Coronavirus: How the government breached disabled people’s rights 17 times during the pandemic

New research by Disability News Service (DNS) shows how the UK government has breached the rights of disabled people in at least 17 different ways during the coronavirus pandemic.

From restricting their rights in its emergency Coronavirus Act, to failing to ensure disabled people on direct payments had access to personal protective equipment, and preventing shielding MPs from taking part in Commons debates, the research shows repeated breaches of the Equality Act, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Some of the 17 breaches* have cost many lives, particularly the delays in testing social care staff for coronavirus and the decision to discharge hospital patients into care homes without testing them for COVID-19.

DNS has compiled the list to highlight how the government has repeatedly failed to protect disabled people during the pandemic; to help push the government into launching an urgent inquiry to learn lessons from its handling of the crisis; and to try to persuade it to take a new approach before an expected second wave of the virus this winter.

Although about half of the failings were eventually addressed – usually in response to campaigning by disabled people, often working alongside lawyers – others were not.

There are also concerns that even those breaches of rights that were addressed could re-emerge if the country’s public services are threatened this winter.

Today, three disabled people who have played significant roles in exposing how disabled people’s rights have been breached during the pandemic have spoken out to call for action after seeing the research.

Mike Smith, the former disability commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and now chief executive of the east London disabled people’s organisation Real, said the government’s pandemic strategy appeared to be to “protect the majority rather than those most at risk”.

He said the DNS list showed that disabled people “are not a priority for the government”.

He said: “While some good measures, such as the additional support for those shielding, were put in place, the DNS list shows there was not a joined-up approach to ensuring disabled people got the support or protection they needed.”

Smith said the list indicated breaches of both the Equality Act and the human rights of disabled people.

He said he believed some measures taken by the government amounted to indirect discrimination towards disabled people, others showed a failure to make reasonable adjustments, while there were also apparent failures to meet the government’s public sector equality duty, all under the Equality Act.

And, he said, there was a repeated failure to maintain disabled people’s human rights.

He said: “This is why disabled people have joined with others to call for a judge-led public inquiry to urgently consider lessons that can be learned from the government’s handling of COVID-19.”

REAL, Inclusion London and Merton Centre for Independent Living are among scores of organisations that signed a letter (PDF) to prime minister Boris Johnson from the Public Interest Law Centre and the Law Centres Network earlier this month which called for such an inquiry.

The letter was also signed by the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell.

Smith contributed to the letter by highlighting the disproportionate impact of the crisis in the UK on disabled people.

Smith said: “It is clear that, unless there is joined-up pressure on the government, they will divide different minority groups and none of us will get what we need.

“While the prime minister may recently have said there will be an inquiry, we want it sooner rather than later so we can learn the lessons before any second wave of the virus comes along.”

He also called on the Equality and Human Rights Commission to use its own regulatory powers to establish a formal inquiry into how the government may have failed to comply with its duties under the Equality Act.

Smith added: “It is only right they should do so. I can think of no more pressing need than to intervene to save the lives of potentially thousands more disabled people.”

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said the research showed that the government “has a problem with disabled people”.

Last month, Inclusion London published research which showed how disabled people had faced discrimination in every area of their lives from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lazard said: “These 17 examples of discrimination, exclusion, disregard and abject failure to comply with the most basic of reasonable adjustments reveal just how deep, systemic and structural our marginalisation is.

“At every available opportunity in this pandemic, the government appears to have chosen to act against disabled people rather than with us: removing rather than strengthening our rights and protections, denying us information rather than making it accessible, preventing us accessing support rather than helping us get it, and treating us at best as an afterthought rather than an important community to engage with and listen to.

“This state of affairs cannot continue because it will cost lives.

“The government must urgently work with disabled people’s organisations now and over the coming months to understand what went so badly wrong and what must be done better before the likely second wave hits.”

The third leading disabled figure to speak out is Dr Marie Tidball, coordinator of Oxford University’s Disability Law and Policy Project.

She said the 17 examples “illustrate the failure of government to fulfil its national and international human rights obligations to disabled people”.

She edited a report by the university which showed earlier this month that the government’s policy-making during the crisis had breached its duties to disabled people under both the Equality Act and UNCRPD.

Tidball said: “Disabled people in the United Kingdom, like those from BAME groups, have died from COVID-19 on a tragic scale.

“The magnitude of deaths amounts to a violation of the state’s obligation to protect the right to life, under article 2 of the ECHR.”

