Budget 2012, Independent Living rights under threat, Atos inaccessible offices, London Mayoral Election, Possible Human Rights breach

It seems ages since I put fingers to the keys! I’ve just returned from a week’s winter sunshine in Tenerife, well that was the plan! Mother nature decided otherwise. Even the locals were muttering about how cold it was and how they couldn’t remember weather like it for 25 years. All I know was we spent a considerable amount of time in fleeces and doing lots of arm waving exercises to keep warm! (Mind you I’m fitter as a result!)

We stayed in a purpose built resort for disabled people, Mar Y Sol and they’ve made a really good job of it hoists, ramps and disability gadgets everywhere. I hired a powered chair rather than fly mine out and we used the fully accessible coach and minibuses to visit the local sites. Very stress and barrier free!

I’ve never stayed in a ‘specialist’ resort before and although it all worked beautifully I kept getting flavours of institution. This was particularly true of the dining arrangements. Everything was buffet and trying to get a glass of wine was something of a military operation. Most of the other guests were German, Scandinavian or Northern European so everyone turned up for their meals at exactly the right time, not really our style. When we eventually arrived to eat all the tables were being cleared and had not been refreshed with new cutlery! The dining room also doubled as the entertainment area, so one evening while I was in the middle of consuming my tepid soup a man in a dinner jacket suddenly opened the curtains to reveal a small stage. Without any kind of announcement he began to put some odd looking parrots through their paces, all very surreal and a little unnerving.

Thankfully the sun shone for the last couple of days, which certainly helped, lift the spirits. Would I go again? Not really sure but I couldn’t fault the accessibility so that would probably entice me back.

Finally I wanted to let you know that I am concerned about my web accessiblity so I’ve had a review carried out and over the next few weeks you should see some significant improvements. In the meantime here are this weeks news.

News round-up

Budget 2012: Shock at new £10 billion threat to benefits

Campaigners have warned that this week’s budget has produced a new and worrying attack on disabled people’s rights and support.

While most of the media’s attention was focused on measures such as reducing the top rate of income tax, freezing tax allowances for pensioners, and increasing the personal allowance, another announcement has alarmed disabled activists.

The chancellor, George Osborne, suggested that he could be planning another £10 billion of cuts to welfare spending, in addition to the £18 billion already announced since the coalition came to power two years ago.

He claimed that the welfare budget was set to rise “to consume one third of all public spending” if nothing was done to “curb welfare bills further”.

And he said that the next spending review would “have to confront this”, with figures showing that to keep spending cuts in other departments at their current levels, the government would “need to make [annual] savings in welfare of £10 billion by 2016”.

Disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations were horrified by the threat, and said they feared that many of these cuts could fall on disabled people and disability benefits.

Sue Marsh, a disabled activist who has played a key part in campaigning against the cuts to disability benefits in the new Welfare Reform Act, said her reaction on learning of the new threatened cuts was “beyond incredulity”.

She said she believed the government would focus any further cuts on groups such as disabled and unemployed people and single parents.

She said: “It was £18 billion before and I didn’t think they could do that. I already felt that £18 billion had brought us to a tipping point. Now it’s only about how far we tip. Any further cuts are just going to cause massive, massive hardship.

“If they tried to put through another £10 billion and 50 per cent of that fell on our shoulders, I think last year’s riots would look like nothing [in comparison].”

Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK, said a £10 billion cut in welfare spending “could be very damaging for disabled people”, even if the cuts were not made directly to disability benefits [many disabled people claim mainstream payments such as pensions and jobseeker’s allowance].

He said he feared the Treasury wanted to transfer older people from disability living allowance (DLA) to the new personal independence payment (PIP), and make similar cuts to the 20 per cent reductions already announced to spending on DLA/PIP for working-age disabled people.

Roger Lewis, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said he believed the government had placed disabled people “very clearly central in their sights” and that disabled people were “being squeezed off benefits and being squeezed out of work”, as so many had jobs in the cash-strapped public sector.

He said: “It feels like we are being marginalised in society and most of the gains we have won over the last 50 or 60 years are being completely pushed back. It is a very, very, very grim picture.”

Henrietta Doyle, Inclusion London’s policy officer, said: “We are very concerned at the possibility of a further £10 billion in cuts in welfare benefits because well over half of disabled people claim welfare benefits and tax credits.”

The Treasury has said that any decisions on the £10 billion – and how any cuts would be split between welfare and spending in other government departments – would only be made at the next spending review, although there have been reports that this review could be brought forward from 2015.

