Cameron’s EIA attack spells ‘danger’ for equality

Leading disability rights figures have warned that key parts of the country’s equality legislation are under threat from the government, after the prime minister announced that he was “calling time on equality impact assessments”.

In a speech to business leaders at the CBI’s annual conference this week, David Cameron said the country was “in the economic equivalent of war”, and needed the government to be “tough”, “radical” and “fast”.

He blamed judicial reviews, public consultations and equality impact assessments (EIAs) for slowing the pace of government reforms, and pledged to reduce the length of public consultations on new policies, and make it harder to bring judicial reviews.

But he also said he was “calling time” on EIAs and “all this extra tick-box stuff”, and added: “That way, policy-makers are free to use their judgement and do the right thing to meet the equalities duty rather than wasting their own time and taxpayers’ money.”

His comments alarmed leading disabled campaigners, who fear they mark the latest stage in a coalition assault on the equality agenda and could even signal its intention to scrap the crucial public sector equality duty (PSED).

The government has already slashed the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget, delayed the implementation of discrimination laws that were due to be introduced as part of the Equality Act, and ordered a review of the PSED.

The PSED forces public bodies – such as councils and government departments – to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination when forming policies. EIAs are used by these public bodies to show that they have paid due regard to the impact on disabled people and other minority groups.

Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), said Cameron’s comments on EIAs were “very, very dangerous”.

He said: “It isn’t human rights policies that are holding back the economy. It wasn’t the Equality Act that led to the bankers squandering money in some casino.

“We fought for years to get the EIA because it enables you to look at the effects of policies before they start happening to people.”

Sir Bert said he believed that the PSED, the Equality Act and the whole equality agenda were “under threat”, and added: “If Cameron is saying, ‘we will not assess our policies to see whether they are discriminatory,’ is he now saying, ‘we don’t care whether they are discriminatory’?”

Marie Pye, the lead on equality for London Councils (LC) and a Labour councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest, said there was “no doubt at all” that the attack on EIAs meant the equality duty itself was under threat.

Pye, who led the DRC’s work on the disability equality duty, which preceded the PSED, said that scrapping the equality duty would mean public bodies would no longer have to think about the impact on disabled people when considering a major new policy.

She said the PSED was even more crucial at a time when disability and housing benefits, social care, and affordable and accessible housing were all being cut.

She said: “It is even more important that you think about disabled people when you are making cuts. It is about avoiding unintended consequences.”

And she said LC had seen “loads of examples” of local authorities that had produced “really good changes” to policies as a result of carrying out an EIA.

Mike Smith, who chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability committee, said: “It seems as though the current administration doesn’t feel as if equality is an important outcome.”

He said there were occasions when EIAs were used by public bodies as “box-ticking exercises”, but he added: “There are many good examples where EIAs have been shown to make demonstrably better decisions that save public money and produce better outcomes.

“There is certainly scope for improvement but scrapping them without a good alternative is not the right decision.”

He said the PSED was “a very important and useful tool. I sincerely hope that the review will be looking at how to make it work better, not whether it should exist.”

Asked if the prime minister’s comments suggested the government would scrap the PSED, a Government Equalities Office spokeswoman said: “No, not at all. We said we would review it. It is just a review to see how it is working and not necessarily an indication that we are going to get rid of it.”

22 November 2012

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Cool response to Harrington’s final review

The third annual review of the government’s “fitness for work” assessment process has received a cool response from disabled activists.

The report was the third carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington – and his last before being replaced – and concluded that there had been “real progress” towards making the work capability assessment (WCA) more “humane, sensitive, accurate and efficient”.

Harrington accepted that “progress has been slower that hoped for”, but said he had “not seen or heard any compelling arguments or evidence that the whole system should be scrapped”.

He said there needed to be a period of “consolidation and monitoring”, although he called for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to monitor “more closely” the performance of the much-criticised Atos Healthcare, which carries out the assessments, which test eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.

Harrington said that implementation of his previous recommendations for improving the face-to-face assessments – the part of the WCA that has caused most anger among disabled campaigners – appeared to be “patchy”, while DWP staff frequently complained of “the variability in the quality of Atos performance”.

He noted that there had been frequent claims of “rude and unwelcoming healthcare professionals”, and reports showing “incorrect details” with “important points omitted”, and assumptions made about a claimant’s impairment.

Recent evidence-based reports by disabled activists have continued to find even more serious concerns about the WCA system.

Only last week, The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment found disabled people still experiencing humiliating and inappropriate treatment because of the failings embedded within the WCA.

And this week, a survey of more than 700 people by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) reveals the “tricks, barriers and bullying tactics” being used to prevent disabled people having their WCAs recorded by Atos.

