So how was Christmas? Too much of everything, I’ll bet. I’m still finishing off the last of our mince pies. I guess you’ve also made a number of New Year’s resolutions which probably include things like going to the gym twice a week, running round the block several times or swimming the channel for charity. Let’s have a little review in March to check on your progress.
Well the last couple of weeks have been extraordinarily busy. First we saw the launch of Lord Falconer’s report on assisted dying. Given that he is on record as expressing support for a change in the law, in addition Terry Pratchett, who wants help to die, was one of the movers and shakers behind setting up the so-called “commission” it is hardly surprising that many of us were deeply concerned about the objectivity of the published findings. As is often the case at such moments there was a flurry of media activity with a number of disabled activists appearing on TV, radio and the press. Not Dead Yet (UK), of which I’m a member, has a bank balance of around £400 whereas Demos, who funded the commission is believed to have spent close on half a million pounds. (David and Goliath definitely spring to mind). Whether or not we were successful in explaining our alternative point of view I’ll leave for you to judge.
The second, and more recent frenetic activity was caused by the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill through the House of Lords. Many of you will have read by now that the government lost 3 important votes in the House of Lords and this was due in no small measure to the extraordinary work of crossbench peers a number of whom are severely disabled people. Many of us are deeply concerned about the impact the proposed cuts will have on the most vulnerable people in our society. It does seem extraordinarily unfair that the weakest and most defenseless must take such a disproportionate reduction in their in their weekly incomes while the extremely well-off continue to avoid paying their tax. Although the government had made some announcements about tackling this issue how long is it all going to take? (Sue Marsh on Newsnight debating the proposed Welfare Reformshttp://www.disabilityalliance.org/responsiblereform.htm )
I’ve reproduced several items, which explore some of the issues mentioned above. This year it is my intention to publish topics more frequently than my weekly or fortnightly postings. I won’t alert you to these as I’m sure you receive enough e-mails but perhaps when you have a quiet moment (!) you might visit my website just to see if anything has changed.
As always if you have any comments or thoughts about what appears please do let me know. Let’s hope that 2012 is better than everyone seems to be predicting.
Trio of ESA victories soured by Freud’s ‘disgraceful’ ploy
Opposition and independent peers have secured three key victories over the government in the battle to reverse its planned cuts to out-of-work disability benefits.
Crossbench and Labour peers combined with a small number of Liberal Democrat rebels –although a larger number of Liberal Democrat peers abstained – to win votes on three key amendments to the coalition’s welfare reform bill.
Each of the amendments overturned government proposals to cut spending on employment and support allowance (ESA).
Despite the large margin of victory on all three amendments, the government made it clear that it would try to overturn the defeats when the bill returns to the House of Commons.
But there was also anger among peers after Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, managed to reverse one of the victories by demanding a late-night vote on a government amendment, when most opposition and crossbench peers had already left the chamber for the day.
Lord McKenzie, Labour’s work and pensions spokesman, described Freud’s move as “quite disgraceful”.
The first of the three successful amendments overturned government plans to remove the contributory form of ESA from disabled young people with the highest support needs, who can currently claim the benefit from the age of 16 without being means-tested.
Some young disabled people who are ineligible for income-related ESA support were set to lose almost £100 a week.
But Lord Freud’s late amendment then reversed this success.
The second amendment doubled the government’s planned 12-month time-limit on disabled people in the “work-related activity group” – those with limited capability for work – receiving the “contributory” form of ESA.
Government figures show that 94 per cent of people with limited capability for work need ESA for longer than 12 months in order to find a job.
The disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low, who backed the amendment, said that because of problems with the government’s new Work Programme it would be “not only unfair but downright cruel to time-limit contributory ESA to one year”.
But the disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas claimed that voting for the amendment would just be a “cynical” move, as it would probably be overturned in the Commons because of its financial implications.
Members of her party voted to oppose any time-limit on contributory ESA at their annual conference last September.
Lord Freud said extending the time-limit to two years would cost £1.6 billion over five years.
