The government’s continuing failure to produce accessible information and guidance to help disabled people protect themselves during the coronavirus crisis is unacceptable and will cost lives, disabled people’s organisations have warned.
Disabled campaigners spoke out after the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) failed yet again to publish guidance for disabled people who use direct payments and employ personal assistants (PAs) on how to protect themselves and their staff during the pandemic.
It is now more than a month since DHSC published its first COVID-19 action plan (3 March).
Tomorrow (Friday), it will be four weeks since ministers produced guidance for the wider social care sector, which was aimed at service-providers in the residential care, supported living and home care sectors, but not at disabled people who employ their own PAs.
Last week, a DHSC spokesperson said that guidance for disabled people who use direct payments would be published “shortly”.
But DHSC had not responded to a request for updated information by noon today (Thursday), more than a week after that promise was made.
Inclusion London, the pan-London disabled people’s organisation, said the government’s ongoing failure to produce “accessible and targeted information and guidance” for Deaf and disabled people was not acceptable.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said: “The additional stress, confusion and anxiety this is causing cannot be overestimated. It will also cost lives.”
As well as the failure to produce guidance for recipients of direct payments, she also pointed to the lack of a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter at the daily televised UK government COVID-19 briefings, and the failure to produce information on how to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect disabled people and their PAs from the virus.
She said: “Both local and central government must act now.
“We need accessible, consistent and clear guidance from both central and local government on a range of welfare, Access to Work and social care/direct payments issues including PPE.
“We also need local authorities to urgently and actively work with Deaf and disabled people’s organisations to develop information, guidance and resources that directly address our priority needs and concerns.”
Mark Williams, from the grassroots disabled people’s organisation Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL), said: “As an employer of PAs I have been dismayed and horrified at the lack of information for individual disabled people who employ PAs.
“At the moment, with the country in lockdown, we are one of the few remaining areas of essential employment trying to carry on as normal, but we need to have the right equipment and information to do that.
“The failure to provide any information puts many disabled people’s lives on the line, and PAs are starting to refuse to come to work.”
Williams said he watched press conferences every day from the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments, but the UK government’s press conference in London was the only one where there was no BSL interpreter.
A BRIL spokesperson added: “People are already feeling under threat; the lack of guidance from central government is adding to the anxiety felt by hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
“We know that people with direct payments, their PAs and families desperately need both additional support and accurate information.
“While some local authorities are working with Deaf and disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs) and being proactive, the overall picture across the country is very increasingly worrying.”
He added: “Grassroots groups, self-advocates and organisations are working together to produce EasyRead and BSL information.
“While this is increasing the pressure on groups who were already struggling before the pandemic, it’s shown how vital our knowledge and experience is, and that we can work together.”
Meanwhile, online meetings held by Inclusion London with 14 of the DDPOs it supports have uncovered some of the many issues facing disabled people and their user-led organisations as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
They include a lack of guidance and information from local and national government; difficulties communicating with social services and the Department for Work and Pensions; problems accessing food and PPE; increasing mental distress and isolation; the higher workload facing advice and support staff; funding problems faced by DDPOs; and concerns about individual disabled people “slipping through the net” if they cannot access phone or online support.
But they also heard how DDPOs in the capital were responding to the crisis, including distributing food and food vouchers; collecting prescriptions for disabled people; using new volunteers to provide telephone support; holding daily phone meetings with the local authority; and using volunteers to provide telephone befriending.
A key message, according to Lazard’s report on the online meetings, was the need to “keep taking about equality, rights and co-production and challenge the thinking that is increasingly viewing us, again, as just vulnerable and passive recipients of care”.
*Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
9 April 2020
Senior health figures have promised that the NHS will “always seek to fully protect” the rights of disabled people during the coronavirus pandemic, after responding to concerns raised in a statement by scores of disabled campaigners and user-led organisations.
The response from Professor Stephen Powis, the national medical director of NHS England, and Ruth May, NHS England’s chief nursing officer, came just two days after the open letter warned that disabled people’s rights were “not always being upheld” during the crisis.
Powis and May later expanded on their response to the open letter, writing (PDF) to chief executives of NHS trusts, clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), GP practices and community health services across England to remind them of “the principle of equity of access for those who could benefit from treatment escalation”.
