Activist secures high-profile backers for electoral assault on Corby

A disabled activist set to fight next month’s by-election in Corby has become the first candidate to be backed by a new political movement that wants to see non-career politicians elected to parliament.

Adam Lotun has become a leading figure in the disabled people’s anti-cuts movement and has been prominent in several direct action protests as a member of the grassroots campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts.

He was asked by fellow disabled activists to stand in the Corby by-election on 15 November, and has secured more than £2,000 in donations to his campaign from across the UK in two weeks.

He is also receiving financial support from the government’s new access to elected office fund – to rent an electric wheelchair, and meet the costs of accessible taxis and personal assistants – which helps disabled people with the extra disability-related costs they face while campaigning.

Following his decision to fight the by-election, Lotun was persuaded to stand as the first candidate of the Democracy 2015 political movement, launched only last month by Andreas Whittam Smith, the founding editor of The Independent newspaper.

Democracy 2015 aims to encourage people from outside the political classes to stand for parliament, but for just one full term, so treating their position as a public service rather than a career.

The Corby seat was left vacant after the resignation of Conservative MP Louise Mensch, who won her seat in 2010 with a majority of less than 2,000 over Labour.

Lotun, who worked in the NHS and the IT industry before he became disabled, and later worked as a disability employment adviser in jobcentres, said he felt “immensely privileged” to be Democracy 2015’s first candidate.

He said: “All Democracy 2015 candidates will only be there for one term so you don’t end up with people who can be corrupted and people who see politics as a career.”

But despite the heavy odds against him as an independent candidate with no close links to Corby, he said he was “expecting to win”, and added: “Labour are going to be frightened of me.”

He pledges to stay in cheap bed and breakfasts in Corby if he is elected, rather than buying or renting a property in the constituency, and to use public transport wherever possible.

He said: “If I have to use a bus, I will use a bus. If they are not accessible they will be accessible pretty damn quick. If not, they will be facing legal challenges from me.”

Lotun will be campaigning for a fairer welfare system, against cuts to disability benefits, for the legalisation of cannabis use for medicinal purposes, and to scrap the government’s “fitness for work” assessment and remove Atos’s contract to carry out the controversial tests.

He has also secured backing from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which was set up to enable trade union members, community campaigners and socialists to fight elections on an anti-austerity platform.

Whittam Smith said Democracy 2015 decided to back Lotun because he “exactly reflects our values, for he believes that there needs to be a change in the way of thinking of MPs, their work in their constituencies and also their work in parliament”.

He added: “British democracy is in crisis. The cause is a precipitous decline in respect for members of parliament and for the governments they form.”

11 October 2012

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Watchdog gives public bodies one last chance to act on disability hate crime

Police figures showing that some forces recorded just four disability hate crimes last year are “incredible” and “not believable”, according to the chair of the equality watchdog’s disability committee.

Mike Smith, the only disabled commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), was speaking as the EHRC published a follow-up report to its major inquiry into disability-related harassment.

Last year’s inquiry concluded that hundreds of thousands of disabled people a year were subjected to disability-related harassment, but that public bodies were guilty of a “systematic, institutional failure” to recognise the problem.

This week’s report, Out In The Open: A Manifesto For Change, analyses the action taken by the government, local authorities, police forces, transport providers and other bodies since the inquiry published its conclusions.

It concludes that many of them are “taking significant steps, making progress, individually and collectively, towards making a real difference”, but that actions taken to prevent and tackle harassment have been “patchy”, with some authorities “doing nothing or very little at all”.

The report was published almost five years to the day after the death of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter Francecca after suffering years of disablist abuse targeted at their family and repeatedly begging the authorities to act.

But this week’s report also comes only a week after a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) report showed a sharp drop in the number of prosecutions for disability hate crime, and in the number of disability hate crimes referred to the CPS by the police.

This fall came even though reports of disability hate crime to the police are rising sharply, with a 23 per cent increase between 2010 and 2011.

Smith said: “There clearly is a problem. The CPS and the police need to look very hard at why it is happening and what they can do about it.”

