Ministerial disability group met just three times… and then was scrapped

A cross-government group of ministers set up to “encourage and stimulate progress” towards the inclusion of disabled people in society met just three times before it was scrapped, the government has been forced to admit.

Information released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) under the Freedom of Information Act shows that the government spent nearly four years without any cross-departmental group of ministers working to improve the lives of disabled people.

The information was finally released by DWP following a freedom of information request submitted by Disability News Service (DNS) in June 2018.

But it was only released four days before Christmas, after DNS had lodged a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office about DWP’s refusal to provide information about the inter-ministerial group.

Following the first meeting of the group of 13 ministers on 13 March 2014, the then minister for disabled people, Mike Penning, said that setting up the new body showed “how seriously this Government takes improving the lives of disabled people”.

The DWP response reveals that the cross-government group of coalition ministers also met in June (chaired by Penning) and September 2014 (chaired by the new minister for disabled people, Mark Harper) but then failed to meet again before the general election the following May.

The group was set up as part of the coalition’s Fulfilling Potential strategy, which also saw the creation of the Fulfilling Potential Forum, the Disability Action Alliance and the Fulfilling Potential Policy Advice Service, all of which were subsequently scrapped or fell into disuse.

Under the Conservative government elected in 2015, there was no attempt to resurrect the ministerial group on disability, and Theresa May’s new minority government then waited another year after the 2017 general election before setting up a replacement group of 10 ministers in May 2018.

Sarah Newton, the new minister for disabled people, announced in May that she was “really pleased” to announce that the government had created a “new” inter-ministerial working group that she said would “bring the full force of the Government behind ensuring that every disabled person in our country has the ability to reach their full potential”.

This decision came eight months after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities told the UK government to make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights, and concluded that its cuts to social security and other support for disabled people had caused “a human catastrophe”.

DWP’s freedom of information response to DNS said the department had “reconsidered its position” and no longer wished to rely on an exemption in section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act, which covers communication between ministers and related information.

DWP said it had therefore decided to release the dates of the meetings of the inter-ministerial group (IMG) and the names of the ministers who attended.

But the response said the department held no recorded information that explained why it had decided to scrap the group, and it added: “It is a normal part of procedure for an IMG to be discontinued following a change in government.”

A DWP spokesperson refused to say by noon today (Thursday) why no meetings had been held after September 2014, why the 2015 government did not set up a similar group, and why the 2017 government took until May 2018 to set up an inter-ministerial group.

She also refused to say whether the information released showed a lack of interest in cross-government working on disability between September 2014 and May 2018, and whether the decision finally to set up another group was related to the UN committee’s report.

Instead, she issued a statement claiming that “empowering disabled people in all aspects of their lives has always been and will continue to be a priority for this Government”.

She said: “That is why the Office for Disability Issues continues to drive forward work across the whole of Government to increase disabled people’s participation in society, including through the Inter-Ministerial Group on Disability and Society, which is just one of the many ways in which we’re driving progress on the issues that matter to disabled people.”

3 January 2019

 

 

Backlash over ‘disgraceful’ police force that passed video footage to DWP

A Labour police and crime commissioner is facing criticism from within his own party for endorsing his force’s “disgraceful” decision to pass video footage and other information about disabled anti-fracking protesters to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Wayne Blackburn, co-chair of Disability Labour but also a borough councillor in Lancashire, has written to police and crime commissioner Clive Grunshaw to express his alarm and shock at the tactics of Lancashire police.

Cllr Blackburn is among scores of disabled campaigners who have raised similar concerns since Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last month that the force had passed information and footage of disabled protesters to DWP – in an apparent attempt to have their disability benefits removed – and then claimed that it had “a duty” to do so.

Two senior political figures – Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell and the Green party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley – have also called for an inquiry into claims that Lancashire police officers have targeted and assaulted disabled people taking part in the protests.

The DNS reports mostly focused on police tactics during peaceful protests about the drilling activities of the energy company Cuadrilla at Preston New Road, on the edge of Blackpool.

Cllr Blackburn told Grunshaw in the letter that he was “deeply concerned” to hear that Lancashire police was passing information and footage to DWP, which he said was “in clear contravention of any person’s right to peaceful protest”.

