Coronavirus: Return of benefit sanctions in middle of pandemic ‘is barbaric’

Disabled campaigners have described the government’s decision to reintroduce benefit sanctions – in the middle of a pandemic – as “barbaric” and “life threatening”.

The decision meant an end to the three-month suspension of benefit sanctions and conditionality* in England, Scotland and Wales, which had been introduced in March as part of the COVID-19 lockdown measures.

Jobcentres will start re-opening this week in England, but not in Scotland and Wales, where claimants will only receive services online and by phone.

This means that some claimants in England will now begin to have face-to-face discussions with work coaches in jobcentres.

But there has been little information on exactly how these steps will work and how they will affect disabled and other claimants.

Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said restoring conditionality and the threat of benefit sanctions was “an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there are”.

But it came as the government continued to ease the lockdown that has been in place across England since March, while also imposing a local lockdown in Leicester after a spike of infections.

Millions of disabled people – many of them on out-of-work benefits and now potentially subject to the threat of sanctions – are still shielding from the virus.

Yesterday, work and pensions ministers also removed a crucial line from guidance for claimants of universal credit (UC) that previously assured them: “You will not get a sanction if you cannot keep to your Claimant Commitment because of coronavirus (COVID-19).”

This suggests that UC claimants will no longer be able to use the fact that they are shielding, or have COVID-19 symptoms, as a reason for breaching their claimant commitment (the agreement that sets out what they have to do to continue to receive UC).

DWP refused to comment on the removal of this line, or even to confirm that sanctions would now apply again to all claimants previously at risk of having one imposed, including those in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance (and the equivalent universal credit group).

Instead, the department attempted to persuade journalists, including Disability News Service (DNS), that the move to restore sanctions was “compassionate” and “understanding”, that sanctions would not be imposed “for no good reason”, and that the re-imposition was “rooted in a new normal” and their use would be “more compassionate” and “reasonable” than pre-pandemic.

The decision to re-impose sanctions and conditionality from 1 July after a three-month pause was greeted with anger and disbelief by disabled activists.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) held an online action yesterday to protest at the re-imposition.

DPAC said in a statement: “Claimants have been left both anxious and uncertain.

“There is now overwhelming evidence of both the serious harm that the sanctions regime inflicts on the most disadvantaged members of society and the fact that sanctions are punitive and counter-productive to the aim of getting people off benefits and into work.”

It also appealed to disabled people and allies to join the new Scrap Universal Credit Alliance.

Pam Duncan-Glancy, a disabled Labour parliamentary candidate at the last general election, said the decision to reintroduce sanctions was “barbaric”.

She said on Twitter: “The standard to which I hold the Gov in this regard is low. Even by that standard, this is off the scale.

“Brutal at the best of times, but in these times this policy on sanctions is a death sentence.”

Kerena Marchant, a Deaf campaigner who stood for Labour at the last general election, said in a video that restarting sanctions would place Deaf and disabled people “in an impossible situation”.

She said: “They will have to choose between the life-threatening risk of the hostile environment of the DWP and that of the pandemic. They both are life-threatening.

“We’ve already had DWP suicides and deaths and this could lead to more.”

Paula Peters, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, described in a video some of the personal testimonies of disabled people who have had universal credit sanctions imposed on them.

One woman, who was unsuccessful in four job interviews, was sanctioned because DWP said she was not happy enough, even though she had depression and anxiety.

Another woman was told by the jobcentre not to mention that she was disabled because such a term was “political”.

This woman was also accused of lying about her seizures, until she had a seizure in the jobcentre.

She was still sanctioned for three months and had to rely on friends and family for food, said Peters.

Another disabled activist, Andy Mitchell, said in a video to support the action: “We are still in the middle of a pandemic, we still have people shielding, we still have people self-isolating, we still have families home-schooling their children because they cannot go to school.

“We know that hundreds of thousands of people are about to lose their jobs, we know that the homeless are about to be released from hotels because the contracts have ended and the money has run out. And we have this situation in Leicester.

“We are still in the middle of a pandemic, yet DWP have dug in their heels and refused to extend the ban. This is wrong.”

Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s former shadow work and pensions secretary, also spoke in support of DPAC’s campaign, saying: “We know sanctions don’t work. In fact they can make things worse, dehumanising people and creating mental health problems.”

Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, told Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions yesterday that the decision was “heartless”, “cruel” and “unnecessary”.

Johnson asked Blackford “to think that he may be mistaken”.

Disability Rights UK said this week that the decision to reintroduce conditionality and sanctions was “appalling” and “must be reversed”.

Ken Butler, DR UK’s welfare rights and policy adviser, said: “Conditionality and sanctions actively harmed disabled people before both were lifted in March.

“To reintroduce them with no discussion, in the environment of an economic recession, with millions more universal credit claimants and amid a viral pandemic, shows a scant regard for the welfare and safety of disabled people.”

He also pointed out that the PCS union had warned that reopening jobcentres so soon “could create a perfect storm as staff and customers are faced with lack of social distancing, inadequate personal protective equipment and the real risk of COVID-19 being brought into workplaces”.

Coffey told MPs this week: “It is important that as the jobcentres fully reopen this week, we reinstate the need for a claimant commitment.

“It is an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there are, but I know that I can trust the work coaches and jobcentre managers, who are empowered to act proactively with people.”

A DWP spokesperson added: “We’ve been there for those who have lost jobs or have reduced hours in this pandemic, promptly processing new claims and getting money into the accounts of those in urgent need within days.

“Now our focus is rightly switching to getting Britain back into work.

“From July, people can make an appointment with their work coach if they can’t get the help they want online or over the phone and work coaches will be calling all claimants to help them get ready for the world of work.”

*Under conditionality, the rules claimants have to meet in order to avoid losing some or all of their out-of-work benefits through sanctions can include pledging to carry out a certain number of hours looking for and applying for jobs, networking, updating a CV, or attending training

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

2 July 2020

 

Coronavirus: Disabled man who starved to death ‘had obeyed stay at home message’

A disabled man starved to death after he became isolated during the coronavirus pandemic and was unable to access food because he had obeyed the government’s “stay at home” message.

The man, from Streatham, south London, was living with mental distress and diabetes and is believed to have been one of the victims of the Windrush scandal, but his family say he had not been in touch with local services as he had only recently moved into the area.

Because he was not included on the government’s list of those who are “clinically extremely vulnerable” to the virus, it is believed that he was not able to secure home deliveries of food from supermarkets.

Brief details of his death were covered by the mainstream media last week after it was mentioned by his MP, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, during an evidence session for the Commons women and equalities committee inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people.

She told the committee last week: “We know that there are many, many people with disabilities who have been excluded from that list and many of them have been told to shelter but because they are excluded from that list they cannot get the priority deliveries and that has caused problems.

“In my own constituency we had a tragic report of a disabled man actually starving to death because he wasn’t able to access food essentials. So tragic.”

Disability News Service (DNS) has now learned from Ribeiro-Addy’s office – which has been in touch with the man’s family – that he had diabetes and a mental health condition.

His family had not been aware he was living alone, without any assistance from public bodies or agencies.

They have also told Ribeiro-Addy’s office that he had been caught up in the Windrush scandal and only recently gained papers proving he had a right to live in the UK, which they believe may have been one of the reasons for the lack of support that led to his death.

Ribeiro-Addy told DNS: “My thoughts and prayers are with the family at this difficult time.

“They’re requesting privacy as they try to come to terms with how something like this could have happened.

“Disabled people have been an afterthought for the government in this pandemic and suffered disproportionately as a result.

“This case highlights the need to give greater consideration to meeting the needs of all disabled individuals, not just those who face an immediate clinical risk.”

Lambeth council said the man had moved into the area “independently” and had not been living in council housing.

A council spokesperson said: “We would like to express our condolences to the family at this very sad time. This is a tragic case.

“We have looked into the events leading up to this man’s sad death and he had moved independently into the borough.

“He was not known to council services, meaning we were sadly unable to give him the help and support he deserved.”

Akiko Hart, chief executive of the National Survivor User Network, told DNS: “For all of the increase in column inches about the visibility of mental ill-health and the spirit of community, the hostile environment from Windrush to benefits has pushed people further and further into isolation.

“No one should die alone and in fear without anyone to turn to.

“We haven’t all been in this together and coming out of lockdown we must stop making policies and decisions that make those in need invisible and which leave people feeling like there is no one out there who can help.

“We have to change so that no one thinks that there is nobody who will care.”

