Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have raised grave concerns about a series of reforms to the disability benefits assessment system announced by work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd.
Rudd secured broadly positive coverage of her reforms from the mainstream media this week, but disabled campaigners have told Disability News Service (DNS) of their concerns, particularly about her plans to simplify the system.
DPOs and grassroots disabled activists said the plans amounted to “minor tinkering” when the system was instead in need of a radical overhaul.
The most striking announcement by Rudd was that her Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) plans to test if it can assess eligibility for both the extra costs benefit personal independence payment (PIP) and the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA) through a single face-to-face assessment, at least for those disabled people who apply for the two benefits at the same time.
It plans to do this through an “integrated” service, supported by a new digital system, which will deal with both PIP and ESA (and universal credit) assessments, and will begin to go live from 2021.
It hopes this DWP-owned system will allow a greater number of assessment providers than the current three companies – Atos, Capita and Maximus – to come into the market and “compete” to provide assessments.
But the changes will also mean DWP extending the contract of Maximus – the unpopular and discredited provider of work capability assessments (WCAs) – by 17 months to the end of July 2021.
Rudd’s speech was delivered on Tuesday at the offices of the disability charity Scope on the Olympic Park in east London.
A DWP spokesperson later told Disability News Service (DNS) that there were no plans to move to a single set of eligibility criteria across the two benefits – one of the many concerns raised by campaigners – and that the announcement was not a step towards moving to a single disability benefit covering both extra costs and out-of-work payments.
She said the new digital platform would “enable much greater information sharing between the two assessments” and that it would be “rolled out carefully – learning as we go”.
But Catherine Hale, lead researcher and project manager of the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project (CIIP), told DNS: “In theory, the idea of a single digital platform could simplify the claimant experience.
“But we’ve seen with universal credit how the idea of an ‘integrated’ digital system has been a Trojan horse for cuts to disability premiums.
“We are worried that the proposed integration of PIP and ESA will be a way of further eroding the premiums that recognise the extra costs of long-term unemployment, by stealth.
“And we’re concerned that linking PIP eligibility to work capability will take us further away from the principle that PIP is intended to compensate for the financial penalty of disability, which exists both in and out of work.”
Al Morrison, communications and media officer for Inclusion London, who was at the speech, said: “There’s a lot we could say about yesterday’s announcements, but our overwhelming feeling is that these are not solutions.
“We feel this is minor tinkering of a system that is completely flawed and needs to be overhauled, with a social model-based approach to assessments.
“Until that happens, the benefits system and assessments process will continue to be punitive and hostile.”
She added: “We can’t understand why the contract with Maximus has been extended either.
“It’s brutally apparent that this private contractor works for profit and not in the interests of disabled people.”
Last month, it emerged that Maximus appeared to have no written policy on how to protect the safety of people claiming ESA, despite years of evidence linking the WCA with deaths and serious harm.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said that “rolling both assessments together, risking people losing everything in one fell swoop, is a nightmare scenario.
“The right way forward would be to end repeated reassessment and bring in lifetime awards for PIP until such time as both totally failing assessments are scrapped and replaced with something fit for purpose.”
Ken Butler, benefits policy advisor for Disability Rights UK (DR UK), was another who called for wholesale reform rather than the minor changes proposed by Rudd.
He said: “Assessments for both ESA and PIP are flawed and poorly administered. The current figures for successful appeals on both benefits make that quite clear.
“You can’t merge two badly constructed processes and expect to come up with one fit-for-purpose approach.
“Without a wholesale change of design of the assessment process, huge numbers of disabled people will continue to be denied benefits they are entitled to – that’s the change we need.”
Rosa Morris, who has personal experience of the WCA and last year completed a PhD examining the assessment process and disability benefits, said Rudd had failed to acknowledge that “both assessment processes for PIP and ESA are unfit for purpose and create additional harm.
“My personal experience of the WCA and my academic research, added to my current work supporting people with PIP and ESA claims, shows a system which views disabled people’s experiences of their bodies and lives as contentious, is not motivated by wishing to support them, and is instead focused on reducing claimant numbers.
“It is currently unclear what any integration of the assessment processes will look like in practice, but there is a real danger of PIP ending up integrated into universal credit, where it could be at risk of conditionality and sanctions and no longer be a universal non-means tested benefit designed to address additional costs and unrelated to employment status.”
Caroline Richardson, a disabled researcher and member of the Spartacus Network of campaigners, said Rudd’s announcement suggested that the two very different benefits “have effectively been merged in the minds of the DWP”.
