WCA death doctor: DWP put ‘immense pressure’ on Atos to find claimants fit for work

A company paid to assess disabled people’s fitness for work was put under “immense pressure” by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to find claimants ineligible for out-of-work disability benefits, official records have revealed.

DWP has insisted for years that there was no such pressure placed on Atos Healthcare, the controversial outsourcing giant, to find disabled people fit for work and therefore not eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA).

But a new document unearthed by the family of Michael O’Sullivan, a disabled man who took his own life after being found unfairly fit for work, shows that an Atos doctor made it clear that DWP was partly to blame for the decision to find him ineligible.

Michael O’Sullivan’s death in September 2013 led to a coroner blaming failings in the notorious work capability assessment (WCA) system for his death, and writing to DWP to request urgent changes to prevent further deaths.

Those changes were never made, and further deaths have continued to be linked to the WCA over the last five years.

The claim was contained in evidence provided to the General Medical Council (GMC) nearly three years ago when it was investigating complaints about Dr Fathy Awad Sherif, the orthopaedic surgeon who carried out the face-to-face assessment of Michael O’Sullivan in March 2013.

The doctor’s representatives told GMC investigators: “Following the conversion of Incapacity Benefit to ESA, the DWP put immense pressure on ATOS disability analysts to deem claimants fit for work when they previously would have qualified for benefits.”

Atos has never publicly made any such statement, and DWP has always denied placing pressure on the company and its assessors to find claimants fit for work.

Disability News Service (DNS) has revealed how ministers allowed the rollout of the WCA to hundreds of thousands of long-term IB claimants – including Michael O’Sullivan – to begin in 2011 despite ministers being warned by another coroner in 2010 that the assessment was a threat to their lives (see DNS investigation, published this week).

Dr Sherif’s representatives also told GMC in their evidence that Atos assessors, who “had no formal psychiatric training”, were not required by DWP to use a medical tool that evaluates the severity of a person’s depression.

They also claimed that the criteria applied during WCAs had been “altered” by DWP to make it more difficult for claimants to be found eligible for ESA.

Michael O’Sullivan’s family have been supported in their investigation by their local MP, Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, and welfare rights expert Nick Dilworth, who have all spent years piecing together a case against DWP and Atos.

That investigation continues, and they say most of the evidence shows serious and systematic failures by DWP.

But they are frustrated and angry with Atos that until this week it had failed to respond to a detailed complaint that was lodged with the company in January this year.

They had previously expected DWP to deal with all aspects of their lengthy complaint, as Atos was carrying out the assessments on its behalf, but they were told last year by the department that they needed to lodge a separate complaint with the company.

Their complaint covers an earlier, deeply flawed Atos face-to-face assessment, which also led to Michael O’Sullivan attempting suicide after being found unfairly fit for work.

They believe that DWP, Atos and Dr Sherif had a flawed misunderstanding of their duty of care and so failed to apply it when providing Michael O’Sullivan with medical assessment and employment-seeking services while under their care.

Dilworth said: “The O’Sullivan complaint has involved a meticulous investigation into every aspect of how Michael’s claim was handled by the DWP and Atos.

“The work is, of necessity, focused on establishing a chain of evidence-based facts which painfully piece together a full picture of how Mr O’Sullivan came to his tragic death on or shortly before the 24th September 2013.

“The investigation further focuses on how the matter of death was handled by the DWP and its senior ministers in the aftermath of this dreadful suicide.

“The family, Sir Keir Starmer QC and I have worked tirelessly to get to the root of all that happened and this has involved working at the highest level and knocking on the most important doors in the country.

“The complaint is ongoing so it is inappropriate to comment further at this stage, but we will continue to work closely with DNS in providing progress reports.

“I would encourage other affected families to work with [DNS] on collating the evidence required to ensure those culpable are finally held to account.”

Atos was replaced by the discredited US outsourcing firm Maximus in March 2015, after it pulled out of delivering the WCA, through which it had been earning more than a hundred million pounds in most years of the contract.

Atos is still contracted to carry out personal independence payment assessments on behalf of DWP.

GMC eventually issued a warning to Dr Sherif about his fitness for practise, after finding that his WCA report was “significantly below the standard expected of a reasonably competent Disability Analyst” and that he did “not meet with the standards required of a doctor” and “risks bringing the profession into disrepute”.

Dr Sherif is still licensed to practise medicine in the UK.

Atos said it was unable to comment at this time but confirmed that it had now been in touch with the O’Sullivan family.

It has promised to speak to the family about the complaint.

The O’Sullivan family confirmed that Atos had made contact this week and that they now awaited the promised phone call.

