Duncan Smith tells DNS: ‘I’m not going to be accused by you’ over mental health deaths

Iain Duncan Smith has denied responsibility for the deaths of people with mental health conditions who took their own lives after being unfairly found fit for work by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Duncan Smith was speaking to Disability News Service (DNS) at the Tory party annual conference in Birmingham about his failure to act on a coroner’s written warning in 2010 on the need to address particular safety concerns with the work capability assessment (WCA).

In the unplanned interview, which took place in a busy foyer in Birmingham’s International Conference Centre, the former work and pensions secretary claimed repeatedly that five independent reviews of the WCA commissioned by DWP under his leadership had led to a “much improved system”.

But DNS asked Duncan Smith about a report written by coroner Tom Osborne, who had ruled that the trigger for the suicide of Stephen Carré in January 2010 had been DWP’s rejection of his appeal against being found “fit for work”.

Osborne had called in what was known as a Rule 43 letter for a review of DWP policy – which has still not changed six years on – that means it does not always ensure that it obtains further medical evidence from a GP or psychiatrist if an employment and support allowance (ESA) claimant has a mental health condition.

Neither the Atos assessor who assessed Stephen Carré, nor the DWP decision-maker who subsequently decided that he was fit for work and therefore ineligible for ESA, had sought information from his GP, his community psychiatric nurse or his psychiatrist.

Osborne’s letter was believed to be in Duncan Smith’s in-tray when he was appointed secretary of state for work and pensions in May 2010, but it was not answered until February 2016, following questions raised by DNS.

Duncan Smith and Grayling also failed to pass the letter to Professor Malcolm Harrington, who carried out the first three reviews of the WCA, and they decided to roll out the assessment to hundreds of thousands of long-term incapacity benefit claimants with mental health conditions in the spring of 2011, without correcting the deadly safety flaw.

Duncan Smith repeatedly attempted to avoid answering questions on the coroner’s letter, but eventually admitted that he remembered the Stephen Carré case.

He said: “I remember the case and I remember the work we did and we had five reviews so I’m not going to be accused by you of anything.”

He also said that he remembered what he referred to as “the early cases”, but that he could not “remember every single letter from a coroner”.

And when asked if he remembered one particularly case of a man with a mental health condition who took his own life after being found fit for work – again without further medical evidence being sought, and more than three-and-a-half years after the death of Stephen Carré – he said: “Go and ask the department about where they are now with all of that.

“Honestly, because I am not there at the moment.”

He claimed that his former department had done much to “soften” the WCA for people with mental health conditions and to take more account of the fluctuating nature of their impairments.

But he appeared to accept that he had failed to commission a pilot project to test new ways to collect further medical evidence for people with mental health conditions – aimed at correcting the failing that led to Stephen Carre’s death – despite promising the courts that he would do so.

Ministers told a tribunal in March 2015 – following a lengthy judicial review – that they would test ways to make the WCA safer by collecting medical evidence about each claimant from their doctor and psychiatrist, but by the time Duncan Smith quit his position 12 months later – nearly six years after he saw Osborne’s letter – the promised pilot project had still not been launched.

When asked if this was the case, he said: “Yes. I don’t know where the situation is now, because I left back in March.”

When DNS said that people were still dying because of this failure, he said: “The whole idea was to make the changes; we made a lot of changes early on and we have a white paper set in to reform the whole of the sickness benefit, which doesn’t work properly.”

He also appeared to try to shift blame onto his former colleague, Chris Grayling, who as employment minister in 2010 was in charge of the WCA, saying: “Back in 2010-11, Chris Grayling was in charge of it, he changed the nature of what we looked at.

“What we inherited from Labour at the time was quite a harsh system and we had, if you remember, about four or five reviews and each one of them recommended changes to soften it.”

As Duncan Smith tried to end the interview – after becoming increasingly irritated with the questions – DNS asked him what he thought of Police Scotland now considering whether it would launch a criminal investigation into his WCA failings.

But he said he was “not going to get involved in the detailed questioning from you”, before turning his back on DNS editor John Pring.

Disabled activists have called for Duncan Smith and Grayling to face a criminal investigation for the Scottish offence of wilful neglect of duty by a public official.

This call has been backed by the families of both David Barr and Paul Donnachie, two people with mental health conditions who took their own lives after being found fit for work.

Police Scotland is currently considering a dossier of information submitted by Black Triangle – including information on the deaths of Paul Donnachie and David Barr, as well as a third case, that of a woman known as Ms DE – before deciding whether to launch a criminal investigation.

