A UN expert has heard how a man with learning difficulties died a month after attempting to take his own life, following a move onto the government’s “chaotic” universal credit benefit system that left him hundreds of pounds in debt.
An account of the tragedy, written by the man’s sister, Maggie, is just one of scores of pieces of written evidence submitted to an inquiry being carried out by Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
He began a 12-day factfinding visit to the UK this week as part of his investigation into the government’s record on eradicating poverty.
But even before he arrived, he had received a string of devastating accounts of the impact of the government’s austerity cuts and reforms on disabled people’s social security and social care.
One of them came from Maggie, from London, who described what had happened to her brother, John, who had cerebral palsy and learning difficulties.
Maggie told how John, who lived in sheltered housing, had previously been “a positive happy person” before he was found fit for work and forced onto universal credit and the government’s Work Programme.
She said the job he had been found through the Work Programme had proved unsuitable and he fell back out of work, causing severe problems with his universal credit.
Maggie told the inquiry: “He had been told by all the authorities such as the Job Centre and Housing not to worry about his benefits and then he was very shocked to receive bills of £1,000 and £500 [from DWP and the local authority’s housing department].”
She said her brother had been one of the first to be placed on the “chaotic” universal credit benefit system, and that his rights as a disabled person “had not been considered by the DWP and other authorities”.
She said John had been hospitalised after trying to take his own life. He died a month later, in April this year.
She said: “John was a very law abiding person and did everything that DWP, etc, told him to do but was seriously let down by this department.
“His benefits had been in chaos for several years but no one cared from the various departments that John and myself contacted.”
She added: “John has been totally let down by this country and died in such tragic circumstances that could have been avoided if those charged with helping the vulnerable, the disabled, had thought about him as a human being – not as a nuisance and a statistic.”
But John’s is only one of many cases submitted as evidence to Alston’s inquiry which show the impact of the government’s reforms – including the introduction of universal credit – on disabled people.
Another benefit claimant, Steve, told the inquiry how delays in receiving his first universal credit payment two years ago had left him in debt, and saw him lose £61 a week in severe disability premium in the transfer to the new system.
He was forced to ask his local council for food vouchers.
Steve said the benefits system had become “very aggressive” since the government’s reforms to the social security system, which he said had left him feeling “like a scrounger”.
He said: “There were suddenly demands to adhere to and a timetable of activities that was not possible to achieve and the DWP would not even talk about this but just threatened to take away the benefits.”
The impact on his physical and mental health – he has a number of health conditions – had repeatedly left him “in crisis or at A&E or even being temporarily held at a police station”.
He told the inquiry: “The stress is unbearable when added to coping with everyday health issues which on their own are enough to endure.
“I had to sign up to commitments that I cannot fulfil and it seems obvious that this system is deliberately designed to make disabled claimants, especially those with mental health issues, fail or just give up pursuing their claim.”
He is one of tens of thousands of disability living allowance (DLA) claimants who have lost their benefits in the move to personal independence payment (PIP) – he was awarded zero points by an assessor – and he had to wait for a tribunal to overturn the DWP decision and award him the enhanced PIP rate for both mobility and daily living he was entitled to.
But he still faces neglect through the social care system, which has led to infections and a lack of mobility.
He said: “The constant demands and worry of dealing with benefits means that there is no energy left to keep up with the demands of my personal healthcare.
“It also puts a strain and a burden on my friends and family who have to step in and help sort out the mess caused by failing healthcare, social care and welfare reform especially as this has now been going on for so long.
“I live in total insecurity and on a knife edge with worsening health where anything can happen and there are constant threats, harassment and abuse by the DWP and the present government.”
David, from Plymouth, painted a similar picture and told the inquiry that the 2010 coalition government’s social security reforms had created a “hostile environment” for disabled people.
He said there had been “an orchestrated campaign since then in the mainstream media, to deliberately disenfranchise, to alienate, to misalign, and this has achieved the desired result in changing the general public’s perception of the vulnerable, as ‘benefit scroungers’”.
He said: “It is now not uncommon to see people with disabilities on the streets… all of this from the seventh richest economy on the planet. It is unconscionable, it is unforgivable.”
David is now having to pay more than £200 a month from his disability benefits towards his social care, while he fears losing his Motability vehicle when he is eventually assessed for PIP.
He said: “Though no longer able to work, the ability to drive remains one of my few remaining abilities, and enjoyments.
“My own vehicle is at risk if my transition from DLA to PIP does not go well, I could be refused my legitimate benefits entirely, and become destitute, through no action, or fault of my own.
“I am under a continual and unrelenting strain. It is already a matter of medical record that I am unable to sleep, my mental health is suffering, and I have come to view my individual longterm outlook as bleak.”
He added: “I live in very real fear of a ring on my doorbell, or the daily arrival of the post. I dread the compulsory transition from DLA to PIP that I have yet to undergo. I dread going outside.”
Efrosyni told the inquiry that she had been “driven to despair” by social care cuts, which meant she did not have enough support to visit her local high street.
She said: “I have been housebound for four years and I don’t know how much longer I can survive like this.”
She said the rollout of universal credit was “yet another indication of the contempt that the disadvantaged, sick and disabled people are held by the government”.
