Nearly half of PIP reviews saw award cut, according to unpublished DWP figures

Nearly half of disabled people subject to “planned reviews” of their eligibility for the government’s new disability benefit are having their existing award either cut or removed completely, according to new figures obtained by Disability News Service (DNS).

The unpublished Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show that the proportion of claimants of personal independence payment (PIP) who had their payments reduced after a planned review of their entitlement rose from less than 10 per cent in 2014 to nearly 20 per cent in 2016.

The proportion who lost their PIP completely after a planned review increased from 13 per cent in 2014 to nearly 25 per cent, or one in four of all reviews, in 2016.

This means that nearly half of PIP claimants (44 per cent) who had a planned review of their award in 2016 either saw it cut or lost it entirely.

But the proportion of claimants of PIP – which was introduced in April 2013 and is gradually replacing disability living allowance (DLA) for working-age claimants – who saw their award increased fell from 23 per cent in 2014 to less than 16 per cent in 2016.

The figures, which refer to the initial outcomes of the reviews – before any appeals – were obtained by DNS through a freedom of information request*, and suggest the government has secretly made it more difficult for disabled people to continue to claim PIP, which provides financial support to pay for the extra costs they face as a result of their impairments.

They also confirm anecdotal reports from welfare rights advisers, activists and MPs – as well as cases received by DNS – of growing numbers of disabled people who should have continued to be found eligible for PIP but have had their payments either cut or stripped away entirely.

Many of them have previously spoken to DNS as part of its ongoing investigation into claimants who have had their PIP reduced or removed after dishonest assessment reports compiled by healthcare professionals working for DWP contractors Atos and Capita.

Only last week, Labour’s Derek Twigg told fellow MPs: “I just cannot understand why some of the people who come to see me have not been awarded their [PIP].

“I have had experience of cases such as these over a number of years now, and I have never come across such difficult cases as those I have seen recently.”

In the same debate, Labour MP Clive Efford told MPs that he found it “impossible” to understand some of the decisions made on the PIP claims of his constituents and that he believed something was clearly “wrong” with the system.

DWP has previously published figures showing the proportion of DLA claimants who were awarded PIP after being assessed for the new benefit for the first time, with 23 per cent receiving a cut to their benefit, 25 per cent losing entitlement completely, but 40 per cent seeing their awards increased.

But this is believed to be the first time DWP has released figures showing how it has cut the benefits of disabled people who had already been found eligible for PIP, and they show a much bigger gap between those who lost out and those who gained from the new assessment than the DLA reassessment figures.

Disabled researcher Stef Benstead, from the Spartacus Network, said PIP was aimed at people with long-term conditions, most of which do not improve, so she “would be surprised to learn that 44 per cent of PIP claimants actually have a condition which improves within a few years”.

She said it was difficult to know the explanation for the figures “without the government being transparent on this”.

She said: “I think any change made, whether to guidelines or training or legislation, should be publicised, so sick and disabled people know what they’re facing.

“The government will probably argue that it is improving the accuracy of assessments.

“But its arguments regarding the mobility threshold, aids and appliances, and now on mental health, show that it has no evidence that people are getting more help than they need, and plenty of evidence that people are getting less help than they need.

“It’s disturbing that the government plays with benefit assessments in this way without any scrutiny, justification or decent evidence.

“If it’s going to shaft people, at least let it do so in the open.”

Anita Bellows, a Disabled People Against Cuts researcher, said the figures “show a very worrying trend over three years in the number of PIP claimants being reassessed and either losing their award or having their award decreased.

“They show that 44 per cent of PIP claimants lost out and only 16 per cent gained [in] 2016 when they were reassessed.

“Interestingly, and unlike employment and support allowance, these reassessment statistics are not published as part of DWP normal statistics releases.

“It looks like DWP is not keen to have these figures in the public domain.”

When asked for an explanation for such a sharp rise in disallowances and reductions in PIP awards, and whether this was taking place because DWP was trying to cut spending on disability benefits, a DWP spokesman failed to provide any explanation for the figures.

Instead, he provided a lengthy statement** which included information about levels of spending on PIP, why the government had  introduced the new benefit, and why there was a need for regular reviews.

But he also said that DWP “did not start most reassessments of DLA cases onto PIP until mid-2015.

“As we’ve explained, many claimants moved across to PIP will not have had award reviews yet and therefore will not be represented in the data.

“We will have to wait many years to see the full outcome of transferral from DLA to PIP represented in statistics.”

Meanwhile, members of the House of Lords will next week debate new regulations that will make it more difficult for people with severe mental distress to secure the mobility-related support they need through PIP.

Peers will debate both a motion to “annul” the regulations, brought by the Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokeswoman Baroness Bakewell, and a “regret” motion, brought by the Labour work and pensions spokeswoman Baroness Sherlock.

The motion to annul could see the new regulations thrown out, if backed by both peers and MPs, but the motion of regret would have no affect on the regulations even if it was passed by peers.

