Topical Stories for 26th February

It has been sometime and apologies for the silence. Lots going on at the moment. I’m trying to setup a powered wheelchair football team for severely disabled youngsters linked to Ware FC so if you know any let me know. I’ve written a book with a long time colleague and friend Dave Rees. Should be published on May 1st I’ll keep you posted. I’m working on a paper, which critiques our recent approach to who should have disability equality training. I intend to publish it here in the next blog. Apart from that not a lot going on really. Hope all is well with you, I’ve seen snowdrops and daffs so spring is lurking somewhere.

News Roundup

Confusion and anxiety as PIP advisers give out-of-date answers
The coalition’s programme to replace disability living allowance (DLA) with a new benefit has been thrown into confusion after the government’s own telephone helpline advisers began passing out-of-date information to anxious claimants.

The Conservative minister for disabled people, Esther McVey, promised MPs in December that no current claimants of disability living allowance (DLA) with “lifetime” or “indefinite” awards would face reassessments for the new personal independence payment (PIP) before October 2015, unless they reported a change in their condition.

The coalition’s programme to replace working-age DLA with PIP is set to begin in April, with letters already being sent out in pilot areas in the north-east and north-west of England.

But reports were this week passed to members of the WeAreSpartacus online network of campaigners that existing DLA claimants were being told by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) helpline advisers that the government would begin reassessing all current DLA claimants from October this year.

They were told that there would be no exemptions, even if they had lifetime or indefinite DLA awards, a position that directly contradicts the assurances given by McVey.

When Disability News Service rang the helpline, an advisor said the reviews would take place “sometime between October this year and the spring of 2016 for existing customers”, and that some people with indefinite awards would be assessed for PIP before 2015.

When DNS asked her to confirm that some of those being assessed this year would be existing claimants with indefinite awards, she said: “Yes. Someone could have a one-year award or an indefinite. They will all be reviewed.

“That is the instruction I have got. There is nothing to say that indefinite awards will be reviewed last.”

This matched the information that DLA claimants said they had been receiving from the helpline.

Beth Gregson, from WeAreSpartacus, said it was “simply not good enough” if call centre staff had not been briefed correctly about the changes, with just six weeks until PIP was introduced for the first claimants, and would call into question McVey’s “grip on the process”.

Gregson said she was “not at all convinced the DWP are ready to deliver or manage the process” of moving from DLA to PIP.

The number of working-age people claiming DLA and PIP, and spending on working-age DLA and PIP, will be cut by as much as 28 per cent by 2018 as a result of the reforms, with 900,000 fewer people receiving PIP than if DLA had not been replaced.

Gregson said she was “deeply concerned” about the level of fear and anxiety about the move to PIP being shown by DLA claimants on social media, as were many others who were offering support on online forums.

She said: “The government has accused us of scaremongering in the past. However, given the poor information, mixed messages and the confusing language used in letters from the DWP, is it any wonder people are scared?”

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, said: “If they are sending out how many million letters and then the helpline is then giving out wrong information, then that is really worrying, because people are worried enough as it is.

“The government in delaying the roll-out for existing claimants [until 2015] did at least give some kind of breathing space, but they have undermined their own case if they are giving out the wrong information.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said she believed DWP were also giving out incorrect information about the Work Programme.

She said: “Misinformation is being sent out about virtually everything. Most things DWP are involved with just seem to be totally chaotic. Nobody seems to know what they should be doing or who should be doing it.”

A DWP spokesman said: “Adults claiming DLA now, who receive an indefinite or lifetime award, won’t be affected by the introduction of PIP until 2015 or later, unless they report a change in their existing care or mobility needs.”

He added: “We’ll pass on your feedback about your call to our operational teams.”
Disabled people on government work schemes ‘deserve better’

The failure of the coalition’s two programmes to help disabled people into work has highlighted the need for much more intensive employment support, according to one of the government’s own advisers.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, spoke out after the government published the latest figures for Work Choice, its specialist disability employment programme, and as MPs prepared to publish another highly critical report on the mainstream Work Programme.

Sayce, the author of a major report for the government on employment support for disabled people, said the “employment outcomes” for disabled people from the Work Programme were “terrible”.

These figures, first published in November, saw only about 1,000 of 79,000 claimants of disability benefits finding work for at least three months in the scheme’s first year, a success rate of just over one per cent.

Sayce said the results from Work Choice were also “poor”, and added: “Disabled people deserve better than both these programmes.”

The latest Work Choice figures show that between October 2010 and December 2012 only eight per cent of disabled people on the scheme found sustained unsupported employment.

