IDS drops housing benefit appeal but claims: ‘This is no climb-down’

The government has withdrawn an appeal to the Supreme Court that – if successful – would have meant that families could no longer claim enough housing benefit to pay for separate bedrooms for disabled children with high support needs.

The decision by the Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith followed a week in which the prime minister had used the court ruling to try to show that his government was supporting disabled children, even though it was attempting to have the judgment overturned.

The Court of Appeal ruled last year that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had breached the Human Rights Act by stating that local authorities could not provide housing benefit for the extra bedrooms needed by four young disabled people living in private rented accommodation.

Duncan Smith had been seeking to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, but decided this week to withdraw his appeal.

Linda Burnip, whose son Ian is one of the four young people, said it was “very satisfying” that DWP had withdrawn its appeal, following a five-year legal battle.

She said: “This case reinforces disabled people’s right to not be discriminated against within the benefits system and also affirms their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

Her son’s lawyers, Irwin Mitchell, said the “landmark” Court of Appeal judgment clearly set out how to “ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against by the government’s benefit system”.

The decision to drop the appeal means the government’s controversial “bedroom tax” will now not apply when a disabled child with high support needs is unable to share a bedroom with a sibling for impairment-related reasons.

The bedroom tax – to be introduced on 1 April – will see benefits cut if a household in social housing is judged to have more bedrooms than they need.

DWP yesterday (Wednesday) issued new guidance for local authorities, which lays out how local authorities will decide if children should not have to share a bedroom, and will apply in both social housing and private rented accommodation.

Irwin Mitchell said it was “disappointed” that the guidance did not protect other disabled people, such as couples who are unable to share a bedroom, who will “continue to be discriminated against” by the bedroom tax.

Polly Sweeney, Ian Burnip’s solicitor, said: “We believe the government has not properly understood the serious impact of these changes on some of the most vulnerable people in society, and would urge them to think again.”

Despite the decision to drop the appeal, Duncan Smith claimed there had been “no climb-downs at all” by his department.

He told Channel 4 News: “These are adjustments already because of the court case over the severely disabled children for local housing allowance [housing benefit] so this is nothing to do with it. This is a reality. We simply put the guidance out there to say this reality exists.”

It is still unclear what impact the appeal decision will have on a different court case, an attempt by 10 individuals and families to seek a judicial review of the impact of the bedroom tax on disabled people.

Anne McMurdie, who represents three of the claimants – a disabled man with a mental health condition, the father of a disabled child who shares caring duties with the child’s mother, and a disabled woman cared for by a parent in a significantly-adapted property – said the government’s announcement was “not entirely clear in many respects as to how it will work and who is covered”.

McMurdie, from Public Law Solicitors in Birmingham, said the government had until the end of Monday (18 March) to produce its written response to the judicial review claims.

She said: “At that point we hope to have a clear picture about what concessions or exemptions apply in these cases and to whom and whether the regulations themselves will be amended. Once we have this info we can decide how to go forward.”

14 March 2013

ILF judicial review: DWP ‘misled public’ over local government support

ILF judicial review: DWP ‘misled public’ over local government support

Research by disabled activists suggests that the government misled MPs and the public about the level of support among local authorities for the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF).

The results of the research by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) have played a central role in this week’s judicial review of how the government responded to a consultation on its plans to close ILF in 2015.

Five ILF-users have been taking on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the high court, arguing that its consultation was unlawful and so its decision to close ILF – a government-funded trust which helps about 19,000 disabled people with the highest support needs – should be reversed.

Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, confirmed last year that ILF would close in April 2015, with non-ring-fenced funding passed to local authorities and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But there is overwhelming opposition to the closure among disabled people, with many believing that it threatens their right to independent living.

DPAC’s research saw councils asked – via Freedom of Information (FoI) Act requests – how they had responded to the consultation.

DWP claimed in its response to the consultation that “most councils… expressed strong support for the proposal in principle”, but DPAC says the FoI material shows that that was a “total misrepresentation”.

