Opposition parties call for inquiry into ministers’ WCA deaths ‘cover-up’

Three opposition parties have called for an independent inquiry into claims that ministers failed to show secret reports into the deaths of benefit claimants to the independent expert they commissioned to review their “fitness for work” test.

The apparent cover-up was exposed last month by Disability News Service (DNS), after a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) response to a freedom of information request suggested that seven confidential “peer reviews” were not shared with Professor Malcolm Harrington as he prepared his final report into the work capability assessment (WCA) in 2012.

It is just the latest evidence to emerge that has implicated former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and former employment minister Chris Grayling in covering-up evidence of links between WCA flaws and the deaths of benefit claimants, particularly those with experience of significant mental distress.

After DNS reported the latest alleged cover-up, Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green party, called for an independent inquiry into the “shocking” claims and into the wider issue of claimants whose deaths have been linked with government welfare reforms.

He was later joined in his call for an inquiry by Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, who also described the Harrington revelations as “shocking”, and by Baroness [Celia] Thomas, the disabled peer who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on disability.

Bartley said: “There should be an independent inquiry covering all deaths of people receiving benefits, as well as the actions of Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith.”

He said the Greens were concerned that current assessments for disability benefits were “neither fair nor proper” and were “contributing to the deaths of some claimants”.

He said: “Evidence continues to mount that this is the case, and the extremely alarming revelation that secret reports were not shown to an independent review into the DWP’s fitness for work assessments makes the need for an inquiry ever more pressing.

“Such an inquiry should be tasked with examining the DWP’s assessment measures, and determining whether its procedures have contributed to claimants’ deaths.”

Bartley added: “The more time passes without an inquiry, the longer concerns will remain and questions will hang over the procedures used by the department to handle benefits.

“It is essential that all pertinent questions have been asked, and that any relevant lessons have been learned. At present it is impossible to feel confident this is the case.”

DWP only started collating its peer reviews into benefit-related deaths centrally from February 2012 and Professor Harrington published his final report on the WCA in late November of the same year.

DWP admitted in its freedom of information response last month that “there were seven peer reviews, from February 2012 until Professor Harrington’s report of that year, in which the terms ‘WCA’ or ‘Work Capability Assessment’ were mentioned”, but that it “does not hold any information to confirm or deny” if they were shared with Professor Harrington.

Redacted versions of these and 42 other peer reviews were finally released in May this year, following another DNS freedom of information request and a ruling from the information rights tribunal.

Professor Harrington, who carried out reviews of the WCA in 2010, 2011 and 2012, has told DNS he has “no recollection of seeing any of the reviews” and that “such damning indictments of the system – if seen – should have triggered a response from me. It didn’t.”

Professor Harrington had already told DNS in 2015 that he believes DWP did not show him a letter that had been written in late March 2010 by a coroner to ministers following the suicide of Stephen Carré in January 2010.

When they were appointed in May 2010, Duncan Smith and Grayling assumed responsibility for responding to the letter, which raised serious concerns about the safety of the WCA, and which called for a review of the DWP policy not to seek medical evidence from a GP or psychiatrist for all those applying for out-of-work disability benefits who had a mental health condition.

Duncan Smith and Grayling appear to have dismissed the letter, and failed to show it to Professor Harrington, while deciding to roll out the test to hundreds of thousands of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit, many of whom had mental health conditions.

After being told of the latest revelations about the peer reviews, Abrahams said: “It is shocking to think that information may have been kept from Professor Harrington by this Tory government so we would fully support further investigation into this matter as part of a wider independent review into the deaths of people receiving social security under this callous government.

“Any review of deaths relating to the social security system must look at this government’s policies, including their development and implementation.

“It must also look carefully at the role that political leadership and departmental culture have played in social security-related deaths.”

She added: “Labour has committed to scrapping the Tories’ punitive sanctions regime under our plans to transform the social security system.”

