Scrapped! Ministers ‘secretly ditch government’s disability strategy’

The government appears to have scrapped its cross-departmental disability strategy – which was aimed at “improving the lives of disabled people” – and abandoned any idea of replacing it.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) yesterday refused to say what had happened to a review of its Fulfilling Potential strategy, which was announced by a minister nearly two years ago.

The strategy was supposed to describe the government’s view of “a society where disabled people can realise their aspirations and fulfil their potential”.

DWP also refused to comment yesterday when asked if the government still had a disability strategy.

The initial stage of Fulfilling Potential was first launched in December 2011, but there have been no updates or progress reports on the strategy on the website of the government’s Office for Disability Issues (ODI) since November 2015.

That progress report included Office for National Statistics figures which showed the proportion of disabled people who said they frequently had choice and control over their lives had plunged from 77 per cent in 2010 to just 66 per cent in 2013.

One Fulfilling Potential publication stated, in 2013, that the strategy was “about making the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People a living reality for disabled people in Britain”.

But the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities delivered its own verdict on that aim last August, when its chair told the UK government that its cuts to social security and other support for disabled people had caused “a human catastrophe”, which was “totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in”.

In July 2016, Nicky Morgan, at the time the minister for women and equalities, announced that the government would be reviewing the Fulfilling Potential strategy during the summer and autumn of that year.

She had been responding to the highly-critical report of a House of Lords inquiry into the impact of the Equality Act on disabled people.

Morgan told the committee that she would use its evidence and wider conversations with disabled people to “help shape how we will take the strategy forward until 2020”.

But there appear to have been no mentions of the review – or ministerial announcements on the strategy’s future – since Morgan made the announcement.

And when asked this week by Disability News Service (DNS) whether the government still had a disability strategy, a DWP spokeswoman appeared to suggest there no longer was one.

She said: “Disability in the UK is mainstreamed. This means that, whilst we promote disability issues across government, every department is ultimately responsible for considering disability in the development and implementation of policies.

“This responsibility is made clear through the legislative duties placed on all public bodies via the public sector equality duty in the Equality Act 2010, and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in Northern Ireland.”

When asked what had happened to the review of the strategy, she said: “We are committed to improving the lives of disabled people and increasing their participation in society.

“The Lords select committee and other reports have highlighted that disabled people expect different outcomes to the ones in 2013 for Fulfilling Potential, and we continue to explore ways of ensuring that disability rights are a reality for all disabled people.”

When DNS asked her to clarify what she meant by that answer, she refused to comment further.

And when asked if her answers meant the government no longer had a disability strategy, she again refused to comment.

In January 2017, DNS reported that the government had failed to provide updated annual figures that could have exposed the failure of Fulfilling Potential, since ONS statistics showed in 2015 that the proportion of disabled people with choice and control over their lives had fallen from 77 per cent in 2010 to 66 per cent in 2013.

The questions were asked by ONS on behalf of DWP, but no updated figures appear to have been collected.

The government promised that new figures showing how disabled people’s experiences had changed would be published in 2016, but no fresh figures were ever published.

In January 2017, DWP said that it had decided not to publish updated figures “after taking account of feedback from disabled people’s organisations”.

When asked which disabled people’s organisations had provided this feedback, DWP said in a freedom of information response to DNS that it “came from individual stakeholder discussions which were not formally minuted”.

It said in its January 2017 response that it was working instead on replacing these figures with “a series of work and health indicators”.

There were concerns in 2017 that the government had failed to publish updated figures because they would demonstrate that cuts to spending in areas such as social care and disability benefits were having a damaging effect on disabled people’s right to independent living, and their access to education, housing, transport and other services.

When asked whether this was why publication of the figures had been scrapped, the DWP spokeswoman said yesterday: “No. We spend over £50 billion a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions – more than ever before.

“This figure is set to rise annually until the end of this parliament.”

22 March 2018

 

 

Anger over DWP refusal to repay claimants £150 million from botched reassessments

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is refusing to pay back as much as £150 million owed to disabled people as a result of botched efforts to move them onto the new employment and support allowance (ESA).

The National Audit Office (NAO) published a report this week into its investigation into historic underpayments made by DWP following the reassessment of people on older-style benefits such as incapacity benefit (IB) onto the new out-of-work disability benefit ESA.

