EMERGENCY BUDGET: Government set to restrict DLA eligibility

The government is set to launch a major reform of disability living allowance (DLA) – with tighter eligibility, a new medical test and reassessments for all claimants of working age.

The chancellor, George Osborne, announced in his emergency budget on Tuesday that the new medical test would be applied to “new and existing” DLA claimants from 2013.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said later that reassessments of existing DLA claimants would only apply to adults of working age.

A DWP spokeswoman told Disability News Service: “It has not been ruled out that we would look at other claimants of DLA later on. We might, we might not.”

The announcement was one of a series of measures designed to deal with what Osborne said was the “staggering” increase of £60 billion in the welfare budget over the last ten years.

He said the annual cost of DLA had quadrupled to more than £11 billion and that he wanted to improve “incentives to work”.

He also announced budget cuts of an average 25 per cent for all government departments – apart from health and international development – which the Institute for Fiscal Studies later said would lead to “the longest, deepest sustained period of cuts to public services spending at least since World War Two”.

Inclusion London said the DLA changes would be “bad for disabled people and bad for equality”, while Disability Alliance said the government’s austerity package raised “the spectre of grinding poverty and increased social isolation for disabled people and their families”.

Further details obtained by Disability News Service appear to confirm that the government wants to make it harder for disabled people to claim DLA, a key benefit in helping disabled people live independently.

The DWP spokeswoman said current spending on DLA was “unsustainable” and the new “more objective” assessment would make DLA “fairer and ensure its financial sustainability”, with support “targeted on those with greatest need”.

Asked if this would mean stricter criteria, in order to cut the number of people claiming DLA, she said: “It looks like that is the way it could go if they want to reduce the numbers on the benefit. I think so, yes.”

Budget documents also make it clear the government intends to tighten eligibility, stating that DLA reform would “ensure support is targeted on those with the highest medical need”.

RADAR and the National Centre for Independent Living are among those that have raised serious concerns over Osborne’s suggestion that receiving DLA could lower a disabled person’s incentive to find a job. DLA is intended to help with the extra costs of disability, and has no connection with whether the recipient is in work.

But in his budget statement, Osborne said the reforms would mean “we can continue to afford paying this important benefit to those with the greatest needs, while significantly improving incentives to work for others”.

The DWP spokeswoman said the government was committed to ensuring that DLA “improves work incentives and encourages responsibility and fairness”.

She added: “How the work incentives element will play out is still to be worked out.”

The DWP also confirmed that there would be an entirely new medical assessment for DLA claimants, which would be separate to the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA), the new test for out-of-work disability benefits.

The DWP said it would “use some of the learning we have had from implementing the WCA, but it would be a different assessment”.

News provided by John Pring

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EMERGENCY BUDGET: DLA reforms will ‘hit disabled people hard’

Disabled campaigners have reacted with anger and concern to the government’s plans to reform disability living allowance (DLA), and introduce a new medical test for claimants.

From 2013, all existing working-age claimants will be reassessed using the new test, which will also apply to all new DLA claimants, while the government also looks set to tighten eligibility criteria as part of plans to slash the welfare budget.

Announcing the plans as part of his emergency budget on Tuesday, the chancellor, George Osborne, said the costs of DLA had quadrupled to more than £11 billion, making it “one of the largest items of government spending”.

He said the new assessment would allow the government to “continue to afford paying this important benefit to those with the greatest needs, while significantly improving incentives to work for others”.

London’s new Deaf and disabled people’s organisation said disabled people would be “hit hard” by the plans.

Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said the changes would “intensify the poverty and disadvantage facing disabled people”, while the impact would be increased by other changes announced in the budget, including huge reductions in public spending, an increase in VAT to 20 per cent and cuts to other benefits.

She said it was clear the government intended to ensure that fewer people qualified for DLA.

Kane said DLA was intended to contribute to – but not cover – the extra costs of disability, and was “already subject to stringent qualifications”.

She said: “Already disabled people are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people. Today’s budget will make this worse.”

The National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL) said the chancellor’s argument that DLA prevented people working was “bizarre” and “ridiculous”.

Sue Bott, NCIL’s director, said she feared that people with hidden impairments “may well be the ones who end up paying for all this” because they would find it harder to prove they were disabled.

She suggested that the number of people claiming DLA might have risen because there was now less stigma attached to being a disabled person.

And she said the move to reassess current claimants would “cost a fortune”, including the cost of the “inevitable” appeals.

