Ministers set to force work-related activity on everyone in ESA support group

The Department for Work and Pensions is considering forcing all sick and disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits to take part in “mandatory” activity, its new green paper has revealed.

The suggestion of compulsory activity is revealed in a single line of the 92-page work, health and disability green paper, published this week.

Such a change would mean that all people on out-of-work disability benefits – even those who are terminally-ill or have the very highest support needs – would have to stay in regular touch with their local jobcentre or risk having their benefits sanctioned.

The measure would affect those in the support group of employment and support allowance (ESA) – and the equivalent group in the new universal credit – a group which is currently not expected to carry out any work-related activity at all.

The green paper, Improving Lives, says ministers “could consider implementing a ‘keep-in-touch’ discussion with work coaches” for people in the support group, which “could provide an opportunity for work coaches to offer appropriate support tailored to the individual’s current circumstances” and “could be explored as a voluntary or mandatory requirement”.

It comes only a month after the new work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, secured widespread praise for announcing an end to repeat assessments for those on ESA with “the most severe, lifetime conditions”.

He said then that the government would “sweep away unnecessary stress and bureaucracy which weigh them down” and that “if someone has a disease which can only get worse, making them turn up for repeated appointments to claim what they need is pointless bureaucratic nonsense”.

Now Green appears to have decided that the same group of people should be forced into repeated contact with a “work coach”, or lose some of their benefits.

Asked about this inconsistency, a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman did not deny the possibility of mandatory activity for all those in the support group.

She said: “We recognise that people in the support group have limited capability for work related activity – but that does not necessarily mean they should be left without any support at all.

“We believe it is important to give claimants the opportunity to take up the offer of personalised and tailored support if it is appropriate for them, regardless of what group they are placed in following the WCA.”

The green paper’s repeated emphasis that the government wants to “reinforce work as a health outcome” is also likely to alarm many disabled campaigners and healthcare professionals.

It says the government will increase the number of job advisers in healthcare settings and ensure that “all health professionals are sufficiently trained and confident to have work-related conversations” with patients.

It also warns that ministers “want to make the benefits of work an ingrained part of the training and professional approach of the health and social care workforce”.

Asked whether DWP accepted that many disabled people and health professionals believe that it is dangerous and unethical to view employment as a health outcome, particularly for people in mental distress, a spokeswoman said that “evidence shows that being in the right work is good for health and that being out of work can have a detrimental effect on health”.

She said that the government’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies mental health treatment programme was “voluntary at every stage and that includes the employment support offer within the programme”.

There may also be concerns about new mandatory “health and work conversations” in which work coaches will use “specially designed techniques” to “help” some ESA claimants “identify their health and work goals, draw out their strengths, make realistic plans, and build resilience and motivation”.

The green paper claims that these conversations were “co-designed with disabled people’s organisations and occupational health professionals and practitioners and the Behavioural Insights Team [the controversial ‘Nudge Unit’, which is part-owned by the Cabinet Office]”.

There has so far been little or no analysis of the green paper in the mainstream media or from politicians, with most of the coverage and comment occurring before it was published and so based on extracts offered by DWP.

Much of that media coverage repeated Green’s claim that the government would provide more “personalised” employment support for disabled people.

But the green paper provides little evidence of real personalised support.

Measures likely to be widely welcomed include plans to remove the 12-month time limit on permitted work for those in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG), and the possibility of funding for some local peer support groups.

The green paper suggests that those placed in the WRAG will be allocated employment support places in either the new Work and Health Programme or the specialist Work Choice programme, while DWP will expand peer support job clubs – whose effectiveness was backed in research earlier this year by Disability Rights UK and The Work Foundation – to 71 Jobcentre Plus areas with high numbers of ESA claimants.

Ministers will also test a voluntary, supported work experience programme for young disabled people, and increase funding for Access to Work’s mental health support service.

The DWP spokeswoman said the personalised support “includes a range of new interventions and initiatives, [and] is designed to provide more tailored support which work coaches will offer” to disabled claimants.

There was widespread media coverage of Green’s pledge to reform the work capability assessment (WCA), the controversial eligibility test for ESA which has been implicated in hundreds – and possibly thousands – of deaths of disabled people, and in causing significant harm and distress to tens of thousands of others.

But the green paper suggests little reform of the assessment process itself, although ministers say they would introduce a separate process for deciding what kind of employment support an ESA claimant should be signposted to.

It does suggest that the WCA process should be able to draw on information “from the NHS, the adult social care system or through other benefit applications” if this is “appropriate and relevant”.

And it suggests that there could be “a more appropriate process” for the “small proportion” of ESA claimants with the highest support needs, which could include “a simpler assessment process”.

