Well what can I say here we are back again. Thank you all for the very kind comments and the positive feedback you gave me regarding my sea farers blogs. I’m glad so many of you enjoyed them I really enjoyed putting them together.
So back in dear old Blighty we reconnect with a pretty depressing situation faced by disabled people and their supporters. It is difficult to find really positive news although the fact that disabled people and many others are mobilising in order to ensure that decision and policy makers are in no doubt about the strength of feeling about the impact of the cuts in services and benefits.
The Hardest Hit march: Thousands send coalition message on cuts
Thousands of disabled people have taken part in a march to call on the government to halt its programme of cuts to disability benefits and services and its attacks on equality and disability rights.
The Hardest Hit march, which started with a rally on Victoria Embankment by the Thames before protesters set off on a route that passed the Houses of Parliament, was described as the country’s largest-ever gathering of disabled people.
Organisers say they believe that between 10,000 and 12,000 people took part in the march.
Many were angry at proposed cuts of 20 per cent to spending on disability living allowance (DLA), others at the programme to reassess incapacity benefit claimants through the hated work capability assessment.
Some were marching because of local authority cuts to care and support services, or the government’s attacks on equality legislation or inclusive education.
Many of those who took part in the protest had never been on a march or rally before in their lives.
Susan Hall travelled to the march by scooter from her home in Highbury, north London.
She said: “If they take away my DLA, I lose this [her scooter]. It pays for my scooter. Take away my DLA and I am housebound. I am terrified of that.”
Andrew Waite, from Woking, said he was particularly concerned about government reforms to DLA and a proposed new assessment process.
He said: “I don’t believe they can possibly save money by doing more paperwork and more bureaucracy.”
And he said that taking away the mobility component of DLA from disabled people in residential care would change their homes into prisons.
He said: “You may as well put these people in prison because you take away all their outward mobility.”
Wendy Aherne, a student at Hereward College in Coventry, a specialist residential college, said it was the first protest she had taken part in.
She was particularly concerned about the mobility component plans, and added: “I would not be able to go to college without the mobility component.”
Her fellow student Stuart Hatton said: “My motivation for being here is I don’t want to be the person who sits in the background and lets this happen. I want to let the government know we are not letting them get away with this.”
Paul Stevenson, from Scotland, who has Tourette’s, said he was worried that the government’s reforms would strip away the support he needs to leave his home. He said: “Without it, I wouldn’t go out.”
Richard West, a leading disabled activist, from Westminster, said he was worried about the lack of support already available under the Fair Access to Care system introduced by the Labour government.
He said the cuts were “very unfair” and meant a “very uncertain future”, and added: “You only get help in an extreme emergency or you get nothing at all. Three hours of support isn’t good at all and because of the cuts, thousands of disabled people will be affected.”
Another prominent disabled activist, Simone Aspis, said what made her most angry was that there seemed to be “a turning back to the days when it was thought support should be a charitable activity, not a right to participate on a level playing-field with non-disabled people”.
She said: “It is this ideology that got me up this morning and got me here; going back to the days – if we don’t watch ourselves – when support was given by the big charities, with big group homes and residential homes and asylums. That is what got me out of bed this morning.”
Experts ‘bemused’ by coalition’s threat to cut discrimination payouts
Disability law experts say they are “bemused” by the government’s “disingenuous” announcement that it is considering cutting the compensation paid to disabled people and other victims of discrimination at work.
In the coalition’s latest attack on equality legislation, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said it was examining compensation payouts for discrimination as part of its review of employment “red tape”.
Businesses have “expressed concern” to the government about the levels of compensation awarded by tribunals in some discrimination cases.
Compensation levels for discrimination are – in theory – unlimited, and employers claim high awards may encourage people to take “weak, speculative or vexatious cases in the hope of a large payout”.
But Wonta Ansah-Twum, head of disability discrimination and employment for Disability Law Service, said she was “bemused” by the government’s announcement, as average payouts by employment tribunal panels for the disability discrimination element of employment claims were only about £8,000.
She said: “I think it’s disingenuous. It is not necessarily painting a true picture. Tribunal judges are not awarding high sums to people in the field of discrimination cases generally. That’s my experience.”
Ansah-Twum said discrimination cases reported in the media tended to be those involving people working in the City and “very substantial loss of income”.
An Equality and Human Rights Commission spokeswoman said: “Compensation levels are set by the Employment Tribunal and are not a part of our jurisdiction.” She declined to comment further.
BIS claimed the review was an “important part of the government’s plans to deliver growth by breaking down barriers”.
The announcement came just a day after MPs and peers called for action to fight back against a series of attacks on equality legislation during the coalition’s first year.