The third amendment removed all time-limits for contributory ESA for claimants receiving treatment for cancer or with a cancer diagnosis.
Labour peers are now believed to be seeking clarification on what Lord Freud’s late amendment will mean when the bill comes to third reading, the final stage before it returns to the Commons.
Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins, the disabled Labour peer, described Lord Freud’s late vote as an “ambush”, but said the three earlier victories were “wonderful”.
But she warned that these amendments would be overturned when the bill returned to the Commons unless Liberal Democrat MPs voted against their own government.
Many campaigners have attributed the size of victory in the Lords to the Responsible Reform eport, which was published by disabled activists on Monday and distributed the same day – just two days before the ESA votes – to peers and MPs.
Sue Marsh, the disabled blogger and campaigner who led the research, said she believed their report had had an impact on peers.
Although the report focused on reform of disability living allowance (DLA), she said that the message – that the government misled parliament and the public about the scale of opposition to those reforms – must have influenced this week’s votes on ESA.
Attention has now turned to next week’s crucial votes on DLA reform.
Marsh said she was “fairly confident” that the same coalition of crossbench and Labour peers would combine again to vote through amendments to the government’s DLA measures.
Report finds ‘serious inaccuracies’ in fitness for work tests
A new report has revealed “serious inaccuracies” in the assessments of disabled people’s “fitness for work” carried out by the private company Atos Healthcare on behalf of the government.
The charity Citizens Advice analysed 37 reports written by Atos “healthcare professionals” (HCPs) who had tested disabled people using the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA).
Citizens Advice’s (CA) Right First Time report shows a “serious level of inaccuracy” in 16 of the 37 WCA reports, with a “medium” level of inaccuracy in a further 10.
The report calls on DWP to impose financial penalties on Atos for every inaccurate report it produces, and for the government to introduce independent monitoring of the accuracy of WCA reports.
The report also warns that WCA reports were increasingly being used to help determine eligibility for disability living allowance (DLA), which meant their accuracy was even more important.
The report says that some Atos assessors reported that claimants had performed actions they were not able to carry out, or performed them unaided when they had needed help to do so.
The most common complaint was the “general inaccuracy” of assessors in recording what claimants had said.
The WCA was introduced in 2008 to test eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.
CA said it had particular concerns about cases in which ESA had been awarded but an inaccurate report had subsequently been used to help determine eligibility for DLA.
Such claimants would probably not have requested copies of their WCA report and so would not have been aware of the potential impact of its inaccuracy on their DLA claim.
A DWP spokeswoman said the CA report was based on only 37 WCAs, compared with the 564,500 completed in the year to February 2011, and “relies solely on CA’s interpretation of the HCP’s report, and does not allow the HCP the opportunity to explain the reasoning behind what was recorded”.
She added: “Many improvements to the WCA have been made since the CA survey began and [it] does not acknowledge several of the changes which have now been implemented.”
She said all HCPs were “registered with an appropriate professional body” and trained in “disability assessment medicine”, while their work was “subjected to stringent quality audit”.
An Atos spokeswoman said the company would be “carefully considering” the report.
She said that fewer than nine per cent of all decisions made were overturned on appeal, although Atos hoped to work with CA “to drive further improvements”.
She said DWP already audited its assessments, and Atos was “measured against criteria set by the DWP which it consistently meets, while financial penalties were applied if it failed to meet “agreed service levels”.
Government ignores disability in £1 billion youth sport strategy
The government has failed to explain why its new youth sport strategy contains almost no references to disabled young people.
The £1 billion, five-year Creating a Sporting Habit for Life strategy was launched this week by culture secretary Jeremy Hunt as part of efforts to ensure a “legacy” of mass participation in sport from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The document says about £450 million will be awarded to sports governing bodies for their “whole sport plans” – their four-year strategies – to ensure they are focused on ensuring a “sporting habit for life”, with about 60 per cent of this money aimed at young people from 14 to 25.
It also includes £50 million plans for every secondary school in England to host a community sports club, with another £50 million to boost sports provision at further education colleges and universities.
