Tory conference: Gauke admits sanctions can harm mental health claimants

Work and pensions secretary David Gauke has admitted that the system of benefit sanctions often fails to work and can instead cause harm to claimants, particularly those with mental health conditions.

The long-awaited admission was yesterday described by one leading disabled campaigner as a “significant step forward” in the battle to scrap sanctions.

Gauke, who was speaking during a fringe event at this week’s Conservative party conference in Manchester, said he would try to find a way to make the sanctions system – in which benefit recipients have their payments temporarily stopped if they fail to meet strict work-related conditions – less damaging to people with mental health conditions.

He was speaking only weeks after the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities called for a review of the “detrimental impact” of the conditionality and sanctions regime associated with the out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA).

Gauke insisted that any “successful” welfare system had to be dependent on conditionality and that this “does ultimately have to be backed up by a system of sanctions”.

But in response to a question from the audience, he said he was “very conscious of the point that there are people, particularly with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, whereby you can have a vicious circle, where the stress of sanctions doesn’t result in more compliant behaviour, but… less compliant behaviour”.

He added: “Trying to find a way to tackle that I am not going to pretend is easy, because there are all sorts of risks if I was to say there is no sanctions regime for people with mental health conditions.”

But he said that “finding a way we can increasingly understand the personal circumstances and have a sanctions regime that reflects that has got to be the right direction.

“I am not going to pretend there is an easy solution to that but I think that is where we need to look at.”

The event was organised by the Centre for Social Justice, founded by Iain Duncan Smith, who was in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions – and therefore responsible for the sanctions regime – for nearly six years.

Disabled activists have repeatedly highlighted the deaths of disabled benefit claimants they believe were linked to the government’s sanctions regime, including those of David Clapson and Alan McArdle.

And DWP admitted in 2015 that 10 of 49 benefit claimants whose deaths were subject to secret reviews by the department had had their payments sanctioned at some stage.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said: “It is a significant step forward to hear a government minister finally acknowledge that not everything is fine with their welfare policies and the negative impacts on disabled people.

“However, the idea that it would be ‘risky’ to stop sanctions for people with mental health support needs shows that they continue to be driven by an agenda to stamp out benefit fraud and malingering as their upmost priority, over and above provision of an effective social security safety net to protect the millions of disabled people who will suffer without it.

“It remains to be seen what action if any will follow from Gauke’s admission and whether and how the [government’s new] Work and Health Programme will address this.

“We continue to urge that the government carry out a full evaluation of the impact of sanctions on all disabled people, as called for by the National Audit Office back in November 2016, and to call for the full abolition of sanctions.”

Anita Bellows, a researcher for Disabled People Against Cuts, added: “Gauke’s assertion that any successful welfare system has to be dependent on conditionality and that it does ultimately have to be backed up by a system of sanctions is untrue.

“Evidence given to the work and pensions committee by several organisations working with unemployed people shows that conditionality can be built on positive incentives, rewarding ‘good’ behaviour by allowing access to popular training courses, for example, as a reward.

“This approach has been shown to be very successful.”

She said Gauke should be asked what he meant by saying there were “all sorts of risks” if he was to scrap sanctions for all people with mental health conditions.

She said: “Is he talking about electoral risks or about the exemptions of people with mental health conditions from sanctions being the thin end of the wedge, leading to the beginning of the abolition of sanctions?

“His recognition that sanctioning people with mental health conditions is likely to make them less compliant also explains why this category of claimants has been disproportionally sanctioned.

“That on its own should be an argument to exempt them from sanctions.”

5 October 2017

 

 

Tory conference: Care minister hides from fringe as funding crisis deepens

The Conservative minister for care services turned down at least four invitations to speak about adult social care at her party’s annual conference, while disabled people and other experts warned those meetings about the funding crisis facing the system.

Jackie Doyle-Price refused to attend at least four social care fringe meetings at the conference in Manchester, Disability News Service has established.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt also ignored the issue of social care in his conference speech.

Those who spoke at the fringe meetings Doyle-Price snubbed lined up to warn of the crisis facing the social care system, with one Tory MP warning that it “simply isn’t good enough” and that many people were “not getting the care they need”.

In August, the UK government was told it was “going backwards” on independent living by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Last week, Barbara Keeley, shadow minister for social care and mental health, told Labour’s annual conference that nearly half a million fewer people are receiving publicly-funded social care compared with when the Conservatives came to office in 2010.

