DWP figures suggest tens of thousands of PIP claims could have been decided on ‘unacceptable’ assessment reports

Tens of thousands of disabled people could have had their disability benefit claims decided on evidence from assessment reports that were of “unacceptable” poor quality, government figures suggest.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures suggest that civil servants may have been deciding many personal independence payment (PIP) claims based on information contained in assessment reports that were of such poor quality that they should have been sent back to DWP contractor Atos to “rework”.

DWP and Atos – which carries out PIP assessments on the government’s behalf – have both denied any such inference can be made from the figures passed two weeks ago by the minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, to Labour MP Grahame Morris.

But disabled campaigners believe the figures raise fresh concerns about the quality of PIP assessment reports and how DWP decides claims, following years of mounting anger about the way the extra costs benefit is run since it was launched five years ago as a replacement for working-age disability living allowance.

Morris had asked DWP ministers how many PIP assessment reports in each of the last five years had been returned to Atos for “reworking” because they were “deemed unacceptable”.

In another question, he asked how many PIP assessments Atos had carried out every year.

But the figures showed only a tiny proportion of assessment reports were being returned by DWP case managers to Atos for reworking because they were “unacceptable”, with 301 (0.48 per cent of them) returned in 2013-14, 640 (0.18 per cent) in 2014-15, 748 (0.14 per cent) in 2015-16, 1,727 unacceptable reports (0.22 per cent) in 2016-17, and 8,702 (1.14 per cent) in 2017-18.

The figures showed a huge increase in the last two years, but the proportions were still far lower than Atos had admitted to the Commons work and pensions committee last December.

Giving evidence to the committee, Atos said the proportion of PIP assessments graded as “unacceptable” had been as high as 30 per cent at one stage of its contract and was still about five or six per cent.

DWP explained last week that the rates revealed in the committee’s evidence session in December had been the proportion of PIP reports graded as “unacceptable” after an Atos “independent audit”, which was why they were different to the figures released to Morris.

Only a tiny proportion of reports are ever audited.

This suggests that in the last five years, assessment reports of an “unacceptable” quality may have been at times more than 100 times less likely to be picked up by a typical DWP case manager and sent back to be “reworked” than the small number of reports that were audited.

With more than 760,000 Atos assessments taking place in 2017-18 and more than 780,000 in 2016-17, this suggests that tens of thousands of unacceptably poor reports could have slipped through the net and led to unfair decisions to refuse disabled people’s entitlement to PIP.

Both DWP and Atos deny that this is what the figures show.

But DNS has previously spoken to a DWP civil servant working on the PIP “frontline”, who has said that DWP case managers have strict targets for the number of PIP claims they need to process every day, and are quizzed by their superiors if they miss their weekly targets.

He has said they are also “instructed to act on the assessor’s report, given that they are the medical experts”.

This week, he stressed again that case managers are “browbeaten by the ‘you are not medically trained, go with the Assessment Provider’s justification’”, but insisted that case managers “do try to ensure accuracy and will question”.

When asked to explain the discrepancy between the two sets of figures last Friday, DWP originally promised to respond on Monday this week. It finally responded after 4pm yesterday (Wednesday), nearly five days after the original request was submitted.

When it finally issued a statement, DWP argued that its PIP decision-makers did not always return poor quality reports to Atos but were instead “empowered to overturn decisions without further involvement of the Assessment Providers”, while they would “also seek advice and clarification directly from the Assessment Providers without the need for formal re-work”.

A DWP spokeswoman said this meant that its staff had not been basing huge numbers of decisions on unacceptably poor PIP assessment reports.

She also said that “re-work guidance” for its decision makers was revised in September 2017 so that it was consistent with the guidance used by the Atos internal auditors, and “to help improve the quality and accuracy of the information that was the basis of the PIP decisions”.

She added: “The proportion of all reports that are sent back for re-work is very low given the vast numbers of reports produced.

“The vast majority of reports are of a quality that can be used by decision-makers in the first instance.”

But she refused to say by noon today (Thursday) if DWP believed that its decision-makers prevented a similar proportion of PIP claims being decided on “unacceptable” reports as the Atos auditors.

She has also repeatedly failed to explain why the proportion of assessment reports returned by DWP case managers to Atos as “unacceptable” shot up from 0.14 per cent in 2015-16 to 0.22 per cent in 2016-17, and 1.14 per cent in 2017-18, an increase last year of more than 400 per cent.

An Atos spokesman said: “We don’t in any way recognise the interpretation of the data or the conclusions reached by Disability News Service.”

DNS has been investigating claims of widespread dishonesty by PIP assessors – from both Atos and fellow outsourcing giant Capita – for nearly 18 months, and has heard from about 300 claimants who say their PIP assessment reports contained clear lies.