Asked about the WCA reform plans, a DWP spokeswoman said there had been five independent reviews of the WCA, which had made more than 100 recommendations, “the vast majority of which we have accepted”, while DWP was now “consulting on a new approach to deciding entitlement to financial employment support”.

Questions are likely to be asked about the green paper’s pledge to introduce an extra 300 disability employment advisers (DEAs) to jobcentres, increasing the total number to 500.

The green paper fails to point out that, as recently as January 2014, there were 900 DEAs spread across the country’s 719 jobcentres, before hundreds were removed by ministers.

As recently as March, the previous – short-lived – work and pensions secretary, Stephen Crabb, promised to recruit an extra 500 DEAs.

Asked to confirm these figures, a DWP spokeswoman would only repeat that there will be an extra 300 DEAs.

In addition, DWP will recruit about 200 “community partners”, who will have “personal and professional experience of disability”, with many of them apparently to be seconded from disabled people’s organisations.

These community partners will work with Jobcentre Plus staff to “provide valuable first-hand insight into the issues individuals with a health condition or disability face in securing and sustaining employment”, and will draw on their local knowledge.

Questions may also be asked about the green paper’s refusal to provide any end date for the repeated ministerial pledge to halve the disability employment gap.

Asked if there was any target date, the DWP spokeswoman declined to provide one, but said the government was “committed to halving the disability employment gap” and had “helped nearly 500,000 more disabled people into employment over the past three years”.

There will be widespread concern at the statement in the green paper that ministers believe there should be a greater role for income protection insurance policies, which employers can take out privately to help address the risks and impact of ill-health among their employees.

Many disabled activists have grown increasingly concerned at the influence of at least one provider of such policies, which has been blamed for undermining the system of out-of-work disability benefits.

In September, a book by disabled researcher Mo Stewart detailed the influence of the US insurance giant Unum over successive UK governments, and how it had undermined the social security system in order to boost the market for its own income protection policies.

And there is likely to be frustration that, yet again, there is a strong focus on encouraging employers to be more “disability confident” – with a suggestion of offering them “financial or other incentives” to employ disabled people – but no mention of any measures to force them to implement their Equality Act duties on employing disabled people.

A DWP spokeswoman told DNS: “Businesses are required to fulfil their legal obligations under the Equality Act.

“As part of the consultation, we ask what the expectation should be on employers to recruit and retain disabled people and those with long-term health conditions.”

Meanwhile, there is confusion about whether ministers plan to scrap Work Choice, the specialist employment programme for disabled people, as was announced in last November’s spending review.

The green paper suggests instead that places on Work Choice will still be offered to ESA claimants from 2017.

The DWP spokeswoman said that the “Work Programme and Work Choice have been successful in supporting participants into work, but the current economic context demands a new approach” through a new Work and Health Programme, but by 11am today (Thursday) she had failed to clarify whether Work Choice will eventually be scrapped.

Help for those who are furthest from the job market will still be available through the Specialist Employability Support programme, according to the green paper, with the possibility of more places on the scheme for ESA WRAG claimants.

The green paper also promises to “open up apprenticeships” to young people with learning difficulties, by making “adjustments” to English and maths requirements, while it will work with social enterprises and disabled entrepreneurs to set up apprenticeships “specifically for young disabled people”.

A consultation on the green paper will run until 17 February 2017, and among the ways to comment are via an online survey and by emailing workandhealth@dwp.gsi.gov.uk

3 November 2016

 

 

Mind boss lies to protesters over DWP contracts

Mind’s chief executive has lied to service-users and other disabled activists who were protesting about his charity’s close links with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Disabled activists who gathered outside Mind’s headquarters on Monday declared “war” on the charity because of its support for DWP policies that they say have damaged people in mental distress.

The protest, led by mental health service-users, was sparked by the decision of the charity’s policy and campaigns manager Tom Pollard to join DWP on secondment as a senior policy adviser.

The noisy protest saw activists brand Mind an “absolute disgrace” and brandish a bag containing “30 pieces of silver”, which they said was “blood money” for Pollard.

When Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief executive, left the building to speak to protesters, he told them the charity had “no contracts with DWP” and that he was “not interested in future contracts at this stage”.

But after the protest, a disgruntled member of Mind staff leaked details that appeared to be from the charity’s internal website, which showed that it was applying to join a DWP framework that will allow it to bid for employment and health-related contracts, each of which could be worth between £2 million and £30 million a year.

The posts appear to refer to a framework that will allow charities and other organisations to bid for contracts under DWP’s new Work and Health Programme.

One post says: “Any such contracts undertaken by Mind for the direct delivery of appropriate employment and health related services would be through local Minds.”