And a survey of social workers in England by Community Care magazine and the Care and Support Alliance found that more than two-thirds felt they were expected to cut people’s care packages because of local authority funding pressures, while more than a quarter were not confident that the reduced care packages they had to oversee were “fair and safe”.

Vicky Buckingham, from Learning Disability England, who attended some of the social care fringe meetings at the conference, told Disability News Service (DNS): “Has [Doyle-Price] got something to hide?

“You have got nothing to worry about if you have got nothing to hide. If she had nothing to hide and was prepared to be open and honest, she would come here and be answerable.”

Buckingham told one meeting that services were only being provided to disabled people with substantial or critical needs.

She said: “If you have low to moderate needs it’s ‘on your way’. If you look at the person before they need substantial or critical then you save money. Win-win.”

One of the fringe events Doyle-Price was invited to had been organised by Dimensions, which provides support to people with learning difficulties.

Alicia Wood, Dimensions’ head of public affairs, said afterwards: “It was noted last night that the minister for social care had not come to any of the social care events and it was noted by the people how disappointed they were.

“The government have said they are going to put out a social care green paper.

“You would expect the party conference is the place where they really would be consulting on that with their members and organisations like us.”

Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said, after a Care and Support Alliance fringe meeting that Doyle-Price declined to attend: “It is disappointing that she wasn’t here to hear what I thought was a really positive discussion.”

A colleague of Lever said Doyle-Price had agreed to attend a private meeting with representatives of the alliance in Westminster.

Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, which represents care providers and was another organisation that invited Doyle-Price to a fringe meeting that she declined to attend, told DNS that ministers “need to engage with this debate and they need to get out and hear the voices of the public”.

Doyle-Price also turned down an invitation to speak at a social care fringe event organised by the New Local Government Network thinktank.

Tory MP Helen Whateley told the Care England meeting that the social care system “simply isn’t good enough”, with “many people not getting the care they need”, and she said that it was vital that “more money goes into social care”.

Professor Green said the system was “completely at breaking point”.

And Neil Heslop, the disabled chief executive of Leonard Cheshire Disability, told another fringe event, organised by the thinktank Bright Blue – which Doyle-Price had not been invited to – that the word crisis had been overused and devalued in other areas of society, and added: “We genuinely have a crisis on our hands.”

He said there appeared to be agreement among “responsible” politicians on most of the core issues that had to be addressed, but the critical factor was the need for a cross-party approach.

He said the failure to find a solution was a “failure of political leadership”.

Professor Richard Humphries, who leads on social care for the King’s Fund, told the Bright Blue fringe event that it was hard to see how a solution would be possible without a cross-party approach, because of the political “weaponisation” of social care.

He said the social care system was currently “rudderless” and without a long-term plan it would continue to “lurch from one crisis to the next”.

Meanwhile, at one of the fringe meetings Doyle-Price failed to attend this week, the campaign organisation 38 Degrees released figures from a survey carried out just days earlier, in which 95,000 of its members had taken part.

More than 90 per cent of them (91 per cent) said social care should be free at the point of use for most or all people, while 86 per cent still agreed with that statement even if they would have to pay more tax to fund such a policy.

The Conservative party had failed to comment on Doyle-Price’s refusal to attend the fringe meetings by noon today (Thursday).

5 October 2017

 

 

Tory conference: Activists criticise ‘heavy-handed’ police action at tram protest

Disabled activists have criticised “heavy-handed” police tactics at a direct action protest that blocked tram lines outside the Conservative party conference.

A handful of activists from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN) and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) held up some Manchester city centre tram services for about 90 minutes through their spontaneous demonstration.

They had been returning from taking part in the People’s Assembly anti-austerity march through the city on Sunday afternoon.

But as they entered St Peter’s Square, just 100 yards from where the Conservatives were holding their annual party conference, they saw police had forced a small group of young protesters into a designated protest area.

The disabled activists, including several wheelchair-users, were unable to enter this “kettled” area, which the police had designated as the zone where demonstrators were allowed to protest lawfully against the Conservative conference.

Faced with nowhere to protest peacefully about the impact of Tory austerity policies on disabled people, and angry at the way the young protesters were being treated, about half a dozen DAN and DPAC activists decided to block two of the tram lines that run through the city centre.

After a 90-minute stand-off, in which they were joined by other protesters, and city centre trams were unable to pass through St Peter’s Square, police officers arrested activists Dennis Queen and Sharon Hooley, both wheelchair-users.

