Frustrated Peers, DPO closures, Ministers warned, Supreme Court Case on Social Care, Unfair Mobility Aids Market, Legal Network Launc

So the snow has nearly gone and next week I’m off for a few days in Tenerife where I’m hoping the sun will shine. Normally Sue and I travel around either on large ships (as some of you know!) or in our own motorhome and we generally like to travel independently. For the first time we’ve booked a resort which is designed specifically to cater for the needs of disabled people. The transfer from the airport is in a wheelchair accessible vehicle; a local company is providing a powered wheelchair so I don’t have to take my own; every pool has a hoist and all the apartments are accessible. The last time we visited as independent travellers we were surprised by the large numbers of wheelchair users flying about the place. I recall having to queue in restaurants behind other wheelchair users, a novel experience. Everywhere we went was ramped, although some of the ramps were a few shovelfuls of tarmac and resembled the north face of the Eiger but they worked. So the business case for attracting disabled customers appears to be working pretty well in Tenerife. I’ll report back on my return but stand by for the usual Friend holiday drama’s.

No blog next week because of my trip but I hope what follows is useful.

News round-up

Frustrated peers still fighting for a fairer bill

Disabled peers believe they could still help to secure improvements to the welfare reform bill, despite their anger and frustration with the government over how it has handled the legislation.

The bill is due to return to the Lords on Tuesday (14 February), nearly two weeks after coalition MPs overturned seven key amendments that had been passed by peers.

Among those seven were three amendments that would have eased the government’s cuts to spending on employment and support allowance (ESA) – the new out-of-work disability benefit – and another that would have reversed plans to cut financial support for young disabled people with lower support needs.

Much of the anger has been over the government’s decision to take advantage of the rarely-used “financial privilege” to ensure that peers cannot reintroduce the seven amendments when the bill returns to the Lords.

But Disability News Service understands that crossbench and Labour peers now hope to introduce at least two new amendments aimed at trying again to soften the cuts to disability benefits.

One is likely to be around the cuts to financial support for young disabled people with lower support needs, and the other would reinstate the contributory form of ESA to disabled young people with the highest support needs.

Because of the government’s use of financial privilege, peers will have to ensure that the cost of any amendments they introduce are lower than those MPs have already thrown out.

One of the disabled peers likely to play a key role over the next few days is Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who has now recovered after being taken ill with pneumonia last month, just two days before the Lords was due to debate key measures around scrapping working-age disability living allowance and replacing it with a new personal independence payment (PIP).

She described the way the government had behaved over the last month as “politics at its worst” and “very depressing”, but said she “realised that there wasn’t much that I could have done” if she had been present for the debates.

The disabled Labour peer Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins said the government’s use of financial privilege had been “outrageous” after the months of work peers had put into improving the bill.

And she said the threats of legal action against the government from disability organisations including the UK Disabled People’s Council and Disability Rights UK – once the bill becomes law – were “justified”.

Baroness Campbell accused Lord Freud, the government’s welfare reform minister, of “putting his own intellectual ambition about how a new welfare state could and should operate, before the detrimental consequences for current disabled people’s lives”.

She said she believed the minister did “not understand the lived experience of disabled people’s lives”.

She said PIP would introduce a “different kind of assessment” that would “leave out a whole range of extra living costs faced by disabled people”.

And she said she also feared that PIP itself would soon be swallowed up by council-managed personal budgets.

Baroness Campbell said she could “almost guarantee” that there would not be a “universal right” to PIP by 2020.

The Department for Work and Pensions declined to comment on any discussions it was having with peers over the bill.

One in five London DPOs faces closure over cuts

One in five disabled people’s organisations in London faces closure in the next year because of cuts to their funding, according to a new report.

Inclusion London, which carried out the survey for its A Matter of Survival report, said the threatened closures “severely undermined” government policies on disability equality, including those on independent living and direct payments.