A similar attempt to secure a debate on the regulations in the Commons has so far been ignored by the government, with Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams raising a point of order with the Commons speaker on Tuesday about the failure to schedule a debate before the Easter recess.

She said this was a “sad reflection” on the government’s attitude to the House of Commons, as more than 160 MPs had signed an early day motion “praying” against the introduction of the regulations.

DNS was unable to contact the government whips’ office for a comment on the failure to schedule a debate in the Commons because of yesterday’s terrorist attack outside parliament.

The new PIP measures came into force last week and were brought in to reverse two upper tribunal rulings.

The government’s decision to reverse the rulings means an estimated 164,000 claimants will not now be eligible for the mobility component of the benefit or will receive a lower level than they would have received, while an estimated 1,500 PIP claimants who need support to take medication and monitor a health condition will now either not be eligible for the PIP daily living payment or will receive a lower level.

*In its freedom of information response, DWP warned that the release contained “unpublished data” and “should be used with caution” and “may be subject to future revision”

**This is the rest of the DWP statement in full:

“Spending on disability benefits (PIP and DLA) is at a record high – up by more than £3 billion since 2010 and higher every year to 2020. 

“27 per cent of claimants are now receiving the highest rate of support under PIP, compared to just 15 per cent under the outdated DLA.

“PIP award rates and their durations are set on an individual basis, based on the claimant’s needs and the likelihood of their needs changing.

“Regular reviews for PIP claimants are a key feature of the benefit, and ensure that benefit payments accurately match the current needs of claimants – something fundamentally missing from DLA, which PIP began to replace in 2013.

“Under DLA, 70 per cent of all claimants had indefinite awards with little prospect of a review.

“As a result, a significant number of claimants (whose condition had deteriorated) were not receiving the right amount of benefit.

“We designed PIP to be a more interactive benefit with enough contact with claimants to ensure any changes in functional ability can be identified and that claimants receive the right support at the right time.

“PIP is a different benefit to DLA; moving from DLA to PIP does not mean someone is automatically entitled to PIP, nor guaranteed the same level of award. 

“PIP has also been designed to focus support on those who need it most: 34 per cent of reassessed cases given an award of PIP were given the highest possible rate of benefit compared with only 15 per cent on DLA (working age, April 2013).

“DLA was in urgent need of reform and many DLA claimants had not undergone any kind of assessment of their needs for several years. 

“PIP is a better – and fairer – system designed to focus support on those experiencing the greatest barriers to living independently. 

“In all cases, the outcome depends very much on individual circumstances and the needs arising as a result.”

23 March 2017

 

 

PIP investigation: MPs expand search for evidence, but again sidestep dishonesty claims

A committee of MPs is seeking fresh evidence about a disability benefit assessment process, but again appears to be trying to dodge concerns about dishonesty among the healthcare professionals who carry out the tests.

Disability News Service (DNS) has provided the Commons work and pensions select committee with substantial evidence of widespread dishonesty among personal independence payment (PIP) assessors in the reports they prepare for government decision-makers.

That evidence helped trigger an urgent evidence session of the committee earlier this month, but none of the four welfare rights experts who gave evidence were asked by MPs about claims of dishonesty.

DNS had told the MPs how its investigation had revealed that assessors working for the outsourcing companies Capita and Atos – most of them nurses – had repeatedly lied, ignored written evidence and dishonestly reported the results of physical examinations.

Now the committee has written to selected organisations to ask for “further written evidence” about PIP, and asking five questions about the assessment process.

The letter, from the committee’s chair, Labour’s Frank Field, asks which aspects of the process are not “conducive to accurate decision-making”, and whether Atos and Capita staff have “sufficient expertise” to carry out the assessments and “take enough account of additional evidence supplied by claimants”.

Field also asks in the letter if the face-to-face assessment is appropriate for claimants with different conditions; what changes are needed to improve the accuracy of initial decisions; why so many decisions are being overturned on appeal; whether the government’s mandatory reconsideration process is working properly; and what is the impact on claimants of delays in securing an accurate decision on their PIP claims.

But there is no explicit request for information about any concerns the organisations might have about dishonest assessment reports.

One PIP claimant, Sally, told DNS that she experienced a nurse PIP assessor who had “disregarded, misinterpreted and disputed” her medical evidence, was “extremely aggressive”, and was “rude, bigoted and dishonest”.

The assessor’s report led to her being found ineligible for PIP, despite previously having a lifetime DLA award, including the highest rate of the care component.

A tribunal subsequently overturned the original decision and awarded her the enhanced daily living rate of PIP.

She said: “There seems to be a lot of evidence that dishonest PIP assessors are not unusual and I was ‘assessed’ by one myself.

“The consequences of assessors who are lying must be obvious even to that committee.

“I would also add that not only is there a problem with dishonest assessors, but Capita are not responding appropriately to complaints about dishonest assessors and government ministers seem to be ignoring correspondence from people who have evidence that all this is happening.

“And the DWP also fails to deal with the issues of dishonest assessors and Capita’s failure to respond to complaints appropriately.”

