“Very dangerous” rules are forcing severely-ill people applying for the government’s new universal credit to look for jobs and take part in training, even though their GPs have said they are not fit for work, “horrified” disabled activists have warned.
The rules – which have never been announced or publicised by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – apply to new universal credit claimants who are waiting for an assessment of their “fitness for work”.
And they mean they could have their benefits sanctioned for up to three months if they fail to follow strict instructions from a job coach with no medical training.
They are forced to take part in work-related activity, such as a work-focused interviews and “work preparation”, which could mean training or employment programmes.
They could also face sanctions if they fail to show they have searched for a job for up to 35 hours a week, and have not made themselves available for paid work.
Potential sanctions will continue to hang over their heads until their fitness for work is eventually tested through the notorious work capability assessment (WCA), which could take months.
Dr Stephen Carty, medical adviser to the Scottish grassroots campaign group Black Triangle (BT), who works as a GP in Leith, on the edge of Edinburgh, said the “substantial risks” of the policy were “incalculable”.
The new rules – uncovered by BT’s sister organisation Disabled People Against Cuts – apply to sick and disabled people who would previously have been eligible for income-based employment and support allowance (ESA), which is gradually being phased out in the move to universal credit, but not to those eligible for the contribution-based form of ESA, which will continue alongside universal credit.
Under ESA, claimants with a “fit note” from their GP are not expected to carry out any work-related activity and continue to receive a lower assessment rate of the benefit until they have had their WCA and a decision is reached on their eligibility.
DWP insisted this week that universal credit claimants with a fit note will only be forced to carry out “reasonable” work-related activity that is “tailored to the individual’s circumstances”, while work coaches will demand no work-related activity “if appropriate”.
But appalled activists said this week that the potential harm caused to severely-ill people could be catastrophic and potentially fatal.
Dr Carty said it was a “dreadful situation and is bound to cause further harm”.
He said: “Seriously sick and/or disabled people may find themselves pressed to attend work-related activity and risk being sanctioned if they fail to attend. Yet to attend may place them at significant risk of harm.”
He added: “Jobs advisers and those overseeing work-related activity lack the information, knowledge or experience to make safe decisions and this will undoubtedly place sick and/or disabled individuals in serious danger.
“It is in my opinion outrageous that a patient with a fit note from me, their GP, stating that in my professional opinion that they are currently not fit for work will automatically be assumed to be treated as fit for all work-related activity.
“A doctor with over 20 years of experience and in possession of the patient’s full medical record will have their professional opinion completely disregarded.”
He said GPs had not been told about the DWP policy, and again “find themselves pawns and complicit in a system that has been shown to be harmful and [is] becoming more dangerous by the day”.
Dr Carty said the consequences would be felt “particularly acutely” in primary care.
He said: “The cumulative impact of this policy on claimants and primary care services will be enormous.
“General practice is in crisis. There is a recruitment and retention problem unheralded in the history of NHS.
“Further disempowerment in the form of complete disregard of professional opinion regarding fitness for work is hardly going to help matters.”
Anita Bellows, a Disabled People Against Cuts researcher, said the universal credit policy was “a very dangerous development”.
She said that any decisions on reducing the work-related activity a person had to carry out would only be at the discretion of the DWP work coach, who would have no medical training and would be likely to have access to little or no information about the claimant’s health.
She said: “How these work coaches are expected to understand the consequences of any mandatory work-related requirements on the health of claimants is a mystery.
“Some claimants will be exempted because they are considered ‘vulnerable’ but the DWP has not made public yet the guidance given to work coaches to help them decide which claimants are vulnerable.
“DPAC is absolutely horrified by this development, which is a recipe for disaster and will hurt claimants.
“DPAC also feels that the professional judgement of GPs is being undermined by being overruled by pen-pushers who have no understanding of disability.”
The rules have apparently been in force since at least 2015 but the impact on disabled people is probably only emerging now because of the slow roll-out of universal credit, which was originally only available in a few parts of the country, and mainly applied to single jobseekers making new benefit claims.
But DPAC discovered a DWP freedom of information response (see page eight) dating from November 2015, which makes it clear that “claimants who have a fit note and are awaiting a WCA” are subject to “all work-related requirements”.
This was confirmed this week by a DWP spokesman.
He said that universal credit claimants who had fit notes from their GP stating that they were not fit for work, and who were awaiting a WCA, were subject to work-related requirements.
The DWP spokesman said: “Work coaches will discuss with universal credit claimants whether any reasonable work related activity is appropriate before their work capability assessment.”
He suggested that the new rules had been applied since universal credit began to be rolled out, but when asked if they put the health of many claimants at risk, he said: “Absolutely not.
“Any actions will be tailored to the individual’s circumstances and work coaches will set no work-related activity if appropriate.
“Universal credit is designed to help more people into work.
