Government set to face legal action after Tory MPs back ‘cruel and nasty’ ESA cut
The government is likely to face legal action if it pushes ahead with plans to cut the out-of-work disability benefits of hundreds of thousands of claimants by £1,500 a year, say disabled activists.
The warning came as Conservative MPs overturned a House of Lords amendment which had removed the proposed cut from the welfare reform and work bill.
The bill will now return to the House of Lords on Monday (29 February), but it is thought almost inevitable that the government will force through the cut, even if peers vote to reinstate their amendment.
If the measure becomes law, weekly payments for new claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) who are placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) – for those found to have limited capability for work – will be cut from £102.15 to £73.10, a loss of about £1,500 a year.
Ministers have argued that the extra £29 a week acts as a disincentive to find work for sick and disabled people in the WRAG.
They plan eventually to spend an extra £100 million a year of the annual £640 million savings from the WRAG cut on improving employment support for disabled people.
Priti Patel, the employment minister, told MPs this week that a “taskforce”, including representatives of disability charities Scope, Leonard Cheshire Disability, RNIB and the National Autistic Society, as well as the government’s Disability Action Alliance network, which is chaired by Disability Rights UK, would help decide how that money would be spent.
The user-led grassroots campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) has already taken advice from a barrister, and has been told that a legal challenge – arguing that the group of disabled people affected would be discriminated against under the Equality Act – has a good chance of success, but could only be taken once the cut has been implemented from April 2017.
Debbie Jolly, a co-founder of DPAC, said: “DPAC looked at the legal routes to challenge the £30 cut to the WRAG when it was first put forward as a possibility.
“Unfortunately, we cannot challenge it until it happens. However, we will, in our usual way, be calling for people to help us take a legal challenge if this goes all the way through.
“The cut is yet another illustration of this government’s contempt for disabled people, and any disability charity taskforce that helps to institute it is deserving of the contempt of disabled people.”
Disabled activist Rick Burgess, from Manchester DPAC, said the cut to WRAG payments was “cruel and nasty”.
He said: “It will take lives, it will ruin lives, because of the added stresses that the poverty will create.
“The fight isn’t over, but if this ends with the government pushing this through then it will be down to legal challenges.”
Burgess called on disabled people affected by the cut to “try to hold yourselves together”.
He said: “It’s a nasty fight but it’s going to go on. These are dark days but there will be some light sooner or later.”
He said he believed the government would find a way to extend the measure to existing WRAG members and not just new claimants.
Burgess said the government could eventually make similar cuts to those in the ESA support group, and would justify this by saying that sick and disabled people facing extra disability-related costs should claim personal independence payment.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “There is no evidence that the £30 a week paid to disabled people in the WRAG acts as a disincentive to work.
“Instead, all the evidence from a recent parliamentary review finds that the cut will make it difficult for disabled people to be able to afford to take part in things like training and work experience.
“It will also lead to disabled people struggling to pay food and heating bills, which will have a damaging impact on their physical and mental health.”
There was disappointment among campaigners that only one of four Tory MPs who had spoken out against the cut – Stephen McPartland – voted against the government, while another, Heidi Allen, abstained.
Allen had told MPs in this week’s debate: “I do not believe mentoring and support alone will heat the home of someone recovering from chemotherapy or help the man with Parkinson’s who needs a little bit of extra help.
“I remain unconvinced that these people do not also have financial needs.”
McPartland told the debate: “I do not accept that £30 a week is an incentive for somebody not to go to work.”
He added: “My concern is that the way in which the bill will be perceived, and its practical implications, will lead some people who have disabilities to feel as though they are being pushed into the support group or into work.”
Dr Eilidh Whiteford, who leads for SNP on social justice and welfare in Westminster, accused the government of “putting sick and disabled people on the frontline of their austerity agenda, hitting the incomes of those who are already disadvantaged”.
She added: “The cuts to ESA will cause real hardship and are quite unnecessary. They are based on a flawed and frankly offensive misconception that people with serious long-term health conditions are malingerers who need to be prompted into work with ‘tough love’.”