She added: “The Academy of Medical Sciences predicts a second peak of deaths on the same magnitude of what we have already seen.

“Urgent action is needed, therefore, by government to prevent a second wave of deaths and fulfil its duties under article 2 of the ECHR by undertaking an inquiry to investigate fully the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people and the scale and causes of COVID-19-related deaths of disabled people during the first wave of the pandemic.”

Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the DNS list “confirms that disabled people have been an afterthought for the government throughout this pandemic”.

She said: “The lack of communication from this government has led to tragic consequences; disabled people deserve better and will never be an afterthought for Labour.

“Lessons need to urgently be learnt to avoid further distress to disabled people and their families; it is essential the government learns from its failings.”

DNS asked both the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to comment on why there have been so many examples of discrimination and abuse of disabled people’s rights during the pandemic.

It also asked what this showed about the government’s attitude to disabled people, and what action it would take to ensure there was no repeat of these failings if there was a second wave of the pandemic.

Both departments refused to comment.

A DWP spokesperson said: “Thanks for sending this through to both departments and for the opportunity to comment.

“We do not have anything further to add in response to the questions you’ve raised below, from a DWP, Cabinet Office and Disability Unit perspective.

“I noticed some of your questions were in the remit of DHSC [the Department of Health and Social Care] who I have spoken to separately and have the same position as us on this.”

*These are the 17 ways in which the government has breached disabled people’s rights during the pandemic (DNS has further evidence for each one, in addition to the links provided):

23 July 2020

 

Coffey dodges questions from MPs over benefit deaths

Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey has been accused of dodging key questions about links between her department and the suicides and other deaths of benefit claimants, during an evidence sessions with MPs.

Coffey repeatedly told members of the Commons work and pensions select committee yesterday (Wednesday) that she could not answer their questions because of ongoing legal actions being taken by the families of claimants who have died, such as Jodey Whiting and Errol Graham.

This allowed her to avoid questions about why the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) appears to have misled two coroners about a safeguarding review that was supposed to have been completed last year.

But it also meant that she failed to respond to accusations by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams that DWP had shown “no remorse” and had been “blasé” and “defensive” following a coroner’s report into the suicide of Faiza Ahmed, as reported by Disability News Service (DNS) last week.

Abrahams pointed to the lengthy – and continuing – delay in the attorney general making a decision as to whether to give the family of Jodey Whiting permission to ask the courts to order a second inquest into her suicide.

Again, Coffey failed to comment.

Abrahams also highlighted how the family of Errol Graham, who starved to death after his out-of-work disability benefits were wrongly removed by DWP, only found out that his case would be examined by DWP’s new serious case panel through the media.

Abrahams asked Coffey: “Is this how the state should be treating grieving relatives?”

When Coffey failed to respond to her concerns, Abrahams said: “Three examples of how families have been treated.”

After Coffey again refused to respond to concerns about the treatment of grieving families by DWP, Abrahams said: “I would hope you would want to treat them all with dignity, respect and courtesy, recognising the grief that they are facing, instead of being defensive, showing no remorse and obfuscating, in many people’s minds.”

Coffey finally responded by telling her: “I don’t feel we are being defensive. I feel we have taken a big step forward, a recognition that some things just weren’t working the way they should.”

Also giving evidence to the committee was DWP’s permanent secretary, Peter Schofield, who argued that senior DWP figures had met with a small number of families who had lost relatives in deaths linked to the department’s failures.

Coffey also revealed that DWP had made changes that she believes will improve safeguarding, some of which appear to have been influenced by the publicity in January and February this year surrounding Errol Graham’s death.

Schofield told the meeting that DWP decided on 19 March, at a meeting of its new serious case panel, to introduce new steps it would take before stopping a claimant’s benefits, if the department has lost contact with them.

Last year’s inquest into Errol Graham’s death had heard how it was DWP procedure to go ahead with stopping the benefits of a claimant marked on the system as vulnerable after two failed safeguarding visits.

Letters were sent to Graham in September and October 2017, asking why he had failed to attend a work capability assessment, followed by a telephone call, a text message, and the two visits, but he failed to respond to any of them.

Deprived of all financial support, experiencing significant mental distress and unable or unwilling to seek help, he slowly starved to death.

Schofield said yesterday: “The change now is that if we have tried all of that, we would take that back and have a case conference about the individual, particularly if it is someone with vulnerabilities that we know about.”