Efrosyni said she had tried to speak to the government’s universal credit helpline but had to give up after “being on hold for 55 minutes several times”.
She said: “Perhaps the government is trying to force us all to commit suicide and therefore ease the ‘burden’ that they consider us to be.
“It is obvious that sick and disabled people are not deemed worthy of consideration and compassion by this government nor to have the right to lead fulfilling lives.
“This attitude is also exhibited by many in local government, some staff of whom have told me that I should just be grateful that I get anything.
“As a benefit claimant I am made to feel unworthy, patronised, marginalised and undermined.
“I don’t want to be pitied, I want to be enabled with the appropriate resources to lead a fulfilling life and considered a valuable part of society.”
Barbara, who is disabled, and lives with her husband, who has Parkinson’s and dementia, described in her written evidence to the inquiry how she had previously claimed higher rate DLA for both care and mobility but was refused PIP completely after a dishonest assessment report, even though she is in the employment and support allowance support group, for those found to have limited capability for work-related activity.
Rather than wait for months for a tribunal, she was advised to submit a fresh claim, but now fears another dishonest PIP assessment.
She and her husband rely on foodbanks and cannot afford to pay their bills.
She told the inquiry: “My husband’s Parkinson’s and the dementia has got worse because of the stress of trying to manage with what little money we have.
“We used to put change into a jar for the grandchildren but had to break it open to get money for milk and bread.”
Another woman to give evidence about her struggle with extreme poverty said she believed the benefits system was responsible for her high blood pressure.
She told the inquiry: “I often have to use foodbanks to eat, and I sit in the dark to save electric.
“I have had one dress and one [pair] of knickers in the past three [years], as I can’t afford to buy new clothes.
“You can print my story if you wish, and I would have killed myself by now, if it wasn’t for my children. I don’t smoke or drink either, and have no social life.”
As well as individuals, many disabled people’s organisations, charities, academics and human rights bodies have submitted written evidence to the inquiry.
Inclusion London focused on concerns about universal credit and said it was “extremely worried that the problems experienced by Deaf and disabled people will escalate” with its full rollout.
It said: “Deaf and disabled people are going hungry, forced into using foodbanks, unable to pay for fuel and rent and pushed further into debt because of the universal credit system.
“Inclusion London believes the universal credit system is not fit for purpose and should be stopped and scrapped before more Deaf and disabled people experience harm.”
Inclusion Scotland said the UK’s benefits system “does not take into account the minimum support necessary to keep people from becoming destitute.
“Worse it can withdraw support, through sanctions or mandatory reconsideration, ensuring that little or no income is left to meet basic needs leading to destitution and, in some cases, death.”
And WinVisible, the disabled women’s organisation, told the inquiry: “Austerity policies have targeted sick and disabled people.
“Relentless cuts and continual changes to provision have brought terrifying insecurity and fear for the future.
“Destitution is commonplace. Sick and disabled people are commonly left destitute from having benefits stopped for various bureaucratic and inhumane reasons.
“All benefit claimants, women especially, suffer from the focus on ‘back-to-work’ rather than support and recognition of caring work and responsibilities.”
Before this week’s visit, Professor Alston said: “Poverty is intertwined with human rights standards that the United Kingdom has ratified, including the right to food, housing, and an adequate standard of living and [how] it affects access to civil and political rights.
“The government has made significant changes to social protection in the past decade, and I will be looking closely at the impact that has had on people living in poverty and their realization of basic rights.”
8 November 2018
Work and pensions ministers have received a humiliating dressing-down from the Commons speaker after their “unacceptable” failure to provide an accessible version of vital new universal credit papers to a disabled shadow minister.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had failed to provide the long-awaited managed migration draft regulations (see separate story) in an accessible format to Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people.
Instead she was told she would have to wait four days to receive them.
De Cordova was not available to discuss her treatment this week, but she said on Twitter that it was “unacceptable” that she had been forced to wait to see the “vital” documents.
MPs heard that she had had to make a series of phone calls to DWP civil servants to arrange for the document to be provided in a large-print format.
Even then, DWP said it would only be able to provide the accessible version by tomorrow (Friday), four days after the draft regulations were published, although – following the case being highlighted – she eventually received them within a couple of days of the concerns being raised in the Commons.
De Cordova’s Labour colleague, Valerie Vaz, the shadow leader of the Commons, raised concerns about DWP’s failure on Tuesday.
Vaz told MPs that de Cordova had been “urgently seeking an accessible copy of the managed migration regulations”.
She said: “After numerous calls to the department she’s finally been promised a copy on Friday.”
Vaz said this was “unacceptable” and that an accessible version should have been made available “immediately from the moment of publication”.
She said: “It is vital that we are representative of society as a whole, which means that such important government publications should be provided in an accessible form at publication and not take the best part of a working week to be provided.”
The speaker, John Bercow, told MPs: “The resources available to ministers are very considerable and it is simply not acceptable that a member of parliament with a known additional need should not have that need as near as possible immediately satisfied.
“This was an entirely predictable request and I hope that it will be not necessary for this matter to be aired again and I appreciate ministers nodding from a sedentary position on the front bench.”
