Coronavirus: Call for inquiry and urgent action after ‘shocking’ disability death stats

Disabled people’s organisations have demanded an inquiry into the reasons behind the disproportionately high number of deaths of disabled people during the pandemic, following the publication of “shocking” and long-overdue official figures.

They have also called on the government to take urgent action to protect disabled people from COVID-19, after the figures showed younger disabled women were as much as 11 times more likely to die from coronavirus than non-disabled women in the same age group.

They spoke out after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) finally produced the first official figures* to show how many disabled people in England and Wales have died from COVID-19, four months after the UK’s first recorded death.

Despite the shocking figures, their publication passed almost unnoticed in the media.

And they came as the government announced a further relaxation of the restrictions affecting disabled people who have been shielding during the crisis (see separate story).

The new figures show that younger disabled males (those “limited a lot” in daily life and aged between nine and 64) were 6.5 times more likely to have died due to COVID-19 than non-disabled males, while disabled females between nine and 64 were even more at risk, with a rate of death 11.3 times higher than non-disabled females in the same age group.

For older people, the rates were 2.4 for men aged 65 and over and 3.2 for women.

The figures also show that about 22,500 disabled people of all ages died due to COVID-19 between 2 March and 15 May, compared with about 15,500 non-disabled people.

Among those aged between nine and 64, there were about 1,600 deaths of disabled people (including both those “limited a lot” and those “limited a little”), compared with about 2,100 non-disabled people.

Mike Smith, the former disability commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and now chief executive of the east London disabled people’s organisation Real, was among those backing calls for an inquiry.

He told Disability News Service (DNS): “These numbers show the harsh reality that lies behind the statements that COVID-19 only affects ‘older people and those with pre-existing conditions’.”

He added: “There is an urgent need for government to recognise this and provide adequate support for disabled people to remain safe and have a viable existence.

“We need a public inquiry into this that takes into account this massive differential in deaths, and whether this was compounded by NICE and BMA guidance on who should receive support.

“Otherwise thousands more disabled people will die unnecessarily because our lives are not valued.”

Smith said the figures showed the failure to anticipate the need to monitor and evaluate the impact that coronavirus could have on disabled people, and the consequent failure to warn disabled people “about the disproportionate risk of death and give them adequate support and protection”.

He said: “Even if the government hadn’t realised at the beginning, they should be taking further action now to protect disabled people, rather than significantly reducing the lockdown without regard to our lives.

“The government need to provide additional support for those who will need it to remain alive, let alone stay safe, instead of shutting down the measures for those who are shielding.”

The ONS report also concludes that the risk of a disabled person dying falls once social factors such as population density, socio-economic status (for example, whether someone is unemployed), whether a person owns their own home, the composition of their household, and the deprivation of the area where they live, are taken into account.

Accounting for these factors, and for age, the rate of death is 1.9 times higher for males who were limited a lot and 2.4 times higher for females who were limited a lot, compared with non-disabled people.

But Smith warned against putting too much emphasis on these lower figures.

He said: “The whole point is you’re more likely to be in poverty or experience other social disadvantage if you’re disabled.

“It would be disingenuous to ignore the headline figures, and emphasise those factors, because that treats disability in purely medical model terms.

“It does not take into account all of the factors in life disabled people face above and beyond their impairment – the social factors that are actually what make people disabled.

“I can understand the need for ONS to try and understand the figures, but they need to be careful in their language, so it is not perceived that they are explaining away the problem.”

Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said the government must bear some responsibility for the disproportionate number of deaths of disabled people, and she also called for an inquiry into the causes.

She said the virus had led to a “cull” of disabled people which explained why they had been “living in fear” since the outbreak began.

She said: “Government failed to protect disabled people from the start of this outbreak.

“It knew where we were. It knew many of us received care in the community and in supported accommodation and care homes.

“It prioritised the NHS over social care when they should have had parity.”

She added: “Support for care home residents was slow in coming and people with coronavirus were actually placed in care homes.”

She also pointed to the failure to procure personal protective equipment for those providing support to disabled people, and the decision to reduce and remove disabled people’s right to support through its Coronavirus Act.

She also pointed out that the government’s social care action plan was not published until 15 April.

She said: “We said at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis that disabled people must not be allowed to become cannon fodder.

“The government called us vulnerable. The government made us vulnerable.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, also backed an inquiry, and said: “While these figures are shocking they come as no real surprise given the apparent rationing of healthcare for disabled people that seems to have been a factor of this pandemic, not just in the UK but internationally as well.

“What we need urgently is more detailed information about the so-far unidentified causes.”