These discussions could include other organisations, such as social services and the claimant’s landlord, he said.

If this fails, the case could be passed to new safeguarding leads the department is appointing across the country.

Schofield said: “In that way, what we would seek to do is to provide support, not removal of benefits.

“The approach now is to work not just within the department but to work with all sorts of other agencies, other organisations, to make sure that we understand the vulnerability and the circumstances as best we can before we make any decision like that.”

The family of Errol Graham were yesterday (Wednesday) highly critical of Coffey’s evidence.

Alison Turner, the disabled partner of Graham’s son, said Coffey had given a “bunch of excuses” for not answering key questions.

And she questioned why it had taken DWP 10 years to act to safeguard benefit claimants.

Turner said those changes appeared to have been introduced because of the publicity surrounding the case, first reported by DNS in January.

And she said the changes also appeared to be an admission that DWP had failed to protect claimants in vulnerable situations, like her partner’s father.

She said: “What she has announced should have happened 10 years ago and maybe then Errol would not be dead.”

She said DWP had repeatedly ignored advice to carry out exactly the measures it had now introduced, and she added: “Hundreds of families have suffered because you have ignored them.”

Despite Coffey saying officials had met some families of claimants who have died, Turner said she had never been contacted.

And she criticised Coffey for failing to express any empathy or remorse over Errol Graham’s death during yesterday’s hearing, adding: “I don’t think she cares.

“I was annoyed that she was using the legal case as an excuse to not demonstrate any kind of understanding of what she has put me through.”

The family’s solicitor, Tessa Gregory, from Leigh Day, added: “In her legal case, our client has been calling for urgent changes to be made to the DWP’s safeguarding procedures on the basis that the current policies are unlawful as they fail to adequately protect vulnerable claimants like Errol, but the DWP has repeatedly refused to revise those policies.

“Today’s announcement that the procedures have changed is news to us and news to our client.

“Whilst we cautiously welcome the announcement, it is imperative that the secretary of state publishes the relevant guidance immediately so that our client and the public can see whether it actually requires decision-makers to liaise with different agencies in cases like Errol’s and whether enough has been done to ensure that the vulnerable are adequately protected.”

The family have also released letters sent to DWP by the coroner who heard the inquest into Errol Graham’s death, in which she expresses frustration with the delay in replying to her questions about the safeguarding review, and threatens to “revisit” her original decision not to write a report calling for action from DWP to prevent further deaths.

DWP eventually responded with an update on its progress, but Dr Elizabeth Didcock, deputy coroner for Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, described the “failure to honour the [safeguarding review] timetable which was set out in evidence” at the inquest by DWP as “deeply disappointing”.

Yesterday, Coffey also avoided answering questions about why DWP appeared to have misled both the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the National Audit Office (NAO) about its failure to keep track of safeguarding improvements recommended by its own secret investigations into the deaths of benefit claimants.

Stephen Timms, the committee’s chair, quoted from evidence passed to him by DNS, which showed DWP had admitted to NAO that it had been failing to track the recommendations, three years after claiming to ICO that it had corrected the same failings.

But Coffey told him: “I don’t know anything about that.”

But she also produced striking new figures which appeared to show that the department began 79 new reviews into suicides, other deaths and other serious incidents related to DWP’s actions in 2019-20.

This would be a huge increase on previous years, as DWP has previously said it carried out 131 of these internal process reviews (IPRs) between June 2015 and January 2020.

There is some confusion over the figure, though, because DWP previously admitted in a freedom of information response to campaigner Lee Jefferson that it had launched just 54 IPRs in the 2019 calendar year, following a change in its procedures which led to it “broadening the range of cases that were considered, including reviewing cases from previous years”.

Coffey also told the committee that she had finally agreed to publish the terms of reference of DWP’s new serious case panel, and minutes of its meetings, although this is not likely to happen until later this summer.

Coffey told the meeting: “I am very conscious that when things go wrong, they can go badly wrong for people. We need to be much more agile in how we pick that up.”

23 July 2020

 

Coronavirus: Fears over ‘face covering hate crime’ as new laws go live

Disabled people have raised serious concerns about the rising tide of coronavirus-related disability hate crime, amid fears that this could increase even further when new laws on the wearing of face coverings go live tomorrow.

From tomorrow (Friday), it will be compulsory to wear a face covering in shops and supermarkets in England.

Many disabled people are exempt, the government has made clear.

