DWP presentation on ESA plans ‘confirms worst fears’ about green paper

Ministers have been accused of ignoring a public consultation and ploughing ahead with plans that will make their “fitness for work” testing regime even more stressful and unfair for sick and disabled people.

A presentation delivered by two senior Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants earlier this month suggests that ministers have decided – as many disabled activists feared after the publication of last year’s green paper – to introduce new benefit sanctions for sick and disabled people with the highest support needs.

The presentation at a DWP “Operational Stakeholder Engagement Forum” appears to confirm that the government had decided how it would reform the system of out-of-work disability benefits before its “consultation” process had finished on 17 February.

The government had claimed that it wanted to make the work capability assessment (WCA) less of an ordeal for claimants, with work and pensions secretary Damian Green telling last October’s Conservative party conference he wanted to support those disabled people who cannot work, and “sweep away unnecessary stress and bureaucracy which weighs them down”.

But slides from the presentation appear to show that his new regime will be even harsher, and that many employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants with the highest support needs and barriers to work will for the first time face having their benefits sanctioned if they do not co-operate with the regime.

The slides show DWP has already begun introducing a compulsory, face-to-face “health and work conversation” (HWC) with a jobcentre work coach that will apply to nearly all new claimants of ESA, weeks or even months before they go through the WCA process to decide whether they are not fit for work and eligible for the benefit.

The presentation says that “vulnerable” claimants will not have to take part in the face-to-face HWC.

A DWP spokesman has told Disability News Service (DNS) that work coaches will be “issued clear guidance on who will be exempted from the HWC” and “will also be able to defer the HWC if the claimant cannot attend due to temporary circumstances”.

But disabled activists have warned that these decisions will be taken by non-medically trained civil servants.

The slides say: “Currently Jobcentre staff do not routinely engage with ESA claimants before the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which can take place many months into the claim.

“We know that the start of the claim can be a challenging time for claimants and that the longer a claimant is on benefit, the more difficult it is for them to move into employment where appropriate.

“The Health and Work Conversation (HWC) will provide this early support to claimants.”

The presentation said the HWC – which it claimed was co-designed with some disabled people’s organisations – will draw on “behavioural insight techniques and research” to “develop voluntary action plans” and help claimants “move closer to the workplace”.

And it said that all new ESA claimants would have to sign a new “ESA Claimant Commitment”, which would “set out the expectations and legal requirements that claimants will be required to accept in order to receive ESA”.

It added: “A sanction will be applied for failure to attend or participate in the HWC without good cause. This means a claimant’s ESA payment will be reduced.”

It also appeared to suggest that jobcentre work coaches would only receive one day of face-to-face training – as well as online training – before they begin delivering the HWCs.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said the presentation “confirms our worst fears about the green paper”, that the consultation was “nothing more than a tick box exercise and the DWP had no intention of listening to feedback and reviewing their proposals”.

She said it confirmed that “instead of overhauling the WCA in order to make it fairer and less stressful for claimants, the green paper instead seeks to make applying for ESA even more difficult, with the aim of excluding as many disabled people as possible from entitlement to social security”.

She said: “Imposing a mandatory HWC will create an added barrier and undoubtedly cause more harm and distress.”

Gail Ward, from Black Triangle, who discovered the presentation slides and passed them to DNS, said they showed that “DWP skullduggery is at play yet again” and that the green paper consultation was “merely a tick box exercise”  that will be ignored by DWP.

And she said they showed the government was again using sanctions like a “rod of iron to effect behavioural changes”, even though they have been shown as an “ineffective means to get people into work and find them suitable employment”.

Joe Whittaker, chair of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said: “The imposition of yet another stage in the already oppressive process to ‘support disabled people into employment’, cynically named a ‘health and work conversation’, is another pernicious attempt to weaken the rights of disabled people.”

He said that conversations “should be based upon mutual respect, honesty and transparency”, whereas the government was “conditioned to treat disabled people in a callous way, making any meaningful conversation impossible”.

Gerry Zarb, from SPECTRUM Centre for Independent Living, said the impact of the HWCs on disabled people “crucially depends on how they are conducted, and how they are to be used.

“If they are genuinely used as a means of exploring what kind of support people might need to move them closer to work then that would be positive, as some people need all the help they can get.

“However, if the main intention behind the proposals is simply to add to the existing checks on eligibility then the process is much more likely to be detrimental to disabled people.

“At this stage we cannot be sure – although it’s fair to say that previous experience with DWP is unlikely to fill most people with optimism.”

Caroline Richardson, one of the authors of a report on the green paper for the Spartacus Network of sick and disabled campaigners last month, said the plans show “a total ignorance of the level of sickness or disability that the claimant may be experiencing, and will subsequently lead to huge stress and deprivation at what may be a crisis point in people’s lives”.

The Spartacus report accused ministers of using the green paper as a “smokescreen” to disguise their intention to cut support and force sick and disabled people into inappropriate work.

Richardson said it seemed “incredible” that the government believed that a non-medically trained jobcentre worker would be able to “triage the most sick and disabled people via a conversation and a fit note, and hence make them subject to sanctions, two months before the claim is assessed under the WCA.