The report concludes that DWP underpaid about 70,000 people between February 2011 – when the reassessment process began – and the end of 2014, because of its failure to realise that many of these claimants were entitled to income-related ESA and associated disability premiums in addition to the contributory form of ESA.

But because the social security upper tribunal only ruled on 21 October 2014 that DWP had been wrongly following social security legislation, ministers say they can legally only pay arrears to those whose claims were still live on that date and who were subsequently underpaid.

This means that it will not pay back an estimated £100 million to £150 million in arrears that date from before 21 October 2014, which DWP says it cannot legally pay.

DWP is still likely to have to pay about £340 million in back-payments for claims that were live on 21 October 2014, with average payments likely to be about £5,000, although a small number could receive as much as £20,000.

It has promised to pay all these arrears by April 2019 and will have to review about 300,000 cases to identify those affected.

DWP first became aware of the issue in 2013 but did not recognise it as “systemic” until 2014, according to the NAO report, and failed to recognise its legal responsibility to identify the people affected and develop a response until July last year.

Ken Butler, welfare benefits advisor at Disability Rights UK, said the NAO report shows “a shambolic catalogue of mistakes which have had a massive impact on tens of thousands of disabled people who qualified for benefits they were denied”.

But he said that disabled people “should not be expected to pay for the DWP’s mistakes.

“The government’s unwillingness to backdate payments beyond 2014, citing legal restrictions, means that disabled people could still be underpaid arrears of up to £150 million.”

He said DR UK knew of cases where backdated payments had been made to claimants dating back to 2011, and he added: “We would encourage anyone affected to seek advice from benefit specialists to challenge the government’s position through the appeals system.”

He said the report was “the latest in a series of examples of the poor administration and implementation of welfare reform.

“From inadequate assessments through to poor policy-making, disabled people continue to be hit by changes to a system which is supposed to help them become more independent and fails to do so.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “It is disgusting that DWP are refusing to refund payments disabled people have lost due to their errors and incompetence.”

She said DWP’s refusal to pay all the refunds “can only be described as theft”.

Dr Philippa Whitford, SNP’s shadow spokeswoman on health, said in a Commons debate yesterday (Wednesday) that the refusal to pay pre-October 2014 arrears was “a bit funny, because when we have to pay the government, somehow there is never a statute of limitations”.

Burnip said: “We have to ask just where does the incompetence of DWP stop?

“This ‘error’ has been ongoing and known about for over four years yet only now is anything being done to address the failures of DWP to pay disabled people the correct amount of social security payments to which they were entitled.

“Why has such a massive systemic failure been covered up and ignored?”

Burnip said a further “vital” issue was whether the payment of arrears in a lump sum could leave some disabled people over the qualifying level of savings for income-related ESA, which could put some of their ongoing entitlements at risk.

DPAC has called for an exception to be made by DWP, so the back-payments are disregarded in the same way as criminal injuries compensation awards.

Frank Field, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, said: “This is a damning report.

“The department is quick to act in cases of overpayment, quick to sanction claimants for any breach of its rules, but when the shoe is on the other foot [it] has shown it will take years to recognise and get to grips with its own mistakes.

“This must have caused even more hardship for people, many of whom have struggled through an assessment process that we heard from thousands of accounts is, for some, gruelling and humiliating, and riddled with errors and wrong decisions.”

A DWP spokeswoman said there were “no plans to change the law” to allow DWP to pay arrears for pre-October 2014 claims.

She said: “Section 27 of the Social Security Act 1998 is mandatory and therefore we have to apply it where a relevant determination has been made by a tribunal.

“This approach has recently been confirmed by a judgement of the upper tribunal in January 2018.”

She said DWP was “well underway with our plan to identify and repay people affected by this issue, and payments have already started”.

She added: “We have already reviewed over 4,000 cases, of which around 1,500 cases were incorrect and have been paid arrears of just over £9 million. The first payments were made in September 2017.

“When we were made aware of individual cases relating to this issue in 2013, these were dealt with at the time and additional guidance was put in place.

“The vast majority of cases transferred to ESA were done so correctly.”