It also suggests that Mind has taken measures to avoid being named publicly, allowing it to dodge the potential “reputational risk” of bidding jointly for a contract with a controversial partner.

Asked by Disability News Service (DNS) if he would apologise and resign for lying to service-users, Farmer issued a statement in which he failed to answer those questions, but appeared to accept that he had lied, stating that the charity would not bid for any DWP contracts that involved “any element of mandation or sanction”.

He added: “We only bid for contracts that align with our values and that would allow us to offer our expertise in providing person-centred, supportive back-to-work and employment retention services.”

The protesters had accused Mind of acting in its own interests, rather than those of service-users, of “putting profit before people”, and pushing the “nonsense” idea that work should be seen as a health outcome or even a cure for those in mental distress.

And they said the charity had failed to speak out about the deaths of mental health service-users who have been driven to take their own lives by the government’s welfare reforms, its “fitness for work” assessment, and its sanctions system.

Denise McKenna, a co-founder of the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), and one of the protest’s organisers, told protesters: “We know that work is not a cure for mental health problems, yet national Mind is going along with this rubbish in order to get contracts with the government.

“Today is the first day of what is going to be a long campaign against national Mind.

“We don’t see national Mind as an ally for people in mental distress unless they [distance themselves] from DWP and say work is not a cure for mental health problems.

“Until such time as that happens, quite frankly we are at war with national Mind.”

Fellow organiser Paula Peters told the protest: “Government policy will put us into further coercion and that will cause deaths.

“We all know someone who is not here [because they have died due to DWP policies].

“Look out of the window; this is 30 pieces of silver. This is yours, you traitors.”

She added: “We will make every charity who works with the government toxic – we will make every charity’s reputation so dirty that no-one will touch them.”

The protest took place as work and pensions secretary Damian Green was launching his green paper on employment support for disabled people, with fears among protesters and fellow activists that it would lead to people in severe mental distress being “bullied and coerced” into work.

They believe that mental health services are already being designed with the purpose of “harassing people into work”.

The action was supported by other grassroots, user-led networks, including WinVisible, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Black Triangle.

They have called for the resignation of both Farmer and the charity’s president, Stephen Fry, and want local Mind associations to disaffiliate themselves from the national charity.

They are also threatening a boycott of Mind’s services and fundraising activities, and have called on its staff to show their own disapproval by taking strike action.

Farmer told the protesters: “We have campaigned very openly and clearly on issues around welfare reform for many years now.

“It is a matter we take extremely seriously in terms of the way we have listened to a whole range of people talking about their experiences, the fundamental flaws of the work capability assessment (WCA).

“We want a fundamental overhaul of the WCA.”

He said that Mind “did comment publicly” about deaths linked to the WCA, which he said were “terrible, terrible acts” and that “of course, no-one wants then to take place”.

Farmer said there was “good evidence that good work is good for our mental health” but Mind was “very clear that people should not be forced into work”.

He encouraged people to take part in the “conversation” around the government’s new green paper.

And he said that Pollard had “done an amazing job for us at Mind” and had challenged ministers and civil servants in meetings on welfare reform.

Farmer refused to take the 30 pieces of silver with him when he returned to the Mind offices.

But protesters warned that the action was only the beginning of a lengthy campaign that would make the charity as “toxic” as other DWP contractors such as Atos, Maximus and Capita.

Protesters said they would be “at war with national Mind” until the charity distanced itself from DWP, and they warned other disability charities that “collude” with DWP that they would also be targeted.

Linda Laurie, a former member of the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network, told the protest: “This guy is just like the head of all these big charities that have taken the money from organisations run by disabled people.

“Hundreds [of disabled-led organisations] have been shut down and they are taking the money and they are claiming to speak on their behalf.

“Rights not charity! And now we are just finding out what many of us have suspected for years – charities are only in it for themselves, they are not bothered about us.

“That guy isn’t one of us. How the hell can he claim to speak on our behalf?”

Another of the protesters, psychotherapist Paul Atkinson, has been working with MHRN and DPAC as a member of the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy and the Free Psychotherapy Network to oppose the idea of a “work cure” for mental distress.

He said Mind’s actions were “symbolic of what’s happening in the way that charities have been colluding with the workhouse policies of the Tories”, and the idea of psychological coercion through DWP policies such as its sanctions system.

He said he believed there was “quite a lot of concern” building up among local Mind organisations about “this massive emphasis on work being a cure for mental health”.

He said: “If someone wants to work, that is absolutely fine, that can be supported as much as possible, but as a goal for therapy it is completely unacceptable.”