But despite those exemptions, many disabled people who cannot wear face coverings have already been subjected to disability-related hostility online and while travelling on public transport, where it is already compulsory – except for those with exemptions – to wear a face covering.

Stephen Brookes, a former coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network and now an ambassador for Disability Rights UK, has written to key figures in government, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and disability organisations about his concerns on “mask hostility”.

He says in his letter: “In my 12 years of dealing with disability hate crime up to June 2018, it was clear that abuse of disabled people has always been problematic at times of tension, but we are now in uncharted territory, which is supported by examples we are seeing at all levels.”

Brookes, who is also the minister for disabled people’s rail sector champion, although he was not speaking in that capacity, added: “We must both re-assure and support disabled people in terms of real hostility and remind perpetrators that verbal abuse can still be recognised as a potential hate crime and as such will not be tolerated.

“Can we all take stock and ensure that disabled people are not bullied out of any normal life we should be able to expect, and remind the public and those who affect our lives that the added pressure of fear should not be added to an already difficult situation.”

He has also now raised concerns about comments made during a radio interview yesterday (Wednesday) by the Metropolitan police’s commissioner, Cressida Dick.

Asked about customers who were refusing to wear masks in shops, she told LBC: “My hope is that the vast majority of people will comply, and that people who are not complying will be shamed into complying or shamed to leave the store by the store keepers or by other members of the public.”

Brookes said: “This statement by Met chief Cressida Dick is most seriously unhelpful, and potentially could lead to hostility and hate crime against those who can’t wear face masks.

“She needs to change and clarify that view most urgently.”

Last week, Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, called on the government to recognise the need for “balanced messaging” on face coverings, including “that some disabled people cannot wear face coverings and that this should be respected”.

She told the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, in a letter: “If the messaging doesn’t change, millions of disabled people will not be able to safely leave their homes.

“For those of us that do, we will experience fear, anxiety, possible conflict with public and police and demands to prove our impairment/illness.”

Inclusion London is the lead organisation for the London DDPO Hate Crime Partnership, working with 20 Deaf and disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs) across the capital.

During the coronavirus crisis, it has been running a weekly survey of DDPOs that run hate crime advocacy services on the incidence and types of hate crime disabled people have experienced during lockdown, and now it is being eased.

Its latest weekly survey found 62 per cent of DDPOs reported an increase in disability hate crime referrals on the previous week.

Among the trends, Inclusion London has seen a rise in disability hate crime by neighbours of disabled people, and an increase in cases of disabled people being spat at while out in public because of the mistaken idea that disabled people are “virus spreaders”.

There has also been an increase in online hate crime, with disabled people “told that their lives are inferior and [that they] are taking up resources from non-disabled people”.

Disabled people have also reported being targeted while shopping if they have personal assistants or carers with them or if they need priority in shopping queues.

Inclusion London said: “Disability hate crime during the coronavirus pandemic has not come from nowhere – the image of disabled people as virus spreaders and taking resources from non-disabled people must be tackled.”

It added: “The core belief that disabled people’s lives are of less value than non-disabled people must be continually challenged through working closely with DDPOs.”

Another to have become concerned about online disability hate crime is disabled campaigner Victoria Langley.

She said she had been told on social media that disabled people like her should be locked inside until there was a vaccine because they “are more likely to catch it and pass it on”.

One nurse told her on Instagram that all those not wearing masks should be forced to sign away their rights to health equipment and treatment by health professionals who are “risking their lives because of you”.

Another woman told her on Instagram: “Trees are awesome and worth sobbing over.

“Bus drivers getting killed because they’re doing their job are worth sobbing over, people who don’t wear a mask because they are disabled, not worth sobbing for.

“I looked at your profile, you seemed fine???”

Langley said she found the widespread hostile comments on social media “scary” as a disabled person.

She said: “It’s made me petrified to go out.

“I’m scared to go out because people are not just being hostile, they do not care that being disabled makes it hard.

“I feel totally scared and boxed in with zero support.

“The government are ending all support and saying go out, but the general public want us locked in. I feel helpless and scared.”

Disabled researcher, author and campaigner David Wilkin has been collecting examples of disabled people who have been subjected to disability-related hostility linked to the government’s COVID-19 regulations.

Wilkin, the lead coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, has already collected more than 50 such cases.

One disabled passenger on public transport, who cannot wear a face covering, was targeted by another passenger, who shouted: “This person hasn’t got a mask. This person is trying to infect us. They are trying to kill us.”

