DWP denies fraud cover-up, Fitness to Work Test needs surgery, New idea for funding rail access, Don’t make us beg for our rights, Minister branded a coward, Access to Work inquiry

I think this is the longest break between blogs I can remember. I haven’t had dozens of emails complaining so I can only assume I’ve got away with it or you just didn’t notice the silence!!

You remember me telling you about the flood we experienced back in February, well here we are in May still battling to get things moving and I do mean literally, moving.

I can now exclusively reveal why our house insurance premiums are so high! We’ve had visits by loss adjusters, three surveyors, a house drying company, builders and a removal firm and nothing has changed. As an example of exorbitant costs try this for size! We are having furniture and fittings removed from four ground floor rooms and stored so that the building work can start. The removal firm wanted to charge the insurance company £5000 for removal plus £80 per day storage. I’m in the wrong business does anyone know where I can hire an accessible van?

The good news is that we have managed to find some temporary accommodation not far from us in a holiday let, which consists of a renovated barn converted into accessible cottages. As you can imagine because of their rarity and the fact they’re booked for most of the time we can only stay for short periods so we’ll be living a little like travellers for the next few weeks. If all else fails we’ll stay in our motorhome on local campsites. All very lovely when you’re on holiday not so much fun when you’re trying to work and manage everyday life.

So if you see me over the next few weeks looking more than usually dishevelled, apparently wearing the same clothes you saw me in the week before please go easy on me. Spare a shilling for a cuppa guv!

Here’s this weeks news.


News Roundup

DWP denies fraud cover-up, but admits it never interviewed whistleblowers

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted that it failed to interview two whistleblowers who made serious allegations of fraud by a private sector provider within the government’s specialist work programme for disabled people.

DWP supposedly launched an investigation last autumn into the claims made against Seetec by two of its former employees.

Both of the women, Perveen Sud and Reena Gour, had sent brief emails alerting DWP that the Work Choice provider had been artificially inflating the number of jobs it said it was finding for disabled people.

But despite the serious allegations outlined in their emails last July and August, neither of the women has been interviewed by the DWP’s fraud investigators, and they only discovered that the government had cleared Seetec of fraud when informed last month by Disability News Service (DNS).

This week, DWP finally admitted that neither woman had been interviewed about the allegations they had made about Seetec, which is the worst-performing of the eight Work Choice contractors, according to the latest government figures.

A DWP spokesman claimed there was no reason to interview them because all the information the investigators needed was in their emails.

But DNS has seen the email sent by Sud last August and it includes only a 100-word summary of her allegations, over just four sentences.

None of the details that she passed to DNS were included in the email, and both Sud and Gour have told DNS that they had detailed information that they had been ready to share with DWP.

Sud and Gour have told DNS this week that they have been waiting for months for DWP to contact them about their claims.

Gour said: “It’s ridiculous. If someone makes allegations, you call them and you speak to them.”

Sud added: “They need to talk to us. It’s outrageous. There is no way you should have those kind of accusations made and not be interviewed about them.”

This week, DWP insisted that it had acted correctly and had not attempted to cover up their fraud claims.

The DWP spokesman said: “As far as I can work out, they [the whistleblowers] emailed the information to us and then they were written to a few months later to say it was still being investigated.

“As I understand it, the information they provided was investigated. They raise the issue and we look into it.

“[Our investigators] investigated it and found there was not fraud. If you wish to say it is a cover-up, that is your prerogative. I would say it is not a cover-up.”

Asked whether ministers were aware of the “investigation”, he said: “I really don’t know.”

Sud and Gour told DNS last year how Seetec offered Work Choice clients as free labour to charities and other host organisations, and then paid their wages for the next six months, while allegedly pretending to DWP that the salaries were instead being paid by the host organisations.

Three organisations told DNS how they had accepted disabled job-seekers for six-month placements, even though it was made clear to Seetec that they were just volunteer roles, they would not be paid, and there would be no jobs available at the end of the six months.

Despite this, Seetec – which provides Work Choice services in west and north London and has more than 800 employees – is alleged to have logged the placements as “job outcomes”, claiming payments from the government both at the beginning and end of the six months.

Seetec was able to make a profit because the amount it received from DWP – thousands of pounds for every client who completed six months in a job – was hundreds of pounds a month more than it paid the clients, who only had to work 20 hours a week at minimum wage to qualify for a job outcome.
Former DWP adviser tells MPs: ‘Fitness for work’ test needs radical surgery

The former government adviser who carried out three independent reviews of the controversial work capability assessment (WCA) has told MPs that the test is “not working” and must be made more “humane”.