He said he agreed with McDonnell that these tactics were “shocking” and “unacceptable”, and he said that he was “personally disappointed” that Grunshaw supported the force’s actions.

Cllr Blackburn has asked Grunshaw a series of questions about the force’s relationship with DWP, including asking him: “Are you concerned that you and Lancashire Police are adding to the Conservatives’ hostile environment towards disabled people?”

A spokesperson for Grunshaw told DNS that he was “aware of the concerns raised and will be responding to the questions posed by Cllr Blackburn”.

Following the DNS reports on Lancashire police sharing information with DWP, many disabled campaigners took to social media to express their alarm.

Mark Brown, who writes and speaks about mental health issues, said on Twitter that the force’s actions needed to be seen in the context of “15 years of anti benefits rhetoric” which had led to social security turning into “social surveillance”.

He said: “In the UK we’ve tried to drive down public spending by activating people’s worst instincts and then telling them they’re good boys for telling tales.

“Disabled people, especially people with #mentalhealth difficulties, live in fear of malicious fraud allegations.”

After Lancashire police defended its actions on Twitter – telling DNS that it had a “duty” to contact DWP if it had information “to suggest fraud may be being committed” – there was widespread anger among disabled people, including those claiming benefits.

The Mental Health Resistance Network tweeted in response: “This is truly shocking. So even the police have joined in the war against disabled people.”

Another mental health activist, Rick Burgess, tweeted: “The uniting of the shadow DWP penal system and the established criminal justice system, where if one cannot get you the other will, is a highly significant intersection.

“We are now under full Stasi like conditions.”

Activist and researcher Caroline Richardson, a member of the Spartacus Network of disabled campaigners, said the force’s actions were “discriminatory and frightening”.

She said on Twitter: “Being reported maliciously for fraud is more worrying than being assessed.

“This sends a clear message that if you protest then the Police will report you on suspicion of fraud, without reason/evidence/proof.”

Film-maker and author Richard Butchins told the force on Twitter: “Your officers can have no idea if fraud is being committed but they are clearly spiteful petty minded servants of those in power – disgraceful behaviour.”

Dr Jay Watts, an activist and consultant clinical psychologist, said such actions were “an affront to civil liberties of disabled people” and that a few minutes of video from a protest gave “a false perception of ability”, with disabled protesters often facing “weeks of physical and psychological backlash afterwards but do so to make the world fairer”.

Paula Peters, a member of the Disabled People Against Cuts national steering group, said the police actions were “horrendous and disgusting”, and that “attacking disabled protestors then reporting them” was “the lowest of the low”.

Felicity McKee told Lancashire police: “You can have a disability and leave the house. We don’t just sit inside all day.

“Disabilities can vary from day to day, as some days I’m better than others. That isn’t fraud [it is] just fact. What you’ve done is so immoral it’s shocking.”

Another Twitter user with a fluctuating condition, @mookpixie, said: “This is disgraceful. My illness is mostly invisible and varies hugely from hour to hour, let alone day to day.

“Most times I leave the house for an hour or two, I then spend days in bed recovering. Could you tell all that from video footage of me leaving the house? No.”

And @neonwheelchair tweeted: “I very, very rarely leave the house now as if they took my PIP away, I’d end up homeless. We can barely eat as it is and can’t heat our home.”

Another, @vashti, added: “You guys suck. You are the reason I’m too frightened to go outside even when, well within my PIP criteria, I’m well enough to do so.”

Meanwhile, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said it was not aware of any targeting of disabled protesters at anti-fracking protests.

An NPCC spokesperson added: “If an incident has occurred contrary to that, it is for the force’s professional standards department to address it in the strongest possible terms.”

Terry Woods, assistant chief constable for Lancashire police and the NPCC lead on shale, gas and oil exploration, said in a statement: “Police forces will always facilitate the right to peaceful protest, while ensuring that disruption to their local communities is kept to a minimum.

“Police officers are trained in maintaining public order and using the minimal force to do that.

“When an officer does need to use force they are accountable for ensuring it is lawful, proportionate and necessary.

“Existing guidance on dealing with fracking protests is currently under review by the College of Policing.

“No police guidance has ever, or would ever, recommend targeting disabled people.”