The Conservative party failed to respond to a request for a comment.

DWP is restricted in how it can comment during the general election campaign.

But it said that it set high standards for assessment providers but did not set targets to find claimants fit for work, and that each individual was assessed on a case-by-case basis.

It said it would not be able to comment on the GMC investigation, which was an external process.

It also pointed to the five independent reviews of the WCA it had carried out [see DNS investigation] and said it had implemented the vast majority of their recommendations.

And it said that improvements to the WCA included introducing mental health training for all staff dealing directly with claimants, appointing mental health champions to advise assessors, and allowing for further evidence to be requested when considering mandatory reconsiderations.

A spokesperson for the O’Sullivan family said: “Stock answers from the DWP only serve to discredit the sincerity of their response.

“What the DWP and their ministers know is we are not going to stop until we have real answers to the very challenging questions we have put to them.

“It is time for those in command to come clean over the extremely serious issues raised within the mass of evidence presented to them.”

5 December 2019

Civil servants ‘ashamed’ to work for DWP over ‘pig’s ear’ universal credit

Civil servants described to colleagues how they were “ashamed” to work for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) because of the experiences of their own relatives when claiming universal credit, leaked documents have revealed.

The thoughts of DWP civil servants were shared with colleagues on the department’s intranet earlier this year, and they have now been passed to Disability News Service.

They appear to destroy DWP’s continuing insistence that UC “is a force for good” and that it has overwhelming support from its own staff.

In all, three separate civil servants used the DWP intranet in early May to criticise the way their own relatives had been treated while attempting to claim UC.

It comes as Labour has promised to scrap UC if it wins next week’s general election, as has the Green party, while the Conservatives have pledged to “continue the roll-out”, and the Liberal Democrats have said they would try to improve the system.

A DWP staff member who passed the comments to DNS said he wanted the public to know that many of his colleagues did not share the views of Conservative ministers like work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey, who insists that universal credit (UC) “provides a safeguard for the most vulnerable in our society”.

Instead, he said, many of his colleagues were concerned about the flaws in the system, which is gradually being rolled out by the government and has been described as “toxic” by disabled campaigners and linked to “soaring” rates of sanctions and foodbank use in areas where it has been introduced.

The comments were made on the DWP intranet, which is open to all staff members, in response to an update headlined “Universal Credit – the myth busters get to work”, which was posted by a senior member of staff on 2 May.

Soon after the discussion, a DWP memo was leaked to the media and led to widespread outrage when it revealed that the department was planning a national “myth-busting” campaign aimed at dealing with media “negativity and scaremongering” about UC.

The newly-leaked intranet comments appear to show what DWP members of staff really think about UC.

The update had explained how jobcentres had invited local reporters into their offices to “show the reality of the great service we provide within our community”.

But the post drew a scathing response from several staff members over the following week.

One civil servant told colleagues, less than an hour after the original post, that his brother’s experience on UC was “not made up or exaggerated”.

He added: “I was and still am ashamed to work for [a] department that could treat my Brother so poorly. I am sorry to say ‘myth busting’ is another name for propaganda when it comes to Universal Credit.”

His post secured widespread support from colleagues, with 98 of them rating it positively (DWP does not allow staff to rate intranet posts negatively).

He added later: “The truth is UC works for some people and does not/has not worked for others.”

A fellow staff member, responding to the post, said he believed DWP “lets itself down” in the way it responds to stories about UC, because of its “evasive” attitude.

He said: “It’s a bit like someone trying to sell you a three-legged racehorse, and when you point out the obvious, they start talking about its lovely teeth.”

Another DWP member of staff said the department needed “a lot of damage limitation for a lot of damage”, and he added: “And with the best will in the world and the brilliance of our colleagues… it’s still impossible to make a silk purse out of a pigs ear.”

Another DWP staff member then commented on her sister’s “shocking” experience of UC, which had “exacerbated her condition”, following a series of “incredible” errors made by DWP.

She said: “We should never consider damage limitation.

“At the end of the day the claimants can’t be the collateral damage (but they are) whilst the dept gets its act together and goes out on myth busting missions.

“The time has come for total honesty and integrity, it’s the only way forward for staff and claimants.”

A few days later, a third member of staff raised concerns in the intranet discussion about the way a relative had been treated by the UC system.

He said his son’s UC claim had been “handled in an absolutely atrocious manner – impersonal, distressing, frustrating and also at the end of the day causing significant expense and loss to public funds”.

He added: “I too was and am ashamed to have had any connection to the organisation responsible.”

The criticism of UC by staff members continued.