Professor Malcolm Harrington also made a string of damaging accusations about the way the system for assessing disabled people’s “fitness for work” had been managed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

His evidence will add to pressure on the next government to replace the WCA with a more sensitive, humane and rights-friendly system.

Harrington, who was giving evidence to MPs on the Commons work and pensions select committee, chaired by the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, said: “It’s not working. It has to be more humane, and it has to be more individual-focused.”

Harrington, who conducted his reviews between 2010 and 2012, was giving evidence as part of the committee’s inquiry into the WCA and the out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA).

At one point in the evidence session, Harrington accused DWP of being “infantile” and delivering a “ludicrous” response to an improvement suggested by his successor, Dr Paul Litchfield.

And he claimed that during his time as the independent WCA reviewer, he repeatedly – and unsuccessfully – asked DWP to force improvements from the private contractor that conducts the tests, Atos Healthcare.

He said: “My brief was not to tell Atos what to do. My brief was to tell the department that they ought to get Atos to do it better, and I kept saying that, and they didn’t, and when they did lean on them, they walked away.

“There was a reluctance to push them too hard, for whatever reason.”

He also accused DWP of losing enthusiasm for implementing his recommendations, during the second of his three years in post.

After an initial surge of enthusiasm, “inertia” set in, he said, while the dedicated team in Leeds that were driving through his recommendations was “disbanded or downgraded”.

Harrington said his “guess” was that many of his recommendations were “slowed up” by DWP for financial reasons.

And he said that the frequency with which many claimants were being repeatedly reassessed – a major criticism of campaigners, who have described the system as a “revolving-door” for many disabled people – was “illogical” and was failing to take people’s individual conditions into account.

He also accused DWP of ignoring the need to improve how people with fluctuating conditions were dealt with by the system.

Harrington also made a number of suggestions for how the WCA could be improved, or replaced.

He told the MPs that the government should restrict face-to-face assessments to a much smaller group of claimants, a suggestion that is likely to infuriate Conservative ministers such as work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who have repeatedly demanded stricter and more frequent face-to-face assessments for disability benefits.

Harrington suggested a new “triage” system, which would narrow claimants down to a small “middle” group who needed one-to-one assessments because their cases were more complex, probably from assessors with some specialism in particular impairments or health conditions.

He also agreed with Dame Anne that there was a case for introducing two tests: a cheaper and more basic test to decide benefit eligibility, and another to look at an individual’s actual employability.

He said ministers had never really decided what they wanted to do with the middle group of people who were not currently “fit for work” but might be in the future.

And he suggested that the assessments should be carried out by voluntary organisations, rather than the private sector.

He said: “You would still have a work capability assessment, you just wouldn’t use necessarily a standard, automated, IT-based system run by outside contractors.”

He added: “It doesn’t appear to me that the people who are doing it as a private contract are necessarily doing a good job.”

Harrington was also critical of the work carried out by Atos.

He said that the quality of the assessors employed by the company was “very patchy”.

And he said he knew a nurse who had been told by Atos that she should not work for the company as an assessor because she cared too much for people, and “we are not here to care for people, we are here to process people”.

Since the WCA was first introduced in 2008, hundreds of thousands of ESA applicants have been found unfairly fit for work, and while many have gone on to win appeals, many others have been unable to cope with the appeals process, or have experienced health relapses, with some resorting to self-harm and suicide attempts.
New idea for funding rail access upgrades is ‘brilliant’, says MP

A disabled campaigner is hoping to create a new way of funding transport access improvements – by persuading London’s mayor to set up a public fund that would allow individuals, councils and businesses to contribute towards the cost.

Conrad Tokarczyk, from Hillingdon, west London, already has support for his idea from his local Conservative MP, Sir John Randall, and the neighbouring Hayes and Harlington MP, Labour’s John McDonnell.

Tokarczyk has linked up on the campaign with Paralympian Natasha Baker, who won two gold medals at the London 2012 Paralympics, and also lives in Hillingdon.

They have launched a petition to make all of Hillingdon’s stations step-free within five years, and also want transport organisations to publish the costs of making each of the UK’s rail and bus stations step-free within five years.

They are particularly frustrated at the failure to make better progress on delivering step-free access to London’s tube and rail stations.

They are asking the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to announce how much it would cost to make each station step-free, and then create a public fund for each station, which would allow donations from individuals, companies and local authorities towards those targets.

Tokarczyk said: “I’m angry that we still have a public transport system that fails disabled people.

