Speaker says MPs should look again at laws ‘before lives are damaged’

Parliament should be given the chance to “think again” about government legislation that could damage the lives of “a large number” of disabled people, the speaker of the House of Commons has told campaigners.

John Bercow made the unexpected call at the inaugural Jack Ashley Memorial Lecture, delivered by Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson in the speaker’s own state rooms in the Houses of Parliament.

The intervention could be considered controversial, because – according to parliament’s website – the speaker has to remain “politically impartial at all times” as “chief officer and highest authority” of the House of Commons.

Bercow spoke out after a lecture in which the retired Paralympian and now campaigning peer discussed her concerns about changes being introduced through the government’s Welfare Reform Act and planned changes in the children and families bill, which includes major reforms to the special educational needs system.

Bercow told the invited audience that he believed MPs should carry out post-legislative scrutiny on the legislation referred to by Baroness Grey-Thompson in her lecture.

Post-legislative scrutiny is a rarely-used procedure through which a select committee carries out an inquiry into how new legislation is operating, usually about five years after it has become law.

Although all government departments have to publish a detailed memorandum describing how each piece of legislation has been implemented – between three and five years after it receives royal assent – only about six acts in the last 10 years have been the subject of a select committee inquiry.

Bercow, whose idea it was to hold an annual lecture in Lord Ashley’s memory, said: “Before a large number of years have passed and a large number of lives have been damaged, parliament would have a chance – if it thought it was right – to think again.

“I am very alarmed by the thought that the whole thing just becomes the established fact and there is no formal, high-profile opportunity for review.”

He added: “If the advocates of these pieces of legislation are right, they should have nothing to fear from post-legislative scrutiny and if they are wrong, they damn well ought to be fearful.”

He told Disability News Service afterwards that he was “simply floating the possibility that parliamentary colleagues might want to look at post-legislative scrutiny”.

He said: “I am not trying to score some kind of political point. I am not saying this legislation is bad or good.

“I am saying I don’t know; but it will affect people’s lives in a very big way, including some people who are vulnerable and it may well be that [the legislation] is the right thing to do and it may well be that it is the wrong thing to do.

“Surely it must be reasonable for parliament to take another look at it.”

He said he was not suggesting any particular legislation should be scrutinised, although he said Baroness Grey-Thompson had talked in her speech about the children and families bill.

And when asked if the Welfare Reform Act was another piece of legislation that could be scrutinised, he said: “It might well be.”

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

Martinez brings star quality to fresh assault on coalition’s ‘war on welfare’

Activists are hoping that a new petition – backed by a campaigning disabled comedian – could finally force the government to assess the overall impact of its programme of cuts and reforms to disability benefits and services.

The WOW (war on welfare) petition – which also calls for a free vote for MPs on repealing the Welfare Reform Act – was only launched on Tuesday this week, but by Thursday had already secured more than 5,000 names.

The launch on Twitter was fronted by disabled comedian Francesca Martinez, who has been prominent in speaking out against the cuts and has put her name to the petition.

The WOW petition is the latest attempt to shame the coalition into commissioning an assessment of the cumulative impact of its cuts on disabled people.

Its name and contents were “crowd-sourced” on Twitter by campaigners who wanted to continue the work of Pat’s Petition – fronted by the disabled activist Pat Onions – which secured 63,000 signatures, nearly 40,000 short of the 100,000 needed in one year to be considered for a Commons debate.

Among other demands, the WOW petition calls for an “immediate end” to the much-criticised work capability assessment – which tests eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit – and to the use of mandatory “workfare” schemes for some ESA claimants.

The WOW campaigners also want to see an independent inquiry into the impact of the coalition’s welfare reforms on disabled people.

Martinez told Disability News Service that she was “proud to be backing such an important cause”.

She said: “As a disabled person in the media, I want to help give this issue a voice. It’s morally wrong for the government to target those in need instead of saving money by targeting the real causes of this crisis – and close tax loopholes and regulate the financial sector. To me, it’s a human rights issue.”

