What price do you put on a human life?

Since I last wrote, we’ve had the Manchester bombing, the London and Westminster Bridge killings, a general election and most recently the fatal attack on Muslims in Finsbury Park and the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower.

There has been much soul-searching over the murderous terrorist atrocities which killed and permanently disabled so many innocent people in London and Manchester. Were they preventable? Could more have been done to avert them? Sadly the conclusion seems to be that it is almost impossible to stop murderous individuals from blowing themselves up, running people over after hiring a truck or running amuck with knives. Nevertheless, the government will speedily invest millions of pounds in anti-terrorism measures and rapidly deploy new legislation to counter the perceived threat.

But what about the response to the tragedy of Grenfell Tower and the needless loss of so many innocent lives? It is beginning to look like this horror was largely preventable, and the warnings were ignored or dismissed as alarmist.

Grenfell Tower residents had repeatedly raised concerns regarding the safety of their building; the local authority chose to ignore the warnings. A refurbishment programme primarily designed to “beautify” the tower block to make it less of “an eyesore” for the wealthy homeowners living nearby used cheaper cladding which it now seems clear did not meet fire safety standards. A Coroners report based on a similar fire in a tower block in Southwark made a number of fire protection recommendations none of which have seen the light of day, despite repeated calls from an all-party parliamentary committee on fire safety. As if the devastating consequences of the fire itself weren’t enough Kensington and Chelsea’s response to the disaster was utterly shambolic and dismissive. Local people had to rally round and provide for each other, and days after the fire there was still a lack of leadership, coordination and organisation. Even the Prime Minister chose to meet exhausted fire crews rather than mingle with the devastated survivors of the fire.

One of the conclusions I draw from this terrible, preventable tragedy is that if you’re poor, or an immigrant, an ethnic minority, disabled or old, your life is worth less when compared to those who are not from those groups.

One commentator put it rather well; “The Shard is a tower block if it caught fire would there be such catastrophic consequences”. I think we know the answer to that question.

Picture of high rise buildings in London
Luxury high rise buildings in London

Another commentator remarked when discussing the Grenfell Tower fire that “housing for the poor will always be poor housing”. Buildings constructed for people who are more comfortably off tend not compromise on safety standards; whereas penny-pinching, shoddy maintenance, avoidance or enforcement of building regulations and delay are the name of the game for those dependent on social housing.

A fitting epitaph for all those who died would surely be that lessons are learned. The government should act swiftly to strengthen fire safety regulations just as they would have done if this had been an act of terrorism. The public enquiry needs to publish its findings as quickly as possible, and if required the government should bring forward new legislation without delay just as it would have done if this disaster had been caused by a terrorist act. The government should spend whatever is required to ensure that people are kept safe just as they do when we are threatened by terrorism. If these things come to pass then those who died will not have died in vain.

Work Choice, NCIL votes Yes, Human Rights Fears, Welsh Railway Station Access, Miller Savaged

Another interesting week like so many others of course. You’ll be delighted to hear that I’ve finally shaken off man flu. As you know it is awful and the only treatment is complete unquestioning sympathy from everyone dealing with the sufferer!!

Perhaps more important has been the initial responses to the government’s proposed spending cuts. Many disability organisations are really concerned about the impact on their stakeholders and the current media attention, which seems to focus on two main issues. First cutting benefits is about fairness! Disabled people claiming housing benefit should have it reduced because non-disabled people can’t afford £20,000 a year rent on their salaries and that’s not fair. All that is required is for non-disabled people to acquire MS, Cancer or Parkinson’s disease and they might then qualify for the reduced housing benefit!! Second everyone claiming incapacity benefit is clearly work shy or a malingerer and need to be reassessed in order to get them back into work. What is interesting here is that people tend to become disabled while working so what is being done to help employers retain staff? Perhaps an employee and employer should be assessed together to see what adjustments are required to keep people off benefits. Rant over I hope you enjoy this weeks selection of news items.
Government admits Work Choice numbers ‘are lower’

The government has admitted that its new work programme, aimed at providing intensive support for those facing the highest employment barriers, will help far fewer disabled people than it previously suggested.