McKenna told DNS that she believed Farmer and Mind had been “taken by surprise” by the strength of the protests against its DWP links.

She said Mind had become “complacent and frankly a bit arrogant”.

She added: “I don’t know if [Farmer] believes there is such a thing as a work cure but that is what they have thrown their lot in with.

“He clearly believes he is doing the right thing for national Mind and himself. I don’t think he gives a damn whether he is doing the right thing for mental health service-users.

“People are beginning to see through the charities now. We have to treat them the same way as we treat Atos.

“I don’t believe he doesn’t know what the government has planned for us. This is about getting people with severe mental health problems into work.”

Mark Roberts, a co-founder of MHRN, said: “I think national Mind will encourage local associations to become mini-Atos’s.

“It’s happening already, with local associations just doing the government’s bidding and the local authority’s bidding.”

And he said he believed that support for the campaign was building around the country among local Mind associations, as well as in the wider disabled people’s movement.

3 November 2016

 

 

Coroner asked to explain failure to hold inquest into benefit sanctions death

Lawyers for the sister of a disabled man who died after his benefits were sanctioned have asked a coroner to explain why there was no inquest into his death.

Gill Thompson has paid for the legal action through crowd-funding, raising more than £17,000 in a bid to secure answers and change the system that she believes led to the death of her brother, David Clapson.

Now the senior coroner in Hertfordshire, where Clapson died in July 2013, has been asked by her lawyers why no inquest was ordered into his death.

Thompson’s solicitor, Merry Varney, from human rights lawyers Leigh Day, said they were arguing that he died an “unnatural death” because of the benefit sanction imposed on him shortly before he died.

She said: “We hope that these submissions will show the coroner that there is a reason to suspect that David died an unnatural death and that an investigation should be opened with a view to holding a full inquest into the circumstances of David’s death.”

Clapson’s case was mentioned in prime minister’s questions yesterday (Wednesday) by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who described his and other deaths as “institutionalised barbarity”.

In submissions to the Hertfordshire coroner, Leigh Day argue that “the role played by the imposition of a benefit sanction in Mr Clapson’s death, the systems in place to manage the risks posed by benefit sanctions to those who receive them, and the decision-making of Department for Work and Pensions staff when imposing benefit sanctions on vulnerable and at-risk individuals, are of wider public importance and are matters of significant public concern”.

Hertfordshire senior coroner Geoffrey Sullivan said in a statement: “Coroners are judicial office holders and like other judges are not permitted to comment outside a courtroom on any of their cases (or indeed any other coroner’s cases) or discuss any decision they have made.”

But Varney said there were strong legal arguments that Clapson was subjected to “inhuman or degrading treatment” under the Human Rights Act, and that the coroner’s decision breached the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

She said that inquests and coronial investigations play “a fundamental role in ensuring preventable or avoidable deaths are identified and that steps are taken to prevent another tragedy”.

Varney has told Disability News Service (DNS) that she believes there are also strong grounds for legal action to be taken in many other cases in which there has been “culpable human failure” within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that has led to the deaths of benefit claimants.

She said she was “surprised” that there did not appear to have been legal actions into other cases in which disabled people had died as a result of benefit sanctions or other welfare reforms, including the impact of the work capability assessment.

She said: “I have seen these terrible stories reported but nothing about legal proceedings, and that surprises me.”

Varney appealed to other families who have lost relatives in similar tragedies to contact Leigh Day.

Thompson said she had raised the money to pay for the initial stages of the legal action through more than 900 crowd-funded donations.

She said: “David died over money and like David I have never asked for anything in my life, so it was very hard. My husband can’t believe I have done all this.”

But she added: “I will do whatever it takes. They can’t keep ignoring us.

“I’m not going to give in. I know we have to have procedures and regulations, but they have to be fair.”

Thompson said she still did not know if DWP had conducted a secret “peer review” into the circumstances of her brother’s death.

She is continuing to highlight DWP’s refusal to accept the work and pensions select committee’s recommendation to set up a watchdog to investigate – if requested by relatives – the deaths of all working-age claimants of out-of-work benefits.

Thompson was beside the red carpet in London’s Leicester Square with other campaigners at last month’s premiere of Ken Loach’s award-winning film I, Daniel Blake, which tells the story of a man with a heart condition who becomes caught up in the work capability assessment system.

She held up a banner to show the names of people who have died as a result of sanctions and benefit cuts, including her brother.

Thompson backed calls, reported last week by DNS, for a coroner to hold an inquest into the death of another disabled benefit claimant, Alan McArdle.

Thompson said: “I think they should. I think they should look into all the deaths.”

A coroner refused to hold an inquest into McArdle’s death even though he had a fatal heart attack an hour after being told the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was threatening to stop his benefits.