At least nine of about 80 councils that responded to the consultation in writing appear to have opposed the government’s plans, while many more expressed grave reservations.

The FoI material seems to show that only one of the local authorities agreed with the government that the funding should not be ring-fenced, while the vast majority told DWP it had not provided them with enough information to answer its consultation properly.

A significant number of the councils said they believed the government’s plans would result in disabled people ending up in residential care.

Aberdeen council, one of the councils that said it opposed closure, stated in its consultation response: “It is not an attractive proposition for local authorities when the impact on individuals is considered.”

Barking and Dagenham council told the government: “The consultation document appears to suggest that funding for individuals would not be maintained at current levels and this will have a devastating impact on individuals’ lives.”

And Conservative-run Hertfordshire County Council said: “No we do not agree with this proposal.”

It added: “Local authorities are having to apply eligibility criteria with increasing rigor and there is a fear that people’s funding will have to be reduced to the minimum amount required to ‘maintain’ their lives rather than supporting full and active lives, including support with employment.”

Another Conservative council, Cheshire West and Chester, also refused to back closing ILF and devolving the money to local authorities. It said that DWP’s consultation paper “leaves too many questions unanswered”.

The five claimants are asking the high court to quash the decision to close ILF. Judgment in the case has been reserved, and is expected within four weeks.

14 March 2013

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New DLA reform confusion after senior civil servant ‘contradicts McVey’

The government has again been accused of sending out misleading and confusing information about its disability living allowance (DLA) cuts and reforms, after a senior civil servant apparently contradicted the minister for disabled people.

Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) at a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) event had been anxious for clarity on eligibility for the new personal independence payment (PIP), which will gradually replace working-age DLA from April this year.

But contradictory comments from Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, who spoke at the event, and one of her own senior civil servants, have only added to the confusion.

In December, McVey shocked disabled activists and DLA claimants by announcing that the key walking distance criteria for PIP had been reduced from 50 metres to 20 metres.

The following month, she bowed to intense campaigning pressure and agreed that PIP claimants should only be assessed on what they could do “safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period”.

This should have meant that some people who could walk a little more than 20 metres could still claim the enhanced rate of PIP, and so still qualify for a Motability vehicle, and McVey confirmed this at last week’s PIP Delivery Update and Claimant Journey Teach-in.

But her comments were later apparently contradicted by a senior civil servant, when he agreed with a benefits expert from Disability Rights UK (DR UK) that current regulations only allow for this group of disabled people to receive the standard rate of PIP.

DR UK has now written to the minister, urging her to make the PIP position “legally clear”.

The letter, from DR UK chief executive Liz Sayce, says: “While we along with other DPOs welcome your clarification, the present wording of the Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) Regulations 2013 provides for those disabled people who cannot stand and move up to 50 metres safely, reliably, repeatedly or in a reasonable time period to be awarded only the standard (lowest) PIP mobility rate.

“This was acknowledged and confirmed to us by a senior DWP officer at the end of yesterday’s meeting.”

Sue Bott, DR UK’s director of development, said she feared the government intended that people who could walk a little more than 20 metres – even if they could not do it “safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period” – would only receive the lower PIP mobility rate.

She said the situation facing disabled people preparing for the move to PIP was now “very unclear” and a “lawyer’s paradise” that would end up having to be tested in the courts.

She said she was “a little bit suspicious” about the government’s motivation in stirring up confusion, and added: “It feels like trying to implement a cut by the back door.”

She said: “The problem with something that is obscure is that it is very easy then for people to not get what they are entitled to.

“You can imagine how the likes of Atos [the controversial IT company which will be carrying out many of the PIP assessments] will interpret this descriptor.

“As usual, it will be left to people knowing their rights and having the energy to pursue an appeal to get what they ought to be entitled to.”

She added: “The [PIP] system was supposed to be simple, but it has turned out to be anything but.”

A DWP spokeswoman insisted that there was no confusion, and that “individuals who cannot stand and then move 20 metres will receive the enhanced rate of the mobility component”.