DWP yesterday (Wednesday) refused to answer a series of questions about its failure, including whether Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, would apologise to de Cordova, and what steps Newton was taking to ensure such a problem did not happen again.
Instead of answering the questions, a DWP spokeswoman produced an 11-word statement, saying: “An accessible copy has been made available to Ms de Cordova.”
8 November 2018
The government has announced a fresh review into prolonged seclusion and long-term segregation of people with learning difficulties and autistic people in hospitals, more than 70 years after concerns were first raised by civil rights campaigners.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock announced this week that he had asked the care regulator to launch an immediate review into “the inappropriate use of prolonged seclusion and segregation” and said that some disabled people had been “treated like criminals”.
His call came following a series of media investigations into conditions in privately-run assessment and treatment units (ATU), facilities that are supposed to be used for short-term care if someone with autism or learning difficulties is in crisis and community-based services cannot cope.
The media reports have included allegations of widespread abuse, cruelty, physical restraint, poorly-trained staff and wrongful use of medication, as well as the frequent use of lengthy periods of solitary confinement.
In a letter to the chief executive of the Care Quality Commission (CQC), Ian Trenholm, Hancock pointed to one teenager, Beth – whose case was exposed by BBC Radio Four’s File on Four – who has been kept in solitary confinement and fed through a hatch in the door in a privately-run ATU for nearly two years.
Hancock said he had asked NHS England to carry out a serious incident review into Beth’s care.
But he said he also wanted CQC to carry out a review into “prolonged seclusion and long-term segregation for children and adults with a mental illness, learning disability or autism in secondary care and social care settings”.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is also set to act. It is considering which of its enforcement powers – such as launching an investigation or an inquiry – it can use “to fix the current system”.
David Isaac, EHRC’s chair, said the current inpatient care system for people with learning difficulties had led to “some horrific situations at a number of assessment and treatment units where people’s fundamental human rights are being disregarded”.
The children’s commissioner for England has also written to NHS England to raise concerns about Beth’s treatment, and to raise a series of questions about how many ATUs are used by NHS England, how many children they have as inpatients and their use of restraint and segregation.
She said: “The NHS must work with councils to be more transparent about what is going on in these units and be proactive about making sure every child receives the support and treatment they deserve.”
Transforming Care aimed to “transform services so that people no longer live inappropriately in hospitals but are cared for in line with best practice, based on their individual needs, and that their wishes and those of their families are listened to and are at the heart of planning and delivering their care”.
But successive governments appear to have achieved little to fulfil those aims.
In 2012, a year after Winterbourne View, there were an estimated 3,400 people in NHS-funded learning disability inpatient beds.
The latest figures, published last month, show 2,315 people with learning difficulties and/or autism in England are still being detained in mental health hospitals.
Calls to address the scandal of people with learning difficulties living “inappropriately” in long-stay institutions date back at least as far as the 1940s – more than 70 years – to when the National Council for Civil Liberties launched a campaign against eugenicist laws that led at their peak to the institutionalisation of more than 50,000 people in long-stay hospitals.
A series of scandals through the late 1960s and 1970s highlighted concerns similar to those raised by File on Four, with inquiries reporting cruel ill-treatment, inhumane and threatening behaviour towards patients (at Ely Hospital), the “harmful over-use of drugs” (Farleigh Hospital) and the use of tranquilisers and “side-rooms” – or solitary confinement facilities – at South Ockendon Hospital.
Disabled activist Simone Aspis, director of the consultancy Changing Perspectives, who campaigns to free disabled people from ATUs and other institutions, welcomed the CQC review but said there needed to be a “proper root and branch review of legislation”, and that it needed to lead to “action”.
She said: “It is the legislation that allows ATUs to exist and oppress and treat disabled people as inhuman and treat them like animals.
“Feeding people through a hatch. What is that if not treating someone like an animal?
“It is the existence of ATUs, the power entrusted within them by the state.”
She said that whether the review had an impact would depend on “how much are they really going to listen to the voices of people with autism”.
She pointed out that poor practice and the institutionalisation of disabled people had persisted, seven years after Winterbourne View, allowing “easy detainment of people with learning difficulties and autism”.
Aspis, who is a member of EHRC’s disability advisory committee, but was speaking in a personal capacity, said she hoped EHRC would do something at a “much more fundamental level, with much more robustness” than she believed CQC would be able to.
She pointed to EHRC’s draft strategic plan for 2019-22, which has as one of its “priority aims” improving the rules on “entry into detention and conditions in institutions”.
Aspis said: “You can welcome [the CQC review] but is it going to say anything more than we know already?
“What we need is some serious action around closing these places down.
“As long as there are alternatives there, there is always an alternative to providing homes for people in the community.
“So the government has to say that these places need to be shut down and that the intensive care and support needs to be provided in people’s homes.”
She added: “Often people with learning difficulties end up being institutionalised because of the inadequacy of the support provided for people with learning difficulties and autism within the community.”
Aspis is currently working with two disabled people who are trying to secure their release from ATUs.
She said: “A lot of patients feel scared of speaking out and seeking support because they are concerned about the implications. There are a lot of disempowered people.”
Dr Paul Lelliott, CQC’s deputy chief inspector of hospitals and its lead for mental health, said: “There is understandable public concern about the use of prolonged seclusion and long-term segregation on people with mental health problems, learning disabilities or autism.
