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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UN’s international day sees awards, celebrations… and protests

Disabled people took part in protests, campaigns, awards, marches, conferences and celebrations as they found different ways to mark the UN’s international day of disabled people.

Many of the events used 3 December to continue the series of protests against government cuts to disability benefits and services, while others celebrated the achievements of organisations that have helped improve disabled people’s lives.

Breakthrough UK announced the winners of its National Independent Living Awards 2012, which included Harrow Asian Deaf Club, Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, and retail giant Wilkinson.

In Guildford, Surrey, more than 350 people attended the first of a free, two-day sports festival organised by the British Paralympic Association, with more than 1,000 attending over the two days.

More than 20 Paralympians – including stars such as Jonnie Peacock, Sophie Christiansen, Ben Quilter and Mark Colbourne – were on hand to take part in the inaugural ParalympicsGB Sports Fest, which provided an opportunity for disabled people to try out different Paralympic sports and discover how to get involved in them.

In west London, members of Harrow Association of Disabled People took part in a 200-strong march to protest at disabled people being “hit the hardest by cuts to the benefits and services they need to live their lives”.

The march, which was joined by eight local councillors – seven Labour and one independent – and Labour MP Gareth Thomas, passed the Department for Work and Pensions’ Jobcentre Plus offices and ended at Harrow council’s Civic Centre headquarters, where Labour council leader Thaya Idaikkadar spoke to them about their concerns.

In Croydon, disabled people held a vigil inside the reception area of the building used by Atos Healthcare to test people’s eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.

The vigil, organised by the Croydon and Bromley branch of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), included a minute’s silence to remember the sick and disabled people who had “suffered as a result of the punitive regime of assessments” operated by Atos on behalf of the government.

They were refused permission to leave flowers in the building, so laid them instead at the local war memorial.

Protesters from Cardiff DPAC gathered beside the statue of Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, for a candlelight vigil which featured about 1,200 candles spelling out the words “Atos Kills”, before continuing their own remembrance protest by blocking traffic for about 30 minutes.

They and many other activists believe the assessments, as carried out by Atos, are putting thousands of sick and disabled people under serious and unnecessary strain, forcing them further into poverty, and are even responsible for many deaths, including some people driven to suicide.

Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People marked the UN’s day by releasing a striking visual and audio representation of the Austerity War report it commissioned and published in September, which describes how the burden of the government’s cuts are falling unfairly on disabled people’s shoulders.

In contrast, the Department for Work and Pensions used the day to launch its Role Models: Inspire a Generation campaign, which will use video clips of young disabled role models talking about the barriers they have overcome to inspire other young disabled people to “help fulfil their potential and achieve their aspirations”.

The European Commission made its contribution to the day by publishing proposed legislation to ensure the accessibility of public sector websites.

But the proposed laws would cover only 12 public services – such as websites for benefits, applying for passports, car registration, birth and marriage certificates, enrolling in higher education, and communicating with the police.

The European Disability Forum welcomed the publication as “a first positive step” but said it would work with MEPs and the European Council to ensure the final legislation was “even more far-reaching”.

The European Blind Union said the proposal was “a missed opportunity” and was “simply not going to deliver the radical change that is needed” because it failed to cover all public sector websites and private sector sites that deliver “basic services to citizens”.

In Tower Hamlets, east London, the disabled people’s organisation Real joined other charities to host a free information event (on 4 December) and party, and celebrated both the international day and its own success in winning a new local authority contract to give disabled people more say over how services are run in the borough.

Meanwhile, Remploy ignored continuing anger over the closure of many of its remaining sheltered factories and released a video featuring pledges from employers – and disabled people such as Paralympic champion David Weir – to push for an improvement in the employment rate of disabled people.

Just three days later, Remploy announced that another 682 disabled people had been told they were at risk of redundancy because of its closure programme.

There were also many powerful blogs using 3 December to warn of the threat to disabled people’s rights posed by the government’s “austerity” policies.