Baroness Thomas called for an inquiry into the DWP’s apparent failure to pass vital information about the WCA to Professor Harrington, as well as requesting an urgent meeting with ministers.

She said: “We need to know whether the DWP has taken major action to remedy the flaws in the work capability assessment, particularly for claimants with mental health issues, and people with learning difficulties.

“The information being uncovered is extremely worrying and it is clear that we need some real answers from the government.

“That is why I am calling on the ministers to sit down with me and lay out a clear plan to find a solution that ends this crisis.”

Last month, DWP said it did not believe there should be an inquiry into the apparent failure of Duncan Smith and Grayling, and senior civil servants, to pass on key information to Professor Harrington about the safety of the WCA.

5 January 2017

 

 

George Michael’s years of vital support for DPOs revealed after his death

George Michael – who died on Christmas Day – financially supported some of the country’s leading disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) with secret donations for nearly two decades.

The singer-songwriter provided grants through a charitable trust he set up in 1990, supporting organisations including the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP), The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People and the LGBTQ disabled people’s organisation Regard.

Michael asked that his financial support was not publicised, but his generosity has been an open secret among leading disabled activists for many years, and they have only agreed to speak about it publicly following his death.

The grants he provided through The Platinum Trust, administered largely through the work of his sister Yioda, helped at least two DPOs stay afloat when their existence was threatened by the withdrawal of other grants, including government funding.

Now some of the organisations whose work he supported have paid tribute to his generosity and his commitment to the principles of inclusion, disability rights and independent living.

Tara Flood, ALLFIE’s director, said: “There is no doubt that George Michael’s quiet and long-lasting support for ALLFIE’s campaigning work gave us the freedom to challenge the very worst that governments of all political flavours could throw at us.

“[The] support from The Platinum Trust enabled us to stay true to our inclusive education principles.”

Andy Rickell, former chief executive of BCODP (which later became the UK Disabled People’s Council), said Michael’s trust was already providing core funding to the organisation when he joined in 2001.

He said: “There were very few funders that could or would support the continued existence of BCODP as a radical campaigning organisation, and The Platinum Trust was one of those.

“BCODP would have struggled to exist without that funding, so it is fair to say that George Michael’s support had a material impact on the success of the movement.

“I have the greatest respect for him as a result.”

He said he believed that The Vassall Centre Trust, a DPO based in Bristol that previously owned and ran the accessible Vassall Centre – one of the earliest barrier-free workplaces in the UK – also received funding from The Platinum Trust.

Julie Newman, former chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council and currently treasurer of Regard, said Michael had kept BCODP and then UKDPC afloat for many years, at a time when other funding was “falling away”, including grant funding from the Department of Health.

She said that she and other disabled activists were visited by Michael’s sister, Yioda, who was a “lovely, lovely woman”, and collected information on applicants for grants, and then took that to trustees of The Platinum Trust, including her brother.

She said that Michael’s support for Regard – which has always operated “on a shoestring” – had been crucial.

She said: “There would be no Regard today without The Platinum Trust.

“When its lottery funding came to an end, Regard was practically bankrupt and couldn’t have continued without the support of The Platinum Trust.”

Newman said she was “devastated” to hear of George Michael’s death.

She said: “It is a tremendous loss to our movement. He was a great supporter and extremely generous.

“He wanted it done quietly and discretely. The way it was handled, it was so gentle. We didn’t have to jump through hoops.

“What George did was massively generous, at a time when other people were not.”

5 January 2017

 

 

Anger over ‘welfare reform’ CBEs for DWP directors

The decision to honour 10 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants in the new year honours list has been greeted with anger and disbelief by disabled campaigners.

The awards were made at the end of a year in which the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) concluded, after a lengthy investigation – focusing on DWP – that the UK government had breached disabled people’s human rights across three key parts of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The committee found that the government was guilty of “grave or systematic violations” of the convention, and that its welfare reforms had “disproportionally and adversely affected” the rights of disabled people and had discriminated against them.