The vote saw a comfortable government victory by 306 votes to 279, while an equivalent measure affecting disabled claimants of universal credit was approved by 304 votes to 280.
Employment minister Priti Patel declined to answer Labour’s Stephen Timms when he asked her to name a single disability organisation that backed the WRAG cut.
She told MPs that as only one per cent of those in the WRAG move off ESA every month, the benefit was “not working as anyone intended it to work” and that the “fixation on welfare… traps people into dependency”.
The disabled Conservative MP Paul Maynard backed the government’s position and said that agreeing to the Lords amendment would mean that “we will not get a £100 million fund placed in the hands of the third sector to support people with limited capacity for work to try to get back into employment. That would be a wasted opportunity.”
He said ESA was a “dinosaur of a benefit” which “needs to be taken to the knacker’s yard and put out of its misery”, a measure he hoped would be included in the government’s forthcoming employment support white paper.
25 February 2016
A Paralympic star jailed for punching a homophobic thug who was threatening him and his gay friends has spoken of his prison nightmare, and how he has been handed a fresh start and a possible return to international competition.
George Fletcher spent four months in prison, but he and the friends who were with him insist he was merely protecting them all from a “horrible and aggressive” stranger who had targeted them on a night out in Liverpool’s gay quarter.
He has spoken exclusively to Disability News Service about his time in prison, his anger with the criminal justice system that almost ruined his life, and his determination to play international football again.
And the Great Britain cerebral palsy seven-a-side star – who represented Britain at the London 2012 Paralympics and has also represented England – has pledged that the injustice he suffered will not prevent him returning to his previous work with vulnerable people, and launching a new business.
Fletcher was released with a tag on 1 February, four months after being jailed at Liverpool Crown Court for grievous bodily harm.
Even though the judge had told the man Fletcher punched that he had been “the author of his own misfortune”, the Paralympian was still jailed for 15 months.
The incident happened in the early hours of 1 September 2014 on the edge of Liverpool’s gay quarter, an area notorious for homophobic incidents and assaults, and just a couple of streets away from where trainee police officer James Parkes was beaten and left in a coma after another homophobic attack in 2009.
It had begun in a takeaway, with Fletcher and three friends peacefully eating their food inside when a stranger approached and began shouting “vile and horrible” homophobic abuse at them.
He left the takeaway, but the four friends bumped into him again minutes later as they tried to find a taxi, and he again began screaming homophobic abuse at them.
Fletcher says CCTV footage shows the man aggressively approaching him and his friends, and how he twice had to push the man away when he tried to grab his friends.
The stranger then began bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, with his arms wide open, shouting: ‘Let’s have it!’
“When he got too close to me I threw a punch,” Fletcher says. “The law says that if you feel like you are in danger or feel threatened you are allowed a pre-emptive strike, so what did I have to do to prove that to the jury? I felt like I was in danger.”
Unfortunately, the man, who was six feet four, fell backwards after Fletcher struck him a second time, and struck his head on the pavement. He was left seriously injured, needed emergency surgery, and was reportedly left with brain damage.
Fletcher believes he was right to defend himself and his friends, although he regrets the injuries he caused. But he is still angry that he was convicted.
He says the jury told the judge – after hours of deliberation – that they were unable to reach a verdict, but came back minutes later with a guilty verdict after they were warned that the courts were about to close for the day.
And he says that listening to the Crown Prosecution Service claiming he had set out to take his revenge for the homophobic abuse his friends were subjected to had made him feel “disgusting”.
“I don’t believe in the criminal justice system anymore,” Fletcher says. “I thought my life was over, that my football career was over, and my work with vulnerable people, which I have always cherished.
“It was all gone, everything was taken from underneath me, and it completely destroyed me.”
When he arrived at Brinsford Prison, a young offenders’ institution near Wolverhampton, he knew it would be tough, particularly when he realised he was the only Scouser in the prison. He was tested almost immediately.
“I was jumped by quite a big group of lads,” he says. “You have a choice: you either fight back and take a bigger beating or you let them do what they want to do but know they are going to come back and do it again later.