“Claimants will therefore have access to a work coach from the start of their claim who can support them in preparing for work.”
Asked when DWP had announced these measures publicly, he said that anyone applying for universal credit (UC) was “made aware of their requirements” by their work coach, and he pointed to a DWP leaflet, Universal Credit and You.
But the leaflet does not appear to make any reference to fit notes and claimants waiting for their WCA.
When DNS suggested that this meant DWP had never announced the measures, either publicly or in written information given to claimants, the spokesman said there was nothing more he could add, although he insisted that DWP was “open about the UC process with claimants”.
25 May 2017
Disabled campaigners have criticised the Conservative party for ignoring the social care needs of hundreds of thousands of working-age disabled people in its general election manifesto.
The prime minister, Theresa May, was already facing criticism for a chaotic U-turn over the party’s policy on charging for social care.
But now she is also facing accusations that the manifesto only addresses the needs of older people, and completely ignores younger disabled service-users.
Neither the original manifesto position on social care, or the abrupt change of policy announced by May at the weekend, make any mention of working-age disabled people.
The manifesto talks at length instead about “our system of care for the elderly”, “elderly care”, “needs in old age”, “pensioner households with modest assets” and “an efficient elderly care system”.
The policy was to revolve around allowing every older person to retain at least £100,000 of their assets and savings, while the value of people’s homes would now be taken into account – when calculating charges – for those receiving domiciliary care as well as those receiving residential care.
But following widespread criticism, May announced that there would also be a lifetime cap on care charges, although she did not say at what level it would be set.
But despite the U-turn, there was still no mention of working-age disabled people, even though they make up about a third of recipients of adult social care.
Disability consultant Jane Young said the manifesto demonstrates “ignorance of adult social care services”.
She said: “Anyone reading it would assume that only older people use social care services, when in reality one-third of social care service-users are disabled people of working age.
“We’re left completely in the dark as to how the proposals will affect disabled people, including those who’ve had their support reduced following the closure of the Independent Living Fund.
“While disabled people’s employment is mentioned elsewhere in the manifesto, there’s no acknowledgement of the role of social care in enabling many disabled people to work.
“All we have are questions: Will there be different arrangements for working-age service-users?
“How will the proposals affect disabled service-users with mortgages, or when they sell their home and buy another?
“Will adult social care be better funded, so it can enable independent living rather than mere existence?
“After decades of well-meaning reports, culminating in the Dilnot report and the Care Act 2014, we’re once again thrown into uncertainty.
“We expect more than a manifesto that conveniently ignores us.”
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said there was “no information at all about younger people” in the manifesto.
She said she believed that most of the public were unaware that younger disabled people had to pay for their social care.
She said the social care system was “grossly underfunded”, and that younger disabled people paid even more in charges than older people with care needs, who are allowed to keep more of their money through a much more generous minimum income guarantee.
Bott added: “If people realised how much people had to pay in charges, I think they would be pretty outraged. It wouldn’t fit in with the ‘scroungers and strivers’ narrative.
“The current situation [with charging] is completely unacceptable. It seems almost out of control.
“The [government] narrative is ‘we are supporting the people most in need’, but they are not, because what they are doing is giving with one hand and taking away with the other in the form of social care charges.”
Tom Hendrie, head of policy and communications for Cheshire Centre for Independent Living, said: “The whole social care debate seems to be skewed entirely towards older people.
“There are young people today who might need social care for the rest of their lives. How much are they going to pay?
“Does it mean that any working-age disabled person with their own home will never be able to save, for anything, until they hit the cap?”
He also raised concerns that the Tory plans now appeared to be treating recipients of social care in their own homes in the same way as those in residential care, when people who live independently in their own homes have extra costs to pay, such as food and utility bills and council tax.
Elements of the Tory policy on social care charging for older people are now similar to proposals that were included in the Care Act 2014 but were subsequently postponed until 2020.
But those proposals – which included a lifetime cap on charges of £72,000 for older people – would have meant that anyone who developed eligible care needs before the age of 25 would have paid nothing in charges for life.
They would also have meant that working-age disabled people who developed their care needs after 25 would have been left with a higher guaranteed minimum income than at present, after paying any care charges.
Asked why the manifesto makes no mention of the social care needs of working-age disabled people, a Conservative party spokeswoman said: “Our manifesto has committed to making sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.
“We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”
Further details would be set out in a green paper.
25 May 2017
The Conservative party has promised to force local authorities to plan for the provision of accessible housing for disabled and older people, if it retains power in next month’s general election.
The party also announced that employers who recruit disabled people – and employees from other groups, such as care-leavers – would be given a year’s “holiday” on their national insurance contributions for that member of staff.
On social security, the manifesto says the party has “no plans for further radical welfare reform in this parliament”, but it stops short of promising there will be no more reforms at all or ruling out any further cuts to disability benefits.