She said that if a claimant could “move distances between 20 metres and 50 metres but cannot do so safely, to an acceptable standard, repeatedly and in a reasonable time period, they would also receive the enhanced rate”.

She added: “The minister made this clear, as have our officials.”

She said that McVey would be responding to DR UK’s letter in due course.

It is just the latest example of confusion and apparently misleading information from DWP over its DLA reforms.

Last month, Disability News Service reported that the government’s own telephone helpline advisers had been passing DLA claimants with lifetime or indefinite awards out-of-date information about when they would face reassessments.

And last week, DWP was accused by MPs of “manipulating” its own DLA statistics in a bid to justify scrapping the benefit.

7 March 2013

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Confusion and anxiety as PIP advisers give out-of-date answers

The coalition’s programme to replace disability living allowance (DLA) with a new benefit has been thrown into confusion after the government’s own telephone helpline advisers began passing out-of-date information to anxious claimants.

The Conservative minister for disabled people, Esther McVey, promised MPs in December that no current claimants of disability living allowance (DLA) with “lifetime” or “indefinite” awards would face reassessments for the new personal independence payment (PIP) before October 2015, unless they reported a change in their condition.

The coalition’s programme to replace working-age DLA with PIP is set to begin in April, with letters already being sent out in pilot areas in the north-east and north-west of England.

But reports were this week passed to members of the WeAreSpartacus online network of campaigners that existing DLA claimants were being told by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) helpline advisers that the government would begin reassessing all current DLA claimants from October this year.

They were told that there would be no exemptions, even if they had lifetime or indefinite DLA awards, a position that directly contradicts the assurances given by McVey.

When Disability News Service rang the helpline, an advisor said the reviews would take place “sometime between October this year and the spring of 2016 for existing customers”, and that some people with indefinite awards would be assessed for PIP before 2015.

When DNS asked her to confirm that some of those being assessed this year would be existing claimants with indefinite awards, she said: “Yes. Someone could have a one-year award or an indefinite. They will all be reviewed.

“That is the instruction I have got. There is nothing to say that indefinite awards will be reviewed last.”

This matched the information that DLA claimants said they had been receiving from the helpline.

Beth Gregson, from WeAreSpartacus, said it was “simply not good enough” if call centre staff had not been briefed correctly about the changes, with just six weeks until PIP was introduced for the first claimants, and would call into question McVey’s “grip on the process”.

Gregson said she was “not at all convinced the DWP are ready to deliver or manage the process” of moving from DLA to PIP.

The number of working-age people claiming DLA and PIP, and spending on working-age DLA and PIP, will be cut by as much as 28 per cent by 2018 as a result of the reforms, with 900,000 fewer people receiving PIP than if DLA had not been replaced.

Gregson said she was “deeply concerned” about the level of fear and anxiety about the move to PIP being shown by DLA claimants on social media, as were many others who were offering support on online forums.

She said: “The government has accused us of scaremongering in the past. However, given the poor information, mixed messages and the confusing language used in letters from the DWP, is it any wonder people are scared?”

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, said: “If they are sending out how many million letters and then the helpline is then giving out wrong information, then that is really worrying, because people are worried enough as it is.

“The government in delaying the roll-out for existing claimants [until 2015] did at least give some kind of breathing space, but they have undermined their own case if they are giving out the wrong information.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said she believed DWP were also giving out incorrect information about the Work Programme.

She said: “Misinformation is being sent out about virtually everything. Most things DWP are involved with just seem to be totally chaotic. Nobody seems to know what they should be doing or who should be doing it.”

A DWP spokesman said: “Adults claiming DLA now, who receive an indefinite or lifetime award, won’t be affected by the introduction of PIP until 2015 or later, unless they report a change in their existing care or mobility needs.”

He added: “We’ll pass on your feedback about your call to our operational teams.”

22 February 2013

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DWP disability report is ‘mine of information’ for campaigners

A major new government report has painted the “most comprehensive overview” since 2005 of the disadvantage and barriers faced by disabled people in the UK.