The DPAC report says that “a clear theme throughout was the tenacity of individuals who viewed the WCA assessments as a war-like situation for their survival”, with Atos scoring an average 1.99 out of 15 for its performance.

The disabled activist Sam Barnett-Cormack, who tweets at ‏@narco_sam, said that although Harrington had “declined to criticise the functioning of the WCA as much as it deserved, he still reported that people are suffering, and he still asked for important changes”.

He highlighted Harrington’s call for the DWP’s “decision-makers” to “actively consider the need to seek further documentary [medical] evidence in every claimant’s case”, and be forced to justify their decision if they choose not to do so.

Barnett-Cormack said that because the government had accepted this recommendation “provisionally”, if it could be done in a “cost effective fashion”, it was “vital” that they “don’t find some way to wriggle out of it”.

Another disabled activist, David Gillon, who tweets at @WTBDavidG, said he believed there had been a “noticeable change in tone” in how Harrington referred to criticisms of the assessment by disabled claimants, from “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they” in year one, to now saying the experiences of claimants were disturbing.

RNIB said it was “disappointed” with Harrington’s recommendations, which were “not specific enough to deal with the crux of the problems the assessment creates, not just for the people going through it but even for those who operate it”.

The charity also raised concerns about medical evidence and said there had been “no commitment by the government to cover the cost experienced by a claimant in obtaining a medical opinion from their GP or specialist consultant on their suitability for work”.

Stephen Timms MP, Labour’s shadow employment minister, accused the government of “dragging its feet” in implementing Harrington’s previous recommendations.

He said: “There clearly are very serious problems, particularly around [assessing people with] fluctuating conditions and mental health problems.

“Recommendations have been made by the charities about what should be done and there is just no real movement.”

The government welcomed Harrington’s report and said there was “no evidence to suggest that the system is fundamentally unsound”.

It added: “Equally we acknowledge that the WCA still attracts criticism, and although the system as a whole is on the right lines, too many individuals are finding the process more challenging than it should be, and that there is more hard work to be done to consolidate and strengthen the improvements that are emerging.”

22 November 2012

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MPs add weight to Tanni’s safety net concerns

A new report by a committee of MPs has added weight to concerns that hundreds of thousands of disabled people could find themselves driven “over the edge” by one of the government’s key welfare reforms.

The concerns were raised last month by Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, who led an inquiry by Disability Rights UK, Citizens Advice and The Children’s Society into the impact of “universal credit” on disabled people.

That report, Holes in the Safety Net, concluded that about 450,000 disabled people could eventually lose out under the planned changes, which will start to be introduced in April and will see key means-tested benefits and tax credits combined into a single payment.

Those concerns were given new weight this week by the Commons work and pensions committee, which is chaired by the disabled peer Dame Anne Begg, in a new report on how universal credit would meet the needs of “vulnerable” claimants.

The committee’s report calls on the government to “reconsider” the loss of additional disability payments which are available under the current benefits system, particularly those affecting disabled children and disabled people with high support needs.

The government insists that “transitional protection” will ensure that no-one moving onto universal credit will see their benefits cut in cash terms.

But Dame Anne said: “Ministers have told us that the total expenditure on disabled people as a whole will not be reduced but we are concerned about those disabled people whose entitlement is reduced under universal credit.”

Although the committee does not estimate how many disabled people will lose out under the changes, Dame Anne pointed out – as did Baroness Grey-Thompson – that the transitional protection will diminish over time because of the effect of inflation, will not be available to new claimants, and will end altogether if the claimant’s circumstances change.

Dame Anne added: “The government needs to address concerns about disability additions within and outside universal credit to ensure there is no diminution in the benefit package which disabled people receive.”

The work and pensions committee’s report accepts that Baroness Grey-Thompson’s research was “contentious” and that the government had “refuted many of its findings”, but quotes extensively from her report.

Holes in the Safety Net estimated that, under universal credit, 100,000 disabled children could lose up to £28 a week; up to 116,000 disabled people with jobs, who have been found “fit for work” by the government’s benefits assessors, could lose up to £40 a week; and nearly a quarter of a million disabled people with high support needs who do not have a carer to assist them could eventually receive between £28 and £58 a week less.

22 November 2012

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Government finally acts on Access to Work

The government has announced a series of new measures it hopes will reverse the slump in the number of disabled people benefiting from its Access to Work employment support scheme.

Esther McVey, the new Conservative minister for disabled people, said the measures would expand the programme and make it easier to apply for funding.

The move came only a fortnight after Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, wrote to the minister to express “serious concerns” about the rapid fall in the number of claimants and the government’s slow progress in reforming Access to Work (AtW).

