PIP investigation: Assessment complaints rise by 880 per cent… in just one year

Complaints about the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment process rose by nearly 900 per cent last year – from 142 to 1,391 – apparently corroborating the results of a year-long Disability News Service investigation.

The Department for Work and Pensions figures also show that the number of complaints about PIP assessments that were upheld rose by more than 700 per cent in the same year (from 67 in 2015-16 to 545 in 2016-17).

The figures provide probably the strongest evidence yet to support the findings of the investigation carried out by Disability News Service (DNS) into claims of widespread dishonesty at the heart of the PIP assessment process.

Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said the “huge increase” showed that the healthcare professionals who carry out the assessments must be held to account.

She said the figures were also “an absolute indictment of the Tories’ punitive assessments and the miserable effect they are having on people trying to access desperately needed support”.

The enormous increases in both complaints lodged and those upheld, between 2015-16 and 2016-17, come despite a rise of just 34 per cent in the number of PIP claims registered in the same period.

DNS only decided to begin its PIP investigation in November 2016 because of a steady trickle of emails and phone calls from disabled people raising concerns about the PIP assessment process, and who were insisting that the healthcare professionals who had assessed them had produced dishonest reports for DWP.

The new figures appear to suggest that whatever was causing this dishonesty in the assessment system appears to have become a significant problem during 2016-17.

DNS has now heard from more than 250 PIP claimants who say their assessment reports were dishonest.

They have told DNS that assessors working for DWP contractors Capita and Atos – many of them nurses – have repeatedly lied, ignored written evidence and dishonestly reported the results of physical examinations.

The figures on PIP assessment complaints were given last week to the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock by the minister for disabled people, Penny Mordaunt, in response to a parliamentary question.

Mordaunt told Kinnock that the number of complaints received about the PIP assessment process increased from just 142 in 2015-16 to 1,391 in 2016-17 (a rise of 880 per cent).

And she said that the number of complaints about the PIP assessment process that were upheld rose from 67 in 2015-16 to 545 in 2016-17 (an increase of 713 per cent).

Other DWP statistics and DNS calculations show that, in the same period, the number of PIP claims registered – including new claims and reassessments – only increased from 783,585 to 1,047,976, a far smaller rise of about 34 per cent.

Abrahams said: “These profit-making health assessment companies must recognise that their assessments are not fit for purpose, given the increase in complaints received and numbers overturned on tribunal.

“However, assessments are conducted by clinical professionals and we must be holding these clinical professionals to account too.

“I have personally heard of dozens and dozens of cases of assessment reports not marrying at all with the assessment and medical records that were supplied.

“The huge increase in complaints made and upheld about the PIP assessment process are an absolute indictment of the Tories’ punitive assessments and the miserable effect they are having on people trying to access desperately needed support.

“Labour is committed to scrapping these harmful assessments and replacing them with a holistic, person-centred approach, under our plans to ensure that, like the NHS, the social security system is there for us all in our time of need.”

Kinnock said the figures were “further evidence that the PIP system is not fit for purpose”, despite the assessment system being in place for more than four years.

He said: “While the scale of this is truly shocking, it is not in the least bit surprising, because week after week I hear from my constituents about how claimants are treated, how they are humiliated, belittled and denied basic human dignity.

“Government has been told by MPs, claimants and by disability experts that the system needs reviewing.

“Instead, they have carried on regardless with their ideological drive to remove the help which people so desperately need, so that they are able to manage the basic daily costs of living with a disability.”

A DWP spokesman was unable to offer any explanation for the huge rise in complaints.

But he said: “Complaints may be made for a variety of reasons and there is no evidence to suggest that there is dishonesty in the assessment system.

“The percentage increases in complaints which you have mentioned do not consider the number of complaints as a proportion of the overall number of PIP cases which we process.

“We are now clearing 81,000 claims each month compared with around 80,000 per month this time last year.

“Our latest research shows that 76 per cent of PIP claimants are satisfied with their overall experience.

“More than 2.4 million PIP decisions have been made, and of these eight per cent have been appealed and four per cent have been overturned.

“In the majority of successful appeals, decisions are overturned because people have submitted more oral or written evidence.”

PIP claimants who want to contribute to an inquiry by the Commons work and pensions committee into the effectiveness of the PIP assessment system, as well as the work capability assessment, have until 10 November to submit their evidence. They can also post evidence on the committee’s web forum

26 October 2017



Access to Work: ‘Scheme’s future in jeopardy through cuts and incompetence’

The future of the government’s Access to Work (AtW) disability employment scheme is in jeopardy because of “bureaucratic incompetence” and a cost-cutting drive to reduce people’s support packages, according to new research.

The report, commissioned by Inclusion London, found that “shocking levels of delay, error, and the de-skilling of staff” were putting Deaf and disabled people’s jobs at risk.

The Barriers to Work report, written by disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale, is based on a survey of 320 AtW customers – more than half of whom were Deaf or had hearing impairments – which was carried out last year by the campaign group StopChanges2AtW*.