22 March 2018

 

 

Government rejects nearly all recommendations from MPs’ access inquiry

The government has accepted just three of 23 recommendations made by a committee of MPs that were aimed at improving disabled people’s access to the built environment.

The women and equalities committee concluded in its report last April that disabled people were too often finding their lives “needlessly restricted by features of the built environment”.

It had heard evidence from disabled witnesses of a catalogue of barriers, including the shortage of accessible homes; public and commercial buildings without step-free access or with poor signage; and inaccessible workplaces.

The Building for Equality report said the burden of ensuring an accessible environment “falls too heavily at present on individual disabled people” and that the government should “act to more visibly lead the charge in improving access and inclusion in the built environment”.

It also called for “more ambition” in the standards of accessibility the government sets for new homes and said that “much more” could be done to “make the public realm and public buildings more accessible”.

But the government’s response, from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), has dismissed nearly all the report’s recommendations for improving the accessibility of new homes, and access to public buildings and public spaces.

Among the recommendations the government has rejected are: to ensure that all new public buildings meet strict inclusive design and access standards; to consider granting VAT exemptions for building work that improves access; and to force public bodies to publish access information about their buildings.

The government also rejected the suggestion that planning permission for a development should only be given by a local authority if there was evidence that it made “sufficient provision for accessibility and inclusion”; and that the government should put pressure on councils that do not do enough to improve the supply of accessible housing in their local plans.

It also dismissed a recommendation to remove the controversial requirement that local authorities must prove there is an immediate need for accessible housing if they want to apply optional access standards to new housing developments.

And it rejected the latest attempt to persuade it to use licensing laws to ensure basic levels of access to licensed premises such as pubs and restaurants.

Another recommendation rejected was to require local authorities to halt all controversial shared space street developments.

MHCLG agreed just three recommendations.

It says it will issue new planning guidance, which has drawn on “stakeholder engagement”, particularly with “disabled people and the groups that represent them”.

It has also agreed to look again at building regulations on disability access; and to fund and support training and development activities by the built environment industry.

Ellen Clifford, campaigns and policy manager for Inclusion London, which gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry, said the government’s response was “overwhelmingly disappointing”.

She said: “The intention of the committee’s inquiry was to find solutions to urgent situations such as the lack of accessible housing supply or barriers to disabled people’s participation in the community, based on a social model approach to removing the burden of enforcement away from individual disabled people.

“The government’s response shows an unwillingness to hold local authorities, developers and licensees to account on accessibility, despite all evidence that without this there will be no improvement and disabled people’s exclusion will continue.”

One leading disabled access consultant, Tracey Proudlock, of Proudlock Associates, said she was “shocked and disappointed” that the government had accepted only three of the committee’s recommendations.

She also criticised the government’s references to inclusive design being “best practice” rather than a statutory requirement, and to the need to have “consultation with” disabled people rather than “having disabled people involved at the heart of the processes that ultimately create inclusive design”.

She said: “We are currently working on a development based on the principles of co-production – with local disabled people as part of the design team – and we know from our experience how important a step this is to take on the road to equality.

“The government should be far more on-board with this.

“Indeed, more should be done to improve inclusive design at every opportunity, both in regulations and in legislation and licensing.

“Laws prohibiting development without improvement are currently full of gaps and at best unclear, especially where smaller commercial buildings are concerned.

“What can’t be achieved by licensing must be met another way and it should be up to the government to find that means, not to turn down suggestions.”

She added: “It is a continuing failure that so many people still do not have adequate access to buildings, in particular homes, work places and to heritage buildings.

“In particular, we do not feel that housing standards should require research into local need before being applied, as good inclusive design enshrined in the right national standards should meet everyone’s needs and desires.”

Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “The government response is very disappointing.”

She said there was “little to cheer about”, except the government’s decision [although this was not in response to a recommendation of the committee] to commence long-awaited measures in the Equality Act 2010 that will impose a duty on landlords to allow reasonable access improvements to be made to the common parts of blocks of flats, such as entrances and stairs (see separate story).

She added: “There’s much ‘we are committed’, ‘we share the committee’s view’, etc, but very little tangible action.

“It seems that access to the built environment is anyone and everyone’s responsibility except the government’s.”

The women and equalities committee said it was too early to comment on the government’s response.

