Disabled people are beginning to raise grave concerns about the potential impact of coronavirus on people with long-term health conditions and high support needs, particularly those who employ their own personal assistants.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) published its action plan on dealing with COVID-19 this week, but the document said little about social care.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “Protecting the most vulnerable is our absolute priority.”
He added: “We all have a role to play in combatting this threat and I urge everyone to take stock of the simple methods that offer the best protection.
“Right now, this means making sure you are washing your hands properly and regularly and always following the most current public health and travel advice as it develops.”
The government said it was currently focusing on containing the spread of the virus.
But the action plan says that if the virus becomes established, the focus will be on providing “essential services, helping those most at risk to access the right treatment”.
DHSC said yesterday (Wednesday) that it would publish guidance for the care sector “shortly”, but there are concerns that this could focus on the care industry and residential homes rather than disabled people who employ their own personal assistants (PAs).
The Local Government Association said this week that councils were working alongside Public Health England, the NHS and other organisations to “assess risk, provide advice to communities and try to prevent this virus spreading further” and that local plans were “in place for every eventuality, including a pandemic”.
Few if any disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have spoken out yet about the impact of COVID-19.
But some disabled people and DPOs have begun to express concerns.
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) is one of the first DPOs to speak out.
Kamran Mallick, DR UK’s chief executive, told Disability News Service (DNS) that disabled people should not be seen as “inevitable cannon fodder in the face of COVID-19” when it was those with underlying health conditions who appear to be “bearing the brunt of the worst effects of this illness”.
He said DR UK was seeking evidence that hospitals would be able to cope with “the most vulnerable cases in the event of mass infection”.
He added: “Our lives matter as much as the next person’s.”
Mallick called on the government to make extra funding available in next week’s budget “to allow for the extra social care that would inevitably be needed for disabled people should an epidemic take hold”, in addition to the “desperately needed” funding the social care system already needed.
He also warned that “self-isolation” in the event of infection with the virus was not as easy for many disabled people as it might be for non-disabled people.
He said: “We would ask that those responsible for planning in social care and hospitals understand and provide for the fact that, if self-isolating, not everybody can be alone.”
He said adequate provision would be needed for those who cannot self-isolate alone, including those who need full-time assistance, support with eating, drinking and mobilising.
But he also said that people whose immunity was compromised should already be “well-versed in hygiene routines, including asking people with any symptoms of any virus to stay away, and practising good hand-washing hygiene”.
He said: “As far as we can tell at this stage, the same procedures apply for COVID-19.
“We are advising members to watch out for updates in advice from Public Health England and to act accordingly.”
Mark Williams, co-founder of Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living, said: “As a disabled employer, I am concerned about my staff and their capability of supporting me to carry on living independently.
“It is all very well for the government to tell people self-isolate or work from home, but there is no advice for people in my situation and how it might affect them.
“Even at prime minister’s questions this week, when asked about his social care plans, Boris Johnson talked about elderly people being able to keep their homes – nothing about how it would affect working-age disabled people.
“Therefore, why should he think about how coronavirus might affect us?”
Mel Close, chief executive of Disability Equality (NW), said her organisation had begun to receive calls from disabled people concerned about COVID-19.
She said: “We’re trying to be consistent in reassuring them, and are using the NHS guidance/key messages – which we’ve also circulated to staff.”
Access and inclusion expert Sarah Rennie told DNS she had already taken some precautions.
She said: “I have spinal muscular atrophy, so any sort of flu or pneumonia would be life threatening.
“I have cancelled all face-to-face work for the next month (not great financially!) and my care team are taking all infection control precautions.
“However, if any of my PAs (two of whom are teachers with massive social contact levels) come into contact with the virus, how do we effectively self-isolate?
“My PAs come in and out, changing shifts twice a day. Are they expected to care for me if I develop any symptoms of a virus?
“What an expectation for those who are also caring for older parents and small children.
“I’m also aware that I can’t seem to get advice on the point at which I should be hospitalised.
“I’m a level-headed person, only reading advice from reputable sources, but can’t find much advice for people like me.
“This is very worrying, particularly as I have a responsibility as an employer as well.”