Hale said the AtW scheme – set up in 1994 and providing disabled people with funding to pay for some of the extra disability-related expenses they face at work – was “a cornerstone of the movement for equality and civil rights for Deaf and disabled people in the UK”.

But her report concludes that the programme has been “beset with so much bureaucratic incompetence and obstructionism in recent years that, in many respects, Access to Work is no longer fit for purpose”.

Marsha de Cordova, a disabled Labour MP and her party’s new shadow minister for disabled people, told a parliamentary event held to launch the report that “poor policy” and “severe cuts” had left the scheme “unworkable for so many of us”.

She said the reviews that led to people’s packages being cut “ultimately will result in many Deaf and disabled people being unable to stay in or retain their work”.

De Cordova, who said she had benefited from AtW support through most of her career, said: “This scheme, as we all know, is a fundamental part of employing Deaf and disabled people and ensuring that we can stay in work.”

She said her own experiences ranged from the programme being “very good to being poor and incredibly frustrating”, and added: “They make it so difficult to be assessed for support.”

She said: “I intend in my role, just as an activist, because I am first and foremost a disability rights activist, to press on the government to ensure that they adequately fund this scheme, but also they have to address, they have to reverse, all of the stripping away of cuts, because without that the scheme is not going to work and we will not see more Deaf and disabled people into work.”

One of the aspects the report warns about is the imposition of a cap – currently £42,100 – on annual AtW packages, which already affects new claimants but will not affect existing customers until next April.

The cap is expected to affect 200 AtW customers, of whom about 90 per cent will be Deaf or have hearing loss.

StopChanges2AtW believes this will discourage employers from recruiting Deaf people, increase the likelihood of discrimination, and reduce equality of opportunity.

Paul Redfern, the British Deaf Association’s senior community development manager, told the launch event that a number of Deaf professionals had lost their registrations because they were not given enough interpreting support by AtW to maintain their “continuing professional development”.

He said the new cap meant that Deaf people would be forced “to leave work and be replaced by hearing people”, and he added: “Employers will become more and more reluctant to employ Deaf members of staff because they will be seen as expensive.”

Penny Parker, who uses Access to Work, and is employed by the disabled people’s organisation Equal Lives, had her account of her AtW experiences read by Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, as she was not able to attend the launch event.

She said she couldn’t fault the scheme when she began claiming support in 2010, but since AtW began to review her package towards the end of 2015 she said her experience had been “horrendous”, and ended – after a year – with a package “that meant I go to work less and pay more”.

Parker, who is totally blind, said one adviser had “felt the need to question why I don’t drive myself to work”.

The process had affected her job, her mental health, her relationship with her support workers, the taxi company that drives her to work, and her family and private life.

She said: “I was so impressed by the scheme when I set out in 2010. Now it’s a sham and disables rather than enables disabled people to work.”

Harrison said Parker had called him while he was on the way to the event to say that the taxi company she uses had told her it would not be able to take her to work the next day because AtW had not paid its invoices since April.

He said: “AtW said, ‘We have changed the way we want our invoices formatted,’ but they had not informed either Penny or the taxi company.

“She is a prisoner in her own home, unable to do her job because of AtW.”

Deidre Brock, the SNP’s shadow spokeswoman for fair work and employment, who was also at the launch, said people were facing “nothing more nor less than discrimination”.

She said the report’s 11 recommendations for improvements to the scheme – which include commitments not to place Deaf and disabled people at financial risk, and to put the scheme at the heart of the government’s strategy to increase the number of disabled people in work – were “more than acceptable” and “actually quite modest in scope”.

Most of those surveyed by StopChanges2AtW had full-time jobs, while a third had received AtW for at least 10 years.

But only 15 per cent of those surveyed said they found it easy to apply for AtW or to use it.

Among the problems they faced were: not being told when their AtW award was ending, which left people in debt to their support workers; significant amounts of time spent disputing their needs with AtW staff; lengthy delays in assessments for support, which in some cases left people unable to take up a new job or offer of work; and lost paperwork, again leaving many people in debt.

As many as 50 respondents said that without AtW they would be unemployed and reliant on benefits.

Of the survey respondents, nearly half (46 per cent) said there had been changes to their AtW package, but only three per cent said this had led to an increase in their support.

There was substantial evidence of: “rationing” of support by AtW, with more frequent re-assessments and tighter eligibility criteria; a higher burden of proof to show need for support; increased complexity and unnecessary repetition in AtW forms; and a perception by respondents that they were “under surveillance and suspicion”.

AtW staff frequently used phrases such as “funding cuts”, “too expensive”, “need to make savings” and the “need to reduce fraud” when they told claimants that their levels of support were changing.

One of those who took part in the survey, Sayeeda, said: “The way Access to Work treated me was horrible.

“I was talked to in a way where the advisor thought that they knew better than me about the support that I need to do my job. It was always a very aggressive tone.”

Another, Angela, said it took her seven months to secure the funding she needed to pay for support workers while she was at work.

She said: “During this period, I frequently went without anything to eat and drink all day because I did not have a support worker to assist me with feeding.”