“My decision was to fight back, which I didn’t want to do because the reason I ended up in there was because of throwing a punch.
“But it’s a completely different world. There are no rules. You have to put a face on, you have to pretend to be someone else, you have to stick up for yourself, otherwise they will just pick you off.”
It was his experience as an athlete that saved him from the repeated beatings he endured during the first month in prison.
Eventually, the other prisoners noticed the incredibly tough and professional gym sessions he was putting himself through, and started asking him for help with their own training regimes and for advice on what they should eat.
This “strange bond” he developed with them meant that life inside became easier, and he even developed friendships and has kept in touch with many of his fellow inmates.
He says he now understands the aggressive behaviour he was confronted with when he arrived at the prison. “This is all these lads know. They have been in for three or four years. They don’t know any different.
“Some of these lads have just made a mistake once in their life and have been punished for it.
“When you get to know them they are genuine, easy-going lads, but they just know nothing but jail.
“When they open up, they are no different to you or me. All we thought about was what were we going to do when we got out to make our lives different.”
Fletcher says that the only rough treatment he received because of his impairment was being asked him why he “walked funny”; he told them he had a sore leg.
“No-one ever used it against me. They would have a laugh, but no-one saw my disability as a target.”
While he was inside, his fellow inmates didn’t know he was a Paralympian, because he didn’t tell them. “I was there to do time,” he says, “not to brag about stuff I had done in the past.”
When he was released after four months, he says, it felt unreal. “The feeling coming out of the gates was the best feeling of my life. I realised how thankful you are for your freedom and how precious it is.
“Even though I was only in there for a short time it made me realise how important family was and how important freedom was, and all the good things that have happened to me in my life, like my football career.”
As he walked through the prison gates, he already knew that his friends and colleagues had not turned their backs on him.
Jeff Davis, the FA’s national football development manager, who had first discovered him on a scouting trip when he was just 15, had written to him in prison, and even tried unsuccessfully to visit him.
Davis rang Fletcher two days after he was released to tell him that he still had a future in the England squad.
“That was a stepping stone for me,” he says, “to think my life might not be over, that people who really know me are going to give me a second chance in life.”
He has also been offered his old part-time job back by the YMCA in Birkenhead, where he is a lifestyles officer, responsible for running programmes like football, cycling, and “chair fitness”, for those who can only do their workouts sitting down.
He says the chief executive of the YMCA told him: “We don’t think you are the person that they made you out to be in court.
“We want you back working with the people we know you can inspire to greater things.”
Fletcher says: “It’s like I’m being given another chance by people who actually know who I am, and don’t just see the tag.”
As well as working with YMCA, he is also about to launch his own business, G Force Fitness, as a fitness consultant.
He came up with the idea in prison, and plans to offer training to anyone, but particularly hopes to work with vulnerable and disabled people.
Now he says he can’t wait to set foot again in the FA’s national training centre, St George’s Park, although it is likely that he will have to wait until at least next year to play for England again, as he is not allowed to leave the country until 2017.
“I can’t wait to set foot there again and put my boots on and surround myself with England players,” he says.
“The England atmosphere and the English football coaches and the way we are treated as athletes… I just cannot wait.
“One day I will put that England shirt on again, I will represent England again. That’s when I will feel like I have closure.”
25 February 2016
DNS to ask tribunal to force DWP to publish secret benefit deaths information
Disability News Service (DNS) will this week ask a tribunal to require the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to publish information about secret reviews it carried out into the deaths of 49 benefit claimants.
DNS has been trying since August 2014 to find out what actions ministers took in the wake of deaths linked to the employment and support allowance (ESA) claim process, and the refusal or removal of ESA and other benefits.
DWP originally insisted that it held no such information, a claim made both by civil servants and the former minister for disabled people, Mark Harper.
But after Steve Webb, a Liberal Democrat ministerial colleague of Harper, contradicted his claim in October 2014, their department was forced to admit that it did carry out what it called “peer reviews” into benefit-related deaths.