The 106-page report, Fulfilling Potential: Building a Deeper Understanding of Disability in the UK Today, aims to raise awareness, “inform public understanding”, and prompt debate about the issues facing disabled people.

But it will also feed into the next stage of the government’s disability strategy, Fulfilling Potential, with an action plan due in the spring.

The report, published by the Department for Work and Pensions, lays bare the government’s challenge in addressing the barriers facing disabled people.

Among the report’s findings are that:

  • In 2010-11, there were 11.5 million people in the UK covered by the disability provisions of the Equality Act [19 per cent of the population]
  • Only around half of these 11.5 million people receive any disability-related benefits
  • By the age of 26, disabled people are nearly four times more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people
  • Households that include a disabled person who does not receive a disability-related benefit are twice as likely to be in poverty as those with a disabled person who does
  • About 20 per cent of households that include a disabled person live in fuel poverty, compared to 15 per cent of those with no disabled person
  • Disabled people are significantly less likely than non-disabled people to live in households with internet access (61 per cent compared to 86 per cent)

But the report also suggests that disabled people play a larger part in their local civic life, with 36 per cent of disabled people compared with 33 per cent of non-disabled people involved in activities such as contacting a local councillor or MP, taking part in a public demonstration, or signing a petition.

And the DWP’s report also accepts that disability living allowance – which the coalition is about to scrap and replace with a new benefit for working-age adults – has “a major positive impact on recipients’ lives”.

Quoting a report from 2010, the report says DLA helps disabled people to “maintain independence and control”, “meet some of the extra costs of disability”, “improve quality of life”, “access other help and services”, “enhance physical and mental health”, and “maintain warmer, cleaner, more comfortable homes”.

Disability Rights UK said the report was a “mine of information which must inform policy right across government”, and could be used by disabled people to “influence change”, but that it would be “vital” to track the figures over time.

14 February 2013

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‘Complacent’ DWP needs ‘major shake-up’ on work fitness tests

An influential committee of MPs has delivered a scathing account of the failure of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to challenge the poor performance of its “fitness for work” contractor Atos Healthcare.

The public accounts committee says in its report, published today (Friday), that DWP is “getting far too many decisions wrong” through its much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) system.

Margaret Hodge, the Labour chair of the committee, said DWP’s failures were creating “misery and hardship” for many claimants.

Her committee’s report says: “We are concerned that the department is unduly complacent regarding the quality of the decision-making process, particularly given the hardship which can be caused to individuals when the decision is wrong.”

It also accuses DWP of complacency over the number of successful appeals against being found fit for work, with nearly 40 per cent of appeals succeeding, and a third of these not as a result of any new evidence.

Hodge said the “standardised ‘tick-box’ approach” of the WCA “hits the most vulnerable claimants hardest”, while its “one-size-fits-all approach fails to account adequately for mental health conditions or those which are rare or fluctuating”.

She added: “While the department has started to improve, the process is still too inflexible and too often is so stressful for applicants that their health simply gets worse.”

DWP was unable to tell the committee the full cost of the WCA system across government, including knock-on costs to the NHS and Ministry of Justice.

The government has outsourced all of its medical assessments since 1998, with the contracts all carried out by one company, Atos – except when it has changed hands due to a company takeover – leaving DWP with “limited leverage to remedy poor performance”.

In 2011-12, DWP paid Atos £112.4 million to carry out 738,000 assessments, most of which were WCAs.

Atos will also assess about 440,000 claims a year for the new personal independence payment – the replacement for working-age disability living allowance – from April 2013.

The committee was scathing about DWP’s failure to manage its contract with Atos.

Hodge said DWP rarely checked that it was being charged correctly by Atos, failed to withhold payment for poor performance, and could not say whether Atos was making a “disproportionate” level of profit from the contract.

In a typical month, DWP only checked 0.1 per cent of the assessments it was invoiced for, the report says, and relied too much on information provided by Atos.

