Welcome! Just to let you know that this will be my last news blog until mid June as we’re off to Spain in our motorhome. I’m desperately keen to try and locate the big round orange thing that allegedly lives somewhere in the sky!
For Sue and me this is a slightly new and unnerving experience. We haven’t booked any sites other than those we need when we land in Santander and when we leave by the same route. We intend touring around and finding sites on the way. This is great if you don’t care about accessible toilets, showers or restaurants! Our Motorhome is pretty well equipped but everything is designed to save space and weight. As a wheelchair user I love and need lots of room so showering and toileting on board is an interesting experience and one I might have to rely on!
What’s the point of this diatribe? Despite spending hours Googling etc. locating reliable information about accessible facilities in Spain has proven to be really difficult. When are tourist information organisations or business owners in the leisure industry going to wise up and include accessibility information alongside everything else they bombard us with! I’ll try and update the blog with interesting titbits Wi-Fi permitting. More on our return so long as Spain’s banks don’t collapse and we end up stranded in the Pyrenees!
Concern over government’s new assault on equality laws
The government has caused alarm among campaigners by extending its assault on the laws that protect disabled people and other minority groups from discrimination.
Last year, the government announced plans to weaken the “specific duties” that public bodies such as schools and local authorities have to meet to comply with the Equality Act’s single equality duty, and to review the effectiveness of these specific duties in 2013.
But the government has now announced – as part of its “red tape challenge” that aims to “reduce the burden of regulation” – that it wants to bring forward that review and look at the equality duty itself, a vital part of equality legislation.
The equality duty says that public bodies – such as schools and government departments – must have “due regard” to eliminating discrimination faced by disabled people and other groups, as well as advancing equality of opportunity, and promoting good relations.
Mike Smith, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability committee, said he was surprised and “concerned” that the government had extended its review to include the equality duty, because it had “made a real impact”.
He said the duties had made a “real, positive difference to the lives of disabled people in their local community”.
He added: “They are of value and therefore should be kept. In the last three years we have supported a lot of cases that have relied on the [general and specific duties] to make sure public bodies make fair decisions in the right way and properly consider equalities.
“It would be harder for disabled people to challenge bad decisions if those duties did not exist and therefore I would be concerned if they disappear.”
Liz Sayce, Disability Rights UK’s chief executive, added: “The public sector equality duty is an important driver for public bodies to make sure that they get their policies and practices right for disabled people and do not fall foul of discrimination.”
Among a series of other announcements made as part of its “red tape challenge”, the government confirmed that it was “delaying” the implementation of “dual discrimination laws”.
The laws, again introduced through Labour’s Equality Act, would have allowed employees such as disabled women or gay disabled men to bring claims of direct discrimination on the basis that their employers had treated them less favourably because of a combination of two “protected characteristics”, such as disability, race, age or gender.
Smith criticised this decision, and said: “People don’t live their lives in single boxes, with single labels. This would have allowed people to have more complex and meaningful explanations of why stuff had happened to them.”
The government is also delaying the implementation of equality laws that would have stopped landlords preventing reasonable requests from disabled tenants to make physical alterations to communal hallways and entrances.
Smith said the failure to bring this law in would “make it harder for disabled people to live independently in the community”.
Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary and minister for women and equality, said that “over-burdening businesses benefits no one, and real change doesn’t come from telling people what to do”.
She said her announcement “strikes the right balance between protecting people from discrimination and letting businesses get on with the job”.
Cuts and reforms to EHRC put disability committee’s future in doubt
Cuts to the funding and responsibilities of the equality watchdog could mean that its specialist disability committee is under threat, its disabled commissioner has warned.
Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary and minister for women and equality, this week confirmed plans to scrap some of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC’s) key duties, and slash its budget by more than half from £55m in 2010-11 to just £26m by 2014-15.
May also announced that the replacement for the EHRC’s outgoing chair, Trevor Phillips, would only be employed on a part-time basis.
And she said the government would conduct a “comprehensive review” of the EHRC’s budget, and reduce the number of its commissioners.
In a response this week to last year’s consultation on the EHRC’s future, the government says that it remains “concerned about the quality and timeliness of some of the EHRC’s work”.
And it warns that – if the EHRC has not improved sufficiently by the autumn of 2013 – it will “seek to implement more substantial reform”, which could see “some functions being done elsewhere” or the EHRC even being scrapped entirely, “splitting its responsibilities across new or existing bodies”.
Mike Smith, the EHRC’s only disabled commissioner, warned that the cuts threaten the future of the commission’s vital disability committee, which was set up under equality legislation in 2007 because of the unique aspects of disability discrimination.
A planned review of whether the committee should continue – five years after the EHRC’s launch – will take place in September.