One DWP worker had criticised the film-maker Ken Loach for alleged “bias” in his critically-acclaimed film portrayal of DWP’s “fitness for work” system, I, Daniel Blake.

But a colleague then questioned whether this was “any more extreme than that of a government intranet site which publishes only good news about Universal Credit, treating severely delayed implementation plans and increasing use of food banks as almost an irrelevance?”

Another DWP civil servant added: “The bad experiences of our customers appear to outweigh the good and trying to dress it up or hide the truth is facetious.

“Paying claimants exactly what they are due isn’t something to be celebrated, it should be what is expected.”

But not all DWP civil servants attacked UC in response to the original post.

Some backed DWP’s official position, with one insisting that one “negative experience” did not “undo the copious amounts of work we put in on a daily basis to assist those most in need”.

This staff member insisted that DWP “myth-busting” was not propaganda but was “just publishing the good news stories that usually get swept under the rug in favour of newspaper-selling embellishment of bad stories”.

Another said: “I have had so many customers who have burst into tears with relief at the end of an interview because they have been scared to claim Universal Credit due to the negative myths.”

The DWP staff member who shared the intranet posts with DNS said this week that he had done it to ensure that the people who work in the system “can have their voices heard” and express their concerns about UC.

He said: “Obviously claimants are thinking staff are very removed from them and that we are not that bothered and cannot see the obvious faults with UC, but that’s just not true.

“There are people that work here who have cried foul about UC because it’s crap.

“Maybe the public need to know that so that they don’t think everybody who works here enjoys inflicting the inevitable pitfalls onto people who can’t manage that process or can’t deal with it.”

DWP was asked to respond to the intranet posts but declined to comment.

5 December 2019

Shadow chancellor backs call for criminal investigation into Duncan Smith and Grayling

Labour’s shadow chancellor has joined disabled campaigners in backing calls for a criminal probe into the actions of former Tory ministers and senior civil servants, following the publication of a five-year investigation into the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.

The 12,000-word article, published on Monday by Disability News Service (DNS), was based on evidence linking the deaths of six disabled people between 2010 and 2015 with the work capability assessment (WCA).

The article argues that all six of those deaths – as well as many others – were linked to flaws in the WCA.

Conservative ministers including Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling and senior civil servants within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ignored concerns that had been raised by a coroner and were sent to DWP in the spring of 2010.

As a result of the failure to act on that letter, and further damning evidence about the assessment process that emerged later, and particularly its impact on people with mental health problems, claimants of out-of-work disability benefits continued to lose their lives.

The article ends by laying out a clear argument for a criminal investigation for the crime of misconduct in public office, according to principles described by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, this morning (Thursday) backed calls for a criminal investigation.

He spoke out after confirming to DNS that a Labour government would launch an inquiry into the deaths of disabled people linked to DWP failings (see separate story).

Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green party, also backed the call for an investigation.

He said the DNS article provided “strong and clear evidence” that Duncan Smith, Grayling and senior civil servants should be investigated over the WCA scandal.

Kerena Marchant, who is standing as a Labour candidate in next week’s general election in Basingstoke against the former Tory minister for disabled people Maria Miller, said the article demonstrated that “policies have consequences and the loss of disabled lives was a consequence of Tory austerity policies”.

One disabled campaigner, Jodie Downes, said: “This is why this #GeneralElection2019 is life or death for me.”

Anita Bellows, a researcher with Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “[DNS] has built a very strong and compelling case for prosecuting the ministers involved in concealing vital information, namely Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling, which, if it had been acted upon, would have saved lives.

“Their action and failure to act meet the four criteria defining ‘misconduct in public office’.

“All the facts stated in the article are shocking, but maybe one of the most shocking is the response drafted by DWP in 2010 in response to a coroner’s report, reaffirming that the ‘fit for work’ decision was the right one when an appeal tribunal found after the claimant’s death that he should have been entitled to ESA.

“It not only shows a dysfunctional and flawed system, but also the unwillingness of ministers to take responsibility for its failures under their watch.

“For that, they should be held accountable.”

Ian Jones, a spokesperson for the WOWcampaign, which campaigns for the government to assess the impact that its austerity cuts continue to have on disabled people, said the article was “a very welcome development”.

He said: “It is not credible to believe that Tory ministers were unaware that the cuts they targeted at disabled people would not lead to the deaths of many.

“It is not acceptable for Britain to accept these deaths are an acceptable price to pay for the bankers crashing the economy in 2008.

“Hopefully, this is another step closer to holding somebody accountable for these deaths.”

The DNS article also describes how unsuccessful efforts were made to persuade the Scottish criminal justice system to launch an investigation into Duncan Smith and Grayling for neglect of public duty.