Disabled activist Brian Hilton called for “a thought-through response that protects both residents and staff within care homes and other residential settings.
“Similarly, disabled people who live independently with the support of care staff need some reassurance that support will be available if required.”
He called for a government statement on what “support, contingencies and resources” would be available to disabled people if the situation worsened.
5 March 2020
Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey appears to have failed to sign up to her own department’s flagship disability employment scheme, despite employing staff herself in her role as an MP.
Coffey has been in post since last September and has been an MP since 2010, but a DWP document appears to show that she has still not signed up to Disability Confident, which was launched in 2013, even though – like all MPs – she employs staff to assist with her parliamentary duties.
The discredited scheme aims to encourage employers to “think differently about disability and take action to improve how they recruit, retain and develop disabled people”.
Three of Coffey’s ministers – Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people; Mims Davies, the employment minister; and Guy Opperman, the minister for pensions – have signed up, according to the latest list published by the department on Tuesday (3 May).
In all, the latest database shows that nearly 70 MPs are members of Disability Confident, including many from opposition parties.
Last November, in a press release marking the third anniversary of Disability Confident, Coffey called on employers to “take a look at their record on disability employment and think about what they can do to help create a more equal Britain”.
But she appears to have failed to take her own advice.
The scheme has been heavily-criticised since its introduction in 2013.
Figures secured last year by Disability News Service through a freedom of information request showed that the 13,600 employers that had signed up to the scheme by 13 September 2019 had pledged to provide just 8,763 paid jobs for disabled people between them, an average of just 0.64 jobs per employer.
Members of the scheme include many large employers such as local authorities, government departments, manufacturers, national charities, banks and retailers, including the big four supermarkets, more than 100 NHS trusts, and high street banks.
But Coffey is not the only work and pensions secretary who appears to have failed to support the scheme.
Of all the Tory MPs to have held the post since Iain Duncan Smith launched the scheme in 2013, only two – Stephen Crabbe and Damian Green* – have signed up to Disability Confident, according to the DWP list.
Duncan Smith himself, Esther McVey, David Gauke, and Amber Rudd all appear to have snubbed it.
McVey’s apparent failure to sign up to Disability Confident is particularly embarrassing because she claims to have created the scheme herself – when she was minister for disabled people, under Duncan Smith – in 2013, and has repeatedly called on employers to sign up.
Gauke and Rudd are no longer MPs, but DNS contacted Coffey, Duncan Smith and McVey yesterday, and none of them had responded to questions by noon today (Thursday).
DNS also put questions to Will Quince, the current minister for welfare delivery, who has also failed to sign up to Disability Confident. He also had failed to comment by noon today.
The scheme has been criticised as “trivially easy to abuse” and allows employers to describe themselves as “disability confident” without being assessed on that claim, and without employing a single disabled person.
Three years ago, DWP declared itself a gold-standard employer of disabled people under the scheme – securing the status of “Disability Confident Leader” – just days before being found guilty of “grave and systematic violations” of the UN disability convention.
*Although Damian Green is not listed as a member of the scheme, he said this morning in an email that he had signed up and that he had a disabled member of staff
5 March 2020
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has caused confusion after refusing to say if a newly-announced trial will test the idea of merging assessments for its two main disability benefits.
Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, announced this week that DWP would be trialling the use of a new single “digital platform” to help deliver assessments for both personal independent payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA), and the equivalent of ESA under universal credit.
Such a move was first suggested 12 months ago by the then work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd.
The new system would aim to ensure that people in receipt of more than one disability-related benefit do not have to provide the same information multiple times.
But ministers have also spoken previously of testing whether they could merge the processes for PIP and ESA (the work capability assessment) into a single assessment.
Both the assessments have been blighted by years of criticism and repeated links to the deaths of claimants.
Only last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how a disabled man took his own life after describing how a paramedic ignored the “sheer amount of pain” he was in during a face-to-face PIP assessment, leading DWP to remove his benefits and plunge him into poverty.
And in January, DNS revealed how Errol Graham starved to death after DWP wrongly stopped his ESA, leaving him without any income, when he failed to attend a work capability assessment.
