Experts fear ‘red tape’ review is threat to accessible housing

Experts fear vital accessibility standards could be under threat because of a government assault on housing red tape.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat communities minister, commissioned the review of building regulations and housing standards two months ago, and pledged that “essential safety and accessibility protections” would “remain untouched”.

But the Access Association has since written to Foster to express alarm that the accessibility and inclusive design industry was not represented among the 16 organisations chosen to offer advice on the review, part of the government’s controversial “Red Tape Challenge”.

And it has also grown concerned at the “level of hostility” around the review towards access standards and how they are supposedly “hindering house-building”.

The association pointed to comments by one of the four leading industry figures appointed to oversee the review, who was reported to have said that Lifetime Homes standards – key features that should be included in the design of accessible and adaptable housing – were “hindering housing construction”.

Sarah Rennie, president of the Access Association, said: “We are disappointed not to be formally involved in the review because it would have allowed us the opportunity to ensure that proper consideration – rather than ‘lip service’ – is being paid to vital access issues.”

She said the review “must firmly value inclusive design and social inclusion, rather than frame it as a perceived barrier to profit”.

She said: “We have not seen any evidence that access standards are hindering house-building and are concerned about the level of hostility apparent from the way in which they are being presented as the debate moves forward.”

Rennie said the Access Association would “not support any measures which have been motivated solely by a desire to cut perceived ‘red tape’”.

Foster said at the launch of the review in late October: “I want to see a simpler set of housing standards that people can easily understand and that free up developers and councils to get on with the job of building the high-quality new homes we so badly need to get more first-time buyers and families onto the housing ladder.”

Although the Access Association has not been asked to join the review, Rennie said it would be meeting in February with a civil servant from Foster’s Communities and Local Government department to “share the value of our combined expertise in this area”.

The department has so far failed to comment on the concerns raised by the Access Association.

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IPC decision gives athletes a chance to repeat their London 2012 exploits in 2017

Britain’s track and field Paralympians will have the chance to recreate this summer’s golden exploits, after the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) announced that London would host the 2017 IPC World Athletics Championships in the Olympic Stadium.

The championships will be held in July 2017, just a month before the same venue hosts the mainstream IAAF World Athletics Championships. London will become the first city to host the two events in the same year.

Britain’s Paralympians were quick to celebrate the announcement on Twitter.

Aled Davies, who won discus gold and shot put bronze at London 2012, tweeted: “Just touched down in Singapore to hear amazing news! The IPC World Championships are in London 2017!!! Yes!!!!!!! We get to do it all again!”

Richard Whitehead, who won 200 metres gold in London, said: “2017 Athletics World Championships in London another great opportunity to see the world’s best athletes! See you all there! Who’s coming?”

And Stephen Miller, who jointly captained the British athletics team in London in his fifth Paralympic Games, added: “In 4 years I may get to have another go in the London Olympic stadium – IPC World Athletics Championships – does #teammiller fancy a day trip?”

London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, said the capital was now “poised to recreate the magic of 2012”.

He added: “London’s Paralympic Games were the first ever to sell out, and these championships provide a perfect chance to build on that enthusiasm for disabled sport, bringing back the world’s greatest Paralympians to the Olympic Stadium, and at the same time providing a major economic boost to the capital.”

The event will be organised by the Greater London Authority, partnering with UK Athletics, ParalympicsGB, Newham council, the London Legacy Development Corporation and the University of East London.

Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of the British Paralympic Association, said: “The British public packed the stadium to the rafters for every session during the London 2012 Paralympics and it was the scene for many of the great British moments of the summer.

“It’s fantastic news that it will be the stage for this event in 2017 and we’re sure that the public appetite will be even stronger after the Rio Games.”

The announcement came only two days after a trio of Paralympians appeared in the 12-strong shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

David Weir, Ellie Simmonds and Sarah Storey failed to feature in the top three after the public voting, but members of ParalympicsGB were recognised with three awards.

The ParalympicsGB team – which secured 34 gold, 43 silver and 43 bronze medals at London 2012 – shared the team of the year award with Team GB, Britain’s Olympic squad.

