Osborne ‘forgets’, McVey conference withdrawal, Disability poverty rises, Work programme leaves disabled job seekers behind, Watchdog to examine Atos contract, Solar centre scandal, Law Commission proposes stronger hate crime laws.

Back again after a short sojourn to foreign climes Spain to be precise. This time we headed south in our motorhome taking in such places as Cadiz, Seville and Granada. Fantastic scenery, beautiful historic cities with wonderful architecture and plenty of cobbles!

In Seville while trying to negotiate a high kerb with cobbles all around I managed to jam the suspension on my powered chair in the ‘up’ position. As a result, instead of having six wheels in contact with the ground I only had four, which made the chair oscillate in a very interesting way. Every time I braked the chair attempted to throw me out and every time I accelerated I was thrown backwards. It made for entertaining progress whenever we went anywhere. Sue was either holding the seat back to stop it tipping forwards or pushing the thing forwards to stop it tipping back if you get what I mean.

Another interesting moment occurred when we stayed on a site with “excellent facilities for the disabled”.Upon visiting the accessible toilet, which was situated in the women’s toilet area I got into the cubicle with a little effort and then found, I couldn’t get out! I wiggled the chair back and forwards oscillating alarmingly all over the place but couldn’t find a way of getting the door open wide enough to get out. Outside I could hear Sue remonstrating with a Spanish woman who was clearly very annoyed that a man was in the women’s toilets. At the point where I had come to a decision to use the chair as a battering ram to take the door off at it’s hinges I somehow got into a position where I could effect my escape. As I emerged I had the satisfaction of seeing the argumentative señora covered in confusion as she realised I had a perfectly legitimate reason for visiting the women’s toilets!

Now too slightly more serious matters. Some of you know that I have been working on a book with my friend and colleague Dave Rees. After three years work it is now available. I still can’t quite believe that I’m an author! Mind you if Dave hadn’t pushed the idea and kept me to task I suspect the book wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

The book is based on our experiences of running personal development programmes for disabled people. Entitled “Why are you pretending to be normal?” It tells the story of Chris, someone who is coping with a disability rather than managing it. Chris meets a number of disabled people who share their thoughts and ideas about how to gain control over a disability and become more effective as a result. We decided to self publish and the book is available in paperback and e-book versions. Both versions can be purchased via my website at www.philandfriends.co.uk/book

Now on with this weeks news stories.

News Roundup

Osborne ‘forgets’ to assess impact of benefits cap on disabled people

The government faces new questions about its commitment to supporting disabled people, after the chancellor announced details of a new cap on benefits spending, and then failed to assess its likely impact on disabled people.

Although some campaigners dismissed the cap – which will be introduced from 2015 – as a “gimmick”, the move has been seen as another assault on disabled people’s income.

These concerns are likely to be heightened by the Treasury’s failure to take any account of this and other reforms to social security in an equality impact analysis published alongside this week’s Spending Round 2013 report.

In the disability section of the equality analysis, it mentions increases in spending on mental health treatment, the government’s special educational needs reforms, money spent on improving access to the railway system, NHS spending, disability employment programmes, and even funding for Paralympians.

But there is no mention of the welfare cap, other social security measures announced in the spending round – presented to MPs this week by the Conservative chancellor, George Osborne – or cuts of 10 per cent to local government spending.

The spending round sets out how the government plans to allocate £740 billion of public expenditure in 2015-16, and how it will split £11.5 billion in cuts between government departments.

Osborne made it clear to MPs that the new cap on welfare spending would include expenditure on disability benefits, such as disability living allowance and the new personal independence payment, as well as housing benefit.

The Treasury has yet to clarify with Disability News Service (DNS) whether the cap would also include spending on employment and support allowance (ESA) – the new out-of-work disability benefit – although Osborne said it would exclude benefits that “directly rise and fall with the unemployment rate”, which is likely to include jobseeker’s allowance (JSA).