Inclusion London, one of the disability organisations asked by the committee to give evidence, said it would be raising specific concerns about assessors not honestly reporting what they had been told in face-to-face assessments.

Mark Lucas, who next week will give evidence to an inquiry into PIP assessments set up by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, said he did not believe the committee would consider any evidence of dishonesty in the process.

He has told DNS previously of the “shockingly poor and dishonest service” he and other disabled people have experienced in their PIP assessments.

He said: “I am sure the committee are concerned about the high number of ‘mistakes’ but are never going to admit or even highlight the fraud on an industrial level by PIP assessors.

“Whilst I am disappointed, it is in line with the response I got from the police, who… believe the DWP or their contractors would never commit fraud.”

One group of PIP claimants with a rare neurological condition, who have previously raised concerns with DNS about the assessment process, said they would be writing to the committee with answers to Field’s questions.

They told DNS earlier this month that they believed there was “systemic malpractice” by healthcare professionals who carry out PIP assessments and then write “fraudulent reports” for the government.

Speaking on behalf of the group, Mary, the wife of one of the claimants and herself a former nurse, welcomed the committee’s decision to expand its investigations.

She said: “We think this is an excellent opportunity for disability organisations to provide evidence to the committee about the systemic problem of inaccurate PIP assessments.

“We can submit documentary evidence of healthcare professionals making false statements and ignoring specialist evidence; also evidence that healthcare professionals systemically apply an incorrect threshold test which upper tribunal cases confirm is a material error of law.

“It is extraordinary that the DWP continue to accept and act on healthcare professional assessments containing such a basic error.

“This malpractice is an astonishing waste of public money that needs to be stopped.”

DNS was unable to confirm the committee’s position yesterday (Wednesday) because of the terror attack in Westminster.

23 March 2017

 

 

Ministers forced into sickness benefit u-turn over ‘sanction fodder’ measure

Ministers have been forced to scrap a drastic change to benefit rules that meant seriously ill claimants found unfairly “fit for work” were no longer allowed to take an extended period of sickness absence, even if they had a sicknote from their GP.

Under the new rules – introduced through a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) memo to jobcentre staff in November, and without notifying parliament – claimants forced to claim jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) faced having their benefits sanctioned if they were too ill to look for work.

They were previously entitled to up to 13 weeks of an “extended period of sickness” (EPS) if their doctor felt they were too sick to work or look for work, despite being found fit for work by DWP.

This meant that those appealing against being ineligible for employment and support allowance (ESA) – with the latest figures showing that more than two-thirds of ESA appeals are successful at tribunal – had a way to continue claiming benefits to pay for food, energy bills and other essentials if they were too ill to look for work and were waiting for their DWP mandatory reconsideration*.

But the government quietly removed that option by issuing a memo on 7 November last year.

It stated that EPS was not intended for claimants who “claim JSA when found fit for work, following a Work Capability Assessment and potentially may be appealing that decision”.

The memo meant that JSA claimants who had never tried to claim ESA could be able to use a sick note successfully, but someone who had failed with an ESA claim would not be given time to recover from the same level of illness.

The new rules meant that someone kicked off ESA after being found fit for work could only submit a sick note successfully if their GP was willing to state that their condition had worsened significantly or that they had a new condition.

DWP admitted last night (Thursday) that the memo had been revised earlier this month to show that JSA claimants previously found fit for work can claim an EPS.

Before that admission, one welfare rights adviser, who asked to remain anonymous, said the “new secret ruling” was “a new welfare scandal” waiting to be exposed and had “already caused a great deal of unnecessary suffering amongst entirely innocent people”.

He later added: “Life on benefits is hard enough without claimants being battered with pointless, secret rules.”

Sarah Glynn, an organiser with the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network, said the new rules were “absolutely appalling” and that ministers had been guilty of a “deliberate misinterpretation of the law”.

Also speaking to Disability News Service before the DWP admission that it had been forced to revise the memo, she said: “It is going to make people ill and it will probably kill people. It’s really worrying.

“It is going to hit more and more people because bumping people off ESA is the major line of attack at the moment.”

And she said it would make more sick people “sanction fodder”.

Barbara Donegan, a welfare rights expert with the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, welcomed the DWP decision to scrap the new rules.

She said the charity had started to receive calls on its helpline in November from people who had been denied permission to claim an EPS after being found fit for work through the WCA process.

But she said that jobseeker’s allowance regulations (section 55ZA) made it clear that such people should be able to claim an EPS if they have a sicknote from their GP.

She said: “We are getting calls from people being told different things at different jobcentres.

“We have read the regulations and we are absolutely clear what they mean and they do not exclude anybody in that situation from claiming an EPS.”

A DWP spokesman said yesterday (Wednesday): “The memo you highlight was issued in November, which excluded claimants who had been found fit for work from taking an extended period of sickness (EPS). This has since been revised.

“Questions were raised about the policy internally, which led officials to revisit and revise the guidance on 1 March.”

He added: “People found fit for work are able to take an EPS once JSA has been awarded and they have presented an appropriate sick note – they do not need to have a new condition, or for their condition to have worsened.