The report says the “lack of challenging targets for medical quality” allows Atos to conduct “thousands of poorly administered tests each year” without any financial sanction.

Hodge concluded: “There needs to be a substantial shake-up in how the department manages this contract and in its processes for improving the quality of decision-making.”

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, welcomed the report and “the fact that a cross-party committee of MPs agrees with what disabled people have been saying so strongly”.

She said: “Fear does not help job-seeking. People out of work for many years need encouragement and support to build confidence. We need personalised employment support, not tests causing anxiety and distress.

“We need a ‘real world’ test that takes account of barriers to work – whether employers make adjustments, whether people have the support they need to work.”

Meanwhile, the DWP has published its response to last November’s report by the work and pensions select committee on how universal credit will meet the needs of “vulnerable claimants”.

The universal credit reforms will be gradually introduced from April and will see key means-tested benefits and tax credits combined into a single payment.

The committee’s report called 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.

In its response, the government defended its changes, which it said would create a “simpler and fairer system” and would see disabled people “on average” gain by £8 a month, while it had “committed to a thorough process of evaluation for the effect of universal credit on disabled people”.

The disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the committee, said “significant concerns” remained about whether vulnerable people would receive the support they needed, although the government had shown “some movement in this direction” and had pledged to “monitor closely various aspects of the policy”.

8 February 2013

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McVey set to face legal challenge over PIP changes that came ‘out of nowhere’

Disabled activists are planning legal action over the government’s decision to tighten eligibility for support for people with the highest mobility needs.

Many disabled activists were shocked and angry when Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, announced the unexpected changes in December.

The alterations to the regulations that will decide who is eligible for the new personal independence payment (PIP) – which will gradually replace working-age disability living allowance from this April – saw the key walking distance criteria reduced from 50 to 20 metres.

Lawyers advising the WeAreSpartacus online network of disabled campaigners have now suggested that this lowering of the distance criteria could be unlawful.

Jane Young, coordinator of WeAreSpartacus, said: “The reason for a legal challenge and a great part of its basis in law is that there was absolutely no consultation on 20 metres at all.

“One of the reasons people are particularly angry about this is that the 20 metres has literally come out of nowhere.

“We realised PIP would not be great, but it wasn’t until the regulations were published that we realised how bad it would be from the mobility perspective.”

She is now appealing on her blog for disabled people – although only those in certain categories – to come forward to take a case against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Earlier this week, McVey insisted again that the “moving around” part of the PIP assessment – which includes the 50 to 20 metres change – had not been tightened in December.

She told a committee of MPs debating the PIP regulations: “I know that there have been concerns that we have tightened up rules regarding the physical mobility activity ‘moving around’. I take this opportunity to reassure honourable members that that is not the case.”

This “reassurance” came despite the government’s own figures making it clear that the overall package of changes announced in December would see – by 2015 – 20,000 fewer people eligible for the enhanced mobility rate than under the previous draft version of the PIP regulations, with this gap rising to 51,000 by 2018.

McVey claimed that, under previous drafts, the government had “differentiated by the type of aid and appliance that an individual used”, and “used terms such as ‘up to’ certain distances, which meant it was not clear which descriptor applied to people”.

She said: “In the final version of the criteria, we differentiate by distance, which we feel is much clearer.

“In the final draft, individuals who cannot walk 20 metres can be certain they will receive the enhanced rate, regardless of whether they need an aid or appliance.”

And she insisted that last month’s decision to ensure that the need for activities to be carried out “safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a timely manner” was included in the regulations would make “the protection in our policy stronger”.

But Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said disabled people had “been alarmed at the hurdle they will now face before being awarded the enhanced mobility rate”.

She said: “Most of those who have looked at these descriptors would say that a 20-metre qualifying distance simply does not provide a practical level of mobility.”

She said about 200 disabled people in every parliamentary constituency were likely to lose their Motability vehicle with a 20-metre qualifying distance.

