Healthcare professionals who carry out disability benefits assessments for the government complete as much as 60 per cent of their reports before they meet the disabled person they are supposed to be assessing, according to a disgraced former assessor.
Paramedic Alan Barham was sacked after being exposed last year by an undercover reporter working for Channel 4’s Dispatches.
But he has now contacted Disability News Service (DNS) to protest about the way he has been treated, claiming that he has been made a “scapegoat” by Capita, the outsourcing company he was working for, but which sacked him after the documentary was aired.
He also claims that personal independence payment (PIP) claimants are frequently “ripped off” by assessors who fail to complete their reports fairly, although he insists that he was not guilty of such practices himself.
And he claims that nearly everything he was caught saying by Dispatches – for which he now faces the possibility of being struck off by his regulatory body – was standard practice, and was therefore “driven by Capita”.
Barham is facing a Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) disciplinary hearing over comments he was filmed making about the way he carried out PIP assessments.
HCPC has decided that separate allegations that he lied in a report he wrote after assessing a disabled woman’s eligibility for PIP will not be dealt with by a disciplinary hearing.
Barham claims he is innocent of most of the charges against him, insisting that he was only following instructions and guidelines laid down by Capita.
And he says he is set to sue Capita for making him “a scapegoat for their protocols”, and that the fallout from the documentary has led to the break-up of his marriage and the loss of his business.
He told DNS: “I hope they crash and burn, I really do. Capita is a monster. I’m not. They are.”
Barham’s claims are just the latest development in an ongoing DNS investigation into claims of widespread dishonesty by PIP assessors working for both Capita and Atos on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
One of the most disturbing claims made by Barham during the hour-long telephone interview was that assessors are instructed by Capita to “pre-populate” their written assessment reports before they have even carried out their face-to-face assessments.
This time-saving measure, he says, means that up to three-fifths of the 25-page reports are completed before an assessor has met the disabled person at the assessment.
In the documentary, he had claimed that, on one assessment, he had “literally finished [the] assessment before I’d even walked through the door”.
Now he says he was exaggerating, and that he had not completed all of the report before the assessment took place, but he insists that filling in large parts of it beforehand was, and is, standard procedure at Capita.
He says it is called “pre-population”, and allows assessors to fill in as much of the PA4 report [the assessment report that drives the DWP decision to accept or reject a PIP claim] as they can from the evidence they have already seen.
He said: “There’s lots and lots and lots of pre-population.”
Barham also defended his claim – also caught by undercover footage in last year’s Dispatches documentary – that an assessor can usually “completely dismiss” most of what he or she is told in an assessment by the claimant.
He said this was because assessors are told by Capita that they can use “informal observations” of claimants to draw conclusions about the accuracy of what they are saying.
He said: “I’ve had people saying I can’t wash my own hair but at the end of an assessment put a hat on their head, or have taken a hat off prior to the start of the assessment. And this is what we’re asked to look for.”
Asked if Capita tells its assessors to constantly set traps for their claimants and try to trick them into doing things they say they cannot do, he said: “Absolutely, yes, and this is why I rang you back.
“Because I’m berated for what I was perceived to be doing, but I stood in a training room for a week with Capita in Birmingham being told to do all this.”
In the documentary, he discussed how at one point, soon after the introduction of PIP, assessors like him who were paid as contractors were able to earn huge sums of money.
He repeated that claim to DNS, saying: “We used to earn £80 an assessment for the first eight [assessments a week].
“[Then they] doubled that to £160 an assessment for the first eight, then they went from eight to 14 at 200-and-something an assessment, and from 14 to 20 it was £300 an assessment, and 20 onwards it was £350 an assessment.”
Barham claims that he was considered one of the top 10 out of 600 PIP assessors in the country and that in two years he carried out 1,000 assessments for Capita, although he refused to say how much he earned in total during that time.
He said: “I’m not an animal. This is what’s really annoying me: Capita told me to do all this.
“I’ve done this, as per Capita, as per guidelines, as per my contract, as per my employer… and there’s rules when you’re employed, and you follow them rules and you will keep your job.”
Barham’s one admission of regret was about making an offensive comment about an unnamed PIP claimant, who he was heard describing as “so fat she can’t wipe her own arse” and who he said had a “disability known as being fat”.
He said this was just “a generic comment to a couple of colleagues in an office that happens every day around the country in lots of offices”, and that it was “not detrimental to her”.
He said: “It was just a personal opinion. We have all said things we shouldn’t say.
“I regret it 100 per cent, and like I said, I’m a human being, we all make derogatory remarks. Rightly or wrongly, we all do it. It’s something I shouldn’t have said.”