Ministers have stressed that a single, merged assessment would only be used for claimants who were applying for both benefits at the same time, and they have promised that claimants could continue to choose to have separate WCA and PIP assessments.
Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey confirmed that she was pushing ahead with Rudd’s plans for a single assessment for some claimants last October, when she gave evidence for the first time in front of the Commons work and pensions committee.
But even though there was no mention in this week’s announcement of a single assessment covering PIP and ESA, it was widely reported that the trial would include a merged assessment.
Despite the confusion, and repeated attempts from DNS to clarify whether the trial would include testing a single, merged assessment, DWP’s press office refused to answer questions about Tomlinson’s announcement.
Instead, a press officer just pointed to the minister’s statement and the department’s press release.
She refused to say if there would be any testing of a single assessment.
And she also refused to say if any single assessment would still be entirely voluntary, as previously promised by ministers.
Disabled people’s organisations have raised grave concerns about both a potential single assessment (“risking people losing everything in one fell swoop… a nightmare scenario”) and the integrated, digital platform (“You can’t merge two badly constructed processes and expect to come up with one fit-for-purpose approach.”).
The trial announced this week will not begin until August 2021, in an as yet unnamed part of the country, before a national rollout.
It will be conducted by DWP itself, rather than being outsourced to one of its discredited and much-criticised contractors: Atos, Capita and Maximus.
Tomlinson said the trial would begin at the same time as new contracts to deliver the PIP and work capability assessments in other parts of the country.
DWP yesterday added to the confusion over Tomlinson’s announcement by refusing to provide links to legal documents he had promised would be published on Tuesday.
Tomlinson had said that these “Prior Information Notices” (PINs) would “advise the market” that DWP was tendering contracts to deliver PIP and WCA assessments from 1 August 2021.
But the DWP spokesperson had been unable to provide links to these PINs by noon today (Thursday).
5 March 2020
A disability charity which campaigns for an end to discrimination against autistic people in the workplace unfairly dismissed an autistic member of its own staff, an employment tribunal has found.
Dave Gregson was employed as a support worker by United Response for seven years until he was dismissed in late 2018 after the charity claimed he was no longer able to do his job.
United Response dismissed him after concluding that the adjustments that would be needed to allow him to continue working would not be reasonable and would be too expensive.
The decision was made even though the charity failed to consider whether one of its own trained job coaches could work with Gregson, the tribunal heard.
It also ignored the suggestion of an occupational health expert to seek advice from the National Autistic Society, and it failed to explore whether the government’s Access to Work scheme could provide funding to provide him with a job coach.
The tribunal said Gregson was “articulate and intelligent and thorough although prone to excessive elaboration and detail in his answers to questions”, and also described him as “honest in his recollection of events” and said he always put the people he supported and their dignity “at the forefront of his considerations”.
The charity had described him as “professional” and “intelligent, caring and kind”.
His tribunal claim originated with concerns about his wellbeing that were raised with him in November 2016, and a decision to restrict his duties at a residential home for disabled adults in Leeds.
But there were concerns about his failure to comply with those restrictions, which eventually led to him being placed on gardening leave.
United Response considered all the adjustments that would need to be made for him to return to work and decided that he could not work at any of its local services.
It eventually dismissed him six days before Christmas 2018 after concluding that the adjustments that would need to be made for him were not reasonable.
But the tribunal judge concluded: “In all the circumstances [United Response’s] decision to terminate the Claimant’s employment fell outside the responses open to a reasonable employer. The Claimant’s complaint of unfair dismissal succeeds.”
The judge dismissed further claims of disability discrimination and victimisation, while Gregson had earlier withdrawn a complaint of sex discrimination.
He concluded in the tribunal judgment: “The decision to dismiss may have been unreasonable… but it was not a knee-jerk reaction to an autism diagnosis.”
Gregson was dismissed nearly a year after telling the charity that he had been diagnosed as autistic, although United Response had previously known that he had depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
When approached by Disability News Service, United Response refused to say if it would apologise to Gregson, and why it failed to explore the idea of a job coach, Access to Work support, and advice from NAS.