Asked why the government had rejected so many recommendations, an MHCLG spokesman agreed that the government had accepted just three of the report’s recommendations.

But he said: “We fully recognise the importance of accessibility and inclusion when making decisions relating to the built environment.

“We expect councils to consider this when making planning decisions, and we are taking action on a number of areas identified by the committee.”

22 March 2018

 

 

Access to Work cap announcement ‘does not go far enough’

The government’s decision to loosen its restrictions on Access to Work (AtW) payments does not go far enough, and its “discriminatory” cap must be scrapped completely, according to disabled campaigners.

They spoke out after a partial U-turn on the AtW cap by work and pensions secretary Esther McVey.

The cap was first introduced in October 2015, and currently limits the annual support that individuals can be awarded under the scheme to £42,100 a year, or one-and-a-half times the average annual salary.

But McVey announced this week that the cap would now be increased to double the level of average earnings from next month.

This means that it will rise to £57,200 rather than £43,100.

McVey’s decision is likely to be linked to an ongoing court case – backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Inclusion London’s Disability Justice Project, and the Stop Changes to Access to Work campaign – in which David Buxton, chief executive of Action on Disability in London, has won the right to question the cap through a judicial review.

Buxton, a Deaf user of British Sign Language (BSL), argues that the cap breaches the government’s public sector equality duty and has subjected him to indirect discrimination.

His judicial review is set to go ahead, despite the government’s announcement.

Campaigners believe the cap has had a disproportionate impact on the job and career prospects of Buxton and other Deaf BSL-users and disabled people with high support needs.

They say it effectively removes employment support from those with the most complex needs and places them at a disadvantage when trying to get into, stay in and get on in paid work.

Buxton welcomed the increased cap but said the decision did not go far enough, and it should be scrapped completely.

He said that “assessments (by suitable and knowledgeable personnel who use our language) to determine the support we need to function as employees would result in appropriate awards”.

He said: “There is some way to go yet, not least because it hasn’t been made clear whether the 200 Deaf people – including myself – affected by the cap will automatically be entitled to the higher award or if we have to apply again.

“This level of disproportionate treatment towards Deaf people who use British Sign Language has been grossly unfair and severely impacted our work.”

He said the cap had led to his own interpreting support being “much curtailed”.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said her organisation “remains committed to the position that any form of cap is inappropriate and discriminatory”.

She said: “Any cap hits those with the highest support needs, effectively penalising Deaf and disabled people with the highest support needs and impacting most on certain impairment groups.”

She said the cap was “still a fixed limit set in an entirely arbitrary way whereas costs for highly specialised equipment and good quality professional interpreters tailored to an individual’s needs can exceed this amount or vary from year to year.

“This no financial reason for a cap given that investment in Access to Work makes a return on investment to the Treasury through taxes, without taking into account the added cost benefits of savings to the NHS or social care budgets.”

Lazard said the cap was just one of many problems with the Access to Work scheme, including “administrative and financial errors on a scale that is making employment unviable for many, alongside cuts and restrictions to individual support packages that are placing intolerable strain on Deaf and disabled people doing their best to stay in work”.

She said: “An urgent review of the scheme in consultation with Deaf and disabled people is well overdue.”

Dr Terry Riley, chair of the British Deaf Association (BDA), was also critical of the decision not to scrap the cap completely.

He said: “The BDA is adamant there should be no cap at all as any cap will still discriminate against those who require higher support needs, and thus prevent deaf senior managers from progressing and also hinder the development of Deaf entrepreneurs.”

Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “The government’s latest U-turn is further confirmation of the mess the Tories are in over their unworkable and punitive disability policies.

“Throughout the past nearly five years that Deaf and disabled people have been campaigning against changes to Access to Work that restrict the availability and level of support that individuals receive, we have repeatedly raised the adverse impacts on access to employment.

“The announcement that the cap will be raised isn’t evidence that the government are suddenly listening but just a cynical attempt to avoid further embarrassment in the courts with a legal challenge against the cap due to be heard in June.”

She added: “We must use this U-turn to now press for the complete overhaul of the scheme that is needed to restore its effectiveness.”

Stop Changes to Access to Work also said the cap would still discriminate against those with higher support needs.

A campaign spokesperson said: “The raising of the cap has shown that the government acknowledges that placing a limit on support is unworkable.