But despite those findings – and continuing anger at links between the reforms and the deaths of claimants of disability benefits – two DWP directors have been awarded CBEs in recognition of their services to welfare reform.

Angela MacDonald, DWP’s director of operational excellence, was recognised for “services to welfare reform”, while Graeme Wallace, its pensions director, was honoured for “services to pensioners and welfare reform”.

DWP’s director of human resources, Jonathan Russell, was one of 14 civil servants to be made Companions of the Order of the Bath, while there were OBEs for two district managers, and MBEs for five more DWP civil servants.

But it was the awarding of the two CBEs that has caused most anger.

Disability rights activist Alice Kirby said on Twitter – in a message shared more than 1,000 times on the social media platform – that the reforms MacDonald and Wallace were being recognised for were “literally killing disabled people”.

She told Disability News Service: “There is nothing honorary about the restructure of the welfare state.

“Commending senior directors who have helped to implement these reforms in this way only legitimises the Tories’ persecution of disabled people.

“It legitimises what the UN has declared a violation of human rights.

“It’s a slap in the face to people across the country struggling and living in poverty because of welfare reforms.

“And I can think of no bigger insult to families who have lost loved ones then to hang medals around the necks of those who administered the very system which caused their deaths.

“Those who truly deserve recognition are the advocates who work tirelessly to support people through this system, and the activists who relentlessly campaign against it.”

Linda Burnip, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “It is obscene that having been found guilty of the grave and systematic violation of disabled people’s human rights, the government feel it is fitting to reward those involved in the callous and deadly welfare reforms with honours.”

Another disabled activist, Rick Burgess, said on Twitter that the recognition for DWP civil servants came “despite UN condemnation for sanctions, workfare and deaths they have caused”.

Disabled student Lee Michael Done added: “This is the same DWP who are under investigation by the UN for deaths directly caused by its welfare policies. Shocking.”

And disability rights campaigner @thisisamy_ said: “Welfare reform has caused untold suffering and is destroying social security, and DWP workers are being honoured for it…”

Asked if the department understood the anger of disabled campaigners, whether it defended such recognition for a department so heavily criticised by the UN, and if the CBEs for the two directors were intended as a snub to CRPD, a DWP spokesman said: “Honours are an important way to recognise an exceptional contribution to public service.

“We are proud that eight of our Jobcentre Plus staff have been honoured for their hard work improving the lives of people in their community.

“The process for selection is transparent and robust, nominations are considered by one of nine expert honours committees, chaired by a non-civil servant and comprising a majority of non-civil service members, all selected after open advertisement.”

5 January 2017

 

 

New year honours: Glennie ‘humbled’ by Companion of Honour award

A world-renowned solo percussionist, a mental health campaigner, a digital inclusion expert and the founder of a travel review website are among the disabled people recognised in the new year honours list.

The honours for non-sporting disabled recipients were swamped by nearly 60 awards for the ParalympicsGB team that brought back 64 gold medals from last summer’s Rio Paralympic Games.

But the highest-ranking honour was awarded to Dame Evelyn Glennie, the solo percussionist who was made a Companion of Honour, for those who have made a lengthy and major contribution to the arts, science, medicine, or government.

She said she felt “deeply honoured and humbled” to receive the award, for services to music.

Dame Evelyn, who is profoundly Deaf, was the first person to successfully sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist, and so far has amassed more than 80 international awards, including two GRAMMYs from the US music industry.

Past Companion of Honour recipients include the writers Vita Sackville-West, Graham Greene, and E M Forster, composer Benjamin Britten, the actors Sir John Gielgud, Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith, politicians Denis Healey, Ken Clarke and Paddy Ashdown, and the disabled physicist Stephen Hawking.

Dame Evelyn said: “I count myself blessed to be amongst such an eminent list of recipients for such a distinguished award.

“As a musician, I am proud to represent the arts in this way. I also hold dear the responsibility of such a respected title, which I take very seriously.