Morris, the MP for Easington, said: “The minister for disabled people is presiding over a systemic failure, which is causing misery and hardship for thousands of vulnerable sick and disabled people.

“DWP are not providing sufficient oversight and scrutiny, with so few reports sent back to Atos for re-work.

“I can see from my casework, and I fear, that thousands of vulnerable people are being denied access to PIP based on substandard reports produced by outsourcing contractor Atos.

“The health assessment process does not work and is a cruel system which harms the health and wellbeing of the sick and disabled.

“There is gross incompetence at every level. The government demonise the sick, viewing them as claimants to be processed, rather than as people in need of support to manage often multiple complex health conditions.

“The system will never be fit for purpose while the government’s motivation is about cost-cutting rather than an individual’s health needs.”

Campaigner John Slater, whose freedom of information work has previously produced crucial data about the DWP’s PIP assessment contracts with Atos and Capita, said the new figures appeared to confirm his suspicions about the audit process.

He said they appeared to show that a significant percentage of unacceptable reports are never spotted and acted on by DWP.

He said: “My personal view is that the DWP is doing all it can to be opaque about the true extent of quality problems with PIP assessment reports.”

Bob Ellard, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “To the uninitiated, this might sound like simple incompetence by the DWP, but for those with more experience of them will see that this is just one part of the ‘hostile environment’ that they perpetrate towards disabled people and other claimants.

“For them to have the knowledge of such a high number of unacceptable assessments, and yet only rework a small number of them, shows once again deliberate maltreatment of disabled people for whom their benefit entitlements can form a vital lifeline.”

Although there are not yet any statistics to show the levels of “unacceptable” assessment reports by the other PIP assessment provider, Capita, it is likely that similar problems also affect its reports.

In December, the Commons committee heard from Simon Freeman, managing director of Capita’s PIP contract, that at one point, internal audits were showing 60 per cent of its reports were of an “unacceptable” standard, while the current rates were still at nearly seven per cent.

3 May 2018

 

 

Campaign’s legal threat forces government pledge on election access fund decision

The government is finally set to publish a long-awaited review of a fund that supported Deaf and disabled people with the extra costs of standing for election but has been closed for the last three years.

The announcement came in response to a legal letter sent on behalf of three disabled politicians, Labour’s Emily Brothers, Liberal Democrat David Buxton and the Green party’s Simeon Hart.

They handed in a petition of more than 8,000 names to 10 Downing Street on Monday, calling on the government to reopen the Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF).

And they later took part in a protest in Parliament Square, opposite the House of Commons.

In response to a legal letter from the trio’s lawyers, Bindmans, the government has now promised to publish its evaluation of the fund and announce its decision on the fund’s future by 11 May.

Three disabled MPs, Tory Robert Halfon, Labour’s Marsha de Cordova and Liberal Democrat Stephen Lloyd, have also written to the home secretary to urge the government to reopen the fund.

Hart, Buxton and Brothers say the government has breached the Equality Act by failing to complete the review and reopen AEOF – which ran from 2012 to 2015 – and say they have effectively been unable to stand as candidates in a general election since the government froze the fund in 2015.

They are being supported in their campaign and judicial review by the cross-party campaign group More United, which is funding the legal action.

AEOF was set up in 2012 and offered grants to disabled people to pay for some of their additional impairment-related costs in standing for election as a councillor or MP, such as the costs of British Sign Language interpreters, support workers or assistive technology.

Brothers, who contested the Sutton and Cheam seat at the 2015 election, said it was “shocking” that the government had refused to publish the evaluation of the fund until it had been confronted with a judicial review, and demonstrated “how low disability is in their priorities”.

She told Disability News Service (DNS): “I think it says that they are dismissive of disabled people and that unless their hand is forced by legal action they are not going to take the necessary action.”

She pointed out that the recommendation to set up AEOF came originally from the cross-party Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation in January 2010.

She said: “We live in a democracy and 20 per cent of the population are disabled people and we have a fundamental right to be part of that democracy.”

If there was a representative number of disabled MPs, there would be about 130 rather than the six MPs who self-describe as disabled people.

Buxton, who was the first user of British Sign Language (BSL) to stand in a general election, in 1997 and 2001, and has since been part of the Liberal Democrat leadership programme, said the delay in re-opening the fund was “just not acceptable” and showed the government had “an attitude issue” when it came to disability.

He said: “The fund is a wake-up call for the government.

“I want to show them that I can do it, that I am able to do as much as anybody else if I have interpreters.

“It’s not about my deafness, it’s about my knowledge, my role as a politician.”