She said: “I have fought hard to keep the distinction, and that disabled people who are well can work, but sick people who have apparent functionality cannot work, and that the benefits are for different purposes and therefore should have very different testing criteria.
“Repeatedly I have heard MPs, media and even disability organisation conflate and confuse the two benefits.
“They are separate benefits for separate purposes and should remain that way.”
Jenny Morris, who helped write the Labour government’s Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People white paper, was another to raise fears that ministers could be moving towards merging the two very different benefits.
She said on Twitter that there had been no recognition from Rudd that PIP was an “extra costs benefit” and “nothing to do with ability to work”.
She said: “Are we on a journey to abolishing the whole idea of a benefit which is intended to fund the additional costs associated with impairment and illness?”
Another measure announced by Rudd, which again secured positive coverage in the mainstream media, was that DWP would no longer reassess PIP claimants who have reached the pension age – or at least would only give them a “light touch review” every 10 years – unless they tell the department their needs have changed.
Some campaigning organisations, like DR UK, said the measure showed a more “common sense approach” to assessments.
But Burnip told DNS: “Rudd has thrown a few crumbs to a few pensioners who are possibly WASPI women who have had years of pension entitlement stolen or have a partner under pension age who will lose thousands of pounds through universal credit rules.
“This is nothing more than an insult to them.”
Inclusion London said it could “find no rational explanation for ending frequent re-assessments of only state-pension-age disabled people” and called for an urgent review of the new policy.
Morrison pointed out that Rudd had failed to “properly address a press question asking why this change will not apply to younger disabled people too”.
Stef Benstead, another CIIP researcher and member of the Spartacus Network, said the move was “daft”.
She said: “They’re equating permanent severe illness with being over pension age… using an unreliable proxy for something that could be directly assessed. A bit like PIP itself, really.
“They also think they can design a computer system for holding PIP and universal credit/ESA info by 2021, despite the universal credit debacle.”
In a ministerial statement issued before the speech, Rudd also said that ministers were hoping to improve the mandatory reconsideration process – reviews carried out by DWP before benefit claimants can appeal a decision on their claim – to ensure that further evidence was gathered from claimants at this stage and to “make more accurate decisions sooner”.
And she confirmed a previous announcement that DWP would test a new approach that should reduce the conditions – and potential sanctions – imposed on disabled people awaiting a WCA as part of a universal credit claim.
But Philip Connolly, Disability Rights UK’s policy manager, said: “Amber Rudd acknowledged how many disabled people experience her department when she said that for some it was akin to being on trial, but her announcements fell short of the legitimate expectations of disabled people for the wholesale suspension of sanctions or the need for evidence-based descriptors in the WCA.”
Rudd also said she would commission research to examine disabled claimants’ experience of the benefits system and how to meet their needs, and that she wanted to improve DWP’s engagement with “disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, and the charities that support disabled people”.
But Inclusion London said: “We welcome the mention of co-production with disabled people, but we have little evidence that the government is committed to such meaningful engagement.
“After the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities made their concluding observations outlining their concerns with disability rights – stating that the government should work with disabled people’s representative organisations – it took 18 months for the minister for disabled people to meet with us.
“We know the government has arranged a number of meetings discussing the issues disabled people face where we have been excluded.
“They seem intent on engaging with charities, not disabled people’s organisations.”
Hale also welcomed Rudd’s comment on engagement, and said she looked forward to sharing with her CIIP’s forthcoming report based on research into the lived experience of chronic illness, social security and work.
She said: “We especially urge her to consider the needs of people with energy impairment.
“Our research participants felt as though the WCA and PIP assessment are deliberately designed not to take account of fatigue and energy impairment and therefore to deny their lived experience of their health condition.
“We will be making recommendations for a system that empowers people with energy-limiting chronic illness to live as fully as possible, rather than punishing them as the current system does. It must begin with listening, trust and respect.”
Rudd also announced that she wanted to set a “new and more ambitious goal” than the government’s current target of seeing one million more disabled people in work in the 10 years to 2027.
And she said she wanted to “significantly improve how DWP supports disabled people and those with health conditions”, admitting that some disabled people had told her that they “feel as though they are put on trial for seeking the state’s support”.
She insisted that her DWP colleagues were “in their jobs because they want to help people” and so DWP needed to “do more to close the gap between our intentions and your experiences”.
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, was dismissive of the reforms, and said: “Rudd’s announcements today are totally inadequate.
“The hostile environment that this government has created for disabled people is set to continue.