“I will do my best to ensure my work and legacy continues to help empower people around the world to truly listen.”

She told Disability News Service (DNS) that the award would not change how she viewed her work, and that her “aims and goals remain as stalwart as ever, with clear determination to reach far and wide”.

Dame Evelyn said the award would not make her part of the establishment, but instead would have the “complete opposite” effect.

She said: “The freedom and creativity has always been at the heart of what I do, no matter what comes my way or what challenges arise.

“I respect the establishment, as it opens up unexpected possibilities and new avenues of exploration.”

Another recipient of an award is mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, best-known for his successful social media quest to find the stranger who convinced him not to end his own life.

Benjamin, who receives an MBE, said he was “in complete shock”, but was “delighted” to be recognised.

He told DNS that he had considered rejecting the honour in protest at the government’s welfare reforms and cuts to disability benefits.

He has spoken out publicly about disabled people whose lives have been lost as a result of those reforms, and against the cuts of £30-a-week to new claimants of employment and support allowance placed in the work-related activity group, cuts that are due to take effect in April.

He said he thought the MBE might help him access contacts in the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education for campaigns he is planning around the need for reform of mental health support in schools and prisons.

He said that 90 per cent of prisoners have a mental health issue, while suicides in prisons were the highest ever recorded last year.

He said: “There’s a suicide every three days in prisons in England and Wales now.

“We’ve got a crisis in our prisons that needs urgent attention.”

He added: “I hoped, perhaps naively, that the MBE might bring more credibility to my name when trying to set up meetings and make a difference. Perhaps I’m wrong. Time will tell.”

And he said he still had the option of handing back the MBE if he was proved wrong.

He had earlier paid tribute to Neil Laybourn, the man who persuaded him not to take his life nine years ago, and who he said he feels “forever indebted to”.

He said: “I hope this accolade may give some hope to others who might be struggling that there is life after a diagnosis of mental illness and that such a diagnosis should never put limitations upon anyone.”

Robin Christopherson, a founding member of the disability charity AbilityNet, is awarded an MBE for services to digital inclusion.

He said: “I’m hoping that receiving this award might help get the message out and inspire people to think about the needs of everyone around them and make sure they can all benefit from the power of technology and the internet to change their lives for the better.”

Christopherson, who is blind, won the special award at AbilityNet’s Tech4Good awards last July, in recognition of his two decades of work as a “digital inclusion evangelist”.

He said: “I’ve had the privilege to be AbilityNet’s ambassador for technology for many years, giving me the opportunity to demonstrate to audiences across the world how tech has the power to change and even transform people’s lives regardless of any disability or impairment they may have.

“AbilityNet’s mission is to help people to reach their full potential. Over the last few decades we’ve seen a revolution that has almost infinitely expanded opportunities for people with disabilities and I feel very fortunate to have played a small part in spreading the word.”

Jacqui Dyer, who was vice-chair of the government’s Mental Health Taskforce, and is a trustee of the Mental Health Foundation, an elected councillor in Lambeth, a health and social care consultant, and a mental health service-user, also receives an MBE.

Dyer is a member of the ministerial advisory group for mental health, is the mental health equalities lead for NHS England, and co-chairs the process of developing the mayor of London’s mental health roadmap.

Michael Holden, who founded the user-led accessible travel website Trip-ability, is recognised with an MBE.

He is also an active member of Belfast Centre for Independent Living, a member of the European Network on Independent Living, and deputy chair of a patient working group at the Royal College of GPs Northern Ireland.

Holden said: “I received a letter about the MBE but my wife Jennifer told me about it over the phone when I wasn’t at home and I immediately began to tremble with excitement.

“My wife and I took our children to see the royal wedding of Prince William in London, which the children really enjoyed; my wife Jennifer and I cannot wait to see the look on their faces when we tell them we’re going to see the Queen.”