“It is vital that services minimise the use of all forms of restrictive practice and that providers and commissioners work together to find alternative, and less restrictive, care arrangements for people who are subject to seclusion or segregation.
“Failure to do this has the potential to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
“The secretary of state for health and social care has requested that the Care Quality Commission undertake a thematic review of this issue and we are now considering how we will take forward this important work.”
8 November 2018
A minister has suggested that the government would be doing a “great disservice” to disabled people if it stopped sanctioning their out-of-work benefits.
The comment by Alok Sharma, the employment minister, came in correspondence with the Commons work and pensions committee as part of its inquiry into the government’s “harmful and counterproductive” benefit sanctions regime.
The committee’s report, published this week, calls on the government to “urgently re-assess” the regime.
The committee concludes in its report: “Of all the evidence we received, none was more compelling than that against the imposition of conditionality and sanctions on people with a disability or health condition. It does not work. Worse, it is harmful and counterproductive.”
But in a letter to the committee, Sharma had dismissed the idea of exempting disabled people from benefit sanctions.
He pointed to the low proportion of claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) in the support group – for those found to have limited capability for work-related activity, and who are not subject to any sanctions – who move into work every month (less than one per cent).
He said this showed that “when provision or support is voluntary the take up is extremely low” and therefore “to impose a blanket ban which exempts all disabled people from any form of conditionality would be doing this group a great disservice”.
He also said that ministers “do not think it would be appropriate” to introduce a blanket ban on all sanctions and conditions for disabled people awaiting their work capability assessment (WCA) under the new universal credit, even though such a ban is in place under the existing ESA system.
Sharma said in his letter that universal credit regulations already allow work coaches to “tailor conditionality, apply easements, set ‘voluntary’ work related requirements… and ‘switch off’ work related requirements altogether” when appropriate.
But the committee’s report warns that universal credit rules mean that claimants “could be required to look for work for up to 35 hours a week before any assessment of whether they are even capable of doing so”.
It points to evidence from the Child Poverty Action Group, which said that these claimants “rarely have their claimant commitment suitably tailored”.
One woman with a mental health condition was subject to “full conditionality” for nine months while she waited for her WCA, the committee was told by the charity Mind.
In its evidence to the committee, Inclusion London said there was “sufficient evidence to raise such serious questions about the current regime that it should be stopped urgently”.
It pointed to “mounting evidence of the harm that sanctions are causing to benefit claimants and negative impacts on our wider communities as a result.
“Besides tragic examples of individuals ending or attempting to end their lives or dying as a direct result of sanctions, statistics show for example the link between increased use of sanctions and higher foodbank use.
“One in five cases peer reviewed by the DWP following deaths linked to benefit cuts involved sanctions.”
The committee calls in its recommendations for DWP to “immediately” halt all benefit conditions and sanctions for three groups: claimants found to have limited capability for work; those with a valid fit note which states they are unable to work; and universal credit claimants awaiting a WCA who have a fit note saying they are unable to work.
In his letter to the committee, Sharma also refused to introduce a gentler system for all claimants with mental health conditions, arguing again that it would be “inappropriate” to introduce a blanket policy and “may not be in their best interests” because there was “a strong evidence base showing that work is generally good for physical and mental health and well-being”.
The evidence Sharma pointed to in support of his claim was a single piece of research published 12 years ago by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) itself, and which was closely linked to the discredited biopsychosocial model of disability.
But one witness who provided written evidence to the inquiry painted a different picture.
He told the committee: “I cannot hold myself together against the might of the benefits system and its terrors.
“The benefits system must not be allowed to be the final straw that breaks me and leads me to take my own life after all I have done and how hard I have fought to stay alive and get well.
“I cannot live under the constant threat of sanctions.
“I cannot cope with having my life controlled by someone who is either ignorant of or unwilling to be knowledgeable about the many complexities of mental illness and the damage even a careless word can do to someone like me.
“I believe that it is negligent to suggest that work coaches can successfully work with and prevent harm to the mentally ill, they simply will not have the knowledge or sufficient training.”
Sharma also confirmed in his letter that DWP had carried out no research to show the “impact and effectiveness” of the harsher sanctions regime introduced by the Tory-led coalition through the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and had no plans to carry out any such research.
In its evidence to the committee, Inclusion London said it was “entirely unacceptable that a policy measure of this scale should be implemented and continued with no evidence base to support it”, and it called for an end to all conditionality and sanctioning, to be replaced with “tailored voluntary employment support”.
The committee says the failure to evaluate the 2012 reforms was “unacceptable”.
The report concludes that sanctions are more frequently used under universal credit than ESA and jobseeker’s allowance, and that “when applied inappropriately can have profoundly negative effects on people’s financial and personal well-being”.
Frank Field, the committee’s chair, said: “We have heard stories of terrible and unnecessary hardship from people who’ve been sanctioned.
“They were left bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel.”
8 November 2018
The failure of ministers to make a key change to the way the government will move existing benefit claimants onto universal credit could see hundreds of thousands of disabled people left without any income at all, campaigners fear.