“The regulations allow all JSA claimants, including claimants who have previously claimed ESA, to be considered for an extended period of sickness, if eligible based on their individual circumstances and health condition.”

*If an MR confirms the original decision and a claimant wishes to appeal to tribunal, they can begin to claim ESA again until they receive the appeal decision

23 March 2017

 

 

Disabled people must ‘take initiative’ in fight to keep rights after Brexit

Disabled people and their organisations must “take the initiative” and fight to keep the laws that protect their rights as the UK heads towards Brexit, campaigners have been told.

The call came at a workshop in London organised by two of Europe’s leading organisations of disabled people, part of a project* to provide information on how the final deal between the European Union (EU) and the UK government might impact on the rights of UK citizens.

John Evans, one of the founders of both the UK’s independent living movement and the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL), which helped organise this week’s meeting alongside the European Disability Forum, said his message for disabled people and DPOs was: “If you don’t take the initiative, I don’t think anybody else will.”

The disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell told the workshop that she and fellow peers were having to be “highly proactive” because the government had made it clear that it wants “as little interference as possible” from parliament in the Brexit process.

She said peers would have to act as a “vigilant watchdog” during the Brexit negotiations and the legislation that follows it, for example by preventing too much secondary legislation that “bypasses proper parliamentary scrutiny”.

And she said that disabled people needed to ensure their messages “get to the ears of the people charged with developing this legislation”.

Baroness Campbell said it was “very important” for “people like myself” in the Lords to secure places on the key committees that will scrutinise the various pieces of Brexit legislation.

She told the workshop that she will be “attempting to ensure the UK maintains a very high standard of independent living throughout the process; trying to safeguard what we have achieved”.

She said that “maintaining that baseline and articulating that vision for the future is going to be really important”, so disabled people and their DPOs must ensure they have a relationship with parliamentarians, ministers and civil servants.

Baroness Campbell said she needed to be “backed up by other parliamentarian voices in both Houses [of Parliament].

“This is where disabled people have a crucial role. It is absolutely vital that we inform government and those involved in the Brexit parliamentary process.

“You have got to help parliamentary colleagues to understand and provide hard data on why it would be an absolute catastrophe to ignore all disabled people have achieved in progressing independent living in the EU.

“We have gained so much that we absolutely must not lose.”

Evans said he had “considerable concerns” about the impact of Brexit, and believed that disabled people were “fighting for the very survival of what we have achieved over the last 30 years”.

He said: “There is progressive EU legislation that protects and strengthens our human rights that could be lost.”

He said Brexit could threaten independent living by leading to more austerity measures; providing fewer opportunities to work, travel and study in the EU; restricting disabled people’s freedom of movement; and causing them to lose the right to employ personal assistants (PAs) from the EU.

Evans said he has employed PAs from 12 different EU member states over the last 33 years and he feared not being able to recruit replacements from the UK if it was no longer possible to do so from the EU.

Professor Anna Lawson, head of the Centre for Disability Studies and the new Disability Law Hub at the University of Leeds, said there was a risk that disability rights would be “swept away by the great repeal bill (GRB)”, the main piece of legislation that will repeal the legislation that ties the UK to the EU and incorporates EU law into domestic law.

Although the government has promised that the protections currently provided under EU law will be matched by the GRB, she said, the government can start amending and repealing some of those laws after the bill becomes law.

She also warned that some “really important disability rights” provided under EU law – such as the legislation that guarantees assistance to disabled passengers on ships and planes – are not included in UK legislation, so it was important that they “do not get lost” in the Brexit process.

Other rights that have come from EU law are included in UK law as secondary legislation, which means they can be changed without parliamentary approval.

She said: “We should be careful to try and make sure that any important rights that are in secondary legislation either get turned into primary law… or that there is some mechanism attached to make sure parliament has to be involved in repealing them.

“We want to make sure that once the great repeal bill has passed, the government doesn’t just repeal the rights we have enjoyed from EU law and therefore go backwards in disability rights.”

She said there were ways in which rights could be further embedded in UK law post-Brexit, such as by giving greater weight to the UN disability convention in UK law; ensuring all future legislation is checked for its equality impact before its introduction; and embedding strong human rights clauses in post-Brexit trade agreements.

*The Brexit Takeaways project is organising events in London, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and Belgium to provide information on how the different options for a Brexit deal could impact on people’s rights. The project is led by the European Citizen Action Service, New Europeans, the European Disability Forum and the EU Rights Clinic

23 March 2017

 

 

New Labour shadow reveals PMQs access nightmare… and ‘social model’ ignorance

Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people has spoken about her new role, and the access problems she faces as a disabled MP during prime minister’s questions.

Marie Rimmer, one of parliament’s few disabled MPs, was appointed to the role on 1 February, less than two years after she was elected for the first time as MP for St Helens South and Whiston.

Born in St Helens, she is a former trade union shop steward and became a Labour councillor in 1978. She led St Helens Council for a total of nearly 20 years over three spells.