“These reforms do not address the fundamental flaws in a system that has repeatedly failed ill and disabled people, who continue to face cruel and callous PIP reassessments and an unfit-for-purpose assessment framework.
“Labour will scrap PIP and WCA assessments, which have caused unnecessary suffering to so many, and replace them with a system that treats disabled people with dignity and respect.”
Asked how Rudd responded to the claim that the changes would do nothing to address the fundamental flaws in the system, the DWP spokesperson said: “As the secretary of state said yesterday, she is committed to closing the gap between our intentions and disabled people’s experiences, and she will be guided by disabled people as we work together to provide the opportunities and support they deserve and expect.”
7 March 2019
The death of the disabled academic who first defined the “social model of disability” has led to an outpouring of admiration, affection and grief from leading figures in the disabled people’s movement.
Their responses highlighted the status of Professor Mike Oliver as one of the movement’s most influential figures.
After hearing of his death this week, many disabled friends and admirers explained on social media how his work had changed their lives.
Dr Sally Witcher, chief executive of Inclusion Scotland, said his book, The Politics of Disablement, had “profoundly” changed her understanding of disability and of herself as a disabled person.
Tracey Proudlock, co-founder of the influential Campaign for Accessible Transport in the early 1990s, said his work had set her on a “personal journey transforming” her own politics.
Tara Flood, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, said Oliver was “an absolute legend and a pioneer” and added: “His social model of disability thinking along with others of his generation are absolutely responsible for the lightbulb moment in my life.”
Agnes Fletcher, a former director of policy and communications at the Disability Rights Commission, added: “An intellectual giant with shoulders broad enough to set so many of us free.”
And Phil Friend, a former chair of Disability Rights UK, said Oliver was “a colossus and irreplaceable” and would “always be remembered as the one who set us all free”.
Other leading disabled activists and campaigners to recognise his contribution to the disabled people’s movement this week included Professor Peter Beresford, Michelle Daley, Jane Young, Dennis Queen, Liz Carr, Cllr Pam Thomas, Mik Scarlet, and Rhian Davies.
Many first heard the news from the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who had known Professor Oliver for more than 30 years, and described him as a “dear friend, mentor and all-round genius”.
They wrote a book together, Disability Politics: Understanding Our Past, Changing Our Future, and Baroness Campbell said his legacy was “central to how millions of disabled people now live their lives and see themselves”, as “empowered people with rights” rather than a medical diagnosis.
In an interview with PhD researcher Jonjo Brady, recorded last year for a documentary by the University of Kent’s Matt Wilson, which was shown as part of the university’s Disability History Month event in November, Oliver described how he left grammar school with three O-levels, before working as a clerk in an office for a year, where he discovered “that being at work was even more boring than being at school”.
But after he broke his neck diving into a swimming pool, he spent a year receiving rehabilitation in Stoke Mandeville Hospital’s renowned spinal injuries unit, and was then given a job teaching young offenders.
When a law change meant he could no longer teach without a degree or teaching qualification, he decided to study sociology, the first subject he had encountered that he felt was relevant to his own life.
He studied sociology and social anthropology at the University of Kent in the early 1970s, at a time when it was physically “unwelcoming” to a wheelchair-user, in contrast to the helpful attitude of the staff and fellow students who assisted him daily with the barriers he faced in the “generous times ushered in by the economic and cultural revolutions of the 1960s”.
His life, he said later, was changed by a booklet published in 1976 by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), The Fundamental Principles of Disability, which argued that “the root cause of our problems was the way society was organised and the disabling barriers we faced”.
UPIAS – and one of its key members, the father of the social model, Vic Finkelstein – argued that disabled people were oppressed by society, rather than seeing disability as “a personal tragedy”.
This meant, said Oliver, that he “no longer had to accept full responsibility” for his impairment and understood instead that his “personal troubles were also public issues”, an insight that led him to develop the UPIAS principles and define the social model as the key to understanding disabled people’s oppression.
Oliver stayed on after his degree to complete his PhD in Kent, and eventually to teach a masters course for social workers working with disabled people. It is believed to have been the first postgraduate course in what later became known as disability studies.
At the time, he would say later, most writing on disability “was dominated by assumptions that disability was a medical problem and the focus was on illness and impairment”, and any personal focus was on disabled people as “tragic victims”, with the stereotype reinforced in popular culture through the “triumph over tragedy” genre.
He had wanted his masters course instead to challenge the idea that professionals working with disabled people should focus solely on their “personal troubles and not how and why they were linked to public issues”.
