‘Shocking’ NHS stats show nearly half ESA claimants have attempted suicide

“Shocking” NHS statistics have revealed that almost half of the people claiming the main out-of-work disability benefit in England have attempted suicide at some point in their life.

The figures, showing rates of self-harm among claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA), were published by NHS Digital in September 2016, but have apparently never been reported by the media.

Although only one in 15 adults (6.7 per cent) in the general population had ever made a suicide attempt, that rose to 43.2 per cent for ESA claimants, and as high as 47.1 per cent for female ESA claimants.

They also show that two-thirds of ESA claimants (66 per cent) had thought of taking their own life at some point, compared to 20.6 per cent in the overall adult population.

The levels could now be even higher, because the survey was carried out three years ago, before a further series of social security cuts and reforms, including new cuts of nearly £30 a week to new claimants placed in the ESA work-related activity group that were implemented in April.

The report says the figures indicate that ESA claimants are “a population in great need of support”.

Campaigners say they highlight the need for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to abandon its hard-line approach to forcing disabled people off benefits and into work through damaging rhetoric and unforgiving sanctions – with the department’s latest plans published today – and adopt a more understanding, supportive and sensitive approach.

But when asked to comment on the figures, DWP refused to answer a series of questions from Disability News Service (DNS) and instead issued a short statement, stating that suicide was “a very complex issue” and pointing out that its staff had “clear guidance” to follow “if a claimant expresses a desire to self-harm”.

Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist and member of the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, who uncovered the figures, said she had felt “shock and horror followed by, on reflection, an absence of surprise” when she first saw them.

She said: “The government have committed to a ‘zero suicide’ approach yet, even though this population has pretty much the highest rates of suicide out there, the government is acting in a way to make things worse, despite the testimony of claimants, disabled activist groups, health professionals and even the United Nations.”

She said the figures for ESA claimants would always be higher than the general population because illness and disability increase the risk of dying by suicide, as do factors such as poverty, levels of inequality in society and experience of trauma.

But she said the figures revealed by the survey are “a hell of a lot higher” than suggested by other research.

She said: “I think it shows that there are very specific pressures on people on ESA now that make living unbearable.

“Being treated like a second-class citizen, being blamed for not being the ideal neoliberal subject, being denied the basic financial means to survive, being sanctioned for being too ill to make an appointment – these belittlements monopolise the internal world and the result is often now suicide.”

Watts said DWP should now start treating ESA claimants with “dignity and respect” and shift from a regime of punishment “to a culture that encourages things like voluntary work which are good for mental health, but too frightening a possibility for many claimants who fear any sign of activity will be used to stop their benefits”.

She added: “Obviously the overwhelming reason to do this is moral, but it is also in the economic interests of the government.

“Each suicide is estimated to cost £1.7 million, so a compassionate welfare system makes sense at every level.”

She said she believed the figures would now be “significantly higher” three years on.

She said: “The rates of poverty, despair, shame, self-harm and suicide have risen exponentially in the past few years.

“This is partly because of cuts to the NHS and social care budgets, and partly because the government has been demonising ESA claimants – cutting benefits, sanctioning people, making claimants feel worklessness equals worthlessness, and so on.

“We take in messages of our value from the environment we live in – so the mix of cuts and demonising messages have a direct effect on rates of suicide.”

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said the figures were “extremely shocking”.

He said he did not understand why the government had failed to prioritise ESA claimants as part of its cross-government suicide prevention strategy.

There is no mention of the rates of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide among ESA claimants in the latest progress report on the strategy, which was published in January, four months after the NHS Digital figures were published.

McArdle said: “If they were sincere about decreasing the rate of suicide in the population they would focus on this group and they would put in place measures that we have campaigned for for five years to prevent suicide.”

Despite Black Triangle’s campaigning efforts, there is still no “safety protocol” for GPs to report to the government those incidents of self-harm that have been linked to the ESA eligibility test, the work capability assessment (WCA).

He also pointed to DWP’s failure – despite its promise to a tribunal – to ease the WCA’s impact on people with mental health problems by ensuring that further medical evidence is obtained from health professionals who know them well.

He said: “We believe the government has no real interest in doing this because its over-arching goal is to reduce spending on disabled people and social security.”

He said ESA claimants needed “some security and a way back into work – only if that is deemed clinically appropriate and, above all, safe – that doesn’t penalise them, whereas at the moment the whole scheme amounts to one big extrajudicial penal system that pushes people further over the edge”.

Anita Bellows, a researcher with Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Although these figures are shocking, what is even more shocking is to not have more details, for example the split between claimants who never attempted suicide before embarking on the long WCA and ESA journey and those who did.

“The lack of data gives an escape route to DWP, but what we are certain of is that ESA claimants is a group who should be treated with sensitivity, caution and professionalism, qualities which are all lacking from their treatment by DWP and the assessors.”

DWP declined to answer questions from DNS about the NHS report, including whether it accepted that years of cuts, sanctions and demonisation of ESA claimants might have contributed to the figures; and whether they showed that it needed to be more supportive towards this group of claimants, and shift away from a culture of punishment.

Instead, a DWP spokesman said in a statement: “Suicide is a very complex issue, so it would be wrong to link it solely to anyone’s benefit claim.

“There is clear guidance in place for DWP staff members to follow if a claimant expresses a desire to self-harm, to ensure the claimant receives appropriate care and support.”

Samaritans can be contacted free, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by calling 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org

30 November 2017

 

 

Equality watchdog seeks legal advice on possible right to independent living

The equality watchdog has asked a barrister to examine whether there needs to be a legal right to independent living for disabled people, because of concerns that their rights to choice and control over their lives is being “eroded”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has asked the lawyer to assess how independent living is currently protected by law and whether “additional protections” are needed.

The commission’s action emerged at an Independent Living Campaign Conference funded by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), and organised by DPAC and Inclusion London, with support from members of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA).

Ellen Clifford, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, who told the conference about the commission’s action, said afterwards that the move was “very positive” and a step towards one of the “key demands” made by disabled people: a right to independent living enshrined in UK law.