They also reminded them of the principle of “support for autonomy for those who want to be involved” in decisions about their treatment.
Disabled people’s organisations, user-led grassroots groups, disabled peers and leading disabled activists and campaigners were joined by scores of allies in signing the statement.
They said in the open letter: “We recognise that the NHS faces unprecedented pressures.
“We know that its staff will have to make difficult decisions about who gets treatment and care and who doesn’t.
“We understand that they will have to judge whether people will benefit and we know that people’s existing health will be taken into account.
“However, we have read about cases that have made us feel worried that the principles on which the NHS are built are sometimes not being upheld.”
They appealed for the NHS to uphold the rights of disabled people under human rights and equality legislation, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, when decisions are made about their treatment.
They said: “Our individual chance of benefiting from treatment should we have Covid19 must not be influenced by how our lives are valued by society.”
They called on the NHS to be guided by other principles, including the need to ignore any health conditions that are unrelated to the chance of benefiting from treatment, and the need to ignore the fact that a patient may have significant support needs.
And they said that decisions “should never be made without our involvement, or consideration of our best interests”, while guidelines on treatment during the pandemic “must be developed in collaboration with disabled people’s organisations and representatives from human rights bodies”.
The statement was later signed by more than 1,000 other disabled people and allies.
It had been issued followed weeks of mounting concerns from disabled people about cases of apparent discrimination within the NHS in response to the pandemic.
Among those signing the statement were the disabled crossbench peers Baroness [Jane] Campbell and Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, who have both played leading roles in highlighting concerns in recent weeks.
Disabled people’s organisations, grassroots groups and user-led networks signing the statement included Inclusion London, the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, People First (Self Advocacy), Breakthrough UK, Cheshire Centre for Independent Living and Disability Rights UK.
Another DPO to sign it was the grassroots group Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living, which has also played an important role in highlighting concerns.
Powis and May said in their response to Baroness Campbell that the NHS “endorses and fully supports the principles set out in this letter” and will “always seek to fully protect the rights of people with disabilities, now and throughout the course of this global pandemic”.
Baroness Campbell told them that their words were “welcome at a time of great anxiety felt within the disability community” and would likely “bring relief to those who have received less favourable responses from certain quarters of the medical profession”.
Powis and May later said in their letter to trusts, CCGs, GP practices and community health services that the “key principle” for clinicians was that each patient was “an individual whose needs and preferences must be taken account of individually”, while blanket policies were “inappropriate whether due to medical condition, disability, or age”.
They added: “This is particularly important in regard to ‘do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation’ (DNACPR) orders, which should only ever be made on an individual basis and in consultation with the individual or their family.”
The swift response from two such senior NHS figures was the most significant recognition from the NHS of the mounting concerns on the issue since the crisis began.
Among incidents that led campaigners to produce the statement was a care company that said GPs had written to three of its services for people with learning difficulties to say they had decided that all of their service-users should be deemed “do not resuscitate” if they became ill with coronavirus.
Another was a Welsh GP surgery which wrote to patients with life-limiting conditions asking them to sign DNACPR forms, partly so that “scarce ambulance resources can be targeted to the young and fit”.
The Guardian reported that care homes in Leeds had been asked by district nurses to “revisit do not resuscitate conversations with people who said they didn’t want them”.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported last month how the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) had been forced to update guidance on which coronavirus patients should receive intensive care treatment, after concerns raised by disabled activists.
The previous week, DNS had revealed how an NHS critical care consultant appeared to suggest publicly that he and his colleagues would not attempt to resuscitate many older and disabled people if they became seriously ill with coronavirus.
And on Friday (3 April), guidance for doctors published by the British Medical Association (BMA) caused further alarm among disabled people.
It stated that, if demand for NHS services outstripped its capacity, doctors “may be obliged to withdraw treatment from some patients to enable treatment of other patients with a higher survival probability”.
It said this “may involve withdrawing treatment from an individual who is stable or even improving but whose objective assessment indicates a worse prognosis than another patient who requires the same resource”.
