More than £2 billion in extra money for social care over the next three years – announced by the chancellor in yesterday’s budget – is “meaningless” when set against the scale of the funding crisis, disabled campaigners have warned.
The spring budget contained few significant announcements on key issues of concern for disabled people, and there were no u-turns on two major, imminent cuts to disability benefits.
But the chancellor, Philip Hammond, did confirm hundreds of millions of pounds in funding* to set up more than 100 more free schools by 2020 – in addition to the 500 already planned – a move that inclusive education campaigners say will lead to an expansion of selective education that will further discriminate against disabled pupils.
Hammond failed to mention disabled people or disability once in his budget speech of more than 6,700 words.
But he admitted that the social care system was “clearly under pressure”, and although he repeatedly referred to the needs of older people, and not to working-age disabled people, he announced extra funding for local councils in England of £1.2 billion in 2017-18, £800 million in 2018-19 and £400 million in 2019-20.
He also said the government would publish a green paper on social care funding later this year.
But Hammond made no mention of new amendments to personal independence payment (PIP) regulations, announced by the government last month following two tribunal rulings, which will tighten eligibility criteria and cut support to more than 160,000 people, particularly those with severe mental distress who need mobility support.
The Office for Budget Responsibility confirmed in Treasury budget documents that the amendments to PIP regulations will save the government £3.7 billion over the next five years.
Hammond also made no mention of cuts of nearly £30 a week to payments to new claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) placed in the work-related activity group, which will come into effect next month.
Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP) said the extra funding announced by Hammond would no nothing to address the social care crisis.
A GMCDP spokesperson said: “The £2 billion announced in today’s budget to prop up adult social care over the next three years will do nothing to halt the massive cuts being rained upon disabled people trying to retain or access care funding.
“With the Local Government Association estimating that local authorities will be facing a £5.8 billion shortfall in social care by 2020, the money pledged today is in reality a derisible amount.
“The fact that there was not a single mention of disabled people within the budget seems to be in keeping with the government’s total disregard of the cumulative impact their austerity measures are having on us.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Giving a paltry £2 billion for social care up to 2020 is meaningless when £4.6 billion has already been lost from that budget since 2010.
“This also ignores additional pressures caused by an increasingly older population.”
Disability rights activist Alice Kirby said she was “absolutely disgusted” that disabled people had been ignored by the chancellor in his speech.
She said: “Disabled people were not mentioned once yesterday by Philip Hammond, despite every part of our lives being under attack by government cuts.
“This is unforgivable. Hammond should have reversed the ESA cut and recognised that this will not ‘incentivise’ disabled people to find employment, but will force those unfit for work into poverty.
“He should have also addressed the unjustified changes in eligibility for PIP which is expected to effect 160,000 disabled people.”
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of the national servicer-user and disabled people’s network Shaping Our Lives, highlighted the chancellor’s decision to increase national insurance for self-employed people.
He said: “Ironically it is perhaps the hike in national insurance for self-employed people which in the longer term may have the most important implications of this budget for disabled people.
“It shows that this government is quite prepared to ignore historical manifesto commitments, even when they negatively affect groups that it would most see as its own voters.
“I mean the increasing number of people, including some disabled people, who have become self-employed, encouraged to do so by this government, seen by it as its natural electoral constituency and now seriously financially damaged by it.
“This budget decision adds yet more people to the ranks of those, like disabled people, that the government is quite prepared to penalise in the interests of its own ideological preoccupations, adding to the numbers who in future may well withdraw their support from it.
“There are indeed going to be many new alliances for disabled people to form, as this government alienates more and more people through its regressively redistributive policies.”
Disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale, who wrote a well-received review in 2014 on the failure of the ESA system to increase the number of disabled people in paid work, said the government had “buried without remorse” the “whole raft of cuts to disabled people’s livelihoods and opportunities”.
Despite the booming economy, she said, the Tories “aren’t giving a penny back to the people who paid the most for their deficit reduction: [those who are] sick and disabled”.
Hale, a member of the Spartacus online network, said: “When they say they want a country that works for everyone, they don’t really mean us.
“The extra funding for social care is welcome. But there’s nothing in the government’s messaging to suggest it’s aimed at restoring the principle of independent living that was decimated by the closure of the Independent Living Fund, only on relieving the pressures on the NHS through bed-blocking.
“No recognition that properly funding social care is a route to more disabled people in work.”
Disabled activist Rick Burgess said the failure to mention disability was “ominous”.
He said: “With the assessment regime revealed to be a fraudulent system of abuse, social care collapsing, and the UN condemning the numerous state-sponsored abuses of our human rights, that the Tories saw no need to address this, indicates they are happy with our persecution and intend to accelerate it.
“And they perceive this to be of no detriment to their political support.
“One has to ask are the 11 million Tory voters happy to be thought of as disablist abusers condemned on the international stage?”
Disabled researcher Stef Benstead, another member of the Spartacus Network, added: “What can I say? The government doesn’t care about disabled people.”
