Tory peerage for equality watchdog’s disability chair

The chair of the equality watchdog’s disability committee is to be made a Conservative peer, an announcement that appears to have divided leading disabled figures.

Some fear that Chris Holmes, a multi-gold-medal winning Paralympian, lawyer, and director of Paralympic integration at London 2012, will find it difficult to maintain his independence as the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) disability commissioner.

But others have welcomed the decision to appoint another disabled person to the Lords, with Holmes joining 29 other new “working peers” selected by his party, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Green party.

His appointment came only days after the EHRC decided to scrap the statutory disability committee  he chairs and replace it with a less powerful advisory group.

One prominent disabled activist warned that the decision to make Holmes a Conservative peer would put his work and that of the committee under the microscope.

He said: “It will be more important than ever for the committee to be seen to be championing disabled people’s equality and human rights, to avoid being accused of being too close to the government.”

But Kirsten Hearn, a Labour party member and vice-chair of the disability committee, said she believed it would be “helpful” to have Holmes in the Lords.

She said he was “very committed to disability equality and disability rights” and was “a man with principles”.

She added: “I am hoping he is going to speak up for the rights of disabled people and work closely with other disabled peers like Tanni Grey-Thompson, Jane Campbell and Colin Low.

“I hope he will bring a positive voice for disabled people in the Lords, in partnership with other prominent disabled peers, to try and negate the damage being done by the government to disabled people, and if possible to champion our rights.

“That’s what I look forward to him doing. The fact that he is going to be an active Tory may or may not allow him to do that.”

She added: “I think that it might be interesting for disabled people’s organisations and others to have a fairly early conversation with him about what he could do to influence government thinking about disability issues.”

Sir Bert Massie, who chaired the Disability Rights Commission and is a former EHRC commissioner, was also complimentary about Holmes’s personal qualities.

He said Holmes was “a nice guy, intelligent, he’s got charm, he’s got wit”, and would make “quite a good member of the House of Lords”.

But he said he personally would not have chosen him, because of the impact on his independence as chair of the disability committee.

Sir Bert, a Labour party member, said: “When I was holding public positions, I never aligned myself to any political party.”

He said it would be difficult for Holmes as a disabled person to support a government “who have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to disability issues”.

But he added: “As a new and working peer it makes it difficult to be independent. If he comes out and says that a government policy is a load of rubbish, he might get leaned on.

“Chris is not a crossbencher so he doesn’t have the freedom to speak out. It’s unrealistic to think he is going to be there to serve disabled people.

“He’s a tough guy, he will cope with it, but it does make life difficult, providing you think the equality commission is any use and is not just a fig leaf so the government can say they are doing something on equality.”

He also said he regretted that the 30 new peers were all party political appointments, and so had ignored “so many other people who could make a good contribution on disability and other issues and would be excellent advocates for disabled people” in the Lords.

Mike Smith, Holmes’s immediate predecessor as chair of the disability committee, declined to comment on the announcement.

The EHRC also said it would not comment on the peerage because it was a “party political appointment and does not involve the commission”.

News provided by John Pring at http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com

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DWP made ‘cynical attempt’ to hide true intentions over PIP eligibility

A disabled activist has accused the government of a “cynical attempt” to hide its intention to tighten eligibility for support for people with the highest mobility needs.

Jane Young, coordinator of the WeAreSpartacus online network of disabled campaigners, spoke out after the government failed yet again to deliver clarity over changes to crucial assessment criteria for its planned new benefit.

Last month, the government published the criteria that will decide eligibility for personal independence payment (PIP), the replacement for working-age disability living allowance (DLA).

Previous drafts of the PIP eligibility criteria stated that a claimant who could not walk “up to” 50 metres without using a self-propelled wheelchair would be entitled to the enhanced rate of the mobility component of PIP, making them eligible to lease a Motability vehicle.

But last month’s final assessment criteria states that a PIP claimant will be eligible for the enhanced rate if they “can stand and then move more than one metre but no more than 20 metres, either aided or unaided”.

Leading disabled figures were horrified at this change to the “descriptors”, with Sir Bert Massie, who chaired the former Disability Rights Commission, describing the change as “extremely disturbing” and “draconian”.

Young said it had “seemed obvious to everyone, despite DWP’s insistence that the change is merely a clarification”, that the move from 50 metres to 20 metres was a significant tightening of the criteria.

But she believes that case studies included in the consultation on its draft criteria, published early last year, showed the government never intended – despite the impression it had given – that claimants who could not walk at least 50 metres would be entitled to the enhanced rate.

When she challenged a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) official last April about the discrepancy between the case studies and the descriptors, she was told the case studies were just provided “to make people think”.

Young said: “I responded that they merely served to frighten people… and it’s now clear our fears were entirely justified.”