McArdle told the friend who had read the DWP letter to him: “They’ve sanctioned my money,” before he collapsed.

A coroner argued that McArdle simply died from natural causes, just like the coroner in Clapson’s case, but Dr Stephen Carty, medical adviser to Black Triangle, said last week that emotional stress can cause a cardiac death, and added: “Subjecting patients such as Mr McArdle to extreme emotional distress such as this presents a substantial risk, one which in our opinion led to a sudden cardiac death.”

Clapson died from diabetic ketoacidosis, an acute lack of insulin, three weeks after having his benefits sanctioned.

Because of the sanction, his electricity key had run out of credit because he had no money, so the fridge where he kept his insulin was not working.

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

But there has never been an inquest, even though DWP has admitted that it knew he was insulin-dependent.

Clapson had previously worked for 30 years, including five years in the army, and recently as a carer for his mother, who had dementia, but had had his £71.70-a-week jobseeker’s allowance stopped for a month after he missed two meetings at his local jobcentre.

CVs for job applications were found near his body, and he had been on work placements, passed a fork-lift truck qualification and attended a computer training course.

3 November 2016

 

 

DPOs criticise DWP for excluding them from green paper launch

Grassroots disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have criticised the government’s decision to exclude them from an event held to launch its new work, health and disability green paper.

The event for “stakeholders” was hosted by the disability charity Scope at its London headquarters, and attended by Penny Mordaunt, the minister for disabled people.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said in its invitation – it turned down a request from Disability News Service (DNS) to attend – that the event would “start the consultation period” on its green paper, Improving Lives.

It said that it was “launching a new conversation with disabled people and people with health conditions, their representatives, healthcare professionals and employers”.

But DWP has refused to say how many disabled people’s user-led organisations were invited to the event, and instead suggested that DNS submit a freedom of information request to find out.

But DNS has confirmed that some of the most prominent user-led organisations with the strongest links to disabled people were not invited to the launch, including Shaping Our Lives, Inclusion London, Equal Lives, People First (Self Advocacy) and Disabled People Against Cuts.

Ellen Clifford, campaigns manager for Inclusion London, said: “Inclusion London were disappointed by the apparent absence of grassroots Deaf and disabled people’s organisations from the invitations to attend the launch event of the green paper at Scope on Tuesday.

“Failings in the implementation of welfare reform have led to avoidable deaths and caused considerable harm to Deaf and disabled people.

“By side-lining the voices of people who are experts in what is actually happening on the ground, the government will continue to make policy decisions that are ill-informed and fail to meet their stated aims while growing the inequality gap and creating misery and distress.”

DPAC said the lack of an invite to the Scope-hosted event shows “yet another of the big corporate charities selling out the people they claim to represent and sucking up to a government that in the words of Ken Loach has perpetrated ‘conscious cruelty’ on disabled people”.

Andrew Lee, People First’s director of policy and campaigns, pointed out that only about seven per cent of people with learning difficulties had jobs.

He said: “At People First, all paid jobs are held by people with learning difficulties (with support).

“With this in mind, I am very disappointed that a national user-led organisation such as People First (Self Advocacy) was not invited to this launch event, as we are one of the organisations with the best understanding about the barriers we face in employment.

“Committees from both the House of Lords and the House of Commons have come to People First for expert evidence in a range of inquiries, such as [those investigating] the Equality Act 2010 and more recently disability and the built environment.

“However, when it comes to employment it would seem that we have been left out in more ways than one.”

Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, said the failure to invite his organisation and other DPOs showed the government did not see them as stakeholders.

He said the green paper was “a massive smokescreen to divert people’s attention away from deaths and suicides that the work capability assessments and sanctions have created”.

He added: “[The Ken Loach film] I, Daniel Blake has shone a spotlight on it beyond the disability movement and those that really understand what is going on.

“It’s a desperate PR exercise and Scope and Mind [which has also been criticised this week for its closeness to DWP] are colluding and collaborating in this con.”

Becki Meakin, general manager of Shaping Our Lives, added: “As host to a national network of user-led organisations, Shaping Our Lives was disappointed not to have been invited to the launch.

“We welcome opportunities to support grassroots, user-led organisations who offer many different types of support to disabled people seeking employment.

“It is essential that capacity is provided to enable these groups of people with lived experience to influence this policy and we hope that at a time when user-groups are threatened by funding cuts that they will not be overlooked.”

A DWP spokeswoman declined to say how many DPOs attended the launch, but said: “The invite list reflected the need for stronger integration between health and work, which is a key theme in the green paper.

“This included service-users, disability charities, voluntary sector representatives, employers, and health stakeholders.