It also refused to say whether it accepted that this was poor practice from an organisation that had signed up as a “Disability Confident Employer” under the government’s much-criticised disability employment scheme.
But the charity’s chief executive, Tim Cooper, said in a statement: “While disappointed, we accept the verdict of the recent employment tribunal relating to our former support worker David Gregson.
“We will now review the details of the case and consider the feedback from the hearing.”
He claimed the charity was “known locally for providing good quality care” and was “accountable for delivering high standards at all times and across all our services”, which includes “acting in the best interests of the people we support, ensuring they are safe and can live the best quality lives possible”.
He said the charity was “firmly against discrimination of any sort towards people with learning disabilities or autism”.
He added: “We acknowledge that this has been a stressful period for many, particularly David, and we wish him the very best in his future endeavours.”
But Gregson said he was disappointed with United Response’s statement.
He said: “It doesn’t acknowledge or express any regret or remorse. I also would have hoped there would have been some sort of acknowledgement or thanks for my service.”
He said he had worked with the charity’s head office on campaigns, including one on disability hate crime, right up to the point when he was dismissed.
Gregson said he hoped the charity would now introduce measures to prevent future cases like his, including training on the Equality Act and employment law, and improvements to the way it supports autistic employees.
He said: “I tried to avoid this through conciliation and mediation but there was no meaningful dialogue so there was little option other than for me to bring this [legal] action.”
Only last May, United Response launched its Am I Your Problem? campaign, which aimed to challenge the “indifference, hidden discrimination and sometimes outright hostility faced by people with a learning disability or autism”, including in the workplace.
Cooper said in launching the campaign that “hidden discrimination” was taking place in businesses, workplaces and schools.
He called on non-disabled people to “become the solution, not the problem” and help create “a society which is open to all and gives everyone a fair chance in all walks of life”.
5 March 2020
Disabled people in Northern Ireland are hoping to persuade their devolved government to re-open the Independent Living Fund (ILF) for new claimants for the first time in 10 years.
Such a move would further highlight the contrast in support between Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both have versions of ILF, and Wales and England, which do not.
Former ILF recipients in England have had to rely on local authority support since June 2015, when the fund was closed by the Conservative government.
The organisation that runs ILF in Northern Ireland, ILF Scotland, is set to hold four events across the country this month to ask for views on allowing new claimants to apply for support from the fund, which helps disabled people with high support needs to live independently in the community.
Feedback from these events will be considered by officials from Northern Ireland’s Department of Health (DHNI), in collaboration with a working group that includes disabled people and representatives of disabled people’s organisations.
This work will then inform a briefing on potentially re-opening the fund that will be presented to Robin Swann, the minister of health.
Officials are already considering a report on the fund’s impact that was prepared by the user-led Centre for Independent Living NI.
The consultation events come nearly a year after a meeting at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly, at which ILF recipients and those who do not currently qualify spoke of the fund’s importance.
At that meeting, Richard Pengelly, DHNI’s permanent secretary, said civil servants would prepare a briefing on the potential re-opening of the fund to new applicants.
Although there are more than 400 recipients of ILF support in Northern Ireland, it has been closed to new applicants since 2010.
The push for an extension comes less than two months after the Northern Ireland Assembly began to sit again, following three years of political deadlock.
Susan Douglas-Scott, chair of ILF Scotland, said: “We need to hear what people think about the possibility of re-opening the fund.
“Without hearing from disabled people themselves, we cannot move forward.
“It’s very important to us that as many people as possible attend the events to offer their insight.
“I look forward to personally meeting and talking to many of you as I will be attending and speaking at each event.”
Michaela Hollywood, from Belfast, who receives ILF funding to help pay for round-the-clock support from personal assistants, said: “Receiving support from ILF has allowed me to achieve goals that previously would not have been possible.
“I’ve been able to get a master’s degree, pursue a career, learn to drive – all things that simply wouldn’t have been possible without the funds necessary to pay for support from my personal assistants.
“Without ILF, there is no way on this planet I would be living an independent life.”
Without ILF, she would receive 200 fewer hours of support every four weeks.
She told Disability News Service that she believed there was widespread support among disabled people in Northern Ireland for reopening the fund to new claimants.