Members of four all party parliamentary groups, including those on equalities and disability, pointed to plans to cut the budget and responsibilities of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and weaken the duties of public bodies under the Equality Act, and the decision not to implement other parts of the act.
There has even been a suggestion on the government’s “red tape challenge” website that the Equality Act could be scrapped.
The plans to cut discrimination compensation were announced by the Liberal Democrat employment relations minister Edward Davey, who said: “We want to make it easier for businesses to take on staff and grow.”
He added: “We will be looking carefully at the arguments for reform. Fairness for individuals will not be compromised – but where we can make legislation easier to understand, improve efficiency and reduce unnecessary bureaucracy we will.”
And the chancellor, George Osborne, told the Institute of Directors in a speech: “Examining these areas of the law which could be holding back job creation demonstrates the government’s commitment to go for growth.”
A BIS spokesman confirmed that the review would include disability discrimination cases, but he said it would not be right to “pick out one or two examples” of payouts that Davey had thought were excessive.
Need for ‘open discussion’ over £3 million fund for DPOs
The government has announced £3 million of new funding to help local disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) improve the way they are run.
DPOs will be able to bid for money from the fund from July for projects that will “make a significant difference to their development and sustainability”.
The announcement came on the same day that thousands of disabled people, including leaders of many DPOs, marched in London in protest at the coalition government’s spending cuts and welfare reforms.
Campaigners have increasingly been raising concerns that the local authority spending squeeze – caused by the government’s deficit reduction plan – has been putting the future of many local DPOs at risk.
In March, People First (Self Advocacy) said that 80 per cent of its members could be forced to close, or had already done so, because of cuts to their funding by local authorities.
In the same month, a string of DPOs that had secured short-term grants from the Department of Health told Disability News Service of their fight for survival in the wake of public sector spending cuts.
The government said DPOs “will have a say” in how the new fund will be administered “and what the criteria for receiving a grant will be”.
Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council, welcomed the new funding but said it was vital to have “an open discussion about how that money is allocated and what the criteria are and what the application process is”.
She added: “It needs to be open to scrutiny and it needs to have a very clear paper trail.”
Disability LIB, which was itself set up to build the capacity of DPOs, said the funding would help DPOs “build on their previous successes in developing independent living activities, skills and services that enable disabled people to be active and equal citizens”.
Stephen Lee Hodgkins, director of Disability LIB, said DPOs “provide leadership and promote inclusion and equality for disabled people, by disabled people”.
But he said they “often have less money than other civil society organizations and face numerous challenges when developing and running services and activities because of the systematic exclusion disabled people face within society”.
The government is to recruit a leading figure from a DPO to be seconded to the Office for Disability Issues to act as a “focal point” for the project.
It is also seeking “ambassadors” ambassadors to share their skills and experience with DPOs in their region, as well as “talented individuals” from business and voluntary organisations to share their expertise in areas such as human resources, financial management and IT.
Maria Miller, minister for disabled people, said: “Grassroots organisations are the experts in their local communities. That is why we are investing £3million to help these organisations play an even greater role in shaping the decisions that will affect their lives.”
Mayor told to improve focus on access in his plan for London
London’s mayor has been told to make a stronger commitment to accessible transport and housing in his masterplan for the city’s development over the next 20 years.
The report by the Planning Inspectorate calls for the mayor’s London Plan to make explicit commitments to “seeking to secure step-free access to public transport wherever feasible” and to providing step-free access when modernising tube and rail stations.
It also calls for the plan to pledge to provide step-free bus access “wherever practical”.
The inspectorate’s report – which follows an “examination in public” (EIP) of the mayor’s draft London plan – also calls for a firm commitment to the need for developers and local authorities to involve disabled people and other service-users when drawing up development policies and proposals.
It says developers should engage with user groups before submitting design and access statements that explain how inclusive design principles have been integrated into a development and how inclusion will be maintained and managed.
And it says borough councils should engage with user groups when drawing up planning policies and “masterplans” to ensure they meet high standards of accessibility and inclusion from the earliest stages of the development.
Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said: “We are pleased that the inspectorate has supported improving the mayor’s draft London plan to create better access standards on a number of issues that we focused on in the EIP and we want the mayor to make sure the final plan is amended to incorporate these recommendations.”
Transport for All, the user-led accessible transport charity, said: “The Planning Inspectorate is absolutely right to press TfL on implementing step-free access to London’s stations and bus stops.
“Sixteen years after the Disability Discrimination Act came into force, huge sections of the transport system remain off limits to disabled people.
