EHRC raises major concerns over government’s benefit reforms

The equality watchdog has raised serious concerns about major elements of the coalition government’s benefit reforms.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it was “concerned” about the “quality” of the work capability assessment (WCA), the controversial new test used to decide eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.

The commission pointed to government figures which show that 40 per cent of those who appeal against a decision to find them “fit for work” after taking the WCA had that decision overturned by the Tribunals Service.

And – in another key intervention made before this week’s publication of the government’s long-awaited spending review – it warned that the assessment must be “about the individual” and should not be “subject to targets or quotas” based purely on reducing the number of claimants of incapacity benefits.

The criticisms come in the EHRC’s response to a call for evidence for the independent review of the WCA by Professor Malcolm Harrington.

The EHRC says in its response – which has been obtained by Disability News Service – that it is “aware of a growing number of concerns about the WCA”, particularly from disability groups and the charity Citizens Advice.

And it says the Department for Work and Pensions must ensure “from day one” that people on old-style incapacity benefit (IB) who are found fit for work are “supported” as they look for work, as the government begins to reassess those on IB through pilot schemes in Aberdeen and Burnley.

The EHRC says the government will have to show that decisions to deny people employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for IB – are “justified”.

And it calls on the government to “increase its focus” on the barriers faced by disabled and older people that will prevent them finding work after long periods on IB.

The EHRC also says that the government’s decision to cut people’s housing benefit by 10 per cent if they have claimed jobseeker’s allowance for more than a year is “of great concern” because it is “likely to be those people facing multiple barriers who are on JSA for longer periods of time”.

And it criticises the government for failing to collect detailed information on people’s impairments, ethnicity, age and gender in order to find out “who if anyone is being disproportionately affected” by the WCA.

It also highlights “significant concerns” that the government has no plans to monitor ESA claimants by ethnicity.

It adds: “This will make it extremely difficult to assess whether this policy is having a positive or negative effect on different racial groups.”

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Government spending review: Confusion over school ‘personalisation’ move

Confusion has surrounded possible government plans to extend the use of personal budgets to support for disabled children at school.

In documents released as part of this week’s spending review, the Treasury said the government wanted to “significantly extend” the use of personal budgets across areas including “special education needs, support for children with disabilities, long term health conditions and adult social care”.

This, it said, was part of shifting power “directly into people’s hands by giving them more control over the money spent on public services”.

But there was confusion around what the government’s plans would mean in practice, with the Department for Education (DfE) unable to clarify exactly how personal budgets would be extended.

Some campaigners say the reference may be to using personal budgets for the social care needs of disabled children and young people, rather than using them to provide educational support in school.

A green paper on special educational needs (SEN) is due to be published by the Liberal Democrat children and families minister Sarah Teather this autumn.

A DfE spokesman said the department was looking at extending personal budgets as part of the green paper.

He said: “It is something we have been told the green paper is going to look at.

“It is something ministers want to happen but is it something the department has been working on in detail? It is not.”

But when asked whether the reference to personal budgets and “special education needs” related to educational support at school for disabled children, he said: “It looks like that.”

The coalition government has strongly backed moves by the previous government to “personalise” social care through the use of personal budgets, which allow disabled people to choose how they spend money allocated for their support.

But it had given no previous hint that it wanted to extend the personalisation agenda to educational support for disabled children and those with SEN.

Simone Aspis, campaigns and policy coordinator for the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), said she believed the government could just be referring to using personal budgets for social care support.

But she added: “We would support having a personal budget to support disabled children and young people to access mainstream education and the personal assistance and equipment [they need] to participate in the mainstream.”

But she warned that any such move should not be a substitute for teachers taking responsibility for providing an inclusive environment for their pupils.

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Councils look set to be forced to make further large cuts to their adult social care budgets, despite the government announcing an extra £2 billion a year to protect social care services.

Disability organisations said the extra money would be swallowed up by huge cuts in government funding to local authorities, leading to higher charges and further cuts to care and support for disabled people.

In this week’s spending review, George Osborne, the chancellor, announced an extra £1 billion a year for social care through grants to local authorities by 2015, with another £1 billion a year from the NHS to support joint working with councils.

Up to £300m of the NHS money will be for “re-ablement” – rehabilitation after a spell in hospital – while the rest will be used to support other social care services.

The government said it would also ensure that existing social care grants to local authorities rise in line with inflation to £1.4 billion by 2014-15.

But none of the new funding will be “ring-fenced” and Osborne announced cuts in total government funding of local councils of 26 per cent over the next four years.

In a letter to directors of social services, David Behan, the government’s director general of social care, said the extra social care funding would “make it possible to protect people’s access to care, without tightening eligibility”.

He said councils would still need to make “significant efficiency savings”, for example by helping people to stay independent, through assistive technology, “driving forward” personalisation and maximising spending on “frontline services”.

But Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said many councils were already consulting on tightening eligibility criteria for care and increasing charges.

