‘Grave concern’ over coroner’s refusal to hold inquest into Maximus WRAG death

A coroner has refused to hold an inquest into the death of a disabled man who had a fatal heart attack an hour after being told the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was threatening to stop his benefits.

Alan McArdle, who had previously been homeless but was living in council accommodation in Slough, Berkshire, told the friend who had read the DWP letter to him: “They’ve sanctioned my money,” before he collapsed.

The discredited government contractor Maximus had reported him to DWP for failing to attend appointments intended to move him towards work, as part of the Work Programme, despite being told about his severe ill-health.

Despite his deteriorating health – he had alcoholism, a serious heart condition and diabetes – he had been placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of employment and support allowance (ESA), designed for those found “fit” enough to carry out some work-related activity, but not yet well enough for a job.

McArdle had attended the first couple of Work Programme appointments in the Maximus offices with the support of a local charity, but his health and mobility had continued to deteriorate.

The impact of the diabetes meant he had no feeling in his arms and legs, and could hardly move.

After a fall, he had to be admitted to hospital, and asked a manager at the charity to explain to Maximus why he had not been in touch.

But when she called Maximus, she was told: “He hasn’t come in, so we will get him sanctioned.”

He had just come out of hospital when the letter from DWP arrived on 29 August last year.

McArdle was with a carer, who read the letter to him. It is believed the letter stated that he needed to provide evidence to DWP to prevent his benefits being sanctioned.

When it was read to him, he apparently went “a deathly grey colour”, complained about pains, and collapsed. Within an hour, he was dead.

McArdle’s death was first reported by Disability News Service (DNS) last November.

But despite the apparent role of both Maximus and DWP in his death, a senior coroner has decided that it is not necessary to hold an inquest.

A spokeswoman for Peter Bedford, the senior coroner for Berkshire, told DNS this week that he was satisfied that McArdle’s death was due to natural causes “and therefore an inquest would not be deemed necessary”.

The spokeswoman said Bedford had stated that because McArdle had “quite severe heart disease” it would be “impossible to prove” any direct causal link between his death and the actions of Maximus and DWP.

But Dr Stephen Carty, medical adviser to the grassroots campaign group Black Triangle, who works as a GP in Leith, on the edge of Edinburgh, said the coroner’s decision was “completely unacceptable” and “a matter of grave concern”.

He said: “We completely refute the coroner’s opinion that it would be impossible to prove any direct causal link.

“Emotional stress is a trigger in sudden cardiac death. Just as heavy physical activity can trigger a sudden cardiac event, so too can emotional stress. This is not folklore, it is fact.”

He said there had been many studies “of a very high standard” in peer-reviewed journals, which had produced a consensus that “between 20 and 40 per cent of sudden cardiac deaths are precipitated by acute emotional stressors”.

He added: “The decision made by the Department for Work and Pensions to threaten Mr McArdle with a benefit sanction when they were fully aware of his severe heart disease is appalling.

“Subjecting patients such as Mr McArdle to extreme emotional distress such as this presents a substantial risk, one which in our opinion led to a sudden cardiac death.

“This could and should have been anticipated and in our opinion was avoidable.”

He added: “It is completely unacceptable for the coroner to fail to recognise the gravity of this case.”

Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the national user-led network Shaping Our Lives, said: “Causation is one of the most difficult things to prove scientifically.

“But in a case like this where welfare reform practice and the death of a claimant come so close together, trying to deny the possibility of official responsibility and then going on to deny a proper investigation, leaves us without any kind of proper accountability in the system.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “This is yet another example of the life-threatening nature of some people’s impairments being totally disregarded by Maximus who literally, regardless of what the coroner has said, hounded Alan McArdle to death.

“Their share prices are already slumping and their chief executive officer, Richard Montoni, and president, Bruce Caswell, continue to offload their shares month by month, so activists must continue to expose Maximus and make both the work capability assessments [another of their DWP contracts] and their other dubious activities unprofitable to drive them out of business.”

John McArdle (no relation to Alan McArdle), co-founder of Black Triangle, said: “There is no point doctors and nurses flogging their guts out to keep people alive when on a social level people are just thrown to the wolves.”