And they come at a time when demand for the services provided by user-led organisations is rising, because of government spending cuts.

Inclusion London surveyed 54 of the estimated 120 Deaf and disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs) in the capital, and 40 of those 54 said they had experienced cuts to their funding in 2011-12.

The survey found that 57 per cent expected further cuts next year, while the other 43 per cent still said more cuts could happen.

Half of those reporting cuts said their biggest funding reduction had come from their local authority.

The report says: “DDPOs are describing a ‘perfect storm’ of rising need and rising demand for their services by disabled people, at the very time of rapidly shrinking resources and cuts to DDPOs’ frontline services . A situation all DDPOs expect to worsen next year.”

And it warns that the situation “will only get worse as the full force of the welfare reforms and wider austerity measures kick in”.

A majority of those surveyed also reported a “significant deterioration or breakdown in communications” with their local authority.

There were also fears that the traditional campaigning role of DDPOs on behalf of disabled people was threatened by the rise of a “contract culture” within councils that viewed campaigning and advocacy as “being in conflict with providing services”.

The report calls for a new London-wide strategy on “advice, advocacy and representation”, which would also assess the full impact of the cuts on these services; a “strategic” approach to supporting DDPOs by local and central government over the next four years; and a new business support service for DDPOs across London; as well as an annual independent review for parliament on the full impact of the government’s welfare reforms on disabled people.

The report, which was funded by Trust for London, concludes: “Without local DDPOs providing independent, accessible information, advice, independent living services and peer support networks we believe the government’s policy of greater choice and control and personalisation of services for Deaf/disabled people will not be achieved.”
Ministers warned over adding fuel to disablist fire

Work and pensions ministers have been told that their rhetoric on disability benefits is fuelling an atmosphere of hatred and hostility towards disabled people.

On the same day that six national disability charities warned that the government’s focus on “fakers and scroungers” was causing disability hate crime, a coalition minister was told his colleagues’ approach risked creating an atmosphere similar to 1930s Nazi Germany.

The Liberal Democrat care services minister Paul Burstow had been addressing a joint meeting of 10 all-party parliamentary groups on the government’s plans for reforming the social care system.

The disabled crossbench peer the Countess of Mar told him that disabled people were facing public hostility, with strangers accosting them in the street and accusing them of faking their impairments.

She said: “I don’t need to remind you what happened in 1930s Germany when disabled people and older people were regarded as a burden on the state. We do not want to sleepwalk into that situation.”

Burstow said he found it “completely abhorrent” that anyone would take the government’s “legitimate discussion about how our welfare systems work” and “translate that to an entitlement to abuse and degrade a person who lives with a disability”.

He added: “I do not accept that we are in conditions that [could repeat] the history of the German state in the 30s and 40s.”

But the disabled Labour peer Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins said the “vilification that people are getting on the streets” was “causing such damage to people’s lives”, and said Burstow should ask fellow ministers to “make positive statements that disabled people are not scroungers”.

Burstow agreed to put the request to Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, and her fellow Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers.

Only hours before the meeting, six national charities had criticised the government in an article in the Guardian. It is understood that the article followed comments made by disabled activists to reporters at last month’s direct action protest at Oxford Circus.

Over the last 12 months, Disability News Service (DNS) has reported frequently on disabled people’s concerns that ministers’ language and DWP’s misuse of benefits statistics were stirring up hostile, disablist media coverage around welfare reform.

Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK, told DNS that DWP had “deliberately fuelled hostility towards disabled people”, for example by describing “disabled people” and “taxpayers” as different groups in press releases.

He said: “It is unclear yet if DWP has taken any action against employees who use such negative stereotyping to try and justify government cuts to the essential support disabled people currently receive.”

Fazilet Hadi, RNIB’s group director, inclusive society, who is blind herself, said it felt as though disabled people were “a group under siege”, with the government drawing false distinctions between “disabled people” and “tax-payers” and between “deserving” and “undeserving” benefits claimants.