The interview comes in a week where Duncan Smith’s failure to address wider concerns about the WCA was highlighted in humiliating fashion by new work and pensions secretary Damian Green, who told the party conference that it was “pointless bureaucratic nonsense” to expose many disabled people with high support needs to repeated WCAs, and promised to scrap the practice.

6 October 2016

 

 

Tory conference: PIP claimants will not be spared retests, DWP admits

The government has confirmed that sick and disabled people who will soon be spared reassessments for out-of-work benefits will still face repeated testing for personal independence payment (PIP).

Work and pensions secretary Damian Green’s one key announcement during this week’s party conference in Birmingham was that people with “the most severe lifetime conditions” would no longer have to face repeated assessments to determine their eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA).

He said the government’s duty was to support those disabled people who cannot work, and “sweep away unnecessary stress and bureaucracy which weighs them down”.

He added: “If someone has a disease which can only get worse, making them turn up for repeated appointments to claim what they need is pointless bureaucratic nonsense.”

The announcement was widely welcomed, although disabled campaigners said the change would do nothing to change the essential unfairness and inflexibility of the work capability assessment (WCA) process.

They also said that the same group of working-age disabled people now set to be exempted from repeated WCAs should also be given an opt-out from PIP reassessments, a call backed by the Green party co-leader, Jonathan Bartley.

But a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman confirmed that such claimants would still have to face repeated PIP assessments, even if exempt from further WCAs.

She said: “PIP is an independent benefit, completely separate to ESA/universal credit, with processes adapted for its claimants.

“Award rates and their durations are set on an individual basis, based on the claimant’s needs and the likelihood of their needs changing.

“Regular reviews for PIP claimants are a key feature of the benefit, and ensure that benefit payments accurately match the current needs of claimants.”

When DNS attempted to clarify this response, another DWP spokeswoman added: “PIP is a separate benefit to ESA, and reassessments will continue as part of current policy.”

A third spokeswoman then confirmed that Green’s announcement, and the change in policy, applied only to ESA reassessments and not to PIP.

DWP has also provided some details about which ESA claimants will be exempt from repeat WCAs.

A DWP spokeswoman said the criteria would be based on identifying claimants who have a condition that is: lifelong; severe (in “functional terms”); “often progressive and incurable”; with “no realistic prospect of recovery”; and results in high and “minimally fluctuating” care needs, “such that it would be unreasonable to expect the individual to undertake any form or amount of work or work-related activity”.

The exemption will only apply to claimants in the ESA support group – for those with the highest barriers to work – and not to anyone in the work-related activity group (WRAG), while the same criteria will apply to those who claim the equivalent of ESA through the new universal credit.

She said DWP would be “working with stakeholders” to develop those criteria, and it was “too early” to estimate how many people will be affected every year.

Disabled People Against Cuts said the move could potentially “save tens of thousands of disabled people a lot of stress, fear and uncertainty about their financial security”, but questioned why it had taken eight years for DWP’s “geniuses” to “work out there is no point in reassessing people who cannot get better”, and also called for it to apply to PIP re-assessments.

A DPAC spokesman said the announcement showed that the “fightback against the atrocities of austerity is starting to work”.

He said: “The Tories have realised that they now have gained a terrible reputation as persecutors of disabled people and their worst fear of widespread public revulsion [at this] is actually beginning to happen.”

Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour promised at their annual party conferences last month to scrap the WCA.

Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, welcomed the announcement, and said: “We have long argued that such assessments are a waste of money and put disabled people with progressive conditions through unnecessary stress.”

But she added: “However, what is really needed is a complete overhaul of ESA alongside an improvement in support for disabled people who are looking for work.”

And she said plans to cut £30-a-week from new WRAG claimants from next April needed Green’s “urgent attention”.

Green also talked at length in his conference speech about the need to “tackle attitudes, not laws”, suggesting no change in his department’s reliance on encouraging employers to employ more disabled people – particularly through its much-criticised Disability Confident programme – rather than punishing those that discriminate.

He became the latest minister to praise Britain’s successful Paralympians – and their “celebration of what people can do” – and pointed to the example of Molly Hyndman-Cunningham, a disabled student who had just given a speech to the conference on her own experiences of work.

The second-year law student, who has a part-time job in Boots, had talked about the challenges of coping with her condition, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and of how much she enjoyed being part of a team at work.

She told delegates: “I think it is essential that more people with disabilities are given the opportunity to work.

“I now feel reintegrated into society. It has improved my confidence and self-worth in a way I never thought was possible.”

But Hyndman-Cunningham also said that neither her university nor her employer knew about her impairment, so it was not clear how her experience demonstrated positive employer attitudes, as Green appeared to suggest in his speech.