Both activists were eventually carried away from the site of the protest in their wheelchairs by police officers.

Although Hooley was cautioned for wilful obstruction of the highway and released, Queen was charged with creating a public nuisance, and is due to appear before Manchester magistrates on 17 October.

Although she was released on bail, she has been banned from entering Manchester city centre.

Terry Hutt, an 82-year-old veteran DAN activist, showed Disability News Service (DNS) the purple bruises he said he received on his arm from being grabbed by a police officer during the protest.

He sat on his walking stick on one of the tram lines during the protest, and said: “If they can push me around, they can push anybody around.

“It’s sad to have to fight for your rights.”

Hooley told DNS after the protest that they had decided to act after seeing the situation between the police and the young protesters “heating up”.

She said: “You just knew at some point they would wind them up enough so they would use more force and it was getting dangerous. We just had to do something.

“That’s when we all agreed that the only way to get their attention was to stop the trams till they would let them go.

“I didn’t expect it to take two hours, though. I had never been arrested on a protest but my heart told me it was the right thing to do.

“I and we could not stand by and see the bullying behaviour of our police force and let them get away with it.”

She said the officer who spoke to her had been “lovely” and that she had explained to her that “I had to do this, to free those young protesters, and to show we would not leave them behind in the right to protest freely and peacefully.

“The officer actually asked me possibly eight times if I would move but each time I stood my ground.”

When the officer began reading her rights to her, “the noise suddenly got horrendously loud and I realised I was surrounded by officers.

“I was scared beyond belief and curled over my dog, who was also shaking with fear.

“Next thing I’m carried off to another pavement and I was asked to drive my chair to a quieter corner.

“I didn’t experience what my friends did, but I hope those responsible will be reprimanded for their heavy-handedness.”

Hooley volunteers as an advocate for other disabled people and said she had “seen and dealt with some horrific stories that they have had to endure” as a result of government austerity policies.

She said she had wanted to take part in the march to protest about her experiences of “this Tory hatred that is poisoning our society, our streets and our homes.

“We are going back to Victorian times and I had to be counted in solidarity to all those fighting.”

Another activist, Sam Brackenbury, said he had been protesting about the deaths of countless disabled people from years of Tory welfare reform, including a close personal friend of his who had died of a heart attack just eight days after being “kicked off ESA [employment and support allowance]”.

He said he was also angry about the policing costs and road closures the city had had to endure for the conference to take place.

At one point in the action, he and fellow activist Chris Hughes were completely surrounded by a cordon of police officers.

Asked for his message to Tory party members at the conference, he said later: “Be honest about what you are doing. You are killing people indirectly, your policies are killing people.

“Rather than slagging off Jeremy Corbyn, which is all they seem capable of doing, why not come out and face the disabled people they are putting in poverty and killing.

“Have a bit of decency and guts rather than hiding behind the cordon.”

Hughes said officers had been “heavy handed”, were “throwing their weight around”, and had drafted in police horses, with three horses at one point in front of him and Brackenbury, both of whom are wheelchair-users.

He said he had wanted to draw attention to the way the Tory government has been “killing off disabled people”, and the issues raised in August’s report by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which told the UK government to make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights.

He said disabled people’s rights had taken a 15-year step backwards in the last five years, while the social care system had “gone to pot”.

Hughes said he hoped the protest would help prevent the Conservative conference from returning to Manchester in future years.

Another of the activists who was at the protest said: “If we can’t protest lawfully, we will protest somehow.

“If that is what it takes to draw attention to the issues, it is a small thing.

“This government is committing grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights.

“Maybe Manchester will think again before allowing the Tories back here.”

A spokeswoman for Greater Manchester police said in a statement: “Our officers tried everything possible to reason with protestors who were blocking tram lines out of Manchester city centre causing major disruption across the network and having a significant impact on the travelling public across Greater Manchester.

“A number of the protestors voluntarily moved but others remained with no regard for the impact their actions were having on others or the potentially dangerous situation they were creating on a live tram line.

“With the right to protest also comes a high degree of personal responsibility.

“Our officers had no option but to arrest these individuals and used reasonable force to move them in a safe manner for everyone involved.”

But Hughes said that the force used by officers “was not reasonable, it was unreasonable”.