Sarah Banks, who chairs the Ministry of Defence’s Civilian Defence Disability Network, which works to ensure line managers and disabled staff know where to go for advice on workplace disability issues, receives an MBE.

Other disabled recipients of an MBE included Cath Caskie-Khan, chair of the Scottish Wheelchair Dance Association, and Rhona Elliot, founder of the MS Borders Racing Club, which raises money for the MS Society and awareness of multiple sclerosis by entering horses in the charity’s colours in races in the Scottish borders.

Among Paralympians recognised were Lee Pearson, who receives a knighthood, Sophie Christiansen and Sascha Kindred, who receive CBEs, and Anne Dunham and Jody Cundy, who receive OBEs, while Tim Reddish, chair of the British Paralympic Association and himself a retired Paralympian, receives a CBE.

Another receipient, with an MBE for services to education and disability sport, was Mike Spence, a former GB wheelchair rugby international, who coached the British team at last summer’s Invictus Games in the US, is a trustee of Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby, and is also a teaching assistant and former governor of a primary school in Gloucestershire.

5 January 2017

 

 

Scottish government admits six-year delay (and counting) on pub access laws

The Scottish government has failed to introduce a new law that would have improved access to pubs and clubs for disabled customers, more than six years after it was approved by parliament.

The Scottish parliament passed the measure as an amendment to what became the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act in July 2010, but the SNP government has admitted that it has yet to bring it into force.

The amendment should have meant that bars and restaurants applying for new alcohol licences – as well as existing venues applying for major changes to their licences – had to provide details of how accessible they were to disabled customers.

But despite the bill becoming law in 2010, the Scottish government has yet to “commence” the measure.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said it had been focused instead on “wide-ranging” changes to various licensing regimes, and could only promise that the access measure would be brought in by the end of the current parliament, which could mean a further delay of up to four years.

She said: “The Scottish government has been focussed on legislating for wide-ranging changes to various licensing regimes via the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015.

“We are now working on the implementation of these provisions and will also bring in outstanding provisions from earlier legislation such as the disabled access statement that was included within the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010.

“The expected timeframe is by the end of this parliament.”

The delay emerged in the wake of the decision by Labour peers to abstain on a vote for an even stronger amendment on access to licensed premises, as part of proposed legislation in the House of Lords.

The delay in Scotland has come as a bitter disappointment to the disabled activist whose campaigning efforts led to the amendment becoming law.

Mark Cooper, whose Barred! campaign was credited with securing the law change, said: “I am deeply disappointed the introduction of the amendment to the act – which I campaigned for – is taking so long.”

The wheelchair-user launched his campaign after having to leave a pub mid-drink when he realised there was no accessible toilet.

He said he had hoped that the Scottish government’s launch last month of its five-year disability rights plan, A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People, would “speed things up”.

He added: “I look forward to its implementation at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Bill Scott, director of policy for the national disabled people’s organisation Inclusion Scotland, said: “As supporters of the original Barred! campaign, Inclusion Scotland are disappointed in the very lengthy delay in implementing this legislation, which would greatly improve disabled people’s access to pubs and restaurants.

“Disabled people should have the same rights to enjoy a night out as everyone else and we can only quote Martin Luther King in saying that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’.”

A leading Scottish disabled activist, Dr Jim Elder-Woodward, added: “I am really disappointed that the Scottish government will take so long to implement this new piece of legislation, especially after Mark Cooper’s hard campaign.

“Within their publication, A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People, the Scottish government states: ‘… a fairer Scotland can only be realised when we secure equal rights for everyone. When we do that, the lives of each one of us will be richer, more fulfilling and more secure.’

“If that is what they believe, then they shouldn’t be dragging their heels over a piece of legislation giving disabled people the freedom to enter places of leisure and recreation, which the Scottish parliament passed over six years ago.”

5 January 2017

 

 

New system allows wheelchair-users to park their unoccupied cars

A wheelchair-user has successfully tested a system that allows an unoccupied car to be parked after its driver has left the vehicle, using technology that could be publicly available within a year.