A third disabled woman, Sue, said the way she had been treated by AtW “and the amount of obstacles repeatedly put in my way, have very seriously affected both my ability to continue working, and my mental health, to the point that my GP has had to intervene”.

The report concludes: “An apparent agenda of cost cutting rather than investing to save is putting Deaf and Disabled people’s jobs and livelihoods at risk.

“If this trend continues we will see reduced diversity in the UK workforce, and an increase in the numbers of Deaf and Disabled people claiming out of work benefits.”

Asked to respond to the report, a DWP spokeswoman said: “We want more disabled people to get into employment and keep their jobs.

“The Access to Work grant can provide over £40,000 of practical support a year, which is tailored to individuals’ needs and can include travel to work, support workers and specialist equipment.

“We continuously review the scheme to make sure it’s working in the best way possible, and last year we launched a digital service to make the application process more accessible and efficient.

“Last year 25,000 people had their request approved by Access to Work, an increase of eight per cent from 2015-16.”

In the November 2015 spending review, the government pledged to increase the number of people the scheme helped by 25,000 a year by 2020, increasing spending by nearly a quarter.

But earlier this month, the government was accused of manipulating statistics in an attempt to hide the ongoing barriers, cuts and harassment experienced by AtW claimants, following the release of experimental figures which showed the number of disabled people approved every year for support from the programme had fallen by 15 per cent under seven years of Conservative rule.

The number of people who had Access to Work support approved in 2016-17 was nearly 2,000 higher than the previous year, but the figure for 2016-17 (23,630) was still more than 4,000 lower than in the final year of the last Labour government (27,760).

Critics said the way DWP was publishing AtW statistics meant it was impossible to know how many disabled people were currently receiving support compared with previous years, or how the average level of support packages had risen or fallen.

*Its publication was delayed by the general election, the parliamentary summer recess and the party political conference season

26 October 2017



Access to Work: Ombudsman faces questions over investigation

A parliamentary ombudsman took more than three-and-a-half years to complete an investigation into the government’s Access to Work (AtW) scheme, and then failed to make any recommendations for improvements, despite upholding more than 40 complaints.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) yesterday (Wednesday) finally published its long-awaited report into 60 complaints it had received about the scheme, which provides disabled people with funding to pay for some of the extra disability-related expenses they face at work.

Disabled people began to complain to PHSO in March 2014 about the way the scheme was being run – following cost-cutting changes made by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – told the ombudsman they feared losing their jobs and for the future of their businesses.

The report describes how their work suffered, their confidence was hit and they felt “distressed, isolated, uncertain and humiliated”.

It adds: “Some had to ask their employers for extra help to enable them to continue to work and many had spent long, fruitless hours trying to understand and change the DWP’s decision about their Access to Work award.”

Many of the complaints came from Deaf users of British Sign Language, who were unable to secure the communication support they needed from interpreters at the rates offered by AtW, while there were also complaints about how the scheme dealt with self-employed disabled people.

Other complaints included problems with poor communication by AtW staff, and substandard complaint handling.

The report concludes that senior DWP staff “failed to give due consideration to the impact of the changes on particular groups of disabled people”.

But despite upholding or partially upholding 42 of the 60 complaints, the ombudsman claimed yesterday that by the time it had completed its investigation, DWP had taken the necessary steps to “put things right” and had “remedied the injustice suffered by people in the individual complaints we investigated and upheld”.

It concluded that there were “no new recommendations that we need to make to address the issues that were raised by these complaints”.

But the previous day, a far more detailed and up-to-date report – published by Inclusion London – had raised almost identical concerns about AtW and made it clear that there were continuing, deep-seated problems with the scheme (see separate story).

Just like the PHSO report, it raised concerns about cost-cutting measures that had affected Deaf users of BSL and self-employed disabled people, and also raised concerns about poor communication by AtW and substandard complaints handling.

The Inclusion London report – based on a survey carried out last year by the campaign group StopChanges2AtW– found that AtW’s future was in jeopardy because of “bureaucratic incompetence” and a drive to reduce people’s support packages.

It found “shocking levels of delay, error, and the de-skilling of staff” that were putting Deaf and disabled people’s jobs at risk, and said the scheme has been “beset with so much bureaucratic incompetence and obstructionism in recent years that, in many respects, Access to Work is no longer fit for purpose”.

Asked why PHSO had concluded that DWP had “put things right” when there were still systemic problems with the scheme – the ombudsman is currently investigating four new complaints about AtW – a spokeswoman said: “Our report refers to specific cases. Unfortunately, we cannot comment on cases we haven’t investigated.

“But our report makes it absolutely clear that DWP should monitor the changes to make sure that the mistakes we identified aren’t repeated.”

The PHSO’s report admits that it “took too long to investigate these cases” and that the organisation “must reflect on our approach to these complaints and whether we could have done things differently”.

One of those who lodged a complaint with the ombudsman was disabled entrepreneur Jacqueline Winstanley, chief executive of the consultancy Universal Inclusion.

She has described how she experienced “complete mismanagement” and “bullying” by AtW.