A disabled train passenger who did not have a face mask because of breathing difficulties was confronted by another passenger, who refused to listen to their explanation, took a spare mask out of their pocket and forced them to put it on.

Wilkin said: “They were under so much pressure that they put the face mask on and left the train.

“They felt that was the only way to placate the offender.”

Wilkin said he was concerned there would be further cases when the ban in shops and supermarkets comes into force tomorrow.

He said: “It’s definitely a concern. It’s bad enough to be grounded because you don’t want to use public transport, but you have to eat.

“The general concern is that the government, while they have delivered clear messages about face coverings… are not making the same number of messages about the exemptions.

“That is causing real problems.”

But he said he believed the government and public bodies were listening, as he has online meetings next week with both the Cabinet Office and CPS.

A CPS spokesperson told Disability News Service (DNS): “The law exempts those who cannot put on or wear a face covering because of physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability while using public transport.

“The same exemption will apply when face coverings become mandatory in shops.

“Our updated guidance to prosecutors will make this clear.

“If disabled people are victims of hate crime as a result then the CPS won’t hesitate to prosecute perpetrators if our legal test is met.”

Deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton, hate crime lead for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, told DNS in a statement: “We understand that many disabled people, and particularly those with ‘hidden’ disabilities, could be worried about being challenged by others if they are not wearing face coverings in a setting that requires it.

“Government guidelines set out a number of exemptions to the wearing of masks, including on grounds of disability.

“Some external organisations have developed ways to indicate that an individual is exempt, such as wearing badges.

“The government and the police have developed extensive guidance on these requirements, and police officers across the country have received training on how to recognise where an individual may have an exemption due to disability.”

He added: “Any disabled person who is victim of hate crime should report it to the police by either calling 999 (in an emergency) or 101.

“Additionally, you can report crime online at True Vision (report-it.org.uk). True Vision also contains helpful information and guidance materials on disability hate crime and COVID-19.”

23 July 2020

 

German coach company refuses to accept it is breaking access laws

A German coach company that has just launched a service in England is refusing to accept that it is breaking the law by telling wheelchair-users to book tickets days in advance of their journey.

FlixBus is even facing the threat of a private criminal prosecution after it tried to run a coach that was inaccessible to wheelchair-users on one of its new routes.

FlixBus is Europe’s largest long-distance coach operator but only launched its services in England earlier this month.

As the country gradually began to come out of lockdown, accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley decided to check on the accessibility of the new service-provider.

He discovered FlixBus was telling wheelchair-users on its website to provide seven days’ notice if they wanted to travel in their wheelchair, and 36 hours’ notice if they wanted their wheelchair to be carried in the coach’s baggage compartment.

But it is a breach of criminal law to refuse wheelchair-users permission to “turn up and go” – without giving any notice – if there is a wheelchair space available on an accessible coach.

And from 1 January this year, all scheduled coach services in the UK must be accessible to wheelchair-users. It is a breach of criminal law to run an inaccessible coach on a scheduled service.

Paulley went ahead and booked a ticket costing just £1 from London to Birmingham last Thursday (16 July).

When the coach arrived, he was told he could not travel on it because the vehicle was not wheelchair-accessible.

He explained the law, and the driver agreed to call for an accessible coach.

More than an hour later, the replacement coach arrived.

This time the vehicle had a lift and was wheelchair-accessible, and Paulley was driven to Birmingham, with the inaccessible coach travelling with them in convoy.

He was the only passenger on board either of the coaches.

He has since discovered that FlixBus’s operator licence is currently “under consideration” by the Traffic Commissioners – a Department for Transport tribunal – even before its apparent breach of accessible transport laws.

Now Paulley plans to launch a private prosecution in the magistrates’ court against FlixBus for offering an inaccessible vehicle, as well as beginning a separate civil action.

He has been told by police that they will not investigate the incident because FlixBus provided an alternative vehicle that was accessible.

Paulley said: “It is supremely arrogant that this company appears to have started UK operations without any research into their access obligations.

“I intend on forcibly educating them.

“Perhaps they should implement the British standards in their European fleet, as it seems they are happy to run inaccessible vehicles and make disabled people book much longer in advance than non-disabled people.”

Two years ago, Paulley managed to persuade three national coach companies that were preventing wheelchair-users enjoying a “turn up and go” service to change their rules.