Launching Work Choice this week, the government said the voluntary programme would support 23,000 “severely disabled” people every year.

But in a written answer to Conservative MP Rehman Chishti, Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, said the government expected “around 79,000 people” to have access to Work Choice by 2015.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman admitted that “many customers” would be on the scheme for more than a year and so only an estimated 79,000 people would be helped, an annual average of less than 16,000 over five years.

On the day the government launched the scheme, Miller told a joint meeting of disability-related all party parliamentary groups that Work Choice would “deliver far simpler and far more effective support for severely disabled people”.

She said the programme would provide “pre-employment support for disabled people so they can get the best jobs they can do and post-employment support so they don’t just fall out of the job when things get a bit tough”.

Miller said the government wanted to give more than one million disabled people the support they needed to get off benefits and into work, through Work Choice and the new Work Programme.

But a series of speakers questioned where the government would find these jobs.

The disabled peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson cast huge doubt on where the jobs would come from, because of the “underlying discrimination against disabled people trying to get into work”.

She said she knew of disabled people who were applying for 50 or 60 jobs and were “being turned away for a whole host of really bizarre reasons”, when “the real reason was that they are disabled”.

She said it was “really painful that these people are being targeted as scroungers when they absolutely, genuinely want to be in work”.

Tom Clarke MP, who chairs the all party parliamentary group on learning disability, told the minister that the jobs “just aren’t there” and for people with learning difficulties “that becomes an even bigger problem”, particularly because of the lack of advocacy.

Nigel Meager, director of the Institute for Employment Studies, also cast doubt on the government’s plans.

He said: “If the Labour government couldn’t achieve a significant reduction in the number of people on these benefits when the economy was booming, then the new government’s approach…may have to run very, very hard just to stand still.”
NCIL members vote for merger to ‘keep independent living alive’

The National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL) has taken a large step towards a merger with two other leading disability organisations, after members were warned it was unlikely to survive on its own.

Despite several concerns raised by disabled activists at NCIL’s annual general meeting (agm) in London, none of its member organisations voted against plans to move towards a merger with RADAR and Disability Alliance (DA), with possible unification next summer.

In NCIL’s annual review, its chair, Mike Smith, said the decision to aim to merge next year was mainly taken because “the present political and financial situation pose serious threats both to disabled people’s rights and to the financial position of our three organisations”.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, an NCIL board member and one of its co-founders, gave an emotional speech at the agm in which she warned: “Quite frankly, I believe if we do not do it, within six months there will be no NCIL.”

She said NCIL’s campaigning was “the reason that many of us have direct payments in this room today”, but she believed NCIL would be “safe” with RADAR, which had gone through “a phenomenal change over the last few years” and “will support us to continue our work”.

John Evans, her fellow NCIL co-founder, said: “My heart and my gut and my independent living background say we shouldn’t do this…we need our identity, but I don’t see an alternative given the financial situation.”

But he added: “Independent living has to be at the heart of the organisation and it has to be in the name, without a doubt.”

Smith said: “It’s not about creating one organisation for disabled people. It’s about making sure independent living as a concept and as a movement has a future and has longevity.”

Sue Bott, NCIL’s director, said the move was “actually very, very positive” and would “give us a bigger voice”, and added: “It does give us a better chance to support our members because we can bring in the experts and knowledge of all three organisations.”

But Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC), pointed out that UKDPC had put itself in “special measures” three years ago and was now “strengthened” and “growing”.

She warned of the danger of an organisation setting itself up to be the only voice of disabled people and of disagreements within a movement that has “already been driven apart by conflict over the last 15 years”.

She said UKDPC would “politely decline” an invitation to join the coalition but would “continue to support NCIL” – which was originally part of BCODP, the former name for UKDPC – and pledged to “work alongside you and the new organisation if that is the direction you go in”.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, whose members have already backed the merger plans, promised the agm that it would be a “partnership on an equal basis”.