5 October 2017

 

 

Tory conference: Silence on eligibility means WCA announcement is ‘meaningless’

Changes that mean some sick and disabled benefit claimants will no longer need to face repeated assessments of their capability for work are “meaningless” because the government has refused to say which people will be affected, say campaigners.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced last week, on the eve of the Conservative party conference in Manchester, that some claimants in the support group of employment and support allowance (ESA) – and the equivalent universal credit group – would no longer need to attend “routine reassessments”.

They will be told they will not be assessed again after they have received the results of their work capability assessment (WCA), which tests eligibility for fitness for work.

DWP said the change applies to those with “a severe, lifelong disability, illness or health condition” who are “unlikely to ever be able to move into work”.

It was first announced by the then work and pensions secretary Damian Green at last year’s party conference, and has now finally been implemented, but DWP refused to say this week which claimants would be spared reassessments.

David Gauke, the new work and pensions secretary, told the conference that the government would “support those who are unable to work, while helping those who can work to maximise their potential”.

He said that about twice as many people were expected to benefit from the rule change as ministers had originally expected.

But asked by Disability News Service what the eligibility criteria were for the new exemption, a DWP spokesman said: “I’m not in a position to share the information you’ve requested. However, more details will be released shortly.”

He added later: “I’m afraid that I can’t elaborate. However, I can reassure you that people going through their assessments will be made aware of the changes and the fact a new criteria will be used.”

A Conservative party spokesman had failed to comment by noon today (Thursday) on the refusal to describe which groups would be spared reassessments.

Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Without any information on who will be spared reassessment, this announcement means absolutely nothing.

“Sadly, we can’t trust that everyone with an impairment where their support needs are not going to reduce will benefit from this, and without further detail on the exemptions we are unable to gauge how far this measure will mitigate the current harm that the benefit assessment regime is causing.

“The fact that for the second year running, the Conservatives have chosen to trail their conference with an announcement on disability does indicate that they are feeling the pressure of their appalling record on disability.

“That’s a pressure we need to maintain if we are to secure meaningful reversals on the issues that are hurting disabled people the most.”

Disabled researcher Stef Benstead, a member of the Spartacus online network, said: “It is useless without any more information because we do need to know exactly who they are referring to.

“I do not believe they are going to stop reassessing me because I have a severe lifelong condition.”

She said she believed that the rule change would only affect those ESA claimants who were already not being called for reassessments because DWP did not have the capacity in the system to deal with them.

Benstead said that Gauke’s claim that the new rules would help twice as many people as originally thought showed that DWP should be able to say who will be affected.

She said: “It does suggest they have a defined group in mind.

“They must have some internal definition or description of who they think it will affect, and if they have got that they should be telling us because we are the ones who actually live with chronic illness or disability who could inform them on how sensitive and specific their definition is.”

Meanwhile, the minister for disabled people, Penny Mordaunt, does not appear to have spoken at any event at the conference that was open to the media, and only spoke at a private roundtable event.

Her office also failed to respond to a request for a conference interview with DNS.

Mordaunt’s silence, and refusal to speak in public at the conference, comes just weeks after 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 also told the government to produce an annual progress report on how it is implementing the recommendations of a damning inquiry that found it guilty of “grave and systematic violations” of key parts of the disability convention, caused by its social security reforms.

A Tory party spokeswoman had not commented by noon today (Thursday) on why Mordaunt was not speaking at any public fringe events.

5 October 2017

 

 

Tory conference: Gauke’s universal credit silence on debt-ridden disabled people

The work and pensions secretary has refused to say what he will do to help the hundreds of thousands of disabled people and other benefit claimants left in rent arrears and other debt by the botched introduction of universal credit.

Campaigners have been warning David Gauke that the rollout of universal credit is leaving hundreds of thousands in debt, and forcing people – many of them disabled – to borrow from loan sharks, pawnbrokers and payday loan companies.

This week, Gauke told the Conservative party conference in Manchester that he would not pause the “accelerated” next stage of the rollout of universal credit, despite widespread concerns over the length of time claimants are having to wait for their first payment.

Even without delays, claimants do not receive their first payment for six weeks, but many others are having to wait two or even three months.

DWP’s own statistics show that nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of successful new claimants of universal credit – which is gradually replacing six working-age benefits – do not receive their first payment in full and on time.

Instead of pausing the next stage of the rollout – which began yesterday (Wednesday), as prime minister Theresa May was preparing to deliver her “nightmare” conference speech – Gauke said he would “refresh” guidance given to Department for Work and Pensions staff.