Bott said: “We need to be making our points about the impact that DLA has on individual disabled people’s lives and how important it is. We need to do a bit of educating.”

RADAR criticised the announcement of “yet another assessment regime”, and said that making it harder to claim DLA was “not the way to encourage people into the job market”.

Liz Sayce, RADAR’s chief executive, said DLA had “no connection with employment whatsoever”.

She added: “We will continue to campaign for one point of entry and assessment for all benefits and related support for disabled people – we want to make the anxiety introduced by multiple assessments history.”

Disability Alliance (DA), the disability poverty charity, said the budget and previous government announcements “raise the spectre of grinding poverty and increased social isolation for disabled people and their families”.

DA said the government’s austerity package risked “a significant assault on support for disabled people”, who were “being hit fastest, hardest and will suffer longest from the impact of the new government’s reaction to the nation’s finances”.

Vanessa Stanislas, DA’s chief executive, added: “The government must tackle the budget deficit, but Disability Alliance is deeply concerned that ‘tough action’ has not been spread evenly across government and society.

“Instead, today’s cuts will be felt by our most disadvantaged citizens who are not responsible for the banking crisis but will now suffer its harshest consequences.”

Adrian Whyatt, chair of Neurodiversity International and co-chair of the Autistic Rights Movement UK, accused the government of deliberately attacking disabled people, particularly those with invisible impairments.

He pointed to research by the National Autistic Society which found more than 30 per cent of adults with autism had “no income at all” from benefits or employment “because of the practically total inaccessibility of the job market and the benefits system to them”.

He said the budget would make the situation “even worse” and that the government had now “lost all legitimacy” among disabled people, particularly those with invisible impairments.

He said: “Why should poor, sick and disabled people pay for the ‘banksters’ and corrupt politicians, consultants and cronies and the mess they have made of the world?”

The Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) – a coalition of disability and welfare advice organisations – said it believed the budget would have a “disproportionate impact on disabled people”.

The DBC said the DLA changes would increase the number of disabled people living in poverty, while the new test would create “additional stress and anxiety” for claimants, and lead to unnecessary bureaucracy and increased costs through the new assessments and appeals.

The DBC said it was also concerned about the chancellor’s decision to uprate benefits annually in line with rises in consumer prices instead of retail prices – which the chancellor said would cut more than £6 billion a year from the benefits budget by 2015.

The DBC said it was worried that “priority has been given to saving money over ensuring sufficient support for disabled people”.

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EHRC calls for personal stories of harassment

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is appealing to disabled people to come forward with evidence of their own experiences of disability-related intimidation and violence.

The evidence call is part of the EHRC’s inquiry into what public bodies and transport providers are doing to eliminate disability-related harassment and its causes.

The EHRC is threatening to take legal action against councils, police forces, schools, and bus and train companies which are failing in their legal duties to prevent disability-related harassment.

The inquiry is looking at how disabled victims of harassment – ranging from name-calling, offensive graffiti and cyber-bullying to damage to property, financial exploitation, rape and murder – have been supported by public bodies and transport providers across England, Scotland and Wales.

It will also ask what public bodies have done to prevent such harassment, and examine its causes.

Crown Prosecution Service figures for the two years to March 2009 found on average that more than one person every working day was appearing in court charged with a disability hate crime, while EHRC evidence suggests many more incidents go unreported or are not dealt with properly by public bodies.

An EHRC spokeswoman said the 12 per cent cut in the EHRC’s budget demanded by the government would not affect the inquiry.

Anne Novis, who leads on hate crime issues for the UK Disabled People’s Council, said she hoped disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) would influence and lead the inquiry and be its “main voice”.

She said this would allow disabled people to show how little had been done to prevent harassment and “how little support we get and how hard to is to access justice services due to the barriers we face”.

Novis said she hoped the EHRC would identify the guidance and support that public services need “to be proactive” but also “use their powers to penalise those who do nothing to comply with the relevant disability duties”.

Mike Smith, the EHRC commissioner leading the inquiry and chair of its disability committee, said harassment was “an everyday part of life for many disabled people”.

He said the inquiry would help public bodies “ensure that future tragedies are prevented and transform the way that the people of Britain value and respect disabled people”.

Stephen Brookes, coordinator of the National Disability Hate Crime Network, welcomed the launch of the evidence-gathering part of the inquiry.

He said too many public bodies used data protection laws as an excuse not to share information with other agencies about disability hate crime.