Barham said that he would provide DNS with 134 written documents that would prove that nearly all of the comments he made in the documentary represented standard Capita procedure.
But he changed his mind after the interview and said that handing over the documents to DNS would “jeopardise” his defence at the HCPC hearing.
Two weeks ago, DNS reported the concerns of David Nicholls, from Northampton, the husband of one of the PIP claimants who had been assessed by Barham.
DNS has seen Capita’s response to Nicholls’ complaint about the assessment report Barham wrote following an assessment of his wife, Jacqueline, in March last year, a month before the Dispatches documentary was screened.
As a result of the assessment, she was found ineligible for PIP.
It was only after the documentary was aired and DWP agreed to allow her to be reassessed that she was granted the enhanced rate for both the daily living and mobility components of PIP.
In its response to the Nicholls complaint about Barham, a Capita senior complaint handler wrote: “You stated that you disagree with the content of your assessment report and that you believe [Barham] had made inaccurate assumptions and had lied in his report…
“Based on the outcome of my investigation, I uphold this element of your complaint.”
In his report, Barham repeatedly stated that what he was told by Jacqueline Nicholls was not backed up by the tests he carried out during the assessment.
But David Nicholls has told DNS that Barham ignored the impact of his wife’s brain injury on both her physical and mental functioning, including her seizures, her confusion when asked too many questions, the lack of feeling in parts of her body, her memory problems, and her tendency to get lost when on her own.
Barham reported instead that she could plan and follow routes, understand complex written information without any help, and make her own budgeting decisions.
Nicholls said Barham had “misled people with the findings in his report in the worst possible way” and that his assessment had given “no consideration to brain injury at all”.
He said that the effect of dishonest assessors like Barham on disabled people was “devastating”.
Presented with the words of David Nicholls, the conclusion of Capita that he had lied in the assessment report, evidence from medical experts, and the results of the second assessment, which awarded Jacqueline Nicholls the enhanced rate of PIP for both mobility and daily living, Barham insisted to DNS that his assessment had been correct, according to Capita procedures.
He claimed that he had no choice but to take her answers as she gave them to him, even though her husband had told her that he needed to take account of her brain injury.
Barham said: “I stand by my judgement at the time because I did not receive any of what we call further medical evidence to back up what she was telling me.”
But David Nicholls says that Capita had been sent a letter from an epilepsy nurse outlining the impact of his wife’s condition, and that Barham had insisted at the start of the assessment that he had read this letter and that he had all the information he needed.
Nicholls said this week: “The system is not fit for purpose and he has exploited it.”
Barham also told DNS that many PIP claimants were being “ripped off” by their assessors, who were completing unfair assessment reports, although he said he had not done so himself.
He said this was because assessors were given only 45 minutes to carry out their assessments – and often have to carry out five a day – and then have just 24 hours to write all of those reports.
He said: “They are under pressure, their managers are on their back all the time.
“You [carry out] an assessment and you’re given 24 hours to turn that assessment around and present it to them.”
Barham insisted to DNS that he was “not a nasty person, I am a nice person.
“I have been a paramedic for years and I love my job. I have letters galore from patients, thanking me for what I have done for them.
“I feel like I’ve been absolutely smashed to bits and used as a scapegoat for Capita.
“All I have done is, yes, I made a derogatory comment, I wish I hadn’t, wishing is not going to make it go away.
“But I have done it, I have reflected on it and I’ve learned from it.
“Everything else is Capita-driven. Everything is Capita-driven. I’m sick to death of being a scapegoat.”
He added: “I have lost my business, my wife has split up [with me], my whole life has split apart since April.
“I have disabled friends. I have no problems with disability. This is the thing that’s driving me crazy.”
He said that he was now set to sue Capita for making him “a scapegoat for their protocols. I have done everything I was asked to do, apart from calling someone too fat.”
Capita failed to deny any of the claims made by Barham, but refused to respond in depth to his comments.
A Capita spokesman said: “Capita’s focus is on undertaking quality assessments in an efficient and professional manner.
“We expect all of our assessors to carry out assessments as outlined by the DWP.
“If individuals do not meet our expectations we will always take appropriate action.”
DWP also declined to comment on the claims made by Barham.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “This is a commercial matter for Capita. We expect the highest standards from the contractors who carry out PIP assessments and work closely with them to continuously improve and ensure PIP is working in the best way possible.”
23 February 2017
The equality and human rights watchdog has refused to withdraw its report to the UN on the implementation of its disability convention, despite omitting vital information that links government ministers with the deaths of benefit claimants.