She believes the government never wanted all claimants unable to walk 50 metres to be entitled to the PIP enhanced mobility rate, and that DWP used the phrase “up to” to disguise its true intentions.

She said: “This use of words to mislead is a cynical attempt to hide the government’s true intent: to remove previously secure mobility support for many thousands of physically disabled people who need it, with little regard for our well-being or for the wider impact on our families, our communities, public services and the economy.”

This week, DWP failed again to explain how a move from 50 metres to 20 metres could not mean a tightening of the eligibility criteria, particularly when the changes announced last month would see 51,000 fewer people eligible for the enhanced mobility rate by 2018.

A DWP spokesman said they had only “clarified” the rules, and that the change in that part of the descriptors would see the number of people eligible for the enhanced rate remaining “broadly the same… showing that the inclusion of the 20 metre measure is not a tightening”.

An analysis of responses to the government’s consultation by WeAreSpartacus has also revealed that only one of 173 organisations suggested the distance should be lowered.

The DWP has so far declined to respond to this claim.

This week, WeAreSpartacus produced its new Emergency Stop report, co-authored by Young, which looks at the impact of the government’s plans – through its DLA reforms – to cut the number of people eligible for the highest rate of mobility support by more than 400,000 by 2018.

Emergency Stop looks again at the potential loss to the economy caused by the reduction in the number of people eligible for the Motability car scheme, updating its earlier report, Reversing from Recovery: The Hidden Costs of Welfare Reform, to take account of the new, tighter eligibility criteria.

Under PIP, the government says there will be 428,000 fewer people who will qualify for the enhanced mobility rate and be eligible for the Motability scheme by 2018 than if the DLA reforms had not taken place.

The report estimates that these cuts could lead to 160,000 fewer Motability vehicles on the roads by 2018, and nearly 6,000 fewer jobs in Motability-related industries.

It concludes: “The conservative estimate is a combined loss of up to £1 billion of annual GDP plus a loss of tax revenues and increased costs to the public sector, once PIP is fully implemented in 2018.”

And it suggests that extending the PIP enhanced mobility rate to the 428,000 currently set to lose out would cost just under £1 billion a year.

17 January 2013

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Government silent on ‘draconian’ PIP mobility plans

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has refused to admit that it plans to tighten eligibility for support for people with the highest mobility needs, despite proof in its own documents.

Last month, DWP published the final assessment criteria that will decide eligibility for the new personal independence payment (PIP), the replacement for working-age disability living allowance (DLA).

The documents showed the government has tightened eligibility for the top – “enhanced” – rate of the mobility component of PIP.

Previous drafts of the criteria stated that a claimant who could not walk at least 50 metres would be entitled to the enhanced rate, making them eligible to lease a Motability vehicle. But this has now been slashed to just 20 metres.

Sir Bert Massie, who chaired the former Disability Rights Commission, has described the change as “extremely disturbing” and “draconian”, while Helen Dolphin, of Disabled Motoring UK said the “last minute” changes were “pretty outrageous”.

Jane Young, coordinator of the WeAreSpartacus network, has described how she and fellow campaigners were “shocked and stunned” when they saw the final PIP criteria and realised how many more people would lose the cars they lease through the Motability scheme.

These and other changes will – by 2015 – see 20,000 fewer disabled people eligible for the enhanced rate than under the previous version of the PIP regulations, with this gap rising to 51,000 by 2018.

But DWP insisted last month that it was merely “clarifying” the regulations and that the number of people receiving the enhanced rate as a result of the change from 50 metres to 20 metres will remain “broadly the same”.

When Disability News Service attempted this week to confirm the impact of the changes, DWP refused to add to its original statements.

A DWP press officer said: “You have put your point-of-view forward and we have put ours. It is for those organisations and the public to make up their minds.”

He refused to comment further on the new criteria.

10 January 2013

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

DWP lies to cover its tracks on mobility cuts

The government is facing mounting outrage after planning to restrict eligibility for support for people with the highest mobility needs, without any warning or consultation – and then lying about what it had done.

Anger has been growing following last week’s publication of the final assessment criteria that will decide eligibility for the new personal independence payment (PIP), the replacement for working-age disability living allowance (DLA).

Campaigners have now realised that the documents show the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) wants to tighten eligibility for the top – “enhanced” – rate of the mobility component of PIP.

The changes will – by 2015 – see 20,000 fewer people eligible for the enhanced rate than under the previous version of the PIP regulations, with this gap rising to 51,000 by 2018.

Previous drafts stated that a claimant who could not walk at least 50 metres would be entitled to the enhanced rate, making them eligible to lease a Motability vehicle. But this has now been slashed to just 20 metres.

There was no mention of the alteration in the Commons statement made last week by Esther McVey, the minister for disabled people, or in any of the government’s consultations on DLA reform.

