Welfare Reform Bill, More trouble for ATOS, Airport security check bill, Safer train table, Railcard Journeys Treble, Protests

I’m looking out on my snow covered garden and the road beyond, all very pretty but a nightmare to push a wheelchair through. Perhaps I’m just getting soft, I recall a time in my youth when I played wheelchair basketball on an outside court, all covered in snow at Crystal Palace. (Don’t be cheeky, not the one that burnt down!) I don’t remember the result but I definitely needed a large brandy as a reviver, when the game was over.

Despite all our technological advances we don’t seem to cope terribly well in the winter. Buses, trains and planes all grind to a halt and my all singing, all dancing, computer controlled, powered chair doesn’t make it up the garden path!

So perhaps a good pair of fully functioning legs isn’t such a bad idea. As non-disabled people you most certainly have your uses. You can be relied upon to push us out of snowdrifts, shove our cars up slippery driveways and to nip round to the shops for our medicinal brandy. Seems to me it’s a partnership made in heaven.

Don’t for goodness sake tell the government, they might add your legs to the list of cuts!

A couple of encouraging transport stories among all the gloom in this weeks news. Enjoy.
Welfare reform bill: Movement set for court showdown with government

The disability movement looks set for a legal showdown with the government, after the coalition prepared to force deeply unpopular measures within its welfare reform bill into law.

More than 20 disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and other charities are now discussing a possible legal case against the government.

Leading figures in the movement had already discussed halting cooperation with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) if the bill becomes law, because of their anger at the government’s failure to listen to disabled people’s views about its reforms and cuts to disability benefits.

But their frustration reached new levels this week when the government signalled that it would take advantage of the rarely-used “financial privilege” procedure to overturn seven amendments to the bill that had been passed by members of the House of Lords.

The use of financial privilege means that peers will not be able to reinstate those seven amendments into the bill.

Several of the amendments that were overturned by MPs this week would have reduced the impact of government cuts to disability benefits, particularly to employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.

But despite months of protests, meetings with ministers and civil servants, marches, petitions, and a high-profile direct action in central London last weekend, the vast majority of the government’s original package of welfare reforms are now almost certain to be introduced.

Leading figures in the disability movement appear to accept that they will probably be forced to take legal action against the government once the bill becomes law.

Jaspal Dhani, chief executive of the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC), told Disability News Service that he hoped to call a meeting with leading DPOs and disability charities “to consider what we do next”.

But he said legal action had already been discussed, because the government was continuing to “ignore the potential threats to disabled people’s independent living”.

He said: “Ultimately, that is probably what it will come down to: taking that level of legal action against the government.”

He said the government’s actions showed that while ministers had appeared to be engaging with disabled people, they were “not listening”.

But Dhani said he disagreed with activists who have suggested a possible boycott of communication with DWP, although he understood their frustration.

He said such a boycott would simply give the government a “free licence to do what they want to do” because they would “see us as giving up”.

Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK, said the legal action could target proposals to scrap working-age disability living allowance and replace it with a new personal independence payment (PIP), and to cut spending on ESA.

Coyle agreed with Dhani that boycotting all engagement with DWP would be self-defeating, and pointed to limited improvements to the bill that had been secured through discussions with the government, including more extensive trialling of the new PIP assessment, and the scrapping of plans to remove mobility payments from disabled people in residential homes.

Coyle also said there was likely to be a demonstration under the banner of the Hardest Hit campaign, which is led jointly by UKDPC and members of the Disability Benefits Consortium, to “make clear our dissatisfaction with being shut out of the decision-making process”.
Atos ‘failed to comply with government policy’

The company paid £100 million a year to test disabled people’s “fitness for work” has refused to cooperate with an “effective” new way of improving how disability benefit decisions are reached, MPs have heard.

The first independent review of the work capability assessment (WCA) by Professor Malcolm Harrington called for government “decision-makers” to improve communication with staff from Atos Healthcare – the much-criticised company paid to carry out the tests – over “borderline cases”.

But despite a successful trial in which Atos staff were deployed in benefits centres, which the government found was “an effective way of improving communications to discuss borderline cases”, Atos decided it would not be able to continue with the initiative because of its own “capacity pressures”.

Instead, decision-makers now have to use a new telephone helpline if they want to speak to an Atos healthcare professional about a borderline decision on whether to allow a claim for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.

The information emerged in answers to parliamentary questions submitted by the Labour MP Tom Greatrex, who secured a parliamentary debate this week on the WCA.

He told fellow MPs: “The fact that government policy is not being followed by a company in receipt of £100 million of taxpayer funding a year will startle many of my constituents and, I am sure, the constituents of many other [MPs].”

Greatrex told the debate that the process of reassessing about 1.5 million claimants of old-style incapacity benefit, which began last spring, was in “chaos”, while the cost of WCA appeals was set to rise by £20 million to £60 million a year for 2011-12, and there was a “huge backlog” of such appeals.