She told Disability News Service that she does not under-estimate the importance of her new position as shadow minister, or “the magnitude of the role”.

“We have got a government that since 2010 has systematically burdened [disabled people], taken away from [their] finances, affected their housing, their independence…

“They seem to have very little understanding of disabled people, and the fact that they are human beings,” she says.

Although she did not speak out frequently in the Commons on disability issues before her appointment as shadow minister, there were some interventions on social security policy, including concerns about the new universal credit, the welfare cap, and the government’s “incompetent and brutal” sanctions regime.

She also joined many of her colleagues in speaking out, in February 2016, about the “cruel and utterly devastating cuts” of nearly £30-a-week to payments made to new claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG), set to be implemented next week.

And in June 2015, she pushed work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and the prime minister over the government’s failure to publish updated statistics on the number of disabled people who had died shortly after being found fit for work.

Profoundly deaf – she has a cochlear implant that allows her to hear – Rimmer says that prime minister’s questions causes her “dreadful” problems, so much so that she can hear the proceedings better through speakers outside the chamber, away from the “heckling and the cackling” of fellow MPs.

“It’s very stressful, you have to focus,” she says. “It does have its difficulties, but I manage.

“I do hear, but I could do without the heckling and the cackling. Of course everybody could do without that.

“I think it would make it easier for everybody if we stopped all the barracking in the chamber, it would make it easier for everybody.”

Despite her own impairment, Rimmer admitted during her interview with DNS – more than six weeks after her appointment as shadow minister for disabled people – that she had no idea what the social model of disability was, despite its huge significance to the disabled people’s movement.

Her priority as the party’s new shadow minister for disabled people is to build relationships with disability groups, she says, as the party continues with the national Disability Equality Roadshow (DER) launched late last year by her predecessor Debbie Abrahams.

She and colleagues are visiting 32 different areas of England, Scotland and Wales, listening to disabled people’s views and experiences, in a process the party says will help it develop its disability policies for the next election.

Rimmer says the roadshow has been “a tremendous help” as she settles into her new role, allowing her to “meet disabled people, consulting them, asking them what their priorities are”.

Asked what she has been hearing from disabled people at the three roadshows she has attended so far, she says: “Basically they want to be treated as human beings… with rights, they don’t want patronising, they don’t necessarily want things done for them, they want support to help them to ‘do’, when that is needed.”

After the roadshows are finished, according to her office, the information will be collected and analysed by “independent social policy academics”, who will identify “key policy themes”.

“Emerging themes will be discussed with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations, including through the DER planning group,” her spokesman said. “These will then feed into the Labour Party’s policy-making process.”

But while this process continues, Rimmer is left with few if any recognisable policies on disability, and the only one she refers to is a pledge to scrap the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA).

She says: “We have said straight off we will get rid of the WCA and that we will start off afresh and it will be a holistic viewpoint around the individual about what they want to do and how to help them achieve that.

“They want to be involved in society, they want to work, they want meaningful work.”

Rimmer was appointed as shadow minister on 1 February to fill the role left empty last June when Abrahams was promoted to be the party’s shadow work and pensions secretary.

During those seven months, the party repeatedly caused alarm with its attitude towards disability rights, including the lengthy delay in appointing Abrahams’ successor.

Asked why it had taken so long to appoint her, Rimmer says: “I can’t answer that. I know that I am here now.”

Asked whether she had been offered the post previously, and had turned it down, she admitted that she had, but had been unable to accept it at that point because of an accident, although she could not remember exactly when the first job offer had come.

Asked if the party had been waiting for her to recover from that accident before offering it to her again, she says: “I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you that.”

Her office later explained that the accident had led to “a complex hand and wrist fracture that took a number of months to recover from”.

After the interview, when DNS attempted to clarify the situation, her spokesman said that she had first been offered the post “between the leader’s re-election [in late September] and Christmas”.

He said: “She was delighted to be offered the post again in the New Year when she had recovered and was able to accept.”

It was not until early November last year that Rimmer was finally cleared of all charges relating to allegations that she had kicked a ‘Yes’ campaigner outside a polling station in Scotland on the day of the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014.

Her spokesman said the delay in clearing her name was because she was “actually cleared twice: the first charge was dismissed at trial by the sheriff, and the second trial was brought on a technicality but she was acquitted at that second trial by a second sheriff – hence why it took so long”.

The sheriff who heard the second trial referred to the allegations as “a storm in a tea cup”.

Rimmer’s spokesman dismissed suggestions that the party had been waiting to appoint her until her name had finally been cleared.

Another of the areas of criticism levelled at the party during its seven months without a shadow minister has been its failure so far to keep its promise – made to DNS by shadow chancellor John McDonnell in November – that it would ensure there was a debate on the report by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities.

The report, published in November, found the UK government’s social security reforms had led to “grave or systematic violations” of the UN disability convention.

Rimmer insists that the debate has been delayed by Brexit and this month’s budget, but that “it will happen”.