6 October 2016

 

 

Ministers know their WCA system is increasing suicide risk, says Ken Loach

Government ministers know their “fitness for work” system is making disabled people’s health worse, and is increasing the risk of suicides, the award-winning film director Ken Loach has told Disability News Service (DNS).

He was speaking ahead of the national release of his critically-praised new film, I, Daniel Blake, which tells the story of a man with a heart condition who becomes caught up in the work capability assessment (WCA) system.

The film, which won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, also addresses links between the complexity, unfairness and cruelty of the social security system and the increase in the use of foodbanks.

Loach also backed the idea of seeking a criminal investigation into the failings of former Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling.

The Scottish-based grassroots group Black Triangle – supported by DNS – is seeking to persuade Police Scotland to investigate the refusal of Duncan Smith and Grayling to act on a letter written by a coroner weeks before the 2010 general election that warned ministers that the WCA process risked causing further deaths of people with mental health conditions.

Black Triangle, other disabled activists, and the families of at least two claimants who are believed to have died as a result of those uncorrected flaws, want to see the ministers prosecuted for the Scottish offence of wilful neglect of duty by a public official because they failed to act on that letter.

Loach told DNS that such a prosecution “sounds a good way of challenging them”, although he stressed that he did not know whether there was enough evidence to justify taking such a case.

But he said: “I think they know what they are doing. They know they are making people’s health worse. They know they are increasing the risk of suicide.”

The idea for the film came, says Loach, from the “extraordinary” stories he and his writing partner Paul Laverty kept hearing about the WCA, which he said came “one after the other” in the newspapers, through online campaigns and via Twitter.

As they investigated the issue, Loach and Laverty visited about six towns and cities, including London and Glasgow, but mostly across the Midlands and the north of England, where they heard story after story”.

They also talked to organisations like Black Triangle, and individual disabled people, which Loach said was “hugely valuable in covering the ramifications and the details of the system”.

Following that research, Laverty developed the two main characters, and then wrote the first draft of the script.

Loach said the most striking aspect of what they were told was the “perversity” of the system, which he said was the “common denominator” of people’s stories.

“You would find one route blocked off, so you would turn somewhere and go along another path to get resolution or solve a problem or get someone to speak to you and that would cut out and you would find somewhere else,” he said.

“And the hours and the effort that goes into dealing with the bureaucracy that is actually going to bring you back to square one…

“It’s snakes and ladders all the time. You go up a ladder and then you’re down a snake.

“That was the common denominator that came time and time again.”

The character at the heart of the film, who has to deal with the WCA system, is not, says Loach, “an extreme case”.

“There are so many stories we could tell, so many different perspectives, much harsher experiences than there are in the film,” he said.

“We were very conscious that we didn’t want to make it an extreme case.

“We wanted to say to people who haven’t been through it, ‘This could happen to someone like you, as well as someone who has plainly got a serious health issue.’”

He said he hoped that disabled people and those with health conditions who have been through the WCA system will feel that their experiences have been “recognised” by his film.

He said: “I would hope they would feel that somebody was expressing a little bit of what they experienced, that there is something that rings true to them, given their experience, and they feel at least acknowledged.”

And he said he hoped that it would encourage them to join people in similar situations and “make their voices heard” and campaign for change, and “just feel confident enough to carry it further”.

Loach’s films stretch back over five decades and are known for their strong focus on issues of social justice, illustrating his own socialist principles, including Up The Junction, Poor Cow, and more recently Raining Stones, Bread and Roses, The Wind That Shakes The Barley – which also won the Palme D’Or – and Land and Freedom.

But I, Daniel Blake is also released 50 years after Cathy Come Home, the hugely-influential film Loach directed for the BBC in 1966, and which led to the formation of Crisis, the charity for single homeless people.

Loach said there was a “common denominator” between the two films.

“The common denominator is a state that knows – in the 60s it was a housing issue that we made the film about – the social problems that they have created; they refuse to do anything about them to solve the fundamental issues, so they punish the people who are suffering because of it.

“It was the same in housing [in the 1960s]; they weren’t building houses, they chose not to, and they dealt with people who were therefore homeless very harshly, and it destroys families, and they would sooner do that than solve the problem.”

But Loach stressed that the film had to be character-driven, despite the many distressing stories and information they had heard about.

“You just start with the stories you hear and try and tell the truth of the situation,” he said.

“Once you have done the general research, which Paul did most of, and you have written the characters, then all the research is there to inform how you tell the story, but what’s going to drive it is the people in the film and they have to be individuals and not ciphers to make an argument.

“You just want to tell a story that gets to the heart of it, to the essence of it.

“There’s a million details and a million stories if you want to make an academic treatise of the situation, but just tell one story with a couple of people that gets to the nub of the situation if you can.”