There was some better news within the new criteria, with the government estimating that changes it had made to its draft plans – including the addition of a new “reading” activity – would see an increase in the number of people eligible for the daily living part of PIP.

Sir Bert Massie, who chaired the former Disability Rights Commission, said the alteration to 20 metres was “extremely disturbing” and “draconian”, while he said there had been “no discussion, no forewarning” from the government about the change.

He added: “Esther McVey says there has been consultation with disability groups. I would like to see details of every disability group that has called on the government to reduce the limit from 50 metres to 20 metres. I think it would be a very short list.

“We trust ministers to be accurate and truthful. I can’t reconcile their statements with the [new] regulations.”

He has already spoken to one disabled person who works for a government department, and can walk 20 but not 50 metres, and predicts he will now lose his Motability vehicle and be forced to take early retirement.

Helen Dolphin, director of policy and campaigns for Disabled Motoring UK, said it was “pretty outrageous” for the government to introduce changes “at the last minute” which had not been consulted on.

She said: “Our charity responded to all three consultations and at no point did it say 20 metres.

“The goalposts have been moved so far it seems the only people they want to get the benefit are wheelchair-users, but they aren’t the only people with severe mobility problems.”

Jane Young, coordinator of the WeAreSpartacus network, which has played a prominent role in analysing the impact of government cuts on disabled people, said she and fellow campaigners were “shocked and stunned” when they read the final PIP criteria and saw the change from 50 to 20 metres and realised how many people would lose vehicles they currently lease through the Motability scheme.

Young added: “With no car, they will be unable to go to work, get to the doctor’s, go shopping, take their kids to school or have any kind of social life.

“They will become isolated, their health will deteriorate and there will be significant demands on other public services, particularly health and social care.”

In the light of the new figures, WeAreSpartacus will now be revising its Reversing from Recovery report, which earlier this year calculated a likely 17 per cent reduction in the number of disabled people eligible for a Motability vehicle as a result of the move from DLA to PIP.

But despite the government’s own documents showing the number of people eligible for the enhanced mobility rate dropping by 51,000 by 2018, a DWP spokeswoman claimed: “It is not a tightening of the assessment – our modelling shows that, after this change, the number of people receiving the enhanced rate of the mobility component as a result of the ‘Moving around’ activity will be broadly the same.”

She added: “The intention of the criteria remains the same – to make sure support is targeted at those who need it most, by making sure those who receive the enhanced rate of the mobility component are those who face the greatest barriers to mobility.”

Despite Disability News Service then emailing her links to the relevant sections in her department’s own documents, she replied: “I’ve discussed with colleagues again and there’s nothing more to add to what I’ve explained below about the change you’ve outlined.”

The government documents also reveal that the number of people receiving PIP will be 608,000 lower by May 2018 – a drop of 28 per cent – than the number (2.182 million) who would have been receiving DLA without the government’s cuts and reforms.

The number eligible for the PIP enhanced mobility rate in 2018 will be 602,000, compared with 1.03 million on the upper mobility rate if DLA had not been reformed.

And by 2018, more than half a million current DLA claimants will have had their award decreased after being reassessed, while another 450,000 disabled people will lose their benefit completely in the transition from DLA to PIP.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Coalition packs equality duty review with friendly faces

The panel set up to review a vital piece of equality legislation has been packed with Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians, adding to fears of a new government assault on disabled people’s protection from discrimination.

The government also appears to have failed to include any disabled equality experts on the 11-strong review panel.

The review of the public sector equality duty (PSED) was announced by the government in May this year when it published the equalities section of its “red tape challenge”, which is looking at the “bureaucratic burdens” of legislation on business.

Leading disability rights figures have been warning that key parts of the country’s equality legislation are under threat from the government, and even fear that the coalition wants to scrap the PSED altogether.

The PSED forces public bodies – such as councils and government departments – to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination when forming policies.

The new review panel, expected to report in April 2013, is being chaired by the former Tory MP Rob Hayward, a former board member of the gay rights organisation Stonewall, who is joined by three Liberal Democrat and Tory local politicians, and Dr Munira Mirza, deputy mayor for education and culture for the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

Another member is Rachel de Souza, the head of a high-performing academy school in Norfolk, who won praise from right-wing commentators by bringing in former members of the armed services to keep her school open in November 2011 when teachers were striking over their pensions.

De Souza was also one of four school leaders invited to Downing Street for a meeting with David Cameron and his education secretary Michael Gove in January.

There are two senior civil servants on the panel, Jonathan Rees, the director general of the Government Equalities Office, and Charlie Pate, a senior Treasury official.

The other three members are Stephen Otter, the former chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police; Paula Vasco-Knight, the chief executive of an NHS trust and national equality lead for the NHS Commissioning Board; and Baroness O’Neill, recently appointed by the government to chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Last month, David Cameron, the prime minister, claimed judicial reviews, public consultations and equality impact assessments (EIAs) were slowing the pace of government reforms, and announced that he was “calling time” on EIAs and “all this extra tick-box stuff”.