Hart, who stood for the Greens in Oldham West and Royton in 2015 and in the subsequent by-election later that year – when the fund’s closure meant he had to crowd-fund money to pay for his own interpreters – said: “For almost three years, whilst the fund has been frozen, some deaf and disabled candidates like me have been effectively barred from standing for election because of the additional costs that we incur.

“We’re simply asking ​the government to reinstate the fund that enabled us ​to take part in the democratic process ​on a level playing-field with non-disabled political opponents.”

The campaign has drawn widespread, cross-party support from politicians and other prominent disabled figures, including the Tory peer and former minister Lord Blencathra, the Liberal Democrat Baroness [Celia] Thomas and Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy, as well as Professor Tom Shakespeare, crossbench peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, comedian Lee Ridley and musician Blaine Harrison.

Disabled activist Eleanor Lisney, a former member of the AEOF advisory panel, said that many disabled people would “get nowhere” with seeking elected office without the kind of support funded by the AEOF.

She said: “Not having the right support would undermine anybody’s confidence in tackling a new challenge, let alone contemplating a public position.”

She added: “I think, cynically perhaps, that this government do not see disabled people as the type of politicians who will be supporting the Tory government’s ideology towards austerity.

“The three-year delay does not surprise me at all. Given the steps they have taken to cut social care and their cruel disregard of disabled people, they would not be at all encouraging or empowering disabled people’s voices in politics.”

Lisney said there needed to be disabled people at every level of the political system, not just in parliament.

She said: “Any type of experience needs to be nurtured. The shame about these lost three years is that disabled people could have learned about the business of politics.”

Liz Sayce, former chief executive of Disability Rights UK, who also took part in the protest, said: “There have been consequences of this delay.

“What is important now is that the delay ends and we have some clarity about what the support looks like.”

She added: “There are huge issues facing disabled people in Britain and we need a critical mass of disabled people in parliament to make good decisions.

“When disabled people are really trying to have an aim of participating, contributing, being part of solutions, everything should be geared to making it easy, making it happen, making it possible.

“It’s really important that disabled people are here demonstrating, wanting to contribute, wanting to be MPs or local councillors.

“For the institutions of the country to be respected and trusted they really need to reflect the whole country.”

The Government Equalities Office (GEO) declined to confirm that the government would publish the review and announce its decision on the fund’s future by 11 May.

A GEO spokeswoman said it would “not be appropriate” to comment on “ongoing legal proceedings”.

3 May 2018

 

 

Mental Health Act review ‘is just tinkering around the edges’ of reform

Mental health survivors and service-users have been left “underwhelmed” by the interim report of a review into mental health legislation in England and Wales ordered by the prime minister.

One campaigner said it was clear that the review – chaired by Professor Simon Wessely –was “tinkering around the edges” of the Mental Health Act (MHA) and would not be recommending any “dramatic reform”.

She and others raised concerns that the review team appeared to have dismissed calls by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) for the government to carry out major reform of mental health legislation that would bring the country into line with the UN disability convention.

And there was also frustration that the review appeared to be ignoring the importance of funding and “depleted” mental health services.

Sarah Yiannoullou, managing director of the National Survivor User Network and a member of the review’s advisory panel, said she was “very critical” of the “very short” time allowed for engagement with service-users.

She added: “Our main concern is that it is more of a tinkering around the edges of the current legislation rather than any dramatic reform.”

She was also concerned at the review’s failure to take more account of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

She said: “It feels like it isn’t being considered, that actually it is being avoided. We were hoping it would be fundamental to the review process.”

Yiannoullou also raised concerns at the review’s failure to conduct a “real exploration of user-led groups or resources” and said it had not “gone far enough” on the key issue of the disproportionate number of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities detained under the act, although she accepted that it was just an interim report.

Alexis Quinn, who is autistic and has taken part in the review’s consultation process, said he was “delighted” that there has been an independent review and that it has been “service-user focused”.

He said: “I am someone who can attest to the lack of dignity and respect from staff in the ‘care’ and ‘treatment’ I was supposed to receive. I have been detained more than 30 times in the past five years.

“I have been restrained 96 times in the NHS (I know this from my clinical notes) and secluded approximately 20 times.”

But he said he was “really upset” that the review had so far not been strong enough on the practice of detaining autistic people and those with learning difficulties under the MHA even if they do not have a mental health condition.

He said this failure “continues the discrimination that this review was supposed to end”.

He said: “Autism is not a disorder and it cannot be treated.

“How can the government collude with and have persons held for treatment [under section three of the act] when the thing they are being ‘treated’ for isn’t a disorder but a brain difference! I am saddened that this burning injustice will continue.”