Gavin Miller, enforcement policy specialist for the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) said: “DVSA takes accessibility regulations very seriously.

“DVSA has received a report about this operator’s booking process for wheelchairs, and about a linked incident where an alleged non-PSVAR* compliant vehicle was used on a scheduled coach service.

“Enquiries and investigations are ongoing into these matters. Any breach of the regulations found will be reported to the Traffic Commissioner for consideration.”

He added: “The DVSA welcomes reports of PSVAR non-compliance, and will ensure that in each case, the correct level of consideration, investigation and further action is taken.”

FlixBus – which brags on its website that its “green buses comply with the highest safety and environmental standards” – has so far refused to accept that the terms and conditions on its website are unlawful.

The website states: “In order to verify that transportation will be possible, the passenger is requested to provide the exact model of the wheelchair or other walking aids to customer service before booking, by telephone from 14 days and no later than 7 days (for transportation in the passenger cabin) or 36 hours (for transportation in the baggage compartment) before departure.”

A FlixBus spokesperson claimed that this was only so it could confirm if the wheelchair-accessible spaces on the coach were available, even though a passenger carrying their wheelchair in the baggage compartment would not need to book a wheelchair space.

She was also unable to explain why it would take between seven and 14 days to check whether a wheelchair space was available on a particular service.

She said the company had started an investigation into how an inaccessible coach – in FlixBus livery – had arrived at the coach stop in London to pick up Paulley.

She said: “All coaches servicing our lines are PSVAR compliant. We have implemented double checks of this during the investigation.

“Passengers travelling in a wheelchair are of course, in accordance to UK law, welcome to board our coaches without notifying us in advance.

“We do kindly request them to inform us in advance to ensure that the wheelchair accessible seats are not occupied by other wheelchair users.”

But Paulley said: “It’s pure ableism and discrimination – they appear to be of the mindset that wheelchair-users should expect, accept and even be grateful for the ‘special care’ of booking days in advance.

“This is where Britain was 20 years ago, and it is shameful.”

*Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations

23 July 2020

 

DWP silent as satisfaction with disability benefits slumps

Levels of satisfaction with working-age disability benefits plummeted in the two years to spring 2019, new Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) research has revealed.

The DWP figures show a huge 15 per cent fall in the proportion of claimants of personal independence payment (PIP) who were satisfied with the service they received, from 87 per cent in 2016-17 to 74 per cent in 2018-19.

There was also a nine per cent fall (or seven percentage points) in the proportion of employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants satisfied with the service they received, from 82 per cent in 2016-17 to 75 per cent in 2018-19.

The significant falls in satisfaction with ESA and PIP contrasts with the performance of non-working-age benefits such as attendance allowance (improved from 92 to 95 per cent), disability living allowance for children (improved from 85 to 89 per cent), and state pension (a slight decrease from 93 to 92 per cent).

But the survey also produced troubling findings on the percentage of claimants who found it simple to get in touch with DWP, with just 60 per cent of PIP claimants, and only 58 per cent of ESA claimants, saying they found it easy.

This compares with 86 per cent of those receiving state pension, 76 per cent of universal credit claimants and 80 per cent of those in receipt of carer’s allowance.

The results also show a fall in the overall level of satisfaction with DWP, from 86 per cent in 2016-17 to 81 per cent in 2018-19, and with universal credit (a fall from 83 per cent to 79 per cent).

The survey questions benefit claimants who have had contact with DWP and Jobcentre Plus in the previous three months, but does not ask questions about contact with the department’s three much-criticised outsourcing companies – Atos, Capita and Maximus –which carry out benefit assessments on its behalf.

Asked why it thought its performance appeared to have plummeted, a DWP spokesperson refused to comment.

She also refused to say what action ministers planned to take to address the issue.

23 July 2020

 

#Courts not much more accessible than 25 years ago, says campaigner

The courts are not much more accessible than they were a quarter of a century ago, a disabled campaigner has told lawyers and fellow campaigners.

Natalya Dell has been collecting information about disabled people who take civil cases through the courts, both as “litigants in person” and those who are represented by solicitors and barristers.

She said that many aspects of litigation are “really difficult, impossible or stressful” for disabled people.

She said: “I don’t feel courts are any more accessible than they were 10 years ago.

“I certainly don’t feel they are much more accessible than they were in 1995 [when the first Disability Discrimination Act came into force].

“Many of our litigants were not born in 1995. How long do they have to wait?”