He said this would ensure that all claimants who need to apply for an advance payment – a loan that is usually paid back from universal credit payments over just six months – will be offered the chance of doing so when they start their claim.

He said that these advances would be paid within five working days, and on the same day for “those in immediate need”.

But he added: “Universal credit is working, so I can confirm that the rollout will continue, and to the planned timetable.

“We’re not going to rush things – it is more important to get this right than to do this quickly. And this won’t be completed until 2022.”

Stephen Lloyd, the disabled MP who shadows Gauke for the Liberal Democrats, said ministers “continue to bury their heads in the sand over the shocking impact the rollout of universal credit is having on thousands of people’s lives”.

He said: “The whole point of the piloted implementation was to learn lessons and make the necessary changes, but ministers are determined to press ahead despite the consequences.

“This is despite clear evidence from numerous respected organisations of the destitution families are experiencing because of universal credit, including statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions itself.”

Frank Field, the under-fire chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said Gauke’s decision to press on with the accelerated rollout of universal credit would lead to “a near inevitable Christmas crisis”.

He said that calls for a pause had been “fuelled by the unanimous and damning evidence we have collected from councils, housing associations, landlords and claimants across the UK.

“Offering advance payments up front is, of course, a welcome and overdue development.

“But short term discretionary loans can only be a sticking plaster on a policy that has many fundamental flaws, flaws that go far beyond the statutory full six-week delay in receiving the first payment.”

Gauke also spoke about universal credit at a Centre for Social Justice fringe event, and insisted that the rollout was “not a big jump into the unknown” and that by January next year only 10 per cent of relevant claimants would have been signed up to the new benefit.

He said that evidence showed that universal credit “does get more people into work” and that “if we can make sure people are aware of how the system operates, I believe it is going to be hugely transformative”.

He also claimed that universal credit would prove to be “one of the great achievements of this government”.

Questioned at the fringe meeting, he admitted that advance payments usually had to be repaid within just six months, and within nine months in “exceptional circumstances”.

But he admitted: “I think we will want to continue to look at this.”

After the fringe meeting, Gauke’s special adviser promised to respond to a DNS question on whether he was concerned about the increasing debts being faced by people who were not receiving their first payment on time, many of whom will be disabled people already living in poverty, and what action he was planning to take.

She had failed to provide a response from Gauke by midday today (Thursday).

But disabled researcher Stef Benstead, a member of the Spartacus online network, said that “refreshing the guidance” would not solve the problem.

She said that waiting at least six weeks for the first payment was far too long and that claimants “have not got the capacity to wait in arrears”.

She said: “They shouldn’t think it is a bad thing to be generous to people, to support people.”

The subject of the fringe event Gauke had spoken at had been “the future of welfare reform”, but Benstead said that rather than concentrating on benefits she had wanted to hear about “the whole of welfare reform, which includes education, housing, health, jobs and social security.

“If they want to talk about the future of welfare, they should be talking about how they are going to provide enough houses, enough jobs – decent and well-enough paid – enough healthcare and education.

“That is what I want to hear them talking about and not just, ‘This is how we are going to give, or not give, poor people money.’

“There is a lot more to welfare than giving or not giving poor people money.”

5 October 2017

 

 

Tory conference: Disabled MP’s praise for Labour… and his shock rebranding call

A disabled Tory former minister has called on the Conservatives to rebrand themselves as the “workers’ party”, and has praised the campaigning efforts of his Labour opponents.

The arguments made by Robert Halfon, one of only six disabled MPs in the House of Commons, contrasted with the rhetoric of ministerial colleagues such as chancellor Philip Hammond and transport secretary Chris Grayling.

Hammond spoke of the “clear and present danger” of following “Corbyn’s Marxist policies”, while Grayling warned the conference of the “unthinkable” damage a Corbyn government would cause to the country.

But Halfon praised shadow chancellor John McDonnell for visiting striking McDonald’s workers and speaking last week at the Labour conference in Brighton of wanting to cut credit card debt.

Halfon, a former education and Cabinet Office minister, stressed that he disagreed with Labour’s “prescriptions” for solving the country’s problems.

But he told a fringe meeting, hosted by organisations including the Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists: “They are campaigning in a way we are not campaigning.”

He admitted that he sometimes looks at Labour’s campaigning successes and thinks: “The White Walkers [from fantasy TV drama Game of Thrones] are coming for us.

