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.

New Legislation, Routemasters, Accessible stations

So here we are refreshed by another short bank holiday which I hope you enjoyed. As you all know there has been an incredible flurry of activity coming out of the new government and we have already lost one senior figure! I’ve tried to provide some interesting insights into the government’s proposed legislative programme and I hope this is useful. Some interesting information around London’s buses and access to stations.

Just to let you know that I will be on holiday from 8th of June for two weeks one week of which is to be spent on a fully accessible narrow-boat. I will certainly let you know just how accessible it was when I return! So there will be no blog for a couple of weeks.
Triple alarm bells ringing over welfare reform

Campaigners have warned of a “triple-jeopardy” facing disabled people, after the government launched its plans for welfare reform.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative work and pensions secretary, pledged to fight poverty, simplify the benefits system and improve incentives to work.

Announcing his determination to “build a fairer society” and stressing his “personal commitment to equal opportunities for all”, he confirmed that the government would press ahead with plans to put all those currently claiming old-style incapacity benefit (IB) through the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) in order to test their “readiness for work”.

Duncan Smith said those people found “immediately capable of work” would be moved on to jobseeker’s allowance, which is paid at a lower rate than IB.

He also confirmed that the government would move towards a single welfare-to-work programme, scrapping Labour’s jobs programmes such as Pathways to Work, which aims to find work for disabled people.

He will also chair a new committee on social justice, which will include fellow Cabinet ministers across government.

But Disability Alliance, the disability poverty charity, said the government’s plans had “sparked widespread fear” among disabled people and their organisations.

It said the WCA – introduced for new claimants of out-of-work disability benefits in 2008 – had proved to be “seriously flawed”, with an “incredibly high” number of appeals against decisions, and nearly two-fifths of appeals successful.

This week, Citizens Advice Scotland released a report that concluded that the WCA was “seriously flawed” and was “heaping unnecessary misery” on thousands of disabled people. It called for a major overhaul of the system.

DA also said it was unclear how a single work programme would meet disabled people’s needs and that a “‘one size fits all” approach does not always work for disabled people and may mean “additional barriers to work”.

It was also concerned that government plans to cut access to tax credits could contribute to higher poverty for disabled people in work, while a planned review of employment and workplace laws could lead to “a watering down” of employers’ obligations to level the playing field at work for disabled people.

Vanessa Stanislas, DA’s chief executive, said: “The commitment to improving the living standards of people living in unacceptable poverty is welcome, but much of the impact of the new government’s welfare proposals will be hardest felt by disabled people who already face multiple disadvantage.

“Disabled people now face the triple-jeopardy of inappropriate and inaccurate assessments of work ability; cuts to programmes to help find work; and reduced support in work, which may leave many more families at risk of poverty.”

The mental health charity Mind also raised serious concerns about the government’s reforms.

Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief executive, said the WCA was “not up to the job of measuring whether people with mental health problems are fit for work”.

He said: “We urge our new government to review the benefit assessment before rolling it out to millions more claimants, so that people aren’t deprived of their benefit and forced to look for work they can’t do.”

He also questioned government plans to sanction those on out-of-work benefits who turn down “reasonable” job offers.

He said that people “should not be forced to accept work that risks damaging their mental health, putting them back on benefits and back at square one”.

Farmer added: “Until we tackle stigma and discrimination in our workplaces, people with mental health problems will struggle to find work, whatever stick the welfare system beats them with.”
Government cuts raise fears

Disabled activists have warned that the £6.2 billion spending cuts announced by the government this week could have a severe impact on disabled people’s lives.

David Laws, (no longer Ed. Note) the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, announced heavy cuts to the budgets of nearly every government department, and warned: “The years of public sector plenty are over.”

He promised to “cut with care” and said the government would “protect the vital public services which we all depend upon, and those in our society who are least able to bear the burdens of national austerity”.

But Inclusion London, the capital’s new Deaf and disabled people’s organisation, warned that cuts on this scale were “likely to mean job losses and restrictions in service provision or quality”.

And Marie Pye, former head of public sector delivery at the Disability Rights Commission, and now a Labour local councillor in east London, said the prospect of cuts to public services was “really, really scary”.

Services such as providing social care and making buildings accessible were expensive, she said.

But Pye said that public bodies that carried out good quality equality impact assessments when making difficult spending decisions would be able to minimise the impact on disabled people.

She said that “disability-confident” public bodies would ensure that “fairness in services gets protected”, while those that were not would cause “difficulties” for disabled people.

Campaigners across the disability movement are stressing that the impact of the cuts on disabled people – both as public sector employees and as service-users – is still unclear.

A clearer picture is likely to emerge after the emergency budget on 22 June and the results of the government spending review, due this autumn.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said: “We are all aware the cuts in spending are inevitable, but we shall be monitoring those cuts very carefully to ensure that the cuts do not have impact negatively on people who already have higher levels of poverty and disadvantage.”

Among the cuts Laws announced were reductions of £1.165 billion in the annual grants made to local government.