Instead, it warns that a Conservative government would continue to ensure a “sustainable” welfare system, with help “targeted at those who need it most”.
The manifesto also shows that the Conservatives have dumped their target of halving the disability employment gap in five years – which it made little progress in achieving over the two years of the last parliament – in favour of a new target of finding jobs for one million more disabled people over the next 10 years.
It promises to “harness the opportunities of flexible working and the digital economy to generate jobs for those whose disabilities make traditional work difficult”, and to provide “advice and support” for employers in hiring and retaining disabled employees.
It also says the party will “push ahead” with its plans for tackling hate crime, including disability hate crime, even though the four-year action plan the Conservative government published last summer was condemned for its “totally disrespectful” failure to address problems around disability-related hostility.
There are also promises that a Conservative government would “review” regulations – and amend them “if necessary” – on access to licensed premises such as pubs and restaurants, blue parking badges and housing.
This includes a commitment to review building regulations on the accessibility of new homes.
These pledges suggest the party may have been listening to some of the concerns raised by a major report by a House of Lords committee last year on the impact of the Equality Act on disabled people, and last month’s report on disability and the built environment by the Commons women and equalities committee.
The manifesto says it will support the provision of “specialist housing where it is needed, like multigenerational homes and housing for older people, including by helping housing associations increase their specialist housing stock”.
This would ensure government-supported housing programmes include suitable provision of housing for older and disabled people, and that councils plan for such provision in their own local planning policies and local housing programmes.
There are 18 mentions of “disabled”, “disability” and “disabilities” in the 88-page Conservative manifesto, although all but five are contained in a three-paragraph section on disability policies.
The party had previously announced plans to replace the “anachronistic” Mental Health Act and address the increasing numbers of people in mental distress who are detained under the act.
The party has promised that the new mental health treatment bill will include “revised thresholds for detention”, and new codes of practice to “reduce the disproportionate use of mental health detention for minority groups, especially black men”.
Prime minister Theresa May has also promised further powers to protect people from discrimination in the workplace through “sweeping changes” to the Equality Act – offering more protection to those with fluctuating mental health conditions – and to fund an extra 10,000 mental health staff working in the NHS by 2020, although the manifesto now promises “up to” 10,000 more mental health professionals.
Labour has pointed out that the number of mental health nurses and doctors working in the NHS in England has fallen by more than 6,600 since 2010.
The party’s mental health announcements were greeted with accusations of “hypocrisy”, after user-led groups pointed out that Conservative social security policies, including the coercion and bullying of benefit claimants, had created and worsened mental distress.
25 May 2017
A disabled campaigner was forced to wet himself on a train because the accessible toilet was out of order, just four months after a minister promised to ensure such incidents would never happen again.
Wheelchair-user Chris Stapleton boarded the Virgin Trains service last Tuesday (16 May), but even though he had booked the space more than six weeks earlier he was placed in a carriage with a broken toilet.
The aisles were too narrow for him to reach another of the accessible toilets on the service from London Euston to Birmingham, so he was forced to wet himself.
Virgin Trains has now launched an “urgent investigation” into the incident, and has admitted – despite its previous claims – that the toilet was broken from the start of the journey.
It has also accepted that staff on the train should have been aware that a disabled person was travelling on a service with a broken toilet and taken action, such as arranging for him to use another toilet on the train during a station stop, or allowing him to use a toilet at one of the stations along the route.
Stapleton said Virgin Trains was guilty of “sheer crass negligence”, and that the incident showed how politicians had “ignored” and even “tried to scale down” disabled people’s access to rail travel, for example through the government’s decision to cut funding for the Access for All rail station improvement programme.
In January, rail minister Paul Maynard said the Department for Transport was “committed to ensuring no passenger has to go through this again”, after Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike told how she had been forced to wet herself on a CrossCountry service because the accessible toilet was out-of-order.
Stapleton, a member of the user-led accessible transport charity Transport for All, said his incident showed that Maynard’s “‘no repeat’ pledge has proved empty”.
Wafula Strike said Stapleton’s experience was “terrible” and that “train companies continue to get away with failing to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled passengers.
“It’s a pity rail companies have failed to recognise the potential value in disabled travellers by failing to implement the basic policies they hold on paper.
“I request rail bosses to start engaging with the disabled passengers.”
Faryal Velmi, director of Transport for All, said Stapleton’s experience was “appalling”.
She said: “This is the second time we have had a story like this making the headlines, and sadly the incidents that are reported are just tip of the iceberg.
“In February, the rail minister [Paul Maynard] promised Anne Wafula Strike action on the issue, but Chris’s story shows that they were just empty words.
“As part of our Rail Access Now campaign, we demanded that train operating companies face strict financial penalties for running services without accessible facilities.
“They must also ensure that they clearly announce any broken facilities and that staff are available to offer assistance to disabled passengers.