Dell was delivering a presentation as part of an online programme of seminars and discussions held this week to mark 10 years since the Equality Act 2010 became law, organised by the Public Law Project.

Dell is a trustee of the disabled-led organisation Reasonable Access, which aims to empower disabled people in the UK to assert and enforce their legal rights to access.

Among the barriers disabled people face, she told the seminar, is the difficulty of securing accessible court information and paperwork about a case, which she said is “a complete nightmare”.

Dell said the difficulty of securing reasonable adjustments and disclosing access needs is made worse by how difficult it is for all litigants to communicate with courts, where “buck-passing and lack of accountability is the norm”.

She said that some of the lawyers who have represented her in cases she has taken have been anxious not to “nag” the courts about fulfilling their duty to make reasonable adjustments for her.

She said: “There’s a real fear there about nagging and complaining about adjustments by lawyers.

“I think they are doing it because they are scared of retaliation.

“In some ways, I prefer to take cases as a litigant in person because then I can nag.”

She is both “assertive” and “polite” in demanding reasonable adjustments when she represents herself.

Among the access issues she has faced is the difficulty of having the lighting adjusted, which is vital to her for impairment-related reasons and is often too bright or flickering. Often, she said, a room does not even have a light switch so it can be adjusted.

She said that, as a deaf person, she finds dealing with security stressful and has probably had just one good experience out of about 15 to 20 visits to civil courts.

One wheelchair-user has told her how a security guard – without warning – got on his knees and crawled under her wheelchair and under her skirt to remove a bag.

And she said that some courts have an accessible entrance that opens later and closes earlier than the main entrance.

She told the seminar how courts do not want to fund access to speech-to-text reporting or British Sign Language interpreters, and those that are approved are often poor quality.

She added: “Deaf people are not believed when we say it was not good quality communications.”

Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice for Inclusion London, had earlier told the seminar: “Everyday life is still not accessible for many of us.

“Many of us take discrimination as part of our life and we learn to live around it and some of us try to challenge it, and some of us just live with it, and some of us don’t even recognise it for what it is.”

She added: “It is wrong just to rely on individuals bringing their cases to challenge discrimination and make everyday life accessible for disabled people.”

Kotova told the seminar that there were too few lawyers specialising in Equality Act cases.

The session also heard from solicitors and Equality Act experts Chris Fry, from Fry Law; Polly Sweeney, from Rook Irwin Sweeney; and Robyn Taylor, from Deighton Pierce Glynn.

23 July 2020

 

Round-up: Community funding, new special schools, Changing Places… and a new forum

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed three years of funding that will help move people with learning difficulties and autistic people out of mental health hospitals and into homes in the community.

The £62 million (£20 million this year, followed by £21 million in 2021-22 and £21 million in 2022-23) was first announced last November in the Conservative party’s general election manifesto, and will be given to local authorities to set up community teams, fund accommodation and train staff.

The funding was confirmed as new figures showed the government was still struggling to fulfil its repeated promises to move people with learning difficulties and autistic people out of isolated, segregated hospital settings.

The latest figures showed 2,085 people with learning difficulties and autistic people in hospital inpatient units, compared with 2,060 last month.

Meanwhile, a new oversight panel has been set up under the crossbench peer Baroness [Sheila] Hollins, a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to help prevent the use of restraint and seclusion in such settings.

Since last November, she has been overseeing independent case reviews for every person with learning difficulties and autistic person who has been identified as being in long-term segregation, to recommend how they can be moved to less restrictive settings.

The new panel will now consider the steps recommended by the reviews.

Last November, DNS revealed that new measures introduced by Hancock to address the treatment of autistic people and people with learning difficulties in mental health hospitals were strikingly similar to failed government measures announced seven years previously.

That announcement had come only four days after a report by parliament’s joint committee on human rights condemned the “horrific reality” of life for young people with learning difficulties and autistic people detained in mental health hospitals.

Meanwhile, the latest annual report from the Learning Disabilities Mortality Review (LeDeR) shows people with learning difficulties in England continue to die prematurely and from treatable causes of death.

Treatable causes of death accounted for 403 per 100,000 deaths in people with learning difficulties, nearly five times more than the proportion in the general population (83 per 100,000 deaths).

The report shows most people with learning difficulties continue to die before reaching the age of 65, with just 37 per cent of deaths at or after the age of 65, compared with 85 per cent in the general population.

The government has confirmed it is creating more than 3,000 places in 35 new special free schools across England.