A College of Policing spokesperson said it hoped to launch a public consultation on its updated guidance on the policing of long-term protests in the first quarter of 2019.

The guidance will contain a section about protests focused on onshore oil and gas exploration.

3 January 2019

 

 

Bungling DWP announces seventh review of disability benefits errors in a year

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been forced to launch its seventh costly trawl through the records of disabled people unfairly deprived of benefits following years of serious errors by senior civil servants.

The minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, announced on the last day before parliament’s Christmas recess that her department would begin another new review this month.

It follows six other reviews launched by her department during 2018 to find disabled people who had been wrongly deprived of their disability benefits.

The latest review is necessary because of an upper tribunal ruling in the case of a claimant moving from disability living allowance (DLA) to personal independence payment (PIP) who had his DLA stopped because he had failed to attend an Atos face-to-face assessment.

The upper tribunal found that the claimant, OM – who had long-standing psychosis, and became agitated and aggressive around people he did not know – had “good reason” for not attending the PIP assessment that the government contractor Atos had told his wife he would have to attend in one of its London centres.

The upper tribunal found that OM should have his DLA reinstated until a final decision was made on his PIP claim, while he should also receive backdated payments from the date DWP stopped his DLA.

This same approach will now be applied to other cases where DLA claimants have had their benefits stopped for not having “good reason” for failing to attend or participate in their PIP consultations, or to provide the necessary information or evidence for their PIP claim, but were later found by DWP or a tribunal that they did have “good reason” for not doing so.

Newton said DWP expected about 4,600 claimants to benefit from a review of such cases.

It has taken DWP more than a year to implement the tribunal’s ruling, which was handed down on 23 November 2017.

The review follows six others that DWP was forced to begin during 2018, all as a result of errors by senior civil servants in the department.

In June, Newton announced a review following a tribunal ruling delivered in March 2017 – concerning a PIP claimant referred to as RJ – on how DWP assesses whether disabled people can carry out activities safely and need supervision to do so.

This was likely to affect people with conditions such as epilepsy, with an estimated 10,000 PIP claimants set to benefit by £70 to £90 per week by 2022-23.

In the same week in June, Newton announced a review of an estimated 1.6 million PIP claims to find claimants who experience mental distress when making or planning a journey.

This followed a court ruling in December 2017 – in the case of a claimant referred to as MH – which found that new rules introduced that year by DWP were unlawful, “blatantly discriminatory” and breached the UN disability convention.

A third review announced in June 2018 related to the way DWP had been assessing an estimated 420 PIP claimants with haemophilia who have the associated condition haemarthropathy (a severe type of arthritis caused by bleeding into the joints).

A fourth review was launched so that DWP could trawl through the files of thousands of other PIP claimants who need support to take medication and monitor their health conditions, following two tribunal findings – in the cases of AN and JM – that found that DWP should have been scoring such claimants in the same way as people needing support to manage treatment therapies such as dialysis.

The fifth review followed a high court ruling in June 2018 that DWP had unlawfully discriminated against two disabled men who each lost disability premiums worth £178 per month when they moved to a new local authority area and were forced to transfer onto the new universal credit.

The sixth review followed the botched migration of an estimated 70,000 former claimants of incapacity benefit and other benefits to employment and support allowance (ESA).

DWP failed to realise that many of these claimants were entitled to income-related ESA – and therefore to associated disability premiums – rather than just the contributory form of ESA.

A DWP spokesperson said in a statement on the latest – seventh – review: “We accepted the judgment and we are committed to implementing it correctly.

“Making the necessary changes to guidance is complex and it is right we proceed carefully to ensure claimants receive the payments to which they are entitled.

“We have recruited hundreds of extra staff to complete these exercises as quickly as possible.

“We take matters relating to benefit underpayments seriously and will learn the lessons from the issues raised.”

By noon today (Thursday), she had declined to confirm that this was the seventh review to be launched by DWP in the last 12 months.

3 January 2019

 

 

Traumatised child rape survivor harassed again by DWP as he waits to give evidence

A traumatised benefit claimant has accused the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of “sheer malice” after it again broke its promise to stop harassing him while he waits to give vital evidence in a child abuse trial.

DWP’s contractor Maximus sent David* a text message last month telling him that his employment and support allowance (ESA) could be at risk if he failed to attend an assessment set to take place just two days after Christmas.