An EHRC spokesman told Disability News Service: “We have concerns that rights to independent living are being eroded and the legal opinion we will get back will help inform our position.

“We’ve asked the barrister to assess how independent living is currently protected by law and suggest whether additional protections are needed.”

He said the advice would “help inform our position on a legal right to independent living”.

Only last week, chancellor Philip Hammond failed to provide any new money for social care, or even mention it in his budget speech.

Disabled campaigners are also furious that the government has side-lined the needs of working-age disabled people – and their user-led organisations – from next year’s social care green paper.

Three months ago, the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) called on the UK government to recognise disabled people’s legal right to independent living.

Stig Langvad, the CRPD member who led the examination of how the UK had implemented the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), said then that the UK was “going backwards” on independent living.

Clifford said: “It is a very positive move by the EHRC to look at practical ways that can be used to take forward one of the key demands made by disabled people in our submissions under the UNCRPD examination process, which is to enshrine the right to independent living in domestic legislation.

“It is a shame that the Law Commission and the Care and Support Alliance blocked attempts to get the wording of (UNCRPD’s) article 19 (on independent living) in statute when the Care Act was being developed and sadly disabled campaigners’ fears that the act’s well-being principle would not be adequate protection of our rights have been borne out.

“As highlighted earlier this year when Luke Davey lost his appeal against Oxfordshire County Council’s decision to cut his support package following closure of the Independent Living Fund, judicial review under the Care Act is simply not an appropriate mechanism for challenging unfair assessments.

“At the moment, disabled people have no means of redress against the removal of essential support and regression of fundamental human rights.

“We hope that the EHRC fully involves and consults with disabled people as they explore legislative options to address this problem.”

Mark Harrison, chief executive of the Norfolk-based disabled people’s organisation Equal Lives and a member of Norfolk DPAC, called at Saturday’s conference for disabled people to set the agenda for reform, and define “what we need in order to live equal and independent lives”, including a legal right to independent living.

He said: “What we are facing at the moment is a catastrophe. That is what the UN said but that is also what disabled people say, with local authorities cutting people’s budgets by 50, 60, 70 per cent, and many disabled people having their social care completely removed in the assessment process.”

He said the only solution was a universal, legal right to independent living and a free, national independent living service, paid for from direct taxation, managed by central government, and led by disabled people.

The Department of Health had refused to provide a statement from a spokesperson by noon today (Thursday) after being asked by DNS to comment on EHRC’s actions.

30 November 2017

 

 

Conference plans fightback against independent living ‘catastrophe’

Disabled people have gathered at a conference to help develop plans for a fightback against the independent living “catastrophe” facing users of support services across the country.

The Independent Living Campaign Conference heard that disabled people are now designing “a new vision” for independent living that is user-led and based on rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

The discussions are being developed by organisations that are part of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA), including Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Shaping Our Lives, and began at the National Disabled People’s Summit, which took place earlier this month.

Mark Harrison, chief executive of the Norfolk-based disabled people’s organisation Equal Lives and a member of Norfolk DPAC, called for disabled people to set the agenda for reform, and define “what we need in order to live equal and independent lives”.

This will include a legal right to independent living, he said, which the UN has called for through its committee on the rights of persons with disabilities.

He said: “What we are facing at the moment is a catastrophe. That is what the UN said but that is also what disabled people say, with local authorities cutting people’s budgets by 50, 60, 70 per cent, and many disabled people having their social care completely removed in the assessment process.”

He said change was “not going to come from politicians or professionals, it is going to come from us. That is why this conference is so important, as was the disabled people’s summit.

“We think it is really important that we take control of our lives and the agenda around what we want from a right to independent living.”

He said that if policy-makers and politicians are allowed to set the agenda they will “water it down and corral us into systems where it is non-disabled people assessing us, measuring us, [and] restricting us”.

He told the conference about an article he has co-written with Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, which suggests that social care in England and Wales “is broken beyond repair”.

They believe the only solution is a universal, legal right to independent living and a free, national independent living service, paid for from direct taxation, managed by central government, and led by disabled people.

Such a service would be “shaped and delivered” by user-led disabled people’s organisations, co-operatives and social enterprises.

Independent living should be mainstreamed through a cross-government body, they say in the article, with attention paid not just to social care and health but also areas such as transport, education, housing and social security.

They say that social care should be seen as a “social and economic generator”, rather than supporting people to live independently being thought of as a “burden”.

Harrison told the conference that disabled people living in rural Norfolk were often the largest employers in their villages because of the personal assistants (PAs) they employ.

He said the system was in such a desperate situation that many people’s contributions to their council were now so high they were having to give up their social care packages because they could not afford them, even though they had been assessed as needing care under the Care Act.

He said disabled people would design the new independent living service, and were going to “abolish the postcode lottery and take it away from local authorities”.

He added: “We have to be in control. It is our lives we are talking about, it is us who have to take it forward.”

Ellen Clifford, a member of DPAC’s steering group, said disabled people and their organisations were facing “enormous challenges” with the continuing attacks on support.

The few solicitors able to take cases on behalf of people whose support has been slashed “are all working beyond capacity”, she said, as disabled people face “a continual cycle of reassessments”, while social workers are being “forced to cut packages”.

She warned that there were “limitations” with the process of seeking judicial reviews of council decisions on cuts to people’s support, with the courts “very unwilling to go against the professional opinion of social workers”, while judges “do not want to micromanage government policy”.

And she said there was also the risk that legal defeats, such as in the case of Luke Davey, would create damaging legal precedents that would make it easier for other local authorities to cut people’s care packages.

She said many people were facing assessments being carried out in “very intrusive ways”, with professionals “coming in to watch you receiving your personal care”, while many councils were no longer funding night-time support and were trying to persuade disabled people to rely on unpaid support from friends and relatives.

She also warned that local authorities were misinterpreting the idea of independent living to mean “that people should be doing things for themselves, whereas we know independent living is about having choice and control over your life”.