Jane Young wrote that there was “little to celebrate” on 3 December, with the anticipated implementation of a “horrifying range of policies set to devastate the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled Britons”, with the threat next year of “a tsunami of human need, the like of which we haven’t seen in Britain for many years”.

Kaliya Franklin wrote in her blog of a time when Britain “led the way in promoting rights and independence for disabled people”, while Neil Crowther said the government’s “perverse and illogical” assault on disabled people’s rights was “not only unjust, it is pure economic folly”.

5 December 2012

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Thousands of disabled people to be forced into unpaid work

Thousands of disabled people are set to be forced to do unpaid work in order to continue receiving their out-of-work benefits, despite the government’s own benefits advice body saying the scheme should not go ahead.

The government introduced new rules this week which will give Jobcentre Plus advisers the power to force claimants of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) onto new “mandatory work activity” placements.

Participants will be expected to spend up to 30 hours a week for four weeks on the “placements”, which will be introduced from next month and delivered by “contracted providers”. Those who fail to comply could lose their JSA for three or even six months.

The government’s own equality impact assessment says 10,000 people a year are expected to be forced to take part, with more than a quarter likely to be disabled.

But the social security advisory committee (SSAC) said it was concerned that the scheme appears to punish claimants just for displaying “the wrong attitude”, while taking part could actually reduce their chances of finding paid work.

It is the third time in just over a month that SSAC has criticised key parts of the government’s welfare reform agenda. Last month, it delivered a scathing assessment of the work capability assessment and the government’s disability living allowance reforms.

The committee said those forced to take part in the placements would be those who had done “just enough to satisfy the conditions of entitlement to benefit” but had – in the opinion of Jobcentre Plus – “little or no understanding of what behaviours are required to obtain and keep work”.

The committee said the government’s own evidence shows disabled people are among those who would find it most difficult to take part in such unpaid work activity, and so were more likely to face losing their benefits for failing to comply.

And it said it was concerned that there was no procedure for monitoring whether providers running the schemes were exploiting claimants.

Disability Alliance (DA) said increasing numbers of disabled people would be found “fit for work” through the government’s welfare reforms, and so could be subject to the placements.

Neil Coyle, DA’s director of policy, said it was “essential” that reasonable adjustments were made for disabled people on the scheme.

He said there were increasing reports of disabled people – such as those with mental health conditions – feeling they had to comply with strict conditions imposed on their benefit entitlement, despite the risks to their health.

The government rejected seven of SSAC’s 18 recommendations, and partially accepted two, while it rejected the recommendation that the scheme should not go ahead. It promised “robust monitoring” of placements.

Employment minister Chris Grayling said the scheme was “designed to give people that extra push to make sure they are really keeping active and focused on what it takes to get into work”.

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Right to Control launch overshadowed by funding fears

Five areas have begun piloting a new scheme that should give disabled people more control over the support they receive from central and local government.

The Right to Control (RtC) aims to put money from funding sources such as disabled facilities grants, the Independent Living Fund (ILF), the Access to Work (AtW) programme, and council-funded support packages into single pots of money for disabled people to use as they wish.

But concerns have already been raised that the government’s programme of spending cuts could undermine the scheme before it has begun.

Under the RtC scheme, local authorities, Jobcentre Plus and disabled people’s organisations will work with disabled people to develop their individual support plans.

They will then be able to spend their allocated funding on whatever they think meets their needs, whether through direct payments or services commissioned on their behalf.

Five of the eight “trailblazing” areas – in Essex, Leicester, the London boroughs of Barnet and Newham, and parts of Surrey – started piloting the scheme this week. The other three will launch next year.

Ellen Clifford, interim director of the user-led Newham Coalition, a partner in the Newham trailblazer, welcomed the increased choice and control it would give disabled people in the borough.