Disability News Service (DNS) has been reporting on DWP’s continuing harassment of David* since 2016, when former minister for disabled people Justin Tomlinson threatened to stop David’s benefits if he failed to co-operate with an Atos personal independence payment (PIP) reassessment.

David has been told by police that his medical file is sub-judice and cannot be discussed with anyone while the legal process is ongoing, and so he cannot allow DWP or Atos or Maximus access to his medical records.

He has severe post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by the horrific sexual abuse he suffered as a child, and which has led to several suicide attempts.

In 2017, DWP broke its promise not to harass David when Atos asked him to attend a face-to-face personal independence payment (PIP) assessment.

Last year, DWP broke its promise again, when it contacted him to tell him he needed to fill in a new PIP form, before later accepting its error and extending his PIP award.

But the harassment has continued.

On 20 December, he received a text message from Maximus – which carries out assessments under the name of its subsidiary, the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments – warning that his ESA was at risk if he failed to attend a work capability assessment (WCA) on 27 December.

When he rang DWP to complain, he was even told by a civil servant that he was fabricating his claim that his medical evidence was sub-judice.

David said DWP’s continuing harassment was “completely draining”, “dehumanising” and “extremely distressing”, and he could not understand why the department continually ignored the fact that his medical records were crucial evidence in ongoing child abuse proceedings.

He said: “It’s like I can’t escape their gravity of sheer malice and hubris.

“I would ask why they repeatedly seek to interview a proven child rape victim.

“I’m tired of people thinking I’m a lab animal to be cut open alive.”

A DWP spokesperson: “We are sorry for any distress felt by [David].

“We are all doing everything we can to ensure he continues to receive the benefits he is entitled to.”

The spokesperson said the WCA had now been cancelled, and David had been allocated a member of staff to be a single point of contact with his PIP and ESA.

Asked how this latest harassment had happened again, another spokesperson said: “We’ve addressed [David’s] case and a staff member is working with him to ensure he gets the right support.

“We don’t have anything further to add but do look into any issues which are raised by claimants, including on their experience with DWP staff and contractors.”

A Maximus spokesperson said: “As soon as the case was withdrawn by DWP, we cancelled the appointment and immediately ceased our attempts to contact the customer.”

*He cannot be named for legal reasons

3 January 2019

 

 

Government broke freedom of information laws over access to 10 Downing Street

The government has broken freedom of information laws by refusing to release documents that could reveal why it has failed to ensure there is a wheelchair-accessible front entrance to 10 Downing Street.

The information commissioner has ruled that the Cabinet Office breached the Freedom of Information Act by failing to release reports to Disability News Service (DNS), including any documents that mention the two steps leading to the iconically-inaccessible front door.

DNS has been trying for more than a year to discover what discussions have taken place about removing the steps.

Although there is step-free access at the rear of 10 Downing Street, wheelchair-users wishing to use the front door must rely on a portable ramp.

The latest request for information came in July 2018, when DNS asked for “any reports or documents on the subject of disability access (including those relating to the steps leading to the front door) at No 10 Downing Street that have been prepared over the last two years”.

The Cabinet Office insisted that the only relevant recorded information was a 20-word extract from a draft memo that had already been released, which spoke of the “improved accessibility” from increasing the size of an internal lift.

But DNS argued that a Number 10 spokesperson had claimed that Downing Street had “undertaken a programme of works over recent years to make sure this historic building is accessible to all who visit”, while Historic England had said the Cabinet Office was “rolling out a programme of improvements to the grade I listed complex to proactively address disabled access”.

Historic England had also told DNS that an “accessibility audit is still being worked through and we will continue to advise as necessary”.

Despite these statements, the Cabinet Office had insisted to the information commissioner that it held no recorded information on disability access at Number 10, or reports or documents concerning discussions with Historic England.

Historic England has also since admitted that it does hold information about access at 10 Downing Street dating back five years but has argued that it cannot release it because of “national security” concerns.

The information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has now concluded that the Cabinet Office “holds further information within the scope of the request” and had breached sections 1 and 10 of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Cabinet Office will now have to produce a legal response to DNS by 24 January, either producing the information or explaining why it has an exemption from doing so.