Meanwhile, Black Triangle used a local premiere of the film in Newcastle this week to launch a new campaign, in association with fellow grassroots network Cross Border Alliance.

Their Cradle 2 Grave campaign – backed by both Loach and Laverty – highlights “the violation and systematic abuse of human rights of those unfortunately relying on the state for health and financial assistance”.

They say that “time is running out” to save the NHS, the social security system, pensions and public services for future generations, and that health and public services are “overrun by an ideology where money and profits come before lives”.

They hope to raise money through crowdfunding to launch a national poster campaign, with posters “in every town and city across the UK”. Donations can be made through the Cradle2Grave website.

6 October 2016

 

 

Tory conference: Mowat hides from heat over social care crisis

The Conservative party has refused to explain why ministers appear to have dodged any mention or discussion of the social care crisis at this week’s annual conference.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has responsibility for both health and social care, delivered a speech of 2,850 words, while mentioning social care just once, and even then in a fleeting reference to “joining up the health and social care systems”.

Sajid Javid, the communities and local government secretary, who also has responsibility for social care as part of his role, delivered his own set-piece speech to the conference – this time of 1,700 words – without mentioning social care.

Theresa May gave her first speech to her party’s annual conference as prime minister – 7,200 words – but also without any reference to social care.

And David Mowat, the minister for social care, turned down an invitation to attend the main social care fringe event at the conference, organised by the Care and Support Alliance (CSA).

It is unclear whether Mowat attended any fringe events focused on social care, because the party’s press office has refused to discuss the issue.

The refusal to face questions from party members, disabled people, journalists and voluntary organisations came as Channel 4 News reported that 80 per cent of councils in England had cut the care packages of some former users of the Independent Living Fund (ILF) in the wake of its closure last summer.

They also found that two-thirds (67 per cent) of the councils had not ring-fenced money given to them by central government in the wake of the ILF closure.

The figures emerged in responses to freedom of information requests sent by the programme to English councils with responsibility for social care.

Meanwhile, information from NHS Digital – published on the final day of the conference – showed that 873,000 people receiving long-term support from their local authority in 2015-16, a drop of 17,000 on the previous year.

The publication does not show how many of those 873,000 saw cuts to their support packages.

If Mowat had attended the CSA fringe event, he would have heard Cllr Izzi Seccombe, Tory leader of Warwickshire County Council and chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, tell the audience that local authorities were “cut to the bone” and facing “a growing gap of unfunded pressures” as a result of real terms cuts in their budgets.

She said: “What we will see is services being taken away and they will not come back any time soon.”

Mowat would also have heard disabled campaigner Shana Pezaro describe how her package of social care support allows her to enjoy a life that is “fun and fulfilling”.

Her care package has meant she has been able to lose over four stone in weight through exercise, can eat healthily and carry out voluntary work as a trustee of a disability organisation, and can campaign on health, social security and employment issues across the UK and Europe, including for the MS Society.

She has not been hospitalised in the six years since she was awarded her current care package.

She told the meeting: “My life is fun and fulfilling and I am positively contributing to society.”

But she added: “Most people who need care and support cannot advocate for themselves the way I can.

“Social care budgets are being slashed. If my money is reduced it is going to have a devastating impact on my life, and I am really frightened about that.”

She said she had three friends, all of whom also have multiple sclerosis, and as they can walk unaided, dress themselves and prepare food, they have been assessed with low and moderate care needs.

As their local authorities only fund critical care needs, her three friends receive no care and support from their local authorities, and so survive on cheap microwave meals, are unable to keep their homes clean, and as a result are often hospitalised.

She said: “It just pushes people into hospital. It is not saving money, it’s just a false economy.

“I am proof the system really can work, so let’s find a way to make it work for everybody.”

Pezaro also pointed to the “massive cuts to disability benefits”, which mean that many people already surviving without social care packages might also lose personal independence payment funding, which could pay for a cleaner or more expensive and nutritious meals.

She said these cuts would “put more pressure on the NHS”, and she called for “a comprehensive, over-arching impact review on what all the cuts mean” for the NHS.

Former Tory health secretary Stephen Dorrell, who now chairs the NHS Confederation, said: “Why does Shana’s story stand out, and why isn’t it normal?

“Why do we regard your story as something exceptional and to be celebrated rather than the definition of what good public services should look like?”

Gary Bourlet, a leading self-advocate and co-founder of Learning Disability England, told the fringe event that he received “no support at all” from his local authority.

He said: “I have to rely on my friends and colleagues. I just need a small amount of support, but my council will not fund it.”

Pezaro said after the event that it was “a real shame” that there were no ministers at the fringe, because she had “a good and positive story about how things are working well”, although she said she was glad that a number of Tory local councillors had attended the meeting.