“Access to Work brings more money into the Treasury than it costs.

“We don’t feel this latest move goes far enough and want to see the cap scrapped altogether.”

But the UK Council on Deafness (UKCoD), an umbrella group of mainly non-user-led charities, said it was “pleased” with the announcement.

In a press release issued by DWP, UKCoD said the change would “help deaf people whose first language is British Sign Language (BSL) to access the communication support so vital to enabling them to thrive and succeed in the workplace”.

One non-user-led charity and UKCoD member, Action on Hearing Loss, said the announcement was “great news” because “many more people will no longer face restrictions that impact their ability to carry out their jobs”.

It said it was “committed to continue to work collaboratively with the DWP… to monitor the impact of the cap”.

But it later told Disability News Service that it “does not support having any cap whatsoever on Access to Work and will continue to advocate for its removal”.

In her written statement, McVey also announced some improvements to AtW, including allowing applications to be made 12 weeks ahead of the start date of a job, rather than the current six weeks, which she said would “allow more time for support to be agreed and put in place”.

She said AtW was introducing “managed personal budgets, to enable greater choice and control for customers in the way grants are spent”.

And she said DWP was “continuing to invest in our digital improvements such as developing the facility to submit invoices online”.

Among other changes, she said AtW would encourage the use of “technological solutions that can both reduce costs and promote independence”, allowing “risk free trials” of such solutions so that “customers can revert to their old award” if they do not work.

22 March 2018

 

 

NHS bodies face legal action by human rights watchdog over care home threat

The equality and human rights watchdog has written to 13 NHS primary care organisations to warn them about discriminatory policies that could see service-users with complex healthcare needs forced into institutions.

The letters from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to 13 clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) across England are the first step in a potential judicial review of their policies on NHS continuing healthcare (NHS CHC).

Concerns about the NHS CHC policies of more than 40 CCGs were first raised in January 2017 by disabled campaigner Fleur Perry, herself a recipient of NHS continuing healthcare, which provides long-term NHS funding for care outside hospital.

Perry’s research, using freedom of information requests, showed how many CCGs had drawn up policies that suggested they would move disabled people eligible for NHS CHC out of their homes and into institutions against their wishes, even if the cost of a homecare package was only slightly more expensive than residential care.

These concerns were subsequently taken on by EHRC, which raised “significant concerns” about the policies in October when it asked 43 CCGs for more information.

EHRC said it believes that “blanket” NHS CHC policies that have imposed “arbitrary” caps on funding and fail to consider the specific needs of individual patients are “a serious breach” of the Human Rights Act, the CCGs’ public sector equality duty and the Department of Health and Social Care’s own NHS CHC framework.

If the CCGs fail to provide evidence to demonstrate their policies are lawful, or do not take steps to review them, they will be taken to court, the commission said this week.

Perry said the EHRC legal action was “fantastic”.

She said: “Under the Human Rights Act, interference with private and family life has to be taken into consideration and weighed up against other factors, including cost.

“Using a blanket cost-cap without thinking about what the impact would be for each and every person does not seem to allow room for this and could be unlawful.

“The idea that these policies mean that someone could take away your decision on where to live and who to live with without even meeting you is quite scary.

“It’s going to be a while before we’ll know the final outcome.

“For now, I think we need to have some conversations about what good practice looks like and how we can work together to make it happen, and how to make sure independent living is always explored as an option.”

The EHRC announcement came as lawyers for father-of-four Naphtali Denderowicz applied for a judicial review of the failure of Manchester CCG – not one of the 13 targeted by EHRC – to provide enough NHS CHC funding to enable him to be discharged from hospital and receive ongoing care at home.

Denderowicz, who is now tetraplegic after falling ill on holiday in Israel in May 2016, was told in May 2017, a year after he was flown home by air ambulance, that he qualified for NHS CHC funding, but only enough to fund a place in a care home.

Nine months on, he is still an in-patient at Salford Royal Hospital, where doctors have refused to discharge him unless a 24-hour care package is put in place.

Denderowicz said: “My current situation is very distressing for not only me, but my wife and our four children as well.

“When we first discussed the idea of me moving home in March last year, the CCG got estimated costs from numerous agencies, so they were aware of the type of budget that was necessary.