Only two weeks ago, three national disabled people’s organisations were forced to withdraw their own report to the UN, after admitting that their document failed to speak out strongly enough on links between the government’s welfare reforms and the deaths of disabled people who had been denied the benefits they needed.
Disability Rights UK, Disability Wales and Inclusion Scotland agreed to strengthen their “shadow” report and resubmit it to the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD), after the omissions were highlighted by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Disability News Service (DNS).
But now the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – which funded the trio’s shadow report – has admitted that its own report to the UN has left out some of the same key pieces of evidence.
This report was submitted by the UK Independent Mechanism (UKIM) – made up of EHRC, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Scottish Human Rights Commission – which is tasked with monitoring and promoting the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in the UK.
The UKIM report was sent to CRPD as part of the process which will lead to the UK government being questioned in public later this year on its progress in implementing the convention.
But although it says that work capability assessments (WCAs) – which test eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits – “have been linked to some suicides and cases of deteriorating mental health”, the UKIM report fails to mention two Prevention of Future Deaths letters written by coroners to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), in late March 2010 and in early 2014.
Both of those letters link flaws in the WCA process to the deaths of benefit claimants with mental health conditions.
The first PFD report was written just weeks before the coalition government took power, but no action was taken by ministers on the coroner’s recommendations and the letter was not passed to the independent expert reviewing the WCA for DWP.
The various documents omitted by UKIM show that other disabled people continued to die as a result of ministers’ failure to ensure that the necessary medical evidence is secured when a claimant has a mental health condition.
The UKIM report also fails to mention a document written by Scotland’s Mental Welfare Commission (MWC), which linked flaws in the WCA and the death of Ms DE, a claimant with a mental health condition, in December 2011.
An EHRC spokesman admitted that those three piece of evidence have been left out of the report.
But he said the UKIM report had included a link to government-funded research by public health experts from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford, which concluded in late 2015 that the programme to reassess people on incapacity benefit through the WCA was linked to 590 suicides in just three years.
But when asked why it had ignored the three pieces of key evidence, which together link ministers with the deaths of benefit claimants, the EHRC spokesman said: “Because another source [the Liverpool and Oxford research report] was used that provided the same information, which was making the same substantive point.
“For this reason, our submission will remain as it stands.”
DPAC said it was “extremely concerned” by the omission, and wrote to EHRC this week to ask why it had omitted the “essential information” from its report.
Members of DPAC’s steering group subsequently took part in a telephone conference call with an EHRC executive.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of DPAC, said: “DPAC are deeply concerned that specific pieces of evidence which link the WCA to unnecessary claimant deaths have not been highlighted in any way by EHRC.
“As they are the official monitoring body for the CRPD we feel this is totally unsatisfactory.
“Two of the shadow reports – for DR UK and EHRC – have been produced by non-disabled people and more or less ignore the issues that are important to disabled people.
“That the EHRC report summarized their perception of problems with the WCA process in 11 lines illustrates this point.
“There is no sense of urgency in their report. These are people who have a cushy job and want to keep it.
“The mindset is that this is a technical, bureaucratic thing, not that it is really happening to actual disabled people.
“Or worse, if it is happening to real disabled people it doesn’t really matter as long as the word limit [of their report] isn’t exceeded.”
The EHRC spokesman said: “Our report, produced jointly with other members of the UK Independent Mechanism, clearly raises concerns about deaths linked to work capability assessments.
“In particular, the report points to a recently published study of the link between the work capability assessments and deteriorating mental health and deaths.
“As an independent, UN-accredited National Human Rights Institution, we have recommended that [CRPD] asks the UK government how it is ensuring that processes in place to deliver employment and support allowance, including work capability assessments, are compliant with the [UNCRPD].
“For these reasons, our submission will remain as it stands.
“We would encourage any organisation wishing to put forward additional evidence to submit this to [CRPD] by 27 February.”
23 February 2017
A chief constable has insisted that his police force was right not to treat the brutal murder of a man with learning difficulties who was hung from a tree and beaten to death by two “friends” as a disability hate crime.
Disabled campaigners had criticised the failings of Leicestershire police following the murder of 23-year-old Brendan Mason.
It is now 10 years since the deaths of Francecca and Fiona Pilkington, which led to the same police force being heavily criticised by the police watchdog for failing to protect the Pilkington family from years of harassment, and failing to recognise those offences as disability hate crime.
Brendan Mason was found with serious injuries in Abbey Park, Leicester, on the morning of 5 July last year, and died later that day in hospital.
He had been lured to the park, stripped of his clothes and hung from a tree and subjected to what police called a “vicious, sustained attack”, which was filmed by his attackers on their mobile phones and lasted for several hours. They then left him for dead in a pond.