Her problems began in the wake of cost-cutting reforms, when the system for administering AtW changed “beyond recognition” and became “fraught with difficulties” and subject to “unacceptable delays”.

She said the PHSO report “shines a light on a total disregard of the impact on disabled people who were current and prospective recipients of the AtW award both prior to and following the DWP decision to undertake a restructure which brought about a trail of destruction”.

Winstanley, who is not yet able to comment on the result of her own complaint to PHSO, as the report has still not been finalised, added: “The injustice experienced not only by myself but many other disabled people whose lives were devastated… must be avoided at all costs in the future.”

Philip Connolly, policy manager at Disability Rights UK, said: “Whilst the investigation was carried out some time ago, protestations from the DWP that things are much better now don’t cut the mustard.

“The ombudsman’s findings are a sad reflection of the calls and emails disability organisations continue to get from disabled people and the businesses that employ them.

“They complain about long delays, unanswered queries, being shunted from pillar to post and having awards cut or turned down.

“If the government is serious about closing the disability employment gap, and supporting disabled people who can and want to work into employment, it needs to do much more to resource and promote Access to Work.”

A DWP spokeswoman said: “We want more disabled people to get into employment and keep their jobs.

“The Access to Work grant can provide over £40,000 of practical support a year, which is tailored to individuals’ needs and can include travel to work, support workers and specialist equipment.

“We continuously review the scheme to make sure it’s working in the best way possible, and last year we launched a digital service to make the application process more accessible and efficient.

“Last year 25,000 people had their request approved by Access to Work, an increase of eight per cent from 2015-16.”

In the November 2015 spending review, the government pledged to increase the number of people the scheme helped by 25,000 a year by 2020, increasing spending by nearly a quarter.

But earlier this month, the government was accused of manipulating statistics in an attempt to hide the ongoing barriers, cuts and harassment experienced by AtW claimants, following the release of experimental figures which showed the number of disabled people approved every year for support from the programme had fallen by 15 per cent under seven years of Conservative rule.

The number of people who had Access to Work support approved in 2016-17 was nearly 2,000 higher than the previous year, but the figure for 2016-17 (23,630) was still more than 4,000 lower than in the final year of the last Labour government (27,760).

Critics said the way DWP was publishing AtW statistics made it impossible to know how many disabled people are currently receiving support compared with previous years, or how the average level of support packages has risen or fallen.

26 October 2017



Disabled MP’s offensive remarks ‘should end his political career’

A series of offensive remarks made by a disabled MP about other minority groups and women should end his political career, according to members of a disabled women’s collective.

Sisters of Frida was among disabled groups and activists who spoke to Disability News Service (DNS) this week following revelations that Labour’s Jared O’Mara, now aged 35, had posted a string of homophobic, misogynist and racist comments on websites when he was in his 20s.

The disabled MP was forced to resign from the Commons women and equalities committee after he apologised and admitted posting the comments, which had emerged through the political blog Guido Fawkes.

But new concerns then emerged about further offensive comments O’Mara was alleged to have made to a woman in a nightclub just seven months ago, comments he is reported to have denied making.

Labour subsequently suspended him from the party and launched an inquiry into that incident, which is also likely to investigate the historic online comments.

There has been little sympathy for O’Mara from prominent disabled campaigners this week.

Eleanor Lisney, one of the founders of the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida, said they believed that O’Mara’s political career should now be over, although it was “up to his constituents” to decide on his future.

But she added: “We don’t think he should be an MP if he has those kind of views.

“He should know from lived experience how it feels like to have those kind of remarks said about you.”

She said Sisters of Frida had ruled out any engagement with O’Mara, and added: “We don’t want to have anything to do with him.”

She said members of Sisters of Frida were “disappointed” and “really surprised” that O’Mara managed to become an MP after previously making such misogynist, racist and homophobic comments.

She said: “We can’t accept that kind of attitude. It’s not whether he said it 15 years ago or whether he said it now. It’s just not acceptable.”

Lisney said Sisters of Frida believed the claims made by the woman who said O’Mara had directed offensive remarks at her in a nightclub earlier this year.

And she said O’Mara had compounded the seriousness of those remarks by then calling the woman a liar.

Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, supported Labour’s decision to suspend O’Mara.

He said that, as a disabled person, O’Mara should have been more aware of other equality issues.

He said: “We must all remember that it wasn’t just a single throwaway remark or misguided joke.

“If negative comments had been made about him or disability by one of the groups he has demeaned there would have been an outcry from all of us.

“Seems we have someone who is only really sorry because they have been caught out. His suspension is absolutely justified.”

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, said: “Jared O’Mara is entitled to due process and a fair hearing.

“We will know after that whether he can be an important voice for disabled people in parliament.”

She added: “Diversity and inclusion should be part of all politicians’ core values. Politicians need to be sensitive to all groups in society. The key words are dignity and respect.

“All MPs need to get some good quality training which involves role play and self-assessment, not just a lecture.”

Rebecca Boot, a disabled Labour party member, told DNS: “Jared O’Mara said some inexcusable things, which no one should be defending.

“He says he no longer holds those views, but he needs to follow that up with substantive action.