Following a request submitted by DNS under the Freedom of Information Act, DWP finally admitted that it had carried out 49 such reviews between February 2012 and autumn 2014.
But ministers refused to release these reviews, or their conclusions or recommendations, even if personal information was redacted.
They claimed that the civil servants who had compiled the reviews would be breaking the law if they were released to DNS, even though the relevant legislation – section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 – makes it clear that it would be entirely lawful to do so if that decision was authorised by the secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith.
When DNS appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last year, it agreed with DWP that it did not have to release the reviews, or details about them.
The DNS appeal against that decision by the ICO will take place in London in front of the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) on 3 March, although a decision is not expected until a later date.
DNS will be represented at the tribunal by barrister Elizabeth Kelsey, of Monckton Chambers, who has worked pro bono on the case.
John Pring, editor of DNS, said it was vital that the reviews were released by DWP.
In the last year, again following DWP’s refusal to release information within its possession, DNS has investigated two benefit-related deaths almost certain to have been subject to peer reviews, those of Stephen Carré in January 2010 and Michael O’Sullivan in September 2013.
In both cases, coroners linked the deaths to the ESA claim process – particularly to flaws within the work capability assessment (WCA) – and went as far as writing reports calling for DWP to take action to prevent future deaths.
DWP breached its legal duty to respond to the Stephen Carré report in 2010, and this month finally admitted that it had a draft version of a response in its records, which it failed to send to the coroner.
The failure to respond to the coroner’s report is important because ministers took key decisions that year that led to the WCA being rolled out without the improvements necessary to correct its flaws, putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with mental health conditions at risk.
DNS believes that the secret peer reviews could reveal many other such cases, in which flaws in DWP policy and practice were responsible for the deaths of benefit claimants.
Pring said: “The work DNS has done is only a small part of much wider investigations by other journalists and activists into the impact of welfare reform by successive governments on sick and disabled people.
“We need to know why these people died, whether their deaths were linked to government action, or inaction, and what measures ministers took, or didn’t take, to prevent further deaths.
“It is not good enough for ministers to hide behind social security legislation; Iain Duncan Smith could easily order the publication of these reviews.
“The families of those who died deserve to know the truth, as do the millions of sick and disabled people who will go through the benefits system in the next few years, and who have already been through it.
“They need that system to be safe, and they also need to know that ministers have done and are doing everything they possibly can to avoid causing them unnecessary harm.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We take these matters extremely seriously, which is why we look into our processes over complex cases like these.
“However, having a review in no way means the department was at fault.”
25 February 2016
The care watchdog’s decision to ask a discredited US outsourcing giant to manage its disabled expert advisers has led to confusion, cutbacks and a stream of resignations, Disability News Service (DNS) has been told.
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) decided earlier this month to pass three of four regional contracts to run the Experts by Experience (EbE) programme to Remploy, formerly a government-owned business but now mostly owned by US-based Maximus.
But within days, a stream of disabled people and carers who previously assisted with CQC care inspections under EbE have said they will no longer take part in the programme, with one EbE participant estimating that three out of four have quit rather than work for Maximus.
Some of those who agreed to work with Remploy/Maximus have been told to print their own ID badges, while others have reported how Remploy staff appear “utterly confused”.
Enham, the disability charity sub-contracted by Remploy to administer the programme in the south of England, has reportedly allocated just one member of staff – who has been on sick leave – to run the programme.
And there are concerns that Remploy has decided to train all of its new recruits online, even though they will be entrusted with visiting facilities such as care homes, hospitals and surgeries to talk to service-users about their experiences.
Three of the four contracts were won by Remploy/Maximus, while the other was secured by the charity Choice Support, which was previously part of a consortium that ran the whole EbE programme across England.
One EbE participant said the programme in parts of the country run by Remploy was now a “nightmare” and that Remploy staff were “nice and polite but utterly confused, with no idea how the system of inspection actually works”.
She said: “I have sorted most of it myself once I have the inspector’s name [EbEs always accompany a CQC inspector on inspections]; sort of do-it-yourself inspection planning.”
