while any policy that excludes some or all scooters or mobility aids “must only be as a result of an evidenced safety or physical restriction”.

And it says train and station operators “must operate a regular forum of disabled passengers, to include users of assisted travel, with whom they consult on accessibility issues”.

They must also ensure that the information on step-free access, assisted travel and the availability of staff help that is included on the station pages of the National Rail Enquiries website is “up to date and accurate”.

The new guidance should make it easier for disabled passengers to receive compensation if the assistance they book in advance fails to be provided, and it should also lead to improved staff training.

Some of the guidance featured in recommendations made by ORR to the Williams Rail Review earlier this month.

1 August 2019


News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com