Duncan Smith and Grayling ‘must face criminal probe’ over WCA deaths
Disabled activists are calling for Iain Duncan Smith to face a criminal investigation over his refusal to address a coroner’s concerns about the safety of the “fitness for work” test, which led to “countless deaths” over the last six years.
They want to hold Duncan Smith – and his former employment minister Chris Grayling – to account for their failure to improve the safety of the work capability assessment (WCA), even though they were warned that it risked causing further deaths.
Tomorrow (25 March), one leading disabled activist will meet with two officers from Police Scotland so he can hand over a dossier of evidence calling for Duncan Smith and Grayling to face charges of misconduct in public office.
John McArdle, co-founder of Scottish-based Black Triangle, said he believed that Duncan Smith and Grayling had shown “reckless disregard for the lives of disabled people”.
He said: “For so long, the government has acted with sheer contempt for the rule of law.
“It is time they woke up and realised that the law doesn’t only apply to us, but to them equally.”
McArdle said he believed there was sufficient evidence for a file to be submitted by Police Scotland to the Procurator Fiscal, the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service.
He said he had “no doubt whatsoever” that Duncan Smith and Grayling had both “knowingly” neglected their public duty, and added: “The facts speak for themselves.”
The call for a police investigation came as activists from Disabled People Against Cuts, the Mental Health Resistance Network and other grassroots organisations staged a protest on Wednesday (23 March) in the central lobby of the House of Commons during prime minister’s questions, calling for an end to deaths caused by benefit cuts.
Black Triangle and other campaigning organisations and individuals spoke out after Duncan Smith resigned as work and pensions secretary in protest – he claimed – at being forced to make fresh cuts to disability benefits in last week’s budget.
Disabled activists were astonished at Duncan Smith’s attempt to dodge responsibility for six years of cuts to disability benefits, and to position himself as a defender of disabled people.
They pointed to his refusal – and that of Grayling – to act on concerns raised by a coroner following the suicide of Stephen Carré in January 2010.
They said that this refusal amounted to misconduct in public office, a criminal offence which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
On its website, the Crown Prosecution Service says that such an offence is committed “when the office holder acts (or fails to act) in a way that constitutes a breach of the duties of that office”.
Campaigners point to a legal precedent in which a police officer was convicted of misconduct in public office when he refused to intervene during a disturbance in which a man was kicked to death.
They say that that conviction has strong parallels with the failure of Duncan Smith and Grayling to act after they were warned of the WCA’s flaws following the death of Stephen Carré.
So far, the call for a criminal investigation has been backed by many of the country’s leading disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations, including Inclusion London, Disabled People Against Cuts, Equal Lives, WOWcampaign, Professor Peter Beresford, the Mental Health Resistance Network, Pat’s Petition, and the Cross Border Alliance.
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, said: “The political process has failed disabled people, so this now needs to be tested in the courts as the only way of getting justice.”
Disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale said the Stephen Carré scandal provided “incriminating evidence of how IDS and Grayling failed to act on a coroner’s concerns over the safety of the WCA, and put thousands of other lives at risk.
“We have a duty to bring these cases to light and try to bring justice for the families involved.”
When they were appointed in May 2010, Duncan Smith and Grayling assumed responsibility for responding to a letter written by coroner Tom Osborne, who carried out the inquest into Stephen Carré’s death, and had serious concerns about the safety of the WCA.
Osborne asked the work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper – who never saw the letter, as the general election was called just days after it arrived – to review the policy not to seek medical evidence from a GP or psychiatrist if someone applying for out-of-work disability benefits had a mental health condition.
But Duncan Smith and Grayling dismissed the letter – according to a draft Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) response that was only sent to Osborne last month, more than five years after it was written – and failed to show it to Professor Malcolm Harrington, the independent expert they had appointed to review the WCA, while also deciding to roll out the test to hundreds of thousands of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit, many of whom had mental health conditions.
Many campaigners believe that the decision of Duncan Smith and Grayling to ignore Osborne’s letter led to countless other deaths.
In December 2011, a long-term incapacity benefit (IB) claimant – Ms D E – killed herself after being told she was not eligible for ESA; her case was linked by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland to the failure to obtain further medical evidence.
In 2014, another coroner wrote an almost identical letter to Osborne’s, again warning of concerns about the safety of the WCA, after the death of a north London man, who also took his own life after being found fit for work.
And last November, government-funded research concluded that the programme to reassess people claiming IB using the WCA could have caused 590 suicides in just three years.
