ELECTION 2015: Harper suggests backing for mental health treatment sanctions
The Tory minister for disabled people appears to have accidentally admitted what many disabled activists feared: that a Conservative government would cut the out-of-work benefits of people with mental health conditions if they refused treatment.
In a debate broadcast on local radio, Mark Harper strongly suggested that people with mental health problems would be among the group with “long-term yet treatable” conditions who could be sanctioned if they refused treatment.
The pledge to review whether such sanctions should be introduced is included in the Tory manifesto, under a promise to “review how best to support those suffering from long-term yet treatable conditions, such as drug or alcohol addiction, or obesity, back into work”.
It adds: “People who might benefit from treatment should get the medical help they need so they can return to work.
“If they refuse a recommended treatment, we will review whether their benefits should be reduced.”
But the party has refused to confirm that people with mental health conditions would be among this group facing potential sanctions.
Disabled activists have described the plans as “wild, stupid”, “unconscionable”, and “highly dangerous”, while the Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, who chaired the Commons health select committee in the last parliament, has said on Twitter that sanctions linked to medical treatment would be “unethical”.
But this week, at an election hustings event hosted by the BBC in Harper’s Forest of Dean constituency, the minister for disabled people appeared to confirm that people with long-term mental health problems would be among those facing sanctions.
He told the audience: “For people who are long-term sick… sometimes people simply can’t return to work and we need to make sure we support them, which is why we have systems in place.
“The most beneficial thing we can do though is to deal with the disability that they have got and particularly with those people with mental health problems, most of which are treatable, is to get the support in place so they can get back to work, which is what most of them want to do.”
So far, neither Harper nor the Conservative party have been willing to comment on Harper’s apparent blunder, which came after Tory ministers repeatedly ducked out of opportunities to defend their disability-related policies and their record over the last five years.
Last week, Harper himself cancelled an appearance on Newsnight, when he was due to debate benefit reform with representatives of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
And this week, employment minister Esther McVey was reported to have pulled out of a planned live interview with the radio station LBC.
The party has said it would cut social security spending by a further £12 billion a year if re-elected, but has yet to say how it will find most of these “savings”.
Disability News Service has already reported how the Tories declined invitations to take part in three national disability-related hustings events organised by the Alliance for Inclusive Education,Learning Disability Alliance England, and the British Deaf Association.
ELECTION 2015: Coalition has led to in-work ‘discrimination, harassment and hardship’
Disabled workers have faced deteriorating attitudes from employers, cuts to their legal protection, and “disintegrating” long-term job prospects under the last four years of the coalition government, according to new research.
The study by the Public Interest Research Unit (PIRU), a small research charity, concludes that the unpredictability of zero hours contracts and higher levels of workplace ill-treatment is having “damaging effects” on the health of disabled workers.
It also says that unlawful discrimination, including harassment and unlawful dismissal, appears to have been increasing, and concludes that “being disabled appears to have, in general, put disabled workers at particular risk of being made redundant or otherwise dismissed”.
The study says its research appears consistent with “widespread and frequent breaches of anti-discrimination laws; and with there having been a general increase in such breaches during the last four years”.
In 15 of the public, private and voluntary sector organisations examined for the study, the proportion of disabled people in their workforce had fallen since 2012, while it rose in just seven.
Government rhetoric about disability benefit cheats appears to have “spilled over” into the workplace, with some line managers now regarding impairments (particularly mental health conditions) as exaggerated or “faked”, the study adds.
One respondent said that the coalition’s weakening of the public sector equality duty meant disability equality training was now “all but non-existent”, with recruitment of disabled staff lower than it was before 2010.
And public sector spending cuts appear to have led to a decreased willingness to make adjustments for disabled staff, with disability equality now sometimes regarded as an unaffordable “luxury”.
Some public sector workers who had been made redundant, or whose jobs had been outsourced, “appear to have moved from situations in which there was reasonable support for workers with disabilities to private sector ones in which there was little or none”, the study adds.