Dr Marie Tidball, a disabled academic, a Labour city councillor in Oxford, and coordinator of Oxford University’s Disability Law and Policy Project, said the figures were likely to be a significant under-estimate of the number of disabled people who have died.

She said they were “a tragic indictment of the government’s approach to shielding, its failure to prevent the spread in care homes and other institutional settings and the utter misjudgement of their inertia to prepare for the crisis earlier in the year”.

She also backed calls for an inquiry, but she said it must be accompanied by “urgent action”, including a cross-party working group to investigate the deaths and make recommendations for a draft emergency bill that would “change what is happening now, before we get a second wave, and mitigate the risk of more deaths as we exit lockdown over the coming months”.

She told DNS the government had “failed to protect the lives of disabled people, failed to give them a place at the decision-making table during the crisis” and “failed in their legal duties under the Equality Act 2010”.

She said: “We need them to be held to account for their decision-making, in response to the pandemic, for every last death from this terrible virus.

“This is a moment which requires urgent answers and action for the government to show it values disabled people and our place in society.

“The prime minister must work with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations to review evidence of what failures took place, to develop and implement a disability inclusive response to COVID-19 while our society continues to live with this dreadful disease and change the Coronavirus Act 2020 and related policy to meet [the government’s] duties under the Equality Act 2010.

“Only then can we begin to move forward from this tragedy.”

Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who has been shielding at home during the pandemic, also backed calls for an inquiry.

She said: “I think we need that.

“At the start of this pandemic, we knew that many disabled people were more vulnerable to COVID-19, yet the government failed to consult with and consider the needs and concerns of people with disabilities.

“The government needs to urgently examine these deeply concerning figures and outline the next steps to ensure disabled people are protected, particularly as lockdown measures are eased.”

Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, said: “We knew almost from the start that disabled people and people with long term conditions were groups particularly at mortal risk from COVID-19.

“Yet they have received the least attention and the least help. All the public brouhaha about the NHS served as a diversion from the catastrophic failure of the social care system on which disabled people are most reliant.

“A supposed helping agency actually became a killing zone.

“Clearly the government plan is to encourage us to forget about the pandemic as quickly as possible and divert attention from social care failure.

“We must challenge this and fight for radically improved pandemic preparation and an effective free independent living service after this disaster, by every legal means possible.”

He said SOL would back an inquiry, but only if it was led by disabled people, with its remit agreed with disabled people and their organisations, if it reported quickly, and if it made “full provisions for access, including outreach, to include the views and perspectives of the diversity of disabled people”, including BAME disabled people, people with learning difficulties and people who communicate differently.

Ian Jones, from the WOWcampaign, called for a public inquiry to investigate why the lives of disabled people “don’t seem to matter” to Boris Johnson, the prime minister, his senior adviser Dominic Cummings, and health and social care secretary Matt Hancock.

Jones said: “It is not good enough for the government to tell us that disabled people have a greater susceptibility to everything.

“When I sat with some Tory MPs discussing my belief that welfare reforms were killing disabled people, I was told I should expect disabled people to die sooner than the average Tory voter because they were disabled.

“Disability does not always have a direct impact on life expectancy. To imply it does is wrong and sinister.

“What has an impact on our life expectancies are government policies such as putting us into poverty through welfare reforms and discharging patients from NHS hospitals who might be carriers of COVID-19 into care homes for old and disabled people.”

Laura Stringhetti, from WOW, also called for an inquiry.

She said it was “hard to quantify from these figures how many disabled people died because of pre-existing conditions (and everything that could be done was done but they were just too ill), how many died because not enough was done to treat them (as they were disabled) and how many died because 10 years of austerity had already worsened their state of health”.

*The ONS figures examine the impact of the pandemic on those in England and Wales who described themselves as disabled people in the 2011 census, either by saying they were “limited a little” in their daily lives or “limited a lot”. This means that those under the age of nine are not covered by the new figures, which also do not take account of those who have become disabled over the last nine years. Therefore its figures probably underestimate the number of disabled people who have died

**For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

25 June 2020


Coronavirus: Anxiety and confusion over ‘dangerous’ move to ease shielding

The government’s decision to further ease measures that have been protecting hundreds of thousands of disabled people from coronavirus since late March has left many of them “stunned and anxious”, say campaigners.

The 2.2 million people currently described as “clinically extremely vulnerable” have been told that initial changes, allowing them to spend time with more friends and family, will be introduced from Monday 6 July, while they will be able to stop shielding completely from the beginning of August.

The government’s shielding support package – including free deliveries of food boxes, and medicine deliveries by community pharmacies – will stop at the end of July, ministers said this week.

And those who were previously shielding and cannot work from home will also be told they can return to work from 1 August if that workplace is “COVID secure”.

