Hello once again and let me begin by apologising for the lack of news for the last two or three weeks. Some of you will be aware that I’ve now taken over as chair of Disability Rights UK. The organisation is the result of a merger between the National Centres for Independent Living, Disability Alliance, RADAR and SKILL. As a result I’ve had to carry out a whole range of different activities which has meant I’ve had little time to put the blog together. I’m hoping that after the first few weeks of this intense activity a more structured routine will emerge which will allow me time to do things that also matter. So here it is and I hope it’s useful to you. As always please feel free to drop me a note if you have any comments to make about my blog or you wish to make a written contribution.
Leveson offers new hope in fight against hostile newspapers
Newspapers should be forced to apologise, print corrections, or even face heavy fines if they print misleading or offensive articles about disabled people and other minority groups, according to Lord Justice Leveson’s report into press standards.
Leveson’s long-awaited report could give disabled people’s organisations a way to fight back against newspapers that stir up hostility with inaccurate and disablist stories.
The report calls for a new independent regulatory body for the press, backed by legislation, with the power to impose fines of up to £1 million, and force printed corrections and apologies, although it is not yet clear how much of his report will secure government backing.
In the second volume of his 2,000-page report, Leveson also concludes that there has been “a significant tendency” within the newspaper industry which has led to the publication of “prejudicial or pejorative” references to disabled people and other minorities.
He says a new regulator would need to “address these issues as a matter of priority”, with the first step being to allow groups representing minorities such as disabled people to lodge “third party complaints”, with the possibility of fines, corrections and apologies if the newspaper was found to have breached the relevant standards.
He adds, in volume four of his report: “I see no reason why representative organisations should not be entitled to raise a complaint in relation both to accuracy and prejudice where articles are discriminatory in respect of a group.”
The “editor’s code” of the current, much-criticised press watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), says newspapers “must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability”, but provides no protection for minority groups if no individual has been identified in a story.
This has given newspapers freedom to run articles portraying disabled benefits claimants as “scroungers”, “spongers” and “fakers”, with the PCC powerless to act.
Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) told the Leveson inquiry there was strong evidence that disabled people were facing an increase in targeted hostility and hate crime as a result of stories published in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, particularly on the subject of disability benefits.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London – which last year commissioned its own report into the media portrayal of disabled people – said she would welcome a way for DPOs to lodge complaints with a new watchdog, and the possibility of “redress”.
She said: “From what I understand so far the measure around third party reporting would be welcome. But we obviously need to look at this in more detail.”
And she said the success of any measures would depend on the effectiveness of a new regulator.
She also welcomed Leveson’s decision to include in his report three examples of “misleading articles” on incapacity benefit reform, which he says are examples of the “harmful” practice in parts of the media of “prioritising the worldview of a title over the accuracy of a story”.
One of the articles appeared in the Daily Mail (“400,000 ‘were trying it on’ to get sickness benefits: 94% of incapacity benefits can work”), another in The Sun (“Fit as a Fiddler: ‘Sick’ spongers could start work right now”), and the third in the Daily Telegraph (“Nine out of 10 sickness benefit claimants are judged fit to work”).
Earlier this year, disabled activists accused Leveson of sidelining them from the inquiry because he refused to allow any DPOs to give evidence in person about newspapers that had stirred up hostility.
In the report, Leveson says he is “very anxious to emphasise” that none of the written evidence that was accepted instead should be considered “second class”.
DWP reports suggest Work Programme has failed disabled people
Major questions have been raised over the government’s plans to support disabled people into work, after two long-awaited reports showed only about 1,000 claimants of disability benefits found work through the scheme in its first year.
The first Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) report shows that about 79,000 ESA claimants passed through the Work Programme between its launch in June 2011 and July this year, giving a success rate of just over one per cent.
To be counted in the figures, a disabled benefits claimant needed to stay in a job for only three months, compared with six months for non-disabled job-seekers.
The success rate is slightly higher for former incapacity benefit claimants who had been assessed and found “fit for work”, with just over two per cent of them finding work for at least three months.
The overall figures – which include non-disabled job-seekers – show about 3.5 per cent of those on the scheme found some work.
Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP and chair of the Commons public accounts committee, described the overall figures as “shocking” and said the Work Programme – which is aimed at jobseekers who are long-term unemployed or at risk of becoming long-term unemployed – was “falling woefully short of expectations”.
The second DWP report provides possible explanations for the low number of disabled people helped into work, and suggests that the government has underestimated the significant barriers to work faced by many of those forced onto the programme, including those on employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit.
The report suggests that the Work Programme has failed to help many of those with the most significant barriers, such as people with mental health conditions.