The study also suggests that the government’s repeated reference to legal protections as “unnecessary red tape” could be leading some employers to take these obligations less seriously.
The study identifies 22 significant cuts to equality and employment law protections since 2010, which are starting to have “adverse impacts” on disabled workers, who are finding it “hard or impossible” to enforce their remaining rights, partly because of the introduction of fees for employment tribunals.
The study collected information from 137 disabled workers and looked at documents from 141 public sector organisations, and was produced for the grassroots campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).
Debbie Jolly, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said: “While more research is needed, the initial findings here show a woeful regression of support for those disabled people able to seek work.
“The recent cap on Access to Work adds to this, exposing the coalition government rhetoric to the stark realities and discriminations disabled people face.”
Rupert Harwood, the report’s author, said: “The study suggests that disabled individuals have been the hardest hit in work as well as out of work.”
He points out that his findings should be used as the basis for only “tentative conclusions” about UK disabled workers as a whole because his samples of workers and organisations were not designed to be representative.
But he added: “However, despite these limitations, it seems fairly safe to conclude… that many disabled workers have experienced considerable disadvantage and hardship which has been in part at least the consequences of coalition government policies.”
The Conservative party failed to respond to a request for a comment in time for the Disability News Service deadline.
But Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the report made “depressing reading”.
She said: “It shows the work chances and experiences of disabled people went backwards under the Tory-led government, thanks to the scrapping of employment rights, lack of support from important programmes like Access to Work, and a rising climate of hostility towards disabled people, fed by a negative language that focused on ‘scrounging’, which has influenced employer attitudes.”
She said Labour “believes disabled people have the right to decent work and the support they need to do so”.
She said: “We’ll introduce a specialist programme of work support to replace the failing Work Programme that’s got just 10 per cent of disabled people into jobs.
“We’ll take action to ensure that Access to Work supports disabled people to work and to progress in employment.
“We’ll scrap fees for employment tribunals, and ensure that disabled people’s rights are respected.”
ELECTION 2015: Lib Dem president’s bus horror ‘proves need for new law’
The disabled president of the Liberal Democrats has complained of her “outrageous” treatment by a conductor who refused to ask a young dad to move his child’s buggy from the wheelchair space on a near-empty London bus.
Baroness Brinton, a wheelchair-user, was told by the bus conductor on one of mayor Boris Johnson’s new Routemaster buses that she would have to wait for the next bus.
The disabled peer said the female conductor “refused to engage” with the young man in charge of the buggy.
Baroness Brinton said: “The driver was turning round and calling ‘can you make space?’ but the guy just turned his back. It was quite bizarre.”
The incident took place as she tried to travel on bus route 24 from Euston station to an election meeting at the Liberal Democrats’ central London headquarters on Tuesday (28 April).
She was eventually left “very angry” on the pavement, with passengers waiting for other services who had witnessed the incident and were “frothing at the mouth” at the way she had been treated.
She was able to take a later bus, and when a passenger with a buggy boarded during the journey, they were both able to travel comfortably side-by-side in the wheelchair space, with the help of the conductor.
She said: “They were two completely opposite experiences and that is not on. It comes back to training. It’s all about the attitude.”
Baroness Brinton said the incident illustrates why her party has included a pledge in its manifestoto give wheelchair-users priority over children’s buggies on buses.
She said: “It is obvious that it is a major problem [if this happens] on a virtually empty bus. It was just outrageous.
“Just a week before polling day is not the best time to be delayed on the way to work.”
If her party is unable to secure enough influence to force government legislation on the issue, she pledged to try to secure debates in the next parliament, and attempt to bring forward a private member’s bill that would ensure wheelchair-users have priority use of the spaces on buses, and that accessible parking spaces for blue badge-holders can also be enforced.
Baroness Brinton said she had now received a “grovelling apology” from Transport for London, which had told her that both the driver and the conductor would receive fresh training from the bus operator Metroline.