But he also said he found it “incredible” that two police forces – Devon and Cornwall, and Hampshire – each reported just four disability hate crimes last year, while Leicestershire reported 255, and added: “I do not believe that somehow they have created a magic environment in which disability hate crime is not happening.”

He said it was still too early to use the expression “institutional disablism” to describe any public bodies, but he said: “If we are getting numbers like four [disability hate crimes] in a year’s time, I would find it hard not to.”

He also said he was “disappointed” that the Department for Education had failed to accept the EHRC’s recommendation that there should be research into how segregated schooling affects the ability of disabled children “to re-integrate into wider society”, and its impact on how non-disabled children view disabled people.

The inquiry report suggested that the failure to include disabled people in society – including the history of forcing disabled people to live in institutions, and segregated employment and education – was one of the causes of disability-related harassment.

Based on responses to the draft recommendations it made last year, the EHRC has now produced 43 final recommendations, including calls to improve reporting of hate crime, plug gaps in legislation, improve advocacy and understanding of the motivation behind disability hate crime, and to increase the involvement of disabled people in developing hate crime policy.

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DisabledGo wins Business Innovation Award

On Friday 19th October the Bedfordshire Race and Equalities Council crowned DisabledGo winners of the 2012 Business Innovation Award.

Shortlisted organisations had to demonstrate how they had improved equality and diversity awareness and mainstreamed practices into a business model.

Over the last 2 years DisabledGo has launched its access guide initiative in areas across the Eastern Region; including Central Bedfordshire, Milton Keynes and Suffolk.

The information produced has enabled local residents and visitors to make informed choices about the services and venues they want to access. The benefits have been wide ranging, from people being better informed when spending personal care budgets to feeling confident when planning a weekend away in the region.

Beyond this, the initiative has given people the opportunity to actively shape their local service through consultation and gain new skills through DisabledGo’s temporary employment programme.

Central Bedfordshire was the first local authorities to commission DisabledGo in the Eastern Region, speaking ahead of the awards Clare Harding, Equality and Diversity Manager at Central Bedfordshire Council said;

“Unlike many organisations, DisabledGo live up to all the commitments they make – they do exactly what they say will they do.  Their approach is innovative and positively promotes equality of opportunity by raising awareness of access needs and fostering a culture which encourages improvement.  They have breathed new life into the way we address access issues.”

Speaking after the event, Chris Spratling, Chief Executive at DisabledGo said;

“Our mission is to break down the barriers disabled people face and promote independence and choice. By working in partnership with Central Bedfordshire Council, Milton Keynes Council and Suffolk County Council we have been able to positively impact on the lives of residents and visitors. We are very proud to have won the Business Innovation Award and I would like to thank all the local disability organisations involved and each authority. I hope the Award will promote our work further in the region and encourage other councils to get involved.”

Conservative conference: Cameron criticised for using disabled relatives in speech

David Cameron has been heavily criticised for appearing to use his disabled son and father in his main party conference speech in a bid to justify cuts to disability benefits.

Cameron spent part of his speech to the annual Conservative party conference in Birmingham trying to explain the need for another £10 billion in cuts to welfare spending, announced earlier in the week by his chancellor, George Osborne.

He also spoke of how he used to push his own son, Ivan, around in his wheelchair, but “always thought that some people saw the wheelchair, not the boy”, and suggested that the success of the Paralympics meant that now “more people would see the boy and not the wheelchair”.

He described later in his speech how his disabled father, Ian, had worked hard “from the moment he left school”, although he failed to mention that his dad was born into a wealthy family, and was educated at Eton, before being fast-tracked into a partnership in the family stockbroking business.

Only two days before the speech, Osborne had been accused of risking further hostility to disabled people on out-of-work benefits by describing a “shift-worker” who leaves for work and “looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”.

John McArdle, a founding member of the grassroots disabled people’s organisation Black Triangle, said he and other members were furious at how Cameron had used his disabled son and father – both of whom were now dead – to try to whip up support for cuts to disability benefits.

He pointed to the thousands of disabled children who would lose support as a result of government cuts.

McArdle said: “The experience of disability for his family does not speak to the experience of disability for the 99 per cent of families with disabled children in Britain.

“What is so upsetting is that the prime minister seems to lack insight into the tremendous damage he is doing to the disabled community through his cuts.”