But just as with the previous decision to ease guidance for shielders in late May, the government’s decision has been met by disabled people with distrust and concern, particularly as the prime minister also announced that the social distancing two-metre rule will be eased to just one metre from 4 July.

Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said many of those shielding had been left “stunned and anxious” by the government’s “one size fits all approach”.

She said: “For many, catching the virus could result in death or a serious diminishing of their quality of life.

“Why are people being asked to take this risk when we don’t have the evidence of the loosening of restrictions on the R rate [how infectious the virus is], or an effective test, trace and isolate service?”

She said the government had advised shielders they should still remain cautious because of the risk of severe illness, but at the same time was still reducing the social distance rule from two metres to one.

It is also removing the financial protection of statutory sick pay for those who cannot work from home, and removing free home deliveries of food parcels and medicines.

Hadi said: “Shielding has not been remotely comfortable for most people, but the one thing that it assured was the minimum risk of death from coronavirus.

“On the 1 August, people are being forced to choose between their life and their livelihood. This isn’t right.”

Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who herself has been shielding at home during the pandemic, called for urgent clarity on the science behind the decision.

She said: “The government needs to provide clear risk assessments to ease anxiety, following awful communication to date.

“Questions remain around the timing of this easement, especially while the government is considering reducing social distancing to one metre and opening society up further.”

She questioned the prime minister about the decision on Tuesday, asking if he would commit to improving communication with shielded and disabled people, and passing on the concerns of DR UK that support for shielded people was being removed too quickly.

Boris Johnson appeared to ignore the question, telling Foxcroft the government wanted a situation where the number of cases was so low that the shielding programme “no longer needs to continue in its current way”, and adding: “Too many elderly, vulnerable people have been kept in close confinement for too long, and we must help them to a new way out.”

The grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) said it was “very concerned” that the government’s plans had been introduced “against scientific advice and without any consultation with disabled and chronically ill people”.

Its members have told BRIL that advising people to stop shielding while relaxing other measures was “dangerous”.

BRIL pointed to calls from health leaders to prepare for a second wave of COVID-19, and it said many disabled people would continue to shield despite the government’s announcement.

A BRIL spokesperson said: “Disabled and chronically ill people – both those on the official list advised to shield and those who have been left off – have been forgotten.”

One BRIL member said: “I can’t understand how they can be changing everything all at once.

“The government’s priority seems to be getting people shopping, stopping sick pay and forcing people back into work, regardless of whether it is safe or not.

“The messages seem to be: ‘Tough it out – stop being wimps.’ It’s just cruel.

“Shielders are now being constructed as ‘cowards’ hiding from a ‘non-existent’ threat.”

Another member said: “It seems that regulations have been downgraded to ‘advice’.

“The government are washing their hands of any responsibility.”

Beth Richards, a researcher and actor with learning difficulties, said she had found government guidance complicated, and was disappointed that making information accessible had been left to charities and self-advocacy groups.

She said: “It’s like they don’t care about us.”

Disability Labour said the government’s decision was “extremely concerning” and showed again that “profit is being put before people”, adding: “Talking to our members, it seems that very many will not be altering their current habits and only going out when absolutely necessary.”

It pointed out that the virus was still “entrenched” in the UK and was still killing people, while there have been outbreaks in the meat processing industry, with the NHS in at least one region reportedly preparing for a second wave more than double the size of the first.

It warned that many people were disregarding advice to wear masks, and many disabled people cannot wear masks for impairment-related reasons.

It also warned of the “huge pressure” on disabled people to return to work, with concerns that those too much at risk from COVID-19 could be sacked or made redundant.

Kathy Bole, co-chair of Disability Labour, said: “Disabled people should be trusting the doctors and the scientists – not this government.”

Her co-chair, Fran Springfield, said: “I worry for those people who have been relying on food parcels being delivered; they will be forced out to shop and fend for themselves.

“As a nurse, I’m concerned that there is no news of a vaccine yet. Once that’s available and I’ve had my jab, then I’ll feel safe to go out again, in the way I did before lockdown.

“I don’t feel safe now and these latest announcements haven’t changed that.”

Disabled campaigner and retired Paralympian Chris Channon, who is on the “extremely clinically vulnerable” list, said he found the announcement “confusing”.

He said: “If we were considered vulnerable to the virus at the beginning of the crisis then we’re still very much vulnerable to it now.

“The truth is that the government now considers the rate of transmission is low enough to end the lockdown which obviously takes the pressure off the exchequer and the country can start functioning again.

“But again, the risk is still there and still very real and will continue to be so until an effective vaccine is developed and made available.”