*The precise amount has yet to be confirmed by the Treasury, following confusion over contradictory figures in the budget documents
9 March 2017
One of the outsourcing giants paid to assess disabled people for their eligibility for benefits appears to have admitted that it is standard practice – approved by the government – to ask claimants with mental health conditions why they failed to take their own lives.
A leading clinical psychologist has warned this week that such questioning “brings huge risks” and is one of the reasons behind the increase in suicides associated with the government’s work capability assessment (WCA) process*.
The admission from Maximus, which carries out WCAs for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), came after a disabled campaigner produced a recording of his own assessment.
On the recording, shared with Disability News Service (DNS), a Maximus assessor – an occupational therapist – is heard asking Jonathan Hume a series of questions during his WCA, while typing on a keyboard.
She asks him [his replies have not been included]: “Back to some questions that we have to cover…
“Have you ever tried to harm yourself or take your own life or needed to go to hospital?
“Do you have any thoughts around that at the moment, any intentions or plans to hurt yourself currently?
“When you say desires, how often are you having thoughts like that?
“And what is it that stops you from acting on the thoughts that you have?
“Can you think of any reason that you’re not doing that? Is it friends or family support?”
Hume’s assessment took place in Sunderland last September, and both Maximus and DWP appear to have conceded that the DNS transcription of the questions is an accurate description of what took place.
Hume came forward after fellow disability rights activist Alice Kirby sparked a horrified reaction on social media last week after revealing how the healthcare professional who assessed her eligibility for personal independence payment (PIP) had asked her: “Can you tell me why you haven’t killed yourself yet?”
After she shared her experience, many other claimants came forward to say that they had been asked the same, or a similar, question by their assessors.
Hume said he had raised concerns with Maximus about the questioning by email on the day of his assessment, before he knew the result of his employment and support allowance (ESA) claim.
He told DNS: “As both clinicians and claimants have made clear, the WCA is a hostile, stressful and coercive situation and the carelessness and brutality with which these questions are asked has the potential to do a great deal of harm to vulnerable people, many of whom are already avoiding claiming their rightful benefits due to a system which is degrading and stressful from the first phone call.
“We are forced to justify our very survival in a hostile context to answer questions which are only dubiously related to the legal criteria of ESA.
“Such information, if truly necessary for the claim, could be gained in so many other ways that avoid putting claimants in significant distress and risk, such as written statements from the claimant’s therapists or other carers.
“There are no grounds to continue such questioning.”
Dr Jay Watts, a clinical psychologist and academic, told DNS that people should only be asked about suicidal ideation by a trained professional who can offer help or someone in an “existing trusting relationship with the individual”.
She said that WCAs were “degrading and humiliating experiences for most if not all claimants” and were carried out in a space which was “not a trustworthy one”.
She said: “Individuals are required to parade their distress and feel compelled to answer intrusive questions (for the means to live relies on this).”
She added: “To ask about suicide or self-harm in this context brings huge risks.”
And she said that such questioning “can be suggestive if the environment is unsafe.
“If someone is low or anxious, for example, made to feel they are a ‘skiver’ for needing benefits, an implication that if they were really ill they would have killed themselves can be the final straw. It may lead directly to an attempt on one’s life.”
She said that claimants were “battered with multiple questions about that which is most personal” in disability assessments and questioned about suicide while the assessors are “typing away” on their keyboards.
Watts said: “I have no doubt that questions on suicidal ideation, and the degrading manner in which they are asked, are one reason behind the suicide spike associated with the WCA process.”
She called on Frank Field, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, to carry out an urgent review of the way disability benefit assessments are carried out.
In a statement, a Maximus spokesman said that its role was “to carry out high quality and sensitive functional assessments”.
He said: “Mr Hulme [sic] contacted us last year and a doctor reviewed the recording of his assessment and the report.
“We are satisfied that the healthcare professional who conducted the assessment did so in line with our policies and guidelines.
“Every healthcare professional we employ is trained to ask people with a mental health condition a series of clinical questions to assess how their condition affects their daily lives.
“The assessment report was passed to the Department for Work and Pensions, who make the decision on eligibility for benefits.”
He had failed to clarify by noon today (Thursday) whether the questions asked of Jonathan Hume were standard questions; if DWP was aware that such questions were being asked in assessments; and whether Maximus and DWP believed that they were appropriate and safe questions to ask of someone in his situation.
Despite requesting a copy of the recording, which was provided by DNS – with Hume’s agreement – DWP also failed to provide clear answers to a series of key questions.
These include whether it accepted that the questions were asked in Hume’s assessment; whether asking such questions was appropriate and safe in an assessment, particularly for assessors who are not trained mental health professionals; and whether these were standard, DWP-approved questions asked of ESA and PIP claimants with suicidal ideation.
Instead, in response to the DNS questions, a DWP spokeswoman said: “We are not aware of any complaints made to DWP on this issue, but would investigate any allegations thoroughly.
“All PIP assessment providers receive training on mental health conditions, including suicidal issues.”