His body had 99 injuries, including defensive-type wounds to his hands.
Keith Lowe, 22, and Joshua Hack, 21, both pleaded guilty to the murder.
Lowe was this week sentenced at Leicester Crown Court to serve a minimum term of 21 years, while Hack was told that he must serve at least 20 years and six months.
But the murder was never treated as a disability hate crime by police officers, although the victim’s impairment was treated as an aggravating factor by the judge in sentencing.
If the judge had accepted it as a disability hate crime, Lowe and Hack would both have faced a minimum of 30 years in prison.
Anne Novis, chair of Inclusion London, and a leading hate crime campaigner, said: “We couldn’t believe that the issue of it being a hate crime had not been addressed from the beginning, let alone in court.”
She said the murder of Brendan Mason showed the need for a campaign that the Disability Hate Crime Network is planning with the Equality and Diversity Forum, which will call for equality in hate crime laws for all minority groups, as well as better hate crime training across the criminal justice system.
She said: “All of them need to have more understanding of what we understand by hate crime, of our perception [of what it is].”
Katharine Quarmby, author of Scapegoat, a pioneering investigation into disability hate crime, and co-author of Getting Away With Murder, an earlier report that led the way on raising awareness of the issue, said the “brutal attack” on Brendan Mason appeared to echo many of the deaths she has investigated.
She said: “Mr Mason was attacked, accused wrongly of being a paedophile, and then subjected to violence that echoes the lynch mobs during the civil rights movement in the US in its ferocity.”
Quarmby, like Novis a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said she was disappointed that the case was not sentenced as a disability hate crime, “given the markers that characterise it and so many other cases”.
Stephen Brookes, another leading campaigner and coordinator of the network, said: “Once again we see that this is a case which in our eyes is clearly a disability-motivated crime and yet is not being charged as such.
“The way cases are being handled both in the way they are not being charged and sentenced as disability hate crime when they should be is becoming intolerable.”
But Simon Cole, chief constable of Leicestershire police, said he was convinced that the murders were not hate crimes.
He said: “I am fully aware of the sad and tragic death of Brendan Mason, and had personal involvement in the case.
“There has been some suggestion that the incident was one of a disability hate crime.
“The limited information within the media does not give the full circumstances leading up to the death of Brendan and I am satisfied, having knowledge of the full circumstances, that the incident was not one of a disability hate crime.
“The force committed significant resources to investigate this crime and its severity and motivations were carefully considered by the judge in imposing significant sentences on the offenders.”
A force spokeswoman had earlier said that both of the murderers had “vulnerabilities”, but she has not yet clarified what this means.
A CPS spokesman said in a statement: “Wherever there is evidence a crime was motivated by hatred based on a victim’s disability we will always treat it as a hate crime.
“Last year we completed more hate crime prosecutions than ever before.
“In this case there was no evidence the assault was motivated because of Brendan’s disability.
“The motivation for the attack was the mistaken belief Brendan had assaulted a third party.”
Robert and Sarah Chambers, Brendan’s uncle and aunt, said in a statement released by police after the court case: “It is not right how two evil people can do such a horrific thing and leave a massive hole in our lives that will never be filled again.
“Brendan was a lovely young man and he was so happy. He had numerous learning difficulties and very poor vision.
“Even though Brendan had numerous learning difficulties and was very easily led by others, he always knew right from wrong.”
23 February 2017
A disabled woman who took her own life after being told she had lost a benefits appeal had written a letter to civil servants describing the unfairness of the face-to-face assessment that had led to her losing her support.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) took just six days to decide her initial appeal, not long enough for Susan Roberts to submit any evidence that could have backed up her claim for personal independence payment (PIP).
A DWP civil servant even told her – in a letter dismissing this initial appeal, known as a mandatory reconsideration – that there was no evidence that she could have submitted that would have changed her mind.
Two months later, she received another letter, this time telling her that a tribunal had also rejected her appeal.
The body of Susan Roberts was discovered the following day by a care worker at her warden-assisted flat near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, surrounded by letters telling her that she would not be entitled to PIP.
She had also placed a note by her side that informed healthcare professionals that she did not want them to attempt to resuscitate her.
An inquest into the 68-year-old’s death did not record a verdict of suicide, but her daughter is convinced that she took her own life, because of the way she died, and because her body was discovered surrounded by her PIP paperwork and the “do not resuscitate” notice.
Hayley Storrow-Servranckx is convinced that her mother would still be alive today if it was not for the flawed PIP system, and the assessment she had been given by an Atos healthcare professional.