He said the coroner’s decision showed that lessons were not being learned “because no-one is ever brought to account”.

He added: “It is disgraceful the amount of deaths in this country without an inquest or a Prevention of Future Deaths report. It makes you question what the coroners are there for.”

Disabled activist Rick Burgess said the case highlighted the difficulty of holding DWP to account over such deaths.

He said: “As long as a proper metric for deaths due to policy cannot be determined then policy can continue to be harmful; there just is no proper feedback system to connect actions to consequences.”

He pointed to an interview in the Guardian with the soon-to-retire chief coroner Peter Thornton, who said there were about 530,000 deaths reported by doctors last year, but only about 45 per cent were reported to coroners, in what was a “slightly chaotic” system.

Burgess said: “To expect the coroner system to provide [the connection between actions and consequences] simply denies the reality of a ‘chaotic’ system that is not designed or currently tasked to provide that feedback, quite apart from questions of willingness of coroners to stand up to an abusive government.

“That government seems happy with this state of affairs does suggest culpability in democide. States rarely contemporaneously provide evidence of their own wrongdoing.”

WOWpetition campaigner Michelle Maher pointed to deaths that continued to be caused by the hardship and stress associated with sanctions and failed ESA and personal independence payment assessments.

She said: “We are caught in a system of targets they deny, while Maximus collects millions in taxpayers’ money and is unaccountable for its failures in assessing sick and disabled people, while its failures are not even mentioned by coroners.”

She warned that this gave DWP and Maximus “carte blanche to continue ignoring their part in [Alan McArdle’s] death”.

Maher added: “Maximus and the DWP not being held to account fails Alan and every sick and disabled person in the UK.”

Pat Onions, co-founder of Pat’s Petition, said: “So many sick and disabled people will know that feeling of dread when the brown envelope from the DWP arrives.

“People who used to enjoy receiving post now fear it. Asking for an inquest will make complete sense to them.”

DNS asked DWP and Maximus if they had any further information about the circumstances surrounding Alan McArdle’s death, but neither had responded by 11am today (Thursday).

Last year, DWP claimed that it was “misleading to link a death to someone’s benefit claim”, and added: “We write to all claimants who have not engaged with our support, asking them to get in touch and explain why.

“This is so they won’t face a sanction if they had a good reason.”

Maximus said last year that participation in the Work Programme was “mandatory for people in the WRAG who are in receipt of ESA” and that it made “strenuous efforts to inform participants about their obligations and contact them if they fail to show up for arranged meetings”.

27 October 2016

 

 

Care watchdog ‘fails to follow up on coroners’ death warnings’

The care watchdog is failing to order urgent inspections of care homes, despite coroners warning that urgent action must be taken to prevent further deaths of the disabled and older people who live there, an NHS whistleblower has found.

Coroners publish Prevention of Future Deaths (PFD) reports after holding inquests in which they have concluded that organisations – such as residential and nursing homes – or individuals need to change procedures or policies to prevent further similar deaths.

Concerns were first raised by The Independent in September 2015, which revealed that in more than half of the more than 20 cases in which coroners had written PFD reports following deaths in care homes, those reports had failed to trigger Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspections.

But Dr Minh Alexander, an NHS whistleblower and former consultant psychiatrist, has updated that research and says her findings show that CQC is still failing to act on PFD reports, despite it promising last year that it would improve.

David Behan, CQC’s chief executive, said last year that he was “not going to defend the indefensible” and that the commission had “more to do” in responding to PFD reports, while promising that any concerns raised in PFDs would in future be “effectively logged, analysed, managed and reviewed”.

But Alexander has looked at 66 PFD reports on care home deaths since July 2013 and says they show that CQ is still failing to act.

She says that CQC has failed to inspect 18 of those homes after the reports were published.

Among concerns raised by the coroners were poor training, insufficient staffing, people being placed in homes that were incapable of meeting their complex needs, and safeguarding failures.

For homes that were eventually inspected by CQC following a PFD report, it often took more than a year for those inspections to take place, and in one case more than two years.