“I’ve had to turn down jobs because I simply couldn’t get there by public transport, and driving wasn’t an option.”

He added: “Inaccessible public transport makes it difficult for many disabled people to access the workforce, healthcare and education.

“However, this is not an issue exclusive to disabled people. Britain has an ageing population; many older people experience mobility problems as a result of the ageing process.

“Failure to act will confine many older people to their homes, denying them freedom and the ability to live fulfilling lives.”

At present, only about a quarter of London’s 270 underground stations are step-free from street-level to platform, as well as about half of London’s overground stations, and the entire Docklands Light Railway and tram systems.

And only about 25 further tube and rail stations will be made step-free over the next 10 years.

Sir John has written to Johnson, asking him to consider the public fund idea, which he believes is “very innovative and very exciting”.

He said: “In the past, lots of public works were funded by public subscription, so I can’t really see why this might be different.”

He added: “It’s very important that we get the costings done, so we know exactly the sums of money we are talking about, and what we might try and get through a public fund.”

Johnson has told Sir John that the public fund idea is “interesting”, but would “probably not be a viable solution in light of the amounts required to fund projects”, although he admitted that Transport for London was using third-party contributions from developers and councils to fund improvements at Greenford and Tower Hill stations.

McDonnell said the public fund idea was “absolutely brilliant”, and added: “I think it will prove popular. I think local people will campaign to raise funds to improve access to their local station.”

And he said he believed local councils would also be able to use their planning powers to ensure developers invested in local transport through the public funds, while they would enable companies to make life easier for their customers, and improve access to their businesses.

In the early 1980s, McDonnell served on the first national committee that looked at access to public transport.

He said he thought at the time that the programme of work they suggested would produce an accessible public transport system within a decade, but he was to be “bitterly disappointed”.

He said: “I failed in that exercise and I’m hoping we don’t fail now.”
Comedian tells government: ‘Don’t make us beg for our rights’

A comedian and activist has accused the government of forcing her and other disabled people to beg for their basic human rights.

Francesca Martinez was speaking during a debate on the impact of government cuts on disabled people, held in a House of Lords committee room.

The event was organised under the umbrella of The People’s Parliament, a series of discussions held in parliament and hosted by the Labour MP John McDonnell with the aim of “livening up, and providing political depth, to the debate in the run up to the next election”.

Martinez told the packed room on Monday (12 May): “Don’t make us beg. We want to be given the support that is needed but we don’t want to have to crawl on our hands and knees for it.”

Martinez, who was the public face of the WOW petition – which collected more than 100,000 names and forced a debate on disability-related cuts in the House of Commons – said she wanted to challenge the government rhetoric that disabled people were “a group of workshy scroungers”.

She said: “I have never met a disabled person in my life who doesn’t want to work, and those people who can’t work spend their life wishing they could.”

Debbie Domb, who receives support from the Independent Living Fund (ILF), which is due to close in June 2015, described to the meeting – in probably the most powerful of the speeches – how she expected that closure to impact on her life.

She has a progressive, degenerative neurological condition and currently receives support 24-hours-a-day from personal assistants she has recruited and trained herself, but said: “I am very, very scared about my future if the ILF is abolished next year.

“Without ILF, I will be left with a stark choice: to either go in an institution, joining the thousands of other disabled people already incarcerated, or receive a few hours of agency ‘care’ a week.

“These both contravene my human right to choice of where, and who, I live with. The second option would be about basic survival.”

She added: “Dealing with the consequences on my mental and physical health without ILF will be hugely expensive for the NHS.”

She said ILF had enabled her to live in her own home, attend her son’s wedding, go on holiday, be a founder member of a disabled people’s campaign group, meet with friends, rehome two cats, and attend adult education classes.

But without ILF, she would have “no life”, and if there was a fire in her home she would be unable to escape. She would, she said, “be existing in limbo with no quality of life”.

Ian Jones, one of the founders of the WOW campaign, said: “I have listened to people today and it is quite clear that we do not have any framework in this country for how we are to be treated.”

He called for a bill of rights for disabled people that would describe their rights, the opportunities they should have, and how they should be treated.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said disabled people were facing “systematic and unprecedented” attacks from the government that were “literally killing thousands of disabled people” and “pushing even more of us into poverty, isolation and despair”.

She said: “Everything that disabled people and our allies have fought for over the last 30 years is at risk.”

She spoke about the manifesto published last September by the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, which lays out key principles, demands and commitments that disabled people, their organisations and allies can use in campaigning and lobbying in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

Lazard added: “I really cannot believe the current government’s strategy is called Fulfilling Our Potential. If it was truthful, it would be called Killing Our Potential.”