“It is a callous and ignorant process that cannot benefit the claimant, and will significantly harm many more than it helps.”

Another disabled activist, Rick Burgess, said the slide showed the claimant commitment would be similar to the one the government had introduced for the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance under the new universal credit system.

He said: “So together with sanction-mandated HWCs this is further making ESA as punitive, abusive, and conditional as the system is for well and non-disabled people.

“As such it will simply harm more people at the time when they are most vulnerable.

“It makes clear the government remains determinedly set on their policy goals without regard to how much damage they do, their consultations are a mockery, their ‘parity of esteem’ a falsehood. These are the politics of democide.”

The new HWC system began with “small-scale ‘test and learn’ activity” in Alfreton, Chesterfield and Tottenham jobcentres on 30 January, with “incremental rollout” due to begin in further national jobcentres from today (30 March).

The government plans to lay regulations in parliament this summer to allow it to introduce the new ESA “claimant commitment”.

Asked about fears that the new plans would put more people’s health at risk and would make ESA more “punitve” and “abusive”, a DWP spokesman said the HWC was “an opportunity for the individual to get to know their work coach, and hear about the support available to them early in their claim.

“Any actions agreed in the conversation will be voluntary and safeguards will be put in place to ensure there are appropriate exemptions from attending the HWC.

“The ESA claimant commitment is a tailored agreement between the individual and the work coach that sets out the expectations and requirements to receive ESA.

“This agreement can be updated if the claimant’s situation changes.”

He said that work coaches would “receive training to deliver the HWC safely and effectively – the conversation will cover a wide range of issues but will not cover subjects requiring medical expertise.

“Sanctions are only ever used as a last resort and there will be extensive safeguards in place to ensure individuals are not sanctioned inappropriately.”

He claimed that the HWC and the claimant commitment were not part of the green paper consultation and that the powers to implement them had been introduced in 2008 and 2012 respectively and were “debated extensively at the time”.

He said: “The consultation process for the green paper ended on the 17 February and the feedback is now being considered.”

He also said that ESA claimants subsequently placed in the support group “will not be required to undertake mandatory activity” as part of the HWC.

But he stressed that the HWC was separate to a proposed post-WCA “keep-in-touch discussion” for those in the support group that is part of the green paper consultation and is “currently under consideration”, and according to the green paper could be a mandatory requirement.

Despite the presentation saying that the claimant commitment would set out the “legal requirements that claimants will be required to accept in order to receive ESA”, he said: “Any actions agreed in the claimant commitment prior to the WCA will be entirely voluntary.”

He had not confirmed by 1pm today (Thursday) how both of these statements could be correct.

30 March 2017

 

 

‘Shabby’ Labour fails again on disability rights, after abstaining on PIP cuts vote

The Labour party has been heavily criticised for again failing to defend disabled people from attacks on their rights, after its peers refused to vote against “discriminatory” cuts to the government’s new disability benefit.

The House of Lords voted on Monday on a motion to “annul” new government regulations that will make it far harder for people with experience of severe mental distress to secure mobility support through personal independence payment (PIP).

The motion was proposed by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Bakewell, and was supported by three crossbench disabled peers, Baroness [Jane] Campbell, Lord [Colin] Low and Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson.

But because Labour peers abstained, the government won the vote by 164 to 75.

Instead, Baroness Sherlock, Labour’s shadow work and pensions spokeswoman, proposed a weaker “motion of regret”, which was passed by 162 to 154 votes but left the regulations unaffected, although it did call on the government to review the impact of the changes within two years.

Despite Labour politicians celebrating the vote as a victory, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) told Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday (Wednesday) that it would ignore the Lords motion and would not carry out such a review.

Two days after the Lords debate, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams attacked the government for refusing to allow a meaningful vote in the Commons on the new regulations, even though Labour’s peers had abstained on just such a vote only 48 hours earlier.

The government has scheduled a debate for 19 April, Abrahams said, but by then it will be too late to revoke the regulations, even if MPs vote against  them.

Marie Rimmer, the newly-appointed shadow minister for disabled people, attended yesterday’s emergency Commons debate, which had been secured by Abrahams, but did not speak, although it is not yet clear why.

Rimmer had told DNS earlier that “responsibility for these Tory cuts lies exclusively with Theresa May’s government and her commitment to cut social security whilst cutting taxes for the richest.

“Baroness Sherlock clearly explained that the un-elected House of Lords does not possess the power to overturn secondary legislation which has been accepted by the House of Commons.”

Baroness Sherlock had actually told fellow peers on Monday that the Lords had overturned secondary legislation five times since 1945 and that such action should only be taken by peers in “exceptional circumstances”.

But Baroness Campbell said on Monday that the motion was an “exceptional circumstance”, and added: “I do not care that they have been debated and voted on only five times within a hundred years or whatever.

“I will gladly support it now.”

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said today that it “deplores” Labour’s actions in the Lords, as Baroness Bakewell’s motion “might have succeeded” and was “certainly the last chance to prevent this measure coming into force”.