The commission appears to have taken more than a year to inspect a care home after a PFD report in 10 cases, and in another 10 is still yet to carry out an inspection more than a year after the PFD report was published.

Even in those cases where inspections did take place after a death, but before a PFD report was written – with CQC acting before it was notified of concerns by a coroner – there were still many lengthy delays, says Alexander.

Of the more than 50 care homes inspected following deaths that led to a coroner’s PFD report, it took an average of seven months before the watchdog carried out an inspection, says Alexander.

Most inspection reports failed to even mention the deaths or the PFD reports, she said.

Alexander told Disability News Service (DNS) that she believed the commission was contributing to suppressing the truth about the state of public services.

She said: “As I see it, the CQC is a political device to allow Department of Health deniability, and for selling a political story of tough regulation and government action on care quality, whilst hiding the truth about the destruction of public services.”

She added: “It seems to me that after last year’s embarrassment, CQC improved a bit in its handling of new coroners’ warnings (but was still a bit slow and variable) but it didn’t bother to check and act on the older cases that had been neglected.

“It’s a fly-by-night operation that concentrates on how it looks, and doesn’t bother too much if it thinks no-one can see.”

She said the CQC’s “floundering” response to her concerns – after they were forwarded to the commission’s press office by DNS – suggested that it was not familiar with the data and “has not kept its promise a year ago to proactively collate, track and analyse coroners’ warnings”.

She said: “The continued variability in intervals between PFDs and subsequent inspections also suggests CQC still does not effectively coordinate its responses to coroners’ intelligence.

“This is two years after it claimed it had arranged to receive all coroners’ reports from health and care settings.”

Alexander added: “The CQC often tries to wriggle out of hot water by saying that it is ‘learning by doing’, etc, but it is a multi-million pound business from which we should reasonably expect more professionalism.”

She has now written to both the Commons health and public accounts select committees, with details of her research, hoping that MPs will hold the watchdog to account when they next question its senior figures.

In her email, she criticised CQC’s “seven years of failure” since its launch in 2009, and said that its approach “does not work, is not safe and is poor value for money”.

When asked to comment on Dr Alexander’s figures, the commission released the following statement from its chief inspector of adult social care, Andrea Sutcliffe, who said: “The Care Quality Commission is committed to using information from coroners to support our work in making sure health and social care services provide people with safe, effective, compassionate and high-quality care and holding providers appropriately to account.

“We have previously acknowledged that our handling of reports from coroners has not been sufficiently effective which is why we carried out an internal review in 2014, introduced new procedures in 2015 and established a formal agreement with the Coroner’s Society in November 2015.

“I believe that we are now much better at making the right decisions at the right time so we respond to risks robustly and in a timely fashion.

“In particular, I do not expect inspectors to wait for risks to be identified at inquests, which may happen some time after the death of somebody using a service, but to respond proactively and appropriately when we are first notified.

“Our response may include an inspection, but it may also include following up on action we have already required the provider to take.

“We are also looking to improve our own practice, for example, we are planning to introduce standard wording in our reports to outline the reason for the inspection, including when this is in response to information from the coroner.

“Everyone using care services deserves to experience great care and to know they are safe. As the regulator we are determined to do our part to make this a reality.”

27 October 2016

 

 

Professors’ silence after DWP waters down their guidance on preventing WCA suicides

A leading psychiatrist who helped the government draft guidance that protected mental health service-users who were threatened with forced work has refused to criticise major changes to the guidelines that have risked the lives of thousands of benefit claimants.

Disability News Service (DNS) reported last month that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had secretly made major changes that watered-down guidance given to “fitness for work” benefits assessors, and then “lied” about what it had done.

Ministers appear to have decided that it was worth risking the loss of some lives in order to cut benefits spending and force more disabled people into their discredited back-to-work programmes.

The guidance explains how assessors should translate employment and support allowance (ESA) regulations 29 and 35, which concern whether decisions to find someone fit for work or able to carry out work-related activity would cause a substantial risk of harm to an ESA claimant.