Teenage Paralympic swimming star Josef Craig, who won 400 metres freestyle gold in London, won the Young Sports Personality of the Year award. He was following in the steps of his team-mate Ellie Simmonds, who won the award in 2008.

And Martine Wright, a survivor of the 2005 London bombings, and a member of the sitting volleyball team that was told it had failed to secure any UK Sport funding just two days later, won the BBC Helen Rollason Award for “outstanding achievement in the face of adversity”.

She said it was an “absolute honour” to collect the award, and added: “I do count myself lucky that I survived that awful day, and I count myself lucky that I’ve made an incredible journey the last seven years.”

The award has previously been given to a number of sporting figures with experience of impairment or health conditions, including Oscar Pistorius, Alastair Hignell, Frank Williams and Bob Champion.

London 2012 council bans disabled actors from performing Atos play

A council has been accused of “censorship” after banning disabled actors from performing a play that highlights the harm caused by the government’s much-criticised “fitness for work” contractor Atos Healthcare.

The play was to be performed as part of a Christmas celebration for over-50s in the east London borough of Newham, one of the host councils for London 2012, which was itself sponsored by Atos.

Further questions about the council’s motives were raised when the announcement that the Olympic Stadium – in Newham – would be hosting the 2017 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships was made on the day the play was due to be performed.

Sir Robin Wales, Newham’s mayor, said that hosting the championships would “underline our commitment to enhancing opportunities for people with disabilities”.

His council had claimed that the play was “not sufficiently entertaining or festive” to be performed for the audience of over-50s.

The Act Up! Newham Community Performance Group was due to perform a shortened version of Atos Stories, a play written by two activists – one of them disabled – and based on the experiences of disabled people who have been assessed by Atos.

The group – most of whom are disabled people – now plan to perform the full-length play for the first time early next year.

The play was to have been part of the line-up at Newham council’s Over 50s Celebration at Stratford town hall yesterday (19 December).

The council had asked Act Up! to perform several months ago, in exchange for providing free rehearsal space.

But just two days before the event was due to take place, the council told Act Up! – Newham’s only inclusive theatre group – that it was cancelling the performance.

Members of the group were “shocked and outraged” at the council’s decision and held a protest outside the event, handing out leaflets to members of the audience as they arrived.

Yvonne Brouwers, chair of Act Up!, who has directed and produced the play, accused the council of “censorship”, and added: “It’s a wonderful play. It is about social justice. What is wrong with that?”

She pointed to the Christmas stories of Charles Dickens, including A Christmas Carol, which discussed issues of social justice.

In a statement, Act Up! added: “We all felt that the council’s argument that the play was ‘too political and not festive enough for the over 50s event’ did not make sense.

“Many Christmas stories are political and it is patronising of the council to decide for themselves what ‘over 50s’ would enjoy.

“We believed that they cancelled the play because of the subject matter, as it is about disabled people’s struggles against Atos and the work capability assessment.”

A council officer had emailed Brouwers to say that the council was “not satisfied that the performance will be sufficiently entertaining or festive for a group of older people celebrating Christmas”.

She claimed council officers had “requested details of the proposed performance for logistical reasons”.

Brouwers said she had refused a request to show the council the script, but had assured them there was “no chance” the play would run over the 30 minutes allocated to them, and that the group had been “working really hard in order to make the play as entertaining as possible for the event”.

A member of the Atos Stories Collective wrote on its blog that the group was “shocked” by the cancellation of the performance, and added: “We wrote Atos Stories because we were mad at Atos.

“We wanted people with disabilities and without to have [a] vehicle to challenge the work capability assessment in a creative and dramatic way. We thought Atos might stop that from happening. We never thought a local council would.”

Ju Gosling, director of the Together! 2012 disability arts festival, which was based in Newham, said the council’s reaction had been “ridiculous” and “Scrooge-like in the extreme”, and added: “It is hard to believe that it is not connected with the fact that Atos was a Games sponsor.”

She said: “It is extremely disappointing that in the year of the Paralympics and the Together! festival, something like this should have happened.