DPAC said that by submitting the less powerful “regret motion”, Labour “effectively did the Tories’ work for them” by “spiking” Baroness Bakewell’s motion and replacing it with one that only asked for a review of the cut after two years.

The DPAC statement said: “It would have been better if Labour had done nothing. To later discover that Labour presented this shabby climbdown as a victory just added insult to injury for disabled people who will lose out through this PIP cut.

“And predictably the DWP have refused to hold a review, bringing a fitting end to this whole shameful saga.

“Labour in the Lords seemingly have no interest and no intention of fighting for disabled people’s rights.”

Labour has been repeatedly criticised for failing to stand up for disabled people’s rights over the last year.

In December, Baroness Campbell attacked Labour’s “lazy indifference” to disability equality, after it abstained on a vote in the Lords that would have forced bars, shops and restaurants to ensure their premises obeyed laws on accessibility when renewing their alcohol licences.

In November, Abrahams’ office invited a disabled people’s organisation to speak at the launch of her disability equality roadshow, and then withdrew the invitation after discovering that it wanted to talk about independent living.

And questions have been raised over whether shadow chancellor John McDonnell ever wrote a letter he publicly promised to send to Labour-run councils to ask them to ring-fence government money they receive to compensate for the closure of the Independent Living Fund.

The new PIP cuts came into force earlier this month and were brought in to reverse two upper tribunal rulings.

The government’s decision to reverse the rulings means an estimated 164,000 claimants will not now be eligible for the mobility component of the benefit or will receive a lower level than they would have received.

And an estimated 1,500 PIP claimants who need support to take medication and monitor a health condition will now either not be eligible for the PIP daily living payment or will receive a lower level.

Baroness Campbell told fellow peers on Monday that the “impact of panic attacks and anxiety, not to mention schizophrenia, dementia and autism, on being able to ‘plan and follow a journey’​ are equally fraught, if not more so, with profound obstacles than the effects of visual or physical impairments”.

She described how a young woman who lived near her had experienced a severe anxiety attack on a train, which had led to the train stopping and the emergency services being called.

She told peers: “This expensive scenario could have been avoided if her PIP had not been reduced from the high to standard rate award a couple of months ago, allowing her to continue paying for a travel companion or use taxis.

“Her life has now been severely restricted.”

She added: “It is a fundamental tenet of the Equality Act that there shall be no hierarchy of disability: we define a disabled person as someone with a ‘mental or physical impairment’.

“We in this House have welcomed the prime minister’s commitment to parity of esteem between mental and physical health.

“The amended regulations, sadly, completely depart from these vital principles.

“They state, in effect, that disabled people may be equal but, just like in Orwell’s Animal Farm, some disabled people have become more equal than others.”

Baroness Campbell said the cumulative effect of cuts to social care support, independent living entitlements and welfare benefits had “taken its toll on disabled people” and that it was becoming “increasingly tougher for them to participate in society as active citizens”.

She said: “These changed regulations represent another departure and fly in the face of the prime minister’s ambition to create ‘a society that works for everyone’.”

Lord Low said the new regulations were “a clear breach of faith with the disability community”.

He said mental health and other disability charities had supported the introduction of PIP in 2012 after the government assured them that people with mental health problems would not be able to score points only “under the criterion which used the words ‘psychological distress'”.

He said: “The regulations are in clear breach, if not of a manifesto commitment on this occasion, then certainly of pledges given to those with mental health problems in 2012.”

He added: “I believe these regulations are trying to move the goalposts by excluding people who experience psychological distress from eligibility for the higher number of points necessary for the higher rate of mobility component.

“In doing so, they effectively discriminate against people with mental health problems.”

The Liberal Democrat disabled peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas, who speaks for her party on work and pensions issues in the Lords, said: “The disorders likely to be affected, according to the DWP, range from schizophrenia and autism to bipolar affective disorder and cognitive disorder.

“So much for parity of esteem between physical and mental health.”

She said: “Is it not yet another tightening of the screw around the whole independent living project, which is assailed on every side?

“These regulations should be set aside to await proper consultation.”

But one disabled peer, the Conservative Lord Shinkwin, said he supported the government’s position.

He said: “I believe the taxpayer does not have a problem with someone needing assistance as a result of difficulties in navigating – for example, if they are blind.

“Taxpayers surely understand that conditions such as visual impairments and learning disabilities, where these are severe and enduring, are much less likely to fluctuate than, for example, psychological distress.

“Indeed, it makes sense that people who cannot navigate due to a visual or cognitive impairment are likely to have a higher level of need and therefore face higher costs.​”

He then appeared to suggest that he could not support providing the extra mobility benefits for people with severe mental distress until his local council stopped handing him parking tickets.

He complained that Lambeth council had been fining him for parking on yellow lines because he could not find anywhere to park after returning home late from working in the Lords, and that it had refused to provide him and other disabled people with their own parking bays.

He said: “This is just one example of why we urgently need to join the dots on disability if more disabled people are, as we all want, to live independently and work.

“Until we join those dots, I cannot in all honesty justify expecting taxpayers to be even more generous in helping to meet the extra costs of living with a disability, when the state itself imposes such indefensible extra costs on disabled people.”