There are also reports of people finding it increasing difficult to recruit PAs, she said, because of low hourly pay rates, and the impact of Brexit on the supply of staff from Europe.

But she said there had been some campaigning successes, including disabled people in the north London borough of Enfield persuading the council to back down over its planned new charging policy.

Among other issues raised by those attending the conference were the use of pre-payment cards, which restrict how service-users spend their personal budgets; how to ensure a decent wage for PAs; the need for proper funding for disabled people’s organisations, so they can provide independent advocacy and advice; and “the need to be really clear and compelling in how we describe independent living” so that language is understandable to the general public.

Zara Todd, a former chair of Inclusion London and now director of the European Network on Independent Living, said: “Everyone in this room knows what your rights are, but there are so many disabled people who do not know what their rights are.”

She said there needed to be “some kind of way to reach people who are incredibly marginalised and isolated”, such as those living in institutions, “to show other disabled people that they do have a choice and do not have to be where they are.

“Unless we start doing that, no-one is going to tell these disabled people that they have options.”

She told DNS later: “There needs to be more spaces like [this conference] to discuss what independent living means for disabled people, so we can ensure that article 19 of the UNCRPD is fully implemented across the whole of Europe.”

The conference was funded by DPAC, and organised by DPAC and Inclusion London, with support from members of ROFA.

Another campaigner who attended the conference was Lakhvinder Kaur, whose battle with her local authority over her demand for choice and control over her support saw her trapped in a care home for weeks as she faced eviction and possible homelessness.

She was able to secure support from Newham council to attend the event, her first day out since she was left trapped in the care home in east London.

She told DNS afterwards that her experience showed that the government’s Care Act was “just a joke” and was failing to protect disabled people, which had been demonstrated by those who spoke at the conference.

She said: “Why can they strip me of my rights, take away my ability to go out and come back in? I’m [just treated as] state property.”

Michelle Daley, disabled activist and co-founder and director of the disabled women’s collective Sisters of Frida, said that increasing numbers of disabled people do not know what their rights are when it comes to support, which means they “are not going to be able to work their way through the system”.

Another disabled campaigner, Angela Smith, said: “Independence is not about doing everything yourself. It is about having the right support.”

She said that non-disabled people do not do everything themselves, but have services for those things they cannot do.

Smith said disabled people needed to “fight” that definition of independent living [that says independent living is about doing things yourself], and added: “If we can’t get that right, we can’t get anything right.”

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, agreed and said campaigners were “getting so worried” about social workers increasingly using this “bastardised” definition which turned independent living “upside down”.

Brian Hilton, who chaired the conference, called on disabled people to “use all that we learned, from what we got right to what we got wrong” from the ultimately unsuccessful fight to save the Independent Living Fund ILF “as we continue our fight for independent living”.

Mark Williams, a former ILF-user and a member of Bristol Disability Equality Forum, who has lived independently for the last 24 years with 24-hour PA support, works as a trainer for social workers and has volunteered as a school governor for the last 10 years, told the conference of his fears about the latest review of his support package.

He said: “After two appointments with my social workers, they suggested I needed time on my own in order to build up my confidence and make me more independent.”

He was asked to complete a 24-hour diary, detailing all of his activities over the course of two weeks, which resulted in a 29-page report that included “very personal details of my life”, and left him feeling that he “had no private life”.

He said he felt the process had been “very undermining and moving backwards”.

Organisers of the conference will now draw up key campaign objectives and actions that have come from workshops held during the event, and will seek support for that from those who attended the conference.

30 November 2017

 

 

Damian Green caught exaggerating disability benefits spending in PMQs

The first secretary of state has been caught exaggerating the government’s spending on disability benefits while standing in for Theresa May at prime minister’s questions.

Damian Green, who was work and pensions secretary until earlier this year, is already facing a Cabinet Office investigation into allegations of sexual impropriety.

He was asked by Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Marsha de Cordova, if the government would finally order an assessment of the cumulative impact of its social security policies on disabled people, to mark the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Sunday (3 December).

But he refused to answer that question, instead telling her: “I am sure the honourable lady, who has great expertise in this field, will know that this government are spending £90 billion on disability benefits.”

But when Disability News Service questioned this figure with the Cabinet Office, a spokeswoman admitted that the figure was wrong, although she said this was a “genuine error”.

She said the government spends more than £50 billion a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions, a figure which the government has previously made clear includes disability benefits, carers’ benefits and mainstream benefits such as housing benefit paid to disabled people.

She said: “This was a genuine error and a written ministerial statement will be laid shortly stating the correct figure.”

She said the £90 billion figure refers to total government spending on all people who need support, “including those who are out of work or on a low income”.

But it is not the first time Green has been caught out over the £50 billion figure.

Last November, when he was work and pensions secretary, he told shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams that the government spent £50 billion a year on disability benefits, when the actual figure should have been less than £40 billion.

Ministers have repeatedly ridiculed the idea of carrying out a cumulative impact assessment (CIA), ever since disabled campaigners began calling for such research six years ago.

But pressure to carry out an assessment has mounted every year, with the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities adding its voice to calls for a CIA in August, following similar calls by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and even the government’s own benefits advice body, the social security advisory committee.

And last week, EHRC published the results of its own CIA, which showed that families which include both a disabled adult and a disabled child have lost more than 13 per cent of their income through seven years of government cuts.

30 November 2017

 

 

Oliver comes out of retirement to deliver stinging rebuke to ‘parasite’ charities

One of the key figures in the disabled people’s movement has come out of retirement to deliver a stinging rebuke to “parasitic” disability charities.

Professor Mike Oliver, the disabled academic who first defined the “social model of disability”, was speaking at an event hosted by the University of Kent last night (Wednesday), as part of UK Disability History Month.

The annual series of events was launched at a parliamentary event last week, and this year focuses on disability and art.

Those speaking at the launch included disabled comedian, activist and trainer Barbara Lisicki, who spoke about – and displayed – some of the tee-shirts designed and worn by members of the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), and disabled artists Tanya Raabe-Webber and Tony Heaton.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell spoke of the importance of challenging stereotypes and how austerity had made it harder for disabled people to “fulfil their artistic ambitions and articulate their views about society” and how they face discrimination.