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, who played a key role in this attempt, called this week for the criminal justice system in Scotland to look again at the case.

He said Black Triangle had been campaigning for nine years to make the system safer, with the solutions it has repeatedly suggested in line with those demanded in reports by two coroners, as described in the DNS article.

He said: “The crucial things is that if nobody is held to account then the injustices of the system will continue to take lives.”

In a statement, a DWP spokesperson said: “Suicide is a tragic, complex issue and we take the death of any claimant very seriously.

“That’s why we work with and listen to families and a wide range of experts, including charities and coroners, so lessons are learnt when needed.

“We commissioned five independent reviews of the work capability assessment, and implemented the vast majority of recommendations.

“Improvements include introducing mental health training for all staff dealing directly with claimants, appointing mental health champions to advise assessors, and allowing for further evidence to be requested when considering mandatory reconsiderations.”

The Conservative party, Duncan Smith and Grayling were all sent draft versions of the article early last month. None of them had commented by noon today (Thursday).

5 December 2019

 

Election 2019: McDonnell says Labour government will hold inquiry into DWP deaths

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has confirmed that a Labour government would set up an independent inquiry into the deaths of disabled benefit claimants linked to the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its private sector contractors.

The inquiry pledge had previously been made only to Disability News Service (DNS) in a background briefing last week by a Labour party source.

There were concerns that this pledge – which has been widely welcomed by disabled people over the last week – had not appeared in the party’s disability manifesto, Breaking Down Barriers, which was published on Tuesday.

But McDonnell told DNS this morning (Thursday): “I am contacting you on behalf of Marsha de Cordova [Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people] and myself to confirm that this is Labour policy and an inquiry will go ahead when Labour goes into government.

“Labour will fulfil the promise Jeremy Corbyn and I gave during our campaigns to highlight the tragic deaths of disabled people resulting from austerity under the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

“We will hold an inquiry into these deaths.

“It’s critically important that people are made aware of the brutal treatment meted out to disabled people and lessons are learnt so that this never happens again.”

Breaking Down Barriers expands on many of the disability policies included in Labour’s main general election manifesto, and highlights how – despite nagging concerns over a small number of policies – it has the most extensive and detailed set of policies for disabled people of all the parties fighting next week’s general election.

Among those policies, the disability manifesto says that a Labour government would end the privatisation of disability benefit assessments and bring them in-house.

It would then “work with disabled people’s organisations to develop a replacement to the current assessments based on a personalised, holistic assessment framework that provides each individual with a tailored plan, building on their strengths and addressing barriers”.

It also clarifies its position on benefit sanctions, promising in a section on universal credit that it would “immediately suspend” all benefit sanctions and “ensure that employment support is positive not punitive”.

It also expands on the party’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) policies, promising a strategy that is “based on inclusivity” and which embeds SEND “more substantially into training for teachers and non-teaching staff at all levels of education”.

And it promises a review – in partnership with disabled people’s organisations – of sports, arts and leisure venues to determine how to improve accessibility.

On neurodiversity, the disability manifesto says only that it would “work with trade unions and employers to raise awareness of neurodiversity… in the workplace, in public services and across wider society”.

That is despite McDonnell – who has played a significant part in raising the profile of neurodiversity in the party – telling newly-formed Neurodivergent Labour (NL) that Labour would take its “ground-breaking” Autism and Neurodiversity manifesto into government “to ensure its implementation”.

He said in a statement sent to NL’s first agm on Saturday: “This policy programme will transform people’s lives. Labour in government will work alongside you to bring this to fruition.”

The NL manifesto includes calls for the government to ban quack cures for autism, to make neurodivergence a protected characteristic under the Equality Act and ensure that non-harmful unusual behaviours are not criminalised, but none of these policies appear in Labour’s disability manifesto.

Janine Booth, chair of Neurodivergent Labour, said that many of the pledges in the disability manifesto, on issues such as social care, benefits and justice, are “in line” with the NL manifesto and “don’t specify neurodivergence because they apply to all disabled people not just neurodivergent people”.

She said: “We are delighted that John McDonnell made clear on Saturday that Labour in government will implement our Autism and Neurodiversity Manifesto.

“Of course, we would have liked to see absolutely everything in the manifesto for disabled people. But I wouldn’t expect everything to appear.

“We have our commitment from John McDonnell and we will be holding the Labour party to it in government.”

She added: “Labour’s manifesto in 2019 is even better than in 2017, so we feel that our ideas and demands are making headway. And, of course, we keep on campaigning.”

There are some concerns over the party’s pledge to build 150,000 council and social homes every year and whether all of them would meet strict accessibility standards, despite the government facing legal action over its own failure to act on the accessible housing crisis.