He told Brady last year: “I did want to provide an alternative, more optimistic picture, which wasn’t simply about seeing disability as personal tragedy, disabled people as unemployable, and so on, and it was about having an optimistic view of what disabled people could achieve if many of the barriers that they faced were removed.”
Oliver’s first book, Social Work with Disabled People, published in 1983, incorporated this philosophy and introduced the social model of disability to a wider audience, and within five years, he said, “had become the mantra for many disabled people’s organisations and was beginning to make its way into official government documents”.
The book, now in its fourth edition, is still in print.
He also spoke in his interview with Brady about his second book, The Politics of Disablement, which was published in 1990 and brought together sociology and disability and became a key textbook just as disability studies “was about to take off”.
Oliver would later become the first professor of disability studies in the UK, at the University of Greenwich, and he was still, in retirement, emeritus professor of disability studies at the university.
He played a key role in the late 1980s and early 1990s in persuading the government to introduce disability discrimination legislation, partly he said later by pushing for research that was carried out on behalf of the British Council of Disabled People by another pioneering disabled academic, Colin Barnes, which showed the extent of discrimination faced by disabled people in Britain.
Oliver said it was that research by Barnes (now emeritus professor of disability studies at the University of Leeds), and direct action by the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network, that persuaded the government to introduce the first Disability Discrimination Act, which became law in 1995.
But he said the Conservative government “sold disabled people and our aims for that legislation down the river” by making the act ineffective and “almost unenforceable”.
In a statement following his death, the Centre for Disability Studies (CDS) at the University of Leeds described Oliver as “a pioneer of UK disability studies” who “will never be forgotten”, and said his work on the social model “became – and remains – essential for challenging social injustice”.
CDS said his ideas and commentary had helped to shape the “strategies, demands and activities” of the UK disabled people’s movement, while his writings were “highly regarded across the globe and were instrumental in the development of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”.
CDS added: “The clarity and accessibility of his writing has led to various arguments, including alternative theories, to emerge within disability studies and across activist networks.
“This is to be welcomed as it will further debate and action to address the marginalisation of disabled people.
“Yet his materialist account of disability – which explored the relationship between disability and capitalism – will remain significant to current and future research and action.”
His collaboration with disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations, said CDS, transformed disability “from a personal and private trouble to a public issue, one that remains a matter of social justice.
“His extensive publications, which include journal articles, books, and keynote speeches, has challenged all of us to consider how disabled people’s historical and contemporary experiences are captured, articulated and used as a way to bring about emancipation.”
In recent years, Oliver emerged occasionally from retirement, either to campaign locally in Kent, where he still lived, or to deliver powerful speeches that were heavily critical of both the government and the large charities that claimed to speak for disabled people.
Last summer, Disability News Service (DNS) reported on his campaigning work in Kent to expose the failings in the company responsible for the NHS wheelchair services contract in the county.
He had been a user of wheelchair services in Kent for more than 50 years, and said he believed the service was worse than it had ever been throughout that time.
Allen Jones, honorary chair of Wheelchair Users Group for South and East Kent (WUG), knew Oliver for nearly 30 years and said it was thanks to his “tireless campaigning and badgering” that they had made progress in persuading the authorities to listen to their concerns.
He told DNS: “Hopefully it will be part of his legacy that we will have a wheelchair service in Kent that is fit for purpose.”
He added: “For disabled people he will be a massive loss, especially for those of us in Kent who knew him.”
They became friends when Jones was chair of Centre for Independent Living Kent (CILK), and Oliver helped them put together a successful lottery bid for a mobile centre for independent living.
Jones said: “He had a wonderful, dry sense of humour. He was always there as a friend and a campaigner when we needed it.”
He said Oliver had been “passionate” about the social model “right until the last”, delivering a five-minute summary in one of the meetings with the company that delivers the wheelchair services contract.
He said: “That was the essence of Mike: he would help anybody, but he wouldn’t mince his words. He would tell it how it is.
“Unless you challenge and deal with it, it will never improve. That was his philosophy. He would never take no for an answer.
“Hopefully the legacy of the social model and his campaigning and his advocacy will live on and hopefully many more disabled people will trawl the archives and find the papers he has written and take it up and hopefully we will get a new generation of campaigners.”
In 2013, Oliver had spoken in public about disability for the first time in 10 years, warning disabled people to beware of the “fakes” and “so-called friends” who tried to jump on the independent living “bandwagon”.
In a speech to mark the launch of UK Disability History Month, he said disabled people should never “forget where we came from” and should remember that “we were the ones who escaped from our isolation and segregation, whether we were in homes or our families”.