Peers and MPs hear of young man’s six-month hospital nightmare

A disabled peer has dedicated a ground-breaking parliamentary report on independent living to a young man who has been prevented from leaving hospital for more than six months by “bureaucratic failure” and a lack of support.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell said his case illustrated her fear that disabled people’s hard-won rights to independent living “may be built on sand”, and showed why the inquiry report published by the joint committee on human rights was so “timely”.

A parliamentary seminar on the report heard that she had met the young disabled man – who she said was called Rikesh – while receiving treatment herself for a serious chest infection last September.

He had been due to return home, but Baroness Campbell was amazed to find him still in the specialist respiratory unit of St Thomas’ Hospital when she was readmitted two months ago.

Because he had undergone a tracheostomy, it was decided that his support needs – which had previously been met through direct payments and personal assistants funded by his council – had now become health needs.

Responsibility for his support passed from social services to his primary care trust, which insisted on taking control of his personal assistants.

Rikesh has now spent six months living in the hospital, at a rising cost of about £225,000 and without even the support he needs to leave the intensive care ward for a coffee or some fresh air.

He hopes to finally return home next month, but even this is not certain.

His ordeal was described in a speech written by Baroness Campbell – but delivered by her fellow disabled peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson – at the parliamentary seminar held to discuss the committee’s report on the implementation of disabled people’s right to independent living, which was published earlier this month.

Baroness Campbell played a lead role in the report but has again been readmitted to hospital and so was unable to deliver her speech in person.

She said that Rikesh’s case showed that disabled people were still being institutionalised “through bureaucratic failure, red-tape and a lack of support”.

She said: “Such waste and inefficiency is shocking at any time, but especially so in the context of the reforms and spending cuts presently being implemented [by the government].

“The UN Convention [on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities] makes clear that countries should progressively realise disabled people’s human rights within the maximum of their available resources.

“We are clearly failing to do so if we allow almost a quarter of a million pounds to be wasted in such a way.

“For those who say independent living is an unaffordable ideal, I say that having control over our own lives is a way to cut through such waste.”

Baroness Campbell said she feared that she could end up in a similar situation to Rikesh if her local authority was to cut her care package or demand that she transferred to NHS care, and was “only a few bureaucratic decisions away from returning to the inequality I endured at age 18”.

Diane Mulligan, a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability committee, who leads on its work on the UN convention, told the seminar that the inquiry’s report was “fantastic, exemplary and extremely timely” and could influence other countries that have signed up to the convention.
Protesters to shame Atos over inaccessible offices

Campaigners are to protest outside the company which conducts “fitness for work” assessments of disabled people for the government, but has leased inaccessible buildings to carry them out.

The protest in Norwich tomorrow (March 23) is being supported by two disabled people’s organisations, Norwich Access Group and Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People (NCODP).

They say the Norwich offices used by Atos Healthcare to carry out the much-criticised work capability assessments (WCAs) – which test eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits – are inaccessible to wheelchair-users.

They also say that public transport links are too far away from the offices for them to be used by many disabled people attending their assessments.

Last July, the Commons work and pensions select committee criticised Atos for holding many assessments across the country in inaccessible buildings.

George Saunders, chair of Norwich Access Group, said: “Our government has awarded a multi-million pound contract to a company which can’t even rent a building which their customers can access.

“I think this is a real statement of the coalition government’s attitude towards disabled people.”

Mark Harrison, NCODP’s chief executive, added: “This multinational company makes profits from disabled people and disabled people can’t even get into their premises.

“Everything this coalition government does seem to have a negative effect on disabled people, their families and carers.

“This is yet another example of our elected representatives putting the needs of private business before those of the poorest in society.”

The protest was called following the treatment of a disabled couple at the Norwich offices, and an incident involving a disabled veteran at Atos’s Ipswich offices.

Elly Everett was told she could not enter the Norwich building to accompany her husband Glen for his work capability assessment because she uses a wheelchair, even though she had attended her own test there several days earlier.

Because she was unable to accompany her husband, his assessment had to be cancelled.

Glen Everett said: “We felt humiliated. The receptionist said she has to turn people away every day. How do they think we feel? We feel like second-class citizens.”

The protesters will also be highlighting the case of Dene Carter, who says that an Atos doctor caused him “horrific pain” by forcing his leg into “places it can’t go by itself” to prove that he was “fit for work”.

Carter, whose injuries were caused through active service in the infantry, was subsequently declared “fit for work”, even though a separate assessment by Atos for his war pension found he was “not capable of work”.

He said: “I get the feeling the doctors are under pressure to test people to get them off benefits.”

Harrison said: “How can an ex-serviceman be treated in this way? How can one system declare him fit for work (knowing that medical investigation was still ongoing) and the other declare him unfit for work? Which assessment would you trust?”