But Dr Ju Gosling, co-chair of the LGBT disabled people’s organisation Regard, said she believed an independent NCIL would fit the government’s “Big Society” plans better than a “big super-organisation”.

Earlier in the day, she had raised concerns that the merger could undermine the work of UKDPC, which is leading on work around the UN disability convention.

After the agm, Gosling said she believed the merger was “completely unnecessary”, and added: “I can see how it benefits RADAR but I can’t see how it benefits NCIL.”

But Sayce said the history of the disability movement showed how it had “come together and been united” at difficult times.

She said the new organisation would play a crucial role in influencing national policy, supporting local DPOs and influencing local decision-making in “very difficult circumstances”.
Human rights fears over detained patients

Hospitals could be breaching the human rights of mental health patients by keeping wards permanently locked and imposing blanket bans on mobile phones and internet access, according to a report by the care watchdog.

The concerns were raised in the Care Quality Commission’s (CQC) first annual report on the use of the Mental Health Act (MHA), which focuses on how services are using their powers under the act to treat patients detained in hospital or subject to community treatment orders.

The report found 45,755 people had been detained in hospital for assessment or treatment – higher than ever before.

And it raises concerns about the excessive use of control, restraint and seclusion by hospitals.

Cynthia Bower, CQC’s chief executive, said: “We recognise the importance of ensuring people’s safety, but more hospitals are keeping psychiatric wards locked at all times, even though they often accommodate voluntary as well as detained patients.

“In some places there are blanket bans on mobile phones and internet access. These sorts of measures could compromise patients’ privacy or dignity, hold back their progress and even breach their human rights.”

CQC said it was also concerned about the number of patients certified as consenting to treatment, but who appeared to be refusing consent or to lack the capacity to do so. It called for “significant improvement” in this area.

And it said improving patient involvement in assessing their own needs and planning their care should be “a major priority for many services”.

The report also raises concerns about the use of Community Treatment Orders (CTOs), after it found 4,107 were used in 2009/10 – more than ten times the number predicted by the Department of Health before their introduction.

CTOs are aimed at people who do not comply with treatment, to avoid having to detain them in hospital, but campaigners warned during Labour’s battle to force through its Mental Health Act in 2007 that they could be overused.

The commission found 30 per cent of people on CTOs had no history of refusing to co-operate with their treatment, while black and minority ethnic groups appeared to be over-represented among those on CTOs.

Bower said CQC had found “too much poor and unacceptable practice” and would “use our powers to ensure that care providers address these issues and make real improvements”.

Paul Jenkins, chief executive of the mental health charity Rethink, said the report suggested professionals were “sometimes opting for the easier option instead of prioritising patients’ best interests”.

He added: “This could be breaking the law and breaching the human rights of people with mental illness. It is almost certainly causing distress and hampering recovery.”
Welsh station access is ‘unacceptable’, say assembly members

Access to railway stations in Wales is “unacceptable”, with more than half of the 221 stations across Wales not fully accessible, according to a new report by a committee of politicians.

The report by the Welsh assembly’s equality of opportunity committee said there were “significant shortcomings” in access, with a third of stations having no wheelchair access to platforms and 89 per cent of stations having no wheelchair-accessible toilets.

But the report fails to recommend a “full upgrading” of all stations, because it says the cost would be “prohibitively expensive”, and instead recommends a “process of prioritisation”.

The report also warns that there has been a failure by industry and government to reach a consensus on what level of accessibility to aim for.

Among the problems highlighted in the report are footbridge-only access to platforms, unreliable lifts, large gaps between trains and platforms, understaffing and a lack of clear audio-visual information.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission passed the committee examples of complaints it had received from disabled people, including a passenger told he could not travel by rail from Swansea to London unless he gave 12 hours’ notice to open the gate leading onto the station, and a wheelchair-user told he might not be able to travel from Pembrokeshire to Cardiff if the ramps were being used on another platform.

