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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Slight improvement in Access to Work figures

The government has welcomed new figures which show a slight rise in the number of disabled people granted funds to make their workplaces more accessible.

The increase in “new customers helped” through the Access to Work (AtW) scheme comes after the number of people receiving support plummeted during the coalition’s first year.

The figures show the number of new customers helped rose from 2,320 in the first quarter of 2011/12 to 2,660 in the second quarter.

Despite the modest rise, the first half of 2011-12 still saw a sharp drop in new customers helped compared with the same period in 2010-11, from about 7,700 to about 5,000.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “We are pleased with the rise in figures, but would like to encourage more people to sign up to Access to Work.”

But she declined to say why the government thought the number of new AtW customers helped might have started to rise.

The figures follow a string of concerns that have been raised about the government’s commitment to the scheme – which provides funding for adaptations, equipment and ongoing support at work – since it came to power.

In August last year, Disability News Service revealed that disabled people receiving AtW were being sent “hostile” and “threatening” letters by DWP, giving them just a week to confirm they still needed their funding before it was withdrawn.

Last June, Liz Sayce, RADAR’s chief executive, published a review of employment support for the government and focused strongly on the need to expand and improve AtW.

But the government’s response to her review made several references to concerns that her AtW recommendations could put “additional pressure on funding at a time when resources are limited”.

And in 2010, the government backtracked on a high-profile pledge to allow disabled people to secure AtW funding before they applied for a job.

The coalition also quietly introduced new rules which mean employers or disabled employees themselves now have to fund equipment such as basic versions of voice-activated software, most adapted chairs, and satellite navigation devices, rather than having them funded through AtW.

For information on AtW, visit the government’s Directgov website.

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Remploy battle ‘could lead to occupation of factories’

Government decisions on the future of the remaining 54 Remploy sheltered factories could lead to strike action and even occupation of their workplaces by disabled people, MPs have heard.

The warning was issued by the Labour MP John McDonnell, who was taking part in a debate on the future of the factories.

McDonnell said the 54 factories would close unless there was a “change of attitude” from the government.

He said: “This is a fight for those factories, and if the workers want to fight with whatever means possible—industrial action, occupation—and we cannot persuade the government to reconsider, I will be joining them.”

Last month, Remploy workers handed Downing Street a petition of more than 100,000 names, organised by the GMB union, which called for the government to stop the threatened closure of the remaining factories.

Labour MPs lined up during the debate to condemn recommendations on Remploy contained in a report by RADAR chief executive Liz Sayce on the future of employment support for disabled people.

Sayce’s report calls for an end to government ownership and funding of Remploy, and the closure of factories which are “not viable”, but says others could become social enterprises, co-operatives, or “mutuals” owned by employees, with the help of short-term government subsidies.

The report also calls on the government to double the number of disabled people receiving support through the Access to Work scheme.

But Ann Clwyd, the Labour MP who secured the debate, said: “In a period in which unemployment is rising, it is pie in the sky and cruelly misleading to suggest that expanding the Access to Work programme will result in more work for disabled people.”

The disabled MP Dame Anne Begg said that closing the Remploy factories would mean “fewer opportunities for work experience to give people the skills, expertise and background that will allow them into open employment”.

She added: “We cannot do away with the factories if we are serious about getting people with severe disabilities into open employment.”

The only strong backbench support for the idea of closing sheltered factories and encouraging disabled people to work in mainstream employment came from the Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd, who has a hearing impairment.

He said: “Having disabled people living, studying and working alongside non-disabled people is vital to achieving a more cohesive society.”

He added: “The key, for me, is that it is time finally to address the low expectations that some disabled people have, as well as to challenge stigma that comes from outside.

“That is why it is so important that disabled people should become more visible in open employment.

“The subsidy could be better used to transform Remploy factories into individual viable businesses and to support more Remploy workers into open employment.”

Anne McGuire, the shadow minister for disabled people, accepted that the disability movement believed sheltered factories should be closed.

But she argued that there should “still be a place within our range of opportunities for supported factory employment”.

Another Labour MP, Nick Smith, said: “I am fearful that Remploy closures in places such as Abertillery will lead to its workers moving not to private sector jobs with the appropriate support, but to joining the dole queue alongside former incapacity benefit claimants. That is the reality of what will happen in many parts of the country.”

Maria Miller, the minister for disabled people and the only Conservative MP to speak in the debate, said Remploy’s latest accounts showed that it cost £25,000 to support each of the remaining 2,200 disabled members of factory staff.

She said that the issues facing the Remploy factories were “not new”, but that their operating loss had increased to tens of millions of pounds, while the modernisation plan introduced under the Labour government had “simply not addressed the fundamental weakness in the business model”.

She added: “I want to make it clear that I have not yet made a final decision about the consultation [on Sayce’s report], but I am persuaded that there is a need for change and that the Sayce review suggests a persuasive model for such change.”

