Redundancies at Disability Rights UK, but boss says survival not at risk

The country’s most influential disabled people’s organisation (DPO) has insisted that its survival is not at risk, despite being forced to make several staff redundant, including one of its most high-profile campaigning voices.

Disability Rights UK was only formed last January from a merger between RADAR, the National Centre for Independent Living and Disability Alliance.

But it admitted this week that one of its six directors, Neil Coyle, has been made redundant – although he will stay in post until April – while another, Mark Shrimpton, will move to a part-time role. Two other members of staff will also lose their jobs, leaving a core of about 30 staff.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) said that it was “operating in a very tough economic environment”, in which many DPOs faced “major funding challenges”.

The organisation has had a mixed first year.

It has made a number of significant campaigning contributions, including helping to lead the Hardest Hit alliance and influencing the government in key policy areas, and has provided services such as helplines and online information for disabled people.

But it has also faced criticism for convening the government’s new Disability Action Alliance, and helping the outsourcing giant Capita win a lucrative disability assessment contract.

Liz Sayce, Disability Rights UK’s chief executive, has continued to face attacks from some disabled activists over a report she wrote for the government in 2011 that recommended ending government support for the remaining Remploy sheltered factories, and closing those factories which were “not viable”.

Coyle, who has built an impressive campaigning reputation on disability rights through his work for the Disability Rights Commission, Disability Alliance and DR UK, said there was “huge financial pressure on DR UK”, which had not delivered on its “high expectations for fundraising” in its first year.

He told Disability News Service that he had some concerns about the impact of the cutbacks, and that it was “a massive shame” that some potential projects DR UK had been developing would now have to be dropped, including one he was working on to measure the cumulative impact of the government’s cuts and reforms on disabled people.

He said: “The challenge is to make sure we are as able to campaign, as influential and maintain a high profile and deliver for our members.”

When asked whether there was a threat to the future of Disability Rights UK, he said: “It is a tough environment for everyone. We need to run a very tight ship.”

Sayce insisted that DR UK’s survival was not at risk, and it would continue to have a “high policy and campaigning profile”.

She said: “Everybody in the charitable sector would say it is tough. I would much rather not have to lose posts, but we have tightened up our structure in order to be sustainable.

“One of the things we are doing is building income streams of our own that are not dependent on short-term project grants.”

One of these is providing disability rights expertise to the equality advice helpline formerly run by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but she said such outside work would have to be “absolutely to the benefit of disabled people”.

She pointed to DR UK’s successes in its first year, with more than half a million people using the “unrivalled” information on its website, across benefits, independent living, education and apprenticeships, while more than 7,000 people had used its helplines.

And she said it had recruited a new board of “diverse people with lived experience of mental and physical health conditions and impairments”, set up new projects to provide better opportunities for apprenticeships and support to use personal budgets, published new guides, and influenced policy change in areas such as social care, changes to the personal independence payment (PIP) and improvements to the Access to Work scheme.

She praised Coyle’s “tremendous achievements” in “raising the profile of disability rights and influencing policy, particularly on welfare reform”, and his “significant track record in working to break the link between disability and poverty”.

Coyle added: “In just one year I am pleased to have sustained pressure to improve PIP plans, ensured the negative press portrayal of disabled people is highlighted and tackled, and involved over 5,000 people in our policy and campaigns achievements.”

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Independent living inquiry: Baroness Campbell says government must act

The government must act quickly to avoid destroying disabled people’s hard-earned right to independent living, according to the disabled peer who has played a key role in a year-long parliamentary inquiry.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell was the member of the joint committee on human rights who suggested that it should hold an inquiry into disabled people’s right to independent living.

Under article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the UK government must take steps to ensure disabled people have an “equal right” to “live in the community with choices equal to others”.

But the committee’s report, published this week, says these rights are being put at risk by the government’s welfare reforms and cuts to disability benefits and services, with little evidence that it has been taking article 19 into consideration when drawing up its plans.

Baroness Campbell, herself a founding member of the National Centre for Independent Living, said the coalition could avoid this risk if the committee’s recommendations were “taken on board quickly and seriously”.

She told Disability News Service the committee believed that if the government acted now “we can avert the loss of all we have gained in this country in terms of getting disabled people out in the community, contributing and taking control of their lives”.

