Government ‘must act’ on disability benefits reforms

The government must make major changes across three key areas of its disability benefits reforms, campaigners say in a new report.

The report by the Disability Benefits Consortium questions crucial aspects of the new employment and support allowance (ESA), reforms to disability living allowance (DLA), and the proposed new universal credit (UC).

The report raises a number of concerns about the much-criticised work capability assessment, which decides eligibility for ESA, the new out-of-work disability benefit.

In a survey by the consortium, more than four in ten disabled people who had taken the test said the anxiety it caused made their impairment worse.

And only four per cent of disabled respondents who were not in work said they did not want to work, which the report says “is in contrast to widespread media portrayal of benefit claimants as reluctant to work”.

The consortium surveyed more than 6,000 disabled people about their experiences of the benefits system. The report also includes findings from a previously-published survey of people’s experiences of DLA by the disability poverty charity Disability Alliance (DA).

The report calls on the government to scrap plans to impose a one-year time limit on claiming contributory ESA, rethink plans to cut spending on DLA, and make major improvements to its plans for DLA’s replacement, the Personal Independence Payment.

Other recommendations include the need for an improved ESA application form, and for there to be an “urgent review” of the WCA, which it says is “not fit for purpose” and is finding far too many disabled people “fit for work”.

The consortium – whose 41 members include DA, RADAR and the Learning Disability Coalition – said the changes were needed because the government’s reforms would have “a massive impact on the lives of millions of disabled people”.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “The government has made it clear that disabled people who can’t work won’t have to and have committed to DLA remaining a non-means-tested cash benefit.

“We will also ensure that disabled people get the help they need to move into the jobs they want.

“Both Work Choice and our new Work Programme will provide more tailored support than ever before and Access to Work continues to help disabled people get into work and stay in their job providing help with things like travel costs or specialist equipment.”

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Budget’s Equality Act decision ‘is further setback on rights’

The government’s decision not to go ahead with key new anti-discrimination laws is another serious attack on disability rights, say campaigners.

The chancellor, George Osborne, announced in his budget speech that the government would not be introducing the “costly” dual discrimination rules that were set to be introduced through Labour’s Equality Act.

The clauses would have allowed employees – such as disabled women or gay disabled men – to bring claims of direct discrimination on the basis that their employers had treated them less favourably because of a combination of two “protected characteristics”, such as disability, race, age or gender.

Osborne said the announcement was part of the government’s “Plan for Growth”, which he claimed would save £350 million through a bonfire of regulations.

A Government Equalities Office (GEO) spokesman said that not introducing dual discrimination would save businesses £3 million a year, which he claimed would have been the cost of familiarising themselves with the new law.

When asked whether the government would consider implementing the measure in the future, the GEO spokesman declined to comment.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it was concerned by the announcement and suggested it was more likely to increase costs for business.

An EHRC spokeswoman said: “We think having the dual discrimination measures is actually quite practical.”

She said Osborne’s announcement did not make much sense as a cost-cutting measure as some businesses might now “have to fight two separate cases rather than one” – one for each protected characteristic – so enacting the dual discrimination measure would also “free up” the time of tribunals.

Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said the announcement was “very disappointing”, and added: “Along with their proposals to further weaken the public sector specific duties, it is an indication of the government’s strong wish to weaken equality and anti-discrimination law, which threatens very bad outcomes for disabled people and comes along at the point of the worst spending cuts in the post-war period.”

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said the move was “undermining the Equality Act” and demonstrated “questionable support of disabled people in employment and in everyday life”.

As part of its Plan for Growth, the government also said it would clarify the tax and employment rights and responsibilities of disabled people and other service-users who receive direct payments.

And it pledged to improve the take-up of assisted living technology, by investing £18 million in developing new products, working with the industry to reduce prices, and helping develop a code of practice to increase confidence in the technology among disabled and older customers.

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Welsh government’s charging cap is ‘significant step forward’

The Welsh Assembly Government’s (WAG) introduction of a new £50 weekly cap on charges for non-residential care services is a “significant step forward” in the fight to abolish all such charges, say campaigners.

In a third of Welsh council areas, disabled and older people who currently pay the maximum charge will save an average of £7,000 a year, while those in other areas will save an average of £2,000 to £5,000 a year.

Current weekly limits on charges vary from £16.20 in Rhondda Cynon Taf to £200 in Neath Port Talbot, while some councils have no upper limits, which the Welsh government said was “clearly unfair and unacceptable”.

The new measure will be implemented from 11 April. It follows the introduction of legislation in 2009 that was aimed at ending the postcode lottery and increasing fairness and consistency in charging.

The move will heighten the contrast with the situation faced by disabled people in England, where some councils are set to increase maximum charges to as much as £250 or even £433 a week.

The Coalition on Charging Cymru (CoCC) welcomed the announcement as it celebrated its tenth anniversary.

It has been campaigning since 2001 for the complete abolition of charges, and said the new measure would mean many disabled people would be better off by thousands of pounds a year.