But he said the interim report had so far succeeded in highlighting issues concerning the way that people are detained.

He said: “The way I was detained, often by police in times of distress, was uncalled for and the ‘care’ I received was not acceptable.

“Let’s be honest – forced treatment is an oxymoron. When you are being forced by six staff, all holding you down on the floor and removing your trousers to expose your bum for injection, we can hardly call this ‘care and treatment’, especially when there is no treatment for my condition: autism.

“Staff are too stretched, beds are in such short supply that oftentimes I felt I was more in a prison than a ward.

“The report is right in suggesting that people’s choices are oftentimes disregarded – as a ‘service user’ I can attest to the fact that this happens and it isn’t because our ideas are bad or not worthy of paying attention to but rather because there isn’t the staff, the time or the money to fund resources properly.”

One leading commentator on mental health issues, Kay Sheldon, who has personal experience of detention, said she was “under-whelmed” by the interim report.

She said on Twitter: “Nothing about resources – as cause or solution. The MH Act is being used to manage the risks caused by depleted services.

“[Service-users] consistently say that it’s the quality of relationships that make the difference – which staff don’t have time for now.

“People with a severe mental illness are detained for a few weeks then discharged on a [community treatment order] due to pressures on beds and staff.

“The system has become coercive and is experienced as punitive.”

In a foreword to the report, Wessely and his three vice-chairs say their key task is to examine “the rise in the use of the MHA over the last 10 years, but also the significant over-representation within that cohort of BAME communities and, within that, a significant over-representation of people of African-Caribbean and African descent”.

They say that an “aspiration of the review was and remains to reduce the number of individuals subject to compulsory detention”, while it was already clear that the system of community treatment orders (CTOs) needed to change.

The latest MHA statistics show that black people are nine times more likely to be given a CTO than white people, says the report.

The report appears to dismiss the kind of major reforms to mental health legislation called for by the UN’s CRPD, which said last year that the government should “repeal legislation and practices that authorise non-consensual involuntary, compulsory treatment” and the detention of disabled people “on the basis of actual or perceived impairment”.

The review says the UN’s approach would mean a “fundamental recasting not only of the MHA but also of the MCA [Mental Capacity Act]”, before adding: “We are not minded to recommend the complete repeal of both the MHA and MCA.”

The report warns that two-thirds of service-users who have been subject to detention under the MHA and expressed a strong view said they did not feel they had been treated with dignity and respect, with reports of “physical violence, verbal abuse and threats, bullying and harassment, sexual predation, pain-based restraint, coercive reward and punishment systems for access to open air, leave or family contact”.

Among the review’s early conclusions is that the provision of advocacy is “patchy” and that its “standards are variable”.

The report also says that the “experiences of people from black African and Caribbean heritage are particularly poor and they are detained more than any other group”.

And it says it has “heard concerns about inappropriate use of the MHA in relation to people with a learning disability or autism, potentially linked to lack of appropriate alternative provision in the community”.

3 May 2018

 

 

Disabled solicitor launches ground-breaking legal case over PIP discrimination

A disabled lawyer has launched a ground-breaking legal case against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over his claim that it deliberately discriminated against him in rejecting his claim for disability benefits.

Daniel Donaldson, founder of the Scottish social enterprise law firm Legal Spark, believes DWP has chosen to discriminate against him and other people with mental health conditions in the way it has dealt with their personal independence payment (PIP) claims.

He says DWP disregarded the evidence relating to his mental health – and focused instead on other impairments – and made no attempt to seek medical evidence about his mental health from his GP, while his assessor lied about his medication.

He believes, like many other disabled campaigners, that the system uses people without the right training and qualifications to assess PIP claims.

He said: “The DWP refused to accept anything from me, and thereafter I had to appeal and wait.

“In the meantime, debt, frustration and stress ensued. My health deteriorated – they actually made it worse.”

He believes that people with unseen impairments, such as mental health conditions, have been “left playing second fiddle” in the PIP claims process.

Donaldson points to the recent legal case in which the high court found that regulations that came into force last year were “blatantly discriminatory” because they meant that people who were unable to plan or undertake a journey due to overwhelming psychological distress would receive fewer qualifying points when assessed for PIP.

DWP later decided not to appeal against that court decision.

Donaldson said he hoped that other PIP claimants in Scotland, and across England and Wales, will follow his lead and take legal action if he is successful, which he believes “would make DWP think twice before playing a discrimination game”.

He had been receiving PIP from 2013 until it was removed following a reassessment in November 2016.

It was only reinstated last October, after he took his appeal to the social security tribunal.

It was, he said, a “year of hell”, in which he fell into debt and struggled to maintain his independence.