Disability News Service (DNS) first reported on the case last week but has now seen the letters Susan Roberts left beside her when she died.
She had previously received an indefinite award of disability living allowance, at the higher rate of mobility and the low rate of care, but the documents show that she was told by DWP on 19 February 2016 that she was not entitled to PIP.
She scribbled several notes on this letter, showing where she disagreed with the conclusions that had been reached following her face-to-face assessment.
The documents suggest that the assessor – and then the DWP decision-maker – decided that she could wash and bathe unaided, manage her own toilet needs without any help, express and understand verbal information and engage with other people unaided, walk more than 200 metres, and plan and follow the route of a journey without help, and could do all of these things safely, reliably and repeatedly.
But she said that she could not do any of these things.
Among the documents seen by DNS is a letter she wrote on 29 February. It appears that she had intended to send it to the DWP decision-maker who was considering her mandatory reconsideration.
But a DWP notification that told her that the mandatory reconsideration had already been rejected appears to have arrived before she had a chance to send her letter.
DWP had taken just six days to reject her appeal, with a civil servant telling her that “it was not felt any further evidence we received would change the findings based on your assessment”, and again giving her zero points for every single PIP criteria.
In her letter, she had written: “I request that you read this through carefully – this is my life after all, and I am in a considerable state of depression at the moment, after receiving your decision about my claim for PIP.”
She describes the impact of ME on her daily life, which she said provided a window of just two or three hours every day in which she was free of symptoms such as exhaustion, dizziness and inability to concentrate.
She says she has chronic, progressive ischaemic heart disease, and was experiencing “excruciating pain” from a gall bladder that could not be removed because of her heart condition.
Her letter also describes how a care worker visited her every day to provide painful rectal irrigation and then give her a shower, how she was deeply depressed and had been so “for a long time”, and that her doctor knew that she wanted to die.
It also says that she would be “virtually housebound” without her Motability vehicle – which she had had to return after losing her higher rate mobility benefits – and that she had been considered too ill to work since 2001.
She says in the letter: “The over-riding problem I have is that my ME – for 80 per cent of every day of my life – renders me incapable of all else except deep and prolonged sleep!!
“When I first had a DLA car, I had good days and bad days – I do not have anything but bad days every day now.”
It is not clear whether this or any other similar letter were ever posted, but she asked the tribunal to hear her appeal based only on written documents, and she was told, in a letter sent on 17 May, that that appeal had been rejected.
The tribunal had granted her six points for her daily living needs, not enough to claim even the standard daily living rate of PIP, and zero points again for mobility. By this time she had had to return her Motability car.
She took her own life on 19 May, which it is now believed was just a day after she received the letter from the tribunal.
There have been many cases involving deaths connected with claims for out-of-work disability benefits and the work capability assessment (WCA) system, but this appears to be the first time a death has been closely linked to someone losing their support in the move from DLA to PIP.
DNS has now collected many more than 100 cases of PIP claimants who have raised serious concerns about their assessments, following a two-month investigation that suggests an institutional problem that spreads across DWP and the two private sector contractors – Atos and Capita – that assess PIP eligibility on its behalf.
Last week, a DWP spokeswoman insisted there was “no evidence to suggest any link” between the death of Susan Roberts and her benefit claim, and that neither DWP nor Atos believed they had made any mistakes in this case, pointing out that the independent tribunal had “upheld the original decision”.
It had failed to comment on the latest information by noon today (Thursday).
Atos does not currently respond to requests to comment on stories from DNS.
23 February 2017
Plans by three NHS primary care organisations to tighten restrictions on care and support spending for service-users with complex healthcare needs are a “huge concern” and could lead to disabled people being forced into institutions, say campaigners.
The trio of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in Leicestershire have been consulting on plans that could see service-users receiving NHS continuing health care (NHS CHC) only being allowed to continue with support in their own homes if it is no more expensive than a place in a nursing home or other institution.
The user-led Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) has warned that such a “fundamentally unfair and cruel” policy proposal has made Leicestershire the “front line” in the campaign to oppose CCGs that want to use cost arguments to force service-users into institutions.
SIA, which has launched a petition against the plans, warns that such a policy could mean “newly paralysed individuals never returning home from hospital and spending the rest of their lives in a nursing home”.
In its response to the consultation, SIA warns the CCGs that their consultation is unlawful because of the lack of detailed information, while the “unacceptable” policy proposals “will clearly limit disabled people’s opportunities to live independently in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland by forcing them into residential care homes”.
Dan Burden, SIA’s head of public affairs, said the proposals in Leicestershire were a “huge concern”.
He said: “Our biggest fear is that this is the front line of a policy which could be widened out across the country.”