Disabled campaigner Fleur Perry, who has also been shielding, said: “When we get to August, I’m going to look at the local and national data myself before making any decisions, and will probably err on the side of caution.

“Then I’ll gradually go to vital places, probably in full PPE [personal protective equipment] if it’s a medical setting.

“There does seem to be a lack of guidance which acknowledges those who need personal assistants or other forms of support.

“I have a team of more than five people who assist me with care needs 24/7 – does this mean I can safely meet with another five people? Probably not.

“I am concerned that there will be times when I’m expected to go everywhere and will need to explain that though shielding has ended, that doesn’t mean that the risk is zero and that I intend to take every precaution. But it’s got to be safety first, always.”

The disabled people’s organisation Disability North called for more reassurance for those who have been shielding.

Vici Richardson, Disability North’s community care and personalisation advisor, said: “We heard very clearly from the chief medical officer and scientific officer that the virus hasn’t gone away and there still needs to be caution.

“Many of those who have been shielding are understandably anxious about support being withdrawn and the shielding scheme being paused whilst we are still at a level three [pandemic alert level].

“We want to see understanding from employers and an assurance that workplaces will be COVID-19 secure and wherever possible people can remain working from home.

“There needs to be more transparent communication for those shielding on what happens if there are local spikes or a second wave.

“Support will need to continue until people feel ready and assured.

“We would urge anyone in this group to speak with the professionals involved with their medical care and get their advice.”

From 6 July, ministers believe that those who have been shielding will be able to spend time outdoors in a group of up to six people, while maintaining social distancing.

Those who are shielding and live alone or are single parents with children will also be able to mix with one other household, in any setting, from 6 July.

Although some support will be still be available – including priority for supermarket delivery slots and support from NHS volunteers and local councils – free deliveries of food boxes and medicine will stop at the end of July.

Ministers also say that those who have been shielding will be able to take part in activities like visiting shops and places of worship from August.

Although they will be told they should still continue to remain at home as much as possible, minimise contact with others outside their household, and frequently wash their hands, ministers say infections are now low enough for their advice for shielders to be “carefully and safely eased”.

On average, fewer than one in 1,700 people are estimated to have the virus, down from one in 500 four weeks ago, they said.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said that “with infection rates continuing to fall in our communities, our medical experts have advised that we can now ease some of these measures, while keeping people safe”.

Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, said: “The prevalence of the virus in the community is now lower and chances of getting infected are reduced, so we believe it is the right time to relax some of the advice so people can start to regain a degree of normality once more in their daily lives.

“People should continue to follow social distancing guidance when outside their homes, as well as frequently washing their hands, to minimise the risk of becoming infected.

“We will continue to monitor the evidence closely and adjust the advice accordingly if there are any changes in the rates of infection that could impact on this group.”

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

25 June 2020


Watchdog snubs call for probe into DWP deaths, after delay of more than a year

The equality watchdog has rejected calls for it to investigate deaths linked to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), more than a year after an MP asked it to launch an inquiry.

Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, a former shadow work and pensions secretary, first approached the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in April last year with her concerns about links between DWP and the deaths of benefit claimants, and the wider impact of DWP policies on disabled people.

Eight months ago, the commission said it was reviewing what “potential” work it could undertake to tackle “discriminatory decision-making in the social security system” and would respond to Abrahams “in due course”.

Now, 14 months after she first raised concerns with the commission, and following another “holding reply” in February, EHRC has finally decided that, “due to the pandemic”, it will not be able to carry out an inquiry into DWP this year.

It only produced this response after being approached again by Abrahams and Disability News Service (DNS).

Abrahams had described its delay in deciding whether to hold an inquiry as “shocking”, and said she was surprised that more people were not calling for an investigation into DWP’s actions.

She said: “I find it hard to believe that a government department is behaving in such a way.

“There are not enough people who are clamouring for this to be investigated and dealt with.”

She said EHRC’s decision not to carry out an investigation “for the time being” was “very disappointing”.

Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, had also backed the calls for EHRC action.

She said: “There is a clear link between this government’s inadequate policies and the suffering of disabled people.”

She said Abrahams had been right to call for the EHRC to carry out an inquiry.

Foxcroft said: “Under the Conservatives, the DWP has become a department that all too often penalises and punishes sick and disabled people, instead of focusing on support and help. This must change.”

An EHRC spokesperson said: “The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on our work, as it has on many other organisations.

“We have responded to Debbie Abrahams to say that we have given very careful consideration to the concerns she has rightly raised about the impact of DWP policies and practices on disabled people.

“It remains an important area of focus for us but due to the pandemic we will not be able to undertake an inquiry in relation to the DWP this year.”