No-one from Atos Healthcare was available to comment.

Johnson leaves platform open to mayoral rivals

The three leading candidates seeking to replace Boris Johnson as mayor of London have laid out policies on accessible transport, disability hate crime and affordable housing in a bid to attract the votes of disabled Londoners.

Johnson caused anger among the audience by failing to turn up to the “hustings” event – organised by the user-led organisations Inclusion London and Transport for All (TfA) – despite having been invited nearly four months ago.

The other three main candidates, Labour’s Ken Livingstone, the Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick, and Green candidate Jenny Jones, summarised the policies they hope will convince disabled voters on 3 May, and answered questions from an audience of about 100 disabled people.

Livingstone, Johnson’s main election rival, pledged that the social model of disability would “underpin” his administration.

He promised that a third of London’s 270 underground stations would be made accessible and all bus-stops would be accessible by 2016. Only 63 tube stations are currently step-free from street-level to platform.

He said that all of London’s councils were struggling to fund the disabled and older people’s Freedom Pass because of Johnson’s “absolutely horrendous” fare increases.

And he warned that if Johnson won a second term there was “a real danger… that borough councils are going to start withdrawing or reducing the scope of the Freedom Pass”.

He said that his own pledge to cut bus and tube fares would save London boroughs £22 million in funding for the Freedom Pass.

Livingstone backed an idea suggested by a member of the audience to install some stairlifts in tube stations – rather than expensive vertical lifts – if the idea could be shown to work.

He also said he would set up a Transport for London co-operative to provide cheaper fuel to domestic consumers.

Brian Paddick, a former senior officer in the Metropolitan police, said the involvement of disabled people in tackling disability hate crime had been “late in coming” and that he would hold the Met police commissioner to account to “make sure that is done”.

He said there was need for a “change of culture in the Met so they actually take hate crime seriously, and particularly hate crime against Deaf and disabled people”.

Paddick said the service provided by bus drivers to disabled passengers should be written into bus companies’ contracts with Transport for London, and if drivers failed to comply with those terms the companies should be fined.

He also backed the idea of installing stairlifts in tube stations, and said he would prioritise introducing step-free access at the stations that were “most important” for disabled Londoners.

He said: “This is about your rights, your fundamental human rights, and I don’t care if we have to spend more money to make stations more accessible.”

Paddick said his party had identified brownfield sites in London where 360,000 homes could be built over the next decade, and that he would lease land owned by the mayor to developers so they could build social housing at “genuinely affordable rents”.

Jenny Jones accepted all the key demands laid out in Inclusion London’sown manifesto, including engaging with disabled people, tackling disability hate crime, increasing accessible and affordable housing, and supporting inclusive education and training.

She said there had been a “transport apartheid for far too long” and accepted all five of TfA’s key demands in its manifesto, on penalties for bus companies that fail on access, step-free tube stations, staffing of London Underground stations, funding for Taxicard and accessible bus stops.

She said TfA’s target for all bus stops to be accessible by 2018 should be brought forward to 2016, while she wanted to “immediately review” training of bus drivers, with the involvement of disabled people’s and older people’s groups.

She has also pledged to create new standards and targets for accessible high streets.

She told the meeting that the next mayor would have to start building “affordable, secure, accessible housing”. She has promised that 15 per cent of all new homes would be wheelchair-accessible.

She also criticised the “appalling decision” to allow Atos and Dow Chemicals – both of which have been heavily criticised by disabled campaigners – to sponsor the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

Johnson’s Conservative stand-in, the London Assembly member Richard Tracey, defended the mayor’s record on increasing the number of step-free tube stations and accessible bus stops and hailed his success in ensuring that 100 per cent of buses now have wheelchair ramps. He also promised to take the idea of installing stairlifts in tube stations to the mayor’s policy team.

But a spokesman for Johnson later declined to say whether the mayor had any targets for making all bus stops accessible, or for improving step-free access at tube stations.
Appeal has ‘vital’ importance for future challenges to government spending

Disabled people were this week seeking a “vital” appeal court ruling that could have a huge impact on discrimination in the benefits system, and ensure that government spending decisions are subject to human rights laws.

The three cases, involving four disabled people, were heard at the Court of Appeal in London, although a ruling is not expected for several weeks.

Their lawyers argue that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) breached article 14 of the Human Rights Act – on discrimination – by not allowing their housing benefit claims to be treated differently to those of non-disabled people.

The regulations stated that local authorities could not provide housing benefit for the extra bedrooms needed by the four young disabled people who were living in private rented accommodation.

They want the court to declare that they are entitled to housing benefit at a rate that meets their housing needs.