He added: “We are running the risk of rolling back 30 years of disability rights campaigning.
“That’s the great concern, that actually the clock gets turned back and before long we are all back in institutions.”
Last month, research by disabled campaigner Fleur Perry, editor of the website Disability United, showed that at least 44 CCGs – and probably many more – would be willing to move disabled people with high-cost support packages into institutions against their wishes.
Most of these CCGs were suggesting that they would not fund NHS CHC packages in a service-user’s own home if they were more than 10 per cent, 25 per cent or 40 per cent more expensive than a residential placement.
In two cases, the CCG’s policy stated that it would not pay any more for a package of care in a person’s own home than they would spend on a care home place, unless in exceptional circumstances.
Now East Leicestershire and Rutland CCG (ELRCCG), together with Leicester City CCG and West Leicestershire CCG, have been consulting on plans that could further tighten their existing policy on NHS CHC.
Their current spending limit allows them to spend up to 25 per cent more than the most cost-effective option to provide care in a setting of the service-user’s own choice.
But their consultation offered those taking part in a survey which closed this week just two options for their future policy: spending no more than the cost of an equivalent care home placement, or spending only up to 10 per cent more on care at home.
There was no option for those taking part in the survey to disagree with the two options.
There are more than 1,300 people across Leicestershire and Rutland who receive NHS CHC, and the three CCGs claim that the current position on CHC spending “is not sustainable”.
An earlier consultation by the CCGs found that all but one of 202 people who answered the question – nearly all of whom were service-users receiving NHS CHC, carers or relatives – said that the importance of healthcare being provided in a patient’s preferred setting was important, fairly important or very important.
More than half agreed that there should be some kind of limit on how much extra funding can be spent to care for a service-user in their preferred setting.
The Leicestershire CCGs claim their draft policy complies with their Equality Act duties as public bodies, and that it is “an attempt to balance the different interests (available resources vs meeting the desire for bespoke services at home or in an alternative setting)”.
East Leicestershire and Rutland CCG had refused to comment by noon today (Thursday).
23 February 2017
A system that allows barristers who are paid by DWP to prosecute benefit fraud cases to also sit as judges on tribunals that decide social security appeals is “unquestionably wrong” and a “direct conflict of interest”, say welfare rights experts.
The concerns were raised this week after Disability News Service (DNS) was told about one judge who had prosecuted two high-profile cases of benefit fraud in 2012 and 2013, even though she had been appointed as a part-time social security tribunal judge in 2011.
It is likely that the barrister prosecuted many more cases for DWP, as most trials are not covered by the media.
There is no suggestion that the judge in this case – who was eventually appointed to a full-time judicial role and stopped working as a barrister – behaved improperly, but there are concerns that other barristers who work as part-time judges might feel pressured not to rule against DWP in tribunals in case future prosecution work dries up.
Once a judge is appointed to a full-time, salaried post they are no longer allowed to carry out paid work as barristers.
Neither DWP nor the Judicial Office, which supports the judiciary, expressed any concerns this week about part-time judges on social security appeal tribunals also prosecuting cases on behalf of DWP.
But Steve Donnison, co-founder of Benefits and Work, which provides benefits information and advice, said: “It is unquestionably wrong that judges can be allowed to sit in jurisdictions where they have a financial relationship with one of the parties to appeals.
“It undermines people’s trust in the independence of the judiciary.
“Unfortunately, the tribunals service have form in this regard.
“A lot of the medical members who sat on disability living allowance tribunals were doctors who also regularly did home visits for DWP medical services, before assessments were outsourced.
“Many people were unhappy about this and it was the subject of an appeal.
“But the upper tribunal, or social security commissioners as they then were, decided that doctors were professional people who could be trusted not to let such things influence them in their role as tribunal members.
“I suspect that judicial faith in the incorruptibility of professional people will not have diminished, if this issue is ever the subject of an appeal.”
Andrew Clark, chair of the user-led disabled people’s organisation Buckinghamshire Disability Service (BuDS), also expressed concern.
He said there was an argument that barristers should have a “professional detachment” and so should not be affected by which organisation was paying them.
He said: “Having prosecuted benefit fraud for the DWP does not necessarily mean that you are against people claiming the benefit.
“There is a substantial difference between an employee of the DWP and a barrister who works for a chambers that takes work from the DWP.”
But he said that he would be concerned about lawyers going “backwards and forwards between the two on a regular basis”.
He said: “I would feel considerably more concerned about it if they were one of the DWP’s stable of barristers that were regularly used by them.
“If [the judge] is in that position as being seen quite regularly as representing DWP it would be a completely different situation.