There is also no mention of whether a certain proportion of these homes would have to be built to wheelchair-accessible standards.

A background briefing provided by the party this week merely repeats a confusing reference to accessible housing in the disability manifesto, which says the homes would be built “using the ‘lifetime homes’ standard a condition for homes, enshrining criteria for accessible and inclusive housing design, including wheelchair accessibility” [sic].

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, said in a statement alongside the publication of the disability manifesto: “The treatment of disabled people by Conservative and Lib Dem governments, from devastating cuts to social security support, to cruel and unnecessary assessments, and a complete failure to address the disability employment gap, should be a source of shame.

“Labour will put right this injustice. We’ll ensure that disabled people get the support they need to lead independent lives and participate fully in society. We are on your side.”

De Cordova, one of the few disabled MPs in the last parliament, added: “I am proud that Labour is the only party with a manifesto developed by and for disabled people, according to our principle of ‘nothing about you without you’.

“Labour in government will embody that principle, empowering disabled people and enhancing our voices.

“Breaking Down Barriers takes us beyond what we’ve previously committed, and sets out how we’ll radically shift our approach to ensure the economic, social and structural barriers faced by disabled people are addressed.”

5 December 2019

 

UK ‘one of worst in European Union on disability poverty’

The UK is one of the worst-performing countries in the European Union (EU) when it comes to protecting disabled people from poverty, according to official figures.

The EU figures show that the UK is the 10th worst of the 28 EU member states on disability poverty, with nearly a third of disabled people (32.2 per cent) in poverty or at risk of poverty*.

This is above the average for the EU, which has 28.7 per cent of disabled people in poverty or at risk of poverty.

Other figures – also taken from the EU’s statistical office, Eurostat – show the UK in an even worse position, with disabled people facing a 15 per cent increased risk of poverty and social exclusion, the seventh worst in the EU.

The figures were released by the European Disability Forum (EDF), an umbrella organisation of disabled people across Europe, in advance of its new human rights report.

They were released on Tuesday (3 December), the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, although Disability News Service (DNS) has not yet been able to independently verify them or examine them in greater detail.

Earlier this year, DNS obtained other new figures that demolished ministerial claims that the UK was one of the most generous countries in the world in its support for disabled people.

Rather than being one of the most generous, the UK’s spending on disability is below average for the 28 EU member states, those figures showed.

They also showed that the proportion of the UK’s economic activity (GDP) spent by the UK government on disabled people fell from 2.6 per cent in 2015 to 2.5 per cent in 2016 and 2017.

EDF said its new report showed EU countries had failed to ensure “proper protection and support of persons with disabilities, especially in the wake of the financial crisis”.

It called for improvements to disability assessments, an increase in disability benefits, and improvements in accessibility, support and services.

And it called on the EU and its member states to “honour their commitments to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and to ensure that all persons with disabilities are able to live with dignity in the community, with equal access and equal rights”.

One disabled woman from Bristol, Victoria, told EDF how she was struggling financially after losing her job because of her impairment. Her husband is now her carer and is also the carer for their son.

She said: “The disability benefits are so little that we have very little life outside of just surviving, we can’t afford day trips for our son or trips to museums, etc.

“I also have difficulty with travelling and am unable to receive a powered wheelchair, meaning my husband has to push me and a buggy which is just impossible so I have basically zero social interaction outside of my home.”

The Conservative party did not respond to a request for a comment on the EDF figures.

The Department for Work and Pensions was unable to comment because of the general election campaign.

*The figures are for 2018, except those for Slovakia, Ireland and the UK which are from 2017

5 December 2019

 

Seven Tory ministers for disabled people stay silent on UN’s international rights day

Not one of the seven ministers for disabled people who have served in the post since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 issued a message of support on social media on the UN’s international day of disabled people this week.

Tuesday’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), launched by the UN in 1992, was marked by activities and messages of support from disabled activists and campaigners, charities, politicians – including the prime ministers of Canada and Armenia, the Welsh government, and even the British embassy in Beijing – and businesses in the UK and around the world.

But the day was ignored by the current minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, although he did find time on his Facebook page to celebrate his own inclusion on a new list of the best local MPs in Britain.

It was also ignored by the other six Tory politicians who have served as minister for disabled people over the last decade: Maria Miller, Esther McVey, Sir Mike Penning, Mark Harper, Penny Mordaunt and Sarah Newton.

Of the six, all of them apart from Penning were active on Tuesday on either Twitter or Facebook, and sometimes both.