In his speech in Kent yesterday, Oliver warned of the risk that disabled people’s shared history was being “rewritten” by charities and politicians to “suit their own interests and agendas”.

He mentioned Scope, and a series of films it produced in 2015 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which failed to point out that, in its earlier incarnation as The Spastics Society, it had been “bitterly opposed to anti-discrimination legislation in the 1980s and only reluctantly came on board when it became obvious that such legislation was inevitable”.

He also referred to former Tory leader William Hague, who told the BBC that he regarded the DDA as one of his finest achievements, when in reality he had “turned the legislation into a pale shadow of what it should have been”.

Oliver was heavily critical of “the big disability charities”, which he said had “proved predictably useless at defending the living standards and lifestyles of disabled people” from the government’s “vicious attacks, while continuing to do very well for themselves”.

He referred to the phrase “parasite people”, once used by the disabled activist Paul Hunt to describe those “who furthered their own careers on the backs of the struggles of disabled people to lead ordinary lives”.

Oliver said that these charities need disabled people “to be dependent and tragic, otherwise there is no justification for their existence”.

He told Disability News Service (DNS) before delivering the lecture that many of the big charities (although he was not attacking the individuals who work for them) – including Leonard Cheshire Disability, RNIB, Scope and others – were “parasitic on the lives of disabled people, and their attempts to reposition themselves as defenders of disability rights are an attempt to disguise this”.

He also included Disability Rights UK (DR UK), despite it being a user-led disabled people’s organisation, and he told DNS that one of its representatives recently spoke publicly “on how important it was to write letters to our MPs and government, as if (Oliver said) that hasn’t been happening for many years without changing much”.

He added: “If that’s their idea of political activism then yes, they should be included in my criticism, even if they are user-led.”

Philip Connolly, DR UK’s policy and development manager, said it was him who Oliver had heard speak at the UK premiere of the documentary film Defiant Lives.

He told DNS yesterday that he had “a long record myself in non-violent direct action so would never suggest that the only legitimate way of obtaining change is letter writing”.

He said: “Mike Oliver has never to my knowledge been in touch with me or Disability Rights UK so is not in a good position to pass judgement on us.

“He would be welcome to get to know us, and our CEO Kamran Mallick is willing to meet with him.”

He added: “I wouldn’t criticise those engaged in non-violent protest or those who write letters either; when we win it’s usually because of both. I did say this at the cinema and no-one took issue with me there.”

Oliver also spoke in his speech of how the Paralympics and the Invictus Games, the sports event for disabled veterans created by Prince Harry, are used by the government as political cover.

He pointed out that “not all injured ex-service men and women can or want to compete in elite sport and many who don’t live lives of deprivation, poverty and misery”, while the government is able to continue sending young people to “often illegal wars to get blown apart for their country”.

He told DNS: “The government among others are using disability sport to deny the reality of many disabled people’s lives and disguising the reality of their failure to provide proper medical and rehabilitation support for many servicemen and women injured in wars that are sometimes illegal.”

But he made clear that he was not blaming the organisers of the games, and did not mention Prince Harry by name in the speech, and pointed out that his own rehabilitation from a spinal cord injury more than 50 years ago owed much to disability sport (he won table-tennis gold and bronze medals in the international Stoke Mandeville games that were a forerunner of the Paralympics).

Oliver also said in his speech that disabled people needed to be careful of rebranding disabled people’s history as a struggle for rights, when “it has always been much broader than that”.

He said: “Rights on their own are easily incorporated into the agendas of governments without requiring them to change very much at all.”

He highlighted the UK government’s “post truth” claim that it was a world leader in disability rights, after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities published a “damning report” in August in which it accused the government of “going backwards” on independent living.

And by positioning disabled people as “pathetic victims”, he said, the government had managed to launch “a massive attack on services and benefits for disabled people” while claiming that its “relentless assault on the living standards of disabled people is nothing of the kind but a heartfelt attempt to take public money away from scroungers and fraudsters and give it to the most severely disabled people who really need it”.

He concluded that disabled people needed to take responsibility themselves for “attacking the disabling barriers we face”.

He said: “What disability history teaches us is that we cannot rely on the bleeding hearts brigade and parasite people to do it for us.

“We have to do it for ourselves. We have to insist that our personal troubles are public issues that need to be resolved.”

Oliver also spoke about the divide that developed in the 1970s and 1980s between organisations controlled by disabled people – such as the Spinal Injuries Association and the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) – and “those that were about us but definitely not controlled by us”, such as Disability Alliance, which later merged with RADAR and the National Centre for Independent Living into DR UK.

He said his life had been changed by a UPIAS booklet, The Fundamental Principles Of Disability, published in 1976, which argued that “the root cause of our problems was the way society was organised and the disabling barriers we faced”.

This meant, he said, that he “no longer had to accept full responsibility for my impairment” and “now understood that my personal troubles were also public issues”, an insight that led him to develop the social model of disability.

He also spoke last night (Wednesday) about the part played by the University of Kent in developing the disabled people’s movement.

Oliver studied sociology and social anthropology at the university in the early 1970s, at a time when it was physically “unwelcoming” to a wheelchair-user, in contrast to the attitude of the staff and fellow students in the “generous times ushered in by the economic and cultural revolutions of the 1960s”.

He stayed on after his degree to complete his PhD, and to teach a masters course for professionals working with disabled people, which is believed to be the first postgraduate course in “what later became known as disability studies”.

At the time, he said, most writing on disability “was dominated by assumptions that disability was a medical problem and the focus was on illness and impairment”, and any personal focus was on disabled people as “tragic victims”, with the stereotype reinforced in popular culture through the “triumph over tragedy” genre.

He had wanted his masters course to challenge the idea that professionals working with disabled clients should focus solely on their “personal troubles and not how and why they were linked to public issues”.