“Social justice absolutely underpins Christian belief and some of our most famous festive works – such as A Christmas Carol – are very much about social justice.”

She said Together! would be working with Act Up! to find it a venue to perform the play in Newham in the new year.

A Newham council spokesman denied that the decision to cancel the Act Up! performance was linked to the IPC’s 2017 announcement.

He said Act Up! had been “asked to provide details of their proposed performance but this was not forthcoming”.

He said: “We do not consider political satire or potentially distressing material to be in keeping with the theme or tone of this event.

“Officers have therefore decided to cancel this element of what will be a festive and light-hearted event.”

He said the council had “worked well in the past” with Act Up! and “would hope to do so again”.

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Survivors say government’s £80m grant ‘is huge relief to thalidomiders’

Thalidomide survivors have welcomed a 10-year, £80 million government grant that will help fund the increasing support needs they face as they grow older.

The grant will enable additional financial support for England’s 325 surviving “thalidomiders”, who have impairments caused by the drug being taken by their mothers during pregnancy between 1958 and 1961.

It will pay for the cost of support such as personal assistants, adaptations to homes and vehicles, and wheelchairs, and will be administered by the Thalidomide Trust, which manages the compensation paid by the firm that marketed thalidomide in the UK.

EDRIC, a Europe-wide group set up by thalidomide survivors – which runs the DysNet online community on dealing with limb loss and deficiency – welcomed the announcement.

Geoff Adams-Spink, EDRIC’s chair, said: “This news comes as a huge relief to myself and the several hundred other survivors in England who have to cope every day with the damage caused to us by thalidomide.

“It’s a sad fact that many affected have not lived to see this day but those who have are in our sixth decade [and] are facing increasing costs to help us stay as healthy and independent as possible.”

He added: “The effects of thalidomide aren’t just what you can see such as shortened arms or legs, but there is also often damage to internal organs, vision and hearing and, as we age, an increasing loss of the mobility we do have.”

The funding was first piloted in 2010 with a three-year grant of £20 million. Weeks after that grant was announced, the government finally expressed its “sincere regret and deep sympathy” for the “injury and suffering” caused by thalidomide.

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat care services minister, this week repeated that expression of “deep sympathy”.

He added: “This deal represents our clear acknowledgment that thalidomiders should be supported and helped to live as independent lives as possible, and we hope that this grant will aid that cause and provide an element of long term financial security.”

The new funding only affects those survivors living in England.  Scotland has announced a 10-year grant of £14.2 million to help its 58 known thalidomiders, while Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to make announcements in the next few days.

The Department of Health said the Thalidomide Trust would produce an annual report detailing how the money was being used, including how it was “reducing loss of independence and preventing or delaying further damage to health, mobility, and well-being”.

Martin Johnson, director of the trust, said: “We are receiving many emails from beneficiaries saying how this will now enable them to plan various ways of developing their personal support to remain independent.

“I believe the news will help many to relax and get on with their lives without the anxiety that has been plaguing them up until now.”

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ILF closure is ‘new nail in the coffin’ of independent living

The government has confirmed it is to close the Independent Living Fund (ILF) in April 2015, and has admitted the decision will have a “potential negative impact” on disabled people supported by the fund.

Outraged campaigners say the move comes despite “overwhelming opposition” from disabled people and their families.

The closure of ILF will see funding passed to local authorities and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but that money will not be ring-fenced.

Local authorities will then have “sole responsibility for meeting the eligible care and support needs of current ILF users” in England, while the devolved administrations will decide how to support those within their own care and support systems.

But the government has admitted – in its response to a consultation on the plans – that ILF users “may face reductions or alterations in their care package due to the reform”.

Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, said the government believed that “the needs of current users could be met in a more consistent and effective way within a single cohesive system”.

Local authorities have already stated that when ILF-users transfer into the local authority system in 2015, the pot of money they are awarded by their council to meet their support costs will probably be lower than they currently receive, with some forced to rely on relatives or charities.

The Department for Work and Pensions admitted that a “significant majority” of individuals who responded to the consultation were opposed to closure, although “a significant minority said they would be happy with local authorities taking control of the funding if it could be guaranteed that their care packages would remain the same”.