Lauren Johnson-King, director of Disability Advice Service Lambeth (DASL), said she could not comment on the death as DASL did not have any information about the circumstances in which the man had died.

But she said: “We know that COVID-19 and the lockdown has had a massive impact on the lives of disabled people, who are experiencing poorer mental health, increased social isolation, a lack of both social care and health care and increased food poverty.

“The language around ‘vulnerable’ people risks stripping disabled people of equal access to services and their community and, as lockdown eases, there is concern that disabled people will be yet further marginalised in the quest for the ‘new normal’.”

News of the man’s death came as the consumer rights organisation Which? published results of a new survey showing that more than one in four (28 per cent) “vulnerable” people in the UK had faced problems securing the food they needed in the previous week.

Which? is calling for access to free food boxes, priority delivery slots from supermarkets and other support to be available “for as long as medical advice or practical restrictions, such as social distancing, are in place”, not only for those most at risk from COVID-19 but also for those who are “situationally vulnerable and have so far been sidelined”.

*For sources of information and support during the coronavirus crisis, visit the DNS advice and information page; Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK is one of the groups that can help secure support for those self-isolating during the pandemic

2 July 2020

 

Coronavirus: Government PIP figures provide fresh evidence of virus deaths

New government figures have revealed that the proportion of disability benefit claimants who died in April was 15 per cent higher than the previous year, providing fresh evidence of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on disabled people.

The figures, secured by Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, also show a rise of eight per cent in the proportion of personal independence payment (PIP) claimants who died in March, compared with March 2019.

The figures emerged only days after Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures showed disabled* females aged between nine and 64 were 11.3 times more likely to have died due to COVID-19 than non-disabled females in the same age group, while disabled males* between nine and 64 were 6.5 times more likely to have died than non-disabled males.

The ONS figures, reported by Disability News Service (DNS) and later followed up by The Times and other newspapers – but previously largely ignored by the mainstream media – prompted calls for an inquiry into the causes of the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on disabled people.

They also led to calls for the government to take urgent action to protect disabled people from COVID-19 in advance of an expected second wave of the virus.

Despite the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) releasing the PIP figures to Abrahams, it has refused to provide similar figures for claimants of universal credit, income support, jobseeker’s allowance, and employment and support allowance, the out-of-work disability benefit.

Ministers suggested they might still provide figures for deaths of universal credit claimants, saying that an answer would be “provided as soon as it is available”, but dismissed her request for figures on the other benefits as they claimed the information “could only be provided at disproportionate cost”.

Abrahams said this was an “appalling response” from DWP ministers.

She said it was this response that prompted her to ask health and social care secretary Matt Hancock this week to carry out an “immediate analysis” of the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people living in poverty.

She also called on Hancock to ask work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey to release the other figures she had requested.

Abrahams pointed to the ONS figures, which she said also showed age-standardised death rates for the “limited a lot” group were nearly 200 per 100,000 for men and more than 141 per 100,000 for women, compared with 70 and 36 per 100,000 for non-disabled men and women.

She told Hancock: “When poverty is factored in, it will show even higher death rates for disabled people.”

Hancock claimed he was “absolutely determined to address the questions and the impact of COVID” on disabled people and claimed that Abrahams’ concerns would be addressed in work being led by equalities minister Kemi Badenoch.

A spokesperson for the Government Equalities Office (GEO) said this work was linked to a Public Health England review of COVID-19 health inequalities, a report which was published last month but which – although it analysed factors such as deprivation, ethnicity, occupation and health conditions – did not include a single mention of disabled people or disability.

Asked if Badenoch would be looking at the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people living in poverty, and if she would ask DWP for data on disabled social security claimants who have died during the pandemic, the GEO spokesperson had not responded by noon today (Thursday).

Abrahams told DNS: “It’s just not good enough that DWP ministers dismiss my request for these data – they should know about the deaths of claimants in all circumstances to understand what this means for the social security system that is meant to be there to support them. I’m not letting this go.”

Meanwhile, last week’s DNS story has drawn an angry and frustrated response on social media.

@MrsHelenHurd1 said on Twitter: “Just because the media have conveniently lost interest doesn’t mean it is over.

“As a disabled woman I am terrified that the wilfully irresponsible behaviour of MSM [mainstream media] will kill us all, or was that the idea all along?