She said the main social care system was not “up to scratch” compared to ILF, which was “more person centred and follows a social model which ensures needs are met” and also provides advice and help to recipients.
A DHNI spokesperson said this morning (Thursday): “Officials are working in collaboration with departmental colleagues, health and social care trusts, ILF Scotland, the ILF Working Group NI and the ILF Stakeholder Group NI.
“In addition, four public engagement events, facilitated by ILF Scotland, will take place during March in various parts of Northern Ireland to provide people with the opportunity to share their thoughts and views.
“The minister will consider all the information presented to him before making a decision later in the year.”
ILF has been closed to new applicants since 2010.
It closed completely across the UK in June 2015, but the Scottish Government established ILF Scotland, which provides funding for former ILF recipients from Scotland and administers funding for 438 former recipients from Northern Ireland.
ILF Scotland has also opened a fund to support disabled young people in Scotland.
But ILF Scotland now wants to go further in Northern Ireland and reopen the fund to all new claimants, the first time this will have been done anywhere in the UK since 2010.
In Wales, the Welsh government ran an interim Welsh Independent Living Grant scheme, with UK government transition funding, from June 2015 until it closed in March 2018, when £27 million a year funding provided by the UK government to maintain support to former ILF recipients transferred to local authorities in Wales.
The four ILF events will take place between 10.30am and 1pm in Derry on 19 March, in Enniskillen on 20 March, in Belfast on 27 March and in Newry on 30 March. ILF Scotland said the events were open to everyone, but it was keen to hear from disabled people, carers and disabled people’s organisations. To register to attend, visit www.ilf.scot/northernireland
5 March 2020
One of the MPs campaigning to be Labour’s next deputy leader is asking disabled members for their ideas on how to address the discrimination they face within the party.
Disability News Service has been reporting for several years how disabled Labour members have raised repeated concerns about the barriers created by the party’s structures, policies and actions.
Last September, at the party’s annual conference, senior Labour figures were accused of discrimination and “oppression”, while the previous year a survey of disabled party activists revealed three-quarters of those questioned believed there was disability discrimination at all levels of the party.
Now deputy leader candidate Angela Rayner – who is the clear favourite in the race to replace Tom Watson, who resigned from the post last November – has said she wants to tackle these long-standing issues if she is elected by the party in April.
She has launched a short consultation among disabled party members, asking them how they believe the party can ensure full inclusion.
Disabled party members can join an online Zoom video meeting at 7pm on Tuesday (10 March), or fill in a form detailing the barriers they have experienced and their ideas for how the party can address discrimination and support more disabled people into leadership roles in the party.
Rayner will then write a report on her vision for making the party more accessible to disabled people, as part of her Manifesto for a Movement (PDF) report that aims to map out a path to Downing Street for Labour.
Rayner said in a statement last night: “The party needs to do more to ensure people have access to the resources they need to fully engage in party meetings and structures.”
She said the party did not always ensure that “meetings, elections, campaigning and everything we do” was “accessible and inclusive” to disabled people.
And she called for “hard targets” on how many disabled people achieved positions within the party.
Rayner also said that – “in the past” – Labour’s fund to ensure accessibility at the annual conference had “run out”, which she said was “not good enough”.
She also called on her party to provide more resources to enable disabled members to stand for elected office.
She had said in an earlier statement: “It is important that disabled people’s voices are heard in politics, and if we are going to do that we need to start by looking at ourselves.
“We need to ensure that disabled people have full access, to ensure that there are no barriers for anyone.
“I want to start by taking an honest look at what we are doing and whether we are living up to our principles.”
Kerena Marchant, who supports Rayner’s campaign and has spoken of the barriers she has faced within the party as a Deaf user of British Sign Language (BSL), called for Deaf and disabled party members to take part in the consultation.
She said: “I really hope that Deaf and disabled people will get involved in this initiative, even if they don’t support Angela for deputy.
“The Labour party wants to include disabled people in the party but hasn’t got the rules and party procedures and funding to do so.
“Consequently, we are miles behind other minorities for inclusion in the party.