Lord [Chris] Holmes, who in January ended his terms as disability commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and another disabled Tory peer, also voted with the government against both motions, but did not speak in the debate.

The junior work and pensions minister Lord Henley insisted that the regulations were “not a policy change” and were just “bringing clarity” to the legislation.

He said: “It is inaccurate to describe this as a cut: it is merely the reassertion of the original policy intention.

“In PIP, we have ensured parity of treatment between mental and physical conditions.

“It achieves that by looking at the overall needs of an individual, not just what conditions they have.

“The whole point – if I can put it this way – of the PIP assessment is to distinguish between those differing levels of need. There is no discrimination in that.”

He repeated the government’s claim that there were more people with mental health conditions receiving the higher rates of both PIP components than the DLA equivalents, with 28 per cent of PIP recipients with a mental health condition receiving the enhanced rate mobility component, compared with 10 per cent of DLA recipients with a mental health condition who had received the higher rate DLA mobility component.

30 March 2017

 

 

BBC board role is chance to push broadcaster on jobs, says Tanni

A disabled peer is hoping to use her appointment to the BBC’s new board of directors to persuade the broadcaster to employ more disabled people.

Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson is one of just five non-executive directors appointed by the BBC to its new board*, and said she was both “excited” and “daunted” by the position.

The board will govern and run the BBC from 3 April – replacing the previous two-tier structure of the BBC Trust and the BBC’s executive board – while Ofcom becomes the broadcaster’s first independent, external regulator.

The board’s role, according to Sir David Clementi, its chair, will be to “push the BBC to offer the highest quality, hold its executives to account on delivery, while protecting its independence to ensure licence fee payers get the very best programmes and services”.

Baroness Grey-Thompson told Disability News Service this week that she hoped to encourage the broadcaster to employ more disabled people and improve its representation of disabled people.

She said: “There are lots of opportunities for more disabled people to be working in the BBC.

“More disabled people on screen, presenting, more disabled people in the technical jobs.

“It just seems to make sense that this is somewhere that disabled people could work, in terms of flexible working hours and the size and scale of the BBC.

“They have done some really good stuff around Access to Work and things like that [but] it’s a big enough company that they can really be at the forefront of getting more disabled people on-screen and off-screen.

“They have made some really positive steps, but it needs to be a bit more.”

She said the BBC can also “send out a really useful message” through the way it talks about disability and in the “tone” it sets around disability and language, and as a public service broadcaster it can do things for disabled people that other channels might not be able to do.

She said she believed it had been a significant step for the BBC to appoint a disabled person to the board.

“I do think it was important,” she said. “Most organisations have targets for diversity. It sometimes helps to have a visible impairment [so] people can’t really forget the targets.

“I think I can bring something as a disabled person because I have lots of experience in how I have been treated.”

And as one of the few non-media professionals on the board, she said she hoped she would be able to ask some of the “really simple” questions that other directors with a background in the media might not ask.

Baroness Grey-Thompson said the BBC was “a big part of people’s lives, but we take it a bit for granted.

“I travel around the world so much and I see that other countries do not have the quality of what we have and the quality of some of the programming.

“Something like the World Service, in some countries I’ve been to round the world that is the kind of the thing that is the mainstay of independent news and just finding out what is going on in the world.

“So I would like to be a critical friend. I really believe in the BBC, it’s just that we need to challenge it going forward.”

Watching sport on the BBC had played a big part in her own life growing up, she said.

But she has also been a Radio Four listener since she was 16, enjoys its comedy programmes (“and I drift in and out of listening to The Archers”), and also uses iPlayer regularly because of the hours she works.

She said: “I like that you know you are going to get a level of quality of programme [on the BBC].

“I like the whole range of stuff that it does, the sport, the drama, to costume drama, to crime.

“I like the huge breadth, and again from travelling around the world and watching different channels, there is actually nothing quite like British television anywhere else.”

She finds it harder when asked what parts of the BBC she does not like, although she admits eventually that there are “potentially a few presenters where I think, ‘Why on earth are they on?'”.

She has been a crossbench peer in the House of Lords since 2010, and before her retirement as a wheelchair athlete won 16 medals across five Paralympic Games, including 11 golds.

She currently sits on the boards of Transport for London (TfL), the London Legacy Development Corporation, The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, SportsAid and the Tennis Foundation.

But she said the new position was part of what she sees as a “rolling career”, with her eight-year stint on TfL soon coming to an end, as have some of her charity roles.

She told DNS that she did not believe the BBC appointment would impact negatively on the time she can spend on other work – such as in the House of Lords – with her BBC meetings generally on Thursday afternoons and Fridays, when the Lords is rarely sitting.

And she said that she was not concerned about whether it would affect her ability to speak out in the Lords on controversial issues around disability, such as welfare reform, although it would be important to be clear about her BBC interests when she spoke in relevant debates.

She said: “I hope I am really mindful of lines that I can and cannot cross. There is no issue with me going into a debate on welfare rights, or things like that, because that doesn’t cut across anything that I do with the BBC.”

Her reaction when she discovered her application had been successful was mixed, she said.