“What kind of a country have we become?”

One response on Twitter asked: “Where’s the public uproar?”

Another Twitter response, from @GoldenGraduate, said: “Not a shock at all, its been a cull from day one.”

Another, @AlexandraRants, said: “Yeah loads without the shielding status have been left with no choice but to risk going to the shops as supermarkets stopped offering priority slots to the vulnerable and only those with shielding status could get them.”

Dr Sally Witcher, chief executive of Inclusion Scotland, although tweeting in a personal capacity, said: “Is anyone surprised by this?

“It’s why we need good data on all the factors that increase risk and action to mitigate all of them.

“So far we’ve seen an over-riding focus on health status alone. It’s much more complex than that.”

*Those in England and Wales who described themselves in the 2011 census as being “limited a lot” in their daily lives 

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

2 July 2020

 

EHRC failed to consult its own disabled advisers before snubbing DWP deaths probe

The equality watchdog failed to consult its own committee of disabled advisers before deciding not to investigate deaths of benefit claimants that have been linked to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

It came as disabled activists and relatives of disabled people whose deaths have been blamed on DWP’s actions and policies expressed anger and frustration at the failure of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to act.

Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how EHRC had delayed a decision for more than a year on whether to launch an inquiry into links between DWP and the deaths of claimants, and the wider impact of DWP’s policies on disabled people.

It then decided – apparently only last week – that it would not hold such an inquiry this year, and blamed the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

This week, there have also been questions over the commission’s impartiality after Newsweek revealed that one of its commissioners, Pavita Cooper, had donated money to a Conservative MP and helped organise a fundraiser for her in 2013, but then failed to mention this when she was appointed as an EHRC commissioner five years later.

The commission was first approached in April 2019 by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, a former shadow work and pensions secretary, with her concerns about the links between DWP and the deaths of claimants, and the wider impact of DWP policies on disabled people.

It took until last week for EHRC to announce that it had now decided that – “due to the pandemic” – it would not be able to hold an inquiry, at least not this year.

But DNS has now discovered that the commission failed to consult its own disability advisory committee before reaching this decision.

Committee members contacted by DNS declined to comment on the decision.

But one member told DNS: “I wasn’t aware the Commission was considering this – it isn’t something that’s come to the Disability Advisory Committee.”

Another said the committee had been involved in advising on the commission’s strategic plan for 2019-22, which was published in June 2019 and included plans to tackle “discriminatory decision-making in the social security system”, but the committee “hasn’t been involved in recent decisions on when this would happen”.

DNS has been unable this week to contact the disability advisory committee’s chair, Rachel Perkins.

A spokesperson for Disabled People Against Cuts said: “Time and time again, DWP’s brutal and cruel benefit regime has been shown to lead people to their death, either by starvation, suicide, or despair.

“But nobody is prepared to support a call for accountability, no opposition MPs – apart from Labour’s Debbie Abrahams – who are supposed to oppose and challenge the government, not the EHRC, which is supposed to promote and uphold equality and human rights ideas and laws across the UK.

“Once again, disabled people are on their own, and have to fight their own battles, without help, support or acknowledgment of the price they have already paid and will continue to pay if nobody is prepared to stand up for their rights.”

The family of Errol Graham, who starved to death after his out-of-work disability benefits were wrongly removed by DWP, were also among those furious at the commission’s unwillingness to act.

Alison Turner, partner of Errol Graham’s son Lee, said the commission’s failure to investigate was “an absolute disgrace”.

She said: “The failures within DWP have been going on for years.

“The EHRC need investigating themselves for not only failing to do the one job that’s expected of them, but the poor excuse and failure to respond in reasonable time frames.”

Joy Dove, whose daughter Jodey Whiting took her own life 15 days after she had her out-of-work disability benefits mistakenly stopped by DWP for missing a work capability assessment, said the commission’s failure to launch an inquiry was “disgusting”.

She said: “Us bereaved families have suffered enough with the loss of our loved ones.”

She said the deaths caused by DWP take over the lives of the families of those who have died.

She said: “My life changed from the 21st of February 2017 when I and two of her children found Jodey’s body surrounded by suicide notes saying she could not go on any more. It was heart-breaking.

“DWP have a lot to answer for and EHRC gave us hope only to let us down. We want justice and I want it so much for Jodey. I won’t give in.”