The organisations developing the system, demonstrated in the last few days at a hotel in Greenwich, London, believe it could make life far easier for drivers who are wheelchair-users, who often find it difficult to secure suitable parking spaces.

The system allows a driver to stop, remove themselves and their wheelchair from the car, and then use the technology to park the unoccupied vehicle remotely.

It was tested by freelance mobility consultant Toby Veall, who drove to the hotel, before leaving the Toyota Prius and removing his wheelchair, and calling up the support of an operator to park his vehicle for him remotely, using 3G and 4G cellular technology developed by telecommunications provider O2.

For locations like underground carparks that don’t have cellular reception, the wheelchair-user can park the vehicle using an app on a tablet device, using in-car wi-fi.

Veall said the system had huge potential for increasing disabled people’s independence.

He said: “I think it’s a really exciting prospect for the future, and hopefully it is sooner rather than later.”

One of the main problems facing drivers who use wheelchairs is finding a suitable parking space, he said.

This can be because other cars park too close – particularly when there are no accessible spaces available – so the doors cannot be opened wide enough to allow a wheelchair to be removed or stowed, or due to uneven surfaces like gravel or grass, and hazards such as steep kerbs or slopes.

Veall said: “The use of a simple app to remotely park the car would be warmly welcomed by myself and many others with mobility problems and help to remove parking anxieties and improve independence.

“The more I think about it, the more potential uses I can think of.”

The “teleoperated autonomous vehicle service for people with reduced mobility” has been developed as part of the GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) project.

The two-year, £8 million research programme, led by TRL (the formerly government-owned transport research laboratory) and funded by government and industry – including O2 and robotics specialists Gobotix – aims to investigate the use of automated vehicles, including automated passenger shuttles and urban deliveries, and test how drivers of regular vehicles respond to the presence of automated vehicles on the roads.

Dr Ben Davis, technical director of Gobotix, said: “Everybody is waiting for the arrival of fully automated vehicles, but there’s a lot that vehicle manufacturers can be doing already with existing technology to help improve accessibility and mobility for older and disabled drivers.

“Many modern cars can be adapted so that they are driveable by a remote pilot and what we’ve demonstrated as part of GATEway is proof of that.

“By offering a remote teleoperation service, we can remove common concerns around boarding and alighting.

“It’s about empowering those with reduced mobility to retain independence through the use of technology.”

He said the system could be available to disabled drivers within a year.

He said: “The technology is inherently simple to install.

“In fact, in a lot of vehicles they probably wouldn’t have to add anything to the vehicle apart from the software that enables this to be possible.

“If the appetite among the automotive manufacturers was there, there is no reason why this couldn’t be available to consumers within 12 months.”

5 January 2017

 

 

Premier League club admits it will break promise on wheelchair spaces

One of the country’s 20 top football clubs has admitted that it will breach a promise made by the Premier League that all of its stadiums would meet strict access standards by August 2017.

When the Premier League, the governing body for the top 20 club sides in England and Wales, made the pledge in 2015, it was welcomed by the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, and was seen as one of the few successes of his time in office.

But the Premier League club Watford has now admitted that it has no intention of honouring the pledge to meet standards laid out in guidance 13 years ago in The Accessible Stadia Guide.

Only four months ago, Watford told Disability News Service (DNS) that it was “very confident in its ability to be fully compliant with the Accessible Stadia Guide by August 2017″ and was “fully focused upon delivering our part of the Premier League’s public commitment”.

Watford has a capacity of 21,000, which under the guide and other guidelines means there should be at least 153 wheelchair spaces and another 153 “ambulant and easy access” (AEA) spaces. Three-quarters of these spaces should be in an elevated position.

But Watford only has 61 wheelchair spaces, and will increase this to just 92 – still more than 60 short of the target – by August, although the number of AEA seats will increase from 124 to 173.