McVey admitted last month that spending on AtW had plummeted from £107 million in 2010-2011 to just £93 million in 2011-12. The number of disabled people claiming funding has fallen from 37,000 in 2009-10 to just over 30,000 in 2011-12.

Now McVey has told MPs that she wants to “strengthen and improve” the scheme, which provides funding for adaptations, equipment and ongoing support to make workplaces more accessible.

Among her plans, she has dropped the much-criticised list of standard equipment that AtW would not normally fund, and which McVey’s ministerial predecessor Maria Miller introduced soon after the coalition came to power.

McVey admitted that the list had not “always operated as effectively as it might have done, and may have discouraged some applications”.

In another important change, companies employing between 10 and 49 people will no longer be expected to share the costs of AtW adjustments with the government, bringing them into line with the smallest businesses and saving them up to £2,300 per employee, although medium-sized and large businesses will still be expected to share such costs.

Among other changes, there will be a “fast-track assessment process” for claimants who already know their support needs, and it will be easier for individuals to transfer equipment provided through AtW if they move jobs.

And disabled people’s organisations will be asked to produce “innovative” schemes that would offer peer support to AtW claimants.

Some of the measures were recommended by Sayce in her report for the government last year on employment support programmes, while others have come from the government’s new AtW expert panel, chaired by Mike Adams, chief executive of ecdp (Essex Coalition of Disabled People).

Sayce welcomed the changes and said she hoped the scheme would now “work better for small employers”.

But she called on the government to improve marketing of the scheme and to make it available to more people.

She said: “Access to Work remains heavily bureaucratic and government must cut red tape and also expand the initiative to a broader group of young disabled people and disabled people working abroad.”

She called for a joint awareness-raising campaign between Disability Rights UK, other disabled people’s organisations, the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce and health professionals.

22 November 2012

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New bill raises prospect of job-sharing disabled MPs

A new private members’ bill that would allow MPs to “job share” for the first time would make it easier for disabled people to stand for parliament, say campaigners.

The Labour MP John McDonnell’s representation of the people (members’ job share) bill had its first reading in the Commons this week, and has secured cross-party backing.

The bill would allow two people from the same political party to stand for a parliamentary constituency as a joint team, and would open up the possibility of becoming an MP to many disabled people who might not be able to cope with a full-time role.

Among those backing the bill is the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who was vice-chair of the speaker’s conference on parliamentary representation, which reported two years ago on ways to increase the number of disabled, female and minority ethnic MPs.

Other supportive MPs include the Green MP Caroline Lucas, Conservative MP Robert Halfon and Jon Cruddas, the influential MP who is heading Labour’s policy review.

McDonnell told MPs this week that disabled people’s organisations had “expressed the view that there are some people whose particular conditions mean that, although they wish to serve as MPs, they physically would be unable to do so on a full-time basis”, while groups representing women and carers had made similar points.

He said job sharing was now a reality “in virtually every walk of life” and that the Commons “should not be the last bastion standing against a measure that could increase access for women and, in particular, for carers and people with disabilities”.

But the Conservative MP David Nuttall said the idea was “outrageous” and that “a parliament made up of Tweedledees and Tweedledums would open up a constitutional can of worms”.

He said: “The proposal starts off as a politically correct attempt to increase diversity, but ends up as a potentially dangerous attempt at constitutional meddling that would break the historical link between an MP and their constituency.”

Although campaigners have been calling for the law to be changed to allow job share MPs since the 1990s, the latest push has come from Disability Politics UK, a group of disabled campaigners.

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, who herself attempted to stand as a job share parliamentary candidate at the last election and helped shape the bill, and has also set up a petition to call for a change in the law, said such legislation would “help us get more disabled MPs into parliament”.

She said the move was particularly important because there had been “such a lot of legislation that has severely affected disabled people, particularly under the coalition”, but there were only a small handful of disabled MPs able to speak in Commons debates from their own lived experience.

Sir Bert Massie, the former chair of the Disability Rights Commission, who is also backing the bill, said: “Policies approved by parliament need to be informed by first-hand experience of the lives of the people they affect.

“That is why the House of Commons needs to be more representative and to have more disabled MPs.”

The bill’s second reading is expected next week.

22 November 2012

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Inquiry makes a splash after securing ‘tide-turning promises’

A 15-month parliamentary inquiry has called for determined action to tackle the barriers to inclusion and equality faced by young disabled people.

Members of the Trailblazers campaigning network, all young disabled people themselves, played a crucial role in the inquiry, giving evidence and questioning more than 50 senior figures from the private, public and voluntary sectors at nine parliamentary evidence sessions.

The inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group for young disabled people has already led to key bodies within the airline and cinema industries setting up working parties to address issues raised in the evidence sessions.