Most local authorities “expressed strong support” for the closure, according to the government.

But many activists believe the plans to close ILF – a government-funded trust which helps about 19,100 disabled people with the highest support needs – threaten disabled people’s right to independent living.

They say the government has offered no details on how councils would be able to meet the extra costs of people with high support needs who previously received ILF money, most of whom also receive both ILF and council funding.

Anne Pridmore, a leading disabled activist and one of the ILF-users taking legal action over the way the government consulted on scrapping the fund, said the government’s decision was “no great surprise”.

But she said the move would be “devastating” to her and others, and she pointed out that if it were implemented she would be unable to continue to take part in the many government consultation events she attends.

She said: “I will be able to do none of that in the future if I am relegated to an old people’s home, which seems to be the case.”

In a joint statement, Inclusion London and Disabled People Against Cuts said the confirmation of the closure had left disabled people with the highest support needs “in fear and distress”.

One ILF-user, Jenny Hurst, said she received a package of just four hours support a day before she was referred to the fund, “one hour for getting me up/showered and breakfasted, one hour for housework and lunch, one hour for supper and an hour to do the ‘put to bed’.

“In between times I couldn’t get a drink or use the toilet – let alone do anything meaningful with my life.”

With ILF support she has been able to go to university, secure a full-time job and become a charity trustee.

Kevin Caulfield, chair of Hammersmith and Fulham Coalition against Community Care Cuts, another ILF-user, said: “The announcement of the closure of the ILF is yet another nail in the coffin of the increasing numbers of disabled people being discarded into isolation, social exclusion, deteriorating health and premature death.

“This is more evidence that we are so far from being all in this together.”

Disability Rights UK said the decision to close ILF risked a return to “obligatory residential care home placements”.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “We are extremely concerned that the government is now adding to the enormous pressure on local authorities, disabled people and carers without taking steps to resolve the funding crisis.”

But one leading disabled activist – and ILF-user – has backed the decision to close ILF.

Simon Stevens, a disability consultant and trainer, said: “On paper it is the right move as it removes repetition, but the challenge is building a framework in the new arrangements that will stand the test of time.

“It’s what happens in 2018 and beyond we need to worry about when councils have full control.”

ILF will publish a “transition plan” early in 2013 describing “how users will be supported over the next two years in preparation for the transfer”.

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Martinez brings star quality to fresh assault on coalition’s ‘war on welfare’

Activists are hoping that a new petition – backed by a campaigning disabled comedian – could finally force the government to assess the overall impact of its programme of cuts and reforms to disability benefits and services.

The WOW (war on welfare) petition – which also calls for a free vote for MPs on repealing the Welfare Reform Act – was only launched on Tuesday this week, but by Thursday had already secured more than 5,000 names.

The launch on Twitter was fronted by disabled comedian Francesca Martinez, who has been prominent in speaking out against the cuts and has put her name to the petition.

The WOW petition is the latest attempt to shame the coalition into commissioning an assessment of the cumulative impact of its cuts on disabled people.

Its name and contents were “crowd-sourced” on Twitter by campaigners who wanted to continue the work of Pat’s Petition – fronted by the disabled activist Pat Onions – which secured 63,000 signatures, nearly 40,000 short of the 100,000 needed in one year to be considered for a Commons debate.

Among other demands, the WOW petition calls for an “immediate end” to the much-criticised work capability assessment – which tests eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit – and to the use of mandatory “workfare” schemes for some ESA claimants.

The WOW campaigners also want to see an independent inquiry into the impact of the coalition’s welfare reforms on disabled people.

Martinez told Disability News Service that she was “proud to be backing such an important cause”.

She said: “As a disabled person in the media, I want to help give this issue a voice. It’s morally wrong for the government to target those in need instead of saving money by targeting the real causes of this crisis – and close tax loopholes and regulate the financial sector. To me, it’s a human rights issue.”

Martinez said it was “a scary time”, and added: “I’ve read stories of people committing suicides because of losing their benefits and many more people will die as a result of these cuts.