And she pointed out that one of the Department for Transport’s own publications, Inclusive Mobility, recommends that “seating should be provided on pedestrian routes at intervals of no more than 50 metres, and that parking spaces for blue badge holders should preferably be provided within 50 metres of the facilities they serve”.

7 February 2013

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Anger as government adds disabled people to workfare scheme

Disabled people could now be forced to work indefinitely for their out-of-work benefits, as a result of new government rules introduced this week.

Those who fail to co-operate with the periods of “work experience” arranged for them could have their benefits cut.

The new rules – introduced on the UN’s international day of disabled people – will apply to claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) who have been assessed as being able to find paid work at some point and so have been placed in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG).

The decision to force them into work experience could be taken by a Jobcentre Plus adviser or one of the private sector contractors paid by the government to find jobs for long-term unemployed benefit claimants through its Work Programme.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) made it clear that there were “no plans to set a fixed minimum or maximum length for a work placement”, although they were expected to last “for around two weeks” and “must be reasonable and meet the claimant’s circumstances”.

The DWP said the placement must benefit the community and be “appropriate” to the claimant’s impairment, but could include cases “where someone refuses to take reasonable steps to address a barrier which is stopping them working”.

John McArdle, a founding member of the grassroots disabled people’s organisation Black Triangle, said: “It should be obvious to anyone why this is a bad idea. People who are unfit for work are being forced into unpaid ‘employment’ on pain of being made destitute.”

He said he believed the scheme was “immoral… and possibly illegal” and would probably be challenged in court.

And he suggested that any disabled person whose health was “seriously harmed” as a result of such work experience would be able to bring a clear case of negligence or discrimination.

He added: “We are talking about people with multiple impairments and/or illnesses as evidenced by real medical experts and not DWP/Atos ‘disability assessors’.”

In addition to the workfare scheme, DWP said that other WRAG claimants will be offered short periods of “voluntary” work experience.

A DWP spokesman said it was not possible to predict what proportion of ESA claimants would be expected to take part in the workfare scheme, as placements would be “decided on a case by case basis and must be appropriate to the individual’s circumstances”.

The DWP said in a statement that such work experience would “help people with limited employment history get a flavour of the workplace environment, gain new skills and boost their confidence for an eventual return to work”.

Mark Hoban, the Conservative employment minister, said: “People on sickness benefits who do all they can to improve their chances of moving back in to a job have nothing to worry about; they will get their benefits and we will do all we can to help.

“But in the small number of cases where people refuse to stick to their part of the bargain, it’s only right there are consequences.”

6 December 2012

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National newspapers ‘add fuel to the hate crime fire’

Disabled people increasingly believe that coverage of welfare reform and other disability issues in national newspapers is helping to fuel hate crime, according to a new report.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK), which published the report this week, called on the press and the government to change the language they use to describe disabled people.

Many of the 331 people who responded to a survey for the DR UK report – most of whom were disabled people – blamed rising hostility towards them on “government spin and distortion” and “rhetoric from the government about scroungers and benefit cheats”.

And nearly every one of them (97 per cent) thought reporting of disability should have been a key topic in the Leveson inquiry into press standards.

More than nine in ten linked the negative portrayal of disabled people in the press to rising hostility and hate crime towards disabled people, and an even higher percentage believed the national press were unfair in their portrayal of welfare and other disability equality issues.

More than four in ten suggested the government was responsible for rising press negativity and hostility towards disabled people.

One disabled respondent told how – after a headline about “free” Motability cars for disabled people – their car was vandalised. They have not displayed their blue parking badge since, and have been “yelled at, sworn at and insulted” and had their crutches kicked.

Following articles calling disabled benefit claimants “scroungers”, another respondent said: “I was followed by a group of youths in the street and called ‘a scrounging disabled bastard’.”

One said that “daily hounding in the press” had “made me feel suicidal”, another that coverage in the Sun had “made me feel like I was an outcast”, while another said reports in the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Mirror “makes me feel scared to go out”.