Some Work Programme advisers told researchers that the scheme’s model of “conditionality” and “sanctioning” had proved to be “not appropriate for individuals with the most significant and complex barriers to employment”.
They reported that some of these participants were “almost unable” to avoid being sanctioned – having their benefits withdrawn for increasing periods of time – because they could not comply with the conditions they had to meet.
The report also suggests that the main Work Programme contractors – most of which are from the private sector – have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of people they are dealing with, and instead of giving those with higher support needs more attention, have given them less, while there has been a lack of funding to address the barriers these clients face.
The Work Programme was designed to deal with this problem by offering higher payments to contractors who found jobs for those who were furthest away from the job market, such as disabled people claiming ESA.
But despite these higher payments, contractors appear instead to have prioritised those who were more “job ready”.
Steve Harry, an employment adviser and a board member of Disability Cornwall, who has 15 years’ experience of helping disabled people into work, said he was not surprised by the conclusions of the two reports.
He said he believed the Work Programme was doomed to fail disabled people and other job-seekers.
Harry said the payment-by-results model meant providers focused on how cheaply they could deliver support and “getting results and getting job outcomes as quickly as possible”.
He said: “The Work Programme does an awful lot if what you need is a CV and how to apply for jobs. If you need more than that it doesn’t really meet your needs.”
He added: “It is not really a serious attempt to help people with significant disabilities back into work.”
A spokesman for the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), the trade body for the welfare-to-work industry, said: “The industry does accept that the performance [in finding work] for people on ESA is behind par and more must be done to help these job-seekers find sustainable employment.”
Government picks Tory MP to chair care watchdog
The government is set to appoint a former Conservative party boss and MP to chair the social care and health watchdog.
The Department of Health (DH) said today that David Prior was the government’s “preferred candidate” to chair the Care Quality Commission (CQC), following what it said was an “open and rigorous recruitment exercise”.
Prior, a barrister who spent 10 years in the steel industry and also worked for Lehman Brothers – the US investment bank which collapsed in 2008 and is often blamed for triggering the global financial crisis – currently chairs Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
He served one term as MP for Norfolk North, before losing his seat at the 2001 general election to the Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, now the care services minister.
Prior was also deputy chairman and chief executive of the Conservative Party between 1999 and 2005.
If his appointment is approved by health secretary Jeremy Hunt, following next week’s “scrutiny hearing” by the Commons health select committee, Prior will replace Dame Jo Williams, who faced heavy criticism for her performance as CQC chair during her two years in the post.
Sue Bott, director of development for Disability Rights UK, said: “What is important for the CQC is that it is there for people who use services and in recent times there have been some problems around that.”
But she said there was nothing in Prior’s background to suggest that “he comes with any understanding of that issue”.
She added: “I feel worried about that because it has always been our criticism that service-users are not adequately represented on the CQC board.”
The Department of Health declined to comment on whether it was appropriate to appoint a former Conservative MP and chief executive of the party to chair the CQC.
A DH spokeswoman said: “There isn’t anything additional we can say at this stage because it is not the right time in the process.”
Phone app could ‘revolutionise’ mobility assistance
A new mobile phone app could be set to revolutionise the provision of assistance for disabled people across the transport, travel, leisure and retail industries.
The assist-Mi app is the brainchild of disabled entrepreneur Gary McFarlane, who describes it as “the first real-time mobility assistance app”.
The product has already struck a chord with major UK and international businesses, with one Asian airport operator hoping to use the app to provide a better service for its 75 million customers. The hope is to launch the app at an airport next spring.
As well as airports, airlines, rail and parking operators, local authorities and global service-providers have all shown “significant interest” in assist-Mi.
McFarlane said the idea for the app came from the frustrations of trying to secure the assistance he needed – when he needed it – during his regular worldwide travels working as an IT and accessibility consultant.
He began working on the idea nearly 10 years ago when trying to solve the problem of finding accessible parking spaces.
But he soon became convinced of the need for a technology tool that would make it easier for disabled people to use a whole range of everyday services, including petrol stations, banks, hospitals, restaurants, trains and airports.
The app allows the user to send a message through their mobile phone to a service-provider to alert them that they will need a particular service and assistance and – through the use of GPS technology – also lets them know when they will be arriving.
It allows the disabled person to plan their route and know in advance whether the necessary assistance will be available, and alerts the service-provider when they arrive.
McFarlane said: “The aim is to build the confidence of disabled people who want to use a service.”
Neil Herron, assist-Mi’s business development director, said the app – which they have pledged will always be free to use for disabled people – would “revolutionise the way we look at accessibility and service-provision”.