He added: “Our supporters are absolutely livid. This is a full-frontal attack on disability rights, using two disabled people who aren’t even here to speak for themselves.”

The disabled activist and blogger Kaliya Franklin added: “I think it is fantastic that Ian Cameron worked as a significantly disabled person in the time that he did, but I don’t think that he would have been able to work in the way he did if he was a coal miner’s son from the north-east with the same kind of impairment.

“I think that privilege is insidious and you simply cannot understand what it is like to exist in a world without it when you have always had that.”

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Artist will stare “fitness for work” fears in the face with public exposure of her bed life

An award-winning disabled artist is to spend three days in bed in front of an audience, in an attempt to portray the contradictions of her impairment, and the government’s “miserable, terrifying, punishing” fitness for work assessment regime.

The writer-director-activist Liz Crow is forced to spend much of her life in bed because of her impairment, but has always managed to keep that part of herself hidden from view.

“I have developed this incredibly stark way of living,” she says, “and what other people see of me in public spaces is not how I am for most of my life. Even the people close to me don’t really know me at the most extreme.”

In Bedding In, she will make her “twilight existence visible”, exposing the part of her life she spends in bed to public scrutiny, and for the first time “parading” this private self in public.

The piece, part of this year’s SPILL Festival of Performance, in Ipswich, is Crow’s response to the government’s harsh benefits reassessment programme.

But rather than lying low for fear of being penalised by the Department for Work and Pensions, she has decided to “stare that fear in the face”.

She is one of the hundreds of thousands of long-time incapacity benefit claimants who have been tested through the government’s reassessment programme, and subjected to the infamous work capability assessment, carried out by the government’s contractor Atos Healthcare.

Even though Crow has used a wheelchair for 26 years, Atos decided that she had no difficulty walking. She was placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG), for those thought able to move towards paid work.

But she knows she cannot make herself available for work, and so – unless she wins her appeal – she has resigned herself to having her benefits taken away because of the inevitable failure to co-operate with the regime.

“The consequences are that I may have no income coming in and don’t know how as a single parent I will care for my child, let alone my home, etc.”

Less than two weeks after her performance ends, she will need to parade her private self again, when she appeals to a tribunal against the decision to place her in the WRAG.

Crow is clear that she wants Bedding In to be about the complexity of her impairment, and not its “tragedy”.
“I live a pretty good life with the complicated set of circumstances that I have got,” she says, “but if I step out of my bed then it is not seen as complexity or contradiction, and in the current benefits system it means you fall through the gaps.”

Each day during the performance at Ipswich Art School Gallery, members of the public will gather around her bed to discuss the work, and its politics. The hope is that Crow will take the “data” from these conversations and use them to further develop the piece.

“It is a political statement,” she says of the performance, “but it is also trying to make visible this kind of internal wrestling that goes on for a lot of us with the benefits stuff.

“Since I got personal assistants 15 years ago I have managed to find a kind of fragile security in my life. I have rarely earned but I have, I hope, contributed.

“Now the benefits thing has kicked in it has all gone. Suddenly I don’t feel I have any security left whatsoever.”
Even if she wins her appeal, she faces the likely prospect of being reassessed again in another year or so, and then again, and again.

“The idea that this is life now: that is just dire. There are hundreds of thousands of us going through this assessment. There is some small comfort that there are a lot of us in it together but it is not much comfort because of the toll it takes.

“I have this tiny amount of time when I am well enough to do stuff and I am looking at that time being taken away.

“It has been really hard to create the life I have got, a reasonable life, and this big system comes along with these politicians who are so extraordinarily removed from a life like mine and they demolish what I have built up.”

The whole process feels, she says, like “punishment”, not assessment, “an endless round of justifying myself and fighting for a grain of security”.

“There are layers and layers of why it is so hard. One of the things is that if you fall through the gaps, for the press it is evidence that you are a scrounger and a fraudster.”

She is among the many disabled activists who believe that this cruel assessment process – and the callous and incompetent way it is carried out by Atos – are responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of disabled people.

Even if these deaths are not caused by the process, she says, “actually they died among all this shit, their last few months were so miserable and so frightening, and I think that’s unforgivable. To condemn people to a really miserable last few months is diabolical.”