“One attendee represents over 80 disability charities, many of whom are service-user led.

“Over the coming weeks we will be engaging with disabled people, people with health conditions, and the organisations that represent them through a range of communication channels so that we can effectively capture their views.”

3 November 2016

 

 

Activists welcome disability commissioner’s decision to leave EHRC

Disabled activists have welcomed the decision of the equality watchdog’s disability commissioner not to seek a second four-year term.

The decision of Lord [Chris] Holmes was only revealed after the Department for Education (DfE), the sponsor department of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), advertised for “one or more” new commissioners.

The advert says that one of the successful candidates will be the new disability commissioner, and that – like the commission’s previous disability commissioners – they will be someone who is or has been a disabled person.

The closing date for the appointment was on Tuesday this week (1 November), with interviews set to take place next month.

As well as acting as an EHRC commissioner, the successful candidate will also chair the commission’s disability committee, although the committee is set to be disbanded in 2017 and replaced by an advisory group that will not have the same legal powers to make decisions on issues affecting disabled people.

Concerns about the tenure of Lord Holmes were first raised when he was made a Conservative peer, only seven months after his appointment as disability commissioner in 2013.

These concerns resurfaced earlier this year when EHRC announced that it had commissioned a major piece of research into whether the government’s welfare reforms had harmed the human rights of disabled people and other minority groups.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) pointed out that Lord Holmes had voted in favour of many of those reforms after he joined the House of Lords, including cutting payments by £30 a week for some new employment and support allowance claimants, and it raised concerns over how disabled people could have confidence in the inquiry “whilst Lord Holmes has his position as a commissioner and chair of the EHRC’s disability committee”.

The following week, a letter calling on him to resign as disability commissioner was sent to EHRC by disabled activist Susan Archibald, after being signed by several leading disabled people and campaigning organisations, including Disabled People Against CutsBlack TrianglePat’s Petition and the Spartacus online campaigning network.

Several of the disabled activists who signed the letter have now welcomed his decision not to seek another term as disability commissioner.

Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the national service-user network Shaping Our Lives, said: “Lord Holmes’ decision not to seek to renew his miserable term as EHRC disability commissioner is important for only one thing.

“It means that the government will be forced out into the open about its official attitude to disabled people’s human and civil rights by the kind of appointment it supports.

“This is what we should be watching very carefully and doing all we can to raise the profile of the decision-making process.

“We can expect little of this government given its record so far.

“But we may be able shine some light onto the reality of the prime minister’s rhetoric of her support for people’s rights and freedoms.”

Archibald said: “I am very happy he has decided to finally resign, as now disabled people in UK can get someone worthy of this title.

“He gave up the right to be recognised as a disability leader when he decided to vote against the very people he should be representing in the House of Lords.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, added: “This early resignation shows how little commitment he had for the job and supports our view that he should never have been appointed.”

Before that appointment, Lord Holmes had been director of Paralympic integration for the London 2012 organising committee LOCOG, and served as a commissioner with the Disability Rights Commission for more than five years.

A commercial lawyer, he won nine Paralympic swimming gold medals, including six at the Barcelona Paralympics of 1992.

Among his achievements as disability commissioner, he championed a new engagement strategy for the committee, with meetings each year in Scotland, Wales and in one of the English regions, when previously they were all held in London.

He has spoken out on issues such as disability hate crime, the inaccessibility of many Premier League football stadiums, the safety of shared space street developments, and the “disappointing” number of disabled people on the boards of the country’s major disability sports organisations.

He also criticised his own government for refusing to reopen the Access to Elected Office Fund, which provided financial support for disabled people who want to stand for election to parliament or local councils.

But the commission has appointed non-disabled people to the disability committee for the first time under his leadership, while he has also been unable to prevent the government deciding to scrap the committee and replace it with an advisory group.

Lord Holmes declined to talk to Disability News Service about his decision to quit the watchdog, but he said in a statement: “It has been an honour to serve as disability commissioner over the last four years, and I am very proud of the work we have done in this time across many issues which impact upon disabled people every day.

“This has included inquiries into disability hate crime, ensuring access to Premier League football stadia, promoting greater diversity in broadcast media, and our continued work on improving access to public transport, to name a few recent examples.

“We have also taken landmark legal cases, not least Stott versus Thomas Cook and Paulley versus First Bus.

“We have an excellent group of experts around the table at the [EHRC’s] disability committee who I was privileged to bring on board. After four years, it feels like the right time to move on.

“My commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion remains complete as demonstrated in much of my other work, not least in relation to shared space.

“I wish the new disability commissioner, when they are appointed, every success.”