“At grassroots level the CLPs (constituency Labour parties) simply don’t have the funding to properly fund local campaigns, let alone pay for interpreters at meetings, or hire a more expensive wheelchair-accessible room.”
Marchant, who stood for Labour at the general election in Basingstoke, said she and many other disabled activists believed the issue of disability discrimination was “a ticking time bomb” for the party, and even potentially “the next anti-Semitism”.
She said: “The will to include is not enough, it simply has to happen and a lot of change rules and procedures, training and funding has to be put in place.”
Marchant was selected to fight Basingstoke without any funding for interpreters, and only later received a Labour party bursary that met part of her costs, thanks partly to the government’s refusal to reopen the Access to Elected Office Fund.
She secured support from Rayner – who herself has a BSL level two qualification, and two disabled children, as well as a disabled mother – after telling her how she was struggling to access last autumn’s conference without an interpreter.
Rayner said: “I was proud to learn BSL as a trade union representative so I could support deaf people at work.
“I also see through my son who is registered blind and my other son who has ADHD, which is often a hidden disability, the challenges they face.
“I know that our party needs to do more and that’s why I am asking disabled people to share their suggestions with me about how things need to improve.”
The other four candidates to be deputy leader of the party are Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler and Ian Murray.
5 March 2020
A new investigation has revealed that disabled benefit claimants are being pressured on the phone to accept thousands of pounds less than they are owed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The investigation by the Guardian’s Frances Ryan claims DWP has been telling claimants who have appealed against decisions to deny them benefits that they must decide immediately whether they want to accept an offer.
The Guardian was told that DWP is “trying to settle cases that could lead to payments of significantly more each year if they go to a tribunal”.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said: “If this is the case, this is an egregious abuse of power.
“The DWP needs to stop undermining the legitimate need of disabled people to receive the benefits to which they are entitled to live independent lives.
“There is no dignity nor real term saving in such actions.”
The lead architect on the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower has told an inquiry that he could not remember assessing how disabled people would be able to escape if there was a fire, a newspaper has reported.
The Evening Standard said that a November 2012 email from another staff member to those working on the refurbishment project stated that there would be “no refuges” for disabled people, adding: “I assume the intention is for vulnerable people to refuge in other flats on the same floor before being evacuated by the fire brigade.”
A fire that began in Grenfell Tower in the early hours of 14 June 2017 led to the loss of 72 lives.
The first report of the inquiry into the fire described last October how disabled residents were failed repeatedly by both London Fire Brigade and the organisation that managed the building on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea council.
Autistic campaigners reacted angrily yesterday (Thursday) after former Tory cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin warned of the risk of a cyberattack by “some autistic person or some strange youths sitting in some place in the world”.
His comments on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme led Neurodivergent Labour (ND Labour) to issue a statement condemning what it said was “bigotry at the heart of Tory attitudes to autistic and other neurodivergent people”.
ND Labour said: “These are not careless words by one individual, but a particularly crass example of a political view that sees people who are different as a threat.
“This comes from a former member of a government which presided over the criminalisation and demonisation of autistic people and cuts to the services we need.”
Clark said on Twitter: “I hope he reflects on this. I’m exhausted by autism being used as an acceptable insult and autistic people deemed potential criminals.
“We’re more likely to be the victims of crime.”
She said that conflating autism and criminality was “bigoted and ignorant and required robust challenge”.
Justin Webb, the BBC presenter who failed to challenge Letwin’s comments during the interview, apologised to Clark for not doing so.
He replied to her on Twitter: “Yes sorry I hold up hand – I felt in that split second that it wasn’t malicious and didn’t want to derail discussion but I can see why you’re disappointed and obviously what you say about autism is quite right.”
A human rights festival will this month show a critically-acclaimed documentary that charts how a summer camp for young disabled people transformed lives and shaped the future of the disability rights movement in the US.
The documentary Crip Camp – co-directed by film-maker Jim LeBrecht, who attended Camp Jened himself in the early 1970s – is being shown as part of this month’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival London.
Crip Camp, which won the audience award for US documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, will be shown at the Barbican cinema on 17 March at 6.10pm and at Regent Street Cinema on 18 March at 6.15pm.
5 March 2020
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com