When Disability News Service (DNS) asked the Conservative party why Mowat had not attended the fringe meeting and appeared to have dodged events where the social care crisis might have been discussed, a press officer provided a contact number for a member of Mowat’s team.

When DNS tried to contact her, she said that she was on maternity leave.

The party then refused to provide the name of the press officer who was supposed to be dealing with the questions about Mowat.

No-one from the party had responded to requests for a comment by noon today (Thursday).

6 October 2016

 

 

Disabled campaigner tells UN of discrimination faced by autistic females

A British autistic woman has told the United Nations (UN) of the “clinical misogyny” and “misjudgements” that have led to autism being viewed as something that only affects white males, and of the violence and abuse experienced by autistic people.

Carly Jones, who has two autistic daughters, was speaking this week at the UN Human Rights Council’s annual Social Forum in Geneva, which this year was devoted to marking 10 years of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Jones said that she was told eight years ago that it was “impossible” to have two autistic daughters, and since then has campaigned in the UK and globally about autism and girls.

She told the three-day forum: “Autistic females have suffered from a clinical misogyny past and that needs to be left in the past.

“Misjudgements have seen autism as a white male condition. I know from recent surveys that 100 per cent of [autistic] women in the black and Asian community have no autistic role models.”

She said that more than 90 per cent of the autistic community, before diagnosis, had suffered some form of abuse, while they were nine times more likely to take their own life than non-autistic people.

Jones said her own research showed that nearly 80 per cent of autistic people feel unable to call helplines and use the telephone in times of crisis, while they have a life expectancy that is 15 years lower than average.

She said there was a need to focus on goals three (health and well-being), four (education) and five (gender equality) of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

She also said that one of her daughters had to be home-schooled because of “misunderstandings in the education system”.

Jones has set up the Olley Edwards Academy in Berkshire in a bid to end the isolation of home-educated autistic students.

The forum session also heard from Lieven Bauwens, secretary-general of the user-led International Federation for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, who said that “serious human rights violations” were “all too common” among the people his organisation represented.

He said their estimates suggested that about 80 per cent of the 300,000 children born annually with spina bifida and about 80 per cent of the half a million children who develop hydrocephalus in the month after birth die within their first year.

He said that the birth of a child with spina bifida or hydrocephalus is “met with a lot of prejudice and stigma” in many countries, while in many low and middle-income countries “essential health care is withheld” from them.

He said: “We get reports of infanticide because parents are not supported and do not see another solution.

“Mothers are expelled from their communities because of giving birth to ‘a cursed child’.”

He added: “I am sure that colleagues representing people with Down’s syndrome can tell similar stories.

“It is important to understand that these children do not die because of their disabilities; they die because they are denied essential care at the beginning of their lives.”

A representative of the Indonesian Mental Health Association spoke of the “huge discrimination” faced by people with mental health conditions.

She said that people with other impairments were treated according to the social and human rights model of disability, whereas people with mental health conditions were “still within the medical model of disability”.

She said: “In my country… they have to take medication first before they can take involvement in other parts of life, which is totally unfair.

“Help us to leave the hellhole of being stuck in the medical model to join you together in the social model of disability.”

Pratima Gurung, from the Indigenous Persons with Disabilities Global Network, spoke of the particular barriers faced by the world’s 54 million indigenous disabled people, who face “multiple social deprivations” and “shouldn’t be left behind”.

She said that many support programmes aimed at disabled people are inaccessible to indigenous communities, and called for more to be done to listen to disabled people “on the ground” and to “discuss their life experiences”.

Silvia Perel-Levin, from the International Longevity Centre Global Alliance, told the forum that older people were “sadly seen as less deserving of support to maintain their autonomy and live independently in the community”, and faced abuse, including social isolation, physical restraints and disrespectful treatment.

She called on countries to recognise this discrimination and “ensure an equal application of disability rights across the life course”, and said there was a need for a UN convention on the rights of older people.

Dr Penny Hartin, chief executive of the World Blind Union, congratulated the 27 countries that have so far ratified the Marrakesh Treaty, which came into force on 30 September.

Countries that ratify the treaty agree to introduce an exception to domestic copyright law for visually-impaired and other print-disabled people, which means that they and their organisations can make books in accessible formats without needing the permission of the author or publisher.

The treaty also allows accessible versions of books to be imported and exported, again without the permission of the copyright-holder.

Hartin said: “The ability to have access to books in accessible formats is a basic human right that the Marrakesh Treaty addresses.

“The ability to share accessible books across borders enhances that access, particularly for those in developing countries.”

She said that if all countries ratified and implemented the treaty it would mean a “huge step towards full equality”.