Carole Ford, from WOWcampaign, said the EHRC decision was “deeply disappointing”.

She said: The pandemic is even more reason for doing this, as conditions for disabled people are increasingly difficult.

“The minister has announced that conditionality and sanctions will restart after the lockdown (see separate story) and there are no guarantees that the DWP has changed its behaviour for disabled people after the recent deaths.”

Ian Jones, also from WOW, said EHRC’s actions showed that “disabled people do not matter to the EHRC”.

A spokesperson for WinVisible, which supports and campaigns for disabled women, said EHRC “must push for an effective inquiry into benefit deaths”.

She said: “An inquiry does not bring our loved ones back, but it can bring out the truth of what led to people’s deaths and establish responsibility, starting with government policies and the ways they are implemented by staff.”

Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser for Disability Rights UK, said the EHRC decision was “a setback” and “not only incredibly disappointing but difficult to understand”.

He said: “The DWP, by its policies and practices, have been the cause of deaths of disabled claimants.

“The recent NAO report has also shown it is unable to police itself.

“It’s clear that the social security system discriminates against disabled people and this falls squarely within the EHRC’s remit.”

He added: “If the EHRC will not act, it’s vital the government establish an independent inquiry into those deaths of disabled people where it appears that the welfare benefits system has been a significant factor, with a remit to recommend changes to policy as well as internal DWP processes where needed.”

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

“This has meant taking some very difficult decisions and due to the pandemic we will not be able to undertake this inquiry this year.

“The changes to our business plan to respond to the coronavirus crisis are a result of intensive discussion among staff, board and stakeholders; and on the basis of relevant intelligence and data mapping.

“Whilst agile, our process has been robust and proportionate and in no way undermines our impartiality.

“We have a strong track record of holding government to account and we take our independence very seriously.”

DNS asked why the commission failed to consult its disability advisory committee before deciding not to go ahead with the inquiry this year, but the EHRC spokesperson had not responded by noon today (Thursday).

On Cooper’s donation to the Tory MP, he said: “A donation was made at an event in 2013 to support a personal friend who was running as an MP.

“Pavita Cooper has not made a donation to any political party and is not a member of any party.

“We are an independent regulator and take our impartiality very seriously. We have robust procedures and policies in place to manage conflicts of interests or perceived conflicts of interests.”

2 July 2020

 

Influential Labour MP fails four times to put benefit deaths questions to DWP

The Labour chair of the Commons committee tasked with holding the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to account is refusing to question its attempts to cover up links between its actions and the deaths of benefit claimants.

Disability News Service (DNS) first passed key evidence to Stephen Timms in March, but he has repeatedly failed to promise to bring it to the attention of work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey.

Among the concerns raised with Timms was evidence that DWP misled a coroner about an ongoing safeguarding review, during an inquest into the death of a man who starved to death after having his out-of-work benefits wrongly removed, and that it later misled a second coroner on the same subject.

DNS also told Timms how DWP misled both the National Audit Office and the information commissioner about the measures it had taken to follow up on concerns raised by its own secret reviews into benefit-related suicides and other deaths.

Timms has also failed to question DWP over its refusal to release two reports written by coroners that were aimed at ensuring the department took measures to prevent further deaths of benefit claimants.

When the four stories were raised with Timms in March, he said in a statement: “The DWP must do everything in its power to learn lessons when someone it has been serving tragically takes his or her own life, and to prevent future harm.

“It must, of course, comply with the law when asked to disclose information. It could and should also be much more transparent about the recommendations of its own reviews, and whether they have been put into practice.

“I’ve written to the secretary of state to find out whether the department really is taking the steps needed to improve its processes.

“Once we’ve had her reply, the committee will want to consider it carefully before deciding on any further action.”

As the statement made no mention of the four stories, DNS asked Timms again if he would take them up with DWP, but he said only: “Have you put these points to DWP? Have you had a response?”

DNS made it clear that DWP had already been asked to respond to each of the four news stories.

After leaving these concerns for three months to allow him to focus on responding to the pandemic crisis in his constituency and as chair of the committee, DNS has now again asked Timms to raise the issues with DWP.

This time he would say only that DWP “may” carry out a “revamp” of its new serious case panel, that the committee “may” have some input on this, and that the committee wanted recommendations from the panel to be made public.