“TfL have dragged their feet on this for too long. We urge the mayor to prioritise their accessibility programme, and ensure that disabled people are able to get to work, family and friends with the same freedom and independence as everyone else.”
The mayor, Boris Johnson, has already examined the report and has made some changes to his plan based on the inspectorate’s recommendations.
A spokesman for the mayor said a new version of the report included some of the recommendations, but not all of them.
The new version has now been sent to the communities and local government secretary, Eric Pickles, who will decide whether any further changes are needed.
The final version of the London Plan will be published in July.
Politicians plan to fight back against attacks on equality
MPs and peers have called for action to fight back against government attacks on equality legislation.
Members of the all party parliamentary groups (APPG) on equalities, disability, ageing and older people, and race and community were discussing a series of assaults on the equality agenda that have taken place in the coalition’s first year.
Among them are plans to cut the budget, responsibilities and duties of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), plans to weaken the duties of public bodies under the Equality Act, and decisions not to implement other parts of Labour’s act.
There has even been a suggestion on the government’s “red tape challenge” website that the Equality Act could be scrapped.
Several MPs and peers at the meeting raised particular concerns about government plans to take responsibility for its national helpline away from the EHRC.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell – a former EHRC commissioner who resigned in 2009 over its leadership – said that farming out the helpline to the private or voluntary sector would be “really, really bad”.
She said the Disability Rights Commission had learned that a regulator will “only be as good as the connection to the grassroots” and that running the helpline was “the only way to get that connection with what is happening on equality on the ground”.
Her fellow disabled peer, Lord [Colin] Low, said he also would fight to save the helpline.
Stephen Lloyd, the Liberal Democrat MP, said it was “absolutely critical” that the EHRC continued to receive government funding to run the helpline, and pledged to fight his own coalition government “very, very hard” on the issue.
But Lord Low warned that campaigners would have to be “quite tactical” and “relearn the lessons of the 1980s and do what we can by way of damage limitation” when it came to the government’s assaults on equality, identifying “strategic priorities where we think we can get wins”.
Fiona Mactaggart MP, Labour’s shadow minister for equalities, said she believed the Commons needed a new equalities audit committee, to measure the impact on equality of policies across government.
Amanda Ariss, chief executive of the Equality and Diversity Forum, said some equality campaigners were “starting to feel concern that there are parts of the government that see equality as a burden rather than a benefit”.
Sandra Osborne, the Labour MP who chairs the equalities APPG, warned that there was a “fundamental backlash against people’s rights that is actually happening now”.
She said the four APPGs would meet to plan how to fight back against the government’s assault on equality legislation.
Work Programme bid winners ‘should do more on prejudice’
The organisations that have won major contracts under the government’s new Work Programme should do more to overcome the “prejudices” that still exist in the jobs market, according to a new report by MPs.
The work and pensions committee’s report says many employers remain “reluctant” to take on disabled employees, including those with mental health conditions.
The committee, chaired by the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, said the 18 “prime contractors” – all but three of which are private sector organisations – should play “a more active part in working with employers to persuade them of the need to be more open in their recruitment policies and more positive in employing someone with a disability”.
The committee said it welcomed many of the principles of the Work Programme, which “continue the direction” of the Labour government’s job schemes.
But it said there were still “many uncertainties around the programme”, and it made a number of recommendations for improvements.
It also warned of the “significant new challenge” of providing support for large numbers of former incapacity benefit (IB) claimants, with 1.5 million of them set to be reassessed for their “fitness to work” over the next three years.
The committee said that some of them “may face significant barriers to finding work and require a level of support that has not been delivered under previous programmes”.
The Work Programme – which will be implemented from next month – will see customers divided into eight groups, with higher payments for contractors who find jobs for those in the “harder to help” groups, such as former IB claimants.
This aims to prevent contractors focusing on those who are easier to help into employment, which happened with some providers under the previous government’s job schemes.
But the committee said that – despite the new payments scheme – it was still concerned that contractors could concentrate on those who were easier to place in work within each of the groups.
Dame Anne said: “We welcome the fact that the Work Programme will offer financial incentives to encourage service providers to support jobseekers who are harder to place in work.
“However, we remain concerned that these providers may still focus their efforts on the jobseekers who are easiest to help at the expense of those who face greater challenges, such as those with long-term health conditions.”
Among its recommendations, the committee called on the government to commission regular, independent reviews of the Work Programme.
The committee also said the government should clarify what would happen to former IB claimants who have been placed in the employment and support allowance (ESA) work related activity group (WRAG) and assessed as not yet ready to work, but who would only receive contributory ESA payments for one year, as a result of the coalition’s programme of spending cuts.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com