The Neath Port Talbot Disability Network told the committee that a wheelchair-user who wanted to travel into Port Talbot Station at 6pm on a Sunday evening would have to travel to either Neath or Bridgend and then use a taxi to get to Port Talbot.

And research by the MS Society found 83 per cent of all stations in Wales were unstaffed, with only six staffed 24-hours-a-day.

The Welsh Assembly Government does not have full control over the Welsh railway network, with stations owned by Network Rail and leased by Arriva Trains Wales, which also runs many of the train services, and much of railway policy controlled by the UK government’s Department for Transport.

But the report calls on Welsh ministers to use the powers they have to increase funding, and to lobby the UK government to prioritise access improvements when it sets targets for Network Rail for 2014-2018.

The report also calls for a greater involvement of disabled people in planning and monitoring access improvements, and more access information to be displayed in stations.

And the committee wants the Welsh government to encourage councils and other public bodies to work with the rail industry to encourage the take-up of disabled people’s railcards.
Miller savaged over cuts to disability benefits

Furious politicians and disability campaigners have attacked the minister for disabled people after she tried to justify the latest round of government cuts to disability benefits.

Activists, and MPs and peers from more than 10 disability-related all party parliamentary groups – including those on disability, learning disability and autism – were particularly angry about government plans to remove the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) from council-funded residents of care homes.

Maria Miller MP claimed the move was a “tough decision” but was taken because the money to pay for people’s mobility was “duplicated” in the support provided by local councils through care and support packages, a claim greeted with disbelieving laughter by campaigners.

Lord [Brian] Rix, a crossbench peer and president of Mencap, drew loud applause when he told Miller: “I can’t tell you the anger I felt…at the removal of the mobility allowance.”

He said this would affect 60,000 people with learning difficulties who “rely on the mobility allowance” to get out of their care setting “to go anywhere”.

He added: “To say local authorities are going to help – local authorities are cutting back, charging for everything. It’s an impossible situation.”

Lord Rix also drew applause from the audience when he said that the government’s claim that everyone would suffer equally from the cuts “doesn’t make any sense whatsoever”.

And a representative of the disability organisation SeeAbility drew further loud applause later in the meeting when he pleaded with the minister to “think again” on cutting the mobility component.

He said the move was “the wrong choice” and that cutting it would make a small saving but would make a “huge difference” to disabled people’s ability to “do things that they will not be able to do if you withdraw that benefit”, such as accessing the community or visiting a loved one.

Miller appealed to those at the meeting to “look at the totality of the measures” the government had introduced around disability.

She said that by “simply picking on one element like that” people were “not really grasping what we are trying to do”.

She added: “We are offering more support than ever before to disabled people to get into work. You do need to look at those different issues side by side.”

But she promised: “We will absolutely make sure that we watch carefully how this is implemented but this is a tough spending review but it is not going to be without pain and I understand people’s concerns about this.”

Anne McGuire, the co-chair of the all party parliamentary group on disability and a former Labour minister for disabled people, who herself has a long-term health condition, said she was disturbed by the decision to impose a one-year time limit for those people who claim the “contributory” form of employment and support allowance and are in the “work-related activity group”.

She said they would be likely to be “distant from the labour market” and that “for some of these people a year will just not be sufficient to re-engage with the labour market”.

Miller said the government had “thought long and hard about how we can make the savings needed”.

And she claimed: “Even in the teeth of a massive challenge we have married a real appetite for reform with a determination to support those people who need our help.”

She added: “It is important that we look at the ways that different changes in the benefits system are introduced and that they do not deliver a disproportionate effect on particularly vulnerable groups of people.”

Miller was also asked by the disabled Labour peer Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins how the government would ensure that the £1 billion social care grant announced in the spending review – which was not ring-fenced – would actually be spent by councils on social care.

But disability campaigners laughed again when Miller said that “that is what our local authority elected representatives are there to do”, and that by freeing up local councils to make their own spending decisions the government would ensure disabled people secured the right support packages.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said she was concerned at the government’s plans to cut housing benefit by ten per cent for anyone who had been on jobseeker’s allowance for a year, in the light of continuing “employer prejudice”.