She said society had to “stop seeing support for disabled people as dead money, a drain on resources that needs to be eliminated”, and see it instead as essential investment.

Linda Burnip, one of the founders of Disabled People Against Cuts, spoke about the group’s origins and the impact of the cuts on disabled people.

She said: “Increasing numbers of people are being forced to choose between eating and heating their homes.

“Many disabled people live in constant fear that they will end up living without adequate support.

“They fear they will become prisoners in their own homes or forced into residential homes.”

Micheline Mason, a veteran disabled activist, said it was vital to “get back the language of empathy and humanity and start using it all the time”.

She compared the current atmosphere that was “turning us against each other” with the climate of fear that developed under Nazi rule in 1930s Germany.

She said: “It’s very dangerous if it isn’t stopped because it happened before and we know where it led.”
Minister branded a coward, after ‘avoiding’ meeting ILF protesters

The minister for disabled people has been branded a coward after dodging a chance to meet disabled activists protesting about his decision to close the Independent Living Fund (ILF).

Scores of campaigners, including ILF-users, gathered outside the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Caxton House headquarters in Whitehall this week, chanting slogans and blocking entrances.

One activist, Paula Peters, posed in a cage to demonstrate the fears of many ILF-users that they would in future be imprisoned in their own homes or institutions once the fund was closed.

She and others said that Mike Penning – the Conservative minister for disabled people – was a “coward” for not meeting them to discuss the closure of the fund, a government-resourced trust which helps about 18,000 disabled people with the highest support needs to live independently.

Penning plans to close ILF on 30 June 2015 and hand the funds instead to local authorities, but he has refused to ring-fence that money.

And he claimed this week, in response to a parliamentary question from his Labour shadow, Kate Green, that no decision had yet been made on what funding would be provided to councils from 2016-17 onwards.

Even if the government funding continues, campaigners fear that local authorities will not be able to match the support provided by ILF and will instead use the money to fill gaps in their already straining budgets.

They say ILF is a cost-effective funding model, in contrast to the much more expensive system used by local authorities, which often provide funding only for a basic “clean and feed” model of care.

Minutes before the protest began, and less than half a mile away, the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell asked the Conservative junior health minister Earl Howe in the House of Lords why the government was refusing to set up a reference group, to include disabled people, to oversee the ILF closure.

The disabled Labour peer, Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, followed up by asking the government to monitor the level of unmet need of former ILF clients if parts of their packages were not eligible for local authority funding after ILF closed.

Earl Howe gave no guarantees to either peer, although he told Baroness Campbell the coalition would have further discussions with her about her idea.

He told Baroness Wilkins that councils would have powers to meet any needs, and “should also advise on what preventive services, information or advice, or other support may be available in the wider community to help them achieve their particular outcomes”.

Penning had been invited to meet the protesters outside Caxton House to discuss their concerns, but he failed to turn up, and none of the activists were allowed into the building, although North Tyneside Labour MP Mary Glindon was able to deliver a letter on their behalf.

Glindon had attended the demonstration and spoke to protesters after being invited by her constituent, Mary Laver.

Laver, who has played a prominent role in the ILF campaign, relied on the fund to support her as a “games maker” at London 2012, and to travel from her home on the edge of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to attend this week’s protest.

She said it was “disgusting” that Penning was not willing to talk to protesters, and added: “He should have the guts of his convictions to come out and face us.”

She added: “I am really scared of the future. I feel like someone on death row.”

Singer John Kelly, an ILF-user, said he was in “despair” at the threat to the fund, but “amazed at how many people have turned up today and what effort that has taken to get everybody here”.

He said he was “completely frustrated” that the closure was going ahead, even though the government lost the argument over the closure in court last November, when five ILF-users secured a high-profile court of appeal victory.

Despite the court ruling that Esther McVey – at the time the minister for disabled people – had breached the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty, the judgment meant only that the government had to reconsider its decision, this time paying “proper attention” to its legal obligations.

Penning told MPs on 6 March that he had done just that and had decided to go ahead with the original decision to close ILF.

Disabled singer Victoria Oruwari, who performed alongside Kelly in Graeae’s production of The Threepenny Opera, which completed its tour earlier this month, said: “I am here because I got to know John and understand a lot more about the ILF, and saw how he needed PAs to help him.

“What cuts me really deep is knowing if that fund is cut off he will not be able to come on tour with us.

“It would confine him to four walls and timed care. From a humanitarian point-of-view, I am just very disappointed with the way the government have handled it.