Martinez said it was “a scary time”, and added: “I’ve read stories of people committing suicides because of losing their benefits and many more people will die as a result of these cuts.

“Ironically, while stating that they want to help disabled people work, the government are actually taking away their independence and making it harder for people to lead fulfilling and productive lives.

“Disabled people have much to offer society but life for many will become about basic survival – and, in one of the richest countries in the world, that is unacceptable.”

She said that, once the 100,000 milestone had been reached, there would be a campaign of lobbying and “other activities” directed at MPs and the media.

She added: “We absolutely understand the need to pressure and cajole our elected representatives and the fact that power is rarely given means it has to be taken.

“We will take the steps necessary to gain justice and restoration of our human rights which this coalition have been abusing.”

Ian Jones, one of the many disabled activists behind the petition, added: “We wanted to reinforce Pat’s message, the point that disabled people everywhere are feeling marginalised, feeling that people aren’t listening to us and feeling that it is not fair.”

Another of the activists said: “The reality is starting to hit home. If we don’t help ourselves, who will help us?”

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

Charities seek witnesses for ‘crucial’ benefits evidence session

Campaigners are seeking disabled people who can explain how the government’s new “universal credit” benefit reforms could see other people like them losing out financially.

Three charities – Disability Rights UK, Citizens Advice and The Children’s Society – fear thousands of disabled people will receive lower levels of support under the new system.

Universal credit – introduced as part of the controversial Welfare Reform Act and with the aim of simplifying the benefits system – will be rolled out from October 2013.

Disabled people already receiving benefits will receive “transitional protection” and so should not suffer an immediate drop in income, but new claimants of universal credit will not receive such protection.

The charities fear universal credit will fail to take account of the additional costs disabled people face because of their impairments, such as mobility aids, adaptations, transport, and support at home.

The three charities are now looking for disabled people – and carers of disabled children – who can talk about the extra costs they face at an evidence session in the House of Lords on 11 July that will be chaired by the disabled peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson.

They hope these witnesses will be able to give evidence about the impact a drop in support would have on their lives.

Because the government will not decide what level of support it will provide under universal credit until later this year, the charities say the evidence provided by the session could be “crucial” in influencing those decisions.

The charities will publish a briefing later this month to explain the “likely financial consequences” of universal credit for different groups of disabled people.

They will also launch a survey on the extra costs of being a disabled person, with the results being used for a report – to include evidence from the 11 July session – on the probable impact of universal credit.

Among those groups expected to lose out are: disabled people who are working or have worked and would be likely to be found “fit for work”; disabled people who live on their own, without a carer, and receive the middle or higher rate care component of disability living allowance (DLA); and couples who both claim DLA at higher or middle rate care, and do not have carers.

Travel expenses will be paid to those giving evidence, while those unable to travel could be interviewed on film at home.

Tens of thousands lose their ESA as welfare reforms begin to bite

Tens of thousands of disabled people have lost all of their out-of-work disability benefits this week, thanks to new rules brought in by the government through its controversial Welfare Reform Act.

The act introduced a new one-year time limit on claiming the contributory form of employment and support allowance (ESA) for those disabled people expected to move gradually towards work.

The new time limit was introduced retrospectively, which meant that claimants began to have their ESA removed on 30 April, even though the act only became law two months ago.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed that it expects 40,000 people from this work-related activity group (WRAG) to lose all of their ESA this week, with a further 60,000 losing their contributory ESA but becoming eligible for at least some ESA on the grounds of low income.

Those disabled people with higher support needs, who have been placed in the ESA support group, are not affected by the time limit.

The one-year limit was one of the most controversial aspects of the act, with the disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low telling the government earlier this year that the measure would be “not only unfair but downright cruel”.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) said this week that the time limit would increase the number of disabled people living in poverty, with some losing more than £90 a week.

Neil Coyle, DR UK’s director of policy and campaigns, said the new measure would only penalise disabled people who have worked in the past, as only those who have made national insurance contributions qualify for contributory ESA.

He called on the government to monitor the impact of the new time limit closely.

In its own equality impact assessment (