“They have a membership and an infrastructure that we do not have [more than 750,000 members].

“The vast majority are not all from the far left, you’d be mistaken if you thought that, and they have a message.

“Last week they were talking about cutting credit card loan debt. These are things that matter to millions of people.

“John McDonnell went to see McDonald’s workers. Now if you are a parent of a McDonald’s worker on quite low pay, you would think, ‘That guy is on my side.’”

Halfon, who was being interviewed by Financial Times leader writer Sebastian Payne, said his own party was reaching out to working-class voters, for example by introducing the national living wage, raising the income tax threshold, and creating 3.4 million apprentices and millions of jobs.

But he said the Conservatives had no “narrative” to pull all these ideas together, so had been left with “a series of clothes pegs with no washing line”.

Halfon, who has been elected to chair the Commons education select committee, said there was “a problem with the Conservative brand across the country”, and this should be addressed by rebranding the Tories as the Conservative Workers’ Party, while making radical changes to its membership structure and even turning it into a trade union.

He said: “I would like our party literally to be a modern trade union in the sense that people join and get membership services, for example [we could] give every party member a fuel card that helps with the price of petrol, or give [young apprentices who joined the party] a free bus pass.”

Halfon, himself a member of the professionals’ trade union Prospect, also appealed to his party to remember that a third of union members vote Conservative.

He said that, although the hierarchies of unions are often dominated by those on the “militant” left, millions of “moderates” join trade unions for the services they offer, such as protecting workers’ rights and wages, or providing help with jobs and skills.

And he criticised how his own party in the 1980s had assumed that if the country made enough economic capital it would also increase social capital because it would “trickle down and you would have strong communities and strong society”.

He said: “Actually, that didn’t happen. Although we created a strong economy, we faced significant [social] problems.”

Halfon added: “We need to reclaim the language of compassion back from the left. We need to be the party of social justice. We need to be the party of redistribution.”

He also told the meeting that he was loyal to prime minister Theresa May and that she “should be there as long as she wants to be there”.

He said: “What I have made clear to her is that I will never say anything privately or publicly against the prime minister but I will speak honestly about… the radical reforms that we need to do in our policy because I think now is the time that we need to recognise the things that need fixing because if we don’t we are going potentially to fall off the edge of a cliff.”

He added: “She has said she has acknowledged she wants to get us out of the mess she got us in. I am sure we will see that.”

5 October 2017

 

 

MPs’ inquiry set to look at PIP assessment dishonesty claims

MPs have launched an inquiry into why so many disability benefit decisions are being overturned on appeal, and look set to examine claims of widespread dishonesty among the healthcare professionals who carry out assessments on behalf of the government.

The investigation by the Commons work and pensions select committee follows a previous inquiry into the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment process, which had to be abandoned when the prime minister called a snap general election earlier this year.

The committee will ask how the assessment processes for both PIP and employment and support allowance (ESA) are being handled by the private sector contractors Atos, Capita and Maximus.

It will also look at how the application and appeals processes are working.

The committee said – crucially – that the evidence it received in the last parliament revealed “worrying disparities” between how claimants described their face-to-face assessments and the final reports passed to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

And it said that concerns were also raised about the “dignity and conduct” of the assessment process and the ability of the assessors to “understand and properly assess” conditions.

The latest figures, the committee said, show 65 per cent of appeals that reach the tribunal stage are successful, for both PIP and ESA, while the number of appeals had risen by nearly 30 per cent in the last year.

Earlier this year, Disability News Service (DNS) provided the committee with substantial evidence of widespread dishonesty in the reports compiled by PIP assessors from the discredited outsourcing companies Capita and Atos.

That evidence helped trigger an urgent evidence session of the committee, but none of the four welfare rights experts who gave evidence were asked by the committee’s MPs about claims of dishonesty.

DNS had told the MPs how its investigation revealed that assessors working for Capita and Atos – most of them nurses – had repeatedly lied, ignored written evidence and dishonestly reported the results of physical examinations.

The committee’s latest call for evidence appears to show that it has listened to criticism of its previous approach and that it will now examine these claims of dishonesty.

DNS has so far received more than 250 such claims from PIP claimants, and is likely to submit updated evidence to the committee.

One of those who has submitted evidence to DNS as part of its investigation is Mary*, who has experienced dishonest assessors both with her own PIP assessment and her husband’s.

She said it was a “huge relief” to hear of the inquiry.