A DWP response to a freedom of information request, obtained by DNS this week, shows that new guidance was sent out to healthcare assessors working for the discredited US outsourcing giant Maximus in early December last year.

The month after the new guidance was sent out, the proportion of claimants placed in the support group of ESA – and therefore not forced to take part in work-related activity – began to fall sharply.

For claims completed in December 2015, 56 per cent were placed in the support group; the following month that fell to 48 per cent, and then to 33 per cent in February, and 33 per cent again in March.

The previous version of the guidance, published as DWP’s Work Capability Assessment Handbook in February 2015, included six indicators of “substantial risk”, which were marked “D” for “definitive” – including someone who was currently sectioned, who had active thoughts of suicide, or had had a documented episode of self-harm requiring medical attention in the last 12 months – to show that that person should be placed in the ESA support group.

But the latest edition of the guidance says only that such indicators “might” give rise to a substantial risk in “exceptional circumstances”.

The new version of the handbook also tells assessors that they should consider factors that might “mitigate” the chance that someone could harm themselves or others, including “the benefits of employment weighed against any potential risk”.

The previous version of the guidance was written by DWP with “external input” from Professor Peter White, a consultant psychiatrist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, and Professor Keith Hawton, director of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Suicide Research.

But their names do not appear in the new, watered-down guidance.

White has refused to comment on the new guidance, and the risks that it might pose to people in severe mental distress, and instead referred DNS to a named DWP press officer.

A DWP spokeswoman said later that White “was involved in early discussions about the revised guidance but neither he, nor Hawton, played any subsequent role in its drafting or sign off”.

DNS has been unable to contact Hawton directly, although messages have been left with his personal assistant and via email.

The DWP spokeswoman added: “We in no way asked either Professor Hawton or Professor White not to comment on the new guidance.

“It is for them to decide on whether they wish to engage with media.”

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said he found their silence to be “inexplicable” and “deeply alarming”.

He said: “In the case of Professor Hawton, he is a world-leading expert in suicide prevention and one would have expected him to have something to say about the change in this guidance which will irrefutably lead to an increase in the suicide rate among claimants.

“Both professors have a duty to speak out.”

McArdle said the new guidance was giving assessors “permission to refuse benefits to people who have exhibited suicidal ideation in terms of regulations 29 and 35, and we believe that is unlawful and not human rights-compliant”.

In April, DNS obtained a DWP document which suggested amending or removing regulations 29 and 35 as one of several policy proposals, and said that such a move would provide substantial savings.

But the memo – drawn up before the 2015 election, and to be used if the Conservatives triumphed at the polls – warned that previous attempts to remove the regulations had been defeated in the courts, and that any changes in this area “carry a significant handling and delivery risk” because they would be “perceived as restricting application of the safeguards and may be considered discriminatory”.

DWP’s press office have insisted that these “speculative policy formulations” were drafted by staff before the last election and “have not been raised, do not represent government policy and have never been sent to ministers”.

But comparing the latest handbook with the version issued before the 2015 election shows the regulations were amended, although by changing the guidance rather than the rules themselves.

DWP had failed to comment by 11am today (Thursday) on whether the new guidance was the reason for the fall in the proportion of claimants placed in the support group, and how it justified watering down the guidance when it was designed to stop people self-harming and taking their own lives.

27 October 2016

 

 

DWP forced to release reports revealing its secret thoughts on the media

Documents the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) tried to keep hidden for more than a year have revealed some of the tactics civil servants have used to manipulate media coverage on welfare reform.

The “DWP media evaluation” reports have been produced by a member of the department’s communications team nearly every month since March 2014, and analyse mainstream and social media coverage of DWP issues.

But DWP has repeatedly refused to release the reports – arguing that they were “commercially sensitive” – since Disability News Service (DNS) first asked to see them through a freedom of information request in September 2015.

It took a complaint by DNS to the Information Commissioner’s Office for DWP to agree finally to release the reports, more than 13 months later.

The documents detail how the DWP press office has tried to reduce negative media coverage, revealing that it successfully “dampened interest” in a report on benefit sanctions by the Commons work and pensions select committee in March 2015, resulting in “a smaller spike in coverage than previous critical reports”.