The figures also show that, of more than 8,000 claimants of out-of-work disability benefits who accessed Work Choice over its first nine quarters, only 1,370 people (17 per cent) secured some kind of work, including those placed in segregated settings.

Sayce said: “Given that Work Choice was set up to serve people facing the greatest barriers, it is surprising that this whole programme has only helped 1,370 people from incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance into employment in over two years.”

She compared the figures with the results of other schemes that provide flexible, “genuinely individualised support”, for example for people with serious mental health problems, which consistently support 50 to 60 per cent of disabled people into open employment.

Sayce called on the government to create “genuinely personalised, individual support that enables people to get decent employment, that interests them”, and offers “continuity of support” which is available when needed.

She said: “We need far more choice and control, through evidence-based and personalised support. The Work Programme and Work Choice are not currently delivering what we need and deserve.”

Her comments came as the Commons public accounts committee published its report on the performance of the Work Programme.

The government is set to spend up to £5 billion on the programme over five years, but Margaret Hodge, the committee’s chair, said its performance so far had been “extremely poor”.

The report concludes that the “difference between actual and expected performance is greatest for those claimants considered the hardest to help”, particularly disabled people.

She said the government’s payment-by-results system was aimed at providing incentives to “prevent providers concentrating on the easiest cases and ignoring those who are hardest to help”, but that those incentives were not working.

Hodge said it was “shocking” that of 9,500 former incapacity benefit claimants referred to Work Programme service-providers, only 20 people had so far been placed in a job that had lasted three months.

A DWP spokeswoman said the report – which uses the DWP’s own figures – “paints a skewed picture”, and added: “The Work Programme gives support to claimants for two years and it hasn’t even been running that long yet, so it’s still early days. We know the performance of our providers is improving.

“When some of the hardest to help claimants have not worked for many years we know it will take more time and a lot of support before they can think about working again. That’s why we have given providers two years to work with participants, so it’s still early days.”
Star fears for the future after assisted dying road trip

A high-profile opponent of assisted suicide says a radio documentary in which she visited the five countries that allow state-sanctioned killing left her convinced that other governments will soon legalise the practice.

The disabled actor, comedian and activist Liz Carr said she believed it was “almost inevitable” that other countries would follow the examples of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and the US states of Oregon and Washington, and legalise assisted suicide or euthanasia.

Carr visited all five countries for When Assisted Death is Legal, a two-part documentary for BBC World Service that aired for the first time this week.

Carr took the trip because she wanted to understand why these countries had adopted assisted dying laws.

The conclusion she reached was that they were all countries, or states, that were pushing the boundaries on individual rights, “lashing out” against being told what to do, whether by government or organised religion.

“I think what I learned,” she says, “is that it is almost inevitable that countries are going to see this as a way ahead and as a good thing, and that is what scared me the most.”

The attitude of many of the people she met also alarmed her. “Talking to people who are very pro [assisted suicide], it seems like the most rational and human thing to do. That was quite shocking to me.”

Only last September, Liberal Democrats at their annual conference voted heavily in favour of calling on ministers to bring in assisted dying laws, while the Labour peer Lord Falconer is expected this year to introduce another bill in the Lords in an attempt to legalise assisted suicide.

Carr told Disability News Service (DNS) that she was shocked by several incidents she encountered on her journey.

At a cocktail party, during a conference organised by the Dutch pro-assisted death organisation NVVE, she was talking to a female guest when the woman suddenly asked her: “Are you suffering intolerably?”

“People totally assumed I was interested [in assisted suicide] from the point of view of wanting it, and were surprised at my objections,” says Carr. “It was the most surreal experience.”

As a disabled, English woman in Switzerland, she felt everyone thought she was there to visit the notorious Dignitas suicide clinic. “I felt really conspicuous,” she says. In the documentary, she describes how “as someone opposed to assisted suicide and as a disabled person it was weird being somewhere where it was so normalised”.

Carr was an opponent of legalising assisted suicide before the trip, and saw nothing during her investigation to change her mind. Much of what she witnessed and heard appears to have only strengthened her views.

In Washington State, which introduced its own “death with dignity” laws in 2008, she heard of the woman with terminal cancer who was told by her health insurance provider that it would not pay for the chemotherapy drugs she needed, but would fund the full cost of an assisted death.

Carr says she fears that the drift towards a more privatised health system in the UK could see similar “choices” being offered here, if assisted suicide is legalised.

And she says the evidence she gathered suggests – although it is impossible to prove – that many disabled people across those five countries are being persuaded to die by their financial circumstances and the lack of social care and support available to them.

She says in the documentary: “At a time when we are experiencing cuts in health and social care, how can we be sure that assisted suicide does not become the easy option?”