Yet another who replied to the survey said coverage in the Daily Express, Daily Mail and the Sun “completely devalued and totally undermine my efforts to live as fully and independently as possible”.

The report, Press Portrayal of Disabled People: A Rise in Hostility Fuelled by Austerity?, calls on the government’s Office for Disability Issues to play a bigger part in shaping how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) communicates with the media and the public.

Neil Coyle, DR UK’s director of policy and campaigns, said: “The report shows that disabled people believe the government agenda has driven the hostile press coverage. It is hard to disagree that that is likely to be the case.”

He added: “It is important that the government improves how it communicates on some of the welfare changes, how it talks about disabled people.”

He said the ODI – which is part of the DWP – was the right body to lead that work because of its cross-government role.

A DWP spokeswoman denied the government was responsible for rising press negativity and hostility towards disabled people, and pointed to Challenge it, Report it, Stop it, its new hate crime action plan, which “includes challenging the attitudes that drive hate crime”.

She said: “We are very conscious of the language we in government use, as it’s clear that the benefit system itself has trapped many people in a spiral of welfare dependency.”

She said a key area of the government’s forthcoming disability strategy would be “promoting positive attitudes and behaviours towards disabled people to enable them to participate in community life and wider society, tackling discrimination and harassment wherever they occur”.

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Atos gets it wrong on one in five ‘fit for work’ recommendations

New government figures show that one in five decisions to find someone “fit for work” made by the company that carries out the controversial disability benefit test is wrong.

The statistics, released this week by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), show that “healthcare professionals” employed by Atos Healthcare are far more likely to make a mistake when finding someone fit for work than when finding someone not fit for work.

Of the claimants Atos found fit for work (for claims starting between October 2008 and November 2011), 20 per cent of those decisions were overturned either by DWP staff or appeal tribunals.

This means that, of the 771,100 people Atos decided were “fit for work”, 150,500 were later found – whether by DWP officials or a tribunal – to be eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit.

Of those 150,500 people, 13,800 disabled people were placed in the support group, for those disabled people with the highest support needs, who are not expected to carry out any work-related activity at all.

But Atos has been much more accurate with its assessments when recommending that claimants should be placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) – for those disabled people eligible for ESA but expected to move gradually towards work – with 97 per cent of its decisions found to be accurate, and when placing people in the support group (99 per cent accurate).

The figures suggest that Atos is straining to find as many disabled people fit for work as possible.

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said: “This is evidence that whatever is happening, whether it is the contract [between Atos and DWP] that is at fault or indeed the way the [assessment] is being interpreted by Atos staff, they are getting it wrong in a very high proportion of cases.

“And to find out that almost 14,000 people were found fully fit for work when they should have been in the support group… that is a lot of people.”

An Atos Healthcare spokeswoman said: “All benefit decisions are made by the DWP. We apply their criteria and policy to all of the assessments we provide which is why they are in line with the final decisions made in the majority of cases.”

The DWP has so far not been able to say whether it is concerned by a failure rate of one in five.

But a DWP spokesman said: “As the table shows, 80 per cent of Atos fit for work recommendations are agreed with at the final outcome.

“The final outcome figures include both the decision maker making a different decision and the decision being overturned at a tribunal. Previous appeals figures have shown that, overall, 15 per cent of all fit for work decisions are overturned at a tribunal.

“Very few people would appeal a support group or WRAG decision, so there is bound to be a difference in the numbers.”

Atos has faced repeated complaints and protests by disabled activists over its performance in carrying out the contract to perform work capability assessments, first introduced in October 2008.

Campaigners and some Labour politicians have criticised Atos for finding many people with serious health conditions “fit for work”, and so ineligible for ESA.

Last month, the user-led grassroots campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts held a week-long series of protests to complain at Atos’s sponsorship of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

North Ayrshire and Arran, told the meeting: “It is absolutely appalling that this government has proceeded with these proposals which must be going to have an absolutely devastating effect.

“Local authorities are not going to be able to take up the slack, even if they wish to.”

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