Another Expert said Remploy’s management of the programme had been “inept” and that she and others had been told to print their own ID badges.
After complaints, they were sent “handmade, playschool” badges that were laminated bits of paper stuck on to a badge holder with glue.
She said: “They do not have a clue what they are doing, won’t take suggestions from Experts like myself who have been doing this for years, and the time I personally have taken to [deal with Remploy’s administrative failings] is huge and has had an effect on my own health.”
Another EbE participant, who is now dealing with Enham, said: “The comparison with Choice Support is like moving from top league to lower division.”
And yet another said: “I feel that we have been completely undervalued in our role and let down by CQC, who constantly told us what a good job we were doing and how we were invaluable to them.
“Our new employers have no idea what is involved and I am concerned about the lack of support that we will receive in the future.”
She added: “It is all such a shame, as I felt we were really making a difference to how adult care was received.”
There has already been anger after it emerged that Remploy planned to pay its Experts just £8.25 per hour (or £9.40 in London), compared with more than £17 an hour they had received under the Choice Support consortium.
Stung by the reaction to Remploy’s proposed pay cut, CQC pledged to subsidise wages for existing EbE participants so their pay would be bumped up to £15 an hour for the first six months of the contract, although new recruits will still be paid just £8.25 per hour.
Contacted about the concerns, Enham said it was “committed to supporting, training and working closely with Experts by Experience”.
A spokeswoman for the trust said: “The trust takes these concerns seriously and is working with both CQC and Remploy to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible for all Experts.”
Both CQC and Remploy refused to comment on the concerns raised by their own EbE participants.
CQC refused to answer questions about the alleged chaos, although it did confirm that contracts have still not been signed with Remploy and Choice Support, three weeks after the new arrangements were supposed to be introduced.
Remploy/Maximus also refused to answer questions about the implementation of the new arrangements, but a spokeswoman said: “We continue to progress our implementation of this contract with the support of CQC and our delivery partners.
“We recognise that a small number of people may or have had issues and we recommend that any expert that has a concern contact Remploy directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We will not comment on our commercial arrangements.”
Under the Experts by Experience programme, more than 500 experts every month are sent on CQC inspections across adult social care, primary care and hospitals, and by the end of 2016 the watchdog plans to have doubled that to 950 a month.
Currently, more than 50 per cent of inspections involve Experts by Experience, and CQC wants that to increase to up to 80 per cent in some areas of its work in the next two years.
25 February 2016
Campaigners have cast doubt on Twitter’s commitment to protecting disabled people from vile disablist abuse on its social media platform.
They spoke out after the media giant launched its new Twitter Trust and Safety Council, which it claimed would help “ensure that people feel safe expressing themselves on Twitter”.
The council is made up of 50 individuals and organisations from across the world, including representatives of anti-bullying, LGBT, Muslim, Jewish and feminist organisations.
But with the exception of the Samaritans and a campaigning Australian mental health charity, there is not a single disability-related organisation represented on the new council, and there does not appear to be a single disabled member.
Disabled activists say this underlines Twitter’s failure to take seriously the disablist abuse that blights the social media platform.
One disabled Twitter user, who asked not to be named, said: “What this says is that Twitter just don’t care about disability hate crime being carried out on their site.
“They don’t care about disabled people being told to die, that we should be beaten.
“They don’t care about people organising hate mobs to try to ruin disabled people’s lives.”
She said: “I’ve read lots of articles about the council; and not one addresses the fact that Twitter are basically sanctioning disability hate crime on their platform by not being interested in tackling disablist abuse.”
One disabled campaigner who contacted Disability News Service told how she was subjected to the following tweet: “You’re just a disabled bitch that should be put down. nothing but a lazy workshy, scrounger.”
She said the person was subsequently banned by Twitter “for about an hour”.
Another disabled activist was called “spastic”, “retard” and “cretin” during a short Twitter exchange.
Another was called a “fucking freak”, and told: “You should be in a care home and not let out without mental health carers you’re a danger to the public you’re mentally retarded.”