Most of them focused instead on their own general election campaigns, with Newton reposting a video on Facebook about the importance of spending on the armed services that had first been posted by Mordaunt.

The only one of the seven who even mentioned disability was McVey, who posted her support for a small local mental health charity in Derbyshire, but still failed to mention the international day or disabled people’s rights.

Their silence contrasted with Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Marsha de Cordova, who posted a video about Labour’s disability manifesto on her Twitter account, and expressed support for the UN day.

Last year, Newton was unable to explain why she had failed to make any public statement to support disabled people’s battle for rights on IDPD, when she was minister for disabled people.

It was the second year in a row that Newton had appeared to demonstrate a lack of interest in UK and international efforts to further disabled people’s rights.

Successive Tory-led governments have been repeatedly criticised by UN organisations for their breaches of disabled people’s rights.

Two years ago, the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities told the UK government to make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights.

The committee raised concerns and made recommendations on all but three of the 33 articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) it could have breached.

There is no mention of UNCRPD and the government’s duty to achieve progressive implementation of the treaty in the Conservative party’s general election manifesto.

Tomlinson had not responded to a request for a comment by noon today (Thursday), and neither had the Conservative party.

Meanwhile, campaigners and organisations used IDPD for a series of non-political activities and announcements.

Among them were disabled campaigners Alan Benson, chair of Transport for All, and Dr Jon Hastie, chief executive of the user-led charity DMD Pathfinders, who completed a challenge they had set themselves to visit all 78 step-free stations on the London Underground between them in 24 hours.

They completed the feat in a total of 21 hours and 23 minutes.

Their Step Free Tube Challenge aimed to highlight the access barriers facing disabled people, and that only 78 of 270 tube stations are step-free, while raising money for a new London travel guide for disabled people.

Disability Wales marked IDPD by releasing five new films, funded by the Welsh government, which feature disabled people from around Wales sharing their views on the theme “the future is accessible”.

Also on Tuesday, BBC unveiled a three-point plan that it said would “significantly improve representation of – and opportunities for – disabled people on and off air”.

It included: the launch of BBC Elevate, which intends to give disabled people with some industry experience the chance to work and gain further experience on flagship BBC shows; a pledge to provide more “authentic and distinctive” representation of disabled people on screen; and a new “BBC passport” for disabled staff, which will record their needs and help ensure they secure the support they need when moving between jobs.

The broadcaster also unveiled a range of new programmes featuring disabled people, including a series of monologues on disability curated by actor and performer Mat Fraser; actor and comedian Liz Carr delving into her family tree in Who Do You Think You Are?; and a new series of comedy Jerk.

5 December 2019

 

Less than 80 private sector firms achieve Disability Confident top level in three years

The government’s flagship disability employment scheme has managed to sign up less than 80 private sector employers in more than three years to its highest accreditation level, new research has found.

When Disability Confident was relaunched in 2016, the scheme allowed employers to sign up even if they do not employ any disabled people at all.

And employers can reach the first two levels simply by assessing themselves on their own performance, after which DWP will send them a badge and a certificate that they can use to promote their “disability confidence”.

It is only if they want to become a Disability Confident Leader – the highest of the scheme’s three levels – that their self-assessment must be “validated” by another organisation.

DWP itself was declared a Disability Confident leader on 4 November 2016, just days before the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities found it guilty of “grave” and “systematic” violations of disabled people’s rights under the UN disability convention.

Now research by Professor Nick Bacon, of Cass Business School, and Professor Kim Hoque, of Warwick Business School, has revealed that less than 80 of the employers that have achieved the level of Disability Confident Leader (level three of the three-tiered scheme) are private sector employers.

The remaining 190 or so level three employers are voluntary or public sector organisations, many of them disability charities.

Of all 15,000-plus Disability Confident members, including those on levels one and two, less than half are private sector employers.

Bacon and Hoque point out that this shows only a tiny proportion of the 1.39 million UK private sector businesses that are not sole traders have signed up to the scheme, which is probably as low as 0.5 per cent of them.

They say the figures show that the government’s key “business case” argument for encouraging employers to sign up to Disability Confident – that it provides a wider talent pool, and allows them to recruit hardworking and committed staff, and enhance their reputation – appears to have had a “limited” impact.

Hoque and Bacon called on the government to make it mandatory for Disability Confident Leaders to report on how many of their staff are disabled people, and for this to be extended to level two members [those given the status of Disability Confident Employers].

Last month, Disability News Service reported that government plans to introduce mandatory reporting for Disability Confident Leaders was scrapped just days after it was announced.