The Cabinet Office said it would now review its response to the DNS freedom of information request.

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring Downing Street is accessible.

“A custodian is constantly stationed at the front door so that access can be provided to the building at any time of day.

“In addition, a new lift and more accessible toilets have been installed as part of work to improve facilities in this historic building.”

3 January 2019

 

 

OBE ‘is overdue recognition of importance of inclusive education’

A disabled campaigner says the decision to award him an OBE is an overdue recognition of the importance of inclusive education.

Anthony Ford-Shubrook, a youth ambassador with the charity AbleChildAfrica and a trustee of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, was among the disabled people recognised in the new year honours.

Ford-Shubrook, who has campaigned for inclusive education both in the UK and Africa, was awarded the OBE for services to disabled children in Africa.

He said he was “completely shocked” and “ecstatic” when he heard of the award and was “still in shock” now.

In 2016, Ford-Shubrook was one of 17 inaugural Young Leaders – and the only disabled young person – chosen by the UN to promote its Sustainable Development Goals.

At AbleChildAfrica, he continues to campaign for disabled children’s right to inclusive education and sports, and to healthcare.

He has recently returned from Kenya and Rwanda, where he delivered training to young disability rights activists on how to advocate for education for disabled children and young people.

Now in his early 30s, as a teenager he successfully took a pioneering legal case – backed by the Disability Rights Commission – against a sixth form college that had decided the stair-climbing wheelchair he needed to use to reach a first-floor classroom would be a health and safety risk.

It was the first time an injunction had been used to enforce the Disability Discrimination Act in education.

And his undergraduate dissertation on access to education for disabled children in a South African township is used by the South African government in its training for teachers working with disabled children.

He told Disability News Service: “The fact that I’ve been awarded [an OBE] shows that although there’s a lot of work to be done, people are finally realizing the importance of inclusive education, and the benefits it can bring.”

And he said he hoped the OBE would help him continue his campaigning on disability, both in the UK and in Africa.

He said the fight for inclusive education had been “very important” in his life, because “without going to a mainstream school I would not have had the opportunities I’ve had, would not have been able to do many of the things I’ve done”.

The government’s own figures showed that only four per cent of recipients in the 2019 new year honours list said they were disabled, compared with five per cent in the 2018 list.

Among other disabled people recognised are broadcaster, conservationist, author and naturalist Chris Packham, presenter of BBC shows such as The Really Wild Show and Springwatch, who receives a CBE.

Packham won widespread praise for the 2017 documentary Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me, in which he discussed being autistic and made it clear that he would not want to see a “cure” for autism.

He said after the documentary was aired: “We don’t need a cure, there is nothing wrong with us – we are different.

“And that difference has enormous biological and social importance.

“Many of us have skills to invent solutions, produce art and science to benefit all and to receive these gifts all we need in return is understanding, tolerance and acceptance.”

A CBE is also awarded to artist Yinka Shonibare, whose work explores issues of race and class through painting, sculpture, photography and film, and who has supported disability arts organisations such as Shape Arts.

Martin Stevens, chair of Disability Rights UK, is recognised with an OBE for services to people with multiple sclerosis.

Stevens, who has MS himself and has a background in accountancy and business management, is a long-term volunteer for the MS Society and a trustee for the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation.

Also awarded an OBE are Robin Hindle Fisher, a trustee with Scope, who chaired the charity’s Extra Costs Commission, which looked at ways to alleviate disabled people’s extra living costs; and former Scottish rugby international Doddie Weir, who set up a charity to raise funds to research potential cures and support others with motor neurone disease after he was diagnosed with the condition.

Disabled people awarded MBEs include campaigner John Davidson, for services to people with Tourette’s; wheelchair basketball coach and retired Paralympian Caroline Matthews; and motivational speaker and diversity consultant Andrew Walker.

British Wheelchair Basketball (BWB) said Matthews was a “true ambassador of the sport” and had “tirelessly worked to further the development of wheelchair basketball within Wales and on the international stage”.

As well as winning 125 caps for Great Britain between 2002 and 2011, and competing at the Athens and Beijing Paralympics, BWB said she had “changed the landscape of the sport within Wales” and had been either head coach or assistant coach at club, regional, national and international level.

3 January 2019

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com