Miller said: “It is a point it is important to look at and make sure how that is going to impact on different groups of people.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Welfare Reform, Hate Crime, Landmark Human Rights ruling

Well another bank holiday over and I hope you enjoyed yours! It’s my wife’s birthday this week so we decided to celebrate by taking everyone off to a Point to Point race meeting on bank holiday Monday. To say we all froze is an understatement! The wind howled and hailstones stung our cheeks! To cap it all we all lost the stake money my wife had so generously given each of us!! The one ray of sunshine concerned the provision of two fully wheelchair accessible toilets right in the middle of a field! Well done I say! Have a great short week!!
ELECTION 2010: Key concerns remain over welfare reform

Striking differences have emerged between the Liberal Democrats and the other two main parties over how they would treat disabled people on out-of-work benefits.

Important questions also remain over both Labour and Conservative plans on welfare reform.

Both Labour and the Conservatives plan to reassess every person currently receiving incapacity benefit (IB).

Labour plans to start doing this from October, building up to testing 10,000 people a week through its controversial work capability assessment (WCA).

Both parties appeared to confirm this week that there would be no exemptions from these reassessments for any disabled person, even those who are terminally-ill.

Theresa May, the Conservative work and pensions spokeswoman, confirmed the party’s commitment in a BBC interview that every person on IB would be “reassessed”.

She said: “We will be covering those 2.6 million people on IB. Some of those will not be able to work. All will be reassessed.”

And a Labour spokesman said: “My understanding is because it is going from one form of benefit to another an assessment has to take place.”

But there are also question-marks over the Tories’ figures, with May insisting –as the manifesto does – that a Conservative government would reassess the “2.6 million people on IB”.

In fact, the latest Department for Work and Pensions figures state that in August 2009 there were about 2.26 million on IB and another 375,000 on its replacement, the new employment and support allowance (ESA). This comes to a total of about 2.6 million.

May’s statement – and the manifesto – implies that a Conservative government would retest all those disabled people on ESA who have already taken and “passed” the WCA, as well as those still on IB.

Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman, put clear water between his party and the other two on the issue.

Also speaking on the BBC, he said that both the Conservatives and Labour were planning to “go through the stock of people” on IB and “reassign” them onto jobseeker’s allowance, which is paid at a lower rate, “essentially as a benefit cut”.

He said: “I fear that under a Labour or Tory administration it is going to be about hitting people on benefits harder and harder rather than supporting them, which is what the Liberal Democrats are proposing.”

Webb outlined what appeared to be a new policy, a “partial capacity benefit” which he said would not be saying “you either work or you don’t work, you’re sick or you’re not sick”.

He said: “It’s based on what you can do, perhaps part-time work, perhaps intermittent work, because at the moment people are afraid to take jobs or to work part-time because they lose benefits.

“We need to work with the grain of people, particularly people who have been on benefits for a long time.”

No-one from any of the parties was available to talk about their welfare reform policies in depth this week.
Serious concerns again over latest hate crime murder

Serious concerns have been raised again about the way the police deal with disability hate crime, after members of a family were sentenced for the brutal murder of a disabled man they had beaten and tortured for years.

Michael Gilbert was held captive by the Watt family in Luton for about 10 years and was regularly beaten, stabbed, tormented, treated “like a slave” and had his benefits money stolen.

Four members of the Watt family, and two of their girlfriends, were sentenced to a total of 93 years in prison for offences connected with Gilbert’s death in January 2009, including causing or allowing the death of a vulnerable adult.

Three of them – James Watt, the ringleader, Natasha Oldfield and Nichola Roberts – were found guilty of murder. Watt will serve a minimum of 36 years in prison, Oldfield 18 years and Roberts at least 15 years.

But court documents make it clear that Bedfordshire police were told on at least three occasions – twice by Gilbert himself and once by his then girlfriend – that he had been abducted.