Crow feels there is an affinity between her performance and the direct action protest carried out by members of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) at Marble Arch in central London last weekend.

One of the reasons she is so impressed with DPAC’s campaigning work, she says, is that “they have created an incredible visible presence but have found ways for all sorts of people to contribute”, particularly through social media.

She also sees links with her most recent piece of work, Resistance, an award-winning video installation about the Aktion-T4 programme, which led to the targeted killing of as many as 200,000 disabled people, and possibly many more, in Nazi Germany.

She began working on Resistance in 2008, and started thinking about its themes several years earlier, and felt even then that there were contemporary “connections”.

“Those contemporary connections have just got stronger and stronger,” she says. “I am appalled to feel that we are under greater threat now than we have been in all the years I have been involved in activism.”

She points to newspaper reports of alleged disability benefit fraud and the use of language like “shirkers”, “scroungers” and “fakers” to describe disabled people. This kind of propaganda, she says, is “eerily familiar” from descriptions of pre-Holocaust Germany.

The “specifics” of what is happening now are not the same as in Nazi Germany, she adds, but “the values beneath it are, this idea that we are somehow dispensable, more dispensable than others”.

She also points to the Paralympics, which she says “makes the scrounger-fraudster rhetoric stronger, and leads to a backlash”.

There are even similarities between the Paralympic classification system, and the benefits assessment system. Both suit those who have a “bio-mechanical, quantifiable impairment”, rather than less clear and easily-determined impairments.

Would-be Paralympians with “nebulous impairments” fall through the gaps, she says, just as she and many tens of thousands of other disabled people have fallen through the yawning gaps in the benefits system.

Bedding In is part of Disability Arts Online’s Diverse Perspectives project, which is funded by Arts Council England, and is commissioning eight disabled artists to make new artwork that “sparks conversations and debate about the creative case for diversity”.

Bedding In takes place at the Ipswich Art School Gallery from 1-3 November, from 11am to 6pm, as part of the SPILL Festival of Performance in Ipswich.

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Conservative conference: Alarm as Osborne announces new £10bn welfare cuts

The chancellor has sparked an angry reaction after pledging to make another £10 billion worth of benefit cuts in the first year after the next general election.

George Osborne made the promise – later backed by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith – in a speech to the annual Conservative party conference in Birmingham.

The promised cuts to welfare spending will come on top of reductions of £18 billion during the five years of the current parliament.

Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK, said: “We never saw a full impact assessment for the last set of cuts and how they will affect disabled people.

“Most of those measures have not been implemented and yet the government is already looking to cut more from disadvantaged groups, including disabled people.”

He said he believed the government would find some of the £10 billion in cuts by extending personal independence payment – the planned replacement for working-age disability living allowance – to older people.

John McArdle, a founding member of the grassroots disabled people’s organisation Black Triangle, said the organisation was hearing “heart-breaking” stories every day about disabled people “living in absolute fear and dread” because of cuts to benefits and other support.

He said: “What more is there to cut? People are already dying from neglect because of these cuts. If you cut more, more people will die.”

Stephen Lloyd, the disabled Liberal Democrat MP, said he was “very disappointed” that Duncan Smith had failed to “see off the Treasury’s push on further cuts to welfare reform”.

Lloyd told Disability News Service only two weeks ago that he believed Duncan Smith would “fight tooth and nail to resists further cuts to welfare”.

But in this week’s speech, Duncan Smith said the government would “have to make further savings in the welfare budget” and again warned that support for disabled people would go to “those who have genuine need”.

Lloyd said: “My take was that he stayed at the DWP so that the chancellor wouldn’t get the cuts he wanted.

“This may have been the case to an extent but I am not happy with the proposed £10 billion further reductions and will seek more detail on my return to Westminster.”

Adrian Berrill-Cox, a disabled barrister who stood for the Conservatives for the seat of Islington North at the last general election, said any cuts should be “carefully considered and well targeted to the areas where they will do the least harm so benefits can be maintained in areas where they do the most good”.

He said the benefits bill had “risen sharply” over the last 15 years and that “in some places is going to places where it is not that needed and is not reaching other places where it is needed”.