She said the government had “added to a cocktail of things that are happening” and needed to be “a lot more careful about the language they use”.

She added: “They don’t have to make us feel that we are the fraudsters, that we are the ones who are swinging the lead.”

Scope pointed to a survey it carried out last September, which found increasing numbers of disabled people were experiencing aggression, hostility and name-calling, while growing numbers thought that other people believed they were faking their impairments.

Scope’s chief executive, Richard Hawkes, said the “often misleading facts and figures” released by DWP on welfare reform were “playing directly into a media narrative about the need to weed out scroungers and bring down a bloated benefits bill”.

The National Autistic Society, Mencap and Leonard Cheshire Disability also criticised DWP.

DWP declined to comment.

Supreme Court case ‘could change social care landscape’

The Supreme Court has been hearing a “landmark” community care case that could have huge implications for disabled people who receive support from their local council.

Lawyers have described the two-day appeal as potentially the most important social care court case in 15 years.

KM, a disabled person with high support needs, is asking the court to rule that Cambridgeshire County Council’s adult social care policy is unlawful.

He has argued that the package the council offered him did not meet his needs.

If his appeal is successful, every local authority in England and Wales will have to reconsider how it assesses the needs of disabled people.

The KM case has huge historical significance, as it seeks to overturn a ruling made in 1997 by the House of Lords – the predecessor of the Supreme Court.

The House of Lords ruled in 1997 that Gloucestershire County Council was able to take into account its financial resources when deciding on a disabled person’s care needs, but the council won only by a majority of three Law Lords to two.

Nick Armstrong, a barrister who specialises in public law, told the launch of the Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations Legal Network this week that the KM case was about whether local authorities “can take into account resources when taking decisions that cut to the heart of human dignity”.

Four disability charities – Sense, RNIB, the National Autistic Society and Guide Dogs – have “intervened” in KM’s case, which meant they were able to take part in this week’s two-day hearing.

They argue that disabled people like KM should be assessed in terms of what care they need, rather than according to the local authority’s financial position.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley has also intervened in the case, while the Supreme Court allocated seven judges to hear the legal arguments.

Alex Rook, from the public law team at Irwin Mitchell, who is representing the charities, said: “This is potentially the biggest community care case for 15 years.”

He said the charities wanted to “determine once and for all that care needs are care needs regardless of the local authority in question” because they “firmly believe that a person’s individual needs are the same regardless of whether they live in Hackney or Harrogate”.

The court has reserved its judgment until a later date.
OfT takes action over ‘unfair’ mobility aids market

The Office of Fair Trading (OfT) has taken action against a leading stairlift company following a study into “unfair business practices” across the mobility aids market.

In the wake of last year’s report, OfT launched an investigation into Acorn Mobility Services – which trades as Acorn Stairlifts – for potential breaches of consumer protection laws.

The Yorkshire-based company has now been forced to change some of the terms and conditions it used in its customer contracts, which OfT said were “potentially unfair”.

The company has also agreed to “overhaul” its customer service procedures, including setting up a free helpline and improving staff training, and is working with its local trading standards department to improve the way it handles complaints.

OfT is still investigating a second national mobility aids trader, this time over suspected unfair doorstep sales practices.

OfT has also revoked the consumer credit licences of two business associates over concerns about how they sold mobility aids.

Amarjit Gill, who traded as ABM Mobility, breached consumer protection legislation, including using aggressive sales techniques, despite warnings from trading standards, and repeatedly breached interim enforcement orders.

Ranjit Dhami held a separate licence and had traded as A.B.M., Phoenix 1000, Eurostar, Star Enterprises and Phoenix Enterprises. She was judged unfit to hold a credit licence because of her association with Amarjit Gill’s business.

David Fisher, an OfT director, said: “We warned traders that unless they stopped using aggressive sales techniques and unfair business practices to sell mobility aids they would face enforcement, and that is what we are doing.”