Work and pensions secretary Esther McVey this week published the government’s draft regulations on the migration of millions of claimants of benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA) and jobseeker’s allowance onto the new benefit system.
According to government estimates, more than a third of those migrating will be sick and disabled people who currently receive ESA.
Some of the changes McVey announced to the draft regulations – including giving claimants at least three months, rather than just one, to make a successful claim before their existing benefits are cut off – have been welcomed.
The changes follow other concessions to critics of the universal credit regime – which has been blamed for driving many claimants into poverty – that were announced in last week’s budget.
The migration process is due to begin next summer, although only about 10,000 people are likely to be affected in 2019 while DWP tests the process, with larger numbers only beginning to be transferred from 2020 onwards.
McVey has agreed to publish an assessment of the equality impact of managed migration on different groups but said this would not be produced until after the testing phase so that ministers can take account of any changes they make.
But she has refused to allow all those on legacy benefits, including hundreds of thousands of ESA claimants, to be automatically transferred onto universal credit.
Instead, claimants will be responsible for submitting their own new universal credit claim after they receive notification from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that they need to do so.
Linda Burnip, a co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said there was “a very real threat that disabled people will not manage to make a new claim and end up without any source of income”.
She compared the government’s “tinkering around the edges of universal credit” with its efforts to improve the work capability assessment.
Instead of such tinkering, she said, universal credit “must be stopped and scrapped without further delay”.
She also pointed to concerns about the process disabled people will need to go through to make a claim.
She said: “Given the problems many disabled people face actually making a claim for universal credit and the fact that many cannot afford either a passport or driving license ID, which DWP sometimes say is needed to prove who they are when claiming, it is potentially disastrous that a new claim must be made when someone is migrated from legacy benefits.”
The mental health charity Mind said people risked losing their income – and even their homes – “in the process of re-applying for financial support they’re already entitled to”.
Mind said that many people struggle to read or understand DWP letters while others are “unable to negotiate the complex, labyrinthine process of applying”.
Vicky Nash, Mind’s head of policy and campaigns, said: “These regulations have confirmed what we have long feared and argued against – that in the move over to universal credit three million people, including hundreds of thousands of people with mental health problems, will be forced to make a new claim.”
Despite McVey insisting in parliament this week that charities like Mind were praising DWP for listening to what they and other critics had been saying about universal credit, Nash said: “This risks many being left without income and pushed into poverty.
“We have repeatedly raised our concerns and are appalled to see them being ignored.”
The Child Poverty Action Group said McVey’s failure to act on the need to make a new claim could mean as many as 400,000 households would be at risk of losing all their social security payments.
One ESA claimant with a mental health condition has told Mind that previous problems with his ESA claim saw him lose nine months of benefits because of a DWP error, although he eventually received the money.
That and other factors had left him depressed and suicidal.
He said: “I live in Thurrock, the constituency of Jackie Doyle-Price who is the minister for mental health and has responsibility for suicide prevention.
“The government need to consider the role benefits play in people becoming suicidal.
“I dread the thought of having to apply for universal credit.
“Ever since I lost that money, I’m scared – every time a letter comes through the door with the letters ‘DWP’ on it.
“The DWP should take responsibility for transferring people onto this new benefit rather than expecting vulnerable people to shoulder it all themselves.”
The government’s advisers, the social security advisory committee, had called on ministers – in its report on the draft regulations – to analyse different claimant groups to find out how many of them could be automatically transferred onto universal credit.
But DWP in its response to the committee’s report said that it believed it was “crucial” for new claims to be made by all those migrating “because we need to ensure data is as accurate and as up-to-date as possible when claimants move to universal credit”.
It added: “This will ensure that any errors will not be migrated from the existing benefit system to universal credit.”
And it said that it might also not have “sufficient information to determine the full universal credit entitlement because some of this information is not available from the existing benefit data”, while it “cannot simply assume that all existing claimants will want to make a claim”.
Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the committee’s chair, said he and his colleagues were “pleased” that McVey had “largely” followed their advice on the changes that needed to be made to the managed migration process.
But he added: “We are disappointed that the DWP continue to expect that everyone must make a claim to universal credit in order to be migrated to it.”
Liz Sayce, the former chief executive of Disability Rights UK and vice-chair of the committee, said: “The sheer scale of the operational challenge facing DWP cannot be underestimated.
“Millions of individuals are relying on the government to get this right.
“We welcome the government’s commitment to ensure that disabled people are supported through the claims process, including taking claims during home visits and over the telephone, and we are keen to work with the department on the detail of these plans to ensure they work well for all disabled people.”
McVey also told MPs this week that one million disabled households would receive an extra £100 a month as a result of universal credit.
But Margaret Greenwood, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said McVey had failed to tell MPs that about the same number would lose an average of £217 a month.
The publication of the draft regulations came as The Trussell Trust – which runs a national network of 400 foodbanks – said the number of emergency supplies it had provided had risen 13 per cent between April to September 2017 and the same period in 2018.
It said that one of the factors driving this increase was the minimum five-week wait for a claimant to receive their first universal credit payment.
The charity said that if this was not reduced, “the only way to prevent even more people being forced to foodbanks this winter is to pause all new claims to universal credit”.