“At this point, apologies simply aren’t good enough – how many more disabled passengers will have to go through a horrible experience like Chris’s before action is taken?”
Maynard, who is himself disabled, did not respond to a request from Disability News Service to comment.
A Virgin Trains spokesman said: “Chris Stapleton’s experience was completely unacceptable and we have apologised to him for this.
“Thousands of disabled customers regularly travel with Virgin Trains and we have systems in place to ensure that they are properly looked after.
“Clearly those systems broke down during Chris’ journey and we are conducting an urgent investigation to understand what went wrong and ensure that any lessons are learned.
“We are determined to get this right for all our disabled customers to ensure they can travel with us with complete confidence.”
25 May 2017
The Conservatives have been accused of promoting a “divisive” and “punitive” attitude to disabled people that “breeds contempt and hostility”, after dedicating their manifesto only to “working people”.
The introduction to the manifesto pledges that a Tory government under Theresa May would be driven by “the interests of ordinary, working families”, who were the people the manifesto was “dedicated to”.
It then adds that the government’s power should be “put squarely at the service of this country’s working people”.
The promises made in the manifesto, which have been ignored by the mainstream media, have been attacked this week by two disabled politicians standing for election next month.
Mary Griffiths Clarke, who is standing for Labour in Arfon, north Wales, said: “This negative rhetoric serves no-one.
“It breeds contempt and hostility, it divides and breeds hatred. There is no place for this in a civilised society.”
She said: “What about investing in society, affording everyone dignity? Giving hope and optimism rather than breeding suspicion and fear?
“What about the areas where there is very little work?”
She added: “Why should families and communities be split up, moved miles away under the financial apartheid of welfare reform, segregated into deserving and undeserving?
“I hate the notion that people are only valued on a monetary contribution basis.
“We need a government that values everyone.
“I demand that everyone is afforded dignity and we are all equally valued.”
Another disabled parliamentary candidate, Kirstein Rummery, a professor of social policy at the University of Stirling, who is standing for the Women’s Equality Party in Stirling, said: “Nothing raises my suspicion more than the use of the phase ‘hard-working people’ or ‘hard-working families’.”
She said such phrases reveal “several assumptions that research and experience demonstrate to be false”.
One of the assumptions, she said, was that “the only work that is important is paid work – that caring, parenting and volunteering are ‘easy’ and therefore of no real value”.
Another was that “those who do not work ‘hard’ for payment are less worthy, including those caring, studying, parenting, volunteering, excluded from the workforce by age, illness, disability, discrimination and other reasons”.
And the third was that there was “a difference between those who pay for and those that use welfare when clearly we all at some point need health, education, care, services and support”.
She said: “This all contributes to a divisive, punitive attitude to disabled people, carers, older people, and parents… yet these are the people that hold our society together.”
Asked to justify the manifesto lines, a Conservative spokeswoman said: “We recognise that some disabled people might not be able to work due to their condition.
“We are completely committed to ensuring that disabled people are supported by a financial safety net, provided by the welfare system.
“That’s why we’ve increased spending on disability benefits by more than £3 billion in real terms since 2010, to support disabled people and people with health conditions.
“Our manifesto has also committed to getting one million more people with disabilities into employment over the next 10 years.”
25 May 2017
The Green party has called in its general election manifesto for moves towards an inclusive education system, as well as pledging universal free social care, significantly more accessible homes and a fully accessible transport system.
The manifesto proposes moves towards a universal basic income, a benefit system in which everyone in the country – no matter how wealthy – would receive a regular cash payment, without conditions and without means-testing.
The party also calls for action on accessible housing, saying that it wants to “significantly improve housing choice” for disabled and older people.
And the manifesto says that all public transport should be “fully accessible and step-free”, while it would phase in free local public transport for young people, students, and disabled and older people.
But a party spokesman backed away from the idea of a completely step-free transport system and instead suggested that its “fully accessible” transport policy meant that “necessary arrangements” would be made to meet the “reasonable transportation needs of disabled people beyond that which can be provided through general services”.
The manifesto also calls for investment in “safe, convenient networks of routes for walking and cycling”, which would be accessible to disabled people, including those using mobility scooters.
On social care, a spokesman said the party believed that an “integrated health and social care service is vital” and that there should be an end to “the false distinction between nursing and personal care”.
He said the party would invest at least £7.5 billion a year to deliver universal free social care, which could be funded by “a combination of changes to pension tax relief to generate just over £7 billion a year and reforms to inheritance tax, generating £1 billion a year”.
The Green manifesto says the party would ask all councils to plan “appropriately” for the housing needs of disabled and older people and “significantly increase the numbers of homes built to lifetime home and mobility standards over the next five years”.
And it says it wants every child who is disabled or has special educational needs to have access to a mainstream education, “in accordance with” the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which in article 24 demands “an inclusive education system at all levels”.