3 November 2016

 

 

Brothers speaks out on Labour’s failure to appoint shadow disability minister

One of Labour’s most prominent disabled politicians has called on her own party to demonstrate its intent to hold the government to account by appointing a shadow disability minister.

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

Amid confusion, a spokesman for Corbyn eventually told Disability News Service that discussions were “ongoing” but that the post would “definitely be filled”.

The party has not had a shadow minister for disabled people since the promotion of Debbie Abrahams to shadow work and pensions secretary in July, more than three months ago.

Neither Corbyn’s spokesman nor Abrahams were able to say last week why the process had taken so long.

Now one of the party’s few high-profile disabled members has called for it to act now to fill the vacancy.

Emily Brothers was one of the handful of disabled people to stand for Labour at the 2015 general election when she fought the Sutton and Cheam seat in south-west London.

But she has now expressed concern about Labour’s capability to hold the government to account over its new work, health and disability green paper, which was published this week.

She said Abrahams was “doing a great job in speaking out for disabled people”, but since her promotion the shadow disability role had remained vacant.

She said: “I was delighted that Jeremy Corbyn rectified a similar situation with mental health, but he needs to do likewise with the portfolio of shadow minister for disabled people.

“With the new green paper and the government ambition to halve the disability employment gap by 2020, there will undoubtedly be consequences.

“Labour must have the ‘capability’ to hold the government to account. Jeremy needs to demonstrate that intent by appointing a new shadow minister for disabled people.”

Among others to criticise the party this week were Labour’s former minister for disabled people, Anne McGuire, herself a disabled person, who said on Twitter: “In 1974, Labour appointed Alf Morris, Minister for Disabled People, the first in the world.

“It would be tragic if my party lost this focus.”

Neither Abrahams nor Corbyn’s spokesman had responded to Brothers’ comments by 11am today (Thursday).

3 November 2016

 

 

Campaigners warn minister of ‘unlawful failure’ to ensure accessible train service

Campaigners are set to take legal action against the government over its failure to provide an accessible service for disabled passengers across part of England’s rail network.

The Association of British Commuters (ABC) plans to seek a judicial review of the Department for Transport’s (DfT) handling of the Southern Rail franchise, which covers parts of south London and southern England.

It has told transport secretary Chris Grayling that one of its four legal grounds for seeking a judicial review is his “unlawful failure” to comply with his duties under the Equality Act 2010 to “monitor and enforce the obligation to provide an adequate train service for disabled passengers”.

ABC is arguing that Grayling’s failure to monitor the franchise properly has allowed Southern to indirectly discriminate against disabled passengers.

The campaign group says Southern services are marred by frequent and serious overcrowding, failures in equipment that assists disabled passengers, and too few staff to help them on and off trains.

ABC is also arguing that forcing disabled passengers to book assistance in advance, when that does not even guarantee them assistance, is “totally unacceptable, unlawful and immoral”.

Southern Rail plans to replace conductors with “on board supervisors” (OBSs), whose job will not include stepping onto the platform at stations.

Campaigners fear that introducing these supervisors will mean that disabled passengers who need assistance on platforms at unstaffed stations could be left stranded and unable to board their train.

Southern is also planning to allow OBS trains to operate with only a driver in “exceptional circumstances” – which is likely to make travel even harder for disabled people – and has also admitted that two-fifths of its trains are already driver-only operated (DOO).

Campaigners have said that DOO trains may be reasonable at a well-staffed station but not on a network where stations are often unstaffed.

Southern is embroiled in a long-running industrial dispute over its plans to replace guards with OBSs.

ABC believes that if DOO trains become the norm on the Southern network, it will result in a “permanent breach of the Equality Act” when trains stop at unstaffed platforms.

Last month, the Commons transport select committee said in a report that it was concerned that no equality assessment had been made of the potential impact of DOO trains on disabled people’s access to train travel.

The ABC legal action – paid for through crowdfunding – has been backed by disabled access expert Ann Bates, an independent consultant for Southern.

She told Disability News Service earlier this year that Southern’s plans would lead to “unacceptable” and repeated breaches of the Equality Act by denying disabled passengers the support they need to travel.

To back up her concerns, Bates – a wheelchair-user – had spent a day travelling on Southern services with an older passenger and a blind person, confronting repeated access problems, including platforms without portable ramps, unstaffed stations and unhelpful call-centre staff.

Bates agrees with ABC that running a driver-only train to an unstaffed station – if there was a passenger on board who could not exit without assistance – would be a clear breach of the Equality Act.

She said she hoped the ABC legal action would force DfT to take seriously its Equality Act obligations on the railways.