“If they have done two [cases prosecuting benefit fraud] there is a good chance they would have done more.
“If that is the case, there are grounds for concern. It may be unjustified concern, but I think it is in the public interest to pursue [the concern] further.”
Michelle Cardno, founder of the benefits advice organisation Fightback4Justice, said she believed DWP barristers also working as part-time tribunal judges was “a direct conflict of interest and morally wrong”.
She said she would not like to see any of these barristers sitting as an “impartial judge” on a tribunal for any of her clients because of the “certain mindset” required to be a prosecuting barrister in benefit fraud cases.
She said that such cases often rely on evidence from DWP fraud investigators, which only reaches court because of the persistence of the DWP barrister, “even when statements are unsigned”.
She said: “I feel the whole way they pursue a suspected fraud claimant is relentless and designed in court to wear disabled people down, and to switch to an impartial role on a panel after being part of that mechanism would be legally unethical in my opinion and not in the best interests of natural justice.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “The judiciary is independent of the government. Both barristers and judges are bound by their professions to uphold that independence.”
She said the Government Legal Department, and not DWP, was responsible for approaching a barrister’s chambers to ask them to prosecute a case, and added: “The chambers will then instruct a barrister to act in proceedings, making an assessment on an individual’s skills and any potential conflicts of interest.”
But asked if DWP was aware of cases in which barristers prosecuting benefit fraud cases on its behalf had also worked as part-time judges on social security tribunals, she refused to comment.
A Judicial Office spokesman said they “do not recognise this as a conflict of interest, unless specific allegations are made”.
He said: “Judicial conduct guidelines require all judges to remain impartial.
“If a judge considers there to be a conflict of interest it is a matter for them to decide on whether to recuse themselves or to raise the matter with the parties involved.”
He added: “Given the specialised nature of the tribunal and that most cases are brought by the DWP it would be undesirable to exclude lawyers who had represented them from sitting as judges.
“Equally it would be undesirable to exclude all those lawyers who had represented claimants challenging DWP decisions.
“It is only by representing parties in the tribunal that lawyers gain the experience and knowledge they need to become judges.”
When asked whether the Judicial Office was concerned about lawyers working as both a barrister and a part-time judge, flipping from one to the other, he said: “In practice they wouldn’t be acting as a lawyer at the same time as sitting as a judge. They would do one or the other.
“They would be expected to represent either party to the best of their abilities when acting as a lawyer and remain impartial when sitting as a judge.”
23 February 2017
One of the 11 new “sector champions” selected by a minister to tackle the issues disabled people face as consumers has already used the appointment to rethink his own strategy on inclusion, he has told Disability News Service.
Robin Sheppard, the chair and founder of Bespoke Hotels, the UK’s largest independent hotel group, said he hoped the appointment of the sector champions by the minister for disabled people, Penny Mordaunt, would help to mainstream the issue of inclusion.
The sector champions will promote the importance of inclusion across the retail, music, leisure, tourism, hotels, media, advertising, airports, buses, banking and gaming sectors.
The aim is to “drive improvements to the accessibility and quality of services and facilities in their sector, helping to showcase best practice and show other businesses the merit of making disabled customers a priority”.
Mordaunt has told her new sector champions that her own “to do list” includes increasing the number of accessible toilets, improving the experiences of disabled people, including physical accessibility, improving the visibility of disabled people on screens, billboards and in magazines, and making accessibility a “mainstream issue”.
Sheppard said he believed the idea behind appointing the sector champions was about sharing good practice and creating “momentum” and “cross-pollination”.
His own “obsession” is about improving the design of hotel bedrooms and bathrooms, and the public toilets in restaurants and hotel dining-rooms, and moving away from the “medical nature” of facilities designed for disabled people and putting “a bit more joy and fun into the environment”.
He said: “The assumption is that it’s practical versus aesthetic, but I’m saying, ‘hang on, I’m a disabled person, I go and visit a lot of hotels, I don’t want to feel like I’m different, I just want things that work.’
“I can appreciate a beautiful colour or a lovely fabric the same as any person, so why should I have to accept second-best?”
He added: “I would be thrilled if we started something and Penny made it mainstream. That would be great news.”
Channel 4’s Dan Brooke has been appointed by Mordaunt as the sector champion for the media.
Sheppard said he has already looked at the work Channel 4 has been doing in employing disabled people – which he said seemed to be “streets ahead of any other sector I have come across” – to see if he could learn from that.
He said: “While our aim [at Bespoke] is to make the customer experience much more inclusive than it currently is, rather than divisive, at this stage the campaign I am trying to shepherd along is not particularly employment-centric.