His case will be heard by Glasgow Sheriff Court, and he is seeking nearly £5,000 in damages, to cover bank charges, the removal of his bus pass, and £4,000 in compensation for the discrimination.

Donaldson is also taking legal action under the Equality Act against the Scottish government, because it failed to take on responsibility for PIP from DWP when it had the powers to do so from 2016.

Although the Scottish parliament last week approved legislation to set up a new social security system for Scotland – which will include the delivery of PIP and other benefits – Donaldson says it should have done this sooner.

He said: “The Scottish government must take urgent action to stop the discrimination in the administration of PIP.

“To ignore the problem and place the blame elsewhere is totally unacceptable.”

Donaldson also argues that the Scottish government should have altered the eligibility for free bus passes to ensure that claimants could continue to use them while appealing against losing their PIP.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “We cannot comment on this individual case as the legal action is ongoing.

“We’re absolutely committed to ensuring that disabled people and people with health conditions get the right support they need, and we want every person to feel they are treated fairly, with respect and dignity.

“Everyone has the right to appeal a decision if they are unhappy and additional information can be provided to support a claim.”

A Scottish government spokesman said: “We have repeatedly called on the UK government to halt the roll-out of PIP in Scotland, most recently following the report of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which called for a review of PIP due to the damage it is causing people.

“When the Scottish government begin delivery of disability benefits, we have categorically ruled out requiring anyone to undergo a disability benefit assessment by the private sector.

“We will also listen to the independent disability and carers benefits expert advisory group and our experience panels to ensure our system is fairer.

“We want to remove unnecessary barriers to those entitled to make a claim and reduce the amount of face-to-face assessments carried out.”

He had not commented on the bus pass issue by noon today (Thursday).

Donaldson said the UK government had created “a hostile and degrading environment for disabled people” by “using public policy to strip people of their statutory entitlement to benefits”, including PIP and employment and support allowance (ESA).

He said: “The ESA payments are a lifeline for disabled people who cannot work or cannot find suitable work.

“PIP is there to support disabled people who require financial support to maintain their independence. They are statutory entitlements.”

He said the only way the government can avoid paying “this essential support is by denying all the evidence that is put before them”.

He added: “This is why the majority of cases are overturned on appeal at the social security tribunal.

“There is no place for disability discrimination in the provision of public services, and it is important that both the UK and Scottish governments are reminded of that.”

3 May 2018  

 

 

Pioneering commission of disabled people sets council on path to true co-production

A pioneering inquiry by a commission of disabled people is set to lead to a London borough becoming a beacon for local authorities on how to work together with service-users to co-produce policies and services.

The report by the Hammersmith and Fulham Disabled People’s Commission focuses on how to remove the barriers disabled people face in the London borough by embedding a culture of co-production within the council.

It calls on Hammersmith and Fulham council – which funded and set up the commission and has agreed all its recommendations – to build the capacity of disabled people and their organisations in the borough and throw out the traditional model in which they are “passive recipients of services”.

Instead, the commission says that disabled people and their user-led organisations should be enabled to work with the council to “identify, design, and evaluate policy decisions and service delivery”.

The group – whose 10 members were all local disabled people – was one of several resident-led commissions set up by the council in areas such as poverty, air quality and rough sleeping.

It is believed to be the first such commission of disabled people to be set up by a local authority, while the council is also believed to be the first to make such a strong commitment to the principles of co-production.

Councillors have called the commission’s report “remarkable” and “ground breaking”.

The commission spent 13 months examining research, running surveys for residents, staff and councillors, and holding meetings and public events.

Its approach was underpinned by the social model of disability and guided by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Three-fifths of disabled residents who took part in the commission’s survey said their quality of life had fallen in the last year, while nearly half thought they were unable to influence decisions in their local area.

Among the barriers they reported were disability hate crime, access to transport, poverty caused by benefit cuts, a lack of involvement in decision-making, a shortage of accessible housing, and a lack of support for inclusive education.

Hammersmith and Fulham council has already set standards for other local authorities to follow, after becoming the first council to abolish all charges for home care services three years ago, following years of lobbying by local disabled activists and a change in the political leadership of the former Tory-run council.

The decision of what is currently a Labour-run council*, and its leader Stephen Cowan, to accept the commission’s recommendations in full is now set to make the borough a beacon for co-producing policies and services with disabled people and DPOs.

Cowan has thanked the commission for “putting a marker and lighting the path for what this council wishes to achieve”.

The commission’s report has already been published but will not be launched officially until June.

It makes eight recommendations, all of which the council has accepted and committed to implementing.