Duncan Smith and his ministerial colleagues have also been trying for three years to defeat legal efforts to make the WCA safer for people with mental health conditions.
A long-running judicial review case, brought by the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), resulted 12 months ago in Duncan Smith agreeing to develop a pilot programme to test new ways of collecting further medical evidence. But that pilot project has still not begun.
Denise McKenna, co-founder of MHRN, said: “During our judicial review into the WCA, the DWP went to exceptional lengths to argue against taking responsibility for obtaining further medical evidence for claimants with mental health problems, even going so far as to appeal the initial judgement that the WCA substantially disadvantages us.
“We were shocked to learn that both before and during the case the DWP had received letters from coroners who had found the cause of individual suicides to be due to failure to obtain or take account of further medical evidence, with the coroners warning that further suicides were likely.
“We cannot believe that the DWP’s solicitors were not aware of these cases while they were arguing against us in court.
“If they were, they have surely withheld important information from the court, and if they were not, we would want to know why not.”
She added: “We are in little doubt that many additional suicides could be linked to the DWP’s refusal to allow mental health claimants a fair opportunity to claim vital financial support.
“As the DWP continues to drag its heels over making the WCA fairer for mental health claimants, we expect to hear of more people ending their lives.
“It is not beyond reason to perceive the DWP as being to blame for these deaths. It is intolerable for this situation to continue, yet we are at a loss as to how to stop it.
“Although we continue to fight to try to lessen the harm caused by the WCA, at the same time we recognise it as a mock assessment and want it scrapped.”
Rakesh Singh, a solicitor with The Public Law Project, which represented the two claimants who took the judicial review case, said he was unable to comment on the possibility of a criminal prosecution as he was a civil lawyer.
But he said that the upper tribunal had found in May 2013 in the MHRN case that the WCA unfairly discriminated against people with mental health conditions, and that recommendations made by Harrington in November 2012 could make the process fairer.
He said DWP had refused to take positive steps to tackle the problem, and had since “come up with excuse after excuse for not implementing change”.
He said: “The DWP has still not started a trial of the changes that it said it would undertake and which a year ago the court said ought to happen as soon as possible.
“It seems clear that the DWP under Iain Duncan Smith completely lacked any real commitment or the political will to put to an end the substantial disadvantage that persons with a mental health condition face when they are subjected to the WCA.”
A DWP spokesman said: “The role of DWP press office is to deal with current departmental business. We wouldn’t comment on former secretaries of state or ministers.”
24 March 2016
Activists say why Duncan Smith and Grayling ‘must face criminal justice system’
Disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations have explained why they are backing a call for two former work and pensions ministers to face a criminal investigation for misconduct in public office.
Many of the country’s leading disabled campaigners have spoken out in the wake of the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith as work and pensions secretary, after nearly six years in the post.
They want to see him and former employment minister Chris Grayling – now leader of the House of Commons – investigated by police over their failure to take action to correct fatal flaws in the work capability assessment (WCA).
Both men were warned of the risks posed by the WCA in the wake of the death of 41-year-old Stephen Carré, who took his own life in January 2010 after being wrongly found “fit for work”.
The coroner who held an inquest into his death subsequently wrote to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), recommending that ministers reconsider their refusal to seek further medical evidence when a claimant of employment and support allowance (ESA) has a mental health condition.
But the two ministers failed in their legal duty to respond to the letter; hid its existence from the expert they commissioned to review the WCA; and decided to roll out the WCA to hundreds of thousands of claimants of incapacity benefit.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said Duncan Smith and Grayling should face a criminal investigation.
She said: “Their decision to ignore the coroner’s letter and serious concerns it raised and instead persist in rolling out the WCA has led to countless deaths and a huge amount of misery and distress to disabled people.
“We believe a criminal investigation is appropriate, as is a root-and-branch review of the last six years of government policy in relation to disabled people, which needs to include a cumulative assessment of the impact of cuts on disabled people, the scrapping of the planned cuts to the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG), and a complete re-think on employment support for disabled people.”
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, also supported the call for a criminal investigation.
He said: “There have been coroners’ inquiries and academic studies showing a direct correlation between government policies and deaths of disabled people which have all been ignored by the politicians.
“The political process has failed disabled people, so this now needs to be tested in the courts as the only way of getting justice.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “DPAC would fully support all and any efforts to force IDS to stand trial for the many crimes against disabled people which he has happily committed for the past six years.”