“For them to do the research to get to the desired outcome of me moving home, and then offer me a significantly lower budget than is needed has left me feeling very frustrated and angry.”

His lawyer, Mathieu Culverhouse, from Irwin Mitchell, said: “By failing to offer an appropriate budget for Mr Denderowicz’s home care, we believe the CCG [is] preventing him from maintaining his family life, which is of paramount importance to him, by not permitting him to move home to live with his wife and children.

“We will be raising human rights law arguments to help secure the care he needs.”

A Manchester CCG spokeswoman said: “We can’t make any comment as the matter is currently subject to legal proceedings.”

Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, commenting on the letters to the 13 CCGs, said: “It is utterly unacceptable that anyone should be forced into residential care when they are healthy enough to live independently and with their families. And it doesn’t make sense for individuals or communities.

“A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach will never properly address every single individual’s healthcare needs, and NHS CHC policies are no different.

“This is another example of individuals being disabled by society, and prevented from living as full and independent lives as possible, as is their right.

“We will use our powers to ensure that the NHS thinks about this again.”

Following the letters sent in October, almost a quarter of the 43 CCGs agreed to review their policies, while the commission will be writing again to others whose policies are of less concern.

But it is now set to use its powers to begin judicial review proceedings against 13 CCGs that the commission believes “have not considered their human rights and equality responsibilities in the way they operate their policies”.

The 13 CCGs have just 14 days to respond to the EHRC letter.

*EHRC is writing to the following CCGs: Brent, Coventry and Rugby, Dudley, East and North Hertfordshire, Eastern Cheshire, Harrow, Hillingdon, South Cheshire, Vale Royal, West Cheshire, Warwickshire North, Lincolnshire West, and Redditch and Bromsgrove

22 March 2018

 

 

Eight years on, government announces plans to bring in access laws for tenants

The government has finally agreed to bring into force long-awaited laws that will impose a duty on landlords to allow disabled tenants to make access improvements to the hallways, staircases and entrances of residential properties.

The measures were part of Labour’s Equality Act 2010, which became law just before the 2010 general election, but successive Tory-led governments have refused to bring them into force.

Now the government has quietly announced that it plans to “commence” these provisions, with the commitment hidden on page 19 of its response to a report by the Commons women and equalities committee on disability and the built environment, even though the committee had made no mention of the issue in its report.

Despite the announcement, the government said it would still need to carry out “further work on identifying and assessing any additional burdens on local authorities” before it could say when the new laws would be implemented.

The lengthy delay has led to criticism from organisations including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Discrimination Law Association and Disability Rights UK.

The government was criticised for the delay almost exactly two years ago, in the report of a House of Lords committee that examined the impact of the Equality Act on disabled people.

The provisions are contained in section 36 and schedule four of the act and relate to the “common parts” of blocks of flats and other residential premises, such as entrances, hallways and stairs.

Once these parts of section 36 are implemented, those responsible for the common parts of a building will have to give permission for reasonable adjustments to be made – for instance the installation of a stairlift or a level entrance – if asked by a disabled tenant or leaseholder.

The landlord or owner of the freehold of the building will still be able to ask the disabled person to pay for the work.

The House of Lords committee said two years ago that it was “unconvinced” by government concerns about “cost and ‘red tape’, especially given that the cost of any adjustment would fall to the leaseholder or tenant and not the landlord”, and that there was “no justification for further delay”.

But it was told the government wanted a further review of the proposed laws.

Now the government has finally said that it “intends to commence Section 36, subject to Parliamentary passage of any regulations, should these prove necessary.

“Further work on identifying and assessing any additional burdens on local authorities is first required, after which an announcement on timing of the commencement will be made.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the government was “working towards a full commencement date” for section 36.

One leading disabled access consultant, Liam Proudlock, of Proudlock Associates, said he was pleased the government was finally intending to commence section 36, which he said should “improve disabled people’s ability to access and exit their homes and play an active role in their communities”.

He said: “This anomaly has previously been an area lacking in clarity and we are aware of a number of ongoing disputes (through our role as expert witness in the courts) that in the future this will (hopefully) resolve once and for all.”