Last August, the UN committee on the rights of person with disabilities issued new guidance that made it clear that all segregated education should end and be replaced by “inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate supports”.
But the Green party appears to be stopping short of the UN guidance, telling Disability News Service that it “supports the principle of offering all people the opportunity to be educated in a mainstream school, and meeting everyone’s needs, whatever the level of need may be”.
It argues that in “exceptional cases it is not appropriate to be fully integrated into mainstream education for all subjects, for example where there are multiple learning difficulties”, while children with behavioural and emotional difficulties “need to be protected by temporary separation”.
A party spokesman said: “In the longer term the Green Party hopes to address this through having special resource units in mainstream schools.”
On social security, as well as a pledge to abolish the bedroom tax, the party promises a system that would “redress benefits injustice” and give “everyone confidence they will get support when they need it, including disabled people”.
Further details are expected next week when the party publishes a mini-manifesto on disability.
The manifesto also promises to end the gender pay gap, but makes no mention of the disability pay gap, despite the significant gap reported last month by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), although a party spokesman said: “We want to close the pay gap for everyone.”
There is also a manifesto promise on diversity in representative politics, including a pledge to introduce job-sharing for elected office, which should benefit disabled people who want to become MPs but cannot work full-time.
The party takes a strong anti-Brexit position, promising to campaign for a vote on the final terms of the Brexit deal negotiated by the government, including an option to reverse the result of the referendum and stay in the European Union.
It also promises to take action to tackle disability discrimination – extending current legislation – defend the Human Rights Act and UK membership of the European Convention on Human Rights, and reinstate some of the funding cuts made by the last two governments to the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
In the manifesto’s 26 pages, there are seven mentions of the words “disabled”, “disability” or “disabilities”.
25 May 2017
Disabled politicians seeking to become MPs say the government’s decision to stop providing funding to help with their extra campaigning costs has made it harder for them to be successful in next month’s general election.
They have told Disability News Service (DNS) that the closure of the Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) was a “tragedy” and “undemocratic” and will have prevented many other disabled people from standing for election to parliament next month.
And they say there is no way to create a “level playing field” for disabled people seeking to enter parliament without such a fund.
AEOF offered grants to disabled people to pay for their additional impairment-related costs in standing for election as a councillor or MP, but has been lying dormant since the general election in May 2015 while the government claimed it was reviewing its effectiveness.
Two years ago, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), in its submission to a UN inquiry into the rights of disabled people to participate in political and public life, called for the fund to be reopened.
Now some of the disabled candidates standing for election next month have described how the government’s failure to reopen the fund has damaged their chances of election.
Mary Griffiths Clarke, standing for Labour in Arfon, north Wales, said she had had to rely on “incredible volunteer support” to plug the gap left by the AEOF closure.
She said: “To create a level playing field there needs to be a fund for disabled candidates.
“This will empower candidates to employ the support they need as professional services, and not be beholden to the goodwill of others, which may not be available, meet all their needs and may be removed on a whim.”
Griffiths Clarke has been pushing her party to provide financial support for its disabled candidates, and says Labour’s national executive committee has now agreed to make this available after the election.
She has also been lobbying Labour for disability equality training across the party, and says this will also happen.
Kelly-Marie Blundell, standing for the Liberal Democrats in Lewes, Sussex, said she believed the removal of AEOF will have prevented many disabled people from standing.
She said: “Personally I didn’t claim, but I know people with sight, hearing and mobility issues who have decided it is too difficult to stand in the snap general election without that additional support.
“It’s also worth noting, with one in 10 people in the UK with a disability, we need greater representation in politics and more must be done to level the playing field.”
Kirstein Rummery, a professor of social policy at the University of Stirling, who is standing for the Women’s Equality Party in Stirling, in central Scotland, said she needed help with transport and personal assistance, and attending hustings, meetings and canvassing had been “a bit of a nightmare” without the AEOF.
She said: “I am standing for a small party – [the] Women’s Equality Party – and I simply can’t physically get around to canvass as much as the other candidates because of this.”
She said she had “plenty of support” from the Access to Work scheme for her “day job”, and would be eligible for that support if she became an MP.
But she said: “It’s this in between bit, the campaign, where I am feeling the gap.”
And she added: “I am doing my best, obviously, and in a sense being a visibly disabled candidate sends a powerful message itself, but it would be a lot more powerful if I had the support to do the job properly.”
Mags Lewis, standing for the Green party in Leicester South, and the party’s disability spokeswoman, said she believed some disabled people might have decided not to seek election because of the extra costs they would face.
She said: “I think the lack of a fund is a tragedy, as we know there are already too few disabled people in politics as it is, so cutting funds has a negative impact practically and symbolically.
“The symbolism of having a fund is massive, as it shows disabled people they are valued, that government want to encourage us, that they realise we have something to offer.”
And she said the closure was “undemocratic” because it favoured those larger parties with the financial resources to pay for support.