“All minority communities have experienced people just paying lip service to ‘change’ and are rightly sceptical of that.

“O’Mara has been a good advocate for disabled people in parliament, highlighting the barriers in getting to elected office, issues with the practices of the House of Commons and the damage that austerity policies are inflicting on disabled people.

“If he can prove that he has changed, that he no longer holds the homophobic and misogynist views that he did as a 21-year-old, and if the latest allegations are false, then I would welcome his continued involvement in disability politics.

“However, we cannot throw women and LGBT+ people under the bus by allowing him to speak for disabled people if the pattern of his behaviour does not hold with his words.”

Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, told DNS on Tuesday: “Anybody that makes any derogatory and discriminatory remarks must be held to account.”

She said Labour was launching an investigation into the comments, but she added: “We must allow due process.”

The following day, a Labour party spokeswoman confirmed that the investigation had been prompted by the allegations concerning the remarks made seven months ago.

But she said it was likely that the investigation would also examine the historic comments he made on social media.

She confirmed that O’Mara had been suspended from the party but would still be expected to vote on party lines.

Earlier in the week, women and equalities minister Justine Greening said, in a letter to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: “Violent, sexist and homophobic language must have no place in our society, and parliamentarians of all parties have a duty to stamp out this sort of behaviour wherever we encounter it, and condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

She said the comments showed “the deep and persistent stain on Labour’s ability to represent women, the LGBT community and wider society”.

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable had called on Labour to withdraw the whip from O’Mara for his “completely unacceptable behaviour”.

He said: “People must have confidence that MPs will stand up against prejudice. As MPs we cannot let ourselves fall short of those standards, particularly in our dealings with the public.”

After the first – misogynistic – comments emerged, and he was forced to resign from the committee, O’Mara had released a statement saying that he was “deeply ashamed of the comments I made online” and that he understood “why they are offensive and sincerely apologise for my use of such unacceptable language”.

He said: “I made the comments as a young man, at a particularly difficult time in my life, but that is no excuse.”

He added: “Misogyny is a deep problem in our society. Since making those comments 15 years ago, I have learned about inequalities of power and how violent language perpetuates them.”

The allegations have emerged only months after O’Mara won a shock election victory over former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in the Sheffield Hallam seat.

There were hopes after his election that he would provide a strong new voice in parliament for disabled people.

He said he wanted to highlight the impact of austerity on disabled people, and said Tory ministers had “completely torn up the welfare system” which had supported disabled people.

He also accused the government of introducing policies inspired by “eugenics” in the hope that disabled people would “suffer and die”.

O’Mara later told DNS that he wanted to see the House of Commons draw up a policy on bullying and harassment by MPs to prevent the kind of behaviour he had witnessed since joining parliament.

And he said he wanted to “get some decorum and professionalism in the chamber and get it into the 21st century” and try to “make it a comfortable environment and make it an inclusive environment”.

*The idea that different forms of oppression can combine and overlap, for example with the discrimination experienced by black women, or by gay disabled men

26 October 2017



DWP agrees to test new approach in latest sign of softer approach to sanctions

Ministers are to test a new approach to dealing with claimants who breach strict benefit conditions for the first time, in the latest sign that the government is finally listening to calls to soften its much-criticised sanctions regime.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has agreed to trial handing out warnings instead of benefit sanctions when a claimant breaches the conditions imposed on them for the first time.

It is one of five recommendations made in February’s report by the public accounts committee (PAC) on benefits sanctions, all of which have been accepted by ministers, according to a document sent by the Treasury to the committee earlier this month.

It is the latest sign that years of campaigning by disabled activists and anti-austerity protesters aimed at raising awareness of the harshness of the sanctions regime might finally be paying off.

The decision to agree all five of the report’s recommendations comes only weeks after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities made sweeping criticisms of the UK government’s welfare reforms.

The UN committee called on the government to review “the conditionality and sanction regimes” linked to employment and support allowance, and “tackle the negative consequences on the mental health and situation” of disabled people.

Two weeks ago, Mordaunt said her department would shortly be making an announcement on the conditionality and sanctions regime as it affects people with mental health conditions.

And the new work and pensions secretary, David Gauke, admitted at his party’s annual conference earlier this month that the system of benefit sanctions often fails to work and can instead cause harm to claimants, particularly those with mental health conditions.

He promised then to try to find a way to make the sanctions system less damaging to people with mental health conditions.

The Treasury document says ministers have also agreed to monitor variations in the number of sanctions imposed by different jobcentres, after PAC warned that the department had “not analysed why some jobcentres use sanctions so much more than others”.

The report also warned that DWP failed to monitor how often “vulnerable” claimants – many of whom are disabled – receive the protection from the sanctions system that they should be given.

DWP said that it was not currently possible to “extract” data on how often these protections for vulnerable claimants were used, but that it would “explore the feasibility of building such capability” and report on progress in January.

Among the victims of the sanctions regime was David Clapson, who had diabetes, and died in July 2013 as a result of an acute lack of insulin, three weeks after having his jobseeker’s allowance sanctioned.