One prominent online disabled activist, Ella Sumpter, was forced to block several Twitter-users who subjected her to abuse, often suggesting she was “faking” her impairments and claiming benefits fraudulently.
Although this happened three years ago, one referred to her “designer diseases”, said she had a “severe case of spazzeritus”, and called her a “benefit scrounging wanker”, before adding: “Now I hate disabled people because some benefits scrounging cunt can’t be arsed to get up. Fuck right off. How many starving Africans have ME.”
David Gillon, an online disabled activist, monitored the disablist abuse that followed the screening of Channel Four’s Benefits Britain: 1949, for a blog he wrote in August 2013.
He said that tweets that featured the #BenefitsBritain hashtag included: “Funny how it’s the fat, foul mouthed bint with illness u can fake that is the one with the issues,” “Luckily for these slackers, it’s difficult to prove ‘pain’,” and “#Motability What clown thought this idea up? Free cars for bone idle, lard-arses.”
Many #BenefitsBritain responses even threatened violence, such as: “I’d quite happily kick the shit out of that fat, lazy fucker!!”, “Take the cane off that woman and beat her over the head with it,” and “Utterly contemptuous cow. I hope she really does become confined by her ailments. Permanently. In a wooden box.”
Gillon said that Twitter had a “lackadaisical approach” to stopping online abuse in general, despite being forced to improve its procedures following the harassment of a number of high-profile women’s rights campaigners.
He said that Twitter’s page that deals with online abuse gives “the definite impression they don’t want to be bothered with it”.
He said: “First they tell you unwanted replies are legitimate, then that you should block the person, and that if it escalates to threats, contact the police.
“There is no coverage of harassment and abuse short of threats of violence.
“Buried just below that, with no separate header, is: ‘You can report the contact to Twitter here.’
“If I was trying to hide the link to minimize use, that’s exactly how I would do it.
“Then it tells you to ‘reach out’ to friends or relatives to help you deal with it, which I think amounts to victim blaming.”
He also pointed out that Twitter’s form that allows users to report harassment does not provide a clear option for reporting hate speech.
He said: “Twitter need to be more pro-active, and they need a report form that actually allows us to report hate speech.”
Twitter has refused to comment.
25 February 2016
Ministers and senior civil servants are refusing to say if they approved documents drawn up following the suicides of two disabled men that were connected to flaws in the government’s “fitness for work” test.
Last week, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claimed it had unearthed a “draft” report that was written in response to questions raised by the death of Stephen Carré in January 2010.
DWP claimed the report was drafted in the autumn of 2010, following concerns raised by coroner Tom Osborne, but could not confirm if the document was seen by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith or employment minister Chris Grayling.
It has now confirmed that the file on Stephen Carré only contains the department’s draft response to the coroner’s report – known as a Rule 43 letter – with no indication of which officials or ministers saw it in 2010.
The department has refused to put questions directly to ministers about the report, to ask them whether they saw the coroner’s Rule 43 letter or the draft response.
DWP also replied this week to a freedom of information request about a second coroner’s report, written in January 2014 following an inquest into the death of Michael O’Sullivan, from north London, who took his own life in September 2013 after being found fit for work.
This second report, by coroner Mary Hassell, called for DWP action after pointing out that both the doctor who carried out the work capability assessment and the DWP decision-maker who turned down Michael O’Sullivan’s claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) failed to take account of any evidence from his GP, psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.
In its response, sent to Hassell in April 2014, DWP ignored the call for further medical evidence to be considered in all such cases, saying only that it was “committed to keeping our processes for collecting further evidence under constant review and to improving these processes where possible”.
It also said that it was “important to retain a balance between the added value of further evidence in any claim for ESA and time demands on GPs and other healthcare professionals”.
In its freedom of information request, Disability News Service had asked which senior civil servants were consulted when drawing up this response, which of them signed off the response, and which ministers saw it.
But in response to all three questions, DWP said: “No information [is] held in the department’s central records.”
The question of whether ministers saw the Stephen Carré report is important because Duncan Smith and Grayling made key decisions in the summer of 2010 about the work capability assessment (WCA) process that Osborne had linked to his death.