It also said that, if services become “overwhelmed”, the presence of other health conditions may exclude some patients from eligibility for intensive care or ventilation, while it may even be necessary “to discontinue treatment that has already been started”.
Among those disabled campaigners raising concerns about the guidance was Samantha Renke, who said in her column in the Metro that the guidelines suggested to disabled people that “we aren’t important enough to save” and that “disabled people don’t matter and aren’t worth investing in”.
Mike Steel, from Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL), called for the government to issue its own guidance.
He said: “Despite the guidelines recently published by the BMA, the General Medical Council, NICE and other bodies, there is no national policy on the rationing or withdrawal of ventilation and other medical treatment during the pandemic.
“The government have abandoned individual doctors and hospital to make their own decisions. This is inexcusable.
“Without open debate, and clear legal guidance, we are entering into a realm where our fundamental right to life is at risk.”
Disability Action in Northern Ireland also said it was “deeply concerned” by the BMA guidelines and urged the doctors’ union to reconsider them.
*Disabled People Against Cuts has a template letter that disabled people can email to their MP if they are concerned about disabled people’s right to treatment during the coronavirus pandemic
**Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
9 April 2020
A disabled woman – who is risking her health by working in a pharmacy during the coronavirus pandemic – was refused assistance to board a train three times by rail staff as she tried to travel to and from work.
Rail company Southeastern has now launched an investigation, but it has already apologised to Osayuki Igbinoba and said it understands her “utter disappointment and dismay” at what happened.
On the third occasion, one member of Southeastern staff blamed his reluctance to help her on a colleague who he claimed had caught the virus after helping another wheelchair-user.
He and two colleagues assured her on Sunday (5 April) that they were following instructions from Southeastern and had been told they would be disciplined or even sacked if they provided physical assistance to disabled passengers.
Igbinoba, who uses a wheelchair herself and is a double above-knee amputee, said this was “shocking and discriminatory” treatment, and added: “Disabled people are not the source of the coronavirus and we have been stigmatized.”
She told Disability News Service: “It hurts to be discriminated against and denied ramp assistance, whilst I’m going to work on the front line to help others and save lives.”
She had received similar treatment at the same London station – London Bridge – the previous Sunday, when traveling home to south-east London from her work in East Croydon.
A member of staff had refused to bring her a ramp so she could board the train and told her that she and her colleagues had been instructed by their manager “not to assist disabled passengers because of social distancing”.
After a long discussion, staff agreed to bring the ramp but another Southeastern employee initially refused to touch the handles of her wheelchair, before eventually agreeing to push her up the ramp and onto the train.
The previous week, Igbinoba had been refused assistance when travelling from her home in Abbey Wood to London Bridge.
Staff at Abbey Wood told her they had been told by staff at London Bridge not to bring the ramp to her because they would refuse to assist her off the train when it arrived at London Bridge.
Instead, she had to be helped onto the train by her mother – who was there because they were both unsure how rail services would be running during the lockdown – and a fellow passenger; she also faced problems when she boarded the train to East Croydon at London Bridge.
On each occasion, Igbinoba, a third-year pharmacy student at Kingston University who works part-time as a pharmacy adviser at Boots, was not able to book assistance in advance because of the irregular and changeable transport services in the capital during the COVID-19 crisis.
After she complained about the first incident, Southeastern apologised, insisted that its staff would be given a “refresher” on the company’s policy, and told her they were “confident” she would not have “a repeat of refusal of assistance due to social distancing”.
But four days after that email apology arrived, staff at London Bridge again refused to provide her with assistance to board a train.
This time, on the evening of 5 March, staff only agreed to provide the ramp after Igbinoba’s mother – who had accompanied her again because of her “terrible experiences” – threatened to pull the emergency lever when the train arrived if they refused to help.
Igbinoba said work at the pharmacy had been “busier than ever” on Sunday, so it was particularly painful to be denied ramp assistance for the third time.
Kirsty Hoyle, chief executive of Transport for All, said her organisation was working to ensure that disabled people do not face discrimination when they need to travel during the crisis.
She said: “Transport for All are working hard to ensure that disabled people who need to travel can and that social distancing measures do not further isolate and discriminate.