Smith, who chairs the committee, said: “I am worried about that, because with a smaller commission with less resources, it is easy to understand why that review might say, ‘yes, it is a good thing but we cannot afford it.’”
The chair of the committee has to be a disabled person, and a commissioner, so if the committee is scrapped it makes it more likely that there will not be a single disabled EHRC commissioner.
Smith said: “I would always hope there was a disabled person on the board. I know from a personal level that I have changed a lot of decisions… because of the different perspective I have been able to bring as a disabled person and activist.”
He said that the government’s plans posed a “genuine risk” that the EHRC would not be able to continue with the “really positive things” it had achieved.
He pointed to the second phase of the EHRC’s widely-praised disability-related harassment inquiry, which is trying to secure major “structural” change within public bodies. “It would be very sad if that positive strategic work… was no longer possible.
“We have a budget considerably smaller than we did three years ago. With less money, less people, you can do less stuff.”
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK and another member of the disability committee, said the EHRC played “a unique and valuable role in the protection and promotion of our rights”, and added: “We would be very concerned if their independence, authority and capacity were curtailed so that the battle for disability equality is weakened.”
Court’s ruling will have ‘huge impact’ on discrimination in benefits system
A landmark court ruling is set to help disabled campaigners fight discrimination within the benefits system.
The Court of Appeal ruled this week that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) breached article 14 of the Human Rights Act – on discrimination – by not allowing the housing benefit claims of four young disabled people to be treated differently to claims of non-disabled people.
DWP regulations stated that their local authorities could not provide housing benefit for the extra bedrooms they needed in their private rented accommodation.
The ruling also confirms that government spending decisions should be subject to human rights laws.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which intervened in one of the cases, said the ruling would help stop disabled people being evicted as a result of the government’s new housing benefit cap.
Polly Sweeney, a solicitor with the legal firm Irwin Mitchell, who represented Ian Burnip, one of the four young disabled people, said the judgment would have a “huge impact” on discrimination in the benefits system.
She said: “Whenever the government introduces new policies, or reviews existing policies, they now face a duty to ensure that appropriate provision is made for disabled people to ensure that discrimination does not occur.“
In the first case, 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 was 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 third case was taken by Richard Gorry, the father of two disabled children, one who has spina bifida and the other who has Down’s syndrome. Gorry was fighting Wiltshire County Council’s refusal to provide enough LHA for his daughters to have separate bedrooms.
The LHA rules on extra bedrooms have been changed by the government since the original benefits 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 did not help the Gorry family – and others in similar situations – whose children need separate bedrooms.
The court ruling will ensure they are now awarded a rate of housing benefit which allows the girls to sleep in separate rooms.
Ian Burnip’s mother Linda, a leading disabled activist, who set up the Local Housing Allowance Reform Group to campaign for changes in the system, said: “It shows that even when legislation is in place, it can be overturned.”
She said she hoped the result would give hope to disabled people concerned about the government’s disability living allowance reforms, and its wider programme of cuts.
She said: “The benefit system has to not discriminate against disabled people, even if that means they should have better treatment rather than equal treatment.”
But she warned that the coalition’s cuts to legal aid would make it difficult for disabled people to go to court to secure those rights, even if they believe they have been discriminated against.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said the government would “carefully consider its response” to the judgment.
But he said that, “given the need to keep the housing benefit budget under control”, the government was “disappointed” that the Court of Appeal had not followed the approach of the tribunal that had heard the case previously.
He said the tribunal concluded that the levels of LHA paid to the families were not discriminatory when viewed as part of the wider benefits available to disabled people.
SEN reforms: Campaigners plot legal action over anti-inclusion policy
Disabled campaigners are likely to launch legal action against the government over its anti-inclusion education policy.
Campaigners for inclusive education accused the government of “pushing through an agenda to remove disabled children from mainstream schools”, after the publication of its much-delayed plans for SEN reform this week.
Among those plans, the Department for Education (DfE) will introduce legislation to make it harder for parents to choose a mainstream school for their disabled child, by re-introducing – and toughening up – anti-inclusion laws that were repealed in 2001.
Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said there would have to be some kind of legal challenge to the government’s stance, although it was too early to say what form this would take.
She said: “I think the gloves have now got to come off. We have probably been far too polite so far.
“It is clear that the government isn’t interested in listening to voices that challenge their thinking. The document is evidence of that. All the concerns we have raised have been absolutely ignored.”
Flood said the government had clearly breached its obligations under article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to “ensure an inclusive education system at all levels”.
Flood said campaigners were also likely to compare the UK government’s stance and policies with other countries that have signed the UN convention and have taken more inclusive approaches to education.
Richard Rieser, co-founder of the Reverse the Bias campaign, launched last year in response to the government’s pledge to “remove the bias towards inclusion”, said he feared the government’s plans would be “ramrodded through parliament”.