They include: to create a culture of co-production across the council; to set a budget for co-production; and to ensure independent monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

The report also says the council must “skill up and build the capacity” of disabled residents, local DPOs, staff and councillors to participate in the co-production of policy and service development.

And it says the council must recognise the “unique role, values, and authentic voice” of local DPOs and agree a long-term funding strategy for them.

Tara Flood, who chaired the commission, said this funding should include local DPOs such as Action on Disability, Safety Net – People First, Heads Up and Hammersmith and Fulham Coalition Against Cuts (HAFCAC), which are all part of the Hammersmith and Fulham DPO Network.

Flood, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education and a member of HAFCAC’s steering group, said the report challenges the “fundamental understanding” of council officers of “how they work – or don’t work – with disabled people”.

She said: “This is not going to be an easy process because it’s never been done before.

“There’s a huge amount of work to be done getting council staff, commissioners and councillors to understand the role they have got to play in making that happen alongside disabled people.

“This is about changing how they do stuff. This is not consultation, this is not engagement, this is something fundamentally different.”

The work of the group set up to implement the recommendations and “make them happen in practice” – which will include disabled people, council staff and councillors – will be “crucial”, she said.

She said disabled people would probably evaluate the success of the commission by looking at whether there had been a “fundamental change in how Hammersmith and Fulham functions” by the time the next local elections take place in 2022.

She said: “That’s the test. How different things are by the time we get to the next local election.”

But she said there were already many disabled people “looking in our direction to see how we are doing things”.

She said: “HAFCAC knew that when we got the council to end home care charging, because we were contacted all the time and continue to be contacted by people asking how the hell we did it.

“But we are onto the big stuff now, which is turning around a public sector organisation to recognise that they cannot make change happen unless they have disabled people alongside them, co-producing that change.”

One red line for her, she said, would be that the funding that came from the council – to build the capacity of DPOs and disabled people to be co-producers, and train council staff – would go to disabled people and organisations led by disabled people, and not to charities that are not led by disabled people.

This mirrors her comments in the report’s introduction, in which she says: “It is now unacceptable for other minority groups to be represented by others, for example a women’s organisation run by men.

“However, we continue to be routinely represented by non-disabled people and by organisations not led by disabled people.”

She said: “As long as I have anything to do with it, the money will be going into the hands of disabled people.

“We will be very clear that all of this work is going to be disabled person-led.

“Anything else betrays the tone and the spirit of what we were trying to achieve on the commission.”

She was asked to head the commission by Cowan on the International Day of Disabled People in December 2015.

He originally asked her to examine social inclusion in the borough, but she persuaded him to fund and support a commission of disabled people instead.

She said: “I think if you get it right for disabled people, it sets a template for getting it right for everybody, particularly on accessibility and inclusivity.”

She said it was “incredible” that the leader and chief executive of the council had “bought into” their report and recommendations so strongly, but she said she knew there would be some resistance to what they were trying to do, both from within and outside the council.

The hope is that the emphasis on co-production will lead to more cost-effective policies and services.

Flood said: “If you deliver the services people want then inevitably you are going to save money because there is no waste.”

But she said she knew that funding the report’s recommendations would be an issue, despite the council’s promises.

She said: “What I am confident about is that they are wanting to commit resources to make this happen.

“I don’t think any of us can ever be confident that that will always be enough to do everything we need to get done; the implementation group will inevitably have to work within the confines of the local authority budget cuts. That will make it harder.”

*The council’s 46 councillors were all up for re-election today (Thursday)

3 May 2018

 

 

User-led network could close as latest victim of competition from big charities

A national network of mental health service-users, survivors and activists is facing closure next month if it cannot secure new funding, after becoming the latest victim of competition from large, non-user-led charities and private sector organisations.

The threat to the future of the National Survivor User Network (NSUN), which was established in 2009, comes only a year after it warned that more than a quarter of its member organisations had been forced to close in just two years.

NSUN research reported last March that 221 of its 822 members – most of them user-led groups and all of them smaller, voluntary sector mental health groups in England – had closed since January 2015.

It warned that many of the groups had lost out to large mental health charities and private sector organisations that had been “sweeping up” their contracts to promote user-involvement or provide advocacy or peer support.

Now NSUN is facing the threat of closure itself at the end of June, after funding problems had already led to it closing its office and becoming a “virtual” organisation in December.

Sarah Yiannoullou, NSUN’s managing director, said her organisation had been facing a “hostile” environment when it was seeking new contracts.

Much of the user-involvement and engagement work that user-led organisations had established and lobbied for had now gone to non-user-led charities and private sector organisations, she said.

One example was in north-west London, where NSUN secured a contract to run a user-led project that would feed into the NHS transformation programme.

But after 18 months the contract was retendered and went instead to an alliance of local Mind charities.