“We ask all train operating companies to state clearly their policies and to enforce these with the rigour that they would at any other time, ensuring no one who needs to travel is left out.”
Igbinoba’s concerns came as transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris wrote an open letter to the Rail Delivery Group – which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways – expressing concern about “a few” incidents in which disabled passengers have been refused assistance at rail stations.
He said: “I feel strongly that social distancing measures should not limit access in this way and would request that staff have access to clear guidance to ensure they can support all passengers using our railways.”
He said the Department for Transport “will be working closely with the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) to investigate any reports of failure to provide assistance to disabled people during the COVID-19 outbreak”.
Meanwhile, the RMT transport union issued a statement yesterday (Wednesday) saying that its members should stop work on safety grounds if their employers do not provide them with the necessary personal protective equipment.
A spokesperson for Southeastern said in a statement in response to Igbinoba’s concerns: “We’re taking these incidents very seriously and have launched a full investigation into what happened.”
He said the company’s assisted travel service was working as usual, a claim Igbinoba disputes, after being refused assistance three times.
The spokesperson said: “If your journey is essential and you need assistance to travel by train, our staff will continue to provide help so that you can get to your destination safely.
“Our staff have been advised how to safely provide assistance during the coronavirus pandemic, including social distancing and following the government’s hand hygiene advice.”
The Southeastern spokesperson said that it was not a “requirement” for disabled passengers to book ahead, but strongly recommended them to do so by contacting the company, either by booking ahead on the website or by calling its helplines*.
Igbinoba said she did not believe that disabled passengers should have to book assistance in advance.
She said: “Why can’t we travel in the same way as everyone else? In the past, I have booked assistance and it has not made any difference.”
*Telephone: 0800 783 4524, or textphone: 0800 783 4548
**Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
9 April 2020
Keir Starmer is set to face pressure from the disabled people’s movement to commit his party to keep a series of pledges he made during his successful campaign to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
Among the most striking of those pledges was to back calls by disabled people’s organisations for the introduction of free social care and a legal right to independent living.
Starmer – who was elected this week with a victory that was variously described by the mainstream media as “stunning”, “resounding”, “commanding” and “a landslide” – called during his leadership campaign for “radical action” on social care.
He also backed a motion that was passed at last autumn’s party conference that called for a new National Independent Living Support Service for England that would provide a universal right to independent living that was “enshrined in law”.
He told Disability News Service (DNS) in February that he supported the party conference motion, and he added: “Everyone has the right to the support they need to live independently no matter where they live in the country.
“I believe that principle should be hardwired into everything we do.”
He has also backed calls for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions, describing those deaths as “deeply disturbing” and calling for justice for the families of those affected.
As a constituency MP, he has provided years of support to the family of Michael O’Sullivan, a disabled man from north London who took his own life in September 2013 after being found unfairly fit for work.
Starmer also told DNS in February that he would push as prime minister for the government to “fully resource” the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to ensure it can “more effectively enforce” the Equality Act and stop discrimination against disabled people.
He also backed the idea of incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into UK law and pledged that addressing the poor provision of accessible housing “must be a priority for any future Labour government”.
One area in which he was less outspoken than his leadership rivals Lisa Nandy, the new shadow foreign secretary, and Rebecca Long-Bailey, the new shadow education secretary, was on inclusive education.
Unlike Nandy and Long-Bailey, he did not emphasise the importance of an inclusive education system when answering DNS’s questions.
But he did say that children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) were “all too often being left behind because of a lack of government funding and the perverse incentives brought about in our school assessment system”.
He said he also supported measures proposed by Labour in 2018 to end the “off-rolling” scandal, in which mainstream schools force pupils off their books to boost their academic results and which is more likely to affect pupils with SEND than non-disabled pupils.
9 April 2020
Labour has insisted that its new leader’s decision to remove the party’s social care spokesperson from his first shadow cabinet does not mean the issue has been “demoted”.
The move came as Keir Starmer – who was elected this week with a victory that was variously described by the mainstream media as “stunning”, “resounding”, “commanding” and “a landslide” – announced his new shadow cabinet.
His shadow cabinet appointments included Rosena Allin-Khan as shadow minister for mental health, a role that was previously occupied by Barbara Keeley.