He said Reverse the Bias would be seeking a “wide breadth of allies, whether they are unions, disability organisations or parents’ organisations”.
He said: “We are going to have to educate people as we did [last year] with the [SEN] green paper.”
Rieser warned that it would take several years for any legal case to pass through the court system, and added: “Legal judgments on their own are not going to be enough. We are going to have to build a mass movement. We are going to have to educate the opposition. Parent power will be the key and disabled people need to be involved with that.”
The Department for Education (DfE) refused to comment when asked if its plans represented an attack on inclusive education.
Disabled workers still face ‘bleak’ struggle for support
Disabled people are still facing a “bleak picture” in their struggle to secure the support they need in the workplace, according to a new report from the equality watchdog.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report, A Perfect Partnership, says awareness of disability rights is still low, and disclosing an impairment to an employer is seen as “a high risk strategy” by many disabled workers.
Disabled people have told the EHRC of “bullying and harassment and not fitting the image”, while others said that “reasonable adjustments are sometimes resented by managers and colleagues”.
The EHRC says in the report that evidence suggests “a bleak picture of individuals often isolated and struggling to assert their rights and to access support, many of whom suffer for a number of years”.
The report says that closing the “employment gap” between disabled and non-disabled workers – the difference between the proportion of disabled and non-disabled people in work – can improve performance across an organisation.
Only half of disabled adults are in work, compared with four-fifths of non-disabled adults, and the report warns that the gap could widen as a result of public sector job cuts.
Among the solutions suggested by disabled people were more supportive managers, flexible working, and support and understanding from colleagues, but “virtually no-one had been offered these things”.
Employers told the EHRC that disabled people often only disclosed their impairments “when something goes wrong in the workplace and then it was often too late for a quick solution to be found”.
And most employers recognised that line managers played a crucial role in resolving problems but were often left “isolated and left to sort out adjustments”.
Among the report’s recommendations, it calls for employers to be more proactive in anticipating support, for example by seeking information from all new job starters, even from those who are not disabled, and for improved training and guidance for managers.
The report also recommends that flexible working is offered to all disabled workers and job applicants, and that the Access to Work scheme is extended – as recommended by last year’s review of employment support by Liz Sayce.
And it says that employers must make clear that there is “zero tolerance of hostility and harassment” in the workplace.
Campaign raises fears over ‘unsafe’ vehicle conversions
Some wheelchair-accessible vehicles (WAVs) are potentially unsafe for passengers or drivers travelling in their wheelchairs, and should never have been allowed on the roads, claim campaigners.
The campaigning user-led charity Disabled Motoring UK (DM UK) spoke out as it joined Constables Mobility – a leading conversion company – to launch a campaign calling for stricter testing of WAVs.
The No Compromises! campaign calls on the government to make it illegal for any WAV model to be allowed on the road without first undergoing strict “sled” testing.
It is also urging disabled customers to ask for a certificate of sled testing before they buy a WAV, and is calling on the Motability car scheme to stop leasing WAVs that are not “sled tested”.
Helen Dolphin, DM UK’s director of policy and campaigns, said: “I want Motability to take note and realise that this is something that should be done.
“They should stop accepting cars onto their scheme unless they have had all the proper checks.”
A sled test involves strapping a crash-test dummy into a wheelchair within the car, which is put through head-on collisions to check that the belts and their fixtures are strong enough to withstand an accident and keep the wheelchair-user secure.
DM UK and Constables say the extra test is vital because of the significant and complex changes made to cars when they are converted to become wheelchair-accessible.
Figures on accidents involving WAVs are not collected so it is impossible to say how many wheelchair-users may have been injured or even killed because of problems with the conversions of their vehicles.
But Dolphin said: “It is amazing that vehicles are being sold that may not be safe for the drivers and their disabled passengers, and we feel strongly that this must stop.
“Until a car has had that kind of test, there is no guarantee that it will hold or restrain a wheelchair-user if they have had an accident.”
She added: “I don’t want to drive anybody out of business but at the end of the day the most important thing here is disabled people’s safety.”
A Motability spokeswoman said that standards for all their conversions were governed by European Union law and backed by industry bodies such as the Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Converters Association (WAVCA).
She said: “All WAVs supplied to Motability customers are compliant with EU and UK regulations, in place at the time of the vehicle registration, as well as adopting any additional standards agreed and required by WAVCA.”
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat local transport minister, said he welcomed DM UK’s “commitment to ensuring wheelchair-users travel in safety” and shared that objective.
He added: “All vehicles need to meet a range of safety rules to enable them to operate on the road. This ensures that good levels of protection are offered to the driver and passengers.”
But he said: “We have seen no convincing evidence to show that the approval system for converted vehicles needs changing, or that road safety is being compromised as a result of vehicles being modified post-registration. However, we will continue to monitor this closely with industry.”