Disabled activist Rick Burgess, a co-founder and former member of the WOWcampaign and New Approach, added: “If they are not put on trial there is nothing to stop subsequent secretaries of state also committing criminal acts, as the precedent will have been set that they are above the law, even in cases where avoidable loss of life has occurred.”
Disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale said: “The outcomes of IDS’s reign for disabled people are increased poverty and reduced opportunity, but also increased incidence of mental ill-health and suicide.
“For the latter, IDS bears full and direct responsibility. He talks of his passion and quasi-religious belief, and he has a point.
“It is his fervent conviction that disabled people need correction and punishment in order to become full citizens that has led to so much devastation and despair.
“Mostly these cases will remain private tragedies. But with the death of Stephen Carré we have incriminating evidence of how IDS and Grayling failed to act on a coroner’s concerns over the safety of the WCA, and put thousands of other lives at risk.
“We have a duty to bring these cases to light and try to bring justice for the families involved. And to ensure that IDS’s reign of terror is ended once and for all.”
Ian Jones, co-founder of the WOWcampaign, pointed to Duncan Smith’s apparent admission – in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr – that the government had targeted voters who were unlikely to vote Conservative.
Jones said these cuts were likely to “cause death and destitution in our community”, which he said showed that ministers should be brought before the courts to “face justice”.
He said: “The failure to treat the death of Stephen Carré with due process by Grayling and IDS, apparently to allow them to recklessly roll out the flawed WCA test, tends to suggest a criminal disregard for the lives of disabled people and if misconduct in public office is where we have to start this quest for justice, then the WOWcampaign will do all it can to get justice for the thousands whose lives have been blighted by this brand of ‘Democidal’ Conservatism.”
Others to back the call for a criminal investigation include Professor Peter Beresford, chair of the service-user network Shaping Our Lives; Gail Ward, co-founder of the user-led Cross Border Alliance; disabled activist Merry Cross; and the Centre for Welfare Reform.
There was also support from Pat Onions, co-founder of Pat’s Petition, who said the call for Duncan Smith to face justice had brought back “painful memories of our friend and Pat’s Petition team member who died after being found fit for work under IDS and the WCA”.
She said: “When we look back at the early days of our campaigning and the struggle we have all had to get disability onto the agenda; when we think of how challenging it has been to get over a message about the inequalities in the complicated welfare reform; when we remember all those people who have been sanctioned, struggled on very low income, lived in fear of a brown envelope of reassessment, and whose days were filled with increased hopelessness and fear; then we think it’s about time that the people who didn’t listen were called to account.”
A DWP spokesman said: “The role of DWP press office is to deal with current departmental business. We wouldn’t comment on former secretaries of state or ministers.”
24 March 2016
Government is failing disabled people on discrimination, say peer
The government is failing to protect disabled people from discrimination, according to the conclusions of a nine-month investigation by a House of Lords committee.
The Equality Act 2010 and disability committee has concluded that laws designed to address disability discrimination were “not working in practice”, while government spending cuts were having “a hugely adverse effect on disabled people”.
Baroness Deech, chair of the committee, set up to examine the impact of the Equality Act on disabled people, said disabled people were being “let down across the whole spectrum of life”, including in access to public buildings, housing, public spaces and public transport.
She said: “When it comes to the law requiring reasonable adjustments to prevent discrimination, we found that there are problems in almost every part of society, from disabled toilets in restaurants being used for storage, to schools refusing interpreters for deaf parents, to reasonable adjustments simply not being made.”
The report also calls on the government to carry out an assessment of the cumulative impact of the cuts to spending and other major reforms on disabled people, a demand that has been made repeatedly by disabled activists.
The report provides a string of examples of how disabled people have been affected negatively by cuts in public spending, in addition to benefit and tax changes, including cuts to advice services, and legal aid, the introduction of fees for employment tribunals, cuts to the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and cuts to public transport, social care, mental health services and support for disabled students.
It concludes: “In the light of this list we think that the conclusion that disabled people have been hit particularly hard is inescapable.
“Difficult decisions must be made, but they must also be done in a fair, transparent and accountable way.”
The committee also found that there should have been separate legislation to protect disabled people from discrimination, rather than including disability in the Equality Act 2010, although it was now “too late to undo this mistake”.
Merging the Disability Discrimination Act with the other protected characteristics in a single Equality Act had “led to a loss of focus on disability discrimination and a sense of a loss of rights among disabled people”, the investigation concluded.