Keeley had also been shadow cabinet minister for social care, but Starmer announced no shadow cabinet replacement to take on the social care portfolio.
A Labour spokesperson said this was because the creation of a shadow cabinet role for Labour’s social care spokesperson had only been taken to pressure the government to take the issue more seriously.
That pressure pushed the government into renaming the Department of Health the Department of Health and Social Care, she said, which meant Labour now had a shadow secretary of state for health and social care, Jonathan Ashworth, in the shadow cabinet.
She said the decision to remove the party’s social care spokesperson from the shadow cabinet did not mean the issue was being “demoted”, but that Labour was “mirroring” the government’s DHSC ministerial roles.
She said: “Jon will be working a lot on social care. It is not a demotion at all. I have been assured of that. We have all been assured of that.”
In a social media post, Keeley suggested that she would not be continuing as shadow minister for social care, saying that Starmer was “moving ahead with a new team” and wishing them “the best with their work raising the challenges for our vital social care and Mental Health services”.
Meanwhile, there was a promotion for Marsha de Cordova, who was shadow minister for disabled people under Jeremy Corbyn and is one of only a handful of disabled MPs in parliament.
Starmer has appointed de Cordova as his new shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, a shadow cabinet role.
Following her appointment, many disabled people expressed concern that Starmer had not announced a successor to de Cordova.
But her previous post was not a shadow cabinet role, and the party is set to announce further shadow ministerial appointments in the coming days, although the spokesperson declined to confirm that Starmer would appoint a new shadow minister for disabled people.
Other key appointments by Starmer included Jonathan Reynolds as the new shadow work and pensions secretary, taking over the role from Margaret Greenwood.
Reynolds has been MP for Stalybridge and Hyde since 2010 and was previously shadow economic secretary to the Treasury.
Before he became an MP, he was a parliamentary assistant to the former Labour work and pensions secretary James Purnell, and later became a solicitor and local councillor, before succeeding Purnell as MP for Stalybridge and Hyde in 2010.
Alongside Starmer’s victory came the election of Angela Rayner as the party’s new deputy leader.
Disability News Service reported last month how Rayner was asking disabled members for their ideas on how to address the discrimination they face within the party.
She said she wanted to tackle these long-standing issues if she was elected as the new deputy leader.
She said last month: “It is important that disabled people’s voices are heard in politics, and if we are going to do that we need to start by looking at ourselves.
“We need to ensure that disabled people have full access, to ensure that there are no barriers for anyone.
“I want to start by taking an honest look at what we are doing and whether we are living up to our principles.”
Rayner herself has a British Sign Language level two qualification, and has two disabled children, as well as a disabled mother.
9 April 2020
Government announcements on how it is engaging with disabled people have been dismissed as “business as usual” and proof that it is continuing to breach the UN disability convention.
Days after Disability News Service reported concerns about the failure to engage with disabled people’s user-led organisations on its planned new disability strategy, the government’s new Disability Unit quietly issued three new announcements.
One described how the government was engaging with disabled people; the second described the regional stakeholder network it has set up to engage with disabled people across England; and the third summarised the government’s progress on developing its National Strategy for Disabled People.
There was little new information in the second and third documents, as the chairs of the regional networks had already been announced and were accompanied at the time by criticism that only two of the eight chairs appeared to represent disabled people’s organisations.
In the third document, the Disability Unit said it was reviewing its plans for developing the national disability strategy, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the first announcement revealed that the Disability Unit – based at the heart of government, within the Cabinet Office – has been forced temporarily to focus its engagement efforts with disabled people on digital communications, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Disability Unit also said it was setting up a new forum between some of the leading disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), some of the regional stakeholder network chairs, and some smaller DPOs, to meet regularly with the minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson.
And it said there would be “roadshows around the country to allow disabled people to talk directly to policy makers and to share their insights and lived experiences” – although these are certain to be postponed until after the pandemic crisis has been resolved – as well as “digital engagement” such as online surveys and video meetings.
But the Disability Unit also said it had been holding meetings between Tomlinson and “the 10 disability charities that make up the Disability Charities Consortium”.