She said that assessors “receive training in order to conduct functional assessments on behalf of the DWP and their training includes conducting a mental health assessment which may, if appropriate, include questions about suicide or self-harm.
“Health professionals are medically qualified professionals and as such, they should have the appropriate skills to enable them to deal with people in a supportive and sensitive way.
“If an individual has mental health issues or a there is an indication of suicidal thoughts or intentions, this will be given careful and sensitive exploration to establish the circumstances.”
She added: “There is a duty of care to act where appropriate, for example if the individual is considered to be in substantial and imminent risk.
“Both the department and our contracted providers have a duty of care where there is any indication or possibility of suicidal thoughts or intentions, and it would therefore not be appropriate to not explore this further.”
Government-funded research by public health experts from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford concluded in late 2015 that the programme to reassess people on incapacity benefit through the WCA was linked to 590 suicides in just three years. Maximus declined to comment on the research at the time.
9 March 2017
New funding for free schools worth hundreds of millions of pounds shows the government has an “utter disregard” for the human rights of disabled children and young people, say campaigners.
Yesterday’s budget saw the government announce £320 million in funding to set up 140 new free schools.
Many of them are likely to be selective institutions, because the government plans to lift the ban on creating new grammar schools.
But there was confusion over the figures, as the budget documents refer to both an “investment of £320 million in this Parliament to help fund up to 140 schools” and also to an investment of just £100 million extra by 2020.
As well as the money in this parliament, the budget documents also show there will be an extra £935 million in new money for more free schools in the two years after the next election*.
Earlier this week, the Department for Education (DfE) also announced an extra £215 million to increase school capacity for disabled children and those with special educational needs.
Every local council has been allocated at least £500,000 from the £215 million of capital spending to “expand and improve” their special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) provision.
DfE said the money would be used for academies, free schools, grammar schools, special units attached to mainstream schools, special schools, early years and further education settings, and “other provision”.
It could be used, DfE said, to build “new specialised classrooms for children with emotional, social and mental health difficulties, expand existing classrooms to increase their size for those using mobility aids, purchase mobility equipment and even create new storage facilities for wheelchairs”.
In a letter to directors of children’s services, Edward Timpson, minister for vulnerable children and families, says: “Local authorities will need to consider the range of specialist provision available, and how the places available in special schools, special units and resourced provision meet the changing needs of children and young people.”
He says the £215 million will “help local authorities create new school places and improve existing facilities for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities”.
Tara Flood, director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education, said the free schools announcement was “the work of a government that seems utterly obsessed with segregating young people they think are not suitable for their vision of education”.
She said it was a “shameless” breach of article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which demands an “inclusive education system at all levels”, and showed “an utter disregard for human rights”.
And she said she feared that the £215 million fund would be used mostly to increase segregated, specialist provision, rather than “building the capacity to be more inclusive” in mainstream schools.
Flood said: “The government made a UNCRPD commitment to ‘building the capacity of mainstream education’ but instead has created an anti-inclusion climate that seems to incentivise segregation and exclusion.
“So without a clear inclusion steer from government we are deeply concerned that schools will use the funding to build more segregated provision within mainstream and larger special schools.”
She said that the total funding for both creating new free schools and expanding SEND provision was “going into exactly what schools do not need”.
And she pointed out that the new funding comes after unions have warned that schools in England faced a real-terms £3 billion funding cut by 2020.
Flood said both announcements were further moves towards fulfilling the promise in the Conservative party’s 2010 manifesto to “end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools”.
Flood said: “There isn’t a single thing that the 2010 and 2015 governments have done that isn’t in line with ‘reversing the bias’.”
Last month, Disability News Service reported that DfE had finally admitted that it had failed to assess the impact on disabled children and young people of its plans to expand grammar schools in England.
Laws currently ban any new selective schools and prevent existing non-selective schools from becoming selective, but the government wants to expand existing grammar schools, create new selective schools and allow non-selective schools to become selective.
Inclusive education campaigners say that expanding grammar schools – secondary schools which select pupils via an entrance test – will discriminate against disabled children and lead to more segregated education in special schools.
New UN guidance – through a “general comment” on the UNCRPD, adopted last August – has made it clear that all segregated education should end and be replaced by “inclusive classroom teaching in accessible learning environments with appropriate supports”.
Disabled children with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) or statements of special educational needs represent only 0.1 per cent of grammar school pupils, despite making up 1.8 per cent of the secondary school population, while disabled children without statements or EHCPs still make up only 4.2 per cent of grammar school pupils, but 12.4 per cent of all secondary school pupils.
*The Treasury had not been able to clarify the funding situation by noon today (Thursday)
9 March 2017
A disabled peer has accused the minister for disabled people of “spinning like crazy” in an attempt to defend the government’s latest cuts to benefits for people with mental health conditions.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell says she and five other peers met with Penny Mordaunt last week about the government’s amendments to personal independence payment (PIP) regulations.
The government’s own figures show the measures to tighten eligibility will see an estimated 164,000 claimants either lose all of their eligibility for the mobility component of the benefit or see it reduced.