Oliver’s first book, Social Work With Disabled People, published in 1983, introduced the social model of disability to a wider audience, and within five years, he said, “had become the mantra for many disabled people’s organisations and was beginning to make its way into official government documents”.

30 November 2017

 

 

Major law reform would help close ‘huge justice gap’ on disability hate crime

Academics have called for a new hate crime act and other key legal reforms to address the “huge justice gap” that affects victims of disability hate crime, following a major two-year study.

Researchers at the University of Sussex, led by Dr Mark Walters*, have concluded that the way the criminal justice system deals with hate crime is significantly flawed, pointing to “the huge justice gap that exists for hate crime… which especially affects victims of disability hate crime”.

The report, Hate Crime And The Legal Process – Options For Law Reform, funded by the European Union’s Justice and Consumers Department, calls for major changes to hate crime law.

And it is critical of the government for failing to act, three years after the Law Commission called for a wider review of hate crime legislation in England and Wales, pointing out that the government has still failed to respond to those recommendations.

Disability News Service has repeatedly reported on how the criminal justice system has failed to treat cases in which disabled people have been the victims of brutal and degrading assaults – many of them violent killings – as disability hate crimes.

The researchers carried out in-depth interviews with senior Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) hate crime managers, judges, barristers, police officers, council staff, hate crime victims and staff at charities that support victims of hate crime.

Of about 110,000 hate crimes reported to police every year**, only about four per cent (4,342) result in increased sentences on the basis of “identity-based hostility”, which the report’s authors say shows a “significant ‘justice gap’ for hate crime”.

And they say that, despite “a myriad” of inquiries, guidance, research and lobbying by disability groups, much of the criminal justice system refuses to see the way that disabled people are often targeted by criminals as evidence of hostility.

Instead, they say, disabled people are often labelled as “vulnerable” victims, a failure which “continues to inhibit the enforcement of laws that are aimed at protecting disabled people from hate crime”.

One CPS manager told the study’s authors: “We’re very much trying to knock a square peg into a round hole trying to fit the facts into a form of language in the legislation that is not really designed to fit.”

As a result, the authors want new legislation that would make it much easier to prove an offence is a hate crime.

Instead of trying to prove a crime was motivated by hostility, they suggest a court should only have to prove that it was committed “by reason of” the victim’s disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, or transgender status.

Another of their recommendations is that hate crime motivated by the victim’s disability, sexual orientation or transgender status should be treated in the same way as those motivated by race and religious-based hostility, under the Crime and Disorder Act.

This would mean that section 28 of the act – which creates “racially or religiously aggravated offences” – would be extended to offences aggravated by hostility to disability, sexual orientation or transgender status.

But the study’s authors say they would like the government to go even further.

Because of the “piecemeal” way in which hate crime laws have been enacted over the last 20 years, there are now “different levels of legislative protection” for the current five recognised groups commonly targeted for hate crime.

To replace this, they want to bring all existing hate crime laws into a new hate crime act, which would create a new “aggravated” criminal offence whenever there is sufficient evidence of a hate crime.

The 214-page report raises detailed concerns about the way the criminal justice system deals with hate crime, particularly disability-related hostility.

And it devotes a separate section of the report to disability hate crime, because the authors say that “problems with prosecuting and sentencing disability hate crimes were so prevalent” among the experts they interviewed.

They say there is “a vast gap between the way that disability hate crimes are dealt with by the [criminal justice system] compared with other strands of hate crime”.

And they say it became clear that “most of the problems preventing the successful application of hate crime law for disability hate crime remain”, four years after a joint criminal justice inspectorate report highlighted the serious concerns.

One of the key concerns is the frequent refusal of judges to treat cases where an offender has selected a disabled victim because they are an easy target as evidence of disability-related hostility.

Only 11 per cent of disability hate crime convictions result in an increased sentence under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act, according to CPS figures.

This means that, of the estimated 35,000 disability hate crimes reported to the police last year, just 84 – or 0.2 per cent – received a sentence uplift.

In most case, the judges increase sentences instead on the grounds of the victim’s “vulnerability”, which the researchers say “can serve to perpetuate a false representation of disabled people as innately weak, and as somehow incapable of caring for themselves”.

And they say it is “clear that most judges were yet to share this understanding of disability, or how labelling victims as ‘vulnerable’ can contribute to the marginalisation of many disabled people”.

There are also repeated criticisms of police forces, with the study saying that a “significant proportion” of disability hate crimes are not identified correctly by officers, often even when there is “evidence of a disablist slur having been expressed during the commission of an offence”.

Some CPS managers said police officers needed to be “more proactive” in producing the necessary evidence, while some prosecutors said some police officers were still not aware of hate crime sentencing laws affecting sexual orientation, transgender identity and disability.

The study also says that officers can “overlook or fail to gather evidence” of disability hate crime.

The report is less critical of prosecutors, and says that recent training of all CPS lawyers “has helped to improve the prosecution of disability hate crime”.

And 12 years after the introduction of laws that allowed for sentences to be increased for hate crime offences – under sections 145 and 146 of the Criminal Justice Act – the study says there is still “widespread lack of awareness” of the measures, particularly among defence barristers and crown court judges.

It says that many crown court judges remain “reluctant” to apply sections 145 and 146.

The research, and the recommendations, were welcomed by Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network and an adviser to CPS and the Lancashire and West Yorkshire police forces on disability.

He said: “We have always said that current UK hate crime legislation significantly fails to fully protect disabled people, whereas it gives better legal support and sentencing outcomes to other targeted people.

“We have always insisted that simplification of the legislation of disability hate crime which will give greater clarity and reassurance to those who are targeted is essential and that they will benefit from the protection of better law, for without that robust framework disabled people don’t have a guarantee that being a victim of disability hate crime will lead to enforcement action.

“We need the whole criminal justice system, and indeed politicians, to change their poor attitude towards disabled people who experience hatred routinely and make them commit to more consistently recognise the impact of disability hate crime by supporting clearer, stronger legislation and actively contribute to change our society for the benefit of all.”