And there will be £10 million to allow school sports facilities to be opened up to wider public use.
But – with the exception of a section on the new School Games, which were launched last October – the strategy mentions disabled young people just once, demanding an increased participation by disabled people as one of the outcomes required from sport governing bodies in return for their funding.
A Department for Culture Media and Sport spokesman said there would be “disability elements” in the contracts drawn up by Sport England – which is delivering the strategy – with individual sport governing bodies such as the Football Association and Lawn Tennis Association.
He said these governing bodies would receive £450 million and “will have to invest some of that into disability”.
He said: “The details are still to be worked out on a sport-by-sport basis. They will be very much part of the contractual agreement with the national governing bodies. The devil is going to be in the detail.
“Disability is very much a part of it. There will be stretching targets for sports to engage with disabled people and bring more disabled people into sport.”
He stressed that Hunt was “absolutely crystal clear” that disability “needs to be at every level” of the School Games.
But the spokesman was unable to explain why there was so little mention of disability in the strategy itself.
A spokeswoman for the English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS), the strategic lead for sport and physical activity for disabled people, declined to comment on the strategy’s failure to say more about disabled young people.
But she said EFDS would “support Sport England by working with our partners to ensure disabled young people are engaged in every aspect of this strategy”.
EFDS welcomed the strategy’s emphasis on encouraging all young people to take part in sport between the ages of 14 and 25, the new inclusive School Games, and the need for governing bodies to increase participation rates of disabled people in sport.
Activists launch bid for funds to fight threat of assisted suicide
Disabled campaigners fighting to ward off the threat of legalised assisted suicide have been forced to launch a fundraising appeal to try to counteract the huge financial resources of their opponents.
Not Dead Yet UK – the campaigning network of disabled people opposed to legalisation – is run by volunteers, and has almost no funding to continue its battle.
The network decided to launch an urgent appeal for funds following last week’s report from The Commission on Assisted Dying, which was bankrolled by euthanasia supporters and set up by the pro-assisted suicide charity Dignity in Dying.
The commission’s work was funded by two pro-euthanasia multi-millionaires, the author Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s disease, and Bernard Lewis, founder of the retail chain River Island.
The thinktank Demos, which hosted the year-long commission, declined to say how much it had cost, and told Disability News Service that it was “not allowed to give out details of the cost of projects”.
Responding to reports that it had cost £500,000, a Demos spokeswoman said: “I cannot verify that. I would be very wary of using that.”
Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick, the former Disability Rights Commission’s commissioner with responsibility for Wales, and a spokesman for Not Dead Yet UK, said the network wanted to build a “grassroots response” to the commission’s proposals and “find a way to support the work that we are doing”.
He said: “We are doing this with a heavy heart and we really do not want anybody who cannot afford it to give anything at all. For those people, we would just be happy with their name and support.”
He said Not Dead Yet UK was hoping for a large number of people to sign up to giving as little as £2 a month to support its work, through its website.
He said: “In order for the public to be informed it has to hear both sides of the story equally.
“The problem is that because they have all the resources, their side is being promoted much more highly than ours.”
Disability charities evade questions over support for assisted suicide
Organisations providing services to disabled people – including disability charities and a hospice – have evaded questions about their links with a commission that has called for assisted suicide to be legalised.
The Commission on Assisted Dying concluded last week that assisted suicide could “safely” be offered to people who are terminally-ill, if they are believed to have less than a year to live, are over 18, and satisfy certain other “eligibility criteria”.
The report was described by horrified disabled activists as a “major attack on disabled people”.
Only one of the 11 commissioners refused to back the report’s conclusions, while several others – who all backed legalisation – have close links with organisations providing services to disabled people.
These include Dr Carole Dacombe, medical director of St Peter’s Hospice in Bristol; Baroness [Barbara] Young, chief executive of Diabetes UK; and Professor Sam Ahmedzai, a professor of palliative medicine at the University of Sheffield and head of the academic unit of supportive care at its School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Others include Baroness [Elaine] Murphy, a vice-president of the Alzheimer’s Society; and Dame Denise Platt, chair of the National AIDS Trust (NAT).