The committee’s March 2015 report had called on the government to set up a new independent body – modelled on the police complaints watchdog – to investigate the deaths of benefit claimants, and called for an independent inquiry to investigate whether benefit sanctions were being applied “appropriately, fairly and proportionately”.

Three months later, the June 2015 media evaluation report bragged how the press office was able to secure a “favourable article” about its much-criticised Disability Confident campaign and the “importance of the vast array of disability reforms” from the “typically unsupportive” Guardian, by offering some “exclusive words from the Minister for Disabled People”.

The following month, the evaluation report revealed how the press office had managed to secure a slight majority of positive coverage, “despite national figures showing an overall rise in unemployment for the first time in two years”, by arranging “a push on regional media interviews with local Jobcentre Plus spokespeople”.

Among the information contained in the reports is the number of stories DWP press officers have managed to “spike” – or persuade journalists not to publish – with the March 2014 report showing they succeeded in killing 44 stories in the previous month.

In August 2015, in a section titled “crisis communications”, the author of the report details how the press office approached two “negative” stories: the publication of long-awaited statistics on the deaths of benefit claimants, and the revelation that DWP had used made-up quotations from fictitious people taking about how they had been helped by the benefits system.

The evaluation report said the death statistics release had “required careful handling”, and it described how its press officers had “proactively briefed broadcasters and newspapers” and “spiked coverage in the Guardian, in the FT, Express and ITV”, while its “rapid press rebuttals got corrections in both the Guardian and Daily Mirror, changing the most negative terms”.

But the report admitted that there had been 57,000 mentions of the hashtag #fakeDWPstories on Twitter during August 2015.

After an initial “spike of activity”, the hashtag began to accompany subsequent, unrelated DWP announcements, forcing the department to scale back all of its social media activity to “ensure the story was contained”.

The reports also confirm what most disabled activists will have assumed, that DWP’s press office considers the Daily Mail and the Sun newspapers to be “supportive” of its work, while the Guardian is seen as “typically unsupportive”.

There are also suggestions that the press office’s efforts on social media to promote its “crackdown on benefit fraud” have not always proved successful, with the admission in the October 2014 report that three message sent out on the social media site Twitter had been retweeted (or shared) just 18 times, even though DWP had nearly 85,000 followers.

Although the reports are tilted heavily towards celebrating any DWP communications successes, there is also evidence of the success of disabled people’s opposition to the government’s welfare reforms.

A “word cloud” (an image showing how often various words and phrases are used, with the size of those words of phrases demonstrating their frequency) of Twitter messages sent to @DWPpressoffice in the month leading up to the November 2014 report showed that – apart from “work and pensions”, “DWP” and “IDS” – the words and phrases used most often were “Mylegalforum”, “disabled people”, “ColdWeatherPayments” and “WOWpetition”.

Both the My Legal forum and WOWpetition have been closely associated with highlighting the unfairness of the government’s welfare reforms.

Disabled activist David Gillon said the evaluation reports revealed the “tawdry, Yes Minister-ish world of the DWP press office, where all that matters is the suppression of any story that might cast DWP in a bad light, no matter where the public interest may lie”.

He said: “The numbers of stories the press office has caused to be spiked, often more than one a day, is even reported as a performance metric.

“We also see the DWP proactively trying to limit the reporting of critical reports from parliament, and working flat out to secure corrections to critical personal independence payment stories, a fascinating contrast to the usual grossly-delayed ‘DWP are unable to comment on individual cases’.

“And if the news is bad enough, as with the 57,000 #FakeDWPStories tweets, the DWP turtle will even pull its head into its shell and retreat from social media entirely. It appears that even DWP recognises it remains a toxic brand.

“Meanwhile, it is headline news that an op-ed piece in the Huffington Post by the minister for disabled people was retweeted a whole 89 times.

“That’s the kind of success criteria that can only be branded Disability Confident!”

27 October 2016

 

 

Labour admits ‘confusion’… but still no shadow minister for disabled people

Labour has admitted that it has still not appointed a shadow minister for disabled people, nearly three weeks after party leader Jeremy Corbyn completed a reshuffle of his top parliamentary team.