GP vote set to pressure government over ‘fitness for work’ tests
GPs across Britain look set to call on the government to abandon its much-criticised “fitness for work” tests, giving a huge boost to disabled activists who have fought for them to be scrapped.
The work capability assessment (WCA), which tests disabled people’s eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits, has been the subject of huge controversy since its introduction in 2008 by the Labour government.
The tests are carried out by healthcare professionals – including doctors – working for Atos Healthcare, on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
But GPs are set to vote at their annual conference in Liverpool next week on a motion that calls on the government to scrap the tests.
They will be asked to agree that the “inadequate computer-based assessments” have “little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons”, and should end “with immediate effect” and be replaced with a “rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm” to disabled people.
Dr Stephen Carty, medical adviser to the Scottish-based campaign group Black Triangle, who tabled the motion at the conference, said he hoped a vote in favour would “apply pressure on the government”.
He said: “I want the WCA in its present form to end with immediate effect. There are not sufficient safeguards in the present system to prevent avoidable harm [to disabled claimants].”
Dr Carty, a GP in Leith, on the edge of Edinburgh, tabled an identical motion at the British Medical Association’s (BMA’s) annual conference of Scottish GPs in March, where it was overwhelmingly approved.
If the motion is passed next week, it will become policy of the BMA’s GP committee, which negotiates with the government on behalf of GPs and would be expected to push for the WCA to be scrapped.
Dr Carty said he hoped the committee would “negotiate in the hardest terms” with the DWP over the WCA.
The motion is also set to be debated at the BMA’s annual conference for all doctors, to be held next month. If it was approved at that meeting, the motion would become BMA-wide policy.
A DWP spokesman said: “We clearly don’t agree that the WCA should be scrapped.
“The WCA was developed in close consultation with experts and disability organisations and we are continually working to make sure it is fair and effective.
“That is why we are implementing recommendations made by our independent reviewer, Professor Malcolm Harrington, and want to keep improving the WCA.”
He said the WCA was “an important part of reforming incapacity benefits, a system which was widely accepted as being in need of reform”.
Treasury criticised by watchdog over equality failings
The Treasury may have failed in its legal duty to consider how some of the cuts announced in its 2010 spending review would impact on disabled people, the equality watchdog has concluded.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) spent 18 months – twice as long as originally intended – assessing in detail how the Treasury reached some of the most controversial spending decisions in the October 2010 spending review.
The assessment report looks at whether Treasury ministers and civil servants met their legal obligations – under public sector equality duties – to consider fully the impact of decisions to cut benefits, government subsidies and services on disabled people, ethnic minorities and women.
Six of those decisions were found to comply with the law, including proposals to limit the contributory form of employment and support allowance to one year, cut spending on legal aid, and withdraw the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) from people in residential homes (a plan later scrapped following pressure from disabled campaigners).
But the report found that three decisions could have breached equality duties – although the EHRC was not able to say for sure, because of a lack of evidence – including the move to cut subsidies for bus companies and scrap the education maintenance allowance.
Although the report praises ministers and officials for “serious” efforts to meet their legal obligations, it also contains a string of explicit and implicit criticisms of the Treasury.
It is critical of the failure to consult in advance with disabled people about the mobility component cut – particularly the failure to discover exactly how care home residents use their DLA.
It also reveals that Treasury ministers were briefed that cuts to bus subsidies would not disproportionately affect disabled people, even though the Department for Transport had made it clear that they would.
The assessment report also stresses that information about the “potential disproportionate impact” of the legal aid cuts on disabled people, women and ethnic minorities was in front of the “Quad” – the prime minister, deputy prime minister, Treasury chief secretary and chancellor – when they approved the decision.
The EHRC secured “unprecedented” access to Treasury documents for the review, under conditions of strict secrecy.
Mike Smith, an EHRC commissioner and chair of the commission’s disability committee, said the review was “one of the most exhaustive” the EHRC had ever carried out.
He said the report would change the way the government and other public bodies make spending decisions in the future, and could prove hugely influential in helping disabled people and their organisations hold them to account.
Smith said: “The report shows that actively involving disabled people in decision-making processes means you are more likely to make the right decision in the first place.”
The report does make it clear that as long as politicians and officials consider the equality impact of their decisions and the steps they could take to “mitigate” that impact, they can then go ahead and make those decisions.
But Smith said: “This report was not about whether these measures were discriminatory. It was about whether they complied with the law.
“The really positive thing is that the Treasury, the most influential government department, has committed to doing things better in the future.”
A Treasury spokeswoman said: “The Treasury will consider the good practice recommendations carefully and respond in due course.”
She added: “The government takes equalities incredibly seriously and at the spending review exceeded its legal duties.
“We are pleased that the EHRC says that the government ‘consciously and actively sought to fulfil the duties’ on equalities in the spending review.”
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com