And she concludes that what is alarming about assisted death legislation is how easily such laws can be widened once they have been introduced.

“Campaigners often talk about the slippery slope,” she says. “Once a law is in, it is unlikely ever to go away, and when it is extended it is without all the debate and discussion you have when it first goes through.”

She accepts that there are cases “where people are in great pain and suffer amazingly and are at the end of their lives”, but she told DNS that her travels had not persuaded her that legalisation could be introduced safely.

“If I believed that we were valued and I believed that people had the proper end-of-life care, whoever they were, and support and medical attention, then absolutely, why not?” she says. “It is just that I don’t [believe all of that], and nothing will change that.”
Government silent on need for inquiry into punishment of autistic pupils

The government has failed to say if it believes there is a need for a national inquiry into the use of locked rooms to punish autistic children in special schools.

It faced questions over the issue after schools inspector Ofsted launched an investigation into claims that children at a special school in London had been forced into a so-called “safe room” by teachers as a punishment.

The magazine Autism Eye had spoken to a former teacher at the school who claims he saw a small, “placid” girl being walked into the safe room by a member of staff, who then held onto the handle so she couldn’t leave.

Another girl from his own class was forced into the room because she had been “pulling things off the wall”, while a member of staff reacted to the same girl “jostling” in the playground by telling a colleague to “just throw her in the safe room’”.

A third child was zipped into a tent in the safe room because he had been making high-pitched noises in the classroom, while the whistleblower was told that another child had put his head through the glass door of the safe room after being forced inside.

Tara Flood, director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said she was not surprised by the allegations.

She said: “Any environment that is segregated generates that kind of culture. Why should anyone be at all surprised?”

And she suggested that many “multi-sensory areas” were used by special schools as punishment rooms.

The Challenging Behaviour Foundation, (CBF) which supports children and adults with learning difficulties, high support needs and behaviour which challenges, said it was “all too often made aware of situations where inappropriate and restrictive practices are used to contain an individual whose behaviour may present challenges”.

The charity said such children and adults “continue to be at greater risk of abuse and inappropriate treatment”.

A CBF spokeswoman said: “We hope that the on-going investigation will highlight the need for greater understanding of challenging behaviours and the need for training around more effective strategies to support behaviour change.”

Last year, the charity Scope announced it had decided to close one of its residential special schools after a court found it had repeatedly breached the rights of a teenager with autism by confining him to a padded room to control his “challenging behaviour”, without seeking a court order.

An Ofsted spokeswoman said it had been passed details of the latest allegations by Autism Eye before Christmas, and was investigating the claims.

But she said Ofsted was unable to say whether such incidents were occurring in other special schools.

She said: “What is the overall picture? We do not collect information in a way where we can say ‘this is or is not happening across the country’.

“They are illegal practices, to lock up a child in any capacity. Whether they have special needs or not, it is illegal.”

When asked by Disability News Service whether there should be a broader inquiry into the use of “punishment rooms” by special schools, she said: “We cannot take that decision. It would be up to the government to decide, if they felt there were serious concerns of this abuse happening up and down the country.”

Edward Timpson, the Conservative children’s minister, said the allegations at the London school were “deeply concerning”.

He said: “No child should be treated in this shocking way. I have asked officials to ensure that all appropriate investigations are taking place.”

But when asked about a wider investigation, a Department for Education spokeswoman has so far failed to comment.

The council responsible for the special school said it investigated the allegations earlier this year and found there was “no case to answer”, while it claimed Ofsted was “happy” with its investigation.

A council spokeswoman said: “The council has investigated and found there is no case to answer. The council refutes the allegations of any children ever being locked in a room for punishment.”

She said the council was “fully supportive” of the school “and its practices”, and that an Ofsted inspection last May had seen it graded as “outstanding” for the behaviour and safety of pupils.
Signs of hope for job-sharing MPs campaign

Activists who want disabled people to be able to become job-sharing MPs are pushing the deputy prime minister to reopen a parliamentary inquiry, so that it can discuss the idea again.

Campaigners want parliament to introduce new laws that would allow two people from the same political party to stand together for election to represent a parliamentary constituency.

They believe such laws would open parliament up to disabled people who might not be able to work full-time for impairment-related reasons.

The historic Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation reported three years ago on how to increase the number of disabled, female and minority ethnic MPs.

Many of its recommendations have since been introduced, but the committee steered clear of recommending job-sharing.

Now Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, a group of disabled activists campaigning to change the law to allow job-sharing MPs, is pushing the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to reopen the Speaker’s Conference.

She has already raised the issue with him on his weekly call-in show on London’s LBC radio station.