The forum session – which was examining accessibility and non-discrimination – was moderated by Professor Anna Lawson, director of the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds.

She said at the end of the session that it had been “disturbing to be reminded of how people are left behind, even though we have had 10 very successful years” of the UN convention.

She said: “There is still a lot of work left to be done… we are not going to succeed in the next 10 years unless we start to address some of these complex interactions as they operate to exclude and leave behind.

“We need those conversations and collaborations.

“Access to justice, healthcare, right to life, employment, education, it spans everything… to make sure people are not left behind in the startling ways we have heard today.”

6 October 2016

 

 

DPAC highlights ‘shame’ of access barriers, despite millions spent on renovation

Disabled activists have highlighted the “shameful” access barriers they face on a daily basis, in a series of protests in Birmingham timed to coincide with the city hosting the Conservative party’s annual conference.

Members of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) blocked buses, trams and other traffic, but also shamed city centre businesses for their lack of wheelchair access, as part of a day of action.

Their protests highlighted the UK’s continuing failure to comply with article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which covers disabled people’s right to live independently and be included in the community.

Bob Williams-Findlay, who helped organise the day of action on behalf of DPAC West Midlands, said disabled people had “played a Cinderella role” in society for too long and were still excluded from mainstream society, while changes that followed the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act and the Equality Act had been “cosmetic”.

He said that austerity-driven cutbacks meant this was “only getting worse” and he and his fellow activists were “here to say that we are not putting up with it” and were “not prepared to carry on being Cinderella… we are here to demand that we go to the ball”.

The day of action focused first on a multi-million pound refurbishment of The Grand Hotel, an iconic Birmingham building, which includes a row of new, high-end, street-level businesses.

DPAC West Midlands pointed out that these businesses, including cocktail bar and restaurant The Alchemist, and a café, 200 Degrees, still had steps at their entrances, despite the millions of pounds spent on the refurbishment.

Although both businesses produced portable ramps to allow DPAC wheelchair-users to enter their premises, activists – who chanted “shame, shame, shame” and “let us in, let us in” – said this was not good enough after such expensive renovation work.

Their concerns were underlined when a portable ramp collapsed as one of the activists, Sam Brackenbury, was using it to leave The Alchemist.

Williams-Findlay, a former chair of the British Council of Disabled People, said Birmingham City Council was “shirking its responsibilities” under the Equality Act to ensure that such renovations ensured access for disabled people.

The group then moved to nearby Snow Hill railway station to protest at plans to remove more safety-trained guards from trains.

They pointed out that guards “play a crucial role in supporting disabled people to get on and off the train, by providing assistance and erecting ramps for wheelchair-users”.

Andy Thompson, one of the activists, said the threatened loss of guards was a “safety issue for the whole public and especially disabled people”, and he called on the government to “prioritise access and not spending on war and tax cuts”.

Protesters then blocked a main tram line through the city centre, and held up buses and other traffic, in protest at continued austerity cuts.

Police then escorted the disabled activists to a protest outside the party conference, near the International Convention Centre, before the day of action ended outside Birmingham City Council House, the headquarters of Birmingham City Council.

Sandra Daniels, from DPAC West Midlands, said the protest was about “the implications of not being able to work in a society geared up for those who can”, and the years of cuts to services, benefits and social care.

She said that access was “a basic right for people… even when shops have been refurbished, they are still not thinking about making sure disabled people can access them.

“They need to stop this slashing of disabled people’s services, their benefits, and stop excluding us and pushing us to the margins of society once again.

“Disabled people have fought for 40 years to be included in society and the Tories are trying to imprison us in our own homes and push us back; they want us out of view.”

Richard Norgrove, a surveyor with Hortons’ Estate, which is renovating The Grand Hotel, said there had been detailed discussions with Historic England, the city council and Access Birmingham over the refurbishment.

He said the building was listed II*, and posed a number of “constraints” that made including level access “difficult”.

He said he understood that steps at the front entrance suggested that the businesses did not welcome wheelchair-users.

But he said: “It is regarded as one of the most iconic buildings in Birmingham. We want access to all.

“It’s not as straightforward as it would seem to be. It’s quite a challenge to get level access. We don’t want to discriminate against anybody.”

But Tony Willis, chair of Access Birmingham, formerly known as the Access Committee for Birmingham, said the lack of steep-free access in Colmore Row was “ridiculous”  and “cannot be right” when Hortons’ Estate had spent millions of pounds on the refurbishment.

He said: “We are very aware of what’s going on there and hoping that there will be a satisfactory conclusion.

“I’m a wheelchair-user and I’m not happy with steps.