DNS asked Timms again, on 21 June, to take up the concerns with DWP – the fourth time he has been asked to do so – but he had failed to respond by noon today (Thursday).

A spokesperson for Disabled People Against Cuts said: “Time and time again, DWP’s brutal and cruel benefit regime has been shown to lead people to their death, either by starvation, suicide, or despair.

“But nobody is prepared to support a call for accountability, no opposition MPs – apart from Labour’s Debbie Abrahams – who are supposed to oppose and challenge the government, not the EHRC, which is supposed to promote and uphold equality and human rights ideas and laws across the UK (see separate story).

“Once again, disabled people are on their own, and have to fight their own battles, without help, support or acknowledgment of the price they have already paid and will continue to pay if nobody is prepared to stand up for their rights.”

Carole Ford, from WOWcampaign, said the actions of Timms and his committee showed they needed to “take a stronger position if they are going to adequately safeguard the needs of disabled people”.

A spokesperson for WinVisible, which supports and campaigns for disabled women, said the work and pensions committee “must push for an effective inquiry into benefit deaths”.

She said: “An inquiry does not bring our loved ones back, but it can bring out the truth of what led to people’s deaths and establish responsibility, starting with government policies and the ways they are implemented by staff.”

Timms’s failure to act follows the similar failure of his predecessor as chair of the work and pensions committee, Frank Field.

Among Field’s failures to hold DWP to account was in December 2017, when his committee refused to ask the minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, about figures that suggested attempted suicides among people claiming out-of-work disability benefits had doubled between 2007 and 2014.

Field also failed to comment or act on evidence passed to the committee last year by DNS which showed DWP covered-up vital evidence linking the work capability assessment with the deaths of claimants.

2 July 2020

 

Coronavirus: Government travel exemptions ignore needs of disabled people… again

Disabled activists say the government has yet again ignored the support needs of disabled people during the pandemic crisis, after omitting social care workers from a list of travellers who can enter the UK without self-isolating for 14 days.

The Home Office rules list those groups that may be able to enter the UK from abroad without having to self-isolate for a fortnight before they start work.

The rules, which came into effect on 8 June, allow exemptions for many diplomats, defence contractors, coach drivers, seasonal agricultural workers, sewerage workers, offshore oil workers, aerospace engineers, and other specialists in the energy, broadcasting, postal and transport industries.

They also allow health or care professionals travelling to the UK to provide “essential healthcare” to avoid self-isolating for 14 days if they are staying in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

But this only applies to those who can prove they will be working for an NHS trust, independent healthcare provider or independent social care provider, and who can provide proof of professional registration with a UK-based regulator.

They must also be coming to provide “healthcare” rather than social care.

This means the exemptions omit social care workers who are coming from abroad to work as personal assistants for disabled people, as they will not be working for a care provider, and those planning to work for domiciliary care agencies, as they cannot register themselves with a regulator.

There is still no system of professional registration for social care workers in the UK.

The new rules will also affect those returning to existing jobs in the UK after spells in their own countries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It even appears to rule out all social care workers, because of the reference to “healthcare”.

Those breaching the rules in England and Wales could face fines of £1,000 or even a prosecution and a potentially “unlimited fine”.

The flaws in the guidelines have been raised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).

This week, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) appeared to suggest that social care workers would have to use “annual or unpaid leave” so they can self-isolate for 14 days, or survive for a fortnight without pay if they do not have any such entitlement.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “The quarantine system is informed by science, backed by the public and designed to help prevent a devastating second wave of this disease.

“The list of limited exemptions has been agreed by all government departments in consultation with their stakeholders to ensure critical supplies and services can continue and is subject to regular review.”

She added: “The regulations are clear – anyone who comes to the UK from overseas will be required to self-isolate for 14 days, unless they are one of the few groups who are exempt.

“If staff who are not eligible for an exemption do choose to travel, it should be a local decision on whether they need to use annual or unpaid leave.”

She declined to comment on whether the guidelines showed the government had – again – ignored the needs of disabled people.

Linda Burnip, co-founder of DPAC, said: “This is absolutely useless as an answer to the question of who or what care workers are supposed to register with, and effectively means that a large proportion of the UK care workforce will be unable to return to work in the UK [without self-isolating for a fortnight].