She adds: “John McDonnell and Debbie Abrahams are both very committed to making sure it does happen. It is just about timing.”

But in other areas she appears less well briefed.

In December, the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell attacked Labour’s “lazy indifference” to disability equality, after it abstained on a vote in the House of Lords that would have forced bars, shops and restaurants to ensure their premises obeyed laws on accessibility when renewing their alcohol licences.

Rimmer says she was “not aware of that”, even though the issue has been raised repeatedly with the party.

And despite weeks of coverage by DNS on the scandal of dishonest PIP assessments by healthcare professionals working for government outsourcing contractors Atos and Capita, an investigation which began just before she took on her new post, Rimmer says she was not aware of any of those stories, although she says she has heard other MPs raise concerns about PIP assessments in the House of Commons chamber.

Although Rimmer has asked questions about DWP statistics on the deaths of benefit claimants, she also did not appear well-briefed on the individual cases of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to the WCA, although she said she had heard of Stephen Carré – whose death in January 2010 was the first to be linked by a coroner to flaws in the WCA – when his name was mentioned by DNS.

She has come into her post just as the WRAG cuts are about to be implemented, and as the government has introduced new personal independence payment (PIP) regulations which will make it more difficult for people with severe mental distress to secure the mobility-related support they need through PIP, following two upper tribunal rulings that found against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Rimmer believes the new regulations have only been brought in because of the government’s failure to secure the savings targeted from DWP spending.

She said: “They have put the blocks on because they are not bringing in the savings or the cuts that were required.”

She says Labour will “do our best” to overturn the regulations with a vote in the Commons or the Lords, but she says it is vital to secure support from the public on this issue, the WRAG reduction and cuts to housing benefit for unemployed 18-21-year-olds.

But she admits this will not be easy.

She says: “It seems to me they have done such a job on people who are sick and disabled, when they talk about ‘strivers and skivers’.

“They have dehumanised and scared them and disabled people tell you how they suffer from hate crime, which they never did and they do now.

“It’s all because of the language used by this government and the past government.”

23 March 2017

 

 

Ministers face twin attack over bus accessibility failures

Two leading disabled campaigners have criticised ministers for failing to agree key measures that would improve the accessibility of bus services.

The crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell and activist Doug Paulley spoke out after MPs debated the latest parliamentary stage of the government’s bus services bill.

Baroness Campbell said she felt that discussions she had been carrying out with transport ministers and others over the last year had been a “waste of time”, after junior transport minister Andrew Jones rejected a bid to toughen proposed measures on providing information about accessible transport.

When the bill was being discussed in the House of Lords last year, she had suggested an amendment that would have forced bus operators to publish their policies on access for disabled people.

She warned then that government plans for new guidance on the issue would “never deliver the result that we need – that is, full, guaranteed access for disabled people”, and she agreed to meet the junior transport minister Lord Ahmad to discuss other legislative options.

But Jones told MPs last week that although he knew that “for many disabled people, a lack of information on the accessibility of bus services may well prevent them from travelling at all” – and that he had discussed the issue with Baroness Campbell – the government would go no further than publishing guidance.

Baroness Campbell told Disability News Service this week: “I am not a fan of guidance at this stage in our disability equality history, as I explained in my amendment speeches on bus accessibility policies during second reading, committee stage and report stage.

“Guidance will not cut the mustard, hence my amendment and work towards developing a regulation that we could all work with (financially and practically).

“I now feel all that work over a period of a year in the Lords was a waste of time.”

Paulley had been hoping Jones would agree new measures that would give bus drivers the power to enforce the priority use of the wheelchair space for wheelchair-users.

This would have meant that non-disabled people refusing to move from the wheelchair space – unless there were exceptional circumstances – would be breaking the law.

The push for a change in the law follows Paulley’s victory in the Supreme Court in January, in which the court ruled unanimously  that First Bus had breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people under the Equality Act through its “first come, first served” policy on the use of wheelchair spaces.

The minister for disabled people said after the ruling that she would speak to the Department for Transport about “clarity, good practice and powers a transport operator has to ensure this ruling become a reality”.

But Jones told MPs that he had not yet decided what action to take.

He said that he had set up a group of bus operators, passenger groups and disabled people so he could hear their advice on how to enforce the Paulley ruling over the summer “before we reach a conclusion on the best course of action”.

He added: “I can see practical difficulties, as I think did the Supreme Court.

“We have to recognise that wheelchair users will not be the only passengers with a genuine need to use that space.

“Interventions should also protect the interests of parents with disabled children, those with walking frames and the owners of assistance dogs.

“This is a complicated issue and we have to take care to find the most appropriate solution.”

But the Labour MP Daniel Zeichner said: “I had hoped that we would make more progress on the Paulley issue.

“The Supreme Court has basically passed the matter back to us to make some decisions.

“I heard what the minister said about how difficult it is; it clearly is a very difficult issue and no one is pretending it is easy.

“However, every bus driver in the country faces this on a daily basis. Without leadership from us, they will still face this problem.”