Evidence continues to mount of links between the actions of DWP and the deaths of benefit claimants, particularly those forced through the work capability assessment (WCA) system.

In January, DNS revealed how Errol Graham starved to death after DWP wrongly stopped his out-of-work benefits, leaving him without any income.

DWP civil servants had failed to seek further medical evidence from his GP, just as in many other cases that have sparked repeated calls for an independent inquiry into links between such deaths and the actions and failings of DWP.

But there is also increasing evidence that DWP has tried to cover-up those links over the last decade.

Among the evidence revealed by DNS is how the department failed to share secret reviews into the deaths of claimants – and reports written by coroners aimed at preventing future deaths of claimants – with independent experts commissioned to review the WCA.

This year, DNS has revealed how the government is refusing to publish two coroners’ reports that linked DWP with the deaths of claimants, one written in 2015 and one in 2016.

It also revealed in February how DWP appeared to have misled both the National Audit Office and the Information Commissioner’s Office over its failure to track recommendations made by its own secret reviews into benefit-related deaths.

In December, DNS published an article based on a five-year-investigation which concluded that senior civil servants and ministers should face a criminal investigation for alleged misconduct in public office over their failure to act on repeated warnings about the notorious WCA process.

Meanwhile, Abrahams has asked DWP if it has assessed the number of disabled people receiving benefits who have died from COVID-19.

She was told last week by employment minister Mims Davies that Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, was “engaging extensively and holding conversations with charities and stakeholders on exactly these kinds of issues so that we can understand the impact on the most vulnerable”.

Abrahams said later: “It’s clear from the minister’s non-answer that the government hasn’t undertaken any analysis of their data to understand how many people in receipt of social security support have died from COVID-19.

“They must do this as a matter of urgency. I will be pushing the government to make a statement on this.”

25 June 2020


New alliance to scrap universal credit aims to mirror anti-poll tax campaign

Disabled activists have called for opponents of universal credit (UC) across the country to help mirror the campaign that led to the poll tax being abandoned in the early 1990s, by joining a new national alliance that is demanding UC is scrapped.

They announced the new alliance at an online meeting organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) that focused on the ongoing campaign to “stop and scrap” UC.

Scrap Universal Credit Alliance (SUCA) will include disabled activists, disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), unions and allies.

Mark Harrison, from Norfolk Against Universal Credit (NAUC) and the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, said UC was “the 21st century workhouse” and was leaving people imprisoned in their own homes, in debt and reliant on food banks.

He said it was “urgent that we step up the campaign” to stop and scrap UC.

He said that was why DPAC, NAUC and others had set up SUCA, which will act as an umbrella campaign for all local campaigns around the country that are dedicated to scrapping UC.

Harrison said: “I think we need a campaign on a similar level to the poll tax movement, where a grassroots movement in every town, in every city, in every area of the country, had a movement to scrap the poll tax.

“It was a long campaign but eventually it was hugely successful and the poll tax was scrapped, and that led the way to getting rid of Thatcher.

“That’s what’s facing us with universal credit. With COVID-19, huge sections of the workforce are being thrown into unemployment, thrown onto the mercy of the DWP and universal credit.

“This is going to create a huge schism, so we need to step up our activities.”

SUCA’s website includes a guide to setting up a local campaign.

Harrison added: “Words are cheap. Unless we organise to get rid of this hated, miserable attack on our rights, which is forcing people into food poverty, into early death and suicide, we aren’t going to do justice to our movement.”

SUCA’s first action will be an online day of action on Wednesday (1 July), if the Department for Work and Pension (DWP) fails to extend the current suspension of benefit sanctions and conditionality, which is due to expire at the end of this month.

Harrison said this day of action could be used to launch local groups to scrap UC.

The online event took place on the same day as the funeral of disabled activist Seán McGovern, who died last month and had co-chaired the TUC disabled workers’ committee, among many other roles.

Dave Allan, chair of the national disabled members’ committee of the union Unite, and a member of the TUC disabled workers’ committee, described him as an “irreplaceable colleague and comrade” who was “unique in being able to bridge the gap between DPOs, disabled activists and the trade union movement, and we’re all going to miss him greatly”.

He said he and McGovern had helped to persuade unions to move in just a few months from a position where they were in favour of “pausing and fixing” UC to one where the TUC agreed unanimously to campaign for it to be “stopped and scrapped”.

Allan said: “This pernicious benefit system can be beaten.”

He said Unite had sent a motion to the TUC to call for a conference of action of trade unionists, disabled activists and DPOs to work together to produce a joint strategy to push for UC to be scrapped.