But despite concerns raised in the study, OFT “provisionally” concluded last year that it was not necessary to refer the entire mobility aids market to the Competition Commission.

It is now considering the results of a consultation on that conclusion, which ended in October 2011.

Alan Norton, chief executive of Assist UK, which leads the national network of Disabled Living Centres – which provide free, impartial advice on independent living equipment – welcomed OfT’s latest actions, which he said would send a warning to other companies to “clean their act up”, but “should have been done a long time ago”.

Norton said he believed OfT had enough evidence to refer the entire mobility aids market to the Competition Commission.

He said: “We have got an industry here that has not been regulated in any way. Profit margins can be very high.”

He said it was only after big retail giants such as Asda and B&Q entered the market that prices had started to become more “realistic”, but added: “There are some good companies out there that give really good after-sales service and can justify their prices. There are others that might not be able to do that.”

Dave Belmont, Acorn Stairlifts’ company secretary, said he believed Acorn was now the only stairlift company to provide a free customer service number, while sales resulting from customer recommendations were 48 per cent higher last month than in January 2011.

He said dealings with OfT had been “constructive” and the company was “delighted that the case was successfully closed last week”.
Legal network’s launch ‘will boost the fight for rights’

Lawyers and Deaf and disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs) have come together to find new ways of using the legal system to defend disabled people’s rights, inclusion and quality of life against public sector cuts.

The Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations Legal Network aims to identify and launch important test cases against public bodies, and raise awareness among DDPOs of how they can use the legal system to fight for their rights.

The network, which was launched this week, is a joint venture between Inclusion London and the Public Law Project, and will provide a way of sharing “strategically important” legal information among DDPOs and make it easier for them to link up with leading lawyers specialising in public law.

The launch meeting focused on possible social care legal cases, with several DDPOs suggesting areas to focus on, such as the quality of public consultations carried out by local authorities, the right to free care, care charges, and local authorities’ duties to commission services under the Autism Act.

The meeting came just a day before a landmark social care case was heard by the Supreme Court.

The case of KM, a disabled man with high support needs, against Cambridgeshire County Council, will clarify whether a council can take its own resources into account when assessing people’s needs.

If KM’s appeal is successful, every local authority in England and Wales will have to reconsider how it assesses the needs of disabled people.

It is the latest in a series of court cases taken against public bodies in the wake of the government’s spending cuts.

Last week, the UK Disabled People’s Council – which was represented at the network’s launch meeting – told Disability News Service that it and other organisations would probably be forced to take legal action against the government once the welfare reform bill becomes law, because the coalition was continuing to “ignore the potential threats to disabled people’s independent living”.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said hundreds of thousands of Deaf and disabled people were now going without “vital support”.

She pointed to the likely closure of the Independent Living Fund, the tightening of eligibility criteria, “downward pressure” on care packages, “massive increases in charges”, as well as cuts and closures of support services, many of which are run by DDPOs.

She said: “The purpose [of the network] is to bring DDPOs and lawyers together to make more effective use of the legal system so we can protect and uphold the quality of life, rights and inclusion of Deaf and disabled people.”

Lazard said she hoped to secure funding for the network to enable it to expand its work and make it easier to share information among members.

For information on the network, contact Lazard atTracey.Lazard@inclusionlondon.co.uk or tel: 020 7237 3181.

For initial legal advice on public law issues, voluntary and community groups can contact Public Law Project’s advice line on 020 7697 2198, Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm, although this service is not available to the general public.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Author: PhilFriend

Dr Phil Friend (OBE FRSA) himself a wheelchair user, is acknowledged as the UK’s foremost consultant on disability matters. A powerful and highly popular communicator, his company – Phil & Friends – provides consultancy to many of the country’s best-known companies. In addition to his professional activities, he is also a respected champion for equal opportunities and diversity in general, where his special blend of humour and direct speaking has won admirers from around the world.

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