She said the report “simply, clearly illustrates why our progress on independent living in the UK, that has been so instrumental in taking disabled people from passive recipients of care, to active contributing citizens, has run into trouble”.

She said: “Disabled people who gave evidence to us expressed real fears about the future.

“People who live in their own homes and hold down jobs fear having to give up work and move into residential institutions. Couples fear that they will be forced to live apart because they will lose the support that enables them to live together.”

But she said the committee had been keen not to “hector” the government and instead wanted its report to show “what the government, and all those involved with supporting disabled people to live, can do about it”.

Baroness Campbell called on disabled people to take the report and push it “everywhere and anywhere”, in an effort to convince the government to accept its recommendations.

Baroness Campbell has played a key role in the inquiry, offering suggestions for potential witnesses, key pieces of research and experts able to brief committee members on article 19.

She added: “I think I also helped the committee to understand the complexity of what it means to enjoy independent living in the same way that the rest of the community take for granted.”

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Freedom Guide calls for an end to ‘blatant discrimination’

The European Union (EU) must act to halt the “blatant discrimination” that prevents disabled people working, studying or travelling in other countries, according to a major new report by Europe’s leading disabled people’s organisation.

The Freedom Guide, or Paving the Way Towards Free Movement for Persons with Disabilities, is a key part of the European Disability Forum’s (EDF) new campaign to remove the barriers to free movement faced by disabled people in the EU.

Although EU treaties guarantee freedom of movement of people, goods and services from one member state to another, disabled people still face an “alarmingly high” number of barriers which mean exercising those rights is “almost impossible”, says the report.

These include barriers to studying, looking for a job, travelling, buying mainstream goods and services or accessing information.

The report highlights the importance of introducing “portability” of disability benefits and personal assistance if freedom of movement is to become a reality for disabled people.

And it says that a new European Accessibility Act, which the European Commission plans to introduce later this year, must be “ambitious and legally binding”.

It also calls for a new European Mobility Card, which would allow disabled people the same concessions as disabled people in other EU countries – such as reduced-price theatre tickets or reduced fares – when they are travelling through or living in those countries.

The report includes contributions from many of the continent’s leading disabled activists, including John Evans, co-founder of the National Centre for Independent Living and now an EDF board member and an advisory board member of the European Network on Independent Living.

He says in the report: “Disabled people remain invisible compared to their non-disabled compatriots who have the freedom to move around Europe to work, study or travel and to access social security systems if necessary in whatever country of their choosing whenever they want.”

He says it is “blatant discrimination” that he is denied the opportunity to accept a job in another country purely because he would not be allowed to take his personal assistance package of support with him, which he believes contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Evans also points to disabled people forced to live in institutions as one of the most “extreme barriers” to freedom of movement across the EU.

Erik Olsen, an EDF executive committee member and a board member of the European Network of (ex-) Users and Survivors in Psychiatry, says in the report that the institutionalisation of disabled people was “in total contradiction with fundamental rights”.

He says: “One of the most extreme examples of barriers is that some persons with mental health issues are tied to a bed in an institution where they might live temporarily or permanently.

“Such degrading and violent measures can go on for hours. De-institutionalisation is an absolute precondition for freedom of movement.”

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Care scrutiny measures fail to mask new concerns over funding reform

New government proposals to “shake up” the scrutiny of adult social care have failed to mask growing concerns that the coalition is planning to postpone the long-awaited reform of care and support funding.

Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat care services minister, this week announced “radical new ideas” for “shaking up the system” of identifying quality care and exposing poor services.

But his announcement came in the same week that fresh reports warned of delays to funding reform, with the chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, Jeremy Hughes, suggesting that it could be 2025 before all of the necessary reforms were fully introduced.

Burstow said he wanted to introduce a new online ratings system for services such as residential homes and home care providers.

Each entry on the website would include information from official Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspections but would also feature feedback from service-users and relatives, and any records of mistreatment or abuse by staff.

Burstow also sketched out plans for members of the public to take part in informal inspections of care services carried out by local branches of HealthWatch, which will launch next October as the new independent “consumer champion” on social care and health.

Burstow said the two ideas had come from service-users, and added: “Measures like publishing social care comparison sites and opening care services up to greater scrutiny will revolutionise the way people and their loved ones choose their social care.