Bates said she believed that asking disabled passengers to pre-book their assistance was not a reasonable adjustment under the act, although she does usually pre-book her own journeys because she has a better chance of securing the assistance she needs to board and disembark a train.

She added: “I have worked since the 70s to get equal access to buses, trains, coaches, and we will not be defeated by a rail franchisee that just wants to cut costs.”

She warned that if the struggle to oppose Southern was lost, similar changes would be brought in by rail franchises across the country.

ABC is now calling on disabled Southern passengers to describe their own experiences of the company’s services, which will be used to help with the campaign and possibly the legal action.

A DfT spokesman said: “Improving rail services for Southern passengers is a priority for us and the operator.

“We announced last month that Network Rail would deliver £20 million of improvements on this line and appointed a rail industry expert to lead a project board to drive up performance.

“We have responded to correspondence from lawyers acting on behalf of the Association of British Commuters.”

Southern has previously argued that running a driver-only train would not breach the Equality Act, and that the OBS role provides it “with the opportunity to improve the quality and consistency of support provided to disabled passengers”.

It has claimed that un-named actions it plans to put in place will allow it to comply with its Equality Act obligations.

3 November 2016

 

 

New scheme will offer disabled people another fast track to leadership

A new scholarship programme aims to fast-track disabled people towards leadership positions in the physical activity sector.

The Matrix LeadAbility Scholarship Programme will offer at least four bursaries worth £6,000 each in its first year, the second new scheme in just a month designed to support disabled people into leadership positions in different industries.

The programme is being run by the physical activity charity ukactive – which is chaired by retired Paralympian Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson – and the disability charity Aspire.

Only last month, Arts Council England said it would spend more than a million pounds on bursaries for nine disabled leaders in the arts and cultural sectors, to help them gain the experience, knowledge, skills and confidence to compete for future posts as artistic directors, chief executives or other senior positions.

LeadAbility will fund £6,000 places for the four “brightest and best disabled up and coming leaders” in the physical activity sector to attend a week-long course at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, ranked as having the best MBA course in Europe by the Economist magazine.

Sport England’s Active People Survey has shown that disabled people are half as likely to be physically active as non-disabled people, and ukactive said that ensuring industry jobs were more accessible to disabled staff would be a “significant step towards rectifying this”.

LeadAbility aims to build on the success of InstructAbility, an award-winning programme led by Aspire, which provides disabled people with free and accessible training and qualifications in the physical activity sector, followed by an industry work placement, and which has so far trained more than 300 instructors.

Baroness Grey-Thompson said: “LeadAbility provides a fantastic opportunity to diversify our workforce by helping disabled people land senior positions in the physical activity sector based solely on merit.

“It also demonstrates another proactive step towards being the all-inclusive sector that we aspire to be, whether it is in our teams or growing our market by attracting new people through our doors who might have previously felt our services were not for them – both disabled people and the wider population.”

Steven Ward, executive director of ukactive, said: “LeadAbility will unlock the door to boardrooms across the physical activity sector, levelling the playing field and offering the most talented disabled individuals a route to the top.”

But he added: “It is only worth applying if there is total confidence that a candidate has the ability to one day serve as a CEO or senior director of one of the leading organisations in our sector.”

Penny Mordaunt, minister for disabled people, said: “Everyone deserves the chance to fulfil their potential and pursue their goals, and I’m delighted to see LeadAbility supporting young talent and creating opportunities for more disabled people to reach senior leadership roles.”

Jon Johnston, managing director of Matrix Fitness UK, which is sponsoring LeadAbility, said: “These bursaries will give disabled people access to a fantastic training programme that will fast-track them to senior positions and hopefully support their long-term career goals and aspirations.”

Research by Disability Rights UK (DR UK), which runs its own Leadership Academy Programme, has found that non-disabled people are three times as likely as disabled people to earn over £80,000 a year, and twice as likely to be board-level directors.

Sue Bott, DR UK’s deputy chief executive, said it was too early to say if there was a trend developing of organisations offering such leadership schemes for disabled people, but she said the two new schemes were “definitely a welcome development”.

She said: “As with other groups, disabled people do face a glass ceiling when they get into work, but unlike race and gender this has yet to attract a lot of attention.”

She added: “One of our key priorities is that disabled people should be able to get into work, stay on in work and thrive in work.

“We therefore welcome this initiative from ukactive that will give disabled people an opportunity to train to be leaders in sports organisations.

“As with a similar programme for the arts, funded by the Arts Council, Change Makers, this is welcome recognition that not only do these organisations need to be employing more disabled people but that we should be able to get on and reach the top in our careers.

“This is also the underlying principle behind our own Leadership Academy Programme.”

3 November 2016

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com