He said the ultimate aim was to provide a seamless experience from the beginning of a journey to its end, by allowing the disabled person to send their individual assist-Mi profile – containing all of their individual access needs – to each service-provider at the touch of a button.
The app impressed the disabled actor and writer Sophie Partridge so much that she invested in the company.
She said: “I very much like the fact that this is a product created by someone with real and personal experience of disability.”
And she said the concept of an assist-Mi profile – “so that you don’t have to keep sending your access needs information over and over again” – was “very appealing”.
She added: “As care packages and services are continually cut, I believe technology such as this app can serve a wider and wider community.
“Disabled people in particular could benefit here, as it’s a free method to ensure a reliable service can be delivered.
“The disabled individual will have done their part by providing the necessary information to service providers. It is then up to those companies to deliver.”
Passenger wins right to take airline discrimination fight to supreme court
A disabled air passenger has won permission to take an airline to the supreme court, to fight a legal ruling that leaves disabled travellers with no protection from in-flight discrimination.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is backing the case of Christopher Stott, who lost his claim for damages against Thomas Cook earlier this year.
Three court of appeal judges ruled in February that international rules on air travel – the Montreal Convention – should take precedence during flights over UK law and a European regulation on accessibility and discrimination.
The ruling meant that disabled people would not be able to claim compensation from an airline if they faced discrimination during a flight.
Stott had booked a return flight with Thomas Cook to the Greek island of Zante for himself and his wife – his carer – in September 2008.
While boarding the flight home, Stott’s wheelchair overturned and he fell to the cabin floor. Because he is paralysed from the shoulders down, he was unable to get himself up, but staff appeared not to know what to do, leaving him “angry, humiliated and distressed”.
Stott had also been promised a seat next to his wife, but they were not allowed to sit together, so she had to keep leaving her seat during the flight to kneel in the aisle next to her husband to provide him with personal care.
The court of appeal found in February that the cabin crew did not attempt to ease the couple’s difficulties in any way, and ruled that discrimination had taken place.
But the judges decided that damages could not be awarded because such discrimination is not covered by the Montreal Convention.
The EHRC believes the convention is irrelevant to the claims and rights of disabled travellers because it does not deal with discrimination.
John Wadham, the EHRC’s general counsel, welcomed the supreme court’s decision to hear the appeal, which he said was “not only significant for Mr Stott, but for all disabled passengers anywhere in Europe who are discriminated against while flying”.
He said: “We believe that treating passengers with equality and dignity includes fully recognising the rights of disabled passengers, which also includes the right to compensation when things go wrong.”
A Thomas Cook spokeswoman said: “We take our responsibility to disabled passengers extremely seriously and offer our sincere apologies for the distress caused to Mr Stott.
“While we accept that on this rare occasion there were problems with Mr Stott’s requests, the Court of Appeal agreed with our view that no compensation was due.”
The EHRC has published Your Rights to Fly, a short guide to the rights of disabled people and air travel.
Paralympians’ golden year crowned by BBC nominations
Three members of ParalympicsGB’s high-performing London 2012 team have been nominated for the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) award.
Wheelchair athlete David Weir, swimmer Ellie Simmonds and cyclist Sarah Storey have all made the 12-strong list, which was filled with Paralympic and Olympic gold-medallists, and included only one sports star – golfer Rory Mcllroy – who did not compete at London 2012.
There was also Paralympic representation on the panel of 12 who selected the shortlist, with Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson one of the former SPOTY nominees who helped draw up the list.
The winner of the award will be decided by a public vote on the night of the awards on 16 December, an event which will be watched live on BBC1 and by an audience of 15,000 people at the ExCeL centre in London, one of the London 2012 venues.
Weir, who won four golds at London 2012, told his followers on Twitter that it was “such an honour to be in the top 12” and was “another step forward for Paralympic sport”.
Simmonds, who won two London 2012 golds, said on Twitter that she was “honoured” to make the list in what was “such a great year for British sport”, while Storey, who won four golds, also said she was “honoured to be nominated”.
Among those Paralympians who have already announced their favourites on Twitter, Scott Moorhouse, Richard Whitehead, Hannah Cockroft and Daniel Greaves all said they were backing Weir, while Shelly Woods backed both Weir and Olympic cycling gold medallist and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, and Jody Cundy said he would be voting for Wiggins.
Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of the British Paralympic Association, said: “To have three Paralympians on the shortlist shows just how far Paralympic sport has come in this country.
“We’re delighted for Ellie, Sarah and David that their achievements over the summer have been recognised in this way.
“The public took the ParalympicsGB team to their hearts and their support was a huge factor in our success – let’s hope that they now continue that support and vote for our Paralympians on the night.”
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com