Asked why it had taken so long to commence section 36, and what difference it would make to disabled people, a Government Equalities Office spokesman was unable to comment by 1pm today (Thursday).

22 March 2018

 

 

Admission by aviation regulator is latest step in assistance dogs aircraft battle

The aviation regulator is being forced to change guidance that appears to discriminate against many disabled people who want to take their assistance dogs with them on commercial flights.

Guidance issued through a safety notice by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) states that assistance dogs must have had their training, behaviour, health and welfare “endorsed” by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) or the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland.

But CIEH insists that it has no remit to endorse assistance dogs and says it has repeatedly asked CAA to remove this reference from the safety notice.

Now, following concerns raised by disabled campaigner Mark Lucas, CAA has said the guidance is likely to be withdrawn.

Lucas, from Stoke-on-Trent, had sent a letter warning CAA that he believes the guidance was discriminating against him as a disabled person.

He says the guidance has made it harder for him to persuade airlines to allow his assistance dog Betty – who he has trained himself – to accompany him on flights from the UK.

He has been told by CIEH: “We have written on numerous occasions to CAA asking them to remove all references to us from their safety notices but they have never responded.”

Betty assists Lucas with his mental health – reducing the stress that can cause an epileptic seizure – but because she has not been trained by an organisation that is a member of Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation, airlines refuse to allow Betty to accompany him on flights from the UK as an assistance dog.

He believes airlines and CAA are doing everything they can to prevent dogs like Betty being treated as assistance dogs.

He argues that only a tiny percentage of the disabled people who could benefit from assistance dogs have animals trained by the big charities like Guide Dogs.

But Lucas and other owners of assistance dogs can now point to guidance published in December by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which aims to help businesses understand their duties to owners of assistance dogs under the Equality Act 2010.

The guide states that assistance dogs “can also be owner trained” and says that the law “does not require the dog to wear a harness or jacket to identify it as an assistance dog”.

Lucas believes that this guidance means “the time is up” on the discrimination he and others are facing and shows that owner-trained dogs can be treated as assistance dogs under the Equality Act.

He said: “The way they have interpreted the act means the Equality Act is on my side.”

But even if CAA removes the discriminatory guidance, Lucas believes he will only persuade the industry to change its rules by taking a court case against an airline.

Other campaigners are also pushing for change.

Esme Brenton, founder of Sherlock Hounds Assistance Dogs (SHAD), which works with owner-trained assistance dogs, said: “I would like to see a change in the attitude the airline industry have towards assistance dogs in general.”

She added: “As long as the dog is under control, does not cause any issues in public and provides a direct benefit to their handler’s disabilities they should be able to accompany their handler.”

Like Lucas, she believes the problems lie within the airline industry in the UK, rather than in other European countries, where assistance dogs like Betty are accepted.

She said: “After talking to a few people it appears that the issue lies within the UK.

“Although expensive, some would rather travel by other means to Europe to then get a flight from Europe to their desired destination.

“There is also no problem getting back into the UK when boarding from other countries.

“Sadly this can lead to people coming to this country for a holiday and when trying to go back they can find themselves stranded in the UK.”

Although SHAD runs its own assessment scheme for owner-trained assistance dogs, Brenton believes that all dogs should be accepted as assistance dogs “as long as the dog is under control and does not cause any issues to the public and provides a direct benefit to their handler’s disabilities”.

She said: “I don’t agree [with] ‘one size fits all’. This way of thinking simply puts barriers up.

“While organisations like mine work for some, it doesn’t for others. Everyone should be given a choice of how to train.

“The only difficulty comes from a small minority of people abusing the system.”

She added: “A great deal of disabled people benefit a great deal from having an assistance dog.

“Sadly, the numbers of those in need outweigh the limited resources and spaces [available from] the main organisations such as Guide Dogs and all those under the umbrella of Assistance Dogs UK.

“This leaves many having to take on the challenge and commitment of training their own dog.”

A CAA spokesman said the safety notice was “currently under review and will likely be withdrawn soon. We will be contacting [CIEH] directly to discuss.”

22 March 2018

 

 

Equality watchdog calls for court action over BA’s PA ticket ‘discrimination’

The equality watchdog has called for the courts to decide if airlines are discriminating against disabled people by refusing to allow them to make simple alterations to tickets bought for their personal assistants (PAs).