The amendment means PIP claimants who need support on journeys because of the risk of experiencing overwhelming mental distress will not be able to be scored in their assessment in the same way as those who cannot navigate a journey because of a visual or cognitive impairment.
Baroness Campbell, a crossbench peer, had already asked the government in the House of Lords on 28 February if it had carried out an impact assessment of the social isolation caused by the measure.
The work and pensions minister Lord Henley failed to answer her question.
But she told Disability News Service this week that the government’s move, which it insists is intended to “clarify the criteria” and “restore the original aim of the policy”, meant that its previous pledge to ensure “parity of esteem” between PIP claimants with physical and mental health impairments “seems to have been flushed down the toilet”.
She said that disabled people and their organisations had “worked hard [when the government was designing PIP] to explain and give evidence on why the PIP mobility component needed to be based on a more modern understanding of disability, which would give parity of esteem between people with mental health/psychological disabilities and people with physical impairments when assessing an individual’s ability to get around”.
But she said the new regulations would now mean “clear discrimination between the two types of impairment”.
She said: “When I asked Penny Mordaunt directly about this, she swore the new regulations changed nothing, as the support for people with mental health barriers would come from elsewhere.”
But she said the six peers realised that Mordaunt was “spinning like crazy” after they had questioned her for more than an hour.
She said: “To be honest, it felt like we were both talking in different languages, about different subjects.”
9 March 2017
A town council that secured half a million pounds in lottery funding to turn a building into a new community centre and council offices banned disabled people from entering the newly-refurbished premises in their scooters or electric wheelchairs.
The Meridian Centre Withernsea (MCW), in east Yorkshire, provides community facilities and hosts the ground-floor offices of the town council, which owns the building.
But disabled people who use scooters or electric wheelchairs were told they had to leave them at the front door.
The centre’s policy was first exposed last summer by scooter-user Adrienne Jardine, who visited the centre on her own for one of its regular bingo sessions.
The main, accessible entrance was locked and the side door, which was unlocked, had a step.
When she asked for assistance, she was told she would have to leave her scooter outside and walk in, even though she cannot walk.
She told Disability News Service (DNS): “I said, ‘I can’t walk.’ It was so humiliating.”
The centre now appears to have changed its policy slightly, but still only allows scooters and electric wheelchairs into the building on a “discretionary” basis and only if their users provide “prior notice”.
Despite the Big Lottery Fund (BLF) providing more than £500,000 to fund the renovation work on the former club and bar, the council decided it could only afford to install a platform lift, rather than a proper passenger lift.
This led to MCW banning scooters and electric wheelchairs from the platform lift, so any disabled people who use them and want to visit the first floor – where most events, such as film screenings and bingo sessions, take place – had to transfer outside the building into a manual wheelchair.
MCW claims that Stannah, the company that installed the platform lift, only guaranteed its use for manual wheelchairs, although DNS has seen an email from Stannah that states that the lifts are suitable for electric wheelchairs.
East Riding of Yorkshire Council, which uses the building as a polling station, has even been forced to secure an agreement from MCW to allow people using electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters into the ground floor of the building to vote during elections.
DNS has seen an email sent by town council clerk Jayne Moxon last November to local MP Graham Stuart, in which she says: “Everyone who comes to the events on a mobility scooter leaves them outside the building.
“Mobility scooters are getting bigger and heavier and can cause damage (already have) when used inside. They also would create an obstruction in the fire exits.
“We are only able to take Class 1 wheelchairs [manual, or self-propelled wheelchairs] inside the building.
“This is not discriminating in any way, it is for safe use of the building, facilities and all its users.”
She then claims – wrongly – that this is the policy “in many public buildings, including the House of Commons”.
Terry Dagnall, a town councillor, who became chair of MCW in November, said that electric wheelchairs were now allowed to use the platform lift.
He told Stuart in December that scooter-users were allowed into the building with “prior notification”.
But he has so far been unable to explain why this current policy differs from what Moxon told the MP.
Moxon has also been unable to explain the difference between what she and Dagnall told the MP.
She told DNS: “The lift specification was carefully considered by our professional team – architects, structural engineers and quantity surveyors, building regulations and the Big Lottery funders, and we put the best one in that we could afford.”
She added: “Most people who come to the events on a mobility scooter leave them outside the building, though we do allow some inside, given prior notice.
“This is to plan to accommodate them safely for all the users.”
The Big Lottery Fund has so far refused to criticise any of the decisions made by the town council or MCW and has insisted that it was “not the case” that some disabled people had been denied access to the building, despite being shown Moxon’s email to Graham Stuart.
A BLF spokeswoman said: “We reviewed the proposal to install a platform lift and were comfortable that it would provide vertical access.
“It was built in compliance and means that a building that didn’t previously have a lift now does.”
She added: “We would always be concerned if it came to light that people were being barred access from a public building that we had funded. However, this is not the case.”
Adrienne Jardine said she was “very surprised and angry” with the Big Lottery Fund’s approach.
She said: “I am just so humiliated and angry.