Describing some of the lessons from history that disabled people must learn in their continuing struggle for independence, he said they should remember that independent living did not mean “living on our own” or “doing everything for ourselves” but was about “having choice and control in our lives” and “autonomy and self-determination”.
And he warned them to beware of “the fakes who seek to jump on the independent living bandwagon”, such as the big charities who “claim to promote and support independent living and yet continue to run residential homes and even export the residential model to other parts of the world”.
Four years later, in another speech to mark Disability History Month, this time at the University of Kent, he said that many of the big charities were “parasitic on the lives of disabled people, and their attempts to reposition themselves as defenders of disability rights are an attempt to disguise this”.
He also warned that the government had positioned disabled people as “pathetic victims”, allowing ministers to launch “a massive attack on services and benefits for disabled people” while claiming that their “relentless assault on the living standards of disabled people is nothing of the kind but a heartfelt attempt to take public money away from scroungers and fraudsters and give it to the most severely disabled people who really need it”.
He concluded that disabled people needed to take responsibility themselves for “attacking the disabling barriers we face”, arguing: “What disability history teaches us is that we cannot rely on the bleeding hearts brigade and parasite people to do it for us.
“We have to do it for ourselves. We have to insist that our personal troubles are public issues that need to be resolved.”
7 March 2019
A disabled employee of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says he attempted to take his own life and experienced life-threatening physical health complications because of a culture of workplace bullying and discrimination.
Paul* spoke out about his own experiences after reading a Disability News Service (DNS) report describing how DWP repeatedly failed to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people who were recruited into its Community Partners scheme.
His account of his own experiences working in a separate part of DWP adds to mounting evidence of disability discrimination within the department.
Only last week, DNS reported how the proportion of DWP staff who say they have been victims of disability discrimination at work in the previous 12 months has risen by about 50 per cent in just four years, according to Civil Service figures.
There was also a rise of more than 10 per cent in just 12 months in the number of DWP staff saying they had personally experienced disability discrimination at work, from 1,462 in 2017 to 1,612 in 2018.
These statistics, combined with other Civil Service figures, suggest that more than a third of disabled DWP staff experienced disability discrimination at work in 2018.
The latest evidence of discrimination within the government department responsible for the much-criticised Disability Confident programme also further strains the scheme’s credibility.
DWP itself has secured the status of Disability Confident Leader, the highest of three levels within the scheme, which aims to work with employers to “challenge attitudes towards disability” and “ensure that disabled people have the opportunities to fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations”.
Paul attempted suicide as a result of the abuse and discrimination he experienced, while the increased stress levels led to significant, lasting and potentially fatal health complications.
He said he was still waiting for all the reasonable adjustments he needed to do his job, more than 18 months after he requested them.
He said he had received phone calls from fellow disabled employees who were in tears because of the failure of the department to make the reasonable adjustments they needed to do their job.
Paul said that when he and others pass on concerns about the impact of bullying and harassment on their mental health, they are told to take anti-depressants or seek counselling, while the staff and managers responsible are moved to other departments or rewarded with promotions.
His experiences with DWP have had, he said, “a devastating effect on my career prospects, a devastating effect on my potential earnings, and a devastating effect on my potential life expectancy and ability to live on my own”.
He added: “In fact, this has had a devastating effect on my life.”
DWP’s widespread failings call into question its fitness to judge disabled people’s eligibility for benefits, he added.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are absolutely committed to ensuring all colleagues, including those with disabilities or health conditions, get the support they need to thrive.
“The department has a duty of care to its colleagues and aims to lead by example as a Disability Confident employer, following best practice in recruiting, retaining and developing disabled staff.
“This includes making workplace adjustments for staff who require them and providing a dedicated team to deliver this.
“We have in place robust processes for colleagues and managers to follow in relation to diversity and inclusion and, while the number of staff reporting disability discrimination is very small, we treat any case extremely seriously.”
She said DWP takes “active steps” to promote equality, and that more than 10,500 employers have signed up to Disability Confident, while the department was modernising its recruitment practices to make them “fairer and more inclusive”.
She added: “Should any individual feel they or their circumstances have not been treated with respect; believe they have been treated unfairly; or not in line with our inclusive principles, our policies and procedures provide a route for escalation so it can be considered and addressed.”
*Not his real name. DNS has disguised his occupation within DWP and has not provided full details of the health problems caused by the discrimination he has experienced to avoid identifying him
7 March 2019
A national disabled people’s organisation has had to make cuts of nearly 20 per cent to its staff, in a further sign of the financial difficulties facing many user-led organisations across the country.