But her experience mirrors that of disabled campaigner Doug Paulley, who is being backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in his legal bid against another bus company, First Bus, to ensure that wheelchair-users have priority in the use of dedicated wheelchair spaces over parents with pushchairs.
Paulley told DNS: “This just goes to show that sadly my experience is not uncommon and we very much need to achieve a binding judgment on the issue.”
Chris Fry, managing partner of Paulley’s lawyers, Unity Law, said: “Baroness Brinton’s experience illustrates exactly why we need a definitive legal ruling on this issue.
“It’s not acceptable that disabled people can only reply on the goodwill of non-disabled passengers to vacate wheelchair spaces.
“We need the Supreme Court to hear Doug’s case as soon as possible, so that bus drivers, passengers and wheelchair-users all know exactly who has priority over the space.”
Transport for London (TfL) said Metroline was investigating the incident.
Mike Weston, TfL’s director of buses, said in a statement: “I’m very sorry about Baroness Sal Brinton’s experience.
“Our guidance to bus drivers clearly states that wheelchair-users are to be given priority access to the dedicated space on our buses, even if it is occupied by a buggy or other passengers.
“Drivers are asked to use the on-board automated announcement system to make it clear when the wheelchair space is needed and, if necessary, to ask buggy-owners to share the space, move or fold their buggies.
“In a case where another passenger will not make space, the bus driver should explain the situation to the wheelchair-user.
“If the next bus is not already there, the driver is under instruction to contact his or her garage so that the next bus can be notified to pick up the wheelchair-user.”
A TfL spokesman later confirmed to DNS that if a passenger refused to move, a conductor or driver would not take any further action to clear the space, such as refusing to continue the journey until the buggy was moved.
ELECTION 2015: Greens agree to debate their backing for assisted suicide
The Green party has agreed to take part in a public debate with disabled activists on its pledge to legalise assisted suicide.
The challenge to debate the issue came from a leading member of the anti-assisted suicide campaign group Not Dead Yet UK, Dennis Queen, who said that she and many other members “who might well usually vote Green” would not do so now because of the party’s manifesto support for legalisation.
She also said that disabled people who were long-term members of the party were considering leaving the Greens because of their stance.
One of them, NDY UK member Simone Aspis, said she was “just hanging in there” with her membership, because she was “deeply concerned” with the party’s position on assisted suicide.
She said she was considering not voting for the Greens at Thursday’s general election, but said there was “no alternative” because of other parties’ past support for policies based on eugenics.
She said the Greens’ position on assisted suicide was “pretty outrageous” when it was also saying that it supported the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Aspis said: “The party is saying it supports disabled people’s rights to independent living and to mainstream education and yet hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that assisted suicide is open to abuse and it actually undermines disabled people’s rights to everything else.
“The UN convention is thinking about disabled people’s right to life, not to be killed.”
The party’s manifesto says a Green government would “provide the right to an assisted death within a rigorous framework of regulation and in the context of the availability of the highest level of palliative care”.
But it also promises that the Greens in government would enforce the UNCRPD, although it does not explain how this would be implemented.
Queen said: “I’m not sure there’s an article in the UN convention which isn’t broken by supporting the further legalisation of assisted suicide, and making it more easily accessible to people who are sick and disabled.
“Try sentence one article one [‘The purpose of the present Convention is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity’].”
She added: “I challenge the Green party to have a public debate with Not Dead Yet UK on this subject.
“We are not enjoying equal rights and freedoms if some of us are given special consideration leading to dissolved rights under the law.”
A Green party spokeswoman said: “The vast majority of opinion within the Green party’s disability and equalities group seems to be that it is right to support the UN disability convention, as well as the right to assisted dying within a rigorous and agreed framework.
“We do not see these things as incompatible.
“Our disability spokesperson, Mags Lewis, has said she is more than happy to agree to a meeting or public debate about this issue after the election.