“The money was given for the community and not for the council.
“It seems as though the whole building has been designed for the use of the council and not for the public at large.
“Everything is upstairs, which is inaccessible to people on electric wheelchairs and scooters.”
The concerns have been taken up by support and campaign group Disabled Voices East Riding (DVER).
Catherine Scarlett, DVER’s founder, said: “I have been really shocked by this situation. Mrs Jardine contacted me after not being allowed into the centre to go to bingo on her scooter.
“After she went to her local paper, the responses from the council were shocking – saying that 99 per cent of scooter users can walk anyway and that she should have had a carer with her.”
She said the council and centre had imposed a “de facto ban on scooter and electric wheelchair users”.
Scarlett added: “Expecting a disabled person to have a carer with them to attend events and to undertake the dangerous transfer from scooter to wheelchair outside puts wheelchair users at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled people using the building, and also amounts to humiliating treatment.
“Why would someone with a scooter or electric wheelchair have to inform the centre in advance to be allowed in?”
She said the policies were clear breaches of the Equality Act.
Scarlett said: “I am disgusted with the Big Lottery Fund, who appear to be colluding with the discriminatory practices of the Meridian Centre by stating that people are not being barred from going in, when an independent scooter or powerchair user who couldn’t transfer or operate a manual wheelchair would not be allowed in.
“Both Withernsea Town Council and the Big Lottery Fund need to update their understanding of the Equality Act, especially the public sector equality duty, and get some urgent disability equality training.
“Withernsea Town Council should also publicly apologise to Mrs Jardine for the humiliation and distress they have caused her and tell the disabled people of the town that they are welcome to enter the centre and use the lift to visit the cinema and function rooms.”
9 March 2017
Calls for government cuts to disability benefits to be reversed are likely to be debated separately – and voted on – by both Houses of Parliament later this month.
The amendments to personal independence payment (PIP) regulations were announced last month by work and pensions secretary Damian Green, and led to protests by disabled activists outside the Houses of Parliament this week.
The proposed changes to PIP regulations were set out by the government in a statutory instrument, and parliamentary procedures allow them to be debated and voted on separately in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
In the Lords, the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Bakewell has lodged what is known as an “annulment prayer”, which will allow peers to debate – and vote on – the proposed regulations later this month.
A spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrat whips office said the regulations “definitely will be debated” later this month.
In the Commons, the “annulment prayer” has been lodged through an early day motion (EDM) sponsored by Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and backed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and so far signed by more than 100 MPs from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP, as well as the Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas.
The House of Commons library says the government will “typically find time” to debate such an EDM, if it has been signed by shadow ministers – which this EDM has – although it is not obliged to do so.
But it also warns that it is “very rare” for a statutory instrument to be over-turned: 1979 was the last time one was annulled in the House of Commons, and in the House of Lords it was 2000.
The PIP cuts will particularly impact on people with mental health conditions, with a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) equality impact assessment concluding that an estimated 164,000 claimants will either lose all of their eligibility for the PIP mobility component or see it reduced, as a result of the cuts.
Another 1,500 disabled people who need support to take medication and monitor a health condition will either lose all of their PIP daily living payment or see it cut.
The government announced the amendments after two tribunal rulings that ministers claimed had interpreted the PIP assessment criteria “in ways that are different to what was originally intended” by the coalition government.
The mobility component tribunal ruling found that PIP claimants who need to be accompanied on journeys because of the risk of experiencing overwhelming mental distress could be scored in their assessment in the same way as those who cannot navigate a journey because of a visual or cognitive impairment.
DWP has said the amendments to PIP regulations are intended “to clarify the criteria, to restore the original aim of the policy and ensure support goes to those with the highest costs associated with their disability”.
9 March 2017
Disabled activists have explained why they took to the streets around parliament to protest at the government’s latest cuts to disability benefits.
The protest, organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), brought traffic to a standstill outside the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday, a day before the spring budget.
It was sparked by fresh cuts to personal independence payment (PIP) that were announced last month by work and pensions secretary Damian Green, following two tribunal rulings, and which will particularly impact on people with mental health conditions.
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) equality impact assessment found that an estimated 164,000 claimants will either lose all of their eligibility for the PIP mobility component or see it reduced, as a result of the cuts.
Another 1,500 disabled people who need support to take medication and monitor a health condition will either lose all of their PIP daily living payment or see it cut.
During the protest, activists – and Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people, Marie Rimmer – posed for pictures in front of parliament with a “#ToryCutsKill” banner.
Scores of disabled people then marched around Parliament Square chanting “no more deaths from benefit cuts”, before staging a sit-in roadblock.
Many of those who joined Tuesday’s action were protesting at the cumulative impact of years of cuts to disability benefits and other support, and its often fatal impact on disabled people.
The latest cuts came only three months after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities found the UK government’s social security reforms had caused “grave or systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights.
Paula Peters, from DPAC and MHRN, said the PIP cuts were “an ideologically-designed policy designed to remove support from us” and that the government had “blood on their hands” and “need to be put in the dock for the deaths of disabled people”.