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) is making four of its 22 posts* redundant, although as two of the posts are vacant it will be losing two members of staff.
DR UK told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday) that it was set for an annual deficit of about £165,000 for 2018-19 against a backdrop of “particularly fierce” competition for funding.
DR UK’s chief executive, Kamran Mallick, said the charity was “facing bigger challenges than we had hoped” but that “the future of the organisation is not at risk”.
He said: “We planned for a small deficit but like many voluntary organisations, we are feeling the impact of a shortage of statutory and public sector funding and grants.”
He said DR UK had not generated as much income from activities such as training and consultancy as it had hoped, and would now be focusing more on its research, policy and campaigning work.
Mallick said: “This restructure will help us get on a sound financial footing and focus more on our research, policy and campaigning work.
“This is all supported by plans for generating income.”
Last month, leading disability networks warned that user-led organisations were continuing to close across the country, with the sector even facing a “real threat of extinction”.
The news of the redundancies comes only two years after Mallick’s predecessor as chief executive, Liz Sayce, said DR UK was in a “sustainable financial position”, and was expecting to report a financial surplus, following past concerns about the charity’s pensions deficit.
That deficit arose unexpectedly following fluctuations in the financial markets, as a result of a final salary pension scheme which had been closed to new members years previously by RADAR, one of the three disability organisations that merged to form DR UK.
In 2014, DR UK staved off the threat of closure after reaching an agreement with the Pension Protection Fund to take over its defined benefits pension scheme, after developing an unsustainable pensions deficit of more than £3 million.
Mallick said he and colleagues had been working to make DR UK “more efficient” and trying to increase income, while it had halved its office rental costs by moving last January from Shoreditch to the Olympic Park in east London and had made savings by changing its IT and auditing service-providers.
He said: “We hope and expect the changes we have made will solve the immediate financial problems and put us on the path to surplus budgets for the year 2020-21.”
*Last year’s accounts showed an average of 22.2 full-time equivalent staff in 2017-18
7 March 2019
Autistic rights campaigners have welcomed a new inquiry into the discrimination faced by disabled people in the criminal justice system.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) inquiry, which will cover England, Scotland and Wales, will look at whether the barriers in the system are exposing disabled people to potential miscarriages of justice.
It will focus on autistic and other neurodivergent people, people with learning difficulties and those with mental health conditions, concentrating on their experiences after they have been charged with a criminal offence and before they reach trial.
The inquiry will examine whether their needs are properly identified and if they receive the adjustments they need to allow them to understand the charges and the legal process and to participate “effectively and as fully as possible”.
Adjustments can include the use of intermediaries, allowing extra time and breaks, and providing accessible information.
The EHRC inquiry will also look at how modernisation of the court system, such as the use of video-link hearings and online processes, is affecting disabled defendants and accused (the Scottish criminal justice system uses the term “accused” instead of defendants).
And it will examine the legal duties of the government, public sector bodies and the judiciary to make adjustments under the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The inquiry was welcomed by Autistic UK, which is run by and for autistic people.
Kat Humble, Autistic UK’s communications officer, said: “Autistic UK welcome this investigation, as we have heard far too many stories from people going through the justice system unsupported and misunderstood.
“There is little wonder that so many in the autistic community mistrust the justice system when they so often end up victims of miscommunication and overwhelming environments through lack of adequate support.
“The time between a charge and a trial is fraught with panic and overwhelming decisions.
“It is critical at this juncture to ensure that the person charged understands what is happening, understands any decisions made about them, and has the information to make any decisions they need to make for themselves.
“Appropriate advocacy is imperative to ensure smooth communication, along with such reasonable adjustments such as a low stimulation environment and time allowed for the person to process all information.”
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “The launch of this inquiry shows the level of concern of the treatment of disabled people by our criminal justice system.
“It is disgraceful that some of the most marginalised in society are denied support and face miscarriages of justice.
“Disabled people deserve a process in which they are able to fully participate. Labour will create a justice system that treats disabled people equally and fairly.”
David Isaac, EHRC’s chair, said: “The criminal justice system is complex and people with impairments such as autism and mental health conditions can find it especially difficult to navigate their way through the system.
“It is essential that criminal justice works fairly for everyone and that anyone accused of a crime is not disadvantaged by virtue of having an impairment.
“Technology can often assist and empower disabled people, but we must also ensure it is used appropriately and doesn’t inadvertently end up isolating disabled people or jeopardising their ability to participate in person.
“If disabled people’s needs aren’t properly identified from the outset they are at risk of not understanding the charges they face, the advice they receive or the legal process.