Mark Harrison, a member of the steering group of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) – which has been highly critical of the government’s efforts to engage with disabled people and their user-led organisations – said this was the most “significant” information released by the Disability Unit.
The Disability Charities Consortium makes few if any public announcements, and has no website, but is almost entirely made up of non-user-led charities.
Its 10 members are Mencap, the National Autistic Society, Mind, Leonard Cheshire, Scope, Action on Hearing Loss, RNIB, Sense and the Business Disability Forum, as well as a single DPO, Disability Rights UK.
Harrison said: “From ROFA’s point-of-view it feels like business as usual.
“The only group that the government has consulted with in terms of the disability strategy is the charities’ consortium.
“It’s as though they seem to confuse businesses for disabled people (with charitable status) with people who actually understand anything about disability, rather than about their own business interests.”
Harrison said it was only after ROFA raised the issue around the lack of consultation with DPOs that the government appears to have accepted that ROFA and other DPOs “should have a seat at the table”.
He said: “The point ROFA has been making is that engagement should be based on what the government signed up to in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which is meetings with representative organisations of disabled people.”
Harrison said the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities was so concerned at the lack of engagement with DPOs by governments around the world that it adopted general comment seven in September 2018*.
He said: “We suggest that the Disability Unit and government departments follow this guidance rather than making up their own.”
He added: “We don’t think that the disability charities and members of the DCC [apart from DR UK] are either representative or can speak on behalf of disabled people.
“They can speak on behalf of their own business interests but that should not be confused with the authentic voice of disabled people.”
But he said that the success of an open letter – signed by hundreds of DPOs, disabled people and allies – raising concerns with the NHS about disabled people’s right to treatment during the coronavirus crisis (see separate story) showed how organisations of disabled people and the non-user-led charities could work together.
He said: “This initiative has demonstrated an unprecedented level of unity and cooperation between Deaf and disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs) and organisations for disabled people.”
He said he hoped this alliance “will now get behind ROFA’s call for the government to enter into strategic and resourced engagement with representative organisations of disabled people” to draw up the national disability strategy in line with UNCRPD and general comment seven.
The Disability Charities Consortium (DCC) refused to say how long it had been taking part in the meetings with the minister and how useful they had been in influencing the government’s new disability strategy.
Instead, in a joint statement for DCC, Mark Hodgkinson, chief executive of Scope, and Neil Heslop, chief executive of Leonard Cheshire, said the consortium’s 10 members “routinely engage” with ministers and government officials.
They said: “It is vital government make sure that disabled people, DPOs and others are involved and engaged in the development of the strategy.
“Government must also make sure the way to respond is fully inclusive by integrating offline submissions, as well as online.”
Kamran Mallick, DR UK’s chief executive, said his organisation had been involved in the DCC meetings with the minister for disabled people for “a number of years” and “very much welcome the widening of engagement” outlined by the Disability Unit.
He said: “It is good to see the extensive engagement with disabled people that the Disability Unit intends to put in place.
“DR UK particularly welcomes the increased contact with disabled people’s organisations through the regional stakeholder forums.
“We also welcome the proposal to set up a new national consultative group made up of DPOs and chairs of regional forums, which will meet regularly with the minister for disabled people.”
*The UNCRPD makes it clear that, when developing laws and policies relating to disabled people, governments “must closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities, including children with disabilities, through their representative organizations”. It defines “representative organizations” as those that are “led, directed and governed by persons with disabilities”, a definition which the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities included in general comment number seven.
9 April 2020
An autistic man who brought a legal case against a police force for discrimination, after it twice detained him, has had his claim settled out of court.
Daniel Smith had challenged the policies of Devon and Cornwall police because he believed the way the force was treating autistic people was unlawful.
Although the case has now been settled, he is not allowed to reveal details of the settlement, although he and his father, Owen, say they are “pleased” with the outcome.
Daniel has agreed to contribute to a police reference group and to help with police training on autism.
Daniel had previously faced what he believes was discriminatory treatment at the hands of Northamptonshire police, who held him in a cell for eight hours after he had defended himself from a disability hate crime in a local park in Northamptonshire, where his dad lives, in October 2015*.