Another disabled Green party candidate, Philippa Fleming, who is standing in north-east Bedfordshire, said that if it was not for the party being willing to pay for some of her disability-related costs she would not have been able to stand, which she said was “grossly discriminatory”.
Liberal Democrat candidate Greg Judge, who is standing in Coventry South, said he did not apply to the fund when he stood at the last election, because “the application process was rather cumbersome and didn’t accommodate the transport support I was needing”.
But he added: “I do know of candidates with other impairments who did successfully apply and received the support they needed.”
He said: “For this snap general election, my wheelchair accessible van happens to be currently suffering a few lift issues.
“Had I been able to successfully apply to a new fund, emergency transport funding for local taxis would have been particularly helpful in attending election events.”
Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said: “We are becoming a society where the survival of the fittest is the organising principle.
“The failure of the UK political parties to get the Access to Elected Office Fund back before the general election is lamentable.
“Disabled people across the country see a House of Commons which takes profound decisions about disabled people’s lives, but which doesn’t enable us to be part of the process.”
Two disabled Tory ministers and election candidates, Robert Halfon and Paul Maynard, declined to respond to questions about the fund.
Another disabled candidate, Marie Rimmer, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, also declined to comment.
25 May 2017
Disabled union activists have criticised their own national federation, the TUC, for its reluctance to improve access at its London headquarters, following years of complaints from delegates at the annual Disabled Workers’ Conference.
A motion calling on the TUC to make major improvements to the accessibility of Congress House in central London was passed unanimously at the conference on Thursday (18 May).
Disabled delegates said they also wanted their conference to be moved to a more accessible venue while improvements at Congress House were carried out.
They pointed to problems including a cramped and inaccessible lift, poor signage, no facilities for assistance dogs, and a lack of access information.
They also said that the ramp used by wheelchair-users to access the hall where the conference took place was dangerously steep.
Many disabled delegates turn down the chance to attend the conference because they know it is not accessible enough for them, Disability News Service (DNS) has been told.
Delegates voted overwhelmingly for the emergency motion on access at Congress House to be the one that will be sent to be debated at the annual TUC Congress in Brighton in September.
Dave Allan, vice-chair of the TUC disabled workers’ committee, told the conference that meetings with senior TUC figures had been “not positive”, and that senior figures had pointed to the cost of improvements and the building’s listed status.
But he said an access audit of the building – which included two members of the disabled workers’ committee – had found a “plethora of issues” that needed addressing, some of which would need “major renovation”.
He said: “We have thought about this long and hard year after year. We have tried to feed these issues into TUC staff [but have been told], ‘Sorry, the cost is too much.’
“We have come to the view as one committee that there is no other course open to us than asking you to pass this motion.”
He told DNS afterwards that he had been disappointed with how senior TUC figures had responded to their concerns.
He said: “The committee has been disappointed. That is why we agreed to bring this emergency motion to the conference.”
But he said he accepted that there were difficulties with the “iconic” building, because even the lifts were listed.
Sean McGovern, co-chair of the disabled workers’ committee, said he had had a meeting several months ago with Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, who he said had been “very open to our concerns”.
But he told DNS: “People have expressed unhappiness over a period of time.
“We have complained about it in the committee room but this is the first time we have gone beyond that.
“There has not been the sense of urgency there is now.”
Mik Scarlet, from the NUJ journalists’ union, told delegates how he had fallen between an accessible toilet and the wall after the “cheap” seat broke while he was transferring across to it from his wheelchair.
The next day, the same thing happened in the same toilet after it had been repaired and replaced with another cheap seat.
He said: “Loo seats that snap when you move sideways are not good for accessible toilets.”
He added: “I expect the unions of this country, the TUC, to be a shining light and to show the lead, so when I go to see other businesses as an access consultant I can tell them about a fantastic example of how an iconic and historic building has become accessible.
“We can’t make businesses and employers get it right if we can’t get it right ourselves.”
Wheelchair-user Emma-Jane Phillips, from UCU (the University and College Union), said she was “so happy” to see the motion brought to conference.
She said: “I came down this ramp [at the back of the conference hall] with great speed and no stopping.
“If you can’t have a disabled conference at TUC HQ, where the heck can you?”
Pat Duffy, a GMB delegate and member of the Scottish TUC’s disabled workers’ committee, said the lack of facilities for assistance dogs meant he had to walk 20 minutes to the nearest park and back four times a day with his dog Yoko while at the conference.
He told DNS afterwards: “It’s time we did say something. We have held off [for years] because it is the TUC, but we had to do something.”
Scarlet said after the debate that he had attended an event on the fifth floor of the building on the first day of the conference, where he had queued to access the lift, queued to access the accessible toilet, and then queued to access the lift down again.
He said: “We probably spent as much time queueing as we did in the event itself.”
