Hello to one and all
I hope the week is going well. Some interesting bits and pieces this week particularly concerning the new work capability test. The Equality Bill continues its passage through the Lords but some issues remain. Channel 4 in a bit of bother with Big Brother and the use of language!! At least the words used were more than four letters which for most Big Brother house residents makes a pleasant change!! Enjoy!
Campaigners say government must release work test figures
Frustrated campaigners have called on the government to release crucial statistics about its controversial new work capability test.
They spoke out after new research for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed that both benefits staff and disabled people who have undergone the test had major concerns about the work capability assessment (WCA).
The WCA was introduced in October 2008 to test applicants for employment and support allowance (ESA), the government’s new out-of-work disability benefit.
But disability organisations and other campaigners have repeatedly raised concerns about the number of disabled people being found fit for work after taking the tough and “inflexible” WCA.
The researchers talked to staff working on the ESA, and ESA applicants, between May and July last year.
Staff expressed concerns at the “stringency” and “lack of flexibility” of the WCA and that many people who were told they were fit for “work-related activity” had “unexpectedly severe health problems”.
The research also reported concerns about a “large backlog” of appeals against WCA results.
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said the research backed up what campaigners had been telling the government.
He said the government was refusing to provide statistics showing how disabled people with different impairments were being treated under the new system.
He and other campaigners say the WCA is too inflexible to cope with fluctuating conditions such as mental ill-health, ME or MS.
Coyle said: “Disability organisations cannot assist the government in improving the WCA or ESA without more information about what the barriers are within the system. It is going to cost a fortune in appeals unless the WCA is improved.”
Coyle said some disabled people were being assessed as fit for work and not eligible for ESA – and told to apply instead for jobseeker’s allowance – but after winning appeals were placed in the ESA “support group” for those who are too disabled to undertake any work-related activity.
Jonathan Shaw, the minister for disabled people, said: “This research was carried out some time ago soon after the benefit was introduced and we have made considerable improvements since then.
“We continue to see where improvements and changes are needed to ensure that ESA is working as it should be.”
A DWP spokesman said they were “currently unable to provide the data” that Disability Alliance has called for as it was “not held centrally and we are not confident at this stage that it is robust enough to consider publication”.
He added: “We are working on collating and quality assuring the data and will consider publication in due course.”
Meanwhile, Shaw has announced new targets that aim to help more people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties to stay in work through the access to work (ATW) scheme.
From next month, 2,000 people with learning difficulties and up to 1,500 people with mental health conditions will be guaranteed ATW funding.
Shaw said a “disappointingly low number of people with severe mental health conditions or learning disabilities” were receiving ATW funding, and the government recognised it needed to do more to help them find and stay in work.
Last year, more than 32,000 disabled people received ATW funding to provide support in the workplace, but the latest figures show that fewer than one per cent gave mental health as their main impairment.
The government has promised to double the ATW budget to £138 million by 2013/14.
Shaw announced the targets at a House of Commons exhibition to mark the 40th anniversary of the passing of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.
New improvements to equality bill, but concerns remain
New legal duties to provide accessible information should be a “major step forward” for blind and partially-sighted people and others with “print disabilities”, according to a disabled peer.
Lord [Colin] Low was speaking after the government introduced a new amendment to its equality bill, as the bill completed its report stage in the House of Lords.
The new duty makes it clear that businesses and public bodies would have to take “reasonable steps” to provide information in an accessible format so as to avoid disabled people being placed at a “substantial disadvantage”.
Baroness Thornton, for the government, said: “It is important that all kinds of organisations consider the information they provide to their audiences and what steps they may need to take to bring themselves into line with the duty.”
She said the amendment “could be a turning point for people with information disabilities”.
Lord Low said the move was “potentially a major step forward for anyone with a print disability of any kind” and provides “a much more solid basis for robust enforcement action by regulators, advocacy organisations and disabled people themselves”.
He said that businesses and public sector bodies would now “need to think carefully about what they need to do to comply with this duty and promptly take action, as I expect this duty to be vigorously enforced”.
The government also accepted two other amendments that should strengthen disabled people’s protection from discrimination.
One set of amendments, introduced by Baroness Wilkins, would strengthen the duty to provide reasonable adjustments in education – making it clear that the duty is “anticipatory”, so schools would have to predict the adjustments that future disabled pupils might need, rather than just reacting to a request from an individual pupil.
The other amendment defines the term “substantial disadvantage” – when dealing with the duty to make reasonable adjustments – as “more than minor or trivial”.
Caroline Ellis, joint deputy chief executive of RADAR, welcomed the three changes and said there had been “major progress” on the bill in recent weeks.
But she said there were still major concerns around the bill’s public sector duties to promote equality, which were currently “vague and unenforceable” and would lead to legal challenges if not tightened by the government.
She said there was a “very real risk” that the duties would be weaker than the current disability equality duty.
Meanwhile, the government’s personal care at home bill completed its committee stage in the Lords. Its report stage is due on 17 March.
Disabled protesters march on Ofcom over ‘offensive hate language’
People with learning difficulties have marched on the offices of the communications watchdog Ofcom in protest at its failure to condemn the use of offensive, disablist language on a Channel 4 show.
Footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones caused outrage when he “joked” on Big Brother’s Big Mouth that presenter Davina McCall walked “like a retard”, with McCall laughing and replying: “I do not walk like a retard.”
Channel 4 eventually apologised after receiving complaints about the incident in late January.
But campaigners were shocked when Ofcom failed to uphold their subsequent complaint.
In its decision, Ofcom said the use of the word was part of “light hearted banter” and “not directed at someone with a mental or physical disability” and so was “not used with the intention to describe or offend members of society with learning difficulties”.
It also said the use of the word was not “entirely at odds with the established nature of this programme, which is known for its lively and outspoken content”.
Ofcom merely advised Channel 4 that the repetition of the word by McCall was “unfortunate” and it would have been “more appropriate to move on rapidly instead of discussing it further”.
Furious at the decision, disabled protesters – backed by the charities Respond and The Elfrida Society – this week delivered letters to the chair and chief executive of Ofcom.
The letters were signed by nine people with learning difficulties, eight of whom are involved in running London’s successful Wild Bunch club nights. Most of them took part in the protest.
Their letter says: “We feel let down by Ofcom, which is perpetuating a negative image of disabled people, by not condemning guests and presenters who use hate speech on TV – thereby signaling to viewers that this is acceptable.”
The letter says Jones’s “walk” mirrored the actions of the young thugs who persecuted Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca. Pilkington killed herself and Francecca, who had learning difficulties, after they were the victims of a sustained hate campaign.
Jackie Ryan, one of the protesters, said they were “really annoyed” with Ofcom’s decision not to uphold the complaint.
She said: “I think it’s out of order. Ofcom should do something about it.
“We were extremely cross. They need to look at themselves in the mirror and see how they feel.”
And she said Vinnie Jones and Davina McCall should be forced to apologise on television.
Ofcom said it was now reviewing its decision.
Channel 4 said it regretted that McCall had not “admonished” Jones for his comment and apologised to viewers at the time.
And she said the comments had been removed from the video-on-demand version of the programme.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com