The two academics also say Disability Confident Leaders should have to ensure that the percentage of disabled people within their workforce is substantially above the UK average, while Disability Confident Employers should have to ensure the proportion of staff that is disabled is at least equivalent to the UK average.

And they say the government should remove level two and three status from employers who persistently employ a higher than average proportion of disabled people at lower pay rates, unless they can provide a valid reason for doing so.

Bacon and Hoque say there is currently no evidence that level two and three Disability Confident members are any more likely to hire and retain disabled people than other employers, which means the scheme “rewards employers for public declarations of intention rather than for delivering outcomes”.

David Gillon, a prominent disabled critic of Disability Confident since its original launch in July 2013, said the study was a “really welcome piece of research”.

He said the findings were “a huge condemnation of Disability Confident, not just for the obvious reason, but because any professionally designed programme should have had this kind of benchmarking built in from the beginning.

“You don’t know if initiatives are working unless you collect data at the start, and then again later, in order to tell you, and Disability Confident never proposed collecting the needed data.

“The data on the devastatingly poor take-up of Disability Confident among private sector firms is something that has been needed, but hardly something that can be welcomed.

“And in some of these companies, such as recruitment agencies, there are non-disability related reasons that may have led to the take-up.”

He added: “Perhaps most devastating for Disability Confident is this: after three years, we are still counting private sector Disability Confident Leaders in single figures in all but one business sector (which has 10).

“And Disability Confident Leader is awarded for a level of disability access to work that is arguably less than that required by law.”

Sue Bott, head of policy and research at Disability Rights UK, which has also been shown the report, said it “makes interesting reading but comes as no surprise.

“The problem with the Disability Confident programme all along has been that it lacks teeth.

“We will be raising this with the new government after the general election.”

A DWP spokesperson was unable to comment on the new research because of the general election campaign.

5 December 2019

 

Election 2019: SNP manifesto manages just three mentions of disability

The SNP’s general election manifesto includes just three mentions of disability or disabled people, and only one of those is related to a policy it would push for in the next parliament.

Many policies that have a specific impact on disabled people, such as social care, local government, education, parts of the social security system, and many aspects of transport, are devolved to the Scottish government.

But there are still just three areas in the manifesto in which the party pledges to fight for greater support for disabled people in Westminster after the election.

The most significant area is around social security.

The party says it would demand an end to the benefits freeze – which is already set to end in April – and the bedroom tax, and would push for a period of annual increases to benefits of “at least inflation”.

It also pledges to demand an end to the government’s “punitive benefit sanction scheme”, which has “contributed to rising poverty across the UK”, saying it is time for “the whole scheme to be scrapped”.

On the “fundamentally flawed” universal credit, it does not call for the system to be scrapped, but insists that there are “changes that could be made immediately which will effectively deliver a new radically different benefit that supports rather than penalises people without requiring individuals to go through a new application process”.

While these changes are introduced, it says that all migration of claimants onto UC “must be halted”.

A second relevant area in the manifesto, although it provides no details, is a pledge to push for “as much support as possible” for disabled people to stand for election as MPs.

And on immigration, the party says it would continue to oppose the detention of children and “vulnerable people”, including pregnant women and people with mental illnesses.

Meanwhile, the national disabled people’s organisation Inclusion Scotland has published its own Manifesto for Inclusion, which includes many more disability-related polices than the SNP manifesto.

Inclusion Scotland’s manifesto says the UK is “scarred by poverty, inequality, discrimination and exclusion”, despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and it says that disabled people are one of the groups that are worst affected.

It adds: “All of the evidence suggests that disabled people are becoming more excluded and pushed into deeper poverty by recent policy changes at a UK level.”

It focuses on five areas: the need to protect and enforce disabled people’s human rights; reforms to social security to support disabled people’s right to participate in society; increased spending on employment support for disabled people; measures to increase the representation of disabled people in public life, particularly in the UK parliament; and the need to protect and promote disabled people’s rights in Brexit negotiations.

5 December 2019

 

Election 2019: Plaid Cymru manifesto pledges free social care for Wales

Plaid Cymru is promising to push for free social care in Wales and to demand full control over universal credit, in its general election manifesto.

One of the party’s five headline policies includes a pledge to offer free social care through a new National Health and Social Care Service for Wales, which it estimates would cost the Welsh government an “achievable” £300 million a year extra.

It says that social care would be transformed into “a service that puts people’s independence above the needs of bureaucracy, meaning that we aim to make people’s lives worth living rather than merely keeping people alive”, although its manifesto talks about care for “sick, elderly and vulnerable people” rather than disabled people.

It also pledges to push for action to fund support services and tackle “the underlying issues that can lead to criminality” in a bid to reduce the more than 90 per cent of Welsh prisoners who it says have at least one of five mental health conditions.