Walters told DNS: “If these options for reform are taken up by the government, I strongly believe that the criminal justice system will be better equipped to tackle the growing problems associated with hate crime in England and Wales.”

He added: “There are four main recommendations for law reform summarised in the executive summary.

“We recommend that these be considered by the government as soon as possible, in order to improve the operationalisation of the current framework of law.

“It is clear that the government’s attentions are currently focused predominately on Brexit negotiation, but given the huge spikes in hate crime that have been recorded since the EU referendum in June 2016, it is incumbent upon the government to ensure that the law can effectively address what is clearly a growing social problem.”

A Home Office spokeswoman failed to respond to questions about the content of the report and its recommendations, or the length of time the government had taken to respond to the Law Commission, which she said was the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, which she said was “considering all of the options outlined by the Law Commission”.

But she said in a statement: “All forms of hate crime, including disability hate crime, are completely unacceptable, and we are working hard to protect victims of these abhorrent crimes.

“We already have a robust legislative framework to protect people from hate against all five of the monitored strands, including increased sentences where an offence was motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s real or perceived disability.”

She also pointed to the government’s “comprehensive Hate Crime Action Plan”.

The action plan was criticised last year for its “totally disrespectful” and “unforgivable” failure to address disability hate crime.

She also said the Home Office was “aware” of the new research.

*The other authors were Dr Susann Wiedlitzka, Dr Abenaa Owusu-Bemaph, from the London School of Economics, and researcher Dr Kay Goodall

**According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales

30 November 2017

 

 

Government fails to back bill that could open up access to 800,000 wheelchair-users

A disabled Tory peer has attacked the government for failing to support new laws that would provide access for 800,000 fellow wheelchair-users to 60,000 shops, pubs and cafés across England, Scotland and Wales.

Lord Blencathra – former Home Office minister David Maclean – received strong cross-party support for his Equality Act 2010 (amendment) (disabled access) bill as it passed its second reading in the House of Lords on Friday (24 November).

His bill, identical to one rejected by the coalition government three years ago, would force owners of public buildings to replace all steps of up to six inches – and later, those up to 12 inches – at their entrance with a ramp suitable for wheelchairs.

But despite widespread backing for the bill from other peers, Home Office minister Baroness Williams made it clear that the government did not back the bill and that the “deliberately and carefully worded” Equality Act provided sufficient protection for disabled people.

Lord Blencathra, himself a part-time wheelchair-user, told fellow peers that his bill would make a “tiny addition to the 2010 act, would cost business very little to implement but would make a huge difference to wheelchair-users”.

He said that the report from the House of Lords’ Equality Act 2010 and disability committee last year found “severe difficulties with the ‘reasonable adjustments’ provision of the act, in that no one was enforcing it and disabled people had to take cases to court themselves in order to get access improvements”.

He said research by the Department for Work and Pensions and DisabledGo three years ago found that 20 per cent of the 30,000 shops and restaurants they visited did not have wheelchair access.

He said: “If you extrapolate that 20 per cent of 30,000 shops to the total of 355,000 public retail premises, you get a figure of 71,000 shops, pubs and cafés which wheelchair-users simply cannot access. That is a scandalous number in this day and age.”

Lord Blencathra said his bill would provide access to about 60,000 of those buildings.

He said the committee’s inquiry had shown that the duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act was “simply not happening”.

He told fellow peers: “Disabled people are told by the government that if they cannot be served they should just take their business elsewhere.

“Would they say that to a black person, a gay person or anyone else in the protected categories? I hope to God that they would not.”

Lord [Colin] Low, the disabled crossbench peer, said that “the removal of steps and the provision of ramps should have been fully implemented and complied with as long ago as 2003”, under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), and so “the real issue is with enforcement”.

And he said the government already had the power to introduce regulations under the Equality Act that would “take us a significant step closer to getting service-providers’ compliance with their duties under the act”.

Another disabled crossbench peer, Baroness Masham, said the bill “not only would help thousands of wheelchair users, but their helpers and people using babies’ pushchairs”.

She said that the only pharmacist in her home town of Masham in north Yorkshire “has a four-inch step and no ramp.

“This pharmacist just cannot be bothered or thinks that there is no legal requirement.”

She added: “How much more does the noble Lord have to do to convince the government that his bill is necessary? This is something that will not cost the government money.”

The disabled Tory peer Lord [Chris] Holmes said the bill was “excellent, well-crafted and beautifully straightforward”.

He said: “When you experience denial of access and discrimination, you do not experience it in a cerebral state, you feel it. You feel it in your heart and in your guts.

“It is to be denied fairness, with no dignity, no respect and no equality, just exclusion.

“That is the beauty of my noble friend’s bill. It is not actually anything to do with steps, it is simply to do with inclusion.”

Another disabled Conservative peer, Lord Shinkwin, said the bill was “pragmatic, principled and practical”, and gave the government the chance to “demonstrate their commitment to disability equality and to keeping the flame of our party’s landmark disability rights legislation, the DDA, alive”.

He added: “Having served on the National Disability Council, set up to advise the government on the implementation of the DDA more than 20 years ago, I am more sorry than I can say that your Lordships’ house is still debating such a modest bill.”

Baroness [Sal] Brinton, the disabled president of the Liberal Democrats, described how she was visiting family in Barnes and East Sheen in south-west London recently and had to visit a pharmacy.

She said: “The first three local pharmacies that I came to all had steps. None had a bell and one had an enormous sign in the front window saying, ‘Disabled? We’re here to help’. How could I tell them?”

Another disabled Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness [Celia] Thomas, said: “As has been said by nearly every speaker, what is simply not recognised in general is that there is no person or body actually and actively in charge of policing access to public buildings, such as shops.

“I wonder if shopkeepers believe they have to do something only when they are told by someone in authority that they have to do it – and if they are not told, they do not.”

Baroness Deech, who chaired the Equality Act 2010 and disability committee, said that access to public buildings was “a fundamental right”.

She said: “The removal of legal aid has made it even harder and more costly for individuals to challenge the blockages to their rights. The burden is on them alone, for class and proxy actions are not allowed.