It is unclear exactly how the cap will work, but Osborne said the Office for Budget Responsibility would be told to issue a “public warning” if social security spending approached the limit set by the government.

If such a warning was issued, the government would “be forced to take action to cut welfare costs or publicly breach the cap”, which will be set for the first time at next year’s budget.

Osborne also announced that all those who lose their jobs will now have to wait for a week – rather than the current three days – before claiming out-of-work benefits. This will not apply to those claiming the contributory form of JSA and ESA, although the Treasury has yet to confirm if it will apply to income-related ESA.

And despite repeated claims by coalition figures such as Esther McVey, the minister for disabled people, that the government’s DLA reforms are not a cost-cutting measure, the new report stresses that the changes from DLA to PIP will “save £1.2 billion in 2015-16”.

Osborne said the series of extra savings he had announced would see another £4 billion cut from spending on benefits in 2015-16, on top of previous cuts of £18 billion a year.

He also announced that another £2 billion a year by 2015-16 would be transferred from the NHS into services commissioned jointly with local authorities, as part of moves towards a more “joined-up” social care and health system.

Debbie Jolly, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), attacked the coalition’s “imposed savagery”, and said the spending round “sets up more horrors for anyone forced to rely on a diminishing welfare state”.

She said the spending round was certain to increase every aspect of “miseries” such as the “bedroom tax”, reliance on food banks, rising costs, and the increasing use of benefit sanctions.

And she said the further cuts to local authorities’ spending would push councils “beyond breaking point, increasing the already dire position of disabled people” faced by the closure of the Independent Living Fund, more “punitive strategies for claimants, more caps and more cuts to justice services for any effective redress”.

Steve Winyard, RNIB’s head of policy and campaigns, said the introduction of an “artificial” cap on disability benefits was “shocking”.

He called on Osborne to review the extent to which he could make further cuts to “services disabled people rely on to live a basic quality of life”.

He said: “There are choices to be made but it is regrettable that nearly all the choices being taken right now are at the expense of ordinary people struggling to make ends meet.”
McVey’s conference withdrawal ‘shows high-handed disregard’

The minister for disabled people has been criticised for pulling out of a key speech about her reforms and disability living allowance (DLA) cuts to an audience of disabled people and other campaigners.

Esther McVey was due to give the opening keynote address to the National Disabilities Conference, an event backed by her own Department for Work and Pensions and a number of disability organisations.

But despite having confirmed earlier in the year that she would speak at the event on 4 July, she has now pulled out due to “parliamentary business”.

Some disabled activists have linked her decision to this week’s announcement of a new cap on social security spending – including disability benefits – by the chancellor, George Osborne.

She had been due to speak on issues such as “making independence a reality” for disabled people, and how the new personal independence payment – which is replacing working-age DLA – would “provide fairer support to those disabled people who need it most”.

The Conservative minister was due to deliver her speech at 9.30am, a time when there is usually little or no activity in parliament.

A spokesman for the conference organiser, Government Knowledge, said: “Unfortunately, she has had to withdraw from the conference due to parliamentary business.

“It is disappointing for us as organisers, but obviously parliament comes first.”

The decision to pull out of attending the conference has been greeted with astonishment by campaigners.

Dr Sarah Campbell (@Spoonydoc), principal co-author of the Spartacus report, which led to the We Are Spartacus online movement, said on Twitter: “For me it confirms a complete high-handed disregard for disabled people’s views despite claims to the contrary.

“As minister for disabled people what ‘business’ is more important than keynote address at National Disabilities Conference?”

Anita Bellows (‏@AnitaBellows12) added: “Might mean she knows she already lost the argument. Support is wearing thin.”

Another disabled activist, Adam Lotun, described it as “a truly significant snub to us all”.

He said: “She gets paid to take the rough with the smooth… this is a snub of pure cowardliness.”