Among those decisions was to roll out the WCA to hundreds of thousands of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB) the following year.
They also failed to show the Rule 43 letter to Professor Malcolm Harrington, even though they had commissioned him to carry out an independent review of the “fairness and effectiveness” of the WCA.
The following year, in December 2011, a Scottish woman, Ms D E, took her own life after being told she was fit for work, a death linked by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland to WCA flaws that were similar to those that led to Stephen Carré’s death.
In 2014, Hassell wrote her letter to DWP, again warning of concerns about the safety of the WCA, following the death of Michael O’Sullivan, although by this time Grayling was no longer employment minister.
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.
Campaigners believe it is also important to know whether Duncan Smith and other ministers saw or helped draw up the DWP response to the Michel O’Sullivan report, because it is almost inevitable that other deaths have resulted from DWP’s continuing failure to ensure that further medical evidence is sought in all WCAs involving people with mental health conditions.
25 February 2016
Access to politics ‘birthday gift’ will ‘strengthen Scottish democracy’
A user-led campaign is celebrating a £200,000 “birthday gift”, after the Scottish government announced funding that will pay for some of the extra costs faced by disabled people who want to stand in next year’s local government elections.
One in Five, a cross-party Scottish campaign which was launched a year ago, said the announcement of the new Democratic Participation Fund for Disabled People – which will be run by Inclusion Scotland on a pilot basis until May 2017 – was “magnificent news”.
The fund will run alongside the Access to Politics for Disabled People project, which is offering non-financial support to disabled candidates standing in May’s election to the Scottish parliament and prospective candidates for the 2017 elections.
The £200,000 funding could embarrass the UK government, as its own Access to Elected Office fund has been lying dormant since the 2015 general election while its effectiveness is reviewed.
Jamie Szymkowiak, founder of One in Five, said the announcement provided disabled people with “plenty of time to consider standing for selection in the 2017 local government elections”.
Marco Biagi, Scotland’s minister for local government and community empowerment, said: “We know disabled people often find it difficult to access elected offices due to the many barriers that exist, and the additional cost of being disabled is one of them.
“I am delighted to announce this funding, which comes as a direct response to one of the key demands from disabled people’s campaign organisations, who all highlight that funding is a major barrier for disabled people to even consider accessing politics.”
Pam Duncan-Glancy, Labour’s One in Five ambassador, said the announcement was “a great birthday present” for One in Five.
She said: “Paying for the extra costs associated with being disabled – like covering the costs of personal assistants or accessible travel – is a huge barrier.
“This fund will make immeasurable difference to disabled people seeking to be involved in politics. We are proud to have been key to making it happen.”
Inclusion Scotland research has found that less than five per cent of MSPs are disabled people.
Sally Witcher, chief executive of Inclusion Scotland, said: “This new fund has the potential to make a real difference, not just to individual disabled people, but ultimately to the strengthening of Scottish democracy.
“Participation in public and political life is everyone’s human right and there is much work to do to ensure that this right can be fully exercised by disabled people.”
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said: “The Scottish government are leading the way in helping disabled people become elected politicians.
“The UK government needs to move faster and introduce a larger fund in England and Wales.”
She added: “We also want Scottish politicians to press the UK government to change electoral law to enable job-sharing in elected political office, so that more disabled people and carers can stand for election.
“This is needed in local, regional and national government.”
Members of One in Five and other disabled people’s organisations celebrated the campaign’s first anniversary outside the Scottish parliament this week.
They called for political parties to make this May’s elections as accessible and inclusive as possible, by taking measures such as producing manifestos in accessible formats, subtitling campaign films, hosting hustings in accessible venues, providing more British Sign Language interpreters, and extending the use of livestreaming of campaign events.
Since its launch, One in Five has signed up more than 40 political organisations and local party branches to its five-point charter.
It has also persuaded the Scottish government to change the rules governing elections to the Scottish parliament so that spending on a parliamentary candidate’s disability-related costs will no longer count towards the legal limit on their election expenses.