“This is in spite of the fact that over the weekend we have been informed that Tom, Dick and Sally can swan off for a holiday in a number of randomly-selected countries and return to the UK without having to self-isolate at all.

“There is no logic and definitely no science involved in any of this.

“It is obvious that once again disabled people’s needs have been ignored totally by this pathetic excuse for a government.”

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

2 July 2020

 

Council confesses: ‘We have no idea how many of our buildings are accessible’

A local council has admitted that it has no idea how many of the buildings it owns and rents to businesses are accessible to disabled people.

The admission by Scarborough council came after it refused to force a restaurant and bar to keep to the terms of its lease, despite the new business removing a stairlift during a major refurbishment of an iconic council-owned property, and then failing to replace or improve it.

The building now occupied by Abbey Wharf in Whitby – overlooking the harbour – is owned by the council but the business it had rented the building to failed to keep to the terms of its lease by ensuring there was access for disabled people after a major refurbishment.

Instead, the owners of the north Yorkshire business stripped out the stairlift but failed to install a replacement lift.

Because of the council’s refusal to pressure its new tenant to ensure access for wheelchair-users and others with mobility impairments, disabled campaigner Ian Lawson was forced to take legal action himself.

With the help of barrister Catherine Casserley, an expert on disability discrimination, Lawson won his case.

York County Court ruled in March that Abbey Wharf had discriminated against Lawson by failing to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.

It will now have to install a new platform lift, and pay Lawson damages of £7,500, although nearly all of that will be swallowed up by the costs of bringing the case.

But Lawson was so frustrated by Scarborough council’s failure to pressure Abbey Wharf to ensure the building was accessible, that after winning the case he also submitted a freedom of information request to the local authority to discover how many other buildings it owned were not accessible.

In its response, the council said it had 1,824 tenancies, but it was not clear from the response how many of these were buildings open to the public as many of them were “wayleave and easement agreements, rights of way and licences”.

But Lawson was also told that the council had no idea how many of the buildings it owns and leases to tenants – and which are open to the public – were wheelchair-accessible, and how many of them had an accessible toilet.

It also told Lawson in its freedom of information response that it “does not have the resources” to “proactively police” its properties to ensure they comply with relevant legislation such as the Equality Act.

A council spokesperson claimed the duties under the Equality Act fell to the tenant as the service-provider and it was “therefore up to the tenant to make any reasonable alterations”.

She said: “This is the reason Mr Lawson has taken our tenant to court over this matter and not the council as landlord.

“We are however working co-operatively with the tenant to ensure that the order of the court can be complied with.”

Asked how the council justified having no idea how many of its tenanted buildings were wheelchair-accessible, she said: “As service providers are responsible for complying with the [Equality Act], in very broad terms the intention of any commercial lease is therefore to also put the onus of complying with all relevant legislation on the tenant.

“It is the service, not necessarily the building, that must be accessible.

“Where a tenant identifies the need to modify the building in order to provide their service, we will co-operate with them to allow the relevant adaptations.”

Disability News Service (DNS) also asked the council how it justified stating that it could not afford to “proactively police” its properties to ensure they were accessible.

A council spokesperson said: “Where it is brought to our attention that our tenants of commercial premises are potentially in breach of the Equality Act 2010 (eg because of a lack of adequate physical access to the premises), we will take steps to address it by drawing it to the attention of the tenant and, where required, providing the necessary landlord’s consent to enable the tenant to comply with their obligations.”

But Lawson, who campaigns for access improvements in north Yorkshire, said: “Ten years [since the Equality Act was passed by parliament] is far too long to ignore the law for any organisation, particularly as new tenancies, periodic rent reviews and site visits provide ample opportunity for the council to check on the access features provided by all of its tenants.”

He said the council’s public sector equality duty, under the Equality Act, meant it must have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity, and encourage social contact between non-disabled and disabled people, none of which the council had met in dealing with his concerns about Abbey Wharf.

He said he believed the council’s comment that it was “the service, not necessarily the building, that must be accessible” was “a nonsensical comment that could only come from a person with no understanding of the difficulties that disabled people face in the built environment”.

Lawson added: “As I made frequent requests to the council so that I could avoid the stress, anxiety and financial risk of losing the claim, their response appears to suggest that they believe that they did as much as they could do.

“However, the council can serve a notice to correct a breach of the lease within 14 days, yet the council did not do so when I asked them to serve that notice, long before the claim went to court.”