It added: “Universal credit is not the only benefit people at foodbanks are experiencing problems with, but the new system is increasingly driving referrals due to benefit delays, which include waiting for a first payment or having problems with a new claim.”
8 November 2018
A police force has been criticised for failing to treat an attack on a disabled woman – who was spat at and left covered with flour by a group of teenagers as she sat on a park bench – as a disability hate crime.
Suffolk police is the latest force to face questions over its failure to treat offences as hate crimes when they appear to be motivated by disability-related hostility.
Only last month, West Midlands police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) admitted they had not treated an “utterly barbaric” campaign of violence and abuse directed at a disabled mum and daughter as disability hate crime.
The incident in Suffolk, in July, caused widespread outrage after pictures of the aftermath of the assault in Bury St Edmunds – with members of the gang posing for the camera behind the disabled woman as she cowered on the bench – were posted on social media.
The woman, who has a mental health condition, had been sat on the bench when she was approached by the group of teenagers.
One of them spat on her before the group disappeared and returned 10 minutes later with a bag of flour, bought at a nearby shop, which they threw all over her.
Five of the teenagers pleaded guilty last week to charges of using threatening or abusive words or behaviour, but the offences were not treated in court as disability hate crimes, which would have seen them handed stricter sentences.
One of the five, who is now 18, will be sentenced in December, while four of them – two 15-year-olds, a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old – each received a 12-month referral order and was ordered to pay a £20 victim surcharge, court costs and £100 compensation to the victim.
A sixth teenager, aged 17, has denied the charge, and will face a trial in February.
Suffolk police this week admitted failing to flag the offence as a disability hate crime during its investigation.
A Suffolk police spokesman said: “The incident was treated as an assault without injury and the offenders were charged with using threatening or abusive words or behaviour.
“It was not treated as a disability hate crime as the incident didn’t reach the necessary charge threshold.”
But when asked why the force appeared to have breached national police guidelines by failing to treat the incident as a hate crime from the start of its investigation, the spokesman refused to comment further.
A CPS spokesman said: “Tackling hate crime, including disability hate crime, is a priority for the CPS.
“In this case we considered whether we could prove that the offenders either demonstrated or were motivated by hostility based on the victim’s disability but concluded that we could not.
“This was a distressing incident for the victim and the CPS has successfully prosecuted five people for the threatening and abusive behaviour they displayed.”
Stephen Brookes, a former coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network (DHCN), said the force “should have instantly flagged it as disability hate crime”.
He said the case was another example of a lack of consistency by police forces, which he said was “not good enough”.
Last month, the annual CPS hate crime report showed that the number of disability hate crime cases referred to prosecutors by police forces in England and Wales plunged in 2017-18 by nearly a quarter.
The number of disability hate crime convictions also slumped, from 800 in 2016-17 to 564 in 2017-18 (a drop of 29.5 per cent).
A report by two watchdogs last month also found that the work of officers on more than half of the disability hate crime investigations examined across six sample police forces – although Suffolk was not one of them – had been found to be “unacceptable”.
David Wilkin, a DHCN coordinator, said: “It is vital, for the recognition and prosecution of disability hate crime, that all members of police staff receiving hate crime reports process them appropriately.
“The CPS, in its latest report, are concerned that there has been a fall recently in the number of referrals made by the police for hate crimes generally.
“Whether a victim or witness reports such an offence, or if the police officer suspects such an offence has been committed, then the offence needs to be flagged for the CPS to take the appropriate action.
“It is concerning if, as the CPS suggest, this is not being actioned as disability hate crime victims may not receive the weight of justice which they deserve.”
8 November 2018
Disabled activists have called for a boycott of the UK’s first accessible shopping day because of its close links with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and fears that CCTV footage could be used to dispute disability benefit claims.
Purple, the social enterprise formerly known as Essex Coalition of Disabled People, has secured the support of DWP for next week’s Purple Tuesday event but has denied that there is any “hidden agenda”.
Tuesday’s (13 November) event has also secured at least 14 high-profile partners, including retailers M&S, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Argos, and shopping centre owners such as intu and Landsec.
One of the partners, intu – which owns and runs shopping centres across the country – today (Thursday) refused to promise not to pass CCTV footage from the event to DWP, while Sainsbury’s has refused to answer questions.
Purple is hoping to engage with another 500 retailers across the country, all of which will be asked to make at least one pledge to improve the experience of their disabled customers and show a video to their staff that describes five ways they can improve their customer service for disabled people.
But Disability Labour, which represents disabled people who are members of the Labour party – but is independent of the party itself – has called for a boycott of the event.
It has raised fears that those companies taking part could pass CCTV pictures from the day to DWP to use against disabled people who have made benefit claims.
It highlighted how Sainsbury’s has previously admitted that it occasionally passes CCTV pictures to DWP.
Fran Springfield, co-chair of Disability Labour, said: “Disability Labour are deeply concerned that the DWP, which harasses and persecutes disabled people on a daily basis, will use video footage to identify if claimants are shopping, what they’re purchasing and even how far they are walking.”
She said the potential of retailers sharing CCTV from the event with DWP was a “huge concern” for disabled people.
Springfield said: “I don’t trust DWP any further than I can throw them because of the way they have treated people.”