He told her then that “any creative ideas about getting more people with disabilities into politics has got to be a good thing”, although he warned that it would be “tricky” to “work out exactly how it would work”.

Clegg promised to examine legal advice from a leading human rights barrister, commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which suggested that the Electoral Commission could be breaching both the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act by refusing to provide guidance permitting job-share MPs.

The Liberal Democrats are set to discuss the idea of job-sharing MPs at their spring conference in Brighton next month, with a vote on it becoming official party policy likely to take place at the party’s annual conference in September.

The Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt, who job-shared when she was working in social services, before she became an MP, said: “My view is why on earth not! You get the value of two heads instead of one. You would have different sets of skills.

“It would be a great opportunity to reflect a wider section of the population.”

King, who has set up a petition to call for a change in the law, helped shape a job-sharing bill introduced by the Labour MP John McDonnell, which should receive its second reading in the Commons on 1 March.

She has also raised the issue on Labour’s Your Britain website, which calls on the public to provide suggestions for new party policies.

King said she believed the Electoral Commission had been in breach of the law. And she said that introducing job-sharing for MPs in the UK could lead to other countries such as the US, Canada and Australia following its lead.

Among those MPs backing McDonnell’s representation of the people (members’ job share) bill are the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who was vice-chair of the speaker’s conference; the Green MP Caroline Lucas; Tim Farron, president of the Liberal Democrats; Conservative MPs Robert Halfon, who is himself disabled, and Dr Sarah Wollaston, who job-shared as a GP; and Jon Cruddas, the influential MP who is heading Labour’s policy review.

A spokeswoman for the Electoral Commission said it had considered the legal advice commissioned by the EHRC and had “concluded that the Cabinet Office should be the body considering the matter in the first instance”.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said Clegg had made it clear that changes to the law were “off the table during this parliament, but in the future anything that would help disabled people get into politics should be approached with an open mind”.

When asked if Clegg would ask for the Speaker’s Conference to be reopened, he said: “The government is committed to widening the base of who can be elected to parliament.

“The Cabinet Office is aware of the views provided to the EHRC on job-sharing. The government receives legal opinions regularly on a wide range of issues, all of which are carefully considered in the normal process of formulating policy and legislation.”

He said the EHRC’s legal advice was still being considered.
Questions raised over failure to include access in rail station scheme

Campaigners have asked the government why a major scheme to build a new platform at a busy rail station failed to include work to make the station accessible to disabled people.

The £2.5 million project is taking place at Alexandra Palace, which is at the centre of a large area of north London which currently has no step-free access to the rail and tube network.

London TravelWatch, the transport users’ watchdog, believes the scheme could breach the Department for Transport’s (DfT) own code of practice on accessible station design.

It believes there was a “deliberate decision” by the DfT and Network Rail, which owns and runs Britain’s rail infrastructure, not to provide step-free access at Alexandra Palace.

The government’s £370 million Access for All fund, launched in 2006, provides funds for improvements across the rail network, but Alexandra Palace is not currently included in the programme.

Tracey Proudlock, a wheelchair-user and leading access consultant, who lives near Alexandra Palace, said the government needed to rethink its approach to station developments, and ensure that all significant upgrade projects also addressed access issues.

She said: “I think if there is a loophole, they will get out of it.”

Because of the lack of step-free access at the station, Proudlock has to either drive or take a taxi to central London meetings.

She added: “At the moment, Access for All is having a very, very modest impact. There are not many opportunities through that scheme.

“It means their reach and their ability to open up the network is very, very narrow.”

In one letter to Network Rail last year, London TravelWatch said the decision to proceed without introducing step-free access could breach the Equality Act, because of the failure to “take into account the needs of disabled people, and not discriminate against them by constructing public facilities in such a way as to deny them access”.

London TravelWatch has written a series of letters to ministers, Network Rail and the rail regulator, raising serious concerns about the Alexandra Palace scheme and its implications for other stations that need access improvements.

In a letter to the rail regulator, Sharon Grant, at the time the chair of London TravelWatch, said the platform project “appears to have made a mockery of current National and European regulations which require a high standard of access at stations where work is done to improve or enhance them with new facilities”.

But in a letter to Grant, Liberal Democrat transport minister Norman Lamb said there was “no question” of anyone in his department “having circumvented the rules in this case”, and there was “no requirement” in the DfT’s code of practice that such projects should make an entire station accessible.

He said that providing a step-free route at Alexandra Palace would probably have more than doubled the cost of the scheme.

But he promised that Alexandra Palace would be “looked at again, along with other current inaccessible stations across the country”, when assessing Access for All bids.

Last July, the government announced another £100 million and an extension of the Access for All programme from 2015 to 2019.

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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