She told protesters: “Raise your voices in anger. This has got to stop.”
MHRN activist Roy Bard said the latest cuts showed the government had “no respect for the United Nations and no respect for disabled people”, and warned that they would lead to more “distressed and traumatised people… on the streets of our cities and towns”.
He disputed the government’s claim that people with mental health conditions were more likely to receive the support they needed under PIP than under disability living allowance (DLA), the benefit it is replacing for working-age claimants.
He said: “That’s not our experience. Our experience is that people who had been on DLA with mental health issues for a long time suddenly find themselves on zero points when they come to their first PIP assessment.
“The people who are the most isolated, the most vulnerable, are the ones who are losing out at the moment.”
Denise McKenna, MHRN’s co-founder, told Disability News Service: “People are living very close to the edge at the moment and they can’t afford any more cuts.
“The government are getting rid of the welfare state and they don’t care who lives or dies.
“In the context of a huge assault that has been going on for several years now, these are particularly nasty. It’s particularly aimed at people with mental health problems.”
Another disabled protester, Jamie McCormack, said: “If you are going to have a prime minister talking about equality, talking abour parity of esteem [between mental and physical health], then you had better match it up with actions.”
He said he had wanted to attend the protest on behalf of friends with mental health problems who could not be there, and to be “the voice of the voiceless”.
Disabled campaigner Faisal Yusuf said: “Are they politicians or are they barbers? Benefits are not a person’s hair that they keep cutting.
“They say they are going to support people with learning disabilities but then they cut the benefit.
“My message to the government is: ‘Stop with the cuts.’ To them it might be some sort of benefit, but to people with learning disabilities it is their lives.”
Richie Boakye said he and his friends were there to “speak up for ourselves”.
He said: “The government taking money from disabled people is wrong. They shouldn’t cut our money because we have a disability. Our money is important.”
Martin Doyle added: “I am only here because I don’t like the way they are cutting all the benefits. I think it’s disgraceful.
“Like Richie, I think we are all entitled to our money, full stop.”
He added: “I am worried about what is going to happen in the future. If they are going to cut our benefits, what else are they going to cut? Our self-respect?”
John Wood, who receives disability living allowance, said he was already struggling with his bills, even though he had not yet been reassessed for PIP.
He said the latest cuts were “disgraceful”.
Victoria Lopez said she had wanted to attend the protest because of the disabled people who had died as a result of the government’s welfare reforms.
She said: “One person is too many, and that is what we are saying, and they are not being held accountable. People should not be dying. How is that right?
“My hope is that we are listened to.”
She said she hoped the government would think again on the imminent cuts of nearly £30 a week for new claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of employment and support allowance, and that it would scrap the work capability assessment.
She said she had wanted to attend the protest even though she knew that it meant she would be “paralysed” the next day because of her impairment.
Another disabled protester, Rona Topaz, said she feared that the government would eventually “try to abolish PIP altogether”.
She said that although the current cuts did not affect her personally, she was “here to show solidarity with people who are affected by these cuts.
“I believe they are ideological, they are unnecessary, and they are specifically meant to demoralise the weakest and most vulnerable claimants of PIP.”
Ariane Sacco, from the disabled women’s organisation WinVisible, said that women with mental health problems who were part of the network were “alarmed” at the latest PIP cuts.
Rimmer, Labour’s new shadow minister for disabled people, said the PIP changes had been “sneaked through”, and that while the government had promised “parity of esteem” for mental health service-users, the new cut to PIP “flies in the face of parity of esteem”.
She added: “When [the government] have a chance to do something about parity of esteem between mental health and physical health, what do they do? They throw it away.”
She said: “They are dismantling every support service we have. To attack disabled people in this manner is absolutely unforgiveable.”
Rimmer, a disabled person herself, told DNS that the latest cuts would “shove more and more people into poverty”.
She added: “It’s their means of getting out and about. They are going to be sanctioned into their own homes. It really is inexcusable.
“The key message is they should restore it, treat disabled people as human beings and help them to live a life and be included in society.”
She said the government was “absolutely not” doing that at the moment, but instead was “throwing them by the wayside”.
Rimmer pointed out that the UK had been the first to be criticised through a UN inquiry for “grave or systematic violations” of the disability convention.
Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green party, who was also at the protest, accused the government of “moving the goalposts when it suits them” on PIP eligibility, and “over-turning the will of the courts”.
He said the latest cuts were “continuing to imprison more disabled people within their homes”.
And he said they would “segregate” and “remove disabled people from the public consciousness” and make it even harder for them to protest about the cuts they were facing.
9 March 2017
Nearly nine in 10 Citizens Advice offices have reported problems with the accuracy of personal independence payment (PIP) assessment reports, MPs have been told.
An urgent session of the Commons work and pensions select committee was hearing evidence from four welfare rights experts about the PIP assessment process, a hearing partly triggered by a Disability News Service (DNS) investigation.