But despite the settlement with Devon and Cornwall police, Daniel said he still feels unsafe, following another in a series of violent hate crimes he has suffered over the last few years in both his home city of Exeter and Northamptonshire.
The latest attack in Exeter was on 16 September 2019, when Daniel was attacked by two men who stopped their car while he was waiting at a bus stop, before jumping out and launching a vicious attack on him.
He was kicked, stamped on and punched, which left him bruised, bloodied and with a dislocated shoulder.
Owen said it was a clear, targeted attack because the men had followed Daniel around the estate, shouting insults at him as he walked to the bus stop to go home.
Daniel is often targeted because he gesticulates and talks to himself as a way to calm himself in public.
A few weeks after the attack, Daniel attempted to take his own life, after being left depressed and anxious about his safety on the streets of Exeter.
He now has to be accompanied by care staff when he leaves his home, for his own safety and reassurance.
Owen was furious that the force closed the investigation shortly after the attack, and made no attempt to take written statements from two members of the public who had stopped their cars to help Daniel and who saw the car and the two attackers.
A senior officer later told Owen that a police officer had spoken to the witnesses at the scene and had taken “full accounts” of their evidence, but a formal written statement “would not have added anything more to the investigation”.
The force also failed to check the many highway safety, police automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) and CCTV cameras in the area, even though they were told the make, model and colour of the car – a black Vauxhall Corsa – the two attackers had been traveling in.
Owen was told that this “would simply not be a proportionate use of police officer time”, even though they knew what time Daniel had been attacked and Daniel had worked out the route the car had taken while it followed him around the estate.
The force also failed to put out an appeal for witnesses on social media.
Owen was told that such appeals must be “judged on a case by case basis”, to avoid “a constant stream of crimes being posted which is both time consuming and also dilutes the effectiveness of using social media”.
He was told that an officer “did complete a thorough house to house enquiry, CCTV enquiry and approached all local businesses (many of which were closed)”.
Police only took a statement from Daniel six weeks after the attack, after his father had lodged a complaint with the force, wrote to the chief constable and secured support from his local MP.
Owen said it took another month for the police to reclassify the attack as a disability hate crime, after originally refusing to do so.
He is set to lodge an official complaint with Devon and Cornwall police into why certain investigatory procedures were not carried out at the crime scene.
He said these include the force’s failure to take DNA and blood samples, and damaged clothing, for use in a possible future prosecution, and the failure to check the CCTV and ANPR cameras.
Daniel told Disability News Service: “I feel scared, frightened and traumatised by the recent attack.
“This was a terrible attack for me that the police did not investigate enough.
“It has made me feel unsafe on the streets where I live. I still feel I get let down by the police which is why I offered to help with their training.
“I am happy the legal process is over, but the problems are still bad for me.”
Owen added: “We are bewildered by how poor this criminal investigation has been.
“We cannot understand how it can be the case that it has been impossible to identify the suspects.
“Just how bad does a crime have to be, to be considered serious enough to spend time on investigating? It is as if the crime didn’t take place.”
A Devon and Cornwall police spokesperson said in a statement: “The force takes seriously our obligations under the Equality Act and we continue to work hard to combat all forms of discrimination in our society.
“The force accepts that we didn’t meet the standards expected of us in relation to the incident in February 2016 and we continue to work hard to improve our interactions with the autistic community, which is why we have invited Daniel to contribute to a group of independent advisors to Devon and Cornwall police to help influence our understanding around autism.
“In relation to an allegation of assault having taken place in September 2019, whilst we are victim-led as a force, investigations must still follow proportionate lines of enquiry and therefore each will be different depending on the gravity of the offence, the threat, risk and harm posed, and the evidence available.
“Officers and a local inspector have worked closely with Daniel and his family in relation to this incident, and have explained fully the reasoning behind officers’ decision-making processes which was fair and proportionate in this matter.”
*Daniel was left bloodied and bruised by the attack but ended up being prosecuted for assault after the police failed to investigate the hate crime and charged him instead. He spent eight hours in the cell, without medical treatment, even though he told officers he had only been defending himself against “the bullies”. He was eventually cleared of assault charges by magistrates, following a six-month court ordeal. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (now renamed the Independent Office for Police Conduct) eventually concluded that there was insufficient evidence to show misconduct by officers of Northamptonshire police who were involved in his arrest and detention.