It said charges were “a secondary and discriminatory tax on people who require support” with tasks such as washing, dressing, and feeding.

Partly due to its campaigning, 3,000 people have been taken out of charging in Wales since 2007, with another 8,000 facing lower charges.

Rhian Davies, chief executive of Disability Wales and CoCC’s chair, said: “The ultimate prize of zero charging is yet to be achieved. However, all involved with CoCC both past and present can be proud that through persistent lobbying it has helped mitigate some of the worst effects of charging in Wales.

“Through this and previous WAG measures many disabled people, older people and carers who are often the hardest hit in any government cutbacks will now be better off than their counterparts in the rest of the UK.”

Gwenda Thomas, deputy minister for social services, said the “landmark measures” on charging would “make a real difference to the people who rely on these vital services the most”.

She said: “We are committed to doing all that we can to eradicate inequality wherever it exists – and abolishing the postcode lottery that currently exists within the social care sector is an important step forward in achieving that important aim.”

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Remploy redundancies ‘could lead to factory closures’

A union has raised major concerns that a voluntary redundancy programme could lead to the closure of some of Remploy’s 54 remaining sheltered factories.

The government-funded company has announced that 773 people – including 544 of its 2,800 disabled factory staff – have applied for voluntary redundancy, under a programme announced in January.

Remploy – the country’s largest “specialist” employer of disabled people – insisted this week that no factories would close as a result of the programme, and that it had not yet decided how many employees would be allowed to take voluntary redundancy.

But the GMB union said that if all 773 applications were accepted, the company would lose nearly a quarter of its 3,370 workforce.

Phil Davies, GMB’s national secretary and head of its manufacturing section, said: “I am very, very concerned with what’s going on as a lot of these 544 [disabled] people will not get jobs. The vast majority will not get jobs because of the [economic] climate.”

He said a union survey found that few of those who took voluntary redundancy three years ago when the Labour government closed 29 Remploy factories as part of a modernisation programme were now in work.

Davies said he was also concerned that some people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties had not received the right support to make their decision about voluntary redundancy.

He added: “I am sad to think that we have 544 people who are gainfully employed, doing skilled work and being supported and contributing to society, who may find it very difficult and are being promised jobs that cannot be delivered.”

He said the voluntary redundancy programme cast doubt on the long-term future of the factories.

But a Remploy spokesman said: “We have said it. The government have said it. The purpose of this scheme is not to close factories and we will not be [closing them].”

He said that, following the modernisation programme in 2008, of the 200 people who had accepted Remploy’s offer of help in finding jobs, 90 per cent had found work.

And he said Remploy had put in place a range of support measures for all employees to help them decide whether to take voluntary redundancy.

Remploy said the redundancies were necessary because its factories had faced “significant challenges” due to the “general decline in the manufacturing sectors in which we operate and the economic difficulties presented by the recession”, with many “operating significantly below capacity and unable to provide meaningful work for our employees”.

The government has pledged £111 million-a-year funding for Remploy until 2012-13, but has yet to reach a decision on its long-term future.

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Seeking parliamentary selection was ‘absolute nightmare’, says disabled politician

A disabled councillor has described to MPs and peers the “absolute nightmare” she experienced when trying to win selection as a parliamentary candidate.

Marie Pye, a Labour councillor in Waltham Forest, said she had had an “incredibly positive” experience as both a council candidate and an elected councillor.

But she contrasted this with her two attempts to seek selection as a parliamentary candidate, where she was told to “get rid of the stick” and subjected to “intrusive” questioning from individual local party members about her impairment and ability to do the job, which reduced her to tears.

Pye, former head of public sector delivery at the Disability Rights Commission, was speaking at a joint meeting of the all party parliamentary disability group (APPDG) and other related groups on disabled people’s access to elected office.

The meeting followed February’s publication of a government strategy on the issue.

David Buxton, a Liberal Democrat councillor with Epsom and Ewell council in Surrey, and a Deaf British Sign Language (BSL)-user, said he could no longer afford to seek selection as a parliamentary candidate because of the cost of interpreters.

His last attempt cost £5,000 in interpreters’ fees, which would have reached £20,000 if he had not found interpreters willing to volunteer.

Baroness Brinton, the Liberal Democrat peer, told the meeting that her party’s spring conference had just approved a new leadership programme for outstanding candidates from under-represented groups.

The programme will offer mentoring, training, shadowing MPs and money to overcome access barriers by funding adjustments such as taxis and BSL-interpreters. She said 10 per cent of those selected would be disabled people.

“Priority” parliamentary seats will have to shortlist at least two candidates from the programme, which she said would give disabled people “a real chance of winning elections”.

Baroness Warsi, the Conservative party’s co-chairman, said there was a need to “create a level playing-field” but the “fundamental change” needed was to “people’s attitudes”, while candidates should not be compensated “because they are disabled”.

Fiona Mactaggart, the shadow equalities minister, who has a long-term health condition, backed funding for disabled candidates because of the extra costs they face.