A DWP spokeswoman said: “We don’t comment on the minister’s diary – however, it is useful to point out that ministers conduct a wide range of activities relating to their parliamentary responsibilities, including meetings and visits away from the House of Commons.”
DWP admits ‘real’ disability poverty rose under coalition

The number of disabled people in “absolute” poverty rose by 100,000 during the coalition’s second year in office, according to new figures obtained by Disability News Service (DNS).

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) published figures two weeks ago that showed the number of disabled people in “relative” poverty – those who are poor in comparison with the general population – fell by 100,000 in 2011-12.

This fall only occurred because the real value of benefits dropped by less than real wages, with disabled people likely to receive a larger proportion of their income in benefits than non-disabled people.

But the government declined to publish figures for disabled people in absolute poverty. Now the DWP response to a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request by DNS may have revealed why.

The DWP response shows that the number of disabled people in absolute poverty – those who do not have enough income to meet their basic needs – rose by 100,000 in 2011-12.

In 2010-11, there were 3.6 million disabled people in absolute poverty. By 2011-12, this had risen to 3.7 million.

DWP defines disability poverty as an individual living in low income in a family where at least one member is disabled.

DWP said, in its response to the FoIA request: “The number of disabled people in absolute poverty has increased.

“This was due to incomes not increasing as fast as inflation, which was very high and is now coming down.”

The DWP report did admit that, because the impact of disability-related costs is still not taken into account, there are likely to be even more disabled people in poverty than shown by the official figures.
Figures show Work Programme is leaving disabled jobseekers behind

Fresh concerns have been raised over the government’s Work Programme after new figures showed that only a tiny proportion of disabled people have gained a job since the scheme launched two years ago.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said its report showed a sharp increase in the overall number of jobseekers finding work through the programme, compared with the previous figures released in November 2012.

But the DWP figures also show that less than three per cent of claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) – the new out-of-work disability benefit – have secured at least three months’ paid work since the scheme started in June 2011.

The number of former incapacity benefit claimants who have found jobs through the Work Programme after being reassessed for their “fitness for work” and found eligible for ESA was even lower, with less than one per cent of them finding a job (0.8 per cent) by the end of March 2013.

The figures reveal that just 210 former IB claimants have so far had a “job outcome” of at least three months since the Work Programme began.

The disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee, said the report showed “an improving general picture”, but “does nothing to reduce the fear that the Work Programme is failing to reach harder-to-help jobseekers”.

She pointed out that only 5.3 per cent of new ESA claimants found “sustained” work between April 2012 and March 2013. This compares with 32 per cent of jobseeker’s allowance claimants aged 18 to 24.

She added: “We remain deeply concerned that the Work Programme, as currently designed, is insufficient to tackle the problems faced by more disadvantaged jobseekers.”

Dame Anne called on the government to accept the recommendations made by her committee in last month’s report on the Work Programme, including better support for disabled people and other disadvantaged jobseekers.

She said: “I urge the government to carefully consider our report. Doing nothing and hoping things improve is no longer an option.”
Watchdog will be asked to examine Atos contract promises

The award of a £184 million disability assessment contract to the controversial outsourcing company Atos Healthcare is to be referred to the National Audit Office (NAO).

The crossbench peer Lord Alton decided to write to NAO after he received “inadequate” answers to a series of questions he put to the Conservative welfare reform minister Lord Freud about the contract Atos secured to assess disabled people for the new personal independence payment (PIP).

Quoting from a Disability News Service story, he asked Lord Freud this week why Atos had failed to deliver on promises it made in the tender document that won the company the contract.

Atos won the contract to carry out assessments across London and the south of England by boasting of its “extensive” network of 16 NHS trusts, two private hospital chains, and four physiotherapy providers, all of which it said would provide sites where assessments would take place.

But in the months after it was awarded the contract last summer, all but four of the NHS trusts and both of the private healthcare providers dropped out.