“However, the Green party agrees policy at conference, where all members have an equal voice and vote, so that would be where policies are debated and amended.”
The challenge to the Green party stance came as the Scottish parliament’s health and sport committee published its report into proposals to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland.
The assisted suicide (Scotland) bill has been brought forward by the Green MSP Patrick Harvie, following the death last year of Independent MSP Margo MacDonald, who introduced it in November 2013.
But the committee has now concluded that the bill contains “significant flaws” that present “major challenges as to whether the bill can be progressed”.
A majority of the committee do not support the bill’s “general principles”, but have chosen to make no formal recommendations to parliament because the issues are “a matter of conscience”.
The full Scottish parliament will now debate the bill and decide whether to agree to its general principles. The debate will take place by 29 May.
Meanwhile, a disabled woman has secured the right to challenge in the courts a decision by the director of public prosecutions (DPP) for England and Wales that she believes will make it easier for healthcare professionals to assist someone to kill themselves.
Lawyers for Nikki Kenward say that Alison Saunders, the DPP, exceeded her powers last year when she “clarified” the guidelines on when to prosecute a doctor or nurse for assisted suicide.
Saunders said in October 2014 that the section of the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines that explain when prosecution of a healthcare professional would be more likely refers only “to those with a specific and professional duty of care to the person in question”.
The anti-legalisation campaign group Care Not Killing said this would mean that doctors “who have made a name for themselves by assisting suicides in various ways whilst not being the patient’s primary care giver, are less likely to be prosecuted”.
There will now be a full judicial review of Saunders’ decision.
NHS ‘has wasted more than a year’ on latest bid to improve wheelchair services
The NHS has been accused of spending more than a year on its latest bid to improve wheelchair services, while producing nothing but two conferences and a series of working groups.
Critics also fear that NHS England’s wheelchair services improvement programme has paid lip-service to the views of service-users.
They say the process is in danger of becoming the latest in a long line of failed bids to improve a service that struggles with lengthy waiting-lists and leaves many disabled people without the right wheelchairs.
There are also concerns about the influence of the disability charity Whizz-Kidz on the reform process.
NHS England organised a “wheelchair summit” in February 2014 – more than 14 months ago – with a second summit following on 27 November.
In a bid to inject some momentum into the process, NHS England set up the Wheelchair Leadership Alliance, chaired by the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson.
Its first meeting was in January, with the second taking place this week.
The alliance has been told by NHS England to produce a one-page “wheelchair charter”, but there is concern that it has not pushed for tough new standards for NHS wheelchair services.
Sir Bert Massie, the former chair of the Disability Rights Commission and himself a wheelchair-user, said he was concerned and mystified by the wheelchair improvement programme.
He told Disability News Service (DNS): “I think there is something very distasteful about this.
“I can’t work out what is going wrong. I can’t work out why it takes nearly a year to write a charter.”
He chairs the Community Equipment Code of Practice Scheme (CECOPS) social enterprise, which has already drawn up a code of practice for the community equipment industry across the UK, backed by the Care Quality Commission, the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group, the Health and Safety Executive, the Royal College of Nursing and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, among others.
Sir Bert said he was frustrated by NHS England’s refusal to adopt CECOPS, which would provide a set of national standards for wheelchair services.
He said: “We have done the standards for them. They are here. What’s their problem?
“Several of the alliance members personally support our standards and have recommended their adoption, so I don’t understand NHS England’s and NHS Improving Quality’s reluctance.”
Baroness Grey-Thompson, who has only been involved in the improvement programme since November, agreed that “not a lot” had happened in the 14 months since the first summit, while the alliance had only just secured final approval from NHS England for a new website to promote its efforts.
Speaking to DNS at the Naidex 2015 independent living exhibition at Birmingham’s NEC, where she spoke about the alliance, she said: “We probably needed the second summit because of the limited movement since the first.