There has now not been a Labour shadow minister to hold the government to account on disability issues since the promotion of Debbie Abrahams to shadow work and pensions secretary in July, more than three months ago.

Two weeks ago, on 12 October, a party spokesperson told Disability News Service (DNS) that the process for appointing a new shadow disability minister was “ongoing”.

But that process appears to have dissolved into confusion.

Corbyn’s official spokesman originally told DNS this week that there was to be no shadow disability minister, and that “the relevant Shadow Minister for Equalities is Paula Sheriff”.

When DNS asked why the party had decided it no longer needed a shadow minister for disabled people, he said he had made a mistake, and that “whilst it does come under Paula Sheriff’s Equalities brief, the designated Shadow Minister for Disabled People is Margaret Greenwood”, as part of the team under shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams.

He said this appointment had been made on the evening of 9 October.

When DNS said the party had claimed on 12 October that the process of appointing a shadow disability minister was “ongoing”, he said: “Roles have been more clearly assigned since the 12th, apologies for the confusion.”

After DNS then asked when exactly Greenwood had been handed the post – there appeared to be no mention of the appointment on her Twitter or Facebook pages, or the Labour party’s website, or her own website, which described her as shadow employment minister – he admitted that he had made another mistake.

He said that his “understanding” instead was that Abrahams was “going to be appointing more people to the DWP team and she’s going to create a shadow minister for disabilities”.

He said Greenwood was not the new shadow disability minister, and that there had been “a bit of confusion”.

He added: “Sometimes these things take time. I am sorry there has not been an appointment yet but there absolutely will be.

“The discussions are ongoing at the moment. That post will definitely be filled.”

Asked why the process had taken so long, he said: “That’s a question for Debbie. It’s obviously Debbie’s team. Maybe she’s looking for the right person for the job.”

He said any appointment had to be agreed between Corbyn, as party leader, and Abrahams, as shadow secretary of state.

He promised (on Monday evening) to ask Abrahams why it had taken so long to make the appointment.

By 11am today (Thursday), he had failed to respond to messages requesting an answer to that question.

This morning, Abrahams released a statement to DNS which made no mention of the failure to appoint a shadow minister for disabled people.

She said: “The work I started as shadow minister for disabled people is very important to me, so I will continue to lead on the portfolio and build on the work and relationships I’ve established with disabled people, and their organisations, over the last six years.”

She added: “I’m pleased to be able to announce the formal launch of my Disability Equality Roadshow in November in Manchester which will ensure the views and experiences of disabled people are at centre of Labour’s policy making, as we look to transform social security to a holistic, person-centred system.

“Fundamentally it’s about changing the culture of the system, how it’s delivered, performance managed and perceived.”

27 October 2016

 

 

MPs hear of affordable, accessible housing drought and ‘decimation’ of access groups

MPs have heard evidence from two leading disabled campaigners about the shortage of affordable, accessible housing across the country.

Zara Todd, chair of Inclusion London, and Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), were giving evidence to the women and equalities committee for its inquiry into disability and the built environment.

Bott told the committee that DR UK had heard from one disabled man who had to crawl up the stairs of his rented property to get to his bathroom and bedroom.

After years of waiting on his local housing trust’s list for an accessible property, he was told he was no longer eligible to be on that list because of a rule change.

Bott said the trust was having to cope with the “squeeze” on accessible one-bedroom properties caused by disabled people having to downsize because of the government’s bedroom tax.

Todd, who also works for the Norfolk disabled people’s organisation (DPO) Equal Lives, said she had contacted 22 letting agents in the county when looking for an accessible flat to rent, but had been shown details for just two properties that were step-free.

Neither of them was completely accessible to her, so she had to settle for a property that was partly inaccessible.

Because of the shortage of affordable, accessible rented properties, she and other disabled people are being told to join council housing waiting lists, even though they can afford to rent privately, she said.

Todd told the committee that when she bought an accessible flat in London, she was told by the developer that she was the first disabled person to have been able to afford to buy one of the many accessible properties it had built.