He said: “Cuts to councils’ budgets will mean disabled people lose some social services or pay more to receive essential support.”

And he said that disabled people needed more support from public services than non-disabled people, and would therefore be affected by spending cuts across the public sector. Cuts to police spending, for example, could harm efforts to address disability hate crime.

Ellen Clifford, interim director of the London user-led organisation Newham Coalition, warned that social services departments were “not yet equipped to cope” with moves towards personalisation of social care, and that this policy would fail without more investment.

She added: “Without this, self-directed support will fail, but more than that the lives of disabled people are being put at real risk.”

Clifford also warned that disabled people would be disproportionately affected by government cuts to funding for social housing.

Osborne also announced that “priority” would be given to “protecting” disabled facilities grants (DFG) – which fund improvements such as installing a downstairs bathroom or a ramp in disabled people’s homes.

But this DFG money will not be ring-fenced, so there is no guarantee that it will be used for this purpose by cash-strapped councils.

Government spending on DFG will rise from £168.8 million to £180 million in 2011-12, and to £185 million a year by 2014-15.

The Department of Health also said it was expanding access to “talking therapies” for people with mental health conditions – a move welcomed by mental health charities such as Mind and Rethink – but was scrapping the commitment by the previous government to expand free prescriptions to people with long-term conditions.

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Government spending review: Equality watchdog looks set for huge cuts

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) looks set to face a cut to its budget of at least 40 per cent, according to government figures.

The Government Equalities Office (GEO) announced this week – as part of the government’s spending review – that its own spending would be cut from £76 million this year to £47.1 million in 2014-15, a reduction of 38 per cent.

As almost four-fifths of the GEO’s budget is spent on the EHRC – £62 million this year – it appears inevitable that cuts of about 40 per cent will also be made to the EHRC budget.

A GEO spokesman said the department was still deciding how its spending settlement would impact on the EHRC and its other work.

But he added: “Around 75 to 80 per cent of our budget at the moment goes to the EHRC so you can see where that is heading.”

The GEO is working on proposals for reforming the EHRC and handing some of its current functions to government departments, or even the private and voluntary sector.

The GEO spokesman said: “We want [them] to focus on their work as an equality and human rights regulator.”

But he added: “We do not want to speculate on what specific parts of their functions might go to other departments or to the GEO or the third sector or private organisations. We are still looking at that.”

An EHRC spokeswoman said: “They are going to put forward proposals. Those proposals will be subject to consultation and our board will consider them and respond to them.”

In a statement, the GEO said it would concentrate in the future on “promoting a fair and flexible labour market, changing culture and attitudes, promoting civic society and supporting equality through a streamlined legislative and policy framework”.

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Government spending review: New DLA cuts are ‘threat to inclusion’

A disabled people’s organisation has described government plans to remove a benefit that supports inclusion in the community from disabled people in residential care as “really nasty” and “a blow against social inclusion”.

George Osborne, the chancellor, announced in this week’s spending review that disabled people living in residential homes – unless they self-fund their care – will no longer be able to claim the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) from 2012-13.

Although people living in residential care – apart from self-funders – cannot currently claim the care element of DLA, they can claim the mobility component. And those receiving the higher rate mobility component can use it to obtain their own car through the Motability scheme.

The government said the cut would affect about 58,000 disabled people, who receive an average of £33.40 per week, and would save £135 million a year by 2014-15.

Together with planned cuts of 20 per cent to spending on DLA for working-age disabled people, announced in Osborne’s emergency budget in June, the new measure is likely to lead to a large reduction in the number of people able to benefit from the Motability scheme.

Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said the measure was “really nasty” and would affect disabled people “right across the age spectrum” and not just older people.

She said: “This will intensify the isolation of people who are in institutional care. It’s just really horrible. It’s a blow against social inclusion.”

Helen Dolphin, director of policy and campaigns for the disabled motorists’ charity Mobilise, said it would remove disabled people’s independence and force them to become “passive people who are just told what to do”.

She said the government’s plans to cut spending on DLA could lead to a huge reduction in the number of people able to obtain a vehicle through the Motability scheme.

Dolphin added: “For a lot of people, having a Motability vehicle allows them to take part in education, [allows them to access] healthcare and gives them the opportunity to go to work.

“If people can’t get that vehicle, the chances of getting employment are reduced.”

RADAR said it also had “significant concerns” about the measure.

And Anne Pridmore, chair of Being the Boss, a user-led organisation which supports disabled people who employ personal assistants, said: “To cut the mobility component from people in residential care – I have not got words to express what I feel about that.

“I am fast coming to realise that the majority of non-disabled people and these MPs do not realise the implications of the decisions they are making, and if they do, they do not care.”

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Government spending review: New benefit cuts spark anger

Hundreds of thousands of disabled people are set to lose their out-of-work disability benefits, as part of new government plans to cut another £7 billion a year from the welfare bill.