“Why stuff didn’t happen [before], I don’t know really. It is even difficult to pinpoint how many times people have tried to change this… because it’s ‘lots’. I don’t know if the political will wasn’t there.”
She admitted that a one-page charter was not going to improve wheelchair services on its own, but added: “The charter is a wish-list. We need a really convincing argument behind it about why it needs to change.”
She agreed that there was a need for standards, and said she did not want to “reinvent the wheel”, but insisted that there was a need to go through both an internal and public process before deciding on any standards.
According to NHS Improving Quality, an estimated 15 per cent of wheelchair-users wait more than 12 months for their NHS chair, while up to half of all people who use wheelchairs will develop a pressure sore at some point in their life.
The cost of treating the worst pressure sores can be as much as 16 hip replacements.
For every 182 wheelchair-users not able to work because of incorrect equipment or delays, the social security bill can increase by up to £1 million, compared with an economic contribution of up to £4.7 million if those wheelchair-users are able to work.
Critics of the improvement programme have pointed to a blog written by Liam Dwyer, a former building manager in the construction industry, who has motor neurone disease (MND) and uses an electric wheelchair and communication devices, and was one of the disabled people asked to attend the first wheelchair summit in February 2014.
Subsequently, he was asked to join one of six “work streams” that were set up at the summit.
After an initial meeting, he says in his blog, he did not receive any further information until he received an invitation to the second summit, in November.
He says he and other service-users were treated like “dog muck”, and “as if they don’t have a brain”.
Dwyer says in his blog: “About 30 per cent of my friends and fellow MND sufferers would be dead by now since the time the first summit took place.”
He adds: “I don’t know how long I have left on this planet and I am not prepared to sit back and let this appalling behaviour and great waste take place at the expense of dying and needy patients, especially where it impacts upon the lives of people just like me who rely totally upon equipment, not for social reasons, but just to live.”
Baroness Grey-Thompson said she would be “really upset” if service-users had not been listened to, “because they are the ones we are doing it for”.
She plans to meet with Dwyer to discuss his concerns, and added: “We do need to reinvigorate some of the work streams.”
But there are also concerns about the influence of the disability charity Whizz-Kidz on the process.
The charity, which has close links with the former NHS England chief executive Sir David Nicholson, is believed to have had about 10 representatives and service-users at the first wheelchair summit in February 2014 – an event that was chaired by Sir David – even though it was attended by less than 80 people.
Whizz-Kidz also has representation on both of the new sub-groups set up by the alliance, as well as a seat on the alliance itself, which has 12 members.
Sir Bert said: “Whizz-Kidz are on the alliance and have a very clear vested interest because they want to compete for services. There is a real conflict of interest.
“My fear is that they are leading the agenda and I think there needs to be a different agenda.
“The agenda should not be about who provides the services but which organisation has the competency and how to measure that competency and what is their accountability to disabled people.”
Christine Anderson, from Lancashire, whose son Christopher is a wheelchair-user, said she had noticed an “imbalanced” Whizz-Kidz presence at the first summit.
But she said: “I was filled with hope that something was going to change and people were listening.”
So far, she said, she has seen “no change, no benefit” from the process, with some disabled children still being told they have to wait three years for a powered wheelchair.
Following the first summit, she was placed on the improvement programme’s commissioning and procurement work stream, but was asked to attend just one meeting.
She said it appeared that NHS England was favouring Whizz-Kidz ahead of other organisations, without going through the necessary processes.
Baroness Grey-Thompson said she accepted that Whizz-Kidz potentially had a lot to gain from the reform of wheelchair services, and that she had to be “mindful” that one organisation did not exert too much influence over the process.
Last October, at the Conservative party conference, Ruth Owen, chief executive of Whizz-Kidz, told her charity’s fringe meeting that the NHS “does not procure in an effective and efficient way”.
She spoke of her own struggle to obtain a wheelchair through the NHS, a process she described as “tortuous”, and told DNS after the meeting that the service was “crap”.