She said Disability Labour was “dismayed” at the involvement of retailers in the campaign.
Kathy Bole, co-vice chair of Disability Labour, said: “Sainsbury’s already has form in relation to sharing CCTV footage to spy on disabled benefit claimants.
“Their surveillance of disabled people has led to increased distress and isolation.”
Disabled People Against Cuts said it supported Disability Labour’s concerns because it had been told of a small number of cases in which disabled people had lost their entitlement to benefits in transferring from disability living allowance to personal independence payment after being found to be “able to go shopping in their wheelchairs”.
Mike Adams, chief executive of Purple, said he was concerned that the boycott would “frighten the living daylights” out of retailers who had been prepared to “put their head above the parapet” and support the Purple Tuesday campaign.
He said: “If I had hands, I would throw them up in the air.
“I do understand the concerns and I do understand the worries that there might be a hidden agenda. There really, really isn’t.”
Purple Tuesday was a “totally independent campaign initiative”, he said, which had received “not one penny” from DWP.
He said: “I am frustrated because I thought we had been absolutely clear that this is not government-led or involved or paid for in any shape or form.
“There is no agenda. This is absolutely about getting disabled people to be seen as customers and making sure that retailers are aware and understand how you can improve the shopping experience of disabled people.
“I would urge them to seriously rethink the boycott. I think it is counter-productive to what we are trying to achieve.”
He said there had “never been any conversations” about the sharing of CCTV footage and that “absolutely nothing” DWP had said had led him to believe that it would be using CCTV from the event as evidence to use against benefit claimants.
More than 80 per cent of Purple’s board are disabled people, and the organisation provides training for employers, and works with disabled people to find jobs, recruit personal assistants and manage their direct payments.
Adams said Purple Tuesday was “an initiative that has been crafted, created, coordinated and delivered by a disability organisation”.
He said Purple Tuesday was about awareness-raising on the day itself, but also about “what then happens for the following 365 days”, while a call had gone out to disabled people to describe their “good and bad” retail experiences.
He added: “I think it is incredibly important that society understands and sees disabled people as real valued people who have money to spend and who deserve by absolute default a right to a good customer experience.
“It is my view that if businesses improve their customer services, more disabled people will spend their money with them, and that will drive business to want to reflect in their workforce their consumer base.
“That is an approach that I am hoping will start to really make inroads into some of the inequality… on employment, education, well-being.
“I think it goes hand-in-hand with the work that we do to support disabled people on a day-to-day basis.”
DWP said that any claims that it would use CCTV footage from the event as evidence that disabled people were not eligible for certain benefits were “categorically untrue”.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We have not provided funding to Purple but we have worked closely with them to facilitate Purple Tuesday and ensure it is a success.”
Sainsbury’s had refused to comment on the boycott call by 1pm today (Thursday), and also refused to say if it had ever shared CCTV footage with DWP to use as evidence to justify rejecting a benefit claim.
It also refused to promise that it would not share such footage from Purple Tuesday with DWP.
An intu spokesman said: “Purple is one of many different organisations we work with in order to identify new ways to improve our physical spaces, customer service and employee support, so that we can ensure intu shopping centres are accessible destinations for all.
“We are unaware of any links between Purple Tuesday and the DWP and we think it would be a shame if the event is boycotted because of the valuable insight and awareness it is creating for this important cause.
“Like other organisations, intu is governed by current legislation which means that we would only share CCTV footage with individuals and public authorities in line with GDPR [data protection] requirements and under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
“These requests are always fully scrutinised in line with current legislation.”
But he refused to pledge that intu would not pass CCTV footage from Purple Tuesday to DWP.
An M&S spokeswoman said the retailer had “never shared CCTV footage with the DWP to use as evidence to justify rejecting a benefit claim”.
She added: “As we don’t share footage with the DWP, we won’t do it on Purple Tuesday.”
She said: “Purple Tuesday is a great opportunity to increase awareness and understanding of the challenges our disabled customers face so that we can improve the shopping experience for them.
“The accessibility of our stores and website is extremely important to us and we’re delighted to support it.”
A Landsec spokeswoman said the company “would not share any CCTV with the DWP, unless we were served with a court order to do so”.
She added: “Landsec is committed to making its retail destinations as accessible as possible, for the sole reason that we believe in creating spaces which everyone is able to enjoy equally.
“While we recognise that, for the retail industry, Purple Tuesday is a move in the right direction, rather than a complete solution, we’re pleased to be able to raise awareness of the importance of disability access.”
8 November 2018
A new exhibition is charting how artists have fought back against attacks on disabled people’s rights and financial support over the last six years.
Shape Arts’ retrospective, Cumulative Effect: Disability and the Welfare State, looks at how that work has reacted to both government policy on social security and the way society continues to discriminate against disabled people.
The retrospective re-examines key works from the last six years of Shape Open, an annual exhibition of work on a disability-centred theme which is run by the disability arts organisation Shape.
The new exhibition recognises that 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the post-war National Assistance Act, legislation which abolished the poor laws that had existed for hundreds of years and instead set up a new social security safety net.