Activist and journalist Charlotte Hughes, author of the blog The Poor Side of Life, which exposes the impact of UC on claimants, told the online meeting: “Once you start to claim universal credit, you are immediately placed into more debt, and [you become] more dependent on family and friends if you’re lucky enough to have them.

“Many people have gone to loan sharks.

“I believe, and many others believe, that the whole system was set up to fail us.

“It wasn’t set up with our needs in mind. You can’t fix it.

“It’s horrendous for the workers and it’s horrendous for the claimants and it actively discriminates.”

She said the impact of COVID-19 had led to many people who were previously employed now having to claim UC.

She said: “Now it’s turned round because the people who were calling us scroungers are now seeing what it’s actually like.”

Disabled activist Gail Ward, from north-east DPAC, said universal credit was “an absolute carbuncle” and described its multiple flaws.

She said: “I would ask everybody, whether you’re a worker or whether you’re a claimant, on legacy benefits or on universal credit, to get behind a campaign and start shouting from the rooftops and say, ‘Enough is enough, we’re not going to take this anymore, it’s time to hold the government to account.’”

LaToya Grant, a commissioner on the Commission on Social Security, who co-chaired the meeting, said the fundamental problems with UC “haven’t changed” and so DPAC “continues to demand that UC is stopped and we want it scrapped”.

Jennifer Jones, co-founder of Sheffield DPAC, described the origins and success of the #DumpMetroDWPLies campaign, which saw activists all over the country removing and recycling copies of the free Metro newspaper after it ran a series of untruthful DWP adverts promoting UC.

The Advertising Standards Authority eventually ruled that the DWP adverts had breached its rules.

Paula Peters, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, was another to pay tribute to Seán McGovern.

She told the meeting that it was “really important that we build local campaign groups against universal credit in all our areas”.

25 June 2020


Coronavirus: Government’s failure to offer video PIP appeals ‘is discrimination’

The government’s continuing failure to allow benefit appeals to be heard via video conferencing is discriminating against disabled claimants, say welfare rights experts.

Many disabled people are being forced to ask for their tribunals to be postponed, because they are only being offered a telephone hearing, says one disabled people’s organisation.

The tribunal system is not currently running face-to-face hearings because of the pandemic crisis, with judges instead deciding cases on documents alone or by holding a telephone hearing.

Concerns about the temporary system that is replacing face-to-face hearings have been raised by Disability Cambridgeshire, a user-led organisation which provides advice and information to disabled people.

Disability Cambridgeshire says that telephone hearings – which involve a judge and two experts speaking on the phone to the disabled person making the appeal – can cause huge difficulty for the claimant.

It has had to seek adjournments for all but one of the personal independence payment (PIP) appeals it has been helping with since the coronavirus lockdown in March, because its advisers were not confident their disabled clients would be dealt with fairly if they had a telephone hearing.

The adjournment delay means they will be forced to cope without the benefits they are entitled to for many more months.

Video hearings, for example using the Zoom platform, are likely to be more accessible for many disabled people, including those with hearing impairments, learning difficulties or difficulties with concentration.

The Zoom platform also has the facility for the claimant and their adviser to speak confidentially during a break.

Judith Margolis, chair of Disability Cambridgeshire, said: “For many of our clients, particularly those with learning disabilities or mental health issues, it is almost impossible to sit on the telephone, sometimes for half an hour, and try to understand what is going on.

“It is incredibly difficult, particularly for those whose cases are not straightforward.”

She fears that many disabled people will be forced into seeking cash from a loan shark while they await their tribunal because of the financial problems caused by the temporary loss of benefits.

She is also frustrated that the government appears to have failed to consult on the changes with disabled people and their organisations.

Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser for Disability Rights UK, said: “It’s understandable that face-to-face appeal hearings are not currently possible due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“But the informed choice as to whether an appeal is heard on paper, by telephone or by video must be that of the disabled person and not overridden by the tribunals service.

“Some people who experience severe social anxiety may prefer a telephone hearing.

“But for many others, who say have a learning disability or a mental health issue or need the advice and support of a representative, telephone hearings can never be just or fair.

“It is wrong for the tribunals service to dictate that in practice PIP video hearings are unavailable.

“Most PIP appeals are upheld due to the claimant’s own verbal evidence. It is discriminatory to deny someone the ability to effectively answer questions and present their case.”

The government and the judiciary have given a series of contrasting and confusing statements and responses over the last fortnight in response to the concerns raised by Disability Cambridgeshire.

Asked by Disability News Service (DNS) why the system was not currently offering video hearings, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) insisted that “thousands” of remote hearings had “kept the justice system running” during the pandemic.