“I was really excited. It was also a bit daunting because it’s the BBC, it’s an institution. I’ve travelled the world and people know the BBC wherever you go.”

She said she had already been congratulated by about 20 other peers, in just four days after her appointment was announced.

Their congratulations on securing such a “big job” had brought home the importance of the role, she said.

“When you get that from people who have been involved in all sorts of things both here [in the Lords] and outside, then you think, ‘actually there will be a lot of people watching me, watching what I do,’ and certainly [you think], ‘don’t mess it up.’

“The BBC is one of those things that everybody has got an opinion on. The BBC feels like one of those things that people might be a bit irritated with from time to time but care about.”

She said she believed the new role would have an impact on her life “in lots of ways”, including the need to spend more time away from home.

When asked whether it would make it harder for her to continue commentating on sport for the BBC – with BBC Radio set to cover the World Para Athletics Championships in London in July – she said this was “a conversation we still have to have”.

But she said she hoped that such work would not be a problem “as long as it is absolutely transparent why I have been asked to do something.

“To be honest, the world of broadcasting is fairly harsh. If they find someone better, it’s ‘thanks very much…’.

“It’s as tough as sport when they decide they don’t want you any more.”

*The board will also include Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general, and fellow BBC executives Anne Bulford, Ken MacQuarrie and Tim Davie, as well as new board members for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, who will each be appointed by the government. The other BBC-appointed non-executive directors, joining Baroness Grey-Thompson, are Sir Nicholas Serota, Simon Burke, Ian Hargreaves, and Tom Ilube

30 March 2017

 

 

Police force pledges to investigate bus drivers who ignore access laws

A police force has confirmed that it is willing to launch criminal investigations into bus drivers who refuse to allow wheelchair-users onto their vehicles without a good reason.

West Yorkshire Police has promised to alert its call centre staff to long-standing legislation that says bus-drivers have an obligation under criminal law to conform to “conduct regulations” that govern how they should treat disabled passengers.

The move came in response to a query from accessible transport campaigner Doug Paulley, who had asked his local police and crime commissioner (PCC) to confirm that police officers would take action if the wheelchair space on a bus was free but the driver had refused to allow a wheelchair-user on board.

He pointed out that such a refusal was a breach of conduct regulations that date back to 2002, but that bus-drivers and police officers were not usually aware that such behaviour was a criminal offence.

Paulley is now calling on disabled people and other campaigners to contact their police forces and police and crime commissioners “to encourage them to take similar proactive action”.

Paulley told the West Yorkshire PCC’s office: “As far as everybody knows, nobody has ever taken legal action over a driver’s refusal to take a wheelchair on board where the space is free.

“Yet the law has been in place since 2002, and there have been any number of instances where drivers have refused wheelchair users, even when the space is free. I have experienced it myself.

“To me, this flies in the face of equality, disabled people’s rights and the intent of Parliament.”

The office of West Yorkshire PCC Mark Burns-Williamson has now been told by the force that it will log any reports of bus access issues and will conduct an inquiry “on the evidence available”.

The PCC’s office told Paulley: “Prosecutions could subsequently be considered.

“The police would therefore encourage anyone to contact [West Yorkshire] police if they believe they have been a victim of this crime.

“They have acknowledged your concerns about lack of awareness of the legislation and have taken steps to ensure the force’s contact centre staff are informed to ensure that any calls are handled appropriately.”

The conduct regulations also state that bus drivers must accept passengers with assistance dogs; operate a ramp when a wheelchair-user wishes to get on or off the bus; ensure wheelchair-users are “correctly and safely positioned” in the wheelchair space before driving off; and allow a wheelchair-user onto the bus even if the wheelchair space is occupied, as long as any passenger in the space can be easily moved to another part of the bus.

Breaches of each of these and other conduct regulations on access are also a criminal offence, Paulley has pointed out.

Failure to comply with them could result in a driver receiving a criminal conviction, a fine of up to £500, and an endorsement of their driving licence.

A spokeswoman for West Yorkshire Police confirmed that what Paulley was told by the PCC’s office was accurate, but she had not been able to respond in more detail by noon today (Thursday).

Paulley told Disability News Service: “I think it’s great that the police have recognised that this is a crime, that there are victims and that the law should be enforced.

“There’s little point in having a law that is ignored and not enforced.

“We need to publicise this as much as possible, so that bus drivers know they will face consequences if they don’t comply with their duties.

“It would be great if other forces followed suit. I’d encourage disabled people and their allies to contact their local police and crime commissioners to ask that their police force does similar.

“It is a common crime that must be targeted and dealt with. A minority of bus drivers see a wheelchair-user at a kerb and just can’t be bothered, driving straight past even if the wheelchair space is available.

“The other crimes listed are even more common. Wheelchair-users know that it is common for drivers to ignore the blue button alert that a wheelchair-user wants to get off. Such drivers are breaking the law and should be fined.

“I hope that wheelchair-users, assistance dog-users and others will enforce their rights across the country and report the driver when they are subjected to these crimes.”

In January, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that First Bus had breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people under the Equality Act through its “first come, first served” policy on the use of wheelchair spaces, in the final legal stage of a pioneering and long-running case brought by Paulley.