Richard Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, welcomed a government decision not to cut the grant used to support moves towards the personalisation of care services, or any other adult social care grants.

The government also said it would stop its payments into child trust funds, while spending the extra contributions that would have gone to disabled children – £20 million a year – on 8,000 week-long “respite” breaks a year for the families of disabled children.

Laws also announced cuts of £600 million to the cost of quangos (non-government public bodies).

The following day, the Queen’s speech contained details of a bill to give ministers powers to abolish or merge quangos, with the government pledging: “The cost of bureaucracy and the number of public bodies will be reduced.”

Among those likely to face cuts is the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has faced repeated criticism over its performance since its launch in October 2007.

Last autumn, Mark Harper, then the Conservative shadow minister for disabled people, said his party would be watching the performance of the EHRC closely in the lead-up to the general election.

And he suggested it would need to improve its performance if it was to survive in its current form under a Conservative government.
Mayor failed to consult DPOs over new Routemaster design

Transport for London has admitted failing to consult with disabled people’s organisations on the final design of its new Routemaster bus.

The old Routemasters were scrapped by the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone, largely because they were not accessible.

Unveiling the “final design” of the new bus, the current mayor, Boris Johnson, said it would become an “emblem of 21st century London” and swooned over the “green heart beating beneath its stylish, swooshing exterior”.

The bus will feature two staircases, two conventional doors and an open platform at the rear, allowing the “hop on, hop off” feature of the old Routemasters.

But when asked what consultation had taken place with disabled people, the mayor of London’s transport advisor, Kulveer Ranger, said: “Consultation has already taken place with London TravelWatch [the watchdog representing all transport users] and later this year a full mock-up of the bus will arrive in the capital, which will provide a good opportunity for groups representing disabled people to see the bus for themselves and feed back their opinions.”

Faryal Velmi, director of the campaigning accessible transport charityTransport for All, said she was “not impressed at all” with the lack of consultation.

She said there should have been “genuine consultation” which would have allowed disabled people’s “hard practical experiences”, as London’s buses have become more accessible, to be incorporated into the new design.

Andrew Little, chief executive of Inclusion London, the new organisation representing Deaf and disabled Londoners, said: “Designs for a new Routemaster should have involved consultation with disabled people from the outset.

“The mayor has a duty to pay due regard to disability equality and how can he do that without involving disabled people?

“Inaccessibility was central to why the old Routemaster was discontinued. Rather than wasting time and money on a vanity project to resurrect it, disabled Londoners need a mayor that puts equality first.

“The many millions of pounds spent could and should be used to fund the changes needed to make the Tube accessible and affordable – changes that Boris Johnson’s new transport strategy has cut.”

Ranger said the new bus would be “fully accessible” and its designs “already meet the stringent standards that have been laid down for London’s bus fleet”.

He said: “The iconic Routemaster that inspired the appearance of the new bus was criticised for its lack of accessibility.

“However, the mayor’s version will be fitted with a wheelchair ramp on the central door, a wheelchair bay, step-free low floor on the lower deck and Ibus onboard audio announcements.”
Government stays silent over rail access budget cuts

The Department for Transport (DfT) has refused to say whether it has slashed the budget of national schemes to improve access at railway stations.

The alleged cuts were first exposed in a letter written before the election to the DfT by the Scottish government’s transport minister, Stewart Stevenson.

Stevenson criticised the DFT’s decision to cut spending this year on the “small schemes” part of its Access for All budget from £7.9 million to just £3.9 million.

The DfT said previously that it could not comment because of the election.

It also refused to say whether the budget for the larger element of the Access for All scheme had also been cut. That part aims to improve access at the busiest stations and is about five times bigger than the small schemes fund.

But now the election is over, with a new coalition government, the DfT is still refusing to say whether Access for All has been cut.

A DfT spokesman said: “The question relates to a previous administration.”

He said “no decision was ever announced” and added: “The current position is we have a new government and all transport is being looked at.”

When asked whether the last government cut the Access for All budget, he said: “It is not appropriate to comment on speculation like that.”

Faryal Velmi, director of the campaigning accessible transport charity Transport for All, said: “It does seem that disabled people are bearing the brunt of cuts as usual. The rail network desperately needs to be made accessible.”

She said there had been some improvements, but added: “There is a lot to be done, especially in London, which is completely inaccessible.

“Access for All showed a commitment and if that is going to be subsumed and eaten up that is a big matter of concern.”

One announcement by the Labour government several weeks before the election suggests the DfT did slash the Access for All budget.

On 1 April, Labour rail minister Chris Mole announced a £2.9 million “funding boost” to improve access at 42 stations across England and Wales through the small schemes fund.

Although the announcement did not explicitly state that this was the entire allocation for 2010-2011, if it was, it would suggest – once funding for Northern Ireland and Scotland had been added in – that the budget had been cut to about £3.9 million.

The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee – the government’s advice body on accessible transport – said it was unable to comment.