He added: “I don’t think there is much flesh on the bone in disability benefits. I hope that is an area that is not hit as hard as others. Disabled people have life quite tough enough as it is.”

He suggested that the chancellor might introduce means-testing of disability living allowance (DLA).

He said: “I need DLA for my care. I do have additional expenses so I am glad I receive the mobility component.

“But given how tough so many other people’s lives are, whether somebody in my position can make a case for keeping it where there are pressing requirements for government expenditure is another matter.”

He said it would hurt if he lost his higher rate mobility component of DLA – at more than £50 a week – but if somebody else lost that money “they would be housebound”.

He added: “I am being given a financial contribution to my mobility from the taxes of people who earn a quarter of what I do. There are people who need that money more than I do.

“It would be lovely if we could afford to indemnify every disabled person against all the costs they suffer as a consequence of their disability. Our deficit tells us that that is not the world we live in.”

Meanwhile, a Treasury spokeswoman has stressed that new plans to allow workers to swap some employment rights for shares in the company they work for would not result in an assault on discrimination laws.

She said the plans – announced by Osborne – would see the new “employee-owners” give up rights on unfair dismissal, redundancy, and the right to request flexible working and time off for training, but would not affect legal protection from discrimination at work.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission declined to comment because it has “not seen any formal proposals”.

11 October 2012

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Councils admit ILF closure could force reliance on families and charities

Local authorities have admitted that government plans to close the Independent Living Fund (ILF) in 2015 will probably see a cut to the support received by most of its users, with some forced to rely on relatives or charities.

Plans to close the fund, and transfer resources instead to local authorities in England and devolved governments in Scotland and Wales, have led to protests by ILF-users, who believe the plans threaten their right to independent living.

They warn that a government consultation on the plans offers no details on how cash-strapped councils will be able to meet the extra costs of disabled people who previously received support from ILF, a government-funded trust which helps about 19,700 disabled people with the highest support needs, most of whom receive both ILF and council funding.

This week, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) and the Local Government Association (LGA) warned in a joint response to the consultation that ILF-users usually receive “a significantly higher level of funding” than disabled people who rely solely on a local authority support package.

They said that when ILF-users transfer into the local authority system in 2015, the pot of money they will be awarded by their council to meet their support costs will “generally be at a lower level” than the funding they received previously.

John Nawrockyi, joint chair of the ADASS physical disabilities network, said this was because councils may feel – according to the government’s Fair Access to Care Services guidelines – that they have to ensure ILF-users do not receive more generous support than other service-users with similar levels of need.

Nawrockyi, also director of adult social services for Greenwich council in London, said: “If you take this dispassionately… the ILF-holder should be treated the same as a non-ILF-holder.”

But he said it was “not impossible” that some councils could take a “more sympathetic” approach and “take account of people who have built their lives around a certain amount of ILF”.

The ADASS and LGA response says local authorities could offer “periods of protection” to ease former ILF-users towards a new smaller support package, but they warn that councils will need to balance such offers against the need for “equity in resource allocation”.

Councils are likely to offer former ILF-users “other forms of support, other community resources or more cost-effective ways of providing services”, the consultation response adds.

Nawrockyi said this could mean support from families or charities, but insisted that it should not mean ILF-users being forced into residential care.

Stuart Bracking, a DPAC member and ILF-user, was highly critical of the ADASS and LGA response.

He pointed to the admission in the response that ADASS and LGA had “made a significant contribution to shaping [the government] consultation document”, and he questioned why they had “produced a consultation response to their own document”.

He said ADASS and LGA clearly supported the closure of ILF, a process that would affect thousands of disabled people.

He said: “ADASS have a professional responsibility to protect and safeguard severely disabled people. This consultation response was exactly the opposite.

“One of the reasons why ILF had to be set up in the first place was the abject failure of local authorities to meet the needs of severely disabled people who had been institutionalised.

“It was only with the establishment of ILF that a whole generation have been able to be workers, parents, care-givers, volunteers, students, campaigners…

“If ILF is closed it will crush the lives of thousands and in effect close the door to any meaningful chance of a whole layer of disabled people to live independent lives in the future.”

11 October 2012

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