Clifford added: “Through RtC we have been able to introduce the concept of co-production beyond social care to Jobcentre Plus and a broader range of council departments, which feels like a positive step forwards.”

But she warned that RtC’s potential benefits were being “overshadowed and seriously undermined” by government spending cuts.

When Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, visited the coalition’s offices for the RtC launch, she was warned that the job opportunities given to young disabled people as a result of the trailblazer were only possible through “proper investment in on-going support”.

Clifford said the government was “setting up Right to Control and the whole personalisation agenda to fail” by neglecting the “critical role” of state-funded support in protecting the rights of disabled people.

And she said the impact of RtC on people’s day-to-day lives could be “meaningless” if there was “nothing left to control”.

Essex Coalition of Disabled People (ECDP), which has been working on RtC in Essex, said the scheme should allow disabled people to access support without having to “keep telling other organisations the same details” by sharing their assessments, support plans and reviews.

Rich Watts, ECDP’s director of policy and development, said RtC would be of “great benefit to the individual and a benefit to the way in which services are provided”.

But he added: “The wider environment around cuts and the way in which the government is approaching disabled people risks undermining what is actually a very good idea.”

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Report finds Pathways was a dead end

A new report by MPs has called on the government to “fundamentally review” the employment support it provides for disabled people claiming out-of-work disability benefits.

The report by the public accounts committee (PAC) on Labour’s Pathways to Work programme for disabled people found the scheme was “not well implemented” and had little impact on moving disabled people into work.

It followed a report by the National Audit Office in June that also concluded that Pathways had provided “poor value for money”.

In 2008-09, £94 million (more than a third of its budget for that year) was spent on providing extra support that failed to deliver any additional jobs, says the new report.

The report calls on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to deliver “clear guidance” on the type of support that is likely to deliver additional jobs to those involved in the coalition government’s new single Work Programme that will launch next summer.

It raises concerns that those found fit for work under the controversial new work capability assessment (WCA) might not receive the job support they need under the Work Programme.

And it calls on the government to evaluate its capacity to support the “large numbers of people” on old-style incapacity benefit (IB) who will be found fit for work when reassessed under the WCA and are likely to need extra support because of the length of time they have been on IB.

The number of people claiming incapacity benefits – including IB, income support on the grounds of disability, and the new employment and support allowance (ESA) – fell by 125,000 between February 2005 and August 2009, but has remained at more than 2.5 million for over a decade.

More than £750 million has so far been spent on Pathways.

Margaret Hodge, the Labour chair of the PAC, said that “no-one knows” how much Pathways contributed to the fall of 125,000, and she criticised the failure to carry out a “rigorous evaluation” of the initial Pathways pilots that began in 2003, which gave an “over-optimistic” impression of what it could achieve.

The report criticises private sector Pathways providers, who “seriously underperformed”, doing less well than the government-run Jobcentre Plus, even though private contractors work in “easier” areas with fewer claimants and higher demand for labour.

Chris Grayling, the minister for employment, said: “This report is hugely disappointing and just underlines how misplaced many of the previous government’s labour policies were.”

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Employers ‘missing out on young disabled talent’

Talented and highly-educated young disabled people are continuing to miss out on opportunities for training, employment and career progression, according to a new report.

The Right to Work report is the latest investigation by the Trailblazers group of young disabled campaigners – run by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign – and surveyed more than 100 young disabled people.

Two-thirds of them said they may have had job applications rejected by employers because of discrimination. A similar number believed the job application process puts them at a disadvantage, while about 70 per cent said physical access to the workplace was one of the biggest obstacles they faced in obtaining paid work.

One in seven disabled graduates – with an average age of 26 – had never had a paid job, while one in five survey respondents felt they had been forced out of a job due to poor disability awareness.

Some campaigners said interviews or work experience had been called off when the employer realised they were disabled.

Members of Trailblazers also carried out undercover investigations of access at Jobcentre Plus offices and recruitment agencies across the UK.