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) called this week on businesses like British Airways (BA) to ask themselves if they could be doing more to support disabled people’s access to transport.

The watchdog spoke out this week after hearing of the case of Rachael Monk.

Disability News Service (DNS) reported last week that Monk was having to pay hundreds of pounds extra to fly to Canada to visit a friend because BA refused to alter a ticket she bought for one of her two PAs, after the PA quit their job and pulled out of the trip.

As a result of the DNS story, the US-based agency AviRate – which rates hundreds of airlines across the world on their performance, particularly on the safety and satisfaction levels of passengers – this week downgraded BA’s “quality score” by 25 points, from 65 to just 40 out of 100, which saw it drop from a three-star quality score to a two-star rating.

The downgrading means BA’s overall three-star rating will fall to just two stars if it experiences another similar quality or safety-related incident.

AviRate said BA’s behaviour towards Monk was “inappropriate” and a “slap in the face”.

Despite widespread anger among disabled people at BA’s actions, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is supposed to promote the rights of disabled passengers to receive assistance when travelling by air, has refused to comment on the issue this week.

CAA refused to discuss the subject of PAs and ticket transfers with BA this week and said it would only do so if it received an official complaint from Monk.

A CAA spokesman said: “We are naturally concerned to hear that the passenger feels she has been unfairly treated and we would be happy to discuss the issue directly with her.”

Monk, who has cerebral palsy and uses an electronic device to communicate, always needs two PAs with her, and so had to buy three tickets for a long-planned trip to Canada to visit her closest friend, Steph.

She started planning the trip at the beginning of 2017 and bought three tickets last July at £460 each.

When one of the PAs she had bought a ticket for later resigned and pulled out of the trip, she asked BA to change the name on that ticket so that another PA could travel with her instead.

But the airline refused and said she would have to buy a new ticket, which at last week’s prices cost her another £780.

This means that she has now had to pay nearly £2,200 for a trip that would have cost a non-disabled person just £460.

BA also told her that the £90 BA insurance policy she had bought did not cover the purchase of a replacement ticket.

BA told DNS last week that it does not allow disabled passengers to transfer their tickets to a replacement PA because it “could lead to a secondary market of trading in airline tickets”.

It said it offers passengers “a 24-hour cooling-off period so they can check that the name on the ticket matches the name on their passport”, and provides “a range of tickets including fully flexible and refundable options and always [advises] customers to choose the product that meets their individual needs”.

Monk, from Dumfries and Galloway, who has campaigned for years on disability rights issues, and has previously advised the Scottish government and the Disability Rights Commission, has accused BA of disability discrimination for refusing to alter the ticket.

She believes that altering the ticket would have been a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act.

She said this week that she wanted to take the issue “as far as possible”.

She said: “I have been overwhelmed by the support of both family and friends, not to mention all of the people sharing my post on Facebook; everybody appears to be behind me.

“I don’t just want results from BA for myself, but also for the benefit of all disabled people who require support and may find themselves in a similar situation with any airline.

“My message to BA is that I have had to fight all my life, so another fight for the rights of disabled people is something I will not back down on.

“I am so very upset and disappointed by the lack of common sense and compassion by the airline.

“They have cast a very dark cloud over a holiday that I have saved hard for and was so looking forward too.”

She added: “I am pleased to see that BA have been downgraded on quality, as again it shows that people are listening to my situation and understanding the seriousness of BA’s actions.”

Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, said: “This situation is no doubt familiar to countless people living with a disability.

“Access to transport is a key plank of independent living for 13 million disabled people living in the UK.

“Whether or not non-transferable tickets, and the need to pay for PA tickets, in a circumstance such as this constitute unlawful discrimination or grounds for a reasonable adjustment should be tested in court.

“For disabled people to travel the distance of others, we need big business to ask themselves if they could be doing more to play their part.”

CAA said Monk was entitled to file a complaint about her treatment with an alternative dispute resolution body, a process BA has signed up to.

A CAA spokesman said: “Passengers who are unhappy with the service provided by an airline or airport can make a complaint through an alternative dispute resolution process.

“Where we find there is a shortcoming in the service provided, we will work with the airport and or airline to make sure improvements are made.”

22 March 2018

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com