She said: “If it isn’t financially accessible [to disabled people] then it isn’t in reality accessible.

“While there might be an increase in accessible housing [in London] in terms of it physically existing, that doesn’t mean that disabled people can afford to live there.”

Even though the flat she bought is accessible – now the developers have lowered the inaccessible threshold to her new home – she is still unable to visit other floors of the affordable housing scheme because the thresholds to other flats are too high for her power-chair.

She said: “Accommodation has come out as one of the biggest issues [following consultations by Equal Lives and Inclusion London] in Norfolk and London.

“Disabled people are having to wait a very long time for accessible social housing.”

Both Bott and Todd also told the committee of their concerns about the impact on disabled people of the fall in the number of local council access officers and local access groups.

Todd said there had been a “decimation” of the number of access groups and access officers employed by local authorities in London over the last 15 years, although they still existed in Norfolk.

This meant that disabled people in Norfolk were much more likely than those in London to be involved in issues around planning, adaptations and enforcing building regulations.

She said: “If you involve disabled people throughout the process it means that a lot of these issues can be caught much earlier on and it means that the accessibility of the built environment reflects the needs of those who are using it.”

She also highlighted the importance of those local access groups being supported by larger DPOs, as they are in Norfolk by Equal Lives, but pointed out that not all areas have strong DPOs because of the “challenging” funding environment.

Bott praised a new building at Cambridge University’s Robinson College, which she said was “a superb, accessible building” which was “an absolute joy to go to”.

But she said: “The difference there is Cambridge City Council is one of the few local authorities that still has an access officer and still funds a local, active access group of disabled people, so there are plenty of disabled people on hand to advise, and the result is a beautiful building.”

Both Todd and Bott agreed with the committee that an “evidence base” on the state of access to the built environment across the country would be useful.

Todd said the “true scale” of access problems was not being seen because disabled people need to go through the legal system to secure access improvements from service-providers, and that was “something that not all disabled people have the time or capacity to actually do”.

27 October 2016

 

 

Baroness Campbell vows to fight on over access to buses

A disabled peer has vowed to fight on after the government rejected her proposal to introduce a new law that would force bus companies to protect the interests of disabled passengers.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell had suggested an amendment to the government’s bus services bill that would have forced operators to publish policies on access for disabled people and “actively help them to use bus services”.

She said government plans to just publish new guidance were not good enough and would “never deliver the result that we need – that is, full, guaranteed access for disabled people”.

Baroness Campbell – whose amendment was backed by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats– said: “Guidance without statutory backing or any enforcement behind it can be ignored with impunity – and, let us face it, we have plenty of experience of public services doing just that.

“Guidance is fine, but we know that it can be left on the shelf and ignored. People may start with good intentions but, in reality, other priorities invariably get in the way.”

But Lord Ahmad, a junior transport minister, said the government did not want to “create a disproportionate bureaucracy or imperil the sustainability of marginal bus routes”.

Instead, he said, it would rely on guidance which would state that transport authorities would be expected to publish statements describing “the policies, services and facilities that have been put in place to ensure an inclusive approach”.

They would also have to ensure disabled passengers had “the necessary information to make informed choices about their travel arrangements”, he said.

Baroness Campbell welcomed Lord Ahmad’s offer to meet with her to discuss another legislative option she had suggested, instead of the amendment, which would force bus companies to comply with access requirements as a condition of their licence.

She told peers debating the report stage of the bill this week that her fight to strengthen the law “does not end here”, and that she would continue to try to persuade the minister and MPs that stronger laws were necessary.

She said: “Disabled people should have the right now to travel on public transport in exactly the same way as their able-bodied peers.”

She and other peers also welcomed confirmation of a government announcement that was issued earlier this month, which will force transport operators to provide accessible information for their bus passengers.

Campaigners had wanted the government to legislate to ensure that all new buses were fitted with audio-visual announcements.

But Lord Ahmad said instead that operators would be required to “provide accessible information, using both audible and visible media” for all local bus services in England, Scotland and Wales, although not necessarily by installing audio-visual equipment.