St Peter’s Hospice declined to comment on whether it was comfortable with its medical director publicly backing the legalisation of assisted suicide.
A hospice spokeswoman said: “We do not want to make a comment about it. I do not need to explain why we will not be making a comment.”
A spokesman for Diabetes UK refused to comment on whether it was comfortable with its chief executive publicly backing the legalisation of assisted suicide.
Instead, he said the charity did not believe there was a conflict of interest with Baroness Young taking part in the commission.
A University of Sheffield spokesman said Professor Ahmedzai joined the commission “in his own right as an expert in palliative care and care in the last months of life, not as a representative of the university”.
But he was unable to say whether the university was comfortable with Professor Ahmedzai backing the legalisation of assisted suicide.
The Alzheimer’s Society said Baroness Murphy’s position as a vice-president was an “honorary” role, and she was not a spokeswoman for the charity and was “entitled to viewpoints independent from those of the society”.
She added: “Alzheimer’s Society does not support a change in the law on euthanasia or assisted dying.
“However, we welcome a debate on all end-of-life issues and consult our members on an ongoing basis to ensure our position reflects their views on this important matter.”
A National AIDS Trust (NAT) spokeswoman said the charity was comfortable with the position Dame Denise had taken.
Deborah Jack, NAT’s chief executive, had earlier said in a statement that the charity had “no position” on Dame Denise’s membership of the commission because it had “not so far been relevant to our work as an HIV policy and campaigning organisation, nor has it been brought to our attention by people living with HIV, or organisations supporting them”.
But Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick, the former Disability Rights Commission’s commissioner with responsibility for Wales, and a spokesman for Not Dead Yet UK – the campaigning network of disabled people opposed to legalisation – said these organisations linked to the commission would be “understandably embarrassed” and disabled people would now avoid them “like the plague”.
He added: “The last thing you want is a doctor coming to your bedside who you know has already spoken out in favour of assisted suicide.”
Responsible Reform: Frustration after media snubs ground-breaking report
Disabled activists who spent months preparing a hard-hitting report that reveals how the government misled parliament over its disability living allowance (DLA) reforms say they are mystified and frustrated by the media’s failure to cover the story.
Despite huge interest in the Responsible Reform report across social media – with the report “trending” on Twitter at number one and two for much of the launch day – there was almost no mainstream coverage on television or in national newspapers.
Sue Marsh, one of the disabled bloggers and activists who led the research, said the reaction to the campaigning report on Twitter “went beyond our wildest dreams”, and there was initial media interest in a report that had been researched, written and funded by disabled people themselves.
The report itself was backed by a string of disability charities and other organisations, and leading Twitter-using celebrities including Stephen Fry, comedian Mark Thomas, presenters Sue Perkins and Hardeep Singh Kohli, and Alastair Campbell, the former Labour Downing Street communications director.
But late on the day before the report was due to be published, the mainstream media interest began to evaporate, despite the campaign’s “very clear objectives” and “clear costed solutions”.
Marsh said: “It just seems to me that there is a red line, and journalists have decided that these welfare changes have to go through and they are not going to rock the boat. They all seem to think that the government has to be allowed to do this.”
The disabled peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson was one of those who commented on Twitter, questioning why the report wasn’t being covered on television news bulletins.
Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” at the lack of media coverage.
He said the kind of “counter-blast” delivered by Responsible Reform was so important because the government was undermining public confidence in the benefits system, for example by encouraging newspapers like the Daily Mail to run stories about “benefit scroungers”.
He said the government’s “gung-ho dogma” on welfare reform would “cause a lot of heartbreak and leave us with a worse system”.
Marsh said the failure of the mainstream media to cover the report – also known as the “Spartacus Report” – only reinforced the importance of social media to disabled campaigners and left the rest of the media looking “out of touch and behind the curve”.
She said: “We have been ignored by the media and politicians. We should be showing we have power and a voice of our own.”
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com