An HMCTS spokesperson said claimants were being contacted before their remote hearing and were “asked if they need extra support such as video and a judge will then ultimately decide the best way to proceed in their interests”.

But a document published by the Judicial Office last week on how judges are handling social security and other appeals in the Social Entitlement Chamber’s first-tier tribunal makes no mention of video hearings in relation to social security cases.

The document says social security appeals not decided by a judge solely on the documents before her “will probably take place via a telephone hearing”.

The Judicial Office – which supports judges – told DNS that video hearings were not currently available for social security appeals, although a spokesperson later said that some hearings were being carried out by video, but only as part of testing to introduce them more widely.

He said: “Appellants can’t request a video hearing at this stage but the tribunal consider which cases might be appropriate for doing a hearing by video as part of the testing.”

Disability Cambridgeshire itself has asked the tribunal service to allow benefit appeal tribunals to take place using video, but it has been told there were no such plans at present.

Further contradiction and confusion came from Chris Philp, the junior minister for immigration compliance and the courts, in response to a letter written by Labour MP Daniel Zeichner on behalf of Disability Cambridgeshire.

In direct contradiction of the Judicial Office, Philp claims in the letter: “Judges will consider requests for reasonable adjustments to enable disabled appellants to access and fully participate in virtual hearings.

“If [Disability Cambridgeshire have] any clients who would benefit from having their appeal heard by video then [Margolis] can support them in making a formal request to the tribunal, explaining why this is needed and providing any supporting information or documents that can be passed to a Judge to consider.”

In response to this comment from the minister, and despite originally claiming that appellants “can’t request a video hearing at this stage”, the Judicial Office spokesperson said: “Ministry of Justice are correct that submissions can be made to a judge for him or her to consider.”

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

25 June 2020


Inquiry ‘lifts lid on can of worms’ that exposed RNIB service-users to harm and distress

“Comprehensive failings” within one of the largest and best-known disability charities placed service-users at undue risk of harm and exposed some disabled children with high support needs to actual harm and distress, the charity regulator has concluded.

Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has been issued with an “official warning” by the Charity Commission, following the conclusion of a long-running inquiry that was launched in 2018 after safeguarding concerns were raised about RNIB Pears Centre, a segregated institution in Coventry.

The Charity Commission described its inquiry as “lifting a lid on a metaphorical can of worms”, which revealed “comprehensive failures in governance that placed the safety of young people in its care at risk and allowed harm or distress to be suffered by some”.

Helen Stephenson, the Charity Commission’s chief executive, said: “This is one of the worst examples we have uncovered of poor governance and oversight having a direct impact on vulnerable people.

“A catalogue of serious failings were allowed to occur, because the charity’s governance was simply too weak for the trustees in charge of the charity to do the job that beneficiaries needed them to do.

“No child should ever be put at risk of harm, and this case is all the more troubling because it happened in the care of a charity.”

The inquiry concluded that there were “systemic shortcomings” at RNIB between 2015 and 2018, which were “exacerbated” by a major reorganisation in 2017.

These shortcomings related to the management of RNIB Pears Centre, safeguarding at RNIB’s network of social care and education services – which included other schools, a college and care homes – and broader corporate governance.

The commission concluded that some of RNIB’s service-users within its regulated services were “placed at undue risk of harm” and some “suffered harm or distress” and were “badly let down by RNIB”.

Unsuccessful attempts to turn round the Pears Centre led to RNIB spending £5.5 million of its reserves. The centre cost nearly £27 million to develop, with the inquiry estimating that it eventually cost RNIB £31 million.

The commission concluded that some of RNIB’s failings amounted to “misconduct” and “serious mismanagement”.

It has approved an action plan submitted by RNIB which includes a two-year “reconstruction programme”.

The RNIB Pears Centre, which closed in 2018, was both a special school and children’s home for disabled children.

The inquiry was launched in March 2018 in response to a series of safeguarding concerns at the centre.

Ofsted has previously found repeated safeguarding failures and serious medication errors at Pears Centre.

Similar findings resulted from an independent review, which also found wider concerns about RNIB and further safeguarding concerns and medication errors at the Pears Centre.

The Charity Commission inquiry concluded that RNIB repeatedly failed to ensure that the Pears Centre complied with regulations, and then failed to respond effectively to concerns raised by both Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.

The inquiry found that, at least between 2015 and April 2018, there were “systemic shortcomings in safeguarding management” across RNIB’s regulated services, including “material shortcomings in RNIB’s safeguarding related recruitment and training practices”.

It said these were exacerbated by the RNIB restructure in April 2017 and placed some of RNIB’s service-users at “undue risk” and amounted to “evidence of misconduct and/or mismanagement in the administration of a charity”.