He said: “We intend that information identifying the route and direction, as well as upcoming stops and points at which a vehicle is diverted from its scheduled route, should be provided on all the services covered, and that traffic commissioners will be responsible for ensuring compliance.

“We believe that, by placing an information requirement on operators rather than a requirement to install specific equipment, we will ensure that the needs of passengers are met within years, not decades.”

Lord Ahmad said the government would amend the Equality Act and then develop the necessary regulations “in full consultation with both the bus industry and disabled passengers”.

He also confirmed that the government would wait to “take any action that they might deem necessary” on the issue of access to wheelchair spaces on buses, until the Supreme Court had handed down its judgment on the discrimination case brought by disabled activist Doug Paulley against transport operator First Bus.

The Liberal Democrats’ disabled president, Baroness [Sal] Brinton, had proposed an amendment to the bill which would have placed a new duty on bus drivers to ensure that a passenger freed up the wheelchair space on a bus if they were “unreasonably preventing” a wheelchair-user from occupying it.

27 October 2016

 

 

Wheelchair-user’s anger over recurring blue button bus

A wheelchair-user has lodged 40 separate complaints in just three years about bus drivers who have failed put down the ramp for him, and have then driven off with him still on-board.

Despite his repeated complaints, Chris Stapleton says the problem is getting worse every year.

He has now lodged 19 complaints about the conduct of bus drivers working for London General – part of The Go-Ahead Group – and 16 about Arriva.

When Stapleton presses the blue button that is placed next to the wheelchair space, the driver should halt at the next stop and put down the ramp so that he can leave the bus.

But despite a siren sounding and an indicator light showing on their dashboard, drivers frequently drive off without putting down their ramp, with Stapleton still on board.

He said: “When the driver pulls away from the bus stop after ignoring my request, I normally shout, ‘Stop the bus! I pressed the blue button!’

“Most drivers don’t give any sort of apology for failing to deploy the ramp earlier.

“Some drivers don’t even stop the bus, and I’m forced to get off at the next stop.”

He said the number of times he had been forced to complain about London buses had roughly doubled every year since he started doing so three years ago, but he does not know why.

He said: “I can only [think] the bus drivers are getting lazier or less attentive. I really can’t explain it.

“There is no excuse. They are not paying attention, but it is part of their job to pay attention. I’m quite angry about it.”

Stapleton says that the complaints he has lodged with Transport for London (TfL) over the last three years have usually produced almost identical responses.

This means an apology for the “inconvenience and frustration” or “distress” he has experienced; confirmation that the driver should have pulled in at the next stop and put down the ramp when he pressed the button; and an assurance that the driver could face disciplinary action.

He said: “I’m really fed up with the bland responses I get from TfL when I send in complaints about this.

“I don’t want nice polite apologies: I want change, I want bus drivers to do their job properly, I want them to stop making my journeys stressful and upsetting.”

Transport for All, which campaigns for the rights of disabled and older people to travel in London, is now urging TfL to “speed up the renewal of their training programme”.

Faryal Velmi, director of Transport for All, said: “This is the tip of the iceberg. Transport for All receives regular complaints from disabled and older people facing the same situation.

“Many are so fed up with this that they’ve stopped reporting it.

“This adds to the stress that a journey can represent for many disabled and older people facing additional issues, such as broken ramps or the wheelchair priority space occupied by buggy users.”

Tony Akers, head of bus operations for TfL, said: “We’re happy to look into this and to work with the operators to see if anything can be improved.

“All complaints are investigated and we are constantly reminding our operators that drivers need to be on the lookout for disabled or vulnerable passengers, but if we can reasonably do more, we shall.

“Drivers are currently going through more training right now, precisely to highlight the needs of wheelchair-users.”

But Stapleton said in response: “I think it’s a case of ‘fine words, no actions’.

“The number of complaints I have raised about the blue buzzer issue is roughly doubling each year: the situation is getting worse, and it is affecting more and more wheelchair-users.

“It does suggest that TfL is not – whatever fine words it may utter in public – taking the issue seriously enough.”

27 October 2016

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com