“It can’t be right that you can find out exactly what a hotel or restaurant is like, in just a short time searching the web, but people have so much trouble working out the standards of different care homes and home care providers – when that choice is so much more important.”

Further details will be included in the government’s adult social care white paper this spring.

Sue Bott, director of the National Centre for Independent Living, pointed out that the plans were not completely fresh, with current and former service-users already taking part in CQC inspections through the Experts by Experience programme.

She said: “If these proposals are going to build on the good things that are happening already, like Experts by Experience, then of course we would be delighted, but we would have to see the detail of what is being proposed.”

And she said CQC had previously published its own ratings system – with services awarded between zero and three stars – which “people did value”, before it was scrapped last year.

Again, she welcomed the idea floated by Burstow but said it would be important to see the details of any proposals.

She also joined other leading figures in raising new fears that care funding reform was set to be further delayed.

Disability News Service has been raising concerns since the summer that next spring’s social care white paper will not include long-awaited reforms to care and support funding.

Andrew Dilnot, who led the coalition’s commission on the funding of care and support, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week that delaying the completion of funding reforms until 2025 would be “completely unacceptable”, while any delay beyond next Easter in the government publishing its plans would be “a betrayal of people’s trust”.

Bott said: “The white paper is one thing, but legislation is what we really need. It is action we need now because people’s lives are being severely affected by what is happening, with some people experiencing cuts [to their support] of the order of 20 per cent.”

She said disabled people, social care professionals and local authority staff had now been “consulted to death”, and added: “We are looking for a timetable for change and that is not what we are getting.”

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Minister seeks ideas for coalition’s disability strategy

The government is urging disabled people to suggest measures they would like to see included in its new disability strategy.

A discussion document, Fulfilling Potential, was launched today by the Office for Disability Issues (ODI), outlining three main areas: ensuring appropriate support, increasing individual choice and control, and changing attitudes and behaviour towards disabled people.

Now the government is asking disabled people to suggest “practical ways of making a real difference” to their lives.

The discussion document provides few clues on what the government plans to include in its disability strategy, while Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, warns in its introduction that there is “a challenging economic climate so we have to think about what our priorities should be”.

The ODI says it wants to build on disability strategies produced under the Labour government, including the Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People report, the Independent Living Strategy, and the Roadmap 2025.

It also says it plans to build on the UK’s commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The three-month consultation ends on 9 March 2012, with the government aiming to publish its new disability strategy next spring.

Miller, who has faced steady and angry criticism from the disability movement over her government’s cuts and reforms to disability services and benefits, claimed the coalition was “committed to enabling disabled people to fulfil their potential and have the opportunity to play a full role in their community”.

She said: “Some of the barriers in society which stop that happening have been removed over the past 40 years but there is far more to do, even at a time when the country’s finances are under great pressure.

“Working with disabled people, I now want to ensure that there is a clear focus in place across government so that the money that is available takes full account of disabled people.”

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, which is being formed by the merger of RADAR, Disability Alliance and the National Centre for Independent Living, called on disabled people and disability organisations to take part in the consultation.

She said: “Disabled people face significant change in the support and services we use. One unified disability strategy from government would be very welcome to shape the changes and help measure success.”

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Miller faces angry heckling at poverty conference

A government minister and executives from the company that carries out “fitness for work” tests on disabled people have faced angry criticism from campaigners at a national conference on disability poverty.

Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people, once again faced heckling from disabled people as she tried to justify the government’s cuts and reforms to disability benefits.

The heckling came a month after she faced repeated, angry interruptions from activists at the mayor of London’s annual Disability Capital event.

Miller faced particular anger from delegates to this week’s Tackling Disability Poverty conference when she tried to justify the government’s sweeping welfare reforms by pointing to the need to tackle the number of people “defrauding” the system.

Only seconds earlier, she had argued that there was nothing she could do to stop the media portraying disabled people as cheats and scroungers.

Miller told the conference, organised by Disability Alliance, RADAR and the National Centre for Independent Living: “The need for reform is clear because all too often at the moment we cannot be absolutely sure that money is really getting through to those who need it most.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, told Miller that disabled people were “living in fear every day that they are going to lose their benefits and care funding, and worse, they are losing their benefits and their care funding”.

Miller said much of this fear was “founded on perhaps a lack of information” and that the government was trying to ensure there was a “benefit system with the sort of integrity which will help disabled people get the support they need”.