Now they want the government and employers to set up a national disabled graduates training scheme, promote the business case for employing “talented, qualified and dedicated” disabled candidates, and encourage disability equality training for line managers

They also want to see more accessible facilities at Jobcentre Plus offices and recruitment agencies, and more disabled people employed as disability employment advisers by Jobcentre Plus.

And they called for greater promotion of the Access to Work scheme and for it to be extended to disabled volunteers, interns, and those on work placements.

Jagdeep Sehmbi, a wheelchair-user and multimedia communications graduate from Birmingham, said: “When I was applying for jobs, I noticed that as soon as I mentioned I needed wheelchair access the attitude would change – whereas I had initially felt a conversation was leading to an invite for interview, it suddenly ended with being told they would get back to me, which never happened.”

Bobby Ancil, Trailblazers project manager, said: “More than anything in this report, we were struck by the amount of talented and bright individuals employers are missing out on because they can’t see past disability.

“It is shocking that so many well-qualified people who want to work are unable to find jobs.”

To read the report, visit:

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Freud’s warm words fail to quell welfare concerns

The welfare system has made it “much easier” for disabled people to depend on benefits than on themselves, according to the new Conservative minister for welfare reform.

Speaking at a parliamentary reception on the financial independence of disabled people, Lord Freud said the current welfare system “holds back people who are capable of fulfilling work” and “forces disabled people into a life of dependency and robs them of dignity”.

He gave few new details on the government’s welfare reform plans, but did reveal plans to examine why only 17 per cent of working age recipients of disability living allowance (DLA) had jobs, compared with 47 per cent of all working age disabled people.

He said: “Far too many disabled people…are not in enough control of their own lives to support themselves financially.

“This is a social issue, this is not an issue of capability. We need to constantly challenge society and attitudes and perceptions towards disabled people so they are and can be really involved in society.”

He said the government would “look closely” at criticisms of the work capability assessment (WCA), Labour’s new test for assessing disabled people’s readiness to work.

But he said that, “as the fundamental structure, [the WCA] is the way to go”.

Lord Freud also said the government was committed to using the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as “a catalyst for achieving disability equality”, and that it was “looking at how best to implement” Labour’s Equality Act.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who hosted the reception, attacked the “common assumption…that disabled people are unable to work, we don’t want to work, we are lazy, we are scroungers”.

She said: “These are not just assumptions, they are excuses and they are inaccurate and they have no justification or underlying basis.”

She appealed to the new coalition government to “help us put an end to these misconceptions”.

The reception also saw the launch of RADAR’s new guide for MPs on disability issues.

Many of those who heard Lord Freud’s speech praised the minister’s language, but said there was too little detail to judge the government’s welfare reform plans.

Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who was last week elected chair of the influential work and pensions committee, said that “some of the rhetoric was good” but it was too early to say if the government was taking the right approach.

But she raised concerns about the huge numbers of disabled people who will have to be assessed through the WCA and how they would receive the specialist support they need to find work.

Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said the speech had contained “some very welcome language”, but the reference to DLA had been “the largest alarm bell”.

He said he feared Lord Freud’s comments suggested the government was about to make “significant changes to DLA” and that civil servants had “got their foot in the door again” on DLA reform.

He said: “In the Conservative manifesto there was a commitment to protect DLA. We hope this commitment will not be undermined by any review and hope the government will work very closely [on any review] with stakeholders.”

Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said: “I think it’s welcome that he was talking about enabling people to feel fulfilled and not being written off. The real questions about detail are yet to come.

“We want to ensure that people get support with as much control as possible…something that is very personalised.”

David Evans, vice-chair of Deafblind UK, said Lord Freud’s “fine words” did not remove the “fear” and “concern” of many disabled people about the WCA.

He also pointed to concerns about the lack of training for the many new staff recruited by Jobcentre Plus to cope with the recession, and the lack of jobs available for disabled people.

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