Many of the works in Cumulative Effect examine the flaws and injustices of the government’s disability benefit assessment regime, and the deaths and mental distress it has caused, while others take a broader look at the impact of austerity and at society’s attitudes to disabled people.
Among the most striking works is The Black Triangle Film, Vince Laws’ silent text presentation of edited media reports on the deaths of disabled people that have been linked to government social security cuts and sanctions.
Another protest against the targeting of sick and disabled people by the social security system is Aminder Virdee’s …And the Odds and Sods, a solid wood sculpture of a single dice that has “fit to work” or “not fit to work” written on each of its six sides.
She created the piece in 2013, following her own experience of the work capability assessment (WCA) system the previous year.
Despite a number of physical impairments stemming from a progressive muscle-wasting condition, as well as experience of mental distress, she had been found fit for work.
She said: “I had a really bad experience with the assessor, who just saw me as someone who dressed well and used make-up and therefore looked well.”
It took her months to appeal successfully to a tribunal.
Much of her art is about disability, she said, because “that underpins everything I do”, including the stereotypes she has to confront in her daily life.
She said: “A lot of my work confronts mixed identity aspects of being a disabled woman of colour also living with mental illness, and how I like to confront the myths and stereotypes of living with mental illness when you are also disabled.”
She added: “Someone came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know how you do it because if I was in your shoes, I would have killed myself.’
“If I say I am depressed, people say, ‘Of course you are, you’re disabled.’
“I am not ‘depressed’ because I am disabled.”
She said she realised when viewing the other pieces in the exhibition how relevant all the work still was today, even pieces dating back to 2012-13.
Virdee said it was “upsetting” to realise that her own piece and other works in the exhibition were still relevant today, and she added: “It really highlights the lack of change.”
Another powerful exhibit is Lizz Brady’s Hitting My Head Against a Brick Wall, a print created by the artist – who has a mental health condition – literally hitting her head against a brick wall in frustration at the rejection of her personal independence payment claim.
In the exhibition’s catalogue, she explains: “I felt that no matter what I did or said, however I made my point of how I struggle with my disability, that I wasn’t listened to, that I was just a number to them.
“Having invisible disabilities hindered me in this political process.”
The Calliper Kid Beats the 20 Metre Rule, by Jason Wilsher-Mills, responds to the government’s much-criticised mobility rule – introduced with the new personal independence payment – that led to tens of thousands of customers losing their Motability vehicles.
Fuck the DWP, by Justin Piccirilli, is another to protest at the dehumanising and humiliating WCA process, while A War Against Disabled People, by Stephen Lee Hodgkins, summarises the government’s austerity-driven attacks on disabled people’s support.
There are also works, like Dolly Sen’s Help the Normals and Katherine Araniello’s Pity, that mock the charity model of disability, with Sen arguing that it is “better to have rights, equality and the withdrawal of oppressive practices, than someone’s pity and spare change”.
Lizzy Rose’s Chronicillness Zine – a collection of memes that were previously shared online under the hashtag #chronicillness – explores the relationship between the internet and disability, while Carly Jane’s Strangers – which includes a wheelchair re-imagined as a deckchair – addresses common discriminatory attitudes towards disabled people.
Rose, who has a chronic illness, designed her zine at a time when she was very ill and “couldn’t really go out that much” and instead began to connect online with other people with chronic illness.
She said it was important to find ways to ensure that artists with chronic illness can turn their experiences into art to “ensure that there is that voice within the art world”.
She added: “I am very interested in taking the experience of illness and turning it into something else.”
Several pieces, like Sophie Hoyle’s Permastress, examine the experience of mental illness, with her work questioning the technology used to measure psychiatric conditions, which reduces lived experience to numerical data.
In her piece, the order in which eight video clips were played was controlled by biofeedback equipment, including an electrocardiogram machine and a skin sensor that measured the anxiety levels in her body through electrical signals and sweat levels.
In contrast, the videos showed the visual manifestation of her anxiety through body language, gestures and facial expressions.
Hoyle said: “For some reason, people always seem to be more convinced by empirical data.”
She pointed to the connections between her piece and many of the other works in the exhibition which focus on the bureaucratic processes that disabled people “have to undergo to prove disability”, while other exhibits are about “social invisibility”.
She said: “There is the contradiction of having to prove yourself and still not being seen.”
David Hevey, chief executive and artistic director of Shape Arts, said the exhibition showed how good art can emerge from crisis.
He said the artists had produced work in response to that crisis and the attacks on disabled people that was “angry, witty and entertaining”.
He said Shape had been working both with its existing community of disabled artists but also developing new, emerging talent, much of which was appearing in the exhibition.
Sara Dziadik, the exhibition’s curator, pointed to The Black Triangle Film as one of the most powerful exhibits.
She said: “Sometimes it’s easy in the day-to-day to gloss over things and forget that there are real people living through this day-to-day.
“The amazing thing about art is it can translate emotions into something relatable and translatable.”
She said that art can be a good tool to “open up conversations” about disability.
She added: “Hopefully, people will look around and feel they can talk about their own experiences and the experiences of people they know.”
Cumulative Effect: Disability and the Welfare State, is at Hoxton Arches, Cremer Street, London E2 8HD until Sunday (11 November), and is open each day from 10am to 6pm
8 November 2018
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com