In the first case, Ian Burnip was told by Birmingham City Council that he could not claim local housing allowance (LHA) to cover the extra bedroom he needed for an overnight care worker.

The second case is being taken by Richard Gorry, the father of two disabled children, one who has a physical impairment and the other who has autism. Gorry is fighting Wiltshire County Council’s refusal to provide enough LHA for the children to have separate bedrooms.

The third case is being taken by Rebecca Trengove, whose daughter Lucy – who died earlier this year – was unable to secure the LHA she needed for an extra room for an overnight care worker from Walsall Council.

The LHA rules on extra bedrooms have been changed by the government since the original decisions were made, and mean that since April 2011 extra LHA is now given to disabled people who need a bedroom for an overnight care worker.

But the new rules still do not help the Gorry family – and others in similar situations – whose disabled children need separate bedrooms.

Polly Sweeney, Burnip’s solicitor, from the legal firm Irwin Mitchell said: “This case is of vital importance to promoting equality of disabled people and ensuring their ability to live independently.

“The case seeks to confirm the principle that where the application of a universal policy or rule, such as the way housing benefit is calculated, has a discriminatory impact on disabled people, then the government should consider if they need to make special provision for disabled people to ensure they are not discriminated against.

“If successful, this judgement is likely to have widespread implications for policy-making.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has “intervened” in the case “to ensure that human rights law is interpreted in the correct way to ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against”.

An EHRC spokeswoman said it was “very important” that the court overturned the original decision of the benefits tribunal which “found that the principle of treating different cases differently did not apply in this case”.

She said: “If it were upheld it could mean any provisions requiring public expenditure would not be subject to protections under human rights law.

“The provision of housing benefit at a slightly higher rate in a small number of cases would far outweigh the harm a rigid application of the rules relating to LHA could entail.”

Ian Burnip’s mother Linda, who set up the Local Housing Allowance Reform Group to campaign for changes in the system, said: “Winning this case would reinforce disabled people’s right to not be discriminated against within the benefits system and would reinforce their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

She hopes a victory will help disabled people challenge changes to be introduced through the Welfare Reform Act, including benefit cuts for working-age residents of social housing with spare bedrooms.

A Birmingham City Council spokeswoman said: “With the law our hands were tied. We could only give [Ian Burnip] that amount of benefit. If we had given him more we would have been breaking the law, even though we were obviously sympathetic to the case.”

A Walsall Council spokesman said: “There is no comment that we want to make other than we sympathise with the customer but were bound by the housing benefit legislation at the time.”

A Wiltshire County Council spokesman also said it had been administering the benefit on behalf of DWP and had made its decision based on DWP guidance.

DWP said it could not comment as the court had yet to deliver its ruling.

Heathrow trial could provide quick fix for broken wheelchairs

A decision by Heathrow Airport to trial a new wheelchair repair service in time for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics has been welcomed by young disabled campaigners.

The move was mentioned last week by BAA, which runs Heathrow, at a meeting of the all- party parliamentary group for young disabled people.

Two years ago, research by the Trailblazers group of young disabled campaigners found that the fear of damage to electric wheelchairs – which can cost up to £16,000 – while being loaded and unloaded from flights was a major source of anxiety for young disabled people.

The Heathrow trial is set to run from July to September, spanning both the Olympics and Paralympics, and will see a specialist technician stationed at the airport to fix faults on the spot.

About 80 per cent of London 2012 visitors – including many Paralympic athletes – are expected to pass through Heathrow.

Trailblazer Jagdeep Sehmbi, from Birmingham, said: “This is great news for disabled flyers. A couple of years ago, I arrived back into Heathrow after a holiday to find my wheelchair broken and bent out of shape.

“I’m dependent on my wheelchair for independence day to day, so I’m stranded when it is out of action.

“I really feel for disabled people from other countries who experience the same thing, when they have paid hundreds or even thousands of pounds to come here and enjoy their holidays.

“Knowing there will be an expert at the airport should the worst happen means that people can relax and enjoy their breaks.”

A Heathrow spokeswoman said: “Heathrow faces a huge challenge during London 2012 as we will see large numbers of passengers with reduced mobility arriving and departing during the Paralympic Games.

“To ensure the facilities we already have available are suitable we will be putting in place additional measures which include ramp-lifting devices [to allow baggage handlers to move wheelchairs up and down], toilets, lightweight aisle chairs, changing places and a wheelchair repair service. Final details of the wheelchair repair service are still being finalised.”

The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, which runs Trailblazers, said it hoped the wheelchair repair trial would be successful and that London 2012 “might bring us the legacy of a permanent wheelchair repair service at our busiest airport”.

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 – has provided 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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