“In some cases, this can mean disabled people could be wrongly convicted or receive inappropriate sentences.”
7 March 2019
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has apologised for a series of failings made in the weeks leading to the death of a disabled mother-of-nine, but it has failed to explain how it will prevent further tragedies in the future.
A senior civil servant has written to the mother of Jodey Whiting, who took her own life in February 2017, 15 days after her out-of-work disability benefits were stopped for missing a work capability assessment (WCA).
Emma Haddad, DWP’s director of working age benefits, apologised in the letter both for safeguarding errors made by the department in the weeks before her death, and failings that took place afterwards.
But there was nothing in Haddad’s letter to suggest how DWP will prevent further deaths, despite years of evidence of the institutional failure of DWP to guarantee the safety of disabled people – and particularly those with a history of mental distress – within the “fitness for work” system.
Haddad’s letter was written following the completion of a report by the Independent Case Examiner (ICE), which concluded that DWP had been guilty of “multiple” and “significant” failings in handling the case, and that it had failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to Whiting’s suicide.
Haddad told Whiting’s mother, Joy Dove, that when her daughter failed to attend her WCA appointment DWP “should have attempted further contact with Jodey before closing her claim”.
She added: “We do have guidelines in place to try and safeguard customers and regrettably our procedures were not followed.”
Haddad also apologised for failing to update the department’s IT systems following her death and for sending “unnecessary” letters and phone calls after being notified that she had died, which she said was “clearly unacceptable”.
She also apologised for DWP failing to respond to letters sent by Whiting and those acting on her behalf, and for failing to carry out a full investigation until Dove contacted ICE with a complaint.
Haddad said the department’s customer service standards were “clearly not achieved”.
Dove told DNS: “When I read the letter it upset me, thinking, ‘Yes, my daughter could have been alive if they have done everything they should have done.’”
And she said the letter failed to explain how DWP would prevent further deaths.
Asked why Haddad had not stated what measures the department would take to prevent further deaths, a DWP spokesperson said the department was “reviewing our procedures to ensure this doesn’t happen again”, but she declined to comment further.
7 March 2019
The government-funded body that promotes the UK’s culture and education abroad has sacked a disabled teacher, despite its own internal investigation concluding that it failed to provide her with the reasonable adjustments she needed to do her job.
The British Council, which proclaims itself a Disability Confident employer – under the discredited employment scheme run by the Department for Work and Pensions – was able to dodge its Equality Act duties by arguing that the legislation does not apply because Emily Frisby worked in Morocco and so was subject to local employment law.
Internal investigations upheld her complaint about the failure of managers to provide her with the reasonable adjustments she needed and even concluded that “management may have crossed a red line in terms of intimidation/bullying” of Frisby.
But although the British Council then agreed to provide the adjustments she needed, managers repeatedly refused to provide details of the provisions they would make, she said, and ignored her emails asking for clarification.
She had experienced months of disability discrimination at the hands of British Council managers after transferring to Morocco from Vietnam in 2017.
She was denied the reduced hours she had in her previous British Council job, which worsened her health condition, and was forced to take a “protracted and dehumanising” grievance procedure because of the refusal to provide her with the reasonable adjustments she needed.
Her condition affects her hearing and balance, and symptoms include vertigo, hearing loss and tinnitus, all of which can be triggered by stress.
But when she tried to secure the reasonable adjustments she needed, managers refused to provide them and instead questioned her impairment, and, she said, bullied and harassed her.
As a result of her treatment, she was signed off work with stress and anxiety and an exacerbation of the symptoms of her condition.
She was forced to drop a legal claim for discrimination because the British Council argued that the Equality Act does not apply to its actions in Morocco, even though it is a UK charity, receives funding from the UK government, is sponsored by the Foreign Office, and has signed up to Disability Confident.
Now the British Council has given Frisby three months’ notice under the “Moroccan labor code”, blaming her for her failure to return to work and telling her they are treating this as a resignation, even though her GP and an occupational therapist advised her to make sure the adjustments were in place before she returned to work.
She has been off sick for more than a year and received sick pay only until August. She has not been paid since.
She said: “I haven’t had any indication of how the adjustments would work in practice… despite repeatedly asking for and obviously needing confirmation and clarification.
“My GP and occupational health advised to have the adjustments in place before I returned to work to avoid further stress and delays and it seemed sensible considering it would be impossible for me to return to work without any discussion or knowledge of my working hours and classes.
“All I wanted was to reduce or change my timetable and have a level of support and understanding about my health condition.”