A year later it was retendered again, with the contract won by the national mental health charity Rethink.

Once they win contracts, larger organisations often ask NSUN to help with their grassroots work, she said, offering just “small pots of money” in return.

Their appeals for help are “rather ad hoc and normally last minute when those companies and organisations realise that they can’t reach the communities that they set out to reach”, she said.

Yiannoullou called for these larger organisations to acknowledge “how some of these business practices affect others”.

She said they needed to show some “ethical principles” in their business approaches, “potentially looking to work in partnership with user-led groups in areas where they are going for contracts rather than going for those contracts in competition against user-led groups.

“[It is] a call to providers across the sector to at least have a principle in their approach.”

She said: “The larger charities are getting larger and the smaller ones [like NSUN] are getting smaller or disappearing.”

And she said that NSUN had at least had some “support and encouraging messages” from larger non-user-led organisations, with a recognition that “some of their business strategies are maybe inadvertently unhelpful”.

She said: “If we don’t pull something out of the bag the longer-term outcome is not great for us.”

Yiannoullou said NSUN showed that “people are able to do things for themselves, and that the direct and independent and collective voice of experience is absolutely crucial because there isn’t any other [NSUN] organisational agenda other than having that direct voice.

“For us it is about bridging that gap between the rhetoric and the reality, [saying] this is how it is for people, being able to give timely and very current and real experiences that cut into the policy rhetoric.

“Quite often individual contributions have been dismissed as minority views when in fact having that collective we can demonstrate that this isn’t the minority view.”

NSUN’s acting chair, Dr Sarah Carr, warns in a letter to members this week that NSUN is “experiencing the difficulties many service user and community organisations are facing in the context of austerity and an increasingly competitive sector”.

She says in the letter: “We maintain the strong belief that as a uniquely diverse network of service users, survivors and activists, we are a force to be reckoned with.

“So, guided by our core belief that ‘together we are stronger’, among other things, we are exploring all possible options, including talking to funders past and present, looking at our organisational model and exploring partnerships and back office sharing options with other organisations.”

She adds: “Closure is not a decision we want to make but we need to be honest with you about the possibility in case that is the decision the Board are forced to make.”

3 May 2018

 

 

Government refuses to say what has happened to its disability strategy

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has refused to say what has happened to its cross-government disability strategy, following the release of new material under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA).

Despite repeated requests for the department to clarify whether it currently has a disability strategy, it has refused to do so.

The refusal to explain whether it still follows its Fulfilling Potential strategy has cast fresh doubt on the government’s commitment to disability rights and equality, and its pledge in 2013 to make the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) “a living reality for disabled people in Britain”.

The strategy was also supposed to describe the government’s commitment to “a society where disabled people can realise their aspirations and fulfil their potential”.

But the FoIA response to Disability News Service reveals that in a ministerial briefing prepared in 2016, civil servants accepted that the “Fulfilling Potential brand is not judged positively by some disabled people and their organisations”.

The FoIA response also describes “unminuted discussions” about Fulfilling Potential in the lead-up to last August’s public examination of the UK’s progress in implementing UNCRPD.

Ministers apparently decided as a result of those discussions that the “concluding observations” of the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities would provide “the basis for future cross-government work to break down the barriers disabled people face”.

Those concluding observations were to include more than 80 recommendations for improvements – the highest number the committee has ever produced for a country undergoing its review process – and the government has said it will respond to the UN report this summer.

Despite those unminuted discussions, DWP this week refused to say whether Fulfilling Potential had now been abandoned.

A DWP spokeswoman said that “no decision has been made” on whether ministers will draw up a new disability strategy based on the concluding observations.

She said: “Disability in the UK is mainstreamed. This means that, whilst we promote disability issues across government, every department is ultimately responsible for considering disability in the development and implementation of policies.”

But when asked if Fulfilling Potential remained the government’s disability strategy in the meantime, she said the department had “nothing further to add”.

The initial stage of Fulfilling Potential was first launched in December 2011, but there have been no updates or progress reports on the strategy on the government’s website since November 2015.

In July 2016, Nicky Morgan, at the time the minister for women and equalities, announced that the government would be reviewing Fulfilling Potential during the summer and autumn of that year.

But the FoIA response says it was later agreed – in another “unminuted discussion” – that the review would be “put on hold” until completion of the consultation on the government’s work, health and disability green paper, Improving Lives, which ended in February 2017.

The DWP spokeswoman refused to say whether any further work had been carried out on the review after the Improving Lives consultation ended.