Because he had no money, he couldn’t afford to pay for electricity that would have kept the fridge where he kept his insulin working, in the height of summer, and he had also run out of food.

An autopsy held after his death found his stomach was empty, and the only food left in his flat in Stevenage was six tea bags, a tin of soup and an out-of-date can of sardines. He had just £3.44 left in his bank account.

But despite the circumstances of his death, and clear links with the sanctions system, no inquest was ever held, even though DWP admitted that it knew he was insulin-dependent.

PAC’s February report said that sanctions can often be imposed for honest mistakes, and that about a quarter of people on jobseeker’s allowance between 2010 and 2015 had at least one sanction imposed on them.

Suspending people’s benefits can lead to rent arrears and homelessness, the report added.

DWP has also agreed to try to improve its data systems to help it understand the impact of sanctions on claimants’ job prospects.

And it has promised to work with other government departments and local authorities to understand how sanctions affect the use of other services, such as foodbanks or debt advice charities.

It will also continue to monitor concerns raised by the committee that claimants who have been sanctioned are having their housing benefit stopped by mistake.

Anita Bellows, a researcher with Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “If there is any reason to be optimistic, it is because the narrative has changed through pressure and activism and there is now a public recognition that sanctions can be counter-productive and even harmful.”

She said ministers should stop all sanctions “while trying to understand their negative impact on claimants, but the government would never do that”.

She said that more information about how the system is working “can only be useful”, but she added: “However, some recommendations ​like a trial of warnings will be only implemented based on their feasibility and a change of legislation; others, like the improvement of data systems and better information on sanctions, were recommendations already made by the National Audit Office and UK Statistics Authority which had not been acted upon by DWP.”

She said it would be useful to know the reasons for the “huge variations” in sanctions between jobcentres, and how often DWP uses the protection for vulnerable claimants, even though “these protections are very limited and can never prevent a sanction”.

But she said the impact of the work the government has now agreed to carry out would “also depend on DWP willingness to look at the wider picture and consider the harm sanctions can do to individuals outside work parameters like earnings and the real costs born by other services once claimants are deprived of their income.”

Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser for Disability Rights UK, welcomed the government’s decision to accept all the committee’s recommendations, but he said that “without contesting the committee’s findings it is difficult to see how it could do anything else.

“At heart, what is needed is not ‘monitoring’ but the end of the use of sanctions.

“An earlier National Audit Office report highlighted that there is no evidence that sanctions are effective in incentivising disabled people to move into work.

“Impacts include losing vital income, disabled people – and their families – going without essentials, having to use foodbanks, depression and more.

“Benefit sanctions are not only harmful but in some cases even potentially lethal – with the tragic case of David Clapson being an example.

“Given the extra costs that disabled people already face in their day-to-day lives, sanctions are especially punitive.

“Disability Rights UK wants a system that genuinely supports the many disabled people who want to work to keep their job when they become disabled – and, for those out of work, to get into work, or set up their own business, with the tailored and flexible support they need to do so.

“Instead, people are subject to a regime that seems to be finding coercive ways to get people off benefits when their health or other critical factors clearly make this inappropriate.”

Asked if DWP’s decision to accept all five PAC recommendations, and other recent ministerial announcements, showed it was finally listening to criticism of the sanctions regime, a DWP spokesman said: “Sanctions are only used in a very small percentage of cases when people fail to meet their commitments without good cause.

“As with any part of our welfare system, we do regularly review policies to ensure they are suitable and conduct trials.

“Yes, we’re considering the feasibility of a trial of warnings and that’s public knowledge.

“As with the other PAC recommendations, we will report on progress relating to this trial in January 2018.”

26 October 2017



EHRC chair faces criticism from MPs over disabled commissioner’s boycott

The chair of the equality watchdog has faced criticism from MPs after admitting that a disabled commissioner appointed six months ago is still refusing to attend its board meetings.

Tory peer Lord [Kevin] Shinkwin has been boycotting meetings at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) since April because of its refusal to appoint him to the post of disability commissioner.

He is refusing to attend meetings until the commission reinstates that role, and allows him to chair its new disability advisory committee.

He had applied last year for the post of disability commissioner but was told months later – just 36 hours before his first board meeting – that the role had been made redundant and that he had instead been appointed as a general commissioner and would not lead on disability issues.

David Isaac, EHRC’s chair, told MPs on the Commons women and equalities committee yesterday (Wednesday) that Lord Shinkwin was still not attending board meetings, and that the continuing stand-off was having “an adverse impact on our ability to mainstream disability and to do our work in the disability arena”.

Isaac told the committee that EHRC did not believe there was a need for a disability commissioner because of the decision to “mainstream” disability into its work.

He admitted that some of the members of the commission’s disability committee – which was scrapped earlier this year – “initially were unhappy” with the decision to scrap the disability commissioner role.

But he said they had showed in subsequent meetings that they “understand the commission’s approach and they approve of mainstreaming”.

Isaac claimed that all those applying to be members of the commission’s new, non-statutory disability advisory committee had accepted the decision to scrap the role of disability commissioner.