Although the inquiry said RNIB had made some safeguarding improvements in the last two years, “further work remains to be done”.

The inquiry also uncovered 26 serious safeguarding incidents that had not been reported to regulators across its services between April 2017 and May 2018.

Because of poor record-keeping, there could have been even more such incidents that had not been reported to regulators, the commission concluded.

These “systemic inadequacies” could also have allowed some employees or ex-employees “to cause further potential harm” to RNIB service-users or others outside the charity.

The body set up by RNIB to oversee safeguarding was described as “wholly ineffective”, while the body set up to replace it met just twice between April 2017 and March 2018.

Matt Stringer, RNIB’s chief executive, who joined the charity last year, said: “We are truly sorry for the failings identified in this report, which represents the low point in our 152-year history.

“It is clear that we seriously let down children and their families, staff, volunteers, supporters and blind and partially sighted people who make up the RNIB community.

“We are sorry to every one of them.

“We fully accept the Charity Commission’s recommendations and the inquiry report acknowledges that we are making good progress in implementing them.

“We have made significant changes to RNIB and are continuing to embed improvements to ensure that these failings can never happen again.

“We are committed to emerging from this as a better, more determined, and more effective organisation.”

RNIB said it had overhauled its approach to safeguarding, strengthened its board, and made “key appointments” to its leadership team.

It is seeking new providers to take over its older people’s care homes, schools and college.

25 June 2020


Coronavirus: Peer calls for an end to use of ‘vulnerable’ to describe disabled people

A leading disabled campaigner and crossbench peer has called for an end to the use of the word “vulnerable” to describe disabled people.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell said the term had been used repeatedly to describe disabled people during the “worst times” of the pandemic crisis.

But she said that many disabled people placed in the category of “vulnerable” or those who were told they needed to “shield” – as she has – had been forced instead to campaign for their basic human rights throughout the pandemic because the concept of “vulnerability… simply serves to anonymise our humanity and human rights”.

She was speaking at an online event hosted by the London School of Economics (LSE), as part of a series examining policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She pointed to the use of Care Act easements under the Coronavirus Act that led to disabled people losing vital care and support; the use of “frailty scoring” to prioritise ventilation and intensive care treatment; and GPs “ringing around asking the vulnerable if they wanted to consider a DNR on their notes”.

She said: “It began to feel like there was only a very short walk from being one of the ‘vulnerables’ to the chilling club of the ‘expendables’.”

She added: “It certainly didn’t feel like we were sheltered. Far worse.

“We were definitely not sheltered from the worst effects, with more than 13,000 older and disabled people having died from COVID-19 in care homes across England.”

She said the term “vulnerable people” made her feel “uneasy”, “exasperated” and “wounded” because it conjured up “weakness, victimhood and a cry for others to take responsibility for us”.

Baroness Campbell said “vulnerable” was used instead of words such as “human rights”, “equality” and “service entitlement to those who need them”.

She demanded that local councils and central government stop using the word “vulnerable” to describe disabled people.

She said: “We should stand up today and say we don’t want that word anymore.

“As of today, we will rid ourselves of the term ‘vulnerability’.”

Clenton Farquharson, chair of the Think Local Act Personal partnership board, a trustee of the Race Equality Foundation and an equality and inclusion consultant, spoke at the event of the “small but measurable progression” that had been made in addressing inequality before the “gut-wrenching punch” of the pandemic.

He said: “Make no mistake: the system is not broken. It is operating exactly the way it was designed.

“At every single level, the system is not about providing equality, it is about ensuring certain people, certain communities, are protected while other communities are experiencing multiple disadvantage.”

He called for more accountability at the local level, with decision-making power devolved to its lowest level, which would give disabled people and other communities the ability to use levers such as the public sector equality duty to effect change.

He said there was an opportunity to make “a huge leap forward” but also “the real threat of falling backwards”.

He said that “everyday people” must “channel that presence into power”, which he explained afterwards would mean changing the rules around sexism, disablism, racism and institutional discrimination, and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all communities, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status, from the level of parish councils up.

He said: “We cannot simply accept charitable solutions to structural problems.

“We actually have to work for structural change.”

Liz Sayce, former chief executive of Disability Rights UK and now a senior fellow at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute, suggested the time could be right for action on both inclusive education and disability employment.

She said: “We cannot go it alone. We need allies and there are lots of potential allies on this agenda.

“I think this is a really important moment. We have seen how we depend upon each other. We can build on that.

“It’s not through thinking about vulnerable groups or even just thinking about removing barriers.

“It’s about disabled people strongly shaping policy, it’s based on reciprocity, participation and full inclusion for everyone.”

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page

25 June 2020


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