He added: “You can’t say you’re fighting for the rights of disabled people to get into work if disabled people can’t get into the building that you’re fighting for their rights in.”
The complaints by the disabled workers’ committee appear to have forced the TUC to take some action to address their concerns.
A TUC spokesman said the audit had produce 29 recommendations for improvements.
Of those, six have been completed, 16 were “in progress”, including changes to lighting, toilets – where there will be a “complete refit” in the next few months – and induction loops.
But three recommendations cannot be carried out, partly because of the building’s listed status, including tactile step warnings at the bottom of the steps at the front of the building (also affected by its location in a council controlled area) and converting the lift to one that is larger and more accessible.
Another three – around the positioning of signage – are also not possible because of the building’s listed status, but the TUC says it has introduced “temporary workarounds for specific conferences”.
The installation of an accessible shower is “currently uncertain”, as the TUC does not yet know if there will be space available.
A TUC spokesman said concerns about the steep ramp had also been discussed and were being investigated, but changes would be “tricky due to the placement of two unmovable columns at the base of the ramp”.
He insisted that the cost of access improvements was “not a primary factor” in preventing some of the recommended improvements.
He said: “Congress House is Grade II* listed. Only 10 per cent of listed buildings are held to such strict criteria.”
He said the Grade II* listing “rules out many of the options we have looked at, such as widening the lifts.
“We have spoken with the council about adding external lifts and early indications have not been positive due to the architectural significance of the façade.”
But he said TUC was “always looking for ways to improve accessibility at the venue, and will continue to work with the disabled workers’ committee to improve our facilities”, and was “actively reviewing the location for future Disabled Workers’ Conferences”.
25 May 2017
Union activists are planning a high-profile campaign against London Underground after it refused to introduce an employment policy on autism and neurodiversity.
Janine Booth, a member of the RMT transport union, told the TUC’s annual Disabled Workers’ Conference in London that London Underground had refused even to discuss the idea of introducing a policy.
One senior manager told the union there was no need for a policy aimed at supporting autistic and other neuro-diverse employees because if an autistic member of staff did experience problems in the workplace they could just “send them to occupational health”.
She said: “We shouldn’t need to be sent to occupational health as if we are broken or naughty people.
“We are autistic, we are not ill. We only become ill at work when our workplace makes us ill.”
Booth told the conference that introducing a policy would reduce the need for London Underground to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace for autistic staff.
She said the union wanted to address problems with the sensory environment at work, make sure promotion and recruitment policies were fair for neuro-diverse people, and ensure working practices and performance measures were fair.
She said: “A fully accessible workplace doesn’t need adjusting for an individual.”
Disability News Service (DNS) has learned of several occasions when London Underground appears to have discriminated against autistic staff and job applicants.
On one occasion, an autistic man had applied to be a train driver but failed the written exam when the test was in a different format from the practice papers he had been sent.
It took more than a year for London Underground to understand what was wrong with this process, but when it finally made an adjustment to the exam process he passed the test, and is now working successfully as a train driver.
One member of staff was sacked after he told his manager that he thought he might have Asperger’s syndrome.
When another employment case was taken to a tribunal, London Underground said that it did not accept that the staff member was a disabled person under the Equality Act, even though it agreed that he had Asperger’s syndrome.
Booth told DNS after the debate that the union had been trying since November 2015 to convince London Underground to act, while RMT’s stance had been backed by other transport unions.
But she said London Underground would not even accept their proposal as an agenda item at a regular meeting between unions and management.
She said London Underground had said it would deal with individuals “on a case-by-case basis by sending them to occupational health. They are going to wait until people get ill.”
She said: “I was frustrated because this is a company that states in its policy that it adheres to the social model, but this is a classical medical model response.”
Moody said the union now planned to write to London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, about London Underground’s failure.
She added: “Look out for protests and petitions. We are not going to drop this.”
Tricia Wright, human resources director at Transport for London, said in a statement: “We are committed to the wellbeing of our staff and have a number of policies and processes in place to support them.
“Our occupational health team supports employees with a range of conditions, including autism, and their line managers.
“Given that autism can affect people in a number of different ways, and that we have a wide variety of staff roles, we believe that it is appropriate to support each individual staff member according to their circumstances and needs to ensure they have the support they need in their place of work.”
25 May 2017
Disabled activists have called for an end to the “creeping” use of driver-only operated (DOO) trains, which they say put the safety of disabled passengers at risk.
The call was headed by a union activist who was once saved from falling onto the track by the actions of a train guard and a member of station staff after she had experienced her first TIA (transient ischaemic attack, or “mini stroke”).
Jennifer Aggrey-Fynn, from the RMT union, told the TUC’s annual Disabled Workers’ Conference that the guard’s role should be a “safety-critical one”, such as assisting in emergencies and helping passengers who have had accidents, as happened to her at Waterloo station five years ago.