“Ironically, while stating that they want to help disabled people work, the government are actually taking away their independence and making it harder for people to lead fulfilling and productive lives.

“Disabled people have much to offer society but life for many will become about basic survival – and, in one of the richest countries in the world, that is unacceptable.”

She said that, once the 100,000 milestone had been reached, there would be a campaign of lobbying and “other activities” directed at MPs and the media.

She added: “We absolutely understand the need to pressure and cajole our elected representatives and the fact that power is rarely given means it has to be taken.

“We will take the steps necessary to gain justice and restoration of our human rights which this coalition have been abusing.”

Ian Jones, one of the many disabled activists behind the petition, added: “We wanted to reinforce Pat’s message, the point that disabled people everywhere are feeling marginalised, feeling that people aren’t listening to us and feeling that it is not fair.”

Another of the activists said: “The reality is starting to hit home. If we don’t help ourselves, who will help us?”

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MP provides prime minister with proof of the fatal impact of welfare cuts

An MP who confronted the prime minister with a suicide note written by a disabled man who killed himself after being found “fit for work” has warned that other such tragedies are likely.

Ian Lavery, the Labour MP for Wansbeck in Northumberland, told David Cameron during prime minister’s questions this week that the note had been written by a constituent who killed himself after his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) was turned down.

Lavery then joined those who have called on the government to conduct an assessment of the combined impact on disabled people of all of its cuts and welfare reforms.

Cameron said he would “look very carefully at the very tragic case” but then claimed that “the actual money that we are putting into disability benefits over the coming years is going up, not down”.

He said: “I think that everybody knows and accepts that we need to have a review of disability benefits.

“Some people have been stuck on these benefits and not been reviewed for year after year after year. That is the view of the disability charities and it is the view of the government as well.”

The case adds further weight to the arguments of campaigners who have been trying to alert politicians to the deaths of disabled people they say have taken their own lives as a result of the harshness and unfairness of the ESA system, and other welfare cuts.

Lavery told Disability News Service (DNS) that he agreed with disabled activists that his constituent’s suicide was probably not a one-off.

He said: “We will never ever get the data of how many people have committed suicide because of [cuts to] benefits.”

He said he feared people like his constituent “cannot see a future” and are “having things stripped from them and having to go through a test every year and be humiliated in front of people who are not even qualified. It is just a desperate situation.”

He said that the note – which he was handed at his constituency surgery on Friday – was written by a 54-year-old man who had been tested for his eligibility for ESA through the notorious work capability assessment (WCA).

He had killed himself after receiving a letter saying that he had scored zero points in the assessment and so would not be entitled to ESA.

Lavery was not able to discuss the man’s case in detail – although the man’s family gave him permission to raise it in parliament – but he told DNS: “Disabled people are being led to believe that they are scroungers and being led to believe by the government that they should not have benefits. It is an absolute disgrace.

“I had a gentleman claiming ESA and he said he wasn’t even going to appeal [against having his ESA removed] because he was too embarrassed.”

He warned that many disabled people were now too embarrassed to claim disability benefits because they felt “stigmatised”.

He added: “We are seeing more people [in the surgery] on a weekly basis who have got mental health problems, and it is frightening – a lot of these people are on benefits and a lot of them are going to be losing their benefits, and goodness knows how they are going [to cope].”

And he warned that most benefit claimants were still not aware of the impact of the further cuts and reforms that will be implemented in April 2013.

Lavery said he wanted to think during the Christmas period about how he could campaign in parliament on behalf of disabled people facing cuts to their benefits and services.

He added: “I just think we have got to do something.”

Karon Cook, chair and founder of Wansbeck Disability Forum, who herself faces a WCA in 2013, said there were disabled people who now “have to decide whether they have the money to keep their homes warm or they get cold and have something to eat”.

She praised Lavery for the support he had given the forum, and said: “It’s heart-breaking. I have been campaigning with other organisations to raise awareness.

“We try to be so confident in talking to people and try to show them a little light [at the end of the tunnel] but it is getting harder and harder and people don’t know who to turn to.

“When April comes next year, I can see a lot more suicides, I really can, and a lot more homelessness.”

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