She added: “My emails and sick notes are often ignored entirely, or they just repeat that adjustments will be made on my return to work, ignoring the other questions and concerns.
“It’s hard not to see this as part of the same hostile environment for disabled people coming from the UK government, and as retaliation for speaking out and complaining.”
The British Council argues that it does not need to comply with the Equality Act because Frisby was employed in Morocco and was subject to local employment law.
It also says that “the spirit” of the Equality Act is captured in its “equality policy, values and behaviours”, which apply to all staff globally.
A British Council spokesperson refused to say whether it would provide Frisby with an apology and compensation for the treatment she has received.
She also failed to say why the British Council could not go beyond Moroccan law and treat disabled people as fairly as they would be treated in the UK, and she refused to say if the British Council believed it could continue as a Disability Confident Employer in the light of her treatment.
But the spokesperson said in a statement: “Our own internal investigation into this found that we didn’t handle some aspects of the adjustments required very well.
“Although the changes were later put in as requested, we are sorry for the upset this situation caused.
“We had successfully made adjustments for Ms Frisby in a previous role, in a different country.
“We have now shared how we handled these requests with our Disability Facilitators –specially trained staff in global teams – so they can help assist employees and managers in these situations.
“As an organisation, we fully recognise that people with disabilities face discrimination and barriers, and we are committed to identifying and removing those barriers so we can improve our practice.”
7 March 2019
One of Britain’s greatest Paralympians has told a parliamentary meeting to beware of claims that London 2012 “changed the world” for disabled people.
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson was speaking at a parliamentary meeting held to discuss the need for more to be done to enable disabled people to take part in physical activity.
The retired Paralympian – she won 11 Paralympic golds as a wheelchair athlete – and now crossbench peer said that some of the often-repeated claims that “2012 changed the world” were “nonsense”.
She told the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for disability that London 2012 “did lots of incredible things for the Olympics and Paralympics, but it didn’t change disability hate crime, which is on the rise, especially against children, and it didn’t change many disabled people’s opportunity to be physically active.
“It gave lots of young people aspirations and some people definitely came to activity because of it, but it hasn’t changed the entire world in terms of what we do.”
Baroness Grey-Thompson, who was speaking as both a crossbench peer and chair of ukactive, which promotes physical activity and represents large parts of the fitness and leisure industry, said the Paralympics were “great if you’re talented and want to spend all your life training and make it to the highest levels of sport”.
But she said that disabled people also need “the same opportunity to be fit and healthy” as non-disabled people and to just be “rubbish at sport”.
She said: “It’s not all about sport, it’s about physical activity and unless we make some changes we are not going to be giving those people the opportunity.”
She said physical activity “can make a huge difference to disabled people’s lives”.
She added: “Inactivity is really common for disabled people and those with long-term health conditions, and this is the scary bit: disabled people are twice as likely to be inactive as non-disabled people.
“Unless we open doors and make things accessible and get governing bodies to think differently, and get everybody to think differently, and we get school sport to be genuinely open and inclusive, we are not going to bring about some of those changes.”
She told the meeting that families had written to her to tell her that their disabled children had been excluded from physical education at school for “all sorts of reasons” including “health and safety”.
Mike Diaper, director of children, young people and tackling inactivity for Sport England, said his organisation had invested £12 million in targeted funding to help promote physical activity for disabled people.
One of the charities it is working with is the disabled people’s organisation Disability Rights UK through the Get Yourself Active scheme, which brings together health, sport and social care, and helps disabled people use their personal budgets to take part in physical activity.
He said: “The learning that is coming out of that is the gulf between what youngsters want to do in terms of getting active and the knowledge of their social workers.”
Huw Edwards, public affairs and research director for ukactive, said his organisation worked with more than 4,000 members across the UK, with most of them from the fitness and leisure sector, but he admitted that the sector’s efforts to enable disabled people to engage in physical activity were “a work in progress” although it had “great ambition”.
He said they had access to data on more than 500 million visits to local authority leisure centres in the last five years, but there was no information on the involvement of disabled people in those trips.
Disabled people attending the meeting also raised their concerns about the barriers to accessing physical activity.
Chris Jeffery, chair of Mending the Gap, told the meeting that more should be done to improve the disability equality training of staff in gyms and leisure centres.
And Phil Shoebridge, chair of Centre of Excellence for Disability Archery in Kent, said it was becoming increasingly difficult for members of grassroots disability sports organisations to afford to hire venues run by schools and local authorities because they were so intent on maximising revenue.
7 March 2019
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com