Greatrex accused the government of giving the go-ahead for the national rollout of the reassessment before dealing with the “defects” of the WCA, which had caused the system to become “clogged”.

He added: “My constituents, and many people in the country, do not object to an assessment to determine someone’s fitness to work.

“They do, however, object to a system that seems more concerned with hounding those who cannot work, rather than helping those who want to work.”

Chris Grayling, the Conservative employment minister, said the government had tried to create a “more humane, careful and thoughtful system” as a result of the Harrington recommendations.

He said contact between Atos and DWP decision-makers would be carried out by telephone, because “what matters is not the contact between a single person and a block of decision-makers, but trying to phone up the decision-maker themselves”.

He claimed the reassessment process was now “on time”, and that Atos was “chasing through” to clear the backlog of new ESA claims.

Greatrex also referred in the debate to information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by disabled activist Paul Smith.

The DWP has told Smith that disabled people can now request that their WCA is recorded by Atos.

Smith, of the Atos Victims Group, said many disabled people had tried unsuccessfully to have their assessments recorded, but “all sorts of excuses have been given for that not being possible”.

He said both DWP and Atos should publicise the fact that it was now possible to requestthat a WCA is recorded.
MP calls for new laws to protect dignity in airport security checks

An MP has called for new laws to protect the dignity of disabled people forced to undergo intrusive security checks at airports.

The Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop said many disabled travellers, particularly stoma bag-users, had been left humiliated after experiences at airport security checkpoints in the UK and Europe.

He spoke out as he introduced his new airport security (people with disabilities) bill, under the Commons ten-minute rule.

Blenkinsop said that one constituent, who has had treatment for cancer and now uses urostomy and colostomy pouches, had faced “humiliation” at several European Union (EU) airports.

She told him that security staff at Budapest airport had wanted to examine her underwear, “despite her attempts to explain that she had colostomy pouches”.

He said: “She was required to attempt to explain that to them in public, in front of fellow holidaymakers in the security queue – an experience she described as ‘totally degrading’.”

The same constituent was also poorly treated at an English airport, while a second disabled traveller, from Ballymena in Northern Ireland, faced a distressing public search at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport.

His research has revealed similar cases at airports throughout the world.

Blenkinsop said that, despite the need for security procedures, airport staff should still “act with compassion, humanity and common sense”, and not violate passengers’ “fundamental and inalienable right to be treated with dignity”.

His bill would force the government to ensure that all UK airport security staff were “trained in preserving the dignity of stoma patients, while maintaining our security”.

It would also oblige the Foreign Secretary to urge the European Commission to introduce regulations on such training throughout the EU, while the government would have to lobby the International Civil Aviation Organization on the introduction of compulsory training.

Although the bill will receive a second reading on 30 March, ten-minute rule bills rarely become law.

The Department for Transport was unable to comment on Blenkinsop’s bill.
Crash-tested train table could save lives

A revolutionary new table could save the lives of wheelchair-users involved in train crashes.

The table has been designed to absorb the impact of a wheelchair-user who hits it at high speed while travelling on a train, leaving them with only minor injuries.

Wheelchair-using train passengers are usually secured only by their brakes, which stop them moving when the train is travelling at normal speeds, but they can become insecure or even airborne if there is a collision or sudden braking.

Research by the Rail Safety and Standards Board has found that wheelchair-users are more likely to be severely injured in a train crash.

But Dr Emmanuel Matsika, an engineer at the University of Bolton, has now designed a lightweight but highly durable fold-down table that can be placed in front of a wheelchair-user travelling on a train.

If the wheelchair-user hits the table at speed, it absorbs the impact, leaving them with only minor injuries.

The table has been repeatedly crash-tested, with “very positive” results.

Matsika said: “Such is the design of the table, it doesn’t matter how big the person is, or how fast they are propelled, the table will absorb the force in a controlled manner.

“On impact the internal structure of the table will concertina, thereby cushioning the impact.”

His work has been supervised by “crashworthiness” expert Professor Clive Chirwa and materials expert Professor Peter Myler, at the university’s Bolton Automotive and Aerospace Research Group.

Matsika now plans to patent his design and present his findings to regulatory bodies.
Railcard journeys treble in 15 years, but industry ‘still has more to do on access’

The rail industry still has more to do to improve access, despite increasing numbers of disabled people using railcards, according to a leading expert.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) this week marked the 30thanniversary of the Disabled Persons Railcard by releasing figures which showed journeys made using the card had trebled in the last 15 years.

Despite the recession, journey numbers have continued to rise in recent years, from about 2.8 million in 2008-09 to 3.2 million in 2009-10 and 3.5 million last year.

There are now 122,000 railcards in use by disabled people, an increase of more than 40,000 in just five years.

The railcard offers passengers and their companions a third off most rail fares across Britain, with the average card-holder saving £80 a year.