She added: “If you have a parliament that doesn’t reflect the diversity of the British public then the confidence in democracy is diminished.”

Anne McGuire, the co-chair of the APPDG and a former Labour minister for disabled people, who also has a long-term health condition, said: “We need to raise our game. It is still not good enough. People are facing too many barriers.”

The government’s £1 million-a-year package of proposals includes a new Access to Elected Office Fund to help disabled people meet the extra disability-related costs of running for office, plans to change attitudes about disabled politicians among the public and political parties, a network of disabled MPs and councillors to act as role models, and new training opportunities for disabled candidates.

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Thousands of disabled people to be forced into unpaid work

Thousands of disabled people are set to be forced to do unpaid work in order to continue receiving their out-of-work benefits, despite the government’s own benefits advice body saying the scheme should not go ahead.

The government introduced new rules this week which will give Jobcentre Plus advisers the power to force claimants of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) onto new “mandatory work activity” placements.

Participants will be expected to spend up to 30 hours a week for four weeks on the “placements”, which will be introduced from next month and delivered by “contracted providers”. Those who fail to comply could lose their JSA for three or even six months.

The government’s own equality impact assessment says 10,000 people a year are expected to be forced to take part, with more than a quarter likely to be disabled.

But the social security advisory committee (SSAC) said it was concerned that the scheme appears to punish claimants just for displaying “the wrong attitude”, while taking part could actually reduce their chances of finding paid work.

It is the third time in just over a month that SSAC has criticised key parts of the government’s welfare reform agenda. Last month, it delivered a scathing assessment of the work capability assessment and the government’s disability living allowance reforms.

The committee said those forced to take part in the placements would be those who had done “just enough to satisfy the conditions of entitlement to benefit” but had – in the opinion of Jobcentre Plus – “little or no understanding of what behaviours are required to obtain and keep work”.

The committee said the government’s own evidence shows disabled people are among those who would find it most difficult to take part in such unpaid work activity, and so were more likely to face losing their benefits for failing to comply.

And it said it was concerned that there was no procedure for monitoring whether providers running the schemes were exploiting claimants.

Disability Alliance (DA) said increasing numbers of disabled people would be found “fit for work” through the government’s welfare reforms, and so could be subject to the placements.

Neil Coyle, DA’s director of policy, said it was “essential” that reasonable adjustments were made for disabled people on the scheme.

He said there were increasing reports of disabled people – such as those with mental health conditions – feeling they had to comply with strict conditions imposed on their benefit entitlement, despite the risks to their health.

The government rejected seven of SSAC’s 18 recommendations, and partially accepted two, while it rejected the recommendation that the scheme should not go ahead. It promised “robust monitoring” of placements.

Employment minister Chris Grayling said the scheme was “designed to give people that extra push to make sure they are really keeping active and focused on what it takes to get into work”.

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Funding cuts put future of self-advocacy movement in doubt

Serious concerns have been raised about the future of the UK’s self-advocacy movement, with four-fifths of organisations under threat of closure, according to a leading disabled activist.

Andrew Lee, director of People First (Self Advocacy), said that 80 per cent of his organisation’s members could be forced to close, or had already done so, because of cuts to their funding by local authorities.

His charity, the country’s leading self-advocacy organisation, is itself concerned about its future, he said.

Because of council funding cuts, the number of People First’s members – all local self-advocacy organisations across the UK – has dropped from 120 to 97.

Lee said the funding cuts raised a real risk for the future of the self-advocacy movement.

He added: “I have seen the shock on people’s faces of knowing that self-advocacy groups they have known for years have closed and the realisation that their group could be next.”

He spoke out as a new report, Social Care – the continuing crisis, provided new evidence that many local authorities are further restricting access to support for disabled people.

The report was published by the Learning Disability Coalition, whose members include People First (Self Advocacy), The National Forum for People with Learning Difficulties, Mencap and the National Autistic Society.

Of 61 councils in England that responded to a coalition survey, 36 per cent said they had increased charges for services for people with learning difficulties or had consulted on doing this as a result of government spending cuts, while 21 per cent had raised their eligibility criteria or consulted on doing so, and 20 per cent were cutting services for adults with learning difficulties.

Of 342 people with learning difficulties and their families and carers who took part in the coalition’s online survey, 20 per cent had been told their hours of support would be cut, while 19 per cent had been told their funding would be reduced.

Lee said he was “horrified” by the results of the surveys and believed the impact of the cuts on people with learning difficulties would take 15 years to “put right”.

He said: “I think it will take 15 years to get to where the support structures for people with learning difficulties were before the cuts. Any politician that says anything different is living in cloud cuckoo land.

“People are really, really worried about losing their support packages that help them to do the basic things in life that people without disabilities take for granted every single day.

“I am concerned about the damage it will do to people who have aspirations to work and to live independently.”

He said he did not believe that jobs lost from disabled people’s organisations and the public sector would be replaced by new jobs for people with learning difficulties in the private sector.

He said: “I am very, very sceptical about the private sector’s willingness or ability to actively take on disabled people that want to work.”

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