The schools are expected to open from September 2022.

Plans to open the new special schools were first announced in March 2019, although those plans were for 37 new schools.

The plans were greeted last year with anger by inclusive education campaigners, who condemned the opening of new segregated institutions in every part of England.

The original announcement came 18 months after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities had been highly critical of the UK government’s record on inclusive education.

When the committee published its “concluding observations” on the progress the UK had made in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in August 2017, it was highly critical of the UK government’s approach, and the “persistence of a dual education system” that segregates increasing numbers of disabled children in special schools.

The government has finally confirmed it will change the law to ensure that all new large public buildings in England – such as shopping centres, sports stadiums and cinema complexes – will have to include a Changing Places accessible toilet.

Changing Places toilets include facilities with extra space and equipment such as hoists and changing benches for disabled people who cannot use standard accessible toilets.

Ministers announced the planned changes to building regulations in May 2019, and launched a 10-week consultation, which ended 12 months ago.

Now, following the publication of the government’s response to the consultation, they have announced that the changes will finally come into effect, probably early next year.

It should mean Changing Places toilets added to more than 150 new buildings every year.

Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike, who helped campaign for the law change, welcomed the announcement and said it was “great news”.

The government has also confirmed a new £30 million fund that will help pay for Changing Places toilets in existing buildings, and which will open in the next few months.

And it has announced another £1.27 million to install 37 more Changing Places toilets at service stations across England.

This should mean that 87 of England’s 118 service stations will have a Changing Places toilet by “the early 2020s”.

Rail company LNER has been forced to sign a legal agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to improve its services for disabled passengers.

The agreement came as a result of a legal case taken by a visually-impaired passenger who received “inadequate support and assistance” while travelling with LNER, which runs services between London and the north of England and Scotland.

The company will now have to improve its assisted travel service and update its accessibility and inclusion training to customer-facing staff.

EHRC warned other transport operators that it would “vigorously defend” the rights of disabled and older passengers to receive accessible services.

The case was part of an EHRC project to provide funding for disabled and older people to try to resolve complaints about discrimination on public transport, and to take legal action when those attempts fail.

Stephen Brookes, the minister for disabled people’s rail sector champion, said the case “shows clearly that train operating companies are still not keeping their collective eyes on the ball about pan disability matters”.

The government has hosted the first online meeting of its new Disabled People’s Organisations Forum, nearly four months after it announced it was being set up.

The Disability Unit said on 2 April that the forum would “bring the voices and expertise of disabled people into the heart of government policy making”.

The announcement of the first meeting came on Monday, just four days after Disability News Service revealed how the web page for the government’s new Disability Unit had been silent for more than three months during the pandemic, while more than 20,000 disabled people were dying from COVID-19.

The forum’s first meeting took place yesterday (Wednesday) and was chaired by the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson.

The Sentencing Council has published a new document which, for the first time, will provide official guidelines to help magistrates and judges sentence offenders who have mental heath conditions, brain injuries or learning difficulties, or who are autistic.

The guidelines will come into force on 1 October across England and Wales.

Judge Rosa Dean, a member of the Sentencing Council, said: “At a time when courts are seeing increasing numbers of offenders with mental disorders, this guideline will be of real assistance in sentencing in this area where no formal guidance existed previously.

“The guideline will make sure that courts have the relevant information when sentencing offenders with mental disorders to make sure their rights and needs are balanced with protecting the public, and the right of victims and families to feel safe.”

The Sentencing Council is an independent body, chaired by the Lord Chief Justice, and is accountable to parliament.

A disabled people’s organisation has secured funding of £220,000 for a project to help isolated young disabled people become more independent.

The funding will be spread over five years.

Action on Disability (AoD) works with young disabled people aged 11 to 25 in south-west London and runs a weekly youth club, offers employment and benefits advice, and supports young people with volunteering and to access the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

AoD has had to focus on online support during the pandemic, but it will soon be able to launch its summer programme for young disabled people.

Tamara Stuiver, AoD’s youth progression co-ordinator, said: “If someone comes to our door aged 11, we hope by the time they leave us they will have the confidence to be able to live independently and the resilience to handle anything that life throws their way.

“This funding means they know they can continue to come along, be with, and grow with, their peers, in a safe space, and for all the young people we work with that’s a hugely important thing.”

The funding has come from City Bridge Trust, the charitable funder for the City of London Corporation.

23 July 2020

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com