“It seems that enforcement of the Equality Act is the burden of disabled people, and it shouldn’t be.

“It’s ridiculous. Why is it our burden? It is the law and there should be an enforcement agency that looks after the Equality Act.”

Richard Goulborn, the council’s head of planning management, said in a statement: “Birmingham City Council is committed to ensuring that the city’s buildings which are open to the public are as accessible as possible and under the Equality Act, the tenant, as service provider, is responsible for making arrangements to provide access to their premises – for example, having a demountable ramp and ensuring staff are trained to assist those with mobility issues when entering or leaving the premises.

“The Grand Hotel is a grade II*-listed building and the new shop fronts on the ground floor have been installed at the same level as the original shop fronts due to the level of the original floor structure inside.

“The internal floor structure prevents the floor levels being lowered inside the units and raising the level outside would mean significant works to replace the entire pavement, while installing permanent ramps could also create a potential hazard on the public footway.”

Meanwhile, an inquiry into disability and the built environment by the Commons women and equalities committee is accepting evidence from individuals and organisations until 12 October.

The committee “will explore the extent to which the needs of disabled people are considered and accommodated in our built environment, and ask whether more could be done to increase the accessibility and inclusivity of both new and existing properties and spaces”.

6 October 2016

 

 

Disabled people in Wales have final chance to give UN testimony

Disabled people in Wales will have a chance this week to provide crucial testimony on whether their human rights are being protected, for a report that will be sent to the United Nations (UN).

The forum in Llanelli on Thursday (13 October)* is the third of three events being held by Disability Wales in which people can explain their experiences of the rights they should have under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Disability Wales – the national association of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) in Wales – is working with Disability Rights UK (DR UK), with funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), to put together a “shadow report” that will be submitted to the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD).

A separate report on Scotland, by Inclusion Scotland and other Scottish DPOs – also funded by EHRC – will be combined with the Disability Wales and DR UK report to form a single report on implementation progress across Britain.

The Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) is also putting together a shadow report, drawing on about 40,000 disabled people linked to its member organisations, which include Equal Lives, Disabled People Against Cuts, Inclusion London and Sisters of Frida.

These and other shadow reports will be considered by the committee alongside the UK government’s own report, and those of the devolved governments.

Miranda French, policy and programmes manager for Disability Wales, said: “By putting our views on an international stage, it will give greater force to them, and make the government listen.

“Only then might things improve for the thousands of people living in desperation over changes to disability living allowance, and the back-to-work assessments.

“But the report can only have that effect if disabled people attend the events to give their views.”

The first of three forums organised by Disability Wales took place in Cardiff on 22 September, while another was taking place today (6 October) in Wrexham.

The Cardiff forum was attended by about 50 disabled people, and issues they raised included access to housing, public transport and the built environment; independent living; employment; cuts to legal aid; and being treated with a lack of dignity.

David Sage, from Bridgend Coalition of Disabled People, said he had spent his life savings on adapting his home, and had now had his benefits cut.

He told Disability Wales at the forum: “There’s just not enough money there for us to get on with life.

“I haven’t been upstairs in my own home for three years – since the day I had my stroke.”

Craig Channel, also from the coalition, told Disability Wales: “Some people need help with the work, with the reading, with the writing. There’s no help out there for that. It’s been cut.

“And there’s no adult education out there for people with learning disabilities, disabled people in general. The access to certain places is not very good.

“The stress of it all is making people unhealthy, making them miserable, upset.”

DR UK has held seven half-day events in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Southampton, Plymouth, Newcastle and London.

In a blog published this week, Sue Bott, DR UK’s deputy chief executive, said that many disabled people had not been able to attend these events because “personal support is no longer available and they are virtually confined to their own homes”.

She said the events have felt like “going back in a time warp”, with issues such as poor access to public transport, limited access to new buildings, lack of jobs, shared space street developments, lack of access to health screening programmes, and significant increases in the use of compulsory treatment orders for mental health service-users.

Bott said: “Some of the issues that are undermining our equality in society are the result of old battles that we thought we had won resurfacing again, like access to the built environment, some are the result of cuts in resources, such as inadequate support packages, others are issues that have been there a long time and refuse to go away, such as the employment gap between disabled people and everyone else.

“Perhaps article 8 of the UNCRPD [on awareness-raising] holds the key in placing responsibility on government to raise awareness of disabled people’s right to equality and the value of the contribution we make to society.

“Without that basic commitment and lead from government we really are facing an uphill task in realising our rights.”

Disabled people and DPOs unable to attend the evidence sessions hosted by DRUK and Disability Wales can fill in an online survey.

The survey asks for the priority issues they believe should be included in the report to CRPD; why these are priorities; and what evidence they can provide to show an adverse impact on the rights of disabled people.