She said: “We sincerely hope the extent of this widespread systemic malpractice will be fully exposed for what it is, putting an end to the dishonest healthcare professional reports and the abject failure of both the healthcare professionals and the DWP case managers to follow the DWP PIP assessment guidance and correctly apply the actual legal threshold for PIP.

“There will then need to be an extensive clean up of the fraudulent reports and false statements that are currently on the system about individual claimants.”

Frank Field, the under-fire chair of the work and pensions committee, said the rate at which ESA and PIP decisions were overturned was “truly amazing”.

He said this suggested something was “fundamentally wrong” with how face-to-face assessments and mandatory reconsiderations – DWP’s internal reviews, the first stage of the appeal process – were being carried out.

He said: “Quite apart from the human cost this represents – the distress and difficulty for applicants trying to get help with daily living or getting into work – it looks to be wasteful, inefficient, and a huge cost to taxpayers.”

Field called for evidence on the assessment system from both claimants and assessors.

Any evidence should be submitted to the committee by 10 November.

Meanwhile, Maximus has announced that its contract to deliver the work capability assessment – which assesses eligibility for ESA – had been extended by the government by a further two years, until March 2020.

*Not her real name

5 October 2017

 

 

EHRC celebrates 10th birthday with call for new powers

The equality watchdog has asked the government for significant new powers, including the ability to inspect buildings that are flouting access laws.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it needed stronger powers to hold “powerful and well-resourced” governments and large organisations to account.

But it also said that it should be made independent of government, and accountable instead to parliament.

The calls came in a blog by the commission’s chair, David Isaac, which was written to mark 10 years since the watchdog was founded.

Following his comments, the government told Disability News Service that it had already begun working with EHRC to plan a “tailored review” of the commission, which will look at whether its powers “remain appropriate” and will also consider the issue of its independence.

The review is expected to begin in April next year and finish the following month, although it might not be published until 2019.

Isaac said in his blog that the commission had “cause to be anxious” that a post-Brexit Britain would see a reduction in equality and human rights protections.

There have also been strong recent criticisms of the government’s record on disability rights from the United Nations.

It was only in August that a vice-chair of the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities told a UK government delegation in Geneva: “I want to see you coming back as world leader [on disability rights], which at the moment I am afraid you’re not.”

And the chair of the committee, Theresia Degener, said in an interview that, compared to other countries with “less economic power” and less advanced equality and discrimination legislation, the UK’s austerity policy was “less human rights oriented”.

Degener said that the UK’s record on disability rights was “going backwards in a pace and to an amount that it worries us a lot”, and that the evidence in front of her committee – which had been assessing the UK’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – had been “overwhelming”.

In his blog, Isaac said the commission needed the power to “enter and inspect premises where disability access requirements are being ignored” and to carry out “mystery shopping” exercises, which could ensure businesses are providing accessible products and services.

And he said the commission should be able to hand out enforcement notices or impose civil sanctions on organisations that breached certain parts of the Equality Act.

Isaac also said the commission should be able to demand information from organisations that it suspected were acting unlawfully, without having to launch a formal investigation.

He said that restoring EHRC’s power to arrange conciliation services (voluntary discussions aimed at resolving disputes), or even allowing it to arrange arbitration (where an impartial person makes a decision on a dispute, outside the court system) and make binding rulings in some cases, could reduce the burden on the legal system and help cut legal costs.

Isaac also called on the prime minister to make the commission directly accountable to parliament, rather than to the government – it is currently sponsored by the Government Equalities Office, within the Department for Education.

He said: “In 1997 the Labour government gave full independence to the Bank of England.

“In 2011 the coalition government created the independent Office of Budget Responsibility.

“Both of these organisations were made independent to give them autonomy and greater credibility to make decisions.

“By making us accountable to parliament rather than ministers, the prime minister would remove government’s control of our budget, their involvement in the appointment of our board, and any perceived threat of political interference.”

EHRC now plans to run a series of public events over the next year to hear the public’s views on these ideas and to try to secure their support.

Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “I fully support EHRC having greater powers to enforce the Equality Act.

“To proactively enforce the law will have real impact. Laws are no good if they not enforced, and those they aim to protect are not informed of their rights.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “A forthcoming tailored review of the Equality and Human Rights Commission that will run from 2018 to 2019 will provide an opportunity to consider the broader issue of EHRC independence as well as reviewing the powers available to the commission more broadly and whether they remain appropriate.”

5 October 2017

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com