The club says the extra 61 necessary wheelchair spaces will be achieved in the future through “planned stadium development works”.

The disabled supporters’ charity Level Playing Field, which campaigns for better access to sports stadiums, said it was “very disappointed” that the club was “reneging” on the Premier League pledge, although it welcomed its recent opening of a sensory room for young disabled fans, with equipment funded by charity.

The club’s disabled suporters’ organisation, Watford Football Club Enables (WFC Enables), is backing the decision to increase spaces only to 92, which it claims will “satisfy current demand” from wheelchair-users and leave a “healthy 30 per cent reserve capacity for the future”.

David Butler, chair of WFC Enables, said in a statement released by the club about its decision that he feared a “potentially negative attitudinal change” if extra wheelchair spaces were introduced that were then not taken up by disabled fans and left empty.

He said that each wheelchair space and seat for a personal assistant can mean the removal of between nine and 12 seats for non-disabled fans, as well as further losses to make way for ramps for those seats in elevated positions.

This could mean a four per cent reduction in the ground’s overall capacity, if the club was to meet the Premier League’s pledge, he said, at a time when matches are currently sold out.

He said: “If these additional spaces were to be provided, 700 able-bodied supporters would be displaced from cherished seats that they may have occupied for many years.

“If these supporters subsequently see that these positions are not appropriately occupied due to lack of demand, they will be at best disgruntled and at worst antagonistic.”

He told DNS that he was “genuinely concerned abut the safety of my disabled members” if such changes were made, and that he did “not want to put them unnecessarily in that position”.

But he did say that he was “not happy” that the club had not carried out the necessary work to improve access previously, during the two decades since the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act.

He also pointed out that the club has just opened the sensory room, and that its plans for increasing wheelchair spaces had been unanimously approved at WFC Enables’ annual general meeting.

But he said he was “reluctant to comment” on the club’s previous promise to meet the Premier League pledge by August.

Tony Taylor, chair of Level Playing Field, was critical of the stance taken by the club and WFC Enables and their “inappropriate” and “over-simplified supply and demand argument”.

He questioned why there was not more demand from wheelchair-users when there were lengthy waiting-lists for tickets at many other clubs.

He said: “It may well be that accessing tickets might be more difficult for disabled supporters or that the overall match day experience is lacking for disabled people.”

He said clubs had made “significant revenue” from the seats “occupying the spaces wheelchair users should have been able to occupy” in the years since the Accessible Stadia Guide was introduced.

Taylor added: “As an organisation representing disabled people, we know only too well that many disabled football fans are regularly disappointed by their matchday experience – inaccessible websites and lack of information, shortage of wheelchair-user spaces, transport and parking problems, insufficient easy access seats for ambulant disabled people, a lack of adequate audio descriptive commentary for blind and partially-sighted fans and all too often as an away fan, having to sit among the home supporters.”

In October, the Premier League was branded dishonest by the equality watchdog’s disability commissioner, Lord [Chris] Holmes, over its attitude to access and inclusion.

He told MPs on the culture, media and sport select committee that there had not been “anything like an inclusive culture” in the Premier League and among Premier League clubs, which was “a great shame when it is our only national game”.

He warned that the commission could take legal action under the Equality Act against individual clubs, and even against the Premier League itself, while he believed that probably more than a third of the clubs would fail to meet the Premier League’s August 2017 deadline.

The Premier League is due to publish a club-by-club account of progress on meeting its access pledge later this month.

A Premier League spokesman said: “It is for Watford to communicate the work they are doing in this area, and they have done so in great detail in the article you have referenced.

“Clearly the club has consulted its disabled fans and significant progress has and continues to be made.

“Any follow-up questions about Watford’s future work in this area should be put to the club.

“In terms of the Premier League, as previously communicated we will at some point in January provide an update to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the culture, media and sport select committee on the progress all clubs are making in their work to enhance disabled access.”

5 January 2017

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com