Whizz-Kidz is believed to have partnerships with 12 NHS trusts, which aim to improve local wheelchair services – for adults as well as children – and its work was praised by health secretary Jeremy Hunt in his keynote speech to October’s party conference.
Owen told the fringe: “There needs to be more choice because this area of the NHS do not want choice, change or to listen to the customer. They don’t want to believe there is a problem, and there is a problem.”
DNS asked Whizz-Kidz for a response at noon on 29 April, but by the end of today (30 April) a spokesman said he had not had time to answer a series of questions.
Instead, he released a short statement, saying: “Whizz-Kidz is delighted to be part of the Wheelchair Alliance along with a number of other organisations, as we see wheelchair reform as vital for disabled children and young people in this country.
“Whizz-Kidz’s focus is centred on supporting young disabled people to ensure that they receive the right mobility at the right time in their lives and we’re thrilled that NHS England are driving transformation in this area.”
An NHS England spokesman said in a statement: “NHS England is supporting improvements in wheelchair services to ensure wheelchair-users and their families can lead full, independent and active lives.
“Since the first meeting, NHS England has been leading three national pieces of work which will lay the foundations for further improvement, including a new national wheelchair dataset, a new national tariff, and support and resources for commissioners.
“These are not ‘quick fixes’ and each of these pieces of work requires extensive testing and engagement to ensure maximum impact and success.”
As far back as 1986, a report by Professor Ian (later Lord) McColl called for major improvements to wheelchair services.
Five years later, responsibility for wheelchair provision was devolved from national level to local health authorities and trusts.
And in 1994, the former disabled people’s minister Alf (later Lord) Morris told MPs that thousands of disabled people saw themselves as “victims of state-sanctioned discrimination” because of the failure to provide them with powered wheelchairs.
Six years on, Trailblazers go back undercover on buses, trains and taxis
Young disabled campaigners are to go undercover across the UK to find out whether access to public transport has improved since they carried out a “damning” study six years ago.
Members of the Trailblazers network will check out buses, trains and taxis, and will examine access to stations, bus ramps, journey times, staff training and attitudes, and even the behaviour of fellow passengers.
Six years ago, another undercover Trailblazers investigation found that disabled people were struggling to use public transport, because of problems with safety, reliability and cost, as well as a lack of basic facilities at stations and on trains, and inflated prices for accessible taxis.
It concluded that “many young wheelchair-users and people with mobility difficulties face serious challenges when accessing public transport”, and it called on the government, local authorities, and transport providers, to review their accessibility policies.
The 2009 report was the first of Trailblazers’ Inclusion Now series of three investigations into public transport, education and leisure.
Now, six years on, Trailblazers will be asking whether transport providers kept their subsequent promises to improve services, particularly in the wake of the London 2012 Paralympics.
Sulaiman Khan, a member of Trailblazers who lives in London and uses a wheelchair, said: “I experience problems on a regular basis, just trying to get from A to B on public transport.
“A lot of train stations just don’t have the facilities for disabled people and I often find myself having to make my way to another station in the opposite direction of my destination, just so I can physically board the train.
“This not only adds to journey time, it also increases the cost of my ticket.
“Accessibility isn’t the only issue – poor staff knowledge and public attitudes towards disabled people are still commonplace.”
He pointed to the high-profile legal case taken by wheelchair-user Doug Paulley, who was refused access to the accessible space on a First Group bus, after a mother refused to move her pushchair.
In February, the Equality and Human Rights Commission decided to support Paulley in his bid to appeal to the Supreme Court, after he lost his case against First Bus in the court of appeal.
A spokesman for Muscular Dystrophy UK, which runs Trailblazers, said: “We want to hear from young people across the UK on their experiences using public transport.
“We want to find out whether promises from transport providers and local authorities are truly making a difference on the ground.”
To take part in the investigation, which will take place over the next three months, visit theTrailblazers website.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com