The inquiry report calls for “urgent reform” in the public and private sectors to address the “significant barriers to young disabled people leading full and independent lives”.

Among concerns heard by the inquiry were the lack of wheelchair-accessible housing, access problems with public transport, the barriers to reporting disability hate crime, discrimination in the job market, and the extra costs facing disabled students entering higher education.

The Removing Barriers, Promoting Independence report makes recommendations across public transport, the job market, cinemas, higher education, tourism, disability hate crime, housing and independent living, and the airline industry.

Tanvi Vyas, campaigns officer for the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, which runs Trailblazers, said that “integrating fully with non-disabled peers and taking up the same opportunities can take enormous tenacity”.

Vyas, who herself gave evidence to the inquiry, said: “If we are to genuinely improve quality of life and opportunity for young disabled people in the UK we need decision-makers, businesses and institutions to get out of a ‘ticking the box’ mindset towards accessibility.”

Paul Maynard, the disabled Conservative MP who chairs the all-party group, said the inquiry had seen young disabled people “come face to face with MPs, ministers and senior business leaders”, while they had witnessed “some potentially tide-turning promises and seen some genuine commitment towards change”.

But he said that “good intentions” were not enough, and added: “We must act now to ensure that for the next generation, entering higher education, establishing a career, setting up a home or enjoying the same social activities as non-disabled peers need no longer be an ongoing battle.”

Trailblazer Hannah-Lou Blackall told the parliamentary launch of the report that taking the lead role in the evidence sessions had raised interest in the parliamentary process among fellow members.

She said: “We hope this report is just the beginning and we will continue to see young disabled people at the forefront of policy development on the issues that really affect us.”

David Sindall, head of disability and inclusion for the Association of Train Operating Companies, said the report was one of the best he had seen in nearly 30 years specialising in access and inclusion, and he praised the “constructive” approach taken during the inquiry.

Maynard said he now wanted to see Trailblazers give evidence to an inquiry into the accessibility of public transport for disabled people, announced this week by the Commons transport select committee.

21 November 2012

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Housing reforms and cuts are creating ‘perfect storm’ for disabled people

Government cuts and reforms are creating a “perfect storm” that could see many disabled people losing their homes, according to a leading disabled campaigner and politician.

Marie Pye, former head of public sector delivery at the Disability Rights Commission and now a Labour councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest, said the cuts could see many disabled people forced out of homes that had been adapted to make them accessible.

Pye, who leads on housing for Waltham Forest and on equality for London Councils, told a meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group that she was pleased to see the government maintaining spending on disabled facilities grants (DFGs), which pay for home adaptations such as ramps and stair-lifts.

She also welcomed the government’s new £300 million fund to provide more specialised housing for disabled and older people.

But Pye said funding for social and affordable housing had still plummeted, as had the proportion of new developments devoted to such housing in Waltham Forest, while many housing associations charged as much as 80 per cent of market rates to rent their properties.

This had led to “increased dependency on housing benefit”, at a time when the government will be introducing a new £500-a-week cap on benefits from next April.

Although the benefits cap does not apply to those claiming some disability benefits, including disability living allowance – which itself will see the number of claimants cut by 20 per cent – many disabled people with lower support needs will still be affected.

Pye said many could be evicted from their adapted homes and forced to move to new, cheaper parts of the country, and will then have to apply for DFGs “all over again”.

Many disabled people will also be hit by the new “bedroom tax”, which will see housing benefit cut for those with spare bedrooms, with many also affected by another new policy, with councils no longer forced to give lifetime tenancies to those found homes after being on their housing waiting-lists. Most London councils are now only awarding two or five-year tenancies, said Pye.

And from next year, those living with a parent in council housing – including disabled people in adapted, accessible homes – will no longer be awarded a tenancy automatically when that parent dies.

She said: “If you put all these together it does become a perfect storm. It will make life very difficult for many disabled people. Many disabled people will lose their homes and we will need a significant increase in the DFG budget to deal with this.”

Henrietta Doyle, Inclusion London’s policy officer, said the benefit cap and the bedroom tax were “really going to hit disabled people in London who aren’t covered by the exemption”.

She said many disabled people would lose the support network of friends, family and neighbours they had built up if they were forced to move to cheaper areas, with the subsequent costs simply passed on to social services.

Doyle said many disabled people could have to give up their job if they were forced to move too far from their place of work.

Mick Hutchins, public affairs officer for the Spinal Injuries Association, and a member of a local access panel in west Berkshire, said a recent meeting of the panel had discussed about 50 planning applications, while not one of the proposed homes was wheelchair-accessible.

He said: “The government are forcing councils to build so many houses. Councils have their hands tied to let developers do what they want so they can meet their quotas.”

21 November 2012

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