But the report says that separating disability now from the other “protected characteristics” such as gender and sexuality would be “impractical”, and it would be more sensible to improve the Equality Act so that it gives “greater prominence to disability” and increases “protection of disabled people”.
The committee also calls on the government to give “due consideration” to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities when drawing up new policies and laws which may impact disabled people.
And the report accuses the government of using its so-called Red Tape Challenge as a “pretext” for removing protection from disabled people, and says that “instead of concentrating on the burden on businesses, [the government] should be looking at the burden on disabled people”.
Baroness [Sal] Brinton, the disabled president of the Liberal Democrats, who sat on the committee, said they hoped their report would be used to hold the government and other organisations to account.
She told Disability News Service (DNS) that the report “makes it absolutely plain that disabled people have not been served well, despite legislation often being in place, and that discrimination is still a real barrier for us”.
She added: “This is a blueprint for tackling disability discrimination, and should be the basis for making changes.
“For decades, governments (of whatever colour) have avoided really tackling disability discrimination, whilst saying they believe in eliminating it.
“This report, coming hot on the heels of the disability cuts in the budget fiasco, means this government has no excuses.
“It must remedy the failings our report highlights and the disabled community will judge how serious they are about equality in their response.”
Baroness [Celia] Thomas, another disabled committee member, and also a Liberal Democrat peer, told DNS: “For the first time, the discrimination which still exists for disabled people is set out in one place, with evidence to back it up.
“The report also sets out how things could and should change. If all the recommendations were implemented, disabled people would certainly notice – with, for example, far more reasonable adjustments put in place as a matter of course, and better access to transport.”
She said her message to the government was to “get on and remedy the failings highlighted in the report”.
She said: “There is no excuse – many of our recommendations are not costly, or time-consuming, and they just need the government to take action.”
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, another disabled member of the committee, said in a video posted by the committee on YouTube that they wanted the EHRC to do more to promote disability equality “so that disabled people really knew their rights, because that has definitely slowed down”.
She said that disabled people’s voices had become “very silent” under the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty (PSED), compared with the Disability Discrimination Act’s disability equality duty.
And she said the involvement of disabled people had been “squashed” by the government’s Red Tape Challenge.
The report calls for a strengthening of the pSED, which it says presently allows the government and other public bodies to “have due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity, but then go ahead and “pursue plainly discriminatory policies”.
The report concludes that there is a “fundamental flaw” with the duty, and so a new section should be added to the Equality Act stating that a public body has to take “proportionate steps” towards eliminating discrimination and advancing equality of opportunity.
And it accuses successive governments of “20 years of inertia” when it comes to addressing inaccessible travel by trains, taxis and buses, and calls on Network Rail, Transport for London, train operators and bus companies to “put more of their resources towards making their stations and vehicles more easily accessible to those in wheelchairs”, while it says that no new trains or buses should be put into service without audio-visual announcements.
On access to housing and leisure facilities, it calls for a one-line amendment to licensing laws that would allow local authorities to refuse to grant or renew a licence for pubs, clubs and restaurants until they provide basic facilities for disabled customers.
And it says that councils should follow London’s example and revise their planning policies to require a “significant proportion” of new buildings to be wheelchair-accessible or adaptable.
The report also demands action to make it easier for disabled people to defend their rights in the courts, and calls on the government to remove the new fees it introduced for employment tribunal claims.
Baroness Brinton said she believed that two particular recommendations of the committee would have the biggest impact on disabled people.
She said the Red Tape Challenge had “given government and others in the public sector permission to downgrade the needs of disabled people”, and that “if this were remedied, and urgently, many practical benefits would follow”.
She also pointed to the report’s transport recommendations, which were “probably going to help disabled people most day to day”.
She said: “I know from my own experience how fragile independence is when buses, trains, stations and taxis cannot be relied upon.
“It only requires the political will to change this – we should insist that our recommendations are delivered.”
Baroness Thomas said she would particularly like to see local authorities enforcing compliance with the building regulations relating to access, and using their licensing powers to make compliance with the Equality Act a condition of granting a taxi licence.
And she added: “With a minor amendment to the Licensing Act, they could refuse to renew the licences of restaurants, pubs and clubs which don’t have disabled access and disabled toilets.”