“I feel they are targeting the wrong people. I feel that disabled people do not deserve to be treated like this.”

Matt Goodsell, who lives in south London with his partner, who is also an ILF-user, said his message to Penning was: “People are dying because of these cuts.”

If the fund closed, he said, he “couldn’t function as a person”, and he added: “With support I am a man with a masters who contributes to society. Without it, I am nothing.”

Writer and performer Penny Pepper, another ILF-user, said it was “sickening” that they had won the court case, and yet the government was still closing the fund.

But she warned Penning and his colleagues that she and other campaigners were “more committed to the fight than ever”.

Jonathan Kaye, an ILF-user for nine years, said he was not as worried about keeping ILF open as some campaigners.

He said: “I don’t think it will make much difference whether the ILF is kept open or not. The most important thing is that the money that is passed over to the local authorities is totally ring-fenced. [Otherwise] that money is going to be used for other purposes.”

Kaye, an inclusion and access consultant, said: “I live a fully independent life. I work. [Closing ILF] could make life very difficult.

“The local authority’s idea of care is literally getting up, getting dressed, having food, and making sure that I am safe and medically OK.

“But [with ILF] I go to meetings and conferences and exhibitions, I go out to see friends and family. I do pretty much the same as any able-bodied person would do. That is what is under threat.”

A DWP spokeswoman told Disability News Service later that Penning had not been in Caxton House because he was needed for a Commons vote, although the first vote of the afternoon did not take place until nearly 5.15pm, two hours after the protest began.

A spokeswoman for Penning said he had been in the House of Commons all afternoon “on parliamentary business”.
Access to Work inquiry will be first stage in jobs probe

A committee of MPs is seeking evidence about the Access to Work (AtW) scheme, as part of its investigations into the government’s efforts to support disabled people into work.

Dame Anne Begg, the Labour chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said she believed disabled people were finding it harder to secure jobs because the government’s work programmes were “not working for them”.

She said an examination of AtW was the first stage of an investigation into how the government was helping disabled people into work.

Dame Anne said: “We think it’s something that has been forgotten about, essentially.”

She said the biggest AtW challenges appeared to be around people with sensory impairments, who often needed ongoing support, rather than facing one-off costs.

The latest government figures show the number of disabled people receiving workplace support through AtW has started to increase again in the last couple of years, following an initial slump in numbers after the coalition took office.

AtW spending plummeted from £107 million in 2010-2011 to just £93 million in 2011-12.

The number of disabled people claiming funding fell from a peak of more than 37,000 in 2009-10 to 30,780 in 2011-12, before rising to 31,500 in 2012-13, and looks set to increase again in 2013-14.

In her review of employment support for the government in 2011, Liz Sayce, the chief executive of Disability Rights UK, focused heavily on the need to expand and improve AtW, describing it as the government’s “best-kept secret”.

Three years on, there are growing concerns over how the scheme is working – despite the rising number of claimants – particularly among members of the Deaf community.

More than 5,000 people have so far signed a petition calling on DWP to reverse changes made to AtW support for British Sign Language-users, which mean that any deaf person who needs more than 30 hours a week of AtW communication support has to employ their own full-time communication support worker on a salary, even though there are only about 1,000 trained BSL interpreters in the country.

A parliamentary early day motion calling on DWP to reverse the policy has attracted the signatures of 55 MPs.

Phil Friend, a leading disability consultant and director of Phil and Friends, said the Sayce review had called for a “re-focussing” of AtW resources to help more disabled people either get into or stay in open employment.

He questioned whether those recommendations, agreed by government, had been fully implemented.

But he also raised fears that, given the government’s record on cutting benefits and services for disabled people, the committee’s inquiry could provide the coalition with ammunition to slash AtW funding.

Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how an educational farm run by two disabled people for more than 10 years could be forced to close after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) suddenly removed their AtW support.

Sir Christopher and Lady Musgrave reply on support workers funded by AtW to carry out work they are unable to do themselves, but were told – without warning – that their AtW had been removed because their award-winning farm did not make enough money last year.

Lady Musgrave now plans to submit evidence to the committee’s inquiry.

DNS was also told how another claimant received a similarly sudden call telling her that her AtW payments had been stopped, putting both her job and health at risk.

The committee is particularly interested in the AtW application and assessment process; the adequacy of ongoing support; the scheme’s effectiveness in support people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties; and its effectiveness in helping disabled people to secure a job, stay in employment and develop their careers.

For details on how to give evidence, visit the committee’s website. The deadline for submitting evidence is 20 June.

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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