But despite DNS providing the committee with evidence of widespread dishonesty among PIP assessors in the reports they prepare for government decision-makers, none of the MPs asked questions about such concerns.
Instead, the session focused on procedural flaws within the PIP claim process, although witnesses did raise concerns about the accuracy of assessment reports.
Kayley Hignell, head of policy on families, welfare and work for Citizens Advice, told the committee that its advice centres had seen an increase of more than a third in concerns about PIP in the last year, and that the disability benefit – the replacement for working-age disability living allowance – was now its “biggest single issue”.
She said: “We do have quite a lot of challenges with PIP and how it is working, how accurate those decisions are.
“The accuracy of assessments is a real issue… when we have asked our network about this, 88 per cent of the network said to us they have seen cases with inaccuracies on the PIP assessment report or afterwards.
“It is quite systematic or systemic.”
Gary Edwards, of Southampton Advice and Representation Centre (SARC), who told DNS last month about his organisation’s concerns about PIP assessments, also gave evidence to the committee.
He told the MPs about SARC research that analysed the results of 100 appeal tribunals in which it had supported claimants between August 2015 and December 2016.
It was successful in 78 of those tribunals, the highest success rate it has had for any benefit since SARC was founded 35 years ago.
Sam Ashton, campaigns officer for the London-based welfare rights advice charity Z2K, told the committee of his concerns about the “mental state examination”, which is used to assess a PIP claimant’s mental health during a face-to-face assessment, and which looks at criteria such as whether the claimant is sweating or is maintaining eye contact.
He said: “If you were to show this mental state examination to a mental health expert, they would laugh you out the door.
“It has no basis in any sort of clinical expertise. It’s all based on informal observations.”
He said the only part of the PIP process he was happy with was the independent tribunal appeal, and he said that the assessment itself was “flawed”.
Tony Lea, from the Cornwall-based benefits advice service Benefit Resolutions CIC, called for all assessments to be recorded.
He said: “That would help at mandatory reconsideration [the internal, Department for Work and Pensions appeal stage]… [so you would] have a recording of that assessment which someone could transcript and say well, actually, they did say this and it was omitted from the report.”
The DNS investigation into PIP assessments has revealed how assessors working for the outsourcing companies Capita and Atos – most of them nurses – have repeatedly lied, ignored written evidence and dishonestly reported the results of physical examinations.
But none of the panel were asked about those concerns during the evidence session.
Before the session, the committee’s chair, Labour MP Frank Field, had said in a statement: “There has been mounting evidence of desperately serious problems in the system of assessing people for personal independence payment.
“The Disability News Service provided us with a useful series of case studies that acted as a further catalyst for calling this emergency evidence session.”
But after the evidence session, the committee’s press officer refused to put a question to Field on behalf of DNS, asking why none of the MPs had asked the panel about claims of dishonesty in the way PIP reports have been compiled.
Among the stories passed to the committee – but not raised in the evidence session – are that the Department for Work and Pensions had denied any dishonesty at all among the healthcare professionals who carry out its benefits assessments, even though DNS had collected 100 cases where such allegations have been made.
Another passed to the committee described how the social enterprise Here2Support was currently lodging up to 30 PIP appeals a week on behalf of claimants, and “20 to 25” of them involved assessors who had told lies in their reports.
9 March 2017
A group of nine disabled people with the same rare neurological condition have written to MPs to warn of “systemic malpractice” by healthcare professionals who carry out benefit assessments and then write “fraudulent reports” for the government.
The nine who signed the letter are part of a larger group of 20 people who all share chronic forms of the condition trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias (TAC), and have been assessed for personal independence payment (PIP).
The nine say they have been “astounded” by the behaviour they have experienced at the hands of assessors working for both Atos and Capita, the two outsourcing companies paid by the government to carry out PIP assessments.
They say the evidence shows that the assessors breach PIP regulations, case law and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) guidance.
Among their concerns, they say they have evidence of assessors: making false statements about TAC; reaching conclusions that directly contradict those of neurological specialists; refusing to accept documentary evidence about their conditions; failing to record key evidence told to them during assessments; and altering what they are told by the claimant during the assessment.
They have written to Frank Field, chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, which this week carried out an “emergency” evidence session on the PIP assessment system.
Mary*, the wife of one of the claimants and herself a former nurse, has now been collecting evidence of the flawed PIP process for more than two years, and has supported all of the group at various stages of their PIP claims, including representing some in their appeals.
Her husband’s neurologist wrote in 2015 that the condition meant that “daily functioning is severely impacted and the person becomes unreliable, unpredictable and unable to work”, and added: “The impact on his life is massive and entirely in keeping with the nature of this condition.”
But her husband was originally granted just one point – when he needed at least eight to qualify for any PIP support at all – when he was assessed by an Atos healthcare professional in 2015.
Among his concerns was that he had been scored zero on the PIP bathing criteria by his assessor who argued that it was “his choice to avoid having a bath due to trying to avoid having an attack”, even though heat – and therefore bathing – is a known trigger for the neurological attacks they all experience.