She added: “When I open the newspaper and I see yet another case of somebody defrauding the benefit system what I think is that that probably doesn’t help disabled people really feel confident… that it is a support system that has integrity around it.”

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, called on the Department for Work and Pensions to issue positive case studies to the media as part of a plan “to counter what are outrageous levels of inaccurate reporting” about disability benefits.

Another disabled activist, who had been vocal in heckling Miller, pointed afterwards to the people he was supporting who were feeling suicidal because of the government’s welfare reforms.

He said: “You have to hold people accountable for their actions. You can’t just gloss over the reality of what they are doing to people. It’s barbaric.”

A senior executive for Atos Healthcare, the private sector company which carries out the much-criticised “fitness for work” tests for the government, shocked many of the conference delegates by suggesting that his company had vastly improved its performance.

The company, and the healthcare professionals it employs, have faced fierce criticism from many disabled people who have been tested using the government’s work capability assessment (WCA).

But Dr David Beswick, Atos’s medical director, claimed the company had recognised that it was “not looking after customers as well as we should” and needed to “focus better on their experience” and “make this a much more positive experience for them”.

He said Atos had implemented recommendations from the first annual review of the WCA by Professor Malcolm Harrington, and had improved the operation of its call centre, while a customer survey found satisfaction levels with staff courtesy and professionalism had topped 90 per cent.

But Sue Royston, from Citizens Advice, suggested the survey would have produced completely different results if claimants had been able to see the reports the Atos professionals had actually written.

There were also new concerns raised at the conference about the government’s administration of its Access to Work (AtW) scheme.

Robert Droy, from Southampton Centre for Independent Living, said his organisation had been “inundated with problems to do with Access to Work” over the last nine months.

He said he spent 10 hours last week sorting out problems with just one disabled employee’s AtW payments.

He said: “If I am getting to the end of my tether as a disabled person, how on earth are you going to convince a private company to actually take on disabled people?”

Disability News Service has reported a string of concerns about the coalition government’s commitment to AtW, including alarming evidence of a slump in the number of “new customers” helped by the scheme.

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Conference ‘excluded disabled people in poverty’

Organisers of a conference aimed at addressing disability poverty made it too difficult for disabled people experiencing poverty themselves to attend the event, it has been claimed.

The conference was organised by three leading disability organisations, Disability Alliance (DA), RADAR and the National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL), and was held at the central London offices of the international law firm Taylor Wessing.

But disabled activists criticised the failure to offer free places, or provide bursaries to cover the cost of travel to the conference, for disabled people on benefits, or to hold the conference in a more accessible part of London.

They also pointed to the lack of blue badge parking spaces or an accessible tube station near the venue.

A small group of activists had protested outside the venue about the government’s welfare reforms, and the presence at the conference of the minister for disabled people, Maria Miller, and executives from Atos Healthcare, which carries out “fitness for work” tests for the Department for Work and Pensions.

But the activists were refused entry to the conference when they asked to be allowed to attend the event after their protest.

Members of the three organisations had been charged £40 to attend the conference, while non-members paid £70 and “unwaged individuals” £10.

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, who did attend the conference, said: “It’s a conference on disability poverty and the people excluded are disabled people on benefits, because they cannot afford the £10 to get in.”

Anne Pridmore, chair of Being the Boss, which supports disabled people who employ personal assistants, also attended the conference.

She travelled to London from Leicestershire with a colleague. They faced a total bill of £140 to attend, including transport costs, all of which they funded themselves.

Pridmore said: “What we are saying is that this conference wasn’t aimed at the people who have the most to lose.”

Neil Coyle, DA’s director of policy, said the event was “very accessible”, and there had been a need to charge delegates in order to cover the conference’s costs, which included hiring a British Sign Language interpreter, and paying for transport and overnight accommodation for one of the speakers.

But he said he hoped Disability Rights UK, which will be formed next year through a merger between NCIL, DA and RADAR, would take a “more systematic approach” to such conferences.

He also said he hoped Taylor Wessing would offer the venue free of charge again next year, despite the company’s concerns about repeat protests.

He added: “We will be planning events like this for the new organisation and will take on board the comments we have had on this.

“I think we have done a good job in limited circumstances to provide a debate that is so relevant to disabled people’s lives.”

He said material from the conference – including Miller’s speech – was being placed on DA’s website.

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