His comments led Sir Bert Massie, who chaired the former Disability Rights Commission, to warn that the PSED, the Equality Act and the whole equality agenda were “under threat”.

As well as the equality duty review, which has been brought forward from 2015, the government has already slashed the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and delayed the implementation of discrimination laws that were due to be introduced as part of the Equality Act.

A Government Equalities Office spokeswoman said the steering group was “not intended to be a politically representative body” but that its members had been appointed “because of their experience across the breadth of the public sector”.

She added: “We will not pre-judge the outcome of the review. We are determined to explore the issues rigorously.”

Asked why there appeared to be no disabled person on the panel, she said: “We have not sought detailed information about individual members’ protected characteristics.

“This is because members were selected because of their experience of the public sector, not because of particular protected characteristics.”

The announcement came as a government report found strong support among businesses for equality laws that prevent discrimination in areas such as recruitment and promotion, although two-thirds of those surveyed admitted knowing nothing about the contents of the Equality Act.

The employers – mostly small and medium-sized businesses – were nearly all supportive of laws that would ban selecting an employee for redundancy on the basis of their sexual orientation (90 per cent), and refusing to promote a woman because her husband practised a particular faith (90 per cent).

But they were less supportive of laws that would prevent an employer refusing promotion to a disabled employee because they had taken a lot of sick leave in the previous year (56 per cent).

The EHRC said the report showed that most businesses “support equality in the workplace as a benefit rather than a bureaucratic burden”.

More than 1,800 businesses across England, Scotland and Wales were surveyed between November 2011 and January 2012.

6 December 2012

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

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Conservative conference: McVey creates impression by listening, not ignoring

The new minister for disabled people has laid out three ways in which she hopes to support more disabled people into employment, less than a month into her new job.

In one of her first appearances as a minister, the Conservative MP Esther McVey told a fringe meeting at her party’s annual conference in Birmingham that she hoped to use her previous experience as a businesswoman to help her in her new role.

She said that one of her priorities would be to work on a scheme to enable people with chronic ill-health to work flexibly from their own homes, an idea suggested by disabled activist and blogger Kaliya Franklin at a meeting at the conference with McVey and work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

Franklin is working with fellow blogger and activist Sue Marsh and other campaigners to persuade political figures to make the benefits system more open to people with fluctuating conditions who want to run “micro-businesses”.

They want the government to create opportunities for such people to work flexibly for as many or as few hours every month as they can manage.

McVey said that, with the coalition already halfway through its five-year term, she had wanted to find policies with a “practical application”, and suggested a pilot scheme could begin by Christmas.

Franklin said after the meeting that she was encouraged by the new minister’s reaction to their ideas, and her grasp of detail, and hoped that it showed the coalition was finally starting to listen to disabled people’s concerns.

Franklin said: “It’s not that I think she has got all the answers, but I do think she has engaged more in her first month than [Maria] Miller [her predecessor] did in two years.”

McVey also spoke at the fringe meeting – which focused on creating sustainable jobs for disabled people – of wanting to persuade the media, particularly television companies, to feature more disabled people.

She pointed to Channel 4’s Paralympic coverage this summer, but said that this “only opened a door where really we need to push forward”.

She also spoke briefly about another new scheme, set to launch on 3 December, the International Day of Disabled People, which aims to create more disabled role models.

Agnes Fletcher, who coordinates a network of disabled people in senior roles, and a former Disability Rights Commission director, told the fringe meeting that evidence showed having someone at a senior level in an organisation being “appropriately open about their disability” changed workplace attitudes.

But she said she was “very anxious” about the impact of the current “strivers, saints and scroungers” rhetoric from the government and media, and the impact this was having on public attitudes and on “employer attitudes about whether they want to employ disabled people”.

She suggested that companies that received public money could be forced to employ a certain “quota” of disabled people.

Rob Greig, formerly the government’s national director for learning disabilities and now chief executive of the National Development Team for inclusion (NDTi), told the fringe meeting that “attitudes and expectations” were the “major obstacle” to disabled people working.

He said there was “precious little evidence that volunteering helps people into real paid jobs”, and that an NDTi national survey had found more than two in five local authorities were cutting spending this year on supporting disabled people into employment.

He said: “Surely this is the point in time when we should be shifting spending from things like day services into employment support because that will reduce the dependency on public services.”

Wayne Henderson, a disabled Conservative party member from Surrey, called for much more to be done to take advantage of high-performing disabled role models such as Stephen Hawking and David Blunkett.

He also criticised the Department for Work and Pensions – McVey’s new department – for not employing enough disabled people.

11 October 2012

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com