Brookes added: “Too many disabled people do not report acts of hostility for the simple reason they feel they won’t be believed, and our aim is to ensure that this inquiry leads to ways to stop hate crime and make all agencies start taking their responsibility to disabled people more seriously.”

Maria Miller MP, the new Conservative minister for disabled people, welcomed the inquiry and urged disabled people and DPOs to submit evidence, both about incidents of harassment and with examples of “positive work being done to tackle disability hate crime”.

This “first wave” of evidence will be collected until 10 September, and can be given through the EHRC website, by email or via its helpline.

There will also be evidence-gathering events around Britain over the next three months, with 13 already organised. These events will be publicised locally, and disabled people and organisations of and for disabled people will be invited.

The commission is also likely to use its legal powers to force public bodies and witnesses to give evidence, with hearings set to take place from September.

The EHRC has already written to Hinckley and Bosworth council, asking it for evidence that it is meeting its legal duties, following last year’s inquest into the deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her disabled daughter Francecca.

The EHRC said it could not say what action resulted from the letter for legal reasons.

A council spokeswoman said: “All I can say at the moment is that the council is working with the EHRC to alleviate their concerns.”

For information on how to give evidence to the inquiry, visit www.equalityhumanrights.com/disabilityharassmentfi

News provided by John Pring

Research triggers fears among autistic rights campaigners

Disabled activists have raised serious concerns about new genetic research which could lead to treatments or cures for autism.

Members of the autistic rights movement fear the research could lead to abortion clinics being seen as a “solution” to autism, as they say has happened with Down’s syndrome.

They spoke out after an international consortium of scientists announced they had discovered new genetic triggers for autism.

Scientists with the Autism Genome Project said their discoveries pointed to “new avenues of scientific investigation, as well as potential targets for the development of novel treatments”.

But Roderick Cobley, chair of the London Autistic Rights Movement, said the widespread media coverage of the research had failed to acknowledge that it was the “economic, social and attitudinal barriers in society that are the true disablers of autistic people, and not their condition in itself”.

Cobley said the research could eventually benefit parents if it was used to give them advance notice of their child’s needs.

But he said that much of the discussion in the media had focused instead on the possibilities for “treating and eliminating autism”.

He said: “We are again being bombarded by references to autism in terms of disease, disorder and suffering.

“Worst of all is the raising of the possibility of genetic testing, and perhaps of pre-natal testing.

“Without in any way prejudicing the rights of women to make their own reproductive choices, the abortion clinic should not be seen by society as the solution for autism, as has happened with Down’s syndrome.”

Cobley called for more funding for research into how to “improve autistic people’s lives in the here and now”, rather than “chasing after miracle cures and treatments”.

And he pointed to research in Canada which found that autism often had advantages as well as disadvantages.

News provided by John Pring

Watchdog ignores call for more audio description

The broadcasting watchdog has ignored the views of hundreds of visually-impaired people who took part in a consultation on audio-described television.

Disabled campaigners accused Ofcom of “a total cop-out”, after it decided not to recommend any of three possible options on future minimum levels of audio-described TV, but to leave the decision to the government.

Nearly all UK broadcasters currently have to provide audio description (AD) – added commentary that describes body language, expressions and movements taking place on the screen – for at least 10 per cent of their programmes.

But an Ofcom review considered three options: keeping this minimum level of AD at 10 per cent; increasing it for all channels to 20 per cent; or increasing it to 20 per cent just for public service channels.

All but one of the groups representing visually-impaired people who took part in a public consultation – and more than 550 individuals who were visually-impaired or had visually-impaired family or friends – opted for an increase to 20 per cent across the board.

They said AD gave visually-impaired people “a sense of social inclusion, equality and independence”, while current levels were “inadequate”.

Groups representing hearing-impaired people – and Ofcom’s advisory committee on older and disabled people – backed an increase for public service channels only.

Some broadcasters argued there was not enough evidence to justify an increase, although the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky “committed voluntarily” to audio describe 20 per cent of their programmes.

Ofcom concluded that the arguments were “very finely balanced” and decided to leave the decision to Jeremy Hunt, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, without making a “specific recommendation”.

But Ivan Lunn, chair of South Tyneside Visually Impaired Council, which took part in the consultation, accused Ofcom of “passing the buck”, “a total cop-out” and “dashing people’s hopes”.

He said he could not understand how Ofcom could say the arguments were “finely balanced” when visually-impaired people all wanted the levels raised.

Lunn said: “It gives visually-impaired people more choice of what they can watch on all channels.