30 March 2017

 

 

‘Disability Confident’ advocacy charity ‘discriminated against disabled employee’

A disability charity that has signed up to the government’s Disability Confident scheme for employers has been forced to pay more than £3,000 to a disabled woman who claimed she was discriminated against and unfairly dismissed.

Tmara Senior worked for Cloverleaf Advocacy in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, for more than three years, before she says she was forced out after her year-long research project ended.

After learning that she was facing redundancy, she applied for another position with the charity, only to be sent a print letter telling her when to attend an interview, even though she is blind.

It later sent her other print letters in connection with her application, she said, even after she complained that she could not read them.

She said that she was rejected for one position she applied for with the charity because she failed to describe in the interview how she would use visual forms of communication in that job.

And she said that her own personal assistant was able to shadow advocates working for the charity, when she was not given similar opportunities until after she had left her job.

Senior has also told how the charity refused to publish her research report, which detailed the views of disabled people about the barriers they faced in accessing social and leisure opportunities in the Kirklees area.

Cloverleaf also prevented the report being shared with the local council.

She said: “I never got to present it to anyone because they decided nothing was going to be done with it.”

She believes the charity failed to publish it because she had refused to remove criticisms made by disabled people she had spoken to about local organisations that Cloverleaf worked with.

She said: “I didn’t alter what was said because I wanted it to be accurate and reflect the views of disabled people.

“How can you advocate on behalf of disabled people and not want their views to be taken into account?

“Why wouldn’t you want to publish a report to the council saying these are the reasons disabled people are not happy? That’s not advocacy.”

After Senior took legal action against Cloverleaf, the charity tried to convince her to sign a confidentiality agreement as part of its settlement of her claim, but she refused to do so because she wanted to speak out about the way she had been treated.

Although Cloverleaf did not admit liability for Senior’s claims of unfair dismissal and disability discrimination, it has agreed to pay her £3,250 to settle her claim, as well as paying for her to take an advocacy course.

She said she believed she was discriminated against, and blames the “culture” of the charity.

She said: “My work had always been very good but in the end it is almost as if what I did was not really valued very highly.

“It really does hurt because I worked there for quite a while. I loved my job and I never wanted to leave.

“I feel like I was just pushed out.”

She also said the charity failed to deal with two members of staff who had confronted her in the office, shortly before she was made redundant, leaving her too frightened to return to work and “feeling extremely anxious for some weeks afterwards”.

Suzi Henderson, Cloverleaf’s chief executive, said the charity did not want to respond to the individual allegations because it would not be “fair” to Senior to do so due to “confidentiality” reasons, although she said they “very strongly feel that the allegations she has made are untrue”.

She said that all of the issues raised by Senior have been “reflected on by the organisation as part of the process of reaching the settlement” and that “all the actions we have taken were fair and lawful and appropriate”.

But she admitted that “in terms of our reflections, we have updated all of our application forms now to accommodate additional communication needs, alternative communication needs”.

She declined to discuss any more of the allegations, but she said in a statement: “Since 1995 our core values have driven us to be passionate about equality.

“We firmly believe that every individual should be an equal member of society: everyone has the right to plan their own life, to be listened to, taken seriously and to be respected.

“We constantly review all our activities to help ensure that we are doing everything possible to support all our 160-plus staff while providing the best possible service for thousands of individuals.

“Regarding the specific issues, we remain confident that our actions have been right.

“We do not tolerate any incorrect behaviour and take immediate action wherever appropriate.

“The settlement made was a commercial settlement by our insurers and does not indicate any liability.”

The charity, which says it offers “high quality advocacy services to people with mental health needs, learning disabilities, older people, people with physical and sensory impairment, and carers”, is a member of the government’s Disability Confident scheme that aims to promote the employment of disabled people.

Cloverleaf secured its status as a “Disability Confident Employer” – the middle of the government scheme’s three levels – through self-assessing its own policies and procedures.

As a Disability Confident Employer, it is supposed to “make a commitment to employ and retain disabled people”, “make sure all documentation is available in different formats”, “make sure people involved in the recruitment process are Disability Confident and know how to support disabled applicants”, and provide “a fully inclusive and accessible recruitment process”.

Senior said that Cloverleaf’s claim to be a Disability Confident Employer was “just laughable”.

She said: “If they can do what they have done to me, why wouldn’t they do it to anybody else who was disabled?

“They should not be a member of that scheme when you consider what they have done to me and the way I have been treated.”

She added: “I really believe in disabled people being heard and the voices of disabled people being heard but I don’t believe they believe in that.”

Disability News Service reported last November how analysis by disabled campaigner David Gillon suggested that Disability Confident was “trivially easy to abuse” and allowed organisations to describe themselves as “Disability Confident” even if they failed to comply with anti-discrimination laws.

30 March 2017

 

 

More than 220 member groups of mental health network close in two years

A charity is warning that scores of user-led mental health groups across England have been forced to close, many of them after losing out to large mental health charities and private sector organisations that have been “sweeping up” their contracts.