ATOC said the continuing rise in the number of journeys made was due to the success of the railcard, and “significant improvements in facilities and services on trains”, and also pointed to Stations Made Easy, an interactive web guide launched in 2009 that shows access facilities and layouts of all Britain’s 2,500 stations.

Ann Bates, a disabled transport access consultant and former chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee’s rail working group, said access had improved but there were still a “huge number of stations that have got no access whatsoever”.

She said one of the key reasons that more disabled people were able to use the rail network was the improvements paid for through the 10-year, £370 million Access for All fund launched by the Labour government in 2006.

Bates sat on the committee that advised the government how to spend the Access for All funds.

She said: “We spent the money very, very carefully. We put lifts in where they were really needed and spent a lot of money on things like automatic doors that help not just wheelchair-users but also elderly people.”

They also ensured the funding was spread geographically, so it was not just spent on the busiest London stations.

But she said the railcard had made a difference, particularly after ATOC relaxed its eligibility criteria.

ATOC now hopes that the new web-based version of its Assisted Passenger Reservation System (APRS), which went live in November 2011, will make travelling easier for disabled passengers.

The previous system relied on faxes being sent to alert station staff that a disabled person would need assistance, with passengers often having to spend up to half-an-hour explaining their access requirements on the booking line every time they wanted to make a rail journey.

Last year, the rail consumer watchdog Passenger Focus found disabled rail passengers were still being left stranded on trains and platforms because of continuing failures with APRS.

But ATOC believes the new web-based system makes booking “quicker and easier”.

Some stations do still receive bookings by fax, but ATOC said that “most are now migrating to email”.

An ATOC spokeswoman said that “ATOC and train companies absolutely recognise that improving facilities for disabled rail passengers is still a ‘work in progress’” but that there have been “significant improvements” in recent years “thanks to millions of pounds invested by the government and industry as a whole”.

She said: “We know that the discounts offered with the railcard are a huge help to holders, but we also know that guaranteed assistance from trained staff is also a major reason for increased travel.”

She added: “Britain has the oldest rail infrastructure in the world, but also has the highest level of investment in improving accessibility, with millions spent every year.”
Oxford Circus protest: Campaigners warn government of more direct action

Disabled activists who took part in a major protest over the welfare reform bill have warned the government that they are planning further high-profile direct action.

The protest was organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), and the mainstream anti-cuts movement UK Uncut.

Their aim was to “shame” the government into withdrawing the welfare reform bill and highlight its impact on disabled people.

Many of the activists who took part accepted that it was too late to halt the bill, which is set to clear its final parliamentary hurdles within days, but they pledged that further direct action would follow, even when the bill becomes law.

About 20 wheelchair-users locked themselves onto a chain across Regent Street at noon on Saturday, and were then joined by scores of other disabled campaigners and activists from UK Uncut.

The protest caused major hold-ups in London’s shopping heartland, and completely blocked Regent Street north of the Oxford Circus crossroads for more than two hours.

Linda Burnip, a member of DPAC’s steering group, promised further direct action, even if the welfare reform bill was passed.

She said: “Even if it is passed, we are not giving up. This is just the start.”

She praised the involvement of UK Uncut and said she hoped the success of the protest would encourage other disabled people to take part in the next action.

Claire Glasman, from the disabled women’s organisation WinVisible, also said protests would continue if the bill became law.

She said: “If it gets passed, we are not going to stop. The implementation [of the bill] is going to be another battle.”

DAN activist John Smith said the protest was “about disabled people getting angry again, like in the 1990s, and that is a good thing”.

He also said there should be further protests. “There has to be. It’s not going to go away.”

Adam Lotun, one of the wheelchair-users who was chained across Regent Street, said: “It got to the point where direct action had to be taken. Nobody wanted to listen.

“They are now hearing from us. I am prepared to do more. After today… more people are now going, ‘If they can do it, we can do it.’”

DPAC activist Ellen Clifford said the protest would raise public awareness of the bill’s impact on disabled people, but would also increase the confidence of the disabled people’s movement that direct action was possible, after 10 years in which it had become “deradicalised”.

Several activists were also encouraged by the police response to the protest, which saw no arrests.

Inspector Mark Luton, of the Metropolitan police, said the aim had been to keep policing “fairly low-key” and to “try to establish some sort of dialogue” with protesters, while keeping the protest contained “in as small an area as possible”.

At a police briefing before the action, officers were told to “deal with things proportionately”, although all they had known was that some protesters would be meeting at Holborn tube station, about a mile from Oxford Circus.

He said: “We always knew it was going to be a fairly friendly kind of demo.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Author: PhilFriend

Dr Phil Friend (OBE FRSA) himself a wheelchair user, is acknowledged as the UK's foremost consultant on disability matters. A powerful and highly popular communicator, his company – Phil & Friends – has provided consultancy to many of the country's best-known companies. In addition to his professional activities, he is also a respected champion for equal opportunities and diversity in general, where his special blend of humour and direct speaking has won admirers from around the world.

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