Abbey Wharf had failed to comment by noon today (Thursday).

2 July 2020

 

Round-up: Universal credit, accessible housing, new recruits… and award for ‘legend’

A disabled student has launched a legal case against the Department for Work and Pensions over an “unlawful” policy that prevents many disabled students claiming universal credit.

Sidra Kauser, from Halifax, who is studying for a master’s degree at the University of York, has a student loan which fails to cover the cost of her tuition fees and rented accommodation, and so is forced to survive on her personal independence payment.

She applied for universal credit after her health deteriorated, when she was already a student.

But DWP refuses to carry out work capability assessments on existing full-time students, so it rejected her application, preventing her receiving between £540 and £680 a month.

If she had been assessed before beginning her full-time studies, she would have been able to continue claiming UC while studying for her master’s, according to her solicitors, Leigh Day.

Kauser says the DWP policy is “irrational and unlawful”.

Her claim is supported by Disability Rights UK, which has been campaigning on the issue for three years and believes the policy could affect as many as 30,000 disabled students.

DWP has argued that allowing disabled students like Kauser to claim universal credit would duplicate other support available to disabled students.

Bowing to calls from developers to relax planning rules would worsen the shortage of accessible homes, a coalition of housing, disability and older people’s organisations have warned the government.

The Housing Made for Everyone (HoME) coalition, which includes Disability Rights UK and the Centre for Ageing Better, fears the government will accept growing demands from the housing industry to loosen planning restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In an open letter to housing minister Christopher Pincher, the coalition says the coronavirus crisis has meant, for millions of people, “being stuck in homes that are deemed hazardous to their health”.

It tells Pincher: “As we rebuild our economy and as the building of new homes accelerates, we must remember that the homes we build now will be there for many decades to come and must be fit for the future, enabling people to live healthily and independently in their own homes.”

The coalition is calling on the government instead to establish the accessible and adaptable design standard – M4 category two in building regulations – as the “regulatory baseline” for all new homes.

Wheelchair-user Daniel Slade, who is 50 years old but has been forced to live in an older people’s care home because of the lack of accessible housing, is backing the coalition’s calls.

He said: “Most of the other residents in my care home are between my parents’ and grandparents’ age, but at 50 I should still be living independently.

“I was an adventurous person before my accident which led me to my disability, and I feel like each day in here is draining my morale from me.

“It’s a shame that the only thing stopping me from living my life to its full potential is the lack of accessible housing in my area.”

The government has begun recruiting for a new chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and up to four new board members.

David Isaac, EHRC’s chair, will leave the commission in August, with a replacement likely to be appointed this winter. Applications close on 3 August.

News of the appointment process was released as the commission came under attack for blocking an inquiry into links between the Department for Work and Pensions and the deaths of disabled benefit claimants (see separate story).

A disabled people’s organisation and a leading legal firm have secured funding to recruit a disabled person to train as a solicitor.

The successful candidate will specialise in social justice at solicitors Deighton Pierce Glynn.

The grant was awarded under the Justice First Fellowship scheme, which was established by The Legal Education Foundation.

Inclusion London said the grant would provide “a unique opportunity for a disabled person to train at a highly regarded civil rights and judicial review firm” while also working on secondment at Inclusion London during their training.

Applications open next month.

The two organisations have worked closely together for several years on legal cases affecting disabled people, including those on cuts to services, the closure of the Independent Living Fund, discrimination by transport providers, and the lack of access to justice for disabled people.

A disabled campaigner who played a leading role in supporting survivors of church-related sexual abuse has been recognised with one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s annual Lambeth Awards, which recognise outstanding contributions to the Church of England and wider society. 

Dr Margaret Kennedy, who receives The Langton Award for Community Service, founded Minister And Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (MACSAS) and is described in her citation as “almost legendary” among survivors and as having made an “outstanding” contribution to social action.

MACSAS continues to fight for changes in safeguarding and improved responses to survivors of church-related abuse across all Christian denominations.

Among her other achievements, she carried out ground-breaking work in the late 1980s that drew attention for the first time to the hidden abuse of disabled children.

Now living in Ireland, Kennedy continues to campaign against clergy sexual abuse and against disability discrimination and abuse in Ireland.

2 July 2020

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com