He told Disability News Service (DNS): “It was immediately apparent that the healthcare professional had not read my claim file.
“She proceeded with her own agenda and used a variety of methods that consistently prevented me from explaining my difficulties.
“The assessment was a travesty, and I find it inconceivable that the DWP continue to support this charade that the public are paying for.”
A mandatory reconsideration – the internal DWP appeal stage – had led to his original PIP decision being re-examined by Atos and then upheld, while a subsequent complaint to Atos led to the company finding the report to be “a thorough and robust representation” of the assessment.
A further complaint, this time to DWP, led to the department asking Atos to look yet again at the assessment report, which this time led to the conclusion that the original assessment had “not accurately considered” his ability to function reliably.
Atos then issued a “change of advice” – stating that its new conclusion was “consistent with the recognised symptoms” of the condition – and DWP revised its decision, issuing him an award for the enhanced rate of both the daily living and mobility components of PIP, the maximum possible award.
After her husband’s experience, Mary began to help other people with the same condition with their claims, and soon realised that a pattern was developing.
Mary has told Field that she has “significant evidence of the existence of an institutional practice of repeated behaviour patterns by healthcare professionals, resulting in fraudulent reports”.
She told him: “The evidence I hold shows not only serious wrongdoing in individual cases, but also provides a cross-section of claims from around the UK by people who have the same neurological condition which by its specific nature means that these claimants cannot fail to meet the correct and lawful threshold test for enhanced PIP, and yet have been refused any award by a disingenuous process that does not stand up to scrutiny.”
*Not her real name
9 March 2017
Two people involved in the brutal murder of a disabled man who was imprisoned and tortured to death have had their sentences increased by the court of appeal.
Julie Mills and Nicole Lawrence were originally sentenced at Newcastle Crown Court last year after being convicted of involvement in the death of Lee Irving.
He had been repeatedly kicked, punched and stamped on by James Wheatley, in attacks that took place over nine days, leaving him with multiple broken bones and other injuries.
After he died, his body was taken on a pushchair through a housing estate and dumped on a patch of grass near the A1 in Kenton Bar, Newcastle.
The court of appeal decided this week that the prison sentences of eight years and four years handed to Mills and Lawrence were too low, and resentenced Mills, Wheatley’s mother, to 10 years in prison, and Lawrence, his girlfriend, to seven years.
Wheatley did not have his life sentence for murder – of which he will serve at least 23 years – challenged, while the court of appeal decided not to increase the three-year sentence handed to Wheatley’s lodger, Barry Imray.
Mills, Lawrence and Imray were all convicted last year of causing or allowing the death of a vulnerable adult, and of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
But despite this week’s two successful sentencing appeals by solicitor general Robert Buckland, the case has yet again underlined the flaws within the criminal justice system and in legislation on disability hate crime.
Northumbria police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had treated the death of Lee Irving as a disability hate crime, but the judge decided in sentencing last year that there was not enough evidence to prove that any of the offences were motivated by disability-related hostility, and instead set Wheatley’s sentence partly on the basis of Irving’s “vulnerability”.
Lee Irving’s aunt, Lisa, subsequently joined with the Disability Hate Crime Network (DHCN) to ask the attorney general to appeal the sentences on the grounds that the offences were disability hate crimes*.
She told Disability News Service last night (Wednesday) that Lee’s family “would like to reiterate our stance that it is patently obvious this is a disability hate crime.
“This is evident in the language used to describe Lee, as well as their ability to manipulate Lee.
“Someone without a disability would be able to spot the danger and remove themself from the situation. It is unsatisfactory that we still have to dispute this.”
CPS had also written to the attorney general to seek leave to appeal the sentences, on the grounds that they “did not adequately reflect the severity of their offending”.
But despite the CPS originally arguing that the murder was a disability hate crime, lawyers acting for solicitor general Robert Buckland did not make that argument in the court of appeal this week.
Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said the successful appeals were “some justice but late and too little”.
He said that the case showed yet again that disabled people were being “let down all too often by frankly appalling failures by the judiciary who take vulnerability as being the way to deal with such crimes”, which is “almost suggesting it’s their fault for being disabled”.
He said: “What a farce that once again we have to collectively ‘remind’ the criminal justice system that disability hate crime must not be downgraded or diluted by the word ‘vulnerability’.”
Buckland said in a statement: “This is a particularly sad case, where those around the victim who should have been protecting him were allowing him to live in a state of fear and violence.
“Vulnerable people should have the full protection of the law and those with disabilities should feel that crimes and violence of this nature will be taken very seriously.
“I welcome the decision of the court, and hope the increased sentences send a strong message that such crimes will not be tolerated.”
A spokeswoman for Buckland said that although he may have felt that the judge was wrong not to treat the offences as disability hate crimes, he did not have the evidence to show that this decision was so far outside the sentencing guidelines that it could be challenged in the court of appeal.
*Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 imposes a duty on the court to increase sentences for offences motivated by disability-related hostility, while the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 doubles to 30 years the starting point for sentences for disability hate crime murders
9 March 2017
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com