3 May 2018

 

 

Flood’s foreign travels will collect evidence to push government on inclusion

A leading disabled activist is to travel to two of the countries with the best track records in the world on inclusive education in search of evidence to convince UK politicians and civil servants to “rebuild aspiration” for inclusion in mainstream schools.

Tara Flood, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, is hoping to collect evidence from Canada and Finland that shows how a truly inclusive system can be achieved.

Flood has secured funding from Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to visit and learn from the school systems in the Canadian city of Toronto and the province of New Brunswick, and in Finland.

The trust funds UK citizens to travel overseas to investigate “new and better ways of tackling a wide range of the current challenges facing the UK”.

She and other disabled campaigners have struggled for years against successive governments that have moved away from the idea of an inclusive education system.

Flood told the panel who interviewed her for one of the trust’s fellowships that the UK had “lost its ambition for disabled children and young people with special educational needs (SEN)”.

She told Disability News Service: “What I mean by that is the sense of being part of society, the sense of having sufficient value to ensure that whatever their access requirements, the system will meet them.”

This loss of ambition is illustrated most clearly by a Tory government that won power as part of the coalition in 2010 with a pledge to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools”.

Although much of the blame lies with the coalition years of 2010-15, and the subsequent Tory governments, which have “ramped up” the assault on inclusion, she said the last years of the previous New Labour government caused damage of their own.

It was a Labour government that insisted on imposing conditions relating to inclusive education when it ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009 – although it did pledge to build the capacity of mainstream schools to be more inclusive – and caused further damage by beginning the move towards the “academisation” of schools.

In this context of more than a decade of attacks on inclusive education, Flood decided that she “had to seek inspiration elsewhere” and began to look at some of the “really good practice” on inclusive education in other countries.

Both Toronto and New Brunswick claim to have no special schools at all, she says, with New Brunswick introducing a policy as far back as 1986 to require that all disabled students should be included in mainstream classrooms.

Finland has a “very small number” of special schools and appears very high up in international comparisons on child happiness and attainment, she says.

During her travels, she will meet disabled children and young people as well as government officials, organisations led by disabled people and parents, and teachers and educationalists.

Flood is hoping to learn why they shifted away from segregation, how their policies work in practice, and how they affect the post-education outcomes of disabled young people.

She also hopes to hear from disabled children and young people themselves on “what it feels like to be part of a really inclusive system”.

And she is hoping to bring back what she learns and use it show politicians and organisations in the UK that “this is what is possible”.

She said: “I have to be hopeful that Department for Education SEND [special educational needs and disability] leads will at least listen to what I have to say based on the evidence.

“It’s an attempt to re-build aspiration and with aspiration it is possible to think about what the government could do proactively to implement its commitment [under the UN convention] to ‘building the capacity of mainstream schools to be more inclusive’.

“We are so battered down in this country that it is really difficult to look up and think about what our vision really looks like because we are constantly firefighting.

“Personally, I am also going to recharge my campaigning batteries, to remind myself that what ALLFIE has been campaigning for for the last 27 years is actually possible.

“We need to remind ourselves that what we believe in, what we talk about all the time, is possible and is actually happening [in other countries].

“I am going to find the evidence and present it to this government.

“I also intend meeting with lead organisations in the parent-led and disabled children’s services sector to do some evangelising!”

Flood hopes to spend two weeks in both Canada and Finland, which will come towards the end of a four-month sabbatical from her work at ALLFIE – where she has been director for 12 years – which begins at the end of next week.

She will be replaced during her time away by Michelle Daley, another leading campaigner on inclusive education, co-founder of the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida, and a former member of the government’s Equality 2025 advisory network.

Flood says she will be leaving ALLFIE in “incredibly capable hands” but has already told Daley that she does not just want her to keep her seat warm while she is away, but to “look at what we do and how we do it with a fresh pair of eyes”.

ALLFIE has recently received another three years’ funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, part of which will allow ALLFIE to examine its future financial sustainability.

“It is really timely to have a new, fresh pair of eyes to overlook that particular piece of work,” says Flood.

Daley said: “ALLFIE is a well-established organisation with great values on inclusive education. I couldn’t have asked for a better organisation to lead.

“I’m excited about my appointment but know there will be many challenges ahead in continuing to communicate the developments and positive understanding of inclusive education.”

When Flood returns to ALLFIE, in September, she hopes to be equipped with all the material she needs to convince the government to implement last autumn’s recommendations by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities.

The committee, which had been examining the UK’s implementation of the UN convention, called on the government to set out “a coherent and adequately financed strategy, with concrete timelines and measurable goals, on increasing and improving inclusive education”.

Flood says she hopes her research in Canada and Finland will provide the evidence to show the UK government “what is possible” in implementing the UN’s recommendations.

3 May 2018

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com