The committee’s investigation has taken nine months, has heard from more than 50 witnesses – including many leading disabled campaigners and representatives of disabled people’s organisations – and received nearly 180 pieces of written evidence, and heard first-hand testimony from disabled people, which included a visit to the user-led organisation Real.
The report will be debated by peers once the government has responded to its conclusions and recommendations, which should happen within two months.
24 March 2016
Government backtracks on PIP but WRAG cuts remain
The government has abandoned plans to tighten eligibility for its new disability benefit, but has refused to reconsider cuts to out-of-work disability benefits that were approved by parliament earlier this month.
The announcement that the government was withdrawing plans to cut spending on personal independence payment (PIP) – which would have affected 370,000 disabled people by 2020-21 – was made by the new work and pensions secretary, Stephen Crabb, following the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith.
The announcement of the U-turn was greeted with relief by disabled people and disability organisations, alongside widespread anger at Duncan Smith and his attempt to paint himself as a defender of disabled people’s rights in his resignation letter and a subsequent interview with the BBC.
He claimed in the letter to the prime minister that cuts to PIP – which he had earlier defended in parliament – were “a compromise too far” and “not defensible in the way they were placed within a Budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers”.
In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Duncan Smith said he was concerned about the government’s policies being “perceived” as a “very limited narrow attack on working-age benefits”.
He said that, by 2019-20, the present and previous governments would have taken £33 billion a year from spending on working-age benefits, which he said was “going too far”.
But disabled activists poured scorn on his claims to be defending disabled people.
Disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale said: “IDS ruined disabled people’s lives in so many ways.
“It was not only the financial cuts, which he now claims were all [George] Osborne’s idea. It was also the systematic shaming and bullying of disabled people and the callous inhumanity of the regime he presided over.”
Ian Jones, co-founder of the WOWcampaign, said: “The resignation of Iain Duncan Smith and the admission that this Tory government deliberately targeted austerity cuts at disabled people and others they viewed as unlikely to vote for them, demonstrates their intention to punish disabled people for the 2008 financial crash.”
Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), told BBC Radio 5 live that DPAC was “absolutely delighted” that Duncan Smith had quit, because he had caused “untold suffering to disabled people”.
She dismissed claims that Duncan Smith had taken a “principled stand” and stressed that he had defended the PIP cuts “all the way through” until his resignation, and had been “self-delusional about the amount of harm he has caused”.
Concerns about the planned cuts to PIP of £4.4 billion over five years were used by Duncan Smith to justify his decision to resign, although many commentators suggested he had been looking for an excuse to quit the cabinet in order to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.
In the interview with Andrew Marr, Duncan Smith appeared to suggest that the PIP cuts would have been acceptable if they had not been included in the budget alongside tax cuts for high earners.
Only last week, Duncan Smith told MPs that the PIP cuts were “the right way to go and will improve the lot of the worst off”.
Despite the PIP U-turn, there appears little chance that the government will also reverse cuts to employment and support allowance (ESA).
Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, confirmed in the House of Lords that the government had no intention of abandoning the ESA cuts, which were a key and controversial part of the welfare reform and work bill, which passed its final parliamentary hurdle this month.
He told the disabled crossbench peer Lord [Colin] Low – who had led opposition to the ESA measure in the Lords – that the government had “no plans” to reconsider the cuts, which will see a loss of nearly £30 a week for new ESA claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) from April 2017.
When asked the same question yesterday (23 March), prime minister David Cameron also refused to reconsider the WRAG cut, telling MPs that “the changes to employment and support allowance have been through both Houses of Parliament”.
Meanwhile, Duncan Smith’s replacement has already faced the embarrassment of being contradicted by the Treasury as he was delivering his first statement to the House of Commons.
While Crabb was telling MPs that the government would make no further savings to working-age benefits, Treasury sources were briefing a newspaper that he was wrong and that they were not ruling out future cuts to welfare spending later in this parliament.
Further embarrassment came after it emerged that Crabb had tried to justify voting for the WRAG cuts on his Facebook page – before his appointment as work and pensions secretary – by arguing that ESA claimants placed in the WRAG were “able to work”, a statement he later admitted to fellow MPs was untrue.
Crabb is likely to face fresh embarrassment within months because he is the constituency MP for Paul and Susan Rutherford, the disabled couple who are taking on his Department for Work and Pensions over whether the “bedroom tax” discriminates “unjustifiably” against disabled people.
A ruling on their case – along with other disability-related bedroom tax cases – is expected from the Supreme Court before its summer break.
24 March 2016
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com