Lancashire police were also told of similar allegations after Gilbert had escaped to Blackburn but was abducted and brought back to Luton by the Watts.

Other agencies in contact with Gilbert also saw evidence that he was being assaulted.

Stephen Brookes, coordinator of the National Disability Hate Crime Network, said he was pleased at the “fairly substantial” sentences imposed in the case.

But he said a police force had yet again failed to treat serious violent offences against a disabled person as disability hate crime.

He said: “The police described him as vulnerable. They should have said he was a disabled person who was targeted and brutalised by this mob of thugs.

“What it does prove yet again is that various police forces need to get their act together and work at a common standard level.”

He said it also appeared clear that various agencies had yet again failed to communicate with each other over a disability hate crime.

Paul Fawcett, head of marketing and communications for the charity Victim Support, said that dealing with the justice system “can be a difficult and alien experience for anybody” and that for people with “additional challenges” such as some disabled people “it can be particularly bewildering and difficult”.

He said: “This would appear to be a case, without singling anyone out, where there was a collective failure of the system to identify that somebody was at risk and to intervene and deal with it.”

Bedfordshire police said at a media briefing during the trial that Gilbert had refused police help and so there was “nothing that any authorities could have done”.

It has also emerged that following the latest annual assessment of Luton council’s adult social care department by the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the council had to draw up an action plan to “address issues highlighted by the commission relating to safeguarding”.

A CQC spokeswoman said they would be “reviewing what action has been taken when we carry out a full assessment of the service later this year”.

The Luton Safeguarding of Vulnerable Adults Board has launched a serious case review “to establish whether there are any lessons to be learned” from the Michael Gilbert case and “if anything could have been done differently by the local professionals and agencies who work to safeguard vulnerable adults”.

Luton council said it could not comment further because of the review, as did Bedfordshire police.
Court case on support is landmark for human rights

A disabled woman was today set to ask a court to prevent a council cutting the support she needs to maintain her dignity, in a case with vital human rights implications for disabled people receiving care.

Elaine McDonald says Kensington and Chelsea council’s decision to cut her care package from more than £700 to £450 per week, reducing her night time support, would breach her right to be treated with dignity.

Douglas Joy, a senior solicitor with Disability Law Service, which is conducting McDonald’s case with funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said the court would decide whether she has a right to dignity under the Human Rights Act.

McDonald, a former principal ballerina with the Scottish Ballet, became disabled following a stroke in 1999 and needs support because of problems with strength, mobility, vision and spatial awareness.

She had been provided with a weekly package of 22.5 hours of daytime support and another 10 hours of care four nights a week, worth a total of £703.59 per week.

Her council needs assessment found that nighttime care was essential to provide supervision to prevent her falling while using the commode during the night, due to a bladder condition.

But in December 2008, the council said it would cut her care package, saying she could be given incontinence pads instead of an overnight care worker, even though she is not incontinent.

In March 2009, a high court judge refused McDonald permission for a judicial review of the council’s decision, ruling that the issue was one of safety, and that incontinence pads would safeguard her from risk by ensuring she did not have to repeatedly use a commode during the night.

But following a successful appeal, McDonald was given permission for a judicial review of the council’s decision at the court of appeal, with Lord Justice Laws stating the case was “arguable and important”.

Her full support package has been maintained until her case is resolved.

Joy said: “We have come across other local authorities that have relied on the original high court case and cottoned on to this [argument] that all you need to do is safeguard. Hopefully, if we are successful it will right the wrong.”

McDonald’s lawyers were set to argue that the council’s decision to cut her night time support would breach her right to respect for her private life under article eight of the Human Rights Act.

They were also set to argue that her need under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act is for assistance to use the commode at night, rather than an underlying need to be “kept safe”.

And they were expected to say that McDonald has been discriminated against under the Disability Discrimination Act.

A council spokesman said: “When the judgement comes out we will be in the best position to comment.”

The court was expected to reserve judgement until a future date.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com