Paulley said after the debate that he had not been approached to be part of the minister’s working group, but had asked to be included when he heard it mentioned during the debate.

He said he believed Jones already had the ability to change existing “conduct regulations” to give bus drivers the power to free up the wheelchair space on their vehicles for wheelchair-users.

He said: “I don’t really see what the problem is regarding amending the conduct regulations to enforce priority for wheelchair space.

“I am obviously biased, but to me it’s pretty obvious: make it a criminal obligation for a non-disabled person to move from the wheelchair space except in genuine exceptional circumstances (eg somebody giving birth in it).

“Then put an obligation on the driver to tell temporarily able-bodied people to move, and to take enforcement action if necessary.”

But Paulley said he did not trust the government to take the necessary action.

He said: “Maybe some ministers are less mercenary and duplicitous than others – but given the swathe of cripple-kicking abuse administered by the government, I have a hard time believing that any seniorish member of the government is genuinely prepared to consider increasing regulatory burden on any industry for the benefit of disabled people.”

Meanwhile, Doug Paulley’s father Stuart has set up a petition calling on the government to use the bus services bill to make it mandatory for non-disabled people to vacate the wheelchair space when a disabled person needs it.

23 March 2017

 

 

Campaign hopes to force improvements to ‘disgraceful’ access to rail travel

A new user-led campaign is calling on the government to address the “disgraceful” and “unacceptable” treatment experienced by disabled rail passengers.

Transport for All (TfA) has issued a series of seven demands to the government and rail industry as part of its Rail Access Now campaign, and has described the current situation as a source of “national shame”.

Next month, on 5 April, TfA is planning a protest about access to services on the much-criticised Southern Rail network.

The campaign has been backed by Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike and commuter Dave McQuirk, who both spoke this week of the “shocking” treatment they have received when using the rail system as wheelchair-users.

Among TfA’s demands is for the government to reverse the “shameful” decision to defer until at least 2019 nearly half of the planned spending on its Access for All programme, which provides funding to improve access at rail stations.

The funding delays were first revealed by Disability News Service last April.

TfA also wants to see a system that allows disabled passengers to “turn up and go” if they want to travel by train, rather than having to book assistance 24 hours in advance.

McQuirk told this week how he had to book assistance in order to guarantee that he can travel to work on the rail system as a commuter.

But he said that his assistance fails to turn up for nearly half of his journeys, forcing him to drag himself onto the train, despite his frequent complaints.

He said: “I’m an articulate, confident, regular traveller and I still have this incredible stressful ‘will I, won’t I?’ worry every morning.

“Everyone knows commuting is tedious and subject to disruption – I can put up with that.

“What I find infuriating is the difficulty, delay and uncertainty that I face just because I’m a wheelchair-user trying to use the railway network like anyone else.

“That’s why Transport for All’s Rail Access Now campaign is so important.

“It’s time we held the government and train operators to account for their record on accessibility.”

Wafula Strike has backed the campaign after revealing earlier this year how she was forced to wet herself on a CrossCountry train because the accessible toilet was out of order.

She said: “I was robbed of my dignity on one of my train journeys.

“It made me feel like I should just stay in behind closed doors.

“Having access to a toilet is such a basic right and I know I am just one of so many other disabled people who have suffered from this – that’s why I chose to speak out.

“I may have an impairment but the barriers society puts in my path are the only things that hold me back.”

Other campaign demands are to ensure there are working audio-visual announcements on every train and platform; to allow mobility scooters on every train; to stop staff cuts and provide assistance at every station and on every train; to guarantee “fully accessible trains with working accessible facilities”; and to ensure there is a clear accessibility standard in the rail franchising process.

The Department for Transport had not commented on the campaign by noon today (Thursday).

But a spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, said: “Rail services are more accessible than ever.

“We don’t have a fully accessible rail network yet, but there have been huge improvements as we work to make it as easy as possible for everyone to enjoy travelling with us.

“We value the contribution of Transport for All, campaigners and disabled customers to our work and plans to improve services, trains and stations – and their help in securing more funding for more improvements.

“Record numbers of disabled people are travelling by train and the vast majority simply turn up and go, but we know we can do better.

“We want to ensure that those who most require assistance get the help they need too.

“A European Commission report (2013) rated Britain’s railway the most accessible in Europe, and all trains must be fully accessible by 2020 [which will include audio-visual announcements].”

He said that more than half (52 per cent) of stations have step-free access, to and between all platforms, to an “acceptable” level – compared to 44 per cent in 2005.

On “turn up and go”, he said: “Customers who haven’t pre-booked assistance will never be turned away.

“There may be a wait, but the train company will make the necessary arrangements for the customer.”

He added: “Train companies have procedures for providing assistance or alternative arrangements when a station is unstaffed.”

And he said that government and Office of Road and Rail policy was that “mobility scooters and wheelchairs must be treated the same.

“For safety reasons mobility scooters and wheelchairs are not allowed on board if they are too big for the wheelchair space.

“Train companies are in discussion about a possible common policy on mobility scooters.”