“It gives them choice instead of sitting in a room with a group of people and when the sound goes off and other people are laughing, visually-impaired people cannot see what they are laughing at.”

Ofcom also concluded that further work was needed to publicise AD and will now discuss with broadcasters “how best to secure this”.

An Ofcom spokeswoman said: “Ofcom is an evidence-based regulator. Having weighed the evidence and the arguments, including the views of interested parties, Ofcom has concluded that the arguments for each option are finely balanced.”

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Tanni’s maiden speech hints at future focus in Lords

Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson has used her maiden speech in the House of Lords to speak of her hope that the London 20102 Olympic and Paralympic Games will lead to “significant change” and inclusion for disabled people.

The disabled peer – who won 11 Paralympic athletics gold medals – was speaking in a debate on progress towards staging the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London.

Baroness Grey-Thompson, a crossbench peer, also hinted at some of the areas she might focus on in the Lords, with her speech mentioning inclusive education; increasing opportunities for girls and women; and access to physical activity for all children.

She told peers how her parents had “fought hard to get me into mainstream education – something that I strongly believe gave me the right platform on which to build my sporting career”.

She said the Paralympics had two messages: one about winning and the other about “spreading inclusion and change”, and pointed to how the Paralympics had improved “social provision” for disabled people in China, while sport continues to “challenge attitudes towards disabled people”.

She said “unprecedented” numbers of disabled people were applying for jobs with LOCOG – the 2012 organising committee – because of “its passion for diversity and inclusion”, with LOCOG now becoming “one of the most attractive employers of choice for disabled people”.

She called for young people to have access to physical activity in and outside school, and for disabled children to “have the right and the opportunity to be included”.

She also said that girls should be enabled to “find the right environment in which to develop their skills to allow them to compete in the wider world”, and added: “We know that currently women are employed in only one in five of the top jobs in sport.

“To be a successful nation, not just in sport but in business, we should challenge that, because sport is a microcosm of society.”

She added: “We all need to grasp the opportunity of the Games being on home soil to inspire our nation to think differently and to include every part of our great nation.”

News provided by John Pring

Robots and avatars ‘are the future of assisted living’

Robotics, internet video-calls and even virtual reality “avatars” are likely to play an increasing role in supporting disabled and older people to live independently, according to a senior government adviser.

Professor Brian Collins, chief scientific adviser to both the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, described a series of advances in so-called “smart” technology.

He was speaking at the Smart Living conference, organised by the charity PhoneAbility, which promotes access to information and communication technology for disabled and older people.

Professor Collins said the next generation of hand-held navigation aids would allow people to pinpoint their location to about 10 cm, making it easier for blind people to navigate obstacles.

A wheelchair-user’s hand-held electronic device will soon be able to tell a bus to lower its ramp – without needing to ask the driver – while Japanese scientists have developed a robot that can use chopsticks, to help people with arthritis.

Professor Collins said sensors attached to the body will soon be able to alter the immediate environment according to a person’s health needs, although he said there was a “really interesting debate going on in Whitehall” about the potential loss of privacy.

He also said there was “huge potential” for the internet to deliver “information and conversation” and provide people living alone with “a sense of community”.

He even suggested that “avatars” – virtual reality images of people – could soon be providing “social well-being support” in a person’s home. He said: “I think that is a bit scary but it is something we do need to examine.”

But he warned that “smart can turn to dumb very easily if you do not design very well-designed systems and well-designed support for those systems”, and said the technology must be “very cheap” so as to make it widely available.

Peter Ball, strategic research director for BRE, which carries out research, testing and consultancy on the built environment, told the conference: “We have got to get these products into the mainstream because that will bring down the cost. It’s got to be affordable.”

He also pointed to examples of future use of smart technology, such as wallpaper that could be set to influence a person’s mood, and motion sensors that monitor the movements of someone with a long-term health condition.

Alex Cowan, a disabled delegate to the conference, said she was both “excited and scared” by some of the technologies discussed.

Cowan, a disability equality and inclusive design consultant, said a disabled person must be able to say “no” to a smart device, while the technology must be “impact assessed” for any barriers it might create for disabled people.

She said: “It is really important to say, ‘yes, this is fantastic technology, but what are the barriers, who might be the people who cannot use it and how can we include them?’”

Any alternative versions must be “on the same level” and not inferior to the original, she added.

The conference came days after the government-funded Technology Strategy Board announced a £10 million funding pot for research that would encourage investment in assisted living services and technology.

News provided by John Pring