He said: “We have now made people comfortable that disability is mainstreamed and there is no longer a disability commissioner.”

But Tory MP Philip Davies told him: “It is not unreasonable for somebody to apply for a position, to be appointed to it, and to expect that position to be in place.

“You apply for a particular post, you are appointed to a particular post, and then you are told subsequently that that post… doesn’t exist anymore.”

Isaac blamed the length of time between the interviews last December and the decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin in April, an appointment made by the minister.

During that gap of several months, the statutory disability committee had “expired” and the board had decided that the post of disability commissioner should also be scrapped.

But the Conservative chair of the committee, Maria Miller, said it was “extraordinary” that the potential candidates for the post – including Lord Shinkwin – had not been told the role had changed since they applied for it.

She said: “There would be very few people who would not find that somewhat odd.”

She added later: “Why is your process so lacking in transparency?”

And she said: “I think the world will take a view on the fact that the EHRC has decided to abolish the role of a disability commissioner in a way which is clearly out of step with the disability committee.”

Davies said it was “quite clear” from minutes of a meeting on 27 March – which Isaac attended – that Greening had been appointing Lord Shinkwin to be the disability commissioner and not just a general commissioner.

But Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, said it was “a matter of fact” that Greening had appointed him as a general commissioner and not a disability commissioner.

Isaac said he had done “everything I reasonably can” to negotiate a solution with Lord Shinkwin, including making approaches to Greening, the Government Equalities Office, and Tory peers.

He said: “I am keen to talk to him and would ask him to abandon the conditions he has attached to engagement.”

When Miller said she was “hugely disappointed” that the commission had still not found a solution, Isaac promised to contact Lord Shinkwin again, but he added: “I am very, very keen that he takes up his position as commissioner, but you can only be involved in dialogue if both parties agree to discuss the matter with each other.

“I believe we have done all we reasonably can to ensure that that dialogue happens.”

Lord Shinkwin told DNS in August that he would continue to boycott board meetings until the post of disability commissioner was reinstated.

He said in August: “My understanding from what I have been told is that I have to accept the abolition of the disability commissioner post and that I will not be chairing the disability advisory committee. I cannot accept either of those.

“I think it is absolutely essential that disabled people have a very strong voice as disabled people.

“We have equality needs the other protected characteristic groups do not have, and they need to be championed.”

26 October 2017



Ground-breaking study shows care barriers faced by LGBTQI+ disabled people

More than a third of LGBTQI+ disabled people have experienced discrimination or received poor treatment from their personal assistants (PA) because of their sexual identity or gender identity, according to ground-breaking new research.

Researchers also found that many LGBTQI+* disabled people who recruit their own PAs had not come out to their personal assistants because they feared discrimination.

The research, co-produced by the LGBTQI+ disabled people’s organisation Regard, included a survey of more than 50 LGBTQI+ disabled people in England who control their own support packages, as well as 20 in-depth interviews.

More than half of those surveyed said they never or only sometimes disclosed their sexual orientation or gender identity to their PAs.

Almost a third said they felt they had been discriminated against by their local authority on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

And more than 90 per cent said their needs as an LGBTQI+ disabled person were either not considered or were only given some consideration, when they were assessed or reviewed by their local authority.

More than one in five said their PA did not support them to do “LGBTQI+ things”, like visiting an event or maintaining a relationship.

The research was carried out by the University of Bristol, Regard, the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) and the LGBT charity Stonewall, and funded by the National Institute for Health Research’s School for Social Care Research.

One of the disabled people interviewed, who lives alone in his own flat, told researchers that he had a “secret cupboard where I put all my gay stuff” to avoid outing himself to his PA.

He said he would love to put a rainbow flag on his wall, but added: “I can’t, I just can’t.”

Another, who had not come out to his family, came out instead to his support worker, who promptly went downstairs and told his mother.

He told researchers: “She was crying. She said to me, ‘Is this true?’ So I had to lie to my mum and say, ‘I’m not gay.’”

Interviewees also provided examples of the benefits of controlling their own support.

One said: “You have different people all the time, you’ve got strangers coming into your house.

“I wanted to be able to choose. It’s transformative if you get the right person.”

Dr Ju Gosling, co-chair of Regard, said: “This is the most significant piece of research about LGBTQI+ disabled people’s use of self-directed social care ever to be published.

“We finally have evidence about the barriers which LGBTQI+ disabled people face in applying for and managing social care support, and about the positive impact on their lives that good quality self-directed support can make.”

She said the research was “particularly significant” because the findings would reach researchers, policy-makers and social care workers, as well as disabled people and the LGBTQI+ community.

She added: “There are also films and printed briefings for disabled people and the PAs who provide their support, aimed at increasing confidence and improving practice.”

Professor David Abbott, professor of social policy at the University of Bristol’s School for Policy Studies, said: “Self-directed social care support continues to provide opportunities for LGBTQI+ disabled people to exercise choice and control over the support that they get.

“When support from PAs really meets the needs of LGBTQI+ disabled people, people in our study talked about the positive impact on identity, inclusion and belonging.