Lord Alton told fellow peers: “Why does it matter? It matters because the changes will mean that many disabled people with significant mobility and care needs will face longer journeys – possibly up to 90 minutes by public transport – to reach their assessments, rather than the maximum of 60 minutes promised by Atos when it bid successfully for the contract.”

He added: “At the very minimum this must reinforce the doubts that so many of us have about Atos and the new arrangements which the government are putting in hand.

“Perhaps the central question is why the government are content to spend taxpayers’ money paying a company that fails to honour its contract to the detriment of disabled people.”

Baroness [Celia] Thomas, the disabled Liberal Democrat peer, told Lord Freud the concerns about the contract that had been raised by Lord Alton were “very disturbing”.

But Lord Freud told peers that it was “usual for there to be changes between contract award and delivery” and that Atos had “kept the department informed about changes, and we are confident that Atos and its partners are able to deliver successfully”.

When asked again about the maximum length of journeys rising because of contractors dropping out, Lord Freud said that “Atos tendered for four of the contract areas and received two, so it is not surprising that the 22 sites it was looking at have been reduced”, even though the figures mentioned by Lord Alton referred only to one specific tender document and just one contract area.

Lord Freud also failed to answer Lord Alton’s question on how many assessment sites there now were in the Atos supply chain, or to say whether the Department for Work and Pensions had contacted the NHS trusts that pulled out of the contract.

Lord Alton also raised concerns in the debate about those disabled people who will lose their Motability vehicles in the move from DLA to PIP.

He said it was “unconscionable and deeply irresponsible” of the government to bring in PIP without knowing how many people would lose their vehicles when they were reassessed as having lower mobility needs under the new regime.

The Labour peer Baroness Hollis said she estimated that 180,000 disabled people could face having their Motability vehicles repossessed in the transition from DLA to PIP.

Lord Alton told DNS after the debate that he had tabled follow-up questions in a bid to secure answers from the government about the contract, while he would also be writing to NAO.

He said: “It’s vitally important to keep the issues arising out of PIP before parliament.

“Everything from the repossession of Motability vehicles and the loss of independence to the role of Atos Healthcare will all seriously impact on countless numbers of disabled people.

“House of Commons select committees and the National Audit Office should now be scrutinising these policies with enormous care and calling ministers, officials and Atos executives to account.”

He added: “In the light of the inadequate replies during the debate I have today tabled a series of follow up questions – which I hope will receive straightforward replies.”

John McArdle, a founding member of the user-led campaign group Black Triangle, welcomed Lord Alton’s decision to write to NAO, and said he was “appalled” by Lord Freud’s answers.

He said: “He completely failed to answer the questions Lord Alton put to him. We regard it as an abuse of parliament and a travesty of the democratic process. He should be held to account.”

He added: “Either Atos has been deceiving the government, or the government in cahoots with Atos has been deceiving parliament.”
Solar centre scandal: CQC finally acts over abuser’s care work concerns

The care watchdog has finally agreed to investigate how a nursing assistant accused of abusing disabled people could then work for a care agency, even though she should have been barred from all care work.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) eventually agreed to act, several weeks after concerns were raised by Disability News Service (DNS).

The troubled commission – currently under fire over its handling of serious care failings at Morecambe Bay NHS foundation trust – will look into how abuser Susan Murphy was able to work for the care agency.

She was one of four members of staff at the Solar Centre day centre in Doncaster who were suspended after a whistleblower raised concerns in 2007.

But for nearly a year, from 2009 to 2010, Murphy worked with A1 Medical and General, a care agency which provides “nurses, carers and support workers to the NHS, prisons, private hospitals, care homes, and supported living services”, and is based less than a mile from the Solar Centre.

Murphy, 44, was eventually charged with ill-treating Solar Centre service-users, all adults with learning difficulties and high support needs.

A trial at Sheffield Crown Court heard how she slapped and hit service-users and locked one woman in a cupboard. She was found guilty of 15 offences and sentenced earlier this month to two years and nine months in prison.