Duncan-Glancy said: “The challenges facing disabled people in politics are numerous and we have been quite overwhelmed by the engagement of all political parties in Scotland who have embraced the challenge with open arms, honesty and a thirst to do better.”
25 February 2016
One third of venue and festival websites offer no information about the accessibility of their events, according to a biennial survey of the live music industry.
Two out of three disabled music-lovers could not find the information they needed online, and three-fifths of them were put off buying tickets as a result, while less than one-fifth of websites provided a good standard of access information.
The survey results are part of the third State of Access report by the user-led campaign Attitude is Everything, and were based on research including 280 mystery shopping reports by Deaf and disabled people and a survey of 386 venue and festival websites.
This year’s report focuses on the need for more festivals and venues to provide good information about access on their websites, with AIE calling on venues and festivals to sign up to its Access Starts Online campaign.
The campaign – developed in partnership with the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) and Independent Venue Week – supports event organisers to add an access information page to their websites, with the help of an online template.
Nine AIF festivals and one venue have signed up to the campaign since its launch last year.
One mystery shopper says in the new AIE report: “A lack of access information is very off-putting, as it seems to show that the venue or festival isn’t bothered about access needs.”
Another adds: “The festival’s only access information on their website went on about how difficult access was likely to be for disabled people as the festival took place in fields. I decided not to bother!”
Suzanne Bull, chief executive of AIE, said: “Digital has revolutionised the live sector and how music lovers buy tickets, find information and share their experiences.”
But she said that a lack of access information online had become a “constant source of frustration to millions of disabled fans”.
She said: “Evidence suggests that many will not risk attending an event if they are unsure about access facilities.
“We should not be letting these online failures hold back the tide of progress, especially when they are so easy to fix.
“Signing up to Attitude is Everything’s Access Starts Online initiative is something all live music businesses can do.
“Not only does it cost nothing, but it represents a vital first step towards greater inclusivity and improved customer service that help these venues and festivals to reach new audiences.”
Del Garland, an AIE mystery shopper who spoke at the report’s launch at the Bush Hall venue in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, said: “Going to a venue for the first time is very difficult for Deaf and disabled people… you want to know you will be in a safe venue and you want to know what to expect.
“You want to be able to get that information from a website. It is not enough to have an email contact or a phone number which [may not be monitored all the time].You really need that information upfront.”
He pointed out that tickets for big-name acts often sell out quickly, so “you want that information so you can get in there and increase your chances of being able to see that gig”.
Figures shared by AIE with Disability News Service show that the campaign has made substantial progress in the last two years.
Although the 2014 and 2016 figures are not directly comparable, because of changes in how they were compiled, they show the proportion of venues with step-free entrances rose from 51 per cent to 67 per cent, and venues with at least one accessible toilet rose from 75 to 88 per cent.
Venues with a lowered bar rose from 22 to 38 per cent; festivals with a lowered bar rose from eight per cent to 23; venues with a hearing loop for performances rose from 20 to 38 per cent; and venues with a viewing platform or area rose from 42 per cent to 63 per cent.
Speaking after the event, Bull said she believed the live music industry was now ahead of other sectors on access, partly because of AIE’s work with festivals and venues.
She said: “We have been supportive. We haven’t named and shamed. That doesn’t get you anywhere. It puts people’s backs up.”
Bull said AIE focuses on making the “business case” for access improvements when it talks to venues and festivals.
She said: “We spend quite a lot of time focusing on the business case because a lot of people we work with are commercial enterprises and they have to think about their bottom line all the time.
“So that is why we spend a lot of time saying access generates custom.
“We say to people in the music industry: ‘This is what your peers are doing. Don’t you want to do that as well?’”
But she said she was not complacent about progress, and thought that the “softer” parts of the Equality Act could need to be tightened up.
She pointed to confusion about whether venues or promoters were responsible under the act for ensuring accessible ticketing, free tickets for personal assistants, and access information.
She said that none of these areas currently appear to be caught by the Equality Act’s provisions.
25 February 2016
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com