CRPD is set to hold its delayed public examination of the UK government’s progress on implementing the convention next year, the first time the UK has been examined since the Labour government ratified the UNCRPD in 2009.

The examination has been delayed partly by a separate inquiry by the committee into allegations of “systematic and grave” violations of disabled people’s human rights in the UK.

The committee’s initial report on those alleged violations is believed to have been sent to the UK government.

*To book a free place at the Llanelli forum, visit the Disability Wales website

6 October 2016

 

 

Thousands hear call to free disabled people ‘imprisoned in their homes by austerity’

Disabled people have explained why they joined thousands of other activists on a march through the streets of Birmingham to protest about the failure of Tory austerity policies.

The march took place as the Conservatives held their annual conference in the city, almost six years to the day since huge anti-austerity protests greeted the party when it held a conference just months after winning power in 2010.

Among speakers at a rally at the end of the march was Bob Williams-Findlay, one of the founders of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), which was formed after that 2010 march.

He welcomed protesters on Sunday to “the birthplace of DPAC” and described how the grassroots organisation had “grown in strength and in numbers” since 2010.

He said: “We have taken the fight to the very heart of government… and we are still here.”

Williams-Findlay described the impact on disabled people who lose their Motability vehicles after being assessed for their eligibility for the government’s new personal independence payment (PIP).

He said having a Motability vehicle “gives you freedom to work, shop and have a life.

“Then one day you get a letter saying you are going to be reassessed for PIP – the new god that cures us – and suddenly the whole world is turned upside down because PIP is designed to fail us.

“It’s designed to reduce the number of disabled people on benefits.”

He told the rally that the government was no better than the Nazi government of the 1930s in Germany and while “they have not killed thousands yet… they have killed, let’s not forget it”.

Williams-Findlay said that disabled people who fail their PIP assessment can be “trapped in your home, you might lose your job, you might not be able to take the family out, you might not be able to have a social life”.

He added: “Comrades, in my opinion up and down the country there are political prisoners, disabled people trapped in their homes like political prisoners. We have to unite to set them free.”

The mass demonstration was organised by the TUC and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, which was launched in 2013 to provide a national forum for anti-austerity views.

Other disabled people who attended the march told Disability News Service their reasons for taking part.

Rob Davy-Cripwell, from Birmingham, said it was his first protest.

He said the government’s austerity cuts had left him and others feeling isolated, so the protest had allowed him to speak to other people who shared his views.

Although he had been “quite lucky” himself, he knew other disabled people who had been affected by PIP assessments and cuts to tax credits.

He said: “I have not been affected directly but I don’t think that matters because we are all in it together. A cut to one disabled person is a cut to all of us.”

He said he hoped the protest showed the Tory conference “that the decisions they make affect a lot of people.

“I really just hope there is some compassion in there somewhere and they really think about their decisions, because it affects everybody, not just the richest one per cent.”

Erika Garratt, from Swindon, brought her family to the march.

She claims employment and support allowance and says she feels “very vulnerable” because of the stress of waiting to be reassessed.

She said: “I am really concerned about the cuts they are making.

“They seem to want to demonise people on benefits. It’s not my fault I am ill and it’s not my children’s fault that I am ill, and yet they are suffering.”

She said she believed the Conservative party “don’t care about people who are ill or disabled”.

She added: “It’s about time that they showed that they cared about all the people in the country and not just the top few per cent, because we are going to end up in the workhouse.

“I feel we are almost going down to the Victorian era, with families on the street.

“This is all about raising awareness that we need people to come out in force. We have a voice and we deserve to be listened to.”

Emma Atkins, a student from Birmingham, said the Tories were “killing people like me in the thousands”.

She said: “The cuts are hurting us more disproportionately than anybody else. It’s time they went.”

She said she was “angry” about the Conservatives holding their conference in her home town, and added: “I hope they will get the message about how many angry people there are in the country and how badly they are treating everyone.”

Paula Bonarius, from Milton Keynes, said she was at the march because she supported re-elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

She said: “He’s got our values. We believe socialism is needed in this country.

“It’s not only myself, there is a load of disabled people and elderly people who are being left out.

“As soon as there are cuts it is going to be disabled people and [so-called] ‘scroungers’ [who are targeted].”

Mark Lynes, from Edgbaston, another Corbyn supporter, said he was “fighting to stop the elimination of disabled people from society”.

He said the protest would “show that there is an alternative vision for society”.

He said: “Whatever happens to Jeremy Corbyn, there will always be alternative movements.

“Also I hope disabled people are able to get back their independence, which they have lost over the last few years.”

6 October 2016

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com