The manifesto promises to work with police and crime commissioners to ensure that disability hate crime, and other hate crimes, are treated as serious offences by Welsh police forces and that they are “investigated appropriately”.

On social security, it says that successive Tory-led governments have “inflicted untold harm on thousands of people in Wales”, so it would press for powers to be devolved to the Welsh government over benefits including personal independence payment, carer’s allowance, attendance allowance and disability living allowance.

And it says its MPs would push for the Welsh government to be handed full control of universal credit, which would also allow it to scrap the bedroom tax.

The manifesto also includes a policy that would re-introduce segregated “sheltered” employment schemes for those disabled people “who need a more supportive environment to return to work, as a stepping stone towards full participation in employment”.

It justifies this by saying that the party does “not believe it is appropriate to require disabled people to face the same obligations and threats of sanctions in looking for employment”.

It also says it will ensure that social and local authority landlords provide more accessible housing, although it does not mention any targets, and omits any mention of similar measures on private housing.

It pledges that all schools will “have appropriate access for physically disabled pupils”, but it says nothing else on inclusive education.

The manifesto also includes a pledge to work with “blind, partially sighted, and deaf people and those experiencing hearing loss, the organisations representing them, and professionals, to develop national strategies to ensure co-ordinated and equitable access to services”.

And it says it would push public services to make more reasonable adjustments for neurodivergent people by ensuring that neurodivergence is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.

Plaid Cymru also calls for an Autism Act for Wales that would adopt “a rights based approach” for autistic people.

5 December 2019

 

Disabled duo continue universal credit ‘injustice’ court fight

Two disabled men have been forced to return yet again to the Royal Courts of Justice this week to fight what they say is the injustice caused by the government’s universal credit benefit system.

The men, known as TP and AR for legal reasons, have been fighting for two years against government policies that left them substantially worse off when they were forced onto universal credit (UC) after moving local authority area.

Disabled campaigners from Inclusion London and WinVisible mounted a vigil outside the courts in central London on Tuesday as the hearing began on the international day of disabled people.

Inclusion London said the vigil showed “solidarity and support” for the two men, expressed “dismay” at the policies and actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and showed how harmful UC has been for disabled people.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is intervening in the case, to support TP and AR and argue that they have faced “unlawful discrimination”.

Leigh Day, the legal firm representing the two men, says that more than 13,000 disabled people with high support needs are known to have lost out financially because of the UC arrangements.

TP and AR originally won a high court case after being forced to move onto UC when they had to move to new areas where the new benefit system had already been rolled out.

TP had been forced to move so he could access specialist healthcare, following a diagnosis of end stage non-Hodgkin Lymphoma cancer.

AR had also had to move to a universal credit “full service” area, in his case because the bedroom tax meant his previous home was unaffordable.

Moving onto UC meant they each lost out by about £180 a month because they were no longer able to receive the severe disability premium (SDP) and enhanced disability premium (EDP), despite being assured by civil servants that they would not be worse off under UC.

After winning this case, the two men received damages and compensation for the lost payments, and were awarded ongoing top-up payments of about £180 a month until new regulations could be brought in by ministers.

As a result of the case, the government stopped other disabled people in similar situations migrating onto UC.

But DWP proposed offering top-up payments of just £80 a month to those who had already moved, rather than compensating them for the full £180 a month they had lost.

This meant TP and AR had to launch a second legal challenge, arguing that they were being treated unjustifiably differently to those who had not moved onto UC.

They also won this second case, but their lawyers had to return to the court of appeal this week after DWP appealed against the decision.

A third case – which they were forced to take when ministers announced through regulations this summer that the level of compensation for former EDP and SDP recipients who moved onto UC before 16 January would be set at £120 for single claimants, higher than the £80 but still much lower than the £180 TP and AR secured temporarily through their first court action – is on hold pending this week’s appeals.

An EHRC spokesperson said: “Everyone is entitled to an adequate standard of living.

“We have intervened in this case as we believe that the removal of disability related payments without ‘top up’ payments left the claimants at a disadvantage and was unlawful discrimination.”

Carolin Ott, from Leigh Day, said: “It beggars belief that despite two findings of unlawfulness by two different judges, and new regulations that acknowledge the need for protection for severely disabled individuals losing their severe disability premium, the government is still determined, and spending taxpayers’ money, to continue to fight these cases.

“We hope that the court of appeal will uphold the ruling made by the high court in our clients’ favour to ensure the many affected individuals with severe disabilities receive much needed support.”

A DWP spokesperson declined to comment on the case.

5 December 2019

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com