The announcement by the chancellor, George Osborne, in this week’s spending review sparked genuine anger from disabled people’s organisations.

Osborne said that disabled people receiving the “contributory” version of employment and support allowance (ESA) – those with a certain level of other income from partners or savings – will only be allowed to claim ESA of up to £91.40 a week for one year.

Although the measure will only affect those in the “work-related activity group” – rather than those in the “support group”, who have the highest barriers to work – it will cut an estimated £2 billion a year from disabled people’s income by 2014-15.

The £7 billion-a-year welfare cuts announced by Osborne are on top of the £11 billion-a-year cuts announced in June’s emergency budget, which included a 20 per cent reduction in spending on disability living allowance (DLA) by 2016 and cuts to housing benefit.

Osborne also confirmed measures announced at the Conservative party conference, including a weekly benefits cap for “workless households”, and reforms to the benefits system that will see the replacement of all working-age benefits and tax credits with a single “universal credit”.

Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance (DA), said the ESA announcement was “deeply worrying” and “risks increasing disability poverty”.

He said DA had calculated that a disabled person whose partner was earning just £160 a week before tax would not be able to claim any alternative benefit such as jobseeker’s allowance once they lost their ESA.

He said: “If your partner is on a low income it is either in their interest to lose you or lose their job, which will cause family breakdown, poverty and disincentive to work and increase welfare dependency.”

Coyle added: “Disabled people have every right to believe that fairness is not being hard-wired into the welfare and broad government agenda.

“The overall picture is bleak and the message that we are all in this together simply doesn’t stack up when an equivalent figure is being cut from ESA as is expected to be raised by the new bankers’ tax.”

He said the ESA measure would affect many of the 360,000 disabled people already set to lose their DLA, with some disabled people being “cut adrift from the entire welfare state”.

Inclusion London, the capital’s new Deaf and disabled people’s organisation, said the cuts were “absolutely draconian”, and accused the government of aiming “a dagger at the heart of the welfare state, certainly as far as disabled people are concerned”.

Anne Kane, Inclusion London’s policy manager, said the government appeared not to have thought through its deficit reduction plans, because the cuts would lead to disabled people losing their benefits, facing mass unemployment, losing their housing and being forced to sleep on the streets.

RADAR warned that “inadequate support, unwilling employers and a dearth of suitable jobs” could mean the one-year time limit would have a “negative and disproportionate impact on disabled people seeking work”.

And Ellen Clifford, interim director of the user-led Newham Coalition, said she was “angry and appalled” at the “depth and scale” of the government’s spending cuts, which “throw the notion of equality for disabled people out of the window”.

She said cutting ESA would not encourage disabled people into work because there were no jobs available and there was still discrimination in the workplace.

She added: “Removing benefits from disabled people is not going to magically transform the workplace but it will create misery and poverty for people who already endure daily barriers that the politicians responsible for these cuts could not even imagine.”

Emily Brothers, president of the National Federation of the Blind of the UK, said she was “dismayed” by the “highly discriminatory one-year time limit”.

And she said the government’s package of spending cuts “cynically attacks working-age blind people wishing to find a job to do, whilst they experience a series of obstacles to progress”.

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Government spending review: Disabled people ‘will take to the streets’

Activists have pledged that disabled people will take to the streets to protest at the impact of the government’s programme of spending cuts.

The pledge came from campaigners who took part in a protest march in Birmingham during the Conservative party conference.

There were also protests in Westminster on Wednesday as the chancellor, George Osborne, unveiled the coalition government’s spending review.

Linda Burnip, a founding member of the new campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said disabled people were being “disproportionately affected” by the cuts to benefits and local government spending, and pledged further protest action by disabled activists.

She took part in the protests outside parliament this week, and helped deliver letters to both Conservative and Liberal Democrat party headquarters, warning of the consequences of the cuts for disabled people.

The letters featured black triangles, symbolising fears that the cuts will lead to disabled people losing their lives.

Many disabled people have threatened to kill themselves if their care packages or benefits are reduced as a result of spending cuts.

But Burnip said many disabled people would also die through neglect because of cuts to care and support.

She said: “I think the problem is that they do not really understand how it affects disabled people and they will be responsible for the deaths of a lot of disabled people if they go ahead with all these policies.”

Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said: “I think people will protest and Inclusion London will be protesting along with them.

“What else can you do when government ignores opinion and introduces savage cuts on an unprecedented scale? People will protest and they should protest.

“We will certainly want to work with disabled people’s organisations and disabled people campaigning for disabled people’s rights and others who stand to be affected by these attacks on benefits and the welfare state.”

Sam Brackenbury, a DPAC member who took part in the Birmingham protest, said: “When laws become unjust, when government becomes unjust, resistance becomes a duty.”

He also promised further protests by disabled activists, and added: “As far as I can see the only thing we can do is hit the streets, stop the traffic, do what we have got to do.”

He said if disabled people did not protest, many of them would end up homeless and living on the streets, so protesting was about “survival”.

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