“The bill is the tiniest step in the right direction.”

She added: “Support for this bill is essential to stop the callous or ignorant denial of an easy remedy of accessibility for all of us.

“Any government who care for minorities or those who are not just about managing must bring it into law.”

Baroness Gale, Labour’s shadow spokeswoman on women and equalities, said her party backed the bill, which she said “offers a solution that will make life better and easier for people in wheelchairs”.

She said: “It seems that in this country today it is okay to effectively bar around 800,000 people in wheelchairs from being able to enter many places we take for granted such as shops, pubs and restaurants.”

But Baroness Williams, for the government, said the duty to make reasonable adjustments was “now enshrined in the Equality Act and remains a cornerstone of the protection offered to disabled people” and “achieves the delicate balance of taking account of the rights of disabled people and what is reasonable to expect of those under a duty to make an adjustment”.

She said the law “recognises the need to strike a fair balance and requires a service provider only to make adjustments that are reasonable in all the circumstances of a particular case”.

And she said that Part M of the Building Regulations 2010 “also requires reasonable provision to be made for wheelchair-users to gain access to new buildings or when an existing building undergoes significant alternation or extension”.

She said these measures meant the government “believe that the existing legislation is already comprehensive in this regard”.

And she said the bill would “essentially remove the reasonableness filter and require service providers, without exception, to provide ramps for wheelchair users wherever there was a single step that was less than six inches in height in a public area”.

She said such a law would “take no account of the cost of the installation”, while, for 12-inch steps, “a ramp would need to be six metres long”.

Baroness Williams said the Equality Act was “deliberately and carefully worded to allow for greater scope in considering how best to solve the particular problem being experienced by the disabled person”, while Lord Blencathra’s bill “would inevitably result in numerous calls to have other specific remedies spelt out in the act or in further technical guidance”.

She said that his “one-size-fits-all approach cannot address the many and varied needs of our citizens”.

But Lord Blencathra said Baroness Williams had had to “defend the indefensible” and he condemned the response from the government, which “does not seem to give a damn about the 11 million disabled people in this country”.

He said: “It is obvious that the Government Equalities Office has produced the usual discredited litany of excuses for doing nothing to help disabled people.”

He said he would accept an offer from the new minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, to hold a round-table discussion with peers on the issue, although he warned that Newton “does not make policy, which is firmly in the grip of the Government Equalities Office”.

He added: “I urge ministers to get a grip of the civil servants running this policy and to tell them that wheelchair-users have rights too.

“We do not want special treatment but, in order to get equality, we need different treatment, as the select committee pointed out.”

A date for the bill’s committee stage has not yet been announced.

30 November 2017

 

 

Tory peer attacks government over possible EHRC commissioner ‘cover-up’

A disabled Conservative peer has accused the government of a possible cover-up, over the equality watchdog’s failure to appoint him as its disability commissioner.

Lord [Kevin] Shinkwin spoke out in parliament on Friday (24 November) about what he said was the “shocking” behaviour of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

But he also said he now believed that the women and equalities minister Justine Greening had been involved in the process that led to the abolition of the role of disability commissioner.

And he has told the prime minister that he will resign the Conservative whip and work instead as an independent crossbench peer if she does not write to EHRC chair David Isaac to ask him to “reinstate the position of disability commissioner, to appoint me, in that capacity, chair of the commission’s disability advisory committee and to allow me to lead in the recruitment of new ​members to that committee”.

Lord Shinkwin is refusing to attend board meetings in protest at the commission’s decision to appoint him as a general commissioner, when he had applied for the role of disability commissioner.

He had applied last year for the post of disability commissioner but was told months later – just 36 hours before his first board meeting – that the role had been made redundant and that he had instead been appointed as a general commissioner and would not lead on disability issues.

He told fellow peers that he had asked the prime minister to release written evidence to show that Greening “did not collude in weakening the voice of disabled people… by helping to set in train the process to remove the position of disability commissioner”.

If he did not receive this evidence, he said, he would have to reach the conclusion that Greening “has allowed the position of disability commissioner to be abolished on this government’s watch” and had “acted in flagrant dereliction of her duty to me as a disabled person and to all disabled people”, and that she should therefore resign.

Lord Shinkwin suggested to fellow peers, during a debate on a new bill that would improve access for wheelchair-users (see separate story), that the decision to appoint him as a general commissioner – rather than as the commissioner leading on disability issues – was only made after the commission had learned that he had been selected for the role by Greening.

And he added: “All the evidence I have seen points to the fact that the equalities minister, Justine Greening, was involved in the process that led to the abolition of the position of disability commissioner.”

He told Disability News Service (DNS) later that unless all the written communications involving Greening’s department and EHRC was released there would be “strong grounds for suspecting a cover-up”.

The commission insists that it had decided there was no need for a disability commissioner because of the decision to “mainstream” disability into its work.

Isaac has previously told MPs on the Commons women and equalities committee that, during the gap of several months between the interviews for the post, last December, and Greening’s decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin in April, the statutory disability committee had “expired” and the board had decided that the post of disability commissioner should also be scrapped.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, told the committee it was “a matter of fact” that Greening had appointed him as a general commissioner and not a disability commissioner.

The home office minister Baroness Williams told peers on Friday that “the roles and responsibilities given to board members of the Equality and Human Rights Commission are matters for the commission itself, and the government have no power to reinstate the EHRC’s disability commissioner role”.

But Lord Shinkwin told DNS this week that he believed Greening should have “lobbied strongly” for the commission to appoint him as disability commissioner, and that disabled people had now “lost their last powerful voice” because of the abolition of the role.

He said: “No equalities minister should have acquiesced in that. Had she objected strongly, I think we’d still have a disability commissioner.

“Indeed, I believe that was very much the plan until they heard who was going to be appointed to the role.”

He also shared the letters he has exchanged with the prime minister.