9 April 2020
A disabled woman is taking fresh legal action against the government after it failed yet again to ensure that she had an accessible way to vote independently in December’s general election.
Rachael Andrews has been trying since 2015 to use the legal system to ensure a way for her and other blind and partially-sighted voters to vote independently and in secret.
She says voting is a “stressful, humiliating and onerous” process that makes her feel like a nuisance.
Andrews originally took action against her local authority, Broadland council, after the 2015 general election.
But after settling that case, she was forced to take legal action against the government.
Last May, she secured a high court ruling that the current provisions for blind voters were unlawful, with the judge declaring that the existing arrangements were “a parody of the electoral process”.
She says the government is breaching her right to a secret ballot without discrimination under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The government has decided, under the Representation of the People Act 1983, that blind and partially-sighted voters can use a tactile voting device (TVD) – a plastic template placed over the ballot paper that is supposed to allow them to vote in secret – to cast their vote.
But Andrews says this system is not fit for purpose because she still needs someone to read her the names of the candidates and the order in which they appear on the ballot paper.
Following the court’s ruling, she expected the government to have introduced a new system, but when she went to cast her vote in December little had changed.
Instead of being read the candidates’ names as she had previously, the polling station’s presiding officer now had an audio recording of the names on his mobile phone, which he played to her.
She then had to use the TVD as normal.
Andrews points to other countries that have systems that allow blind voters to vote using audio booths and telephone voting.
The government has been claiming that it is addressing the issue for at least 18 months.
In November 2018, it said that it consulted with organisations like RNIB “regularly” to “hear about their experiences of voting and recommendations on how government can make elections more accessible”.
This week, 15 months on, the Cabinet Office said again that it was working with RNIB to find a new solution “and improve the voting experience going forward”.
Andrews said: “There was nothing independent or secret about my experience – the bottom line was that I still could not vote without assistance.
“I just want to vote in the same way as everyone else without sticking out or feeling like a nuisance.
“Fully sighted voters are able to breeze in and out in three minutes while I have to undertake stressful, humiliating and onerous processes.
“I can’t believe that in the 11 months since the judgment in my case, and despite all the technology available, that the government has still not come up with an adequate system (or even proposals for a system) that allow blind and visually impaired people to independently carry out one of the most important responsibilities a person has in our democracy.
“It is almost worse now than before the judgment because at least then the government thought they were acting lawfully.
“Now they know they are acting unlawfully, and are aware of the enormous impact it has on people, but have still made no real efforts to address it.”
Kate Egerton, a solicitor with human rights lawyers Leigh Day, who are acting for Andrews in her legal case, said: “The current arrangements enable a blind person to mark the ballot paper, but not to read it.
“There is a statutory requirement to enable blind voters to vote without any need for assistance which is simply not being met.
“Despite the voting arrangements for blind and partially sighted voters being found to be unlawful in May 2019, the government chose to do nothing to sort the matter out before the last general election.
“Our client was, again, unable to vote without assistance on an equal basis to others.
“This was incredibly disappointing for Mrs Andrews who, having won a lengthy legal battle, was essentially left in the same position as she was prior to her legal case.
“We consider that this failure breached our client’s human right to be able to vote independently and in secret.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Ahead of the general election we worked closely with specialists and election officials to identify different tools to assist people with sight loss to cast their vote, such as mobile phone apps and video magnifiers.
“We received a positive response from voters and since then have continued working with the RNIB, to test new solutions and improve the voting experience going forward.”
The Cabinet Office said it could not comment on ongoing court cases but said that many people with sight loss use mobile phone apps to read documents, and others carry pocket-sized video magnifiers to help them read.
Returning officers were told, ahead of the general election, that these could be used in conjunction with the TVD, if necessary.
The Cabinet Office also said that the TVD, which has been in use since 2001, works well for some voters with sight loss, but not all of them, and so it was working with its accessibility to elections working group to develop alternative options for the long term.
9 April 2020
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com