He said the industry was “always working to improve customer information so that people can make more informed choices”.

But Faryal Velmi, TfA’s director, said: “It beggars belief that in 2017 rail companies, despite making handsome profits, are being allowed to treat disabled people in this way.

“How many more horrific stories of the shameful treatment disabled people experience on a daily basis need to hit the headlines before the government take action?

“It’s time for us to take the fight to the government and the train operating companies and demand that they protect disabled people’s basic right to travel and live their lives like anyone else.

“That’s why we’re launching Rail Access Now.”

23 March 2017

 

 

Disabled EU citizens raise fears over post-Brexit residency rights

The Brexit process could see disabled people who were born on the continent but have lived here for many years unable to secure permanent residency in the UK, because they have never been able to work.

UK law says citizens of the European Economic Area (EEA)* cannot secure permanent residence – and apply for British citizenship – unless they can show they have lived for at least five years in this country as a job seeker, worker, student, or self-employed person, or they are economically “self-sufficient”.

Students and those who are self-sufficient must also show they have comprehensive private health insurance.

The concerns were raised at a workshop in London this week, part of a project** that aims to provide information on how the final deal between the European Union (EU) and the UK government might impact on people’s rights.

The government has pledged to protect the rights of EU nationals already living in the UK, but only if the EU grants similar protection to British citizens living in other EU states.

But many EEA nationals are worried that agreement might not be reached between the two sides, so they want to secure UK residency rights before the country leaves the EU.

Disabled journalist and activist Christiane Link told the workshop that she is helping run a Facebook group dedicated to supporting EEA citizens who want to secure UK residency rights.

Many of them have been living in the UK for many years, but were born abroad.

Some of those struggling to secure residency rights are disabled people who have not been able to work, and have claimed out-of-work disability benefits.

Another group affected is carers, whose contribution is not treated by the UK government as work.

Professor Anna Lawson, head of the Centre for Disability Studies and the new Disability Law Hub at the University of Leeds, told the workshop that this was one of the “hugely important issues that we need to be engaged in” as disabled people and disabled people’s organisations, as the government prepares for Brexit.

Link told Disability News Service: “It will mainly affect people who are not working or didn’t work long enough. You must have worked for five years continuously.”

A German citizen, she has been living in the UK for 10 years but will not have a problem securing residency rights after Brexit because she has worked for more than five years.

But she said that this will not apply to many other disabled EEA citizens.

And although the UK government may not directly force them to leave the country, it could refuse to continue paying them the benefits they need to survive.

She said: “If you deny people who are disabled access to benefits then they are virtually unable to live here, so that is indirectly kicking them out of the country.”

One of those affected is 41-year-old Yragael Drouet, who came to the UK from France as a four-year-old child with his mother and has lived here ever since, and has received out-of-work disability benefits.

He believes there are many disabled people who are EEA citizens and face the same barriers that he now faces in securing UK residency rights.

He said: “The state obviously believes that I was unable to do full-time work so surely there should be some sort of get-out clause for disabled people [like me].”

He says that if he is denied free healthcare he would have to return to France.

He said: “I am 41 and I came here with my mother when I was four. It would be crazy. I have family there but I have nowhere to live.”

He does not believe the UK government would allow this to happen “maliciously” but he fears that “it is something we are walking into” without realising.

The Home Office website says that reasons to reject applications for permanent residence include “failure to supply evidence of exercising a treaty right as a job seeker, worker, self-employed person, self sufficient person, or student”.

A Home Office spokesman said: “The rights of EU nationals living in the UK remain unchanged while we are a member of the European Union.

“The home secretary has been clear that she wants to protect the status of EU nationals already living here, and the only circumstances in which that wouldn’t be possible is if British citizens’ rights in European member states were not protected in return.

“There is no requirement to register for documentation certifying permanent residence to confirm this status.”

He said the requirement for comprehensive sickness insurance is set out in the EU’s free movement directive and applies to all member states.

But Link pointed out that the European Commission stated in 2012 that the UK government did not treat entitlement to free NHS treatment as equivalent to comprehensive sickness insurance, and that this “breaches EU law”.

The Home Office had not been able to respond to this point by noon today (Thursday) because of yesterday’s terrorist incident in Westminster.

Link added: “In general, I think it would be good if the EU would have made better provisions for disabled people (not only those who are working) but most of the issues right now like comprehensive sickness insurance and carer status are caused by the interpretation of the UK, not by the EU.”

A petition calling for the system of qualifying for permanent residency to be reformed – including scrapping the requirement for disabled people and carers to have comprehensive sickness insurance – has secured nearly 35,000 signatures.

*The EEA includes all EU countries as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. EEA membership allows these three countries to be part of the EU’s single market, which allows free movement of goods, capital, services and people between member states

**The Brexit Takeaways project is organising events in London, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and Belgium to provide information on how the different options for a Brexit deal could impact on their rights. The project is led by the European Citizen Action Service, New Europeans, the European Disability Forum and the EU Rights Clinic

23 March 2017

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com