“It’s made me rethink our strategy and how much more work we should do in that area.”
Last year, his company launched the Bespoke Access Awards, to address accessibility in hotels through design and innovation.
The international design competition looks for original ideas to improve access and provide a better experience for hotel guests, particularly those who are disabled.
Another of the new champions is another disabled campaigner, Suzanne Bull*, chief executive of Attitude is Everything, who will cover the music sector.
Bull said: “I’ll be making a solid business case for accessibility and will be sharing best practice and innovative ideas, many of which don’t only just focus on physical access, and demonstrate that ways of working can be adopted by other industries with a high degree of success.”
Mordaunt said her 11 new sector champions would “help businesses realise the value of disabled consumers and the importance of catering to every customer’s needs”.
She said: “These industries must become fully inclusive. Not being able to access the high street, products and services, transport or simply to access a loo jars with our national values: it must change.”
Meanwhile, BBC News has launched a £1 million scheme to recruit, train and develop disabled journalists.
Over the next year, it will create 12 new positions in the BBC News mobile and online teams, in roles ranging from broadcast journalists to assistant editors.
At least half of the roles will become permanent at the end of the year, with the scheme including training and mentoring.
Details of the scheme will be available soon on the BBC’s careers website.
*The other eight champions are: Helen Drury, from Intu (retail); Huw Edwards, from ukactive (leisure); Chris Veitch, from Access New Business (tourism); Sam Phillips, from Omnicom Media Group (advertising); Michael Connolly, from OCS (airports); Jane Cole, from Blackpool Transport Services (buses); Trudie Hills, from Lloyds Bank (banking); and Dr Jo Twist, from Ukie (gaming).
23 February 2017
Ministers should be held accountable for the “extraordinary” rise in self-harm in prisons, including nearly 120 suicides last year, MPs and peers have been told.
Members of the joint committee on human rights, who were hearing evidence from four prison reform experts, were told that 119 prisoners took their own lives in 2016, an increase from 90 the prevous year.
They also heard that there were nearly 38,000 incidents of self-harm in prisons across England and Wales.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, told the committee: “Decisions have been made by successive politicians about what happens in prisons and they have not been held accountable.
“If you decide to cut staff, there are consequences and people die as a consequence.
“If you decide to close prisons and not cut the number of prisoners but cram everybody into fetid cells that they are sharing with a toilet and cockroaches, their mental health will deteriorate and people will die as a consequence, and those are decisions that are made by politicians.”
She blamed the rise on the “explosion” in the prison population in the 1990s and early 2000s and the decision of the last but one justice secretary – Chris Grayling – to cut staff, close prisons and “cramp people into fewer prisons”.
Crook said that successive justice secretaries had “led us down the path to where we are today”.
The Labour peer Baroness Corston, a former chair of the committee and author of a 2007 review on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, told the committee: “Things are getting much worse. Staffing in prisons has been cut by 30 per cent since 2010.”
She said there was “an epidemic of self-harm in women’s prisons”.
Juliet Lyon, chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAPDC), said that a focus on prisoner safety and the state’s obligations under article two of the Human Rights Act – the right to life – had led to a slight drop in the number of deaths in the years after 2003-04.
But she said there had been a “spike” in deaths in custody in the last three years, leading to last year’s “extraordinary” rise in self-harm, which included the self-inflicted deaths of 12 women.
She said: “It is not just cuts to staff and overcrowding, it is also not enough time out of cell, purposeful activity, time to meet with family, in some cases not enough food.”
But Lyon said the one bright spot was the introduction of liaison and diversion services in many courts and police stations across England, following a recommendation made by Lord Bradley in his 2009 review of people with mental health problems and learning difficulties in the criminal justice system.
Lyon said that nearly two-thirds of larger police stations and courts now had such a service, although there were questions to ask about how long the rollout was taking and the adequacy of treatment in the community.
But she said it was “a beacon of hope in terms of recognition that if somebody’s offending is comparatively minor but often repetitive, if they get the treatment they need… for mental health or social care for learning disabilities, [if] they need treatment for addictions, the opportunity to divert them [from the prison system] exists.
“If their offending is very serious they should get extra support as they go through the system. It’s impressive.”
And she said that deaths in police custody had fallen and remained fairly low because Theresa May had said, when she was home secretary, that police cells should not be used as places of safety for those experiencing a mental health crisis.
The Labour peer Lord Harris, a former IAPDC chair, told the committee that each death was an individual tragedy but that “what is most disturbing is the same issues are occurring time and time again”.
He said that the state’s failure on article two of the Human Rights Act “is all the greater because those same criticisms occur time and time again”.
23 February 2017
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com