Research by the National Survivor User Network (NSUN) has found that 221 of its 822 member organisations – most of them user-led groups and all of them smaller, voluntary sector mental health groups – had closed since January 2015.

Many have been forced to close because their contracts to promote user-involvement or provide advocacy have been snatched by large mental health charities and private sector organisations, which have often under-cut them.

Previous reviews of its membership had found it had lost 20 or so members in a year and gained a similar number, but the latest review was “quite different” and “extreme”, with the loss of 221 and the addition of 55 new members, according to Sarah Yiannoullou, NSUN’s managing director.

She fears that many other small, user-led mental health groups that were not part of the network will also have vanished over the last couple of years.

She said the loss of so many organisations meant that a lot of the support that was previously available in the community for mental health survivors and service-users was disappearing, leaving them more isolated.

She said: “Particularly at a time when people are being shifted from secondary care into primary care, so losing specialist support around their mental health, often the voluntary sector and community groups is where their support comes from.”

She said she was “very concerned” at the loss of so many groups.

“Over the years we have seen a trajectory of user-led groups really establishing themselves and diversifying.

“Many started as self-support groups in people’s living rooms, some have been more formal around campaigning and involvement work, others have been more social or supportive and special interest, and I think that kind of diversity and tapestry of different types of support is really under threat of being lost completely.”

She warned that a lot of that work was now being “absorbed” into the work of larger organisations, in a “Tesco approach” that is leading to providers that “do everything”.

She said: “They are not user-led and they are not always terribly user-friendly.”

Often the larger organisations have become more “sophisticated” in the way they have “co-opted” and “hijacked” the language of peer support, advocacy, involvement and recovery.

Many of the groups have closed because the service-users running them have been left “burned out” and “exhausted” by the pressures of trying to keep them going and have “shut up shop for the sake of their own health and wellbeing”.

She said: “They take a hell of a long time, years and years to develop and establish these groups, and they can disappear overnight.”

Many of the groups closed because they lost funding from local authorities or failed to secure renewed grants from charitable trusts, which are facing more competition for their resources, she said.

NSUN itself has found that its own success rate in applying for grants has fallen from 80 per cent of applications to between 20 and 30 per cent, partly because of higher competition over the last couple of years.

Yiannoullou said: “Large providers seem to be sweeping up quite a lot of the contracts that used  to be available for user-led groups around involvement [of service-users in the planning, development and commissioning of services], peer support and advocacy.

“Larger providers are moving into the areas that user-led groups have fought quite hard to carve out for themselves over the last 10 to 20 years, particularly around advocacy, peer support and involvement.

“They have departments that work on these things so it’s very difficult for user-led groups to compete, because they haven’t got the capacity, the capability.”

She said it was important that advocacy and involvement work was independent of the providers of services, which was why it should be provided by smaller, user-led groups.

Yiannoullou said NSUN was now trying to encourage the larger providers to “work in collaboration with local user-led groups rather than in competition because they are going for contracts that they wouldn’t necessarily have been interested in a few years ago”.

She said her personal opinion was that this was for financial reasons and that some of the larger organisations had adopted “more aggressive business approaches” and that “any contracts that are available will be gone for”.

She said that NSUN wanted to raise awareness of the problems facing local groups, by linking up with allies, and possibly by trying to persuade the larger service-providers and commissioners to “think about their commissioning approaches” or by asking them to sign up to a pledge.

30 March 2017

 

 

University to provide a home for NDACA disability arts collection

A collection and archive that tells the 40-year history of the disability arts movement will have a permanent home from next April, the project has announced.

The latest stage of the £1 million National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA) project will see a wing of Buckinghamshire New University’s library, on its High Wycombe campus, devoted to hundreds of the movement’s most significant pieces of work.

As well as some of the collection being displayed in the university’s nearby art gallery, other parts of the archive that have been copied digitally and cannot be shown publicly for copyright reasons – including a detailed timeline of the disability arts movement, illustrated by some of its most significant works – will be available for private inspection in the new NDACA Wing for Learning.

The three-year NDACA project – delivered by the disability arts organisation Shape Arts – is bringing together original art works, photographs, film footage and other material, including 2,600 digital files.

All of the NDACA catalogue will eventually be available to view through a new website.

As well as donated art works, the physical archive also includes hundreds of posters, photographs, postcards, tee-shirts, catalogues, and a complete set of the Disability Arts in London magazine.

Some of this will be archived by the university, while other parts will be stored by organisations partnering Shape in the project – DaDaFest, Disability Arts Online, Zinc, Graeae, Holton Lee and the disabled-led digital arts agency filmpro.

The digital archive will be made available through the interactive website, while some elements of the collection – such as films in now-obsolete formats – will be available for more detailed inspection by students, researchers and academics, by appointment, when the wing opens next April.

And this summer, NDACA will be producing up to 50 new short films of interviews with some of the movement’s most significant “contributors and leaders”.

David Hevey, NDACA’s project director, told Disability News Service that he believed that both the website and the new wing would secure worldwide attention.

He said: “Our story is that disability arts was arguably one of the most successful political arts movement in the world.

“Had there not been a cultural intervention from the disability arts movement, I don’t think the Disability Discrimination Act would have gone through.