An internal report into the allegations, compiled by Rotherham Doncaster and South Humber Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (RDaSH), suggested that 18 people had been abused.

But because of police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) failures, it took six years – and two unsuccessful investigations – for the case to reach court.

A1 has told DNS that it carried out what was then known as a Criminal Records Bureau check – now carried out by the Disclosure and Barring Service – on Murphy, but has declined to reveal the result.

Meanwhile, RDaSH has yet to deny suggestions that another of the four defendants, Julie Burge, who was later acquitted of all criminal charges against her, had continued to be employed by the trust for a period between 2007 and 2013.

CQC and its predecessor watchdogs repeatedly praised RDaSH for its care, even while an investigation into the abuse was ongoing.

Despite the Healthcare Commission being told about the allegations in 2007, the trust was given an “excellent” rating three years running, in 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09.

And so impressed was CQC – which took over the regulatory duties of the Healthcare Commission in April 2009 – with the standard of care at RDaSH that it was “named and famed” as one of 44 high-performing trusts in October 2009.

A CQC spokeswoman said that when it first registered the trust, RDaSH had “provided detailed information regarding both the initial allegations and the subsequent actions taken by all involved parties”.

She said: “We followed this up as part of our engagement and inspection activity and were satisfied that the trust had investigated thoroughly and taken action against the staff concerned.”

She said CQC had not been aware that Murphy – and possibly Burge as well – had been working in the care sector between being suspended and the trial, until being informed by DNS.

The CQC spokeswoman said this would now be investigated as part of discussions about the Solar Centre scandal with Doncaster Adult Safeguarding Board.

She added: “We would be extremely grateful if you could clarify the name of the individual, the agency she was reported to be working at and any other information you have regarding this issue.

“We will then follow this up with all relevant parties to ascertain whether regulatory action is required.”

DNS has joined five families of former Solar Centre service-users in calling for an independent inquiry into the failures in the case by South Yorkshire police, CPS, RDaSH and other agencies.
Law Commission proposes stronger hate crime laws

The government’s advisers on law reform have proposed changes to legislation that could make it easier for prosecutors to bring disability hate crime charges to court.

The changes to the law – proposed by the Law Commission in a consultation launched this week – could also make it easier to secure stricter sentences for hostility-related offences.

The consultation document was published just days after the Crown Prosecution Service failed to convince a judge – under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 – to increase the prison sentences faced by two day centre care workers, on the grounds that the offences were motivated by disability-related hostility.

The two nursing assistants were found guilty of hitting, slapping and punching disabled people at the Solar Centre in Doncaster, but Judge Rosalind Coe refused to treat the offences as hate crimes.

Campaigners were also appalled that the offences committed by the care workers who admitted similar abuse at the Winterbourne View private hospital were not treated as hate crimes, when the offenders were sentenced last autumn.

Now – following discussions with organisations including Disability Rights UK and the Disability Hate Crime Network – the Law Commission is suggesting the government should widen existing hate crime laws in England and Wales.

Among its proposals, the Law Commission suggests new sentencing guidelines on the use of section 146, and for any hate crime element to be recorded on the offender’s criminal record and the Police National Computer.

It also suggests that crimes such as assault or criminal damage that are currently prosecuted as “aggravated” offences – with higher maximum sentences – on the grounds of race or religious hate could be extended to hostility on the grounds of disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity.

The Law Commission suggests that this could be done if measures taken to improve the application of section 146 are seen as “inadequate”.

It also proposes extending laws on publication of material intended to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

The commission says it believes there is “a case in principle for extending the stirring up offences to include the stirring up of hatred on grounds of disability and transgender identity”, because this would “capture a unique, specific and grave type of wrongdoing not covered by the existing law: the spreading of hatred against a group”.

The Law Commission concludes in the consultation document that “the enhanced sentencing regime under section 146 is not a sufficient solution to the problem”.

The review was commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, following a commitment in the government’s cross-departmental hate crime action plan.

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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