Theresa May told him in her letter that the government “had no involvement in the EHRC’s decision to abolish the Disability Commissioner role” and insisted that Greening had appointed him in the expectation “that you would bring your passions, skills, experience and knowledge of disability, and help to drive forward the EHRC’s work on disability discrimination”.

In his reply, he notes his “dismay” at the contents of her letter, and says the evidence he has sent her “clearly demonstrates that the Government was aware of plans to abolish, and was complicit in the abolition of, the post of Disability Commissioner”.

In his letter, he calls the commission’s decision to abolish the disability commissioner role “grubby” and “underhand”.

And he says he has been a member of the Conservative party for nearly 30 years, but that her reluctance to “engage with the damning evidence I have put before you… leads me to the reluctant conclusion that there is nothing more I can do to defend our Party’s hard-won credibility on disability rights”.

He adds: “I want so much to help rebut unfair charges of our being – as you yourself once described us – ‘the nasty Party’, but the rug has been pulled from under the wheels of my chair.”

30 November 2017

 

 

Industrial strategy is ‘not fit for purpose’ due to ‘missing chapter’

The government’s new Industrial Strategy is “not fit for purpose” and has a “missing chapter” because of its failure to address the needs of disabled people, say campaigners.

The strategy, published as a white paper on Monday (27 November), aims to set out the government’s “long-term vision for how Britain can build on its economic strengths, address its productivity performance, embrace technological change and boost the earning power of people across the UK”.

But the strategy – apart from the reference notes at the end of the document – includes just eight mentions of disabled people or disability in its 254 pages, and does not appear to include a single new disability-related announcement.

A draft version of the strategy, which was published as a green paper in January, was heavily criticised for failing to address disability and equality issues.

In July, a senior civil servant for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was twice forced to acknowledge to the all party parliamentary group for disability (APPGD) that the industrial strategy would need to address this failure when it was published.

The green paper failed to include a single mention of disability or disabled people, or even equality.

There was also just one mention of disability (relating to investment in special educational needs) and no mention of equality in last year’s 113-page National Infrastructure Delivery Plan.

There have been suggestions that this failure meant the government had breached its public sector equality duty (PSED), under the Equality Act.

The civil servant, Alex Williams, had accepted the green paper’s flaws, and told the APPGD: “If we publish a similar statement…. without that due consideration it will not be a fit for purpose document.”

But this week’s strategy appears to have done little to put this right.

There are several references to existing policies, including a pledge to work with business to “to make flexible working a reality”, and a brief mention of the advantages of “remote access technology” in allowing disabled people to work from home.

It also refers to the forthcoming green paper on social care, which it says “will respond to the wide challenges facing the social care sector”.

The government has been widely-criticised for side-lining the needs of working-age disabled people from the social care green paper.

There is also a mention of the government’s commitment to deliver the recommendations of the taskforce led by the disabled MP Paul Maynard (now the rail minister) on improving access to apprenticeships for people with learning difficulties, and the government’s commitment to increase the proportion of apprenticeships started by people with learning difficulties by 20 per cent by 2020.

The new strategy also says the government will say more about boosting disability employment in the Department for Work and Pensions’ work, health and disability white paper, which was published last night (Wednesday), and in its response to the review of workplace mental health by Lord (Dennis) Stevenson and Paul Farmer.

But there is disappointment that there is no mention in the strategy of how the government might use public sector procurement to insist on training and job opportunities for disabled people, through the £270 billion a year it spends on goods, works and services from the private sector.

Philip Connolly, policy and development manager at Disability Rights UK, said: “Penny Mordaunt herself (the former minister for disabled people) said that if the Industrial Strategy didn’t address the needs of disabled people it would have a missing chapter.

“The official at the APPGD went further and said it wouldn’t be fit for purpose. From disabled people’s point of view, it still has a missing chapter and is not fit for purpose.

“The good news is that the Industrial Strategy does reference the government’s target of moving a million disabled people into work by 2027, and does highlight their disadvantage in the labour market.”

He also welcomed the reference to the commitment on apprenticeships.

But he added: “However, despite the acknowledgement that public sector procurement represents one of the biggest levers the government has in the economy, there appears to be no real advances in policy that could assist the government in meeting its targets on disability employment.

“If the government insisted the public sector was more proactive on supporting disabled people in training and employment opportunities as a condition of awarding contracts, then we’d see a step change in the numbers of disabled people in the labour market.

“This is a lost opportunity and leaves the leadership of BEIS in delivering on the wider agenda of government look weak.”

He said he was even more concerned about the failings of the National Infrastructure Delivery Plan, which describes the government’s plans for economic infrastructure, and how it plans to support delivery of housing and social infrastructure, over the next five years.

Connolly said he was “involved in extensive dialogue with the people behind this plan and those who will be its major suppliers and there are still options for policy to change and for public and private investment to be linked to the disability employment gap target”.

He said he hoped the disability sector “will look at all the levers it has at its disposal including, if necessary, legal challenges, because on the basis of the industrial strategy there is a gulf between policies that lead to people coming off benefits and policies that support them getting into work”.

A BEIS spokesman said the strategy’s objective to “improve living standards and economic growth” will “benefit people with protected characteristics under the Equalities Act 2010” and produce no overall adverse disproportionate impact on those groups.

He said that equality impact assessments of policies in the strategy that have an impact on people with protected characteristics had been found to have a “neutral” or “positive” impact on those protected groups.

He said: “On this basis, we believe that we have complied with the public sector equality duty.”

He added: “We undertook a strong level of engagement with protected groups during and after the industrial strategy’s green paper consultation period, in order to test thinking and feed into our policy development (including engagement with disability organisations, such as Disability Rights UK, the all-party parliamentary group for disability, Mencap and Leonard Cheshire).

“This included a good level of ministerial engagement.

“Some of this feedback has influenced the ‘People’ chapter of the white paper, which brings out the importance of an inclusive labour market and sets out our approach for achieving this.

“The Industrial Strategy white paper is not the end of the process, but something we will build on for the long term and we look forward to continuing to engage with a broad range of stakeholders (including disability groups).”

30 November 2017

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com