“But our collaborative research also highlights the barriers that people faced and the lack of routine attention being paid to their human and legal rights.”

*People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex or who hold identities such as non-binary

26 October 2017



Five Premier League clubs ‘have let disabled fans down’ over access

Five Premier League football clubs have let their disabled fans down by failing to meet a pledge on access standards by this autumn, say campaigners.

The Premier League promised two years ago that all its clubs would by this August meet the standards of the 2003 Accessible Stadia guide, including providing a minimum proportion of spaces for wheelchair-users.

That pledge had followed a series of embarrassing media reports into the discrimination faced by disabled supporters at some Premier League grounds.

Two years on, the Premier League has now published a progress report, which reveals that the total number of wheelchair spaces at the 16 clubs that have had a constant presence in the Premier League in the last two years has increased by about 50 per cent, or more than 1,000.

And all but two clubs in this season’s Premier League now have Changing Places toilet facilities – compared with just two in 2015 – with the other two set to build them this season.

The Premier League said the improvements made in the last two years were “unprecedented in any other sport or entertainment sector”.

But the report also says that four of the 16 clubs – Chelsea, Everton, Watford and Crystal Palace – have failed to meet the target for wheelchair spaces.

The Premier League report says Chelsea is planning a major development, and claims work on the current stadium to provide further spaces in the meantime would be “disruptive”, although it is “exploring” the potential to extend provision.

Everton has added more than 50 spaces but blames the age and complexity of the ground, a similar situation to Crystal Palace, which has more than doubled its number of wheelchair spaces.

And Watford, which also more than doubled its spaces, says it does not currently fill all its existing wheelchair bays and will move towards the minimum standard as demand grows.

Another club, Manchester United, only meets the minimum standards for lower-profile games, and is phasing in the use of further permanent wheelchair spaces over the next few years “to reduce disruption to other fans”.

Tony Taylor, chair of Level Playing Field (LPF), which represents disabled sports fans, said his organisation was “disappointed” that these five clubs had not met the pledge and had “let their disabled fans down”, even if Manchester United was claiming it was “technically compliant”, which he said was “a bit of a dubious statement”.

He pointed to the example set by West Brom, which had made “remarkable progress” to improve access at one of England’s oldest grounds, meeting the minimum standards on wheelchair spaces, and installing easy access and amenity seats, and providing additional accessible toilets, a “state of the art” Changing Places facility, a sensory room, accessible refreshment areas and new signage.

He said this had happened because “the impetus has come right from the very top of the organisation”.

He said Premier League clubs were some of the wealthiest organisations in the country, and that “if the commitment is there it can be achieved”.

Taylor said LPF was now seeking “urgent assurances” from the Premier League over how long its clubs would be given to meet their obligations, that “this subject is not just going to be put away into the filing cabinet and forgotten about”, and that it “keeps the pressure on”.

He said: “The reality is that all clubs should really be at the stage now where they are saying, ‘We are all compliant, end of story.’ That clearly is not the case.

“There’s got to be a determined effort to make sure clubs do become compliant, and quickly.”

He also said that LPF was not “100 per cent sure” that all the figures published by the Premier League were accurate, and it was now going through the report “with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that everybody who’s claiming to be compliant actually is”.

But he said there had been “a considerable amount of progress” and the issue was now “firmly on the agenda” with the Premier League, and that there was “a lot of good news” in the improvements that had been made.

He said that as well as an increase in wheelchair spaces, there were now more sensory rooms at clubs, more Changing Places toilets, more audio-described commentary, and more easy access and amenity seats for fans who need more space but do not use wheelchairs.

And he said LPF wanted to be sure “that that message doesn’t just stop at the Premier League” and is heard in the Championship (the second tier of English football) and the English Football League (the third and fourth tiers).

Bill Bush, executive director of the Premier League, said: “The scale and scope of what has been undertaken across the Premier League is unprecedented in any other sport or entertainment sector.

“For clubs to have delivered more than 1,000 new wheelchair bays for fans, and the widespread installation of Changing Places facilities, show how seriously they have taken this commitment.

“The two-year period to complete the work was a deliberately challenging target.

“Some clubs, particularly those with very old stadiums, have found significant built-environment challenges.

“For those clubs, money has not been the determining factor but disruption to fans and matchday operations means more time is required.”

Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has not yet ruled out legal action against some clubs.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, said: “Today’s report from the Premier League is a step in the right direction, but it is clear that some clubs still have a way to go to meet the needs of disabled supporters.

“We have met with every single Premier League club and are now in the final stages of discussions to agree on specific action they will need to take to avoid facing legal action.”

Tracey Crouch, the minister for sport, said: “I welcome the work that Premier League clubs have done and are doing to meet their legal obligations to disabled spectators and the commitment from the Premier League to keep their clubs focussed on these requirements.

“Football is rightly stepping up to fulfil these obligations.

“I expect all sports and all clubs to take the necessary action to fulfil their legal obligations under the Equality Act of 2010 so that disabled people are not placed at a substantial disadvantage when accessing sports venues.”

26 October 2017


News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com