“It’s a campaign that did change the world. It’s quite a story.”

Hevey said he hoped the “shining light examples” of the disability arts movement that are being archived and collected by NDACA will help “counter the reactionary stuff” that disabled people have faced at the hands of successive governments.

The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

30 March 2017

 

 

Disabled fans divided over Manchester United’s overdue access improvements

Long-overdue plans to improve access at the country’s biggest football club have divided its disabled supporters.

Although the official disabled supporters’ association at Manchester United has welcomed the plans, which will eventually see the number of wheelchair spaces increase from just 120 to 277, a smaller group of disabled fans have raised concerns.

They say there has not been any consultation on the plans outside the official Manchester United Disabled Supporters’ Association (MUDSA), and have raised concerns that the new wheeelchair spaces will be restricted to a certain section of the stadium, and lower levels that are more likely to be exposed to the elements.

As well as increased wheelchair spaces, the number of amenity seats for other disabled fans will rise from 126 to 278 under the club’s proposals, which will be phased in over three years. There will also be new accessible toilet facilities.

The key issue raised by the independent group, the Independent Manchester United Disabled Supporters’ Association (IMUDSA), is that the club has refused to meet its members to discuss their concerns and allow them to examine the proposals in depth.

The club is just one of many that have been forced to improve access after high-profile concerns that the professional game – particularly the elite Premier League – had not done enough to make its services accessible to disabled supporters.

Three years ago, the club was forced to admit that it had less than half the recommended number of spaces for wheelchair-users in its huge 76,000-capacity stadium, after the disabled peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson highlighted the club as one of the worst offenders in the Premier League when it came to access for disabled fans.

The national disabled supporters’ organisation Level Playing Field, MPs, other peers and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have also been critical of the Premier League for failing to carry out sufficient access improvements over the last 20 years.

The Premier League promised in 2015 that every one of its clubs would meet strict access standards by August 2017, but the commission was forced to write to all 20 Premier League clubs in December to ask them to explain how they were complying with their legal duties to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled supporters under the Equality Act.

The pledge to meet standards laid out in guidance 13 years ago in The Accessible Stadia Guide (ASG) is likely to be broken, despite the clubs spending more than a billion pounds on transfer fees last summer.

Richard Currie, of IMUDSA, said: “All we want from the club is for the club to have a meeting to explain the reasoning and the decisions they have made.

“So far they are refusing to do that. It’s not just me as a wheelchair-user but I am concerned that other people with impairments have not been consulted effectively.”

Jon Nield, of IMUDSA, added: “In our opinion they are trying to get away with imposing this on fans because they know when the detail is examined it won’t stand up scrutiny, and disabled fans will most certainly tell them to go away and think again.

“Pretty much everything done by the club seems to be nothing but ‘window dressing’ or ‘smoke and mirrors’ in an attempt to disguise what they are trying to do.”

They also point that a survey of MUDSA members found that nearly two-thirds of those who took part (63 per cent) wanted the new wheelchair spaces to be installed either immediately (by August this year) or by August 2018.

But MUDSA insists that the club has come up with the right solution to improving access.

Chas Banks, who took over as MUDSA’s secretary last October, said he and fellow committee members were shown all of the 28 possible solutions put forward.

The committee, which he stressed was elected by the organisation’s disabled members, voted to approve the proposals at the end of January.

He said: “We were totally satisfied that the club had come up with the right solution, and we think it is a good solution and we think the members are pleased with it.

“We have had very few complaints apart from one very small group.

“It terms of not being consulted, we never expected to be.”

He said the club had not consulted disabled fans when making previous access improvements, and had not consulted with its 75,000 supporters when extending one of its main stands.

And he said that only those in the very lowest-level spaces would be particularly exposed to the elements.

The club itself had refused to comment by noon today (Thursday).

Despite the club suggesting in public that Level Playing Field and EHRC supported its proposals, both organisations declined to endorse them this week.

Level Playing Field (LPF) said it was disappointed that the club would miss the August 2017 target because of its phased approach to achieving the minimum standards, and that it was “not in Level Playing Field’s remit to either approve or disapprove a project”.

Tony Taylor, LPF’s chair, pointed out that Manchester United was one of the world’s richest football clubs.

He said LPF congratulated the club on the improvements, but he added: “Surely, consideration must be given for the disabled fans who have never seen their team play at Old Trafford because of a lack of availability of tickets for wheelchair users.

“It must also be stressed that the planned increase in wheelchair user spaces are spaces that have been owed to disabled fans for over 20 years.”

An EHRC spokesman said: “There has been no formal consultation between the commission and Manchester United Football Club (MUFC).

“We have been in discussion with MUFC with respect to accessibility to the ground, the facilities and access to season tickets, however, we have been clear that as a statutory body it is not our role to either advise on their specific plans nor to rubber stamp them.

“We are also in contact with all Premier League clubs, and last month wrote to each of them, including MUFC, for an urgent update on whether they are compliant with the law and how they are making it easier for disabled fans to attend matches.

“We are currently assessing their responses, which will soon be published on our website.”

30 March 2017

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com