The motion she proposed, attacking the increasing use of DOO services – in which the driver has responsibility for opening and closing the doors – and condemning train operating companies that refuse to ensure there is a second safety-critical member of staff on board every train, was unanimously carried.
Aggrey-Fynn said: “DOO trains will make train services less accessible for disabled passengers.”
She said DOO services meant there was no-one to help disabled passengers on and off trains, and no-one to make sure doors do not close until everyone is safely inside the train or on the platform.
The motion said that removing a safety-critical guard from trains would have a disproportionate impact on disabled people, and it condemned the actions of the much-criticised Southern Rail for its refusal to ensure that all its trains had this second safety-critical member of staff.
It warned that DOO trains have been “creeping into services across the country”.
Ray Spiteri, from TSSA, the transport and travel union, said: “If trains are to be accessible to all, then disabled passengers’ access needs must be met.
“An important part of that is having a well-trained guard who can afford assistance.
“We are very concerned about the fact that more and more train operating companies are attempting to impose this unsafe practice on their passengers.”
Amy Murphy, from the USDAW union, said disabled passengers were already faced with barriers such as unstaffed stations and broken lifts, and removing the safety-critical guard “will make access to trains more difficult and in some cases impossible”.
Delegates also praised RMT for the strike action it has taken against Southern, Merseyrail and Northern for their increasing moves towards the use of DOO trains.
25 May 2017
Many large publicly-funded arts and cultural organisations are failing to employ any disabled people at all, union activists have heard at their annual conference.
The TUC’s Disabled Workers’ Conference in London heard from representatives of musicians’ and actors’ unions, and colleagues from other unions, about the results of Arts Council England’s (ACE) latest diversity report.
They pointed out that the report showed how more than 25 of the larger organisations receiving Arts Council England (ACE) funding – its national portfolio organisations (NPOs) and major partner museums who have more than 50 staff – had no disabled employees on their permanent staff, including organisations such as the English National Opera, the Roundhouse and Opera North.
Heidi McGeough, of the Musicians’ Union, said she was “exasperated” by the figures, because ACE was a publicly-funded organisation.
She proposed a motion calling for the TUC disabled workers’ committee to push ACE to research why disabled employees were so under-represented, and to produce a strategy to increase diversity.
McGeough said: “Are we still here at this point in 2017? Many of the organisations had no disabled workers or performers employed by them at all. That is disgusting.
“We are funding ACE (which is funding these organisations) so why are we not represented as disabled people by these organisations?”
The conference heard that the failure to employ disabled people was being repeated right across the arts and culture sector.
Equity’s Phoebe Kemp said: “The lack of representation in the arts of disabled people is something Equity has been fighting against for years.
“Seeing disabled people creating and performing is so important to get non-disabled people to see us as people, because so many of them do not.”
Mik Scarlet, from the NUJ journalists’ union, said: “The arts industry has been allowed for too long to use the excuse that there is not enough talent out there.”
He said he had been hearing the same excuse throughout the 30 years he has been working in the industry.
Scarlet said this was damaging for disabled people and “for the whole of society”.
He said: “We must be seen in our art, in our theatre. The arts are meant to mirror the world we live in.”
But he said disabled people were instead “systematically written out”, both as performers and in backstage roles.
Clara Paillard, president of the PCS union’s culture sector, told fellow delegates that the failings applied not only to the employment of disabled people, but also to featuring the work of disabled artists.
She said: “When do we see the work of disabled artists in our museums and galleries?
“When do we see museums, objects and exhibitions telling us the story of disability and disabled people?”
Iain Scott-Burdon, from Unison, said he enjoyed watching Deaf and disabled performers on television and in the theatre, but had been “fed up” after “getting excited seeing a Deaf person in Coronation Street and later finding out they were a hearing person pretending to be deaf… which is fake.”
He said later: “There are highly-skilled Deaf actors but why aren’t they having some on TV?”
Paillard told Disability News Service later: “Obviously not every disability is visible, but when was the last time you went to a museum and saw a visitor assistant in a wheelchair?
“I have not seen a single one in a wheelchair who works in a gallery, and I have been to quite a lot of museums.”
But she also said that some people do not feel safe declaring that they are disabled, because of a fear of losing their job.
She said she was supporting disabled staff from museums and galleries, particularly those with mental health conditions, who have been targeted for redundancy “because of their disability”.
She said this number had been increasing “because of the additional stresses created by austerity and budget cuts on workplaces.
“If you have disabilities you may be targeted. We have seen evidence of discrimination against disabled people within redundancies.”
But she said it was also vital that museums and galleries showed the work of disabled artists and “objects telling the story and history of disability and disabled people”.
Last September, the PCS culture sector worked with Disabled People Against Cuts to put on the Art4Rights exhibition at the Tate Modern gallery in London (without the gallery’s permission), which featured the work of disabled artists.
25 May 2017
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com