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Baker applauded for £40 million rail access boost

A transport minister has announced new funding of nearly £40 million to improve access to Britain’s railway stations.

The funding is part of the 10-year Access for All programme launched in 2006 to provide accessible, step-free routes at 148 key stations, through lifts, ramps, raised humps on platforms and new accessible toilets.

Most of the new funding – £37.5 million – is for “mid-tier” projects that need up to £1 million in government cash.

There will be major access improvements affecting more than 40 stations, including London Paddington, St Austell, Stratford-upon-Avon, Swindon, and Ystrad Mynach in south Wales.

Network Rail will receive £500,000 to add tactile edge paving at 27 stations, and £5 million for raised humps on 100 platforms, to reduce the gap for passengers boarding trains.

Transport for All, the accessible transport charity, welcomed the new funding.

A spokeswoman for the charity said: “Transport for All applauds this recognition of the importance of equal access to transport for older and disabled people.

“The improvements will be transformative for disabled and older people living around the area, and their ability to get to work, to see friends and family, and to enjoy the freedom and independence to travel.”

Transport for All has backed campaigns this year for access improvements at two of the London stations awarded funding, Crystal Palace and Hampstead Heath.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport minister, said: “Despite the need to reduce the deficit, we are committed to improving access to stations across the country as this can make a huge difference to people’s lives.

“In recognition of this, and of the large number of high quality bids we received for this funding, we are today announcing projects worth more than double the £17m budget we originally allocated to this programme.”

Baker has also released £57 million from the existing Access for All budget two years earlier than planned – to be used from 2012 instead of 2014 – to allow Network Rail to “accelerate the delivery” of improvements at a further 27 stations.

And he has increased funding from £5 million to £7 million a year for the next three years – starting in April 2012 – so train operating companies can carry out smaller-scale access improvements at the stations they manage, restoring this budget to its pre-spending review level.

A Department for Transport spokesman later confirmed that this £2 million increase and the £37.5 million was “new money” that had not previously been announced by the government.

The Access for All fund was launched with a £370 million government funding pot in 2006, to improve access at train stations across England, Wales and Scotland.

Organisations such as councils and regional transport bodies can bid for cash but must match any funding they secure.

The new funding was announced as RADAR published Doing Transport Differently, a new guide to accessible transport and how to plan journeys, written by and for disabled people.

Liz Sayce, RADAR’s chief executive, said: “In the year of the 2012 games and beyond we want transport that is inclusive of everyone.

“This will benefit disabled individuals, who will gain independence, and transport companies, who will gain customers, and society overall, as more disabled people become more independent.”

The disabled Conservative MP Paul Maynard, a member of the transport select committee, said the guide was “innovative and important” and “provides practical advice and support so that disabled people can take advantage of public transport in the same way everyone else often takes for granted”.

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Fears over Equality Act threat in ‘sickness absence’ report

Recommendations in a major government-backed report on “sickness absence” have placed a worrying question-mark over vital new equality laws that protect disabled job-seekers from discrimination, say campaigners.

The health at work report was published last week, and has already secured backing from the prime minister, David Cameron.

But hidden in the report is a recommendation to “reconsider” the new ban on employers using health questionnaires to discriminate against disabled job applicants, which was introduced through Labour’s Equality Act.

The measure only became law in October 2010 and was welcomed by disabled people’s organisations as a major step forward for disability rights.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said she would be “very concerned” if the government moved to scrap the measure, which she said would be “incredibly retrograde”.

The ban was first recommended by the Disability Rights Task Force in 1999, and Sayce said there had been a “huge amount” of discussion and research that showed the need to ban the use of such questionnaires.

She said: “This is not the time for reconsideration of proposals designed to enable more disabled people to get into employment.”

Sayce said there were “some positive things” in the report, particularly its focus on reducing the annual flow of 300,000 people who leave their jobs due to ill-health or disability.

But she said she had concerns about one of the report’s key recommendations, for the government to fund a new “independent assessment service”, to which employers or GPs could refer people who have been on sickness absence from work for more than four weeks.

Sayce said it would be crucial that any such service “understands the adjustments that people need, the support that might enable people to work”.

She said: “It must not be a clinical, medical assessment. It must be something that is much more social model.

“If it is only about checking up on people then it will not work well. People need something that is quite supportive.”

The report was written by Dame Carol Black, the government’s national director for health and work and a former president of the Royal College of Physicians, and David Frost, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. The government will publish a response to their review next year.

The report also calls on the government to scrap the 13-week “assessment phase” for employment and support allowance (ESA) – the new replacement for incapacity benefit – because of delays in completing the work capability assessment, which tests ESA eligibility.

The report says 11 million employees a year take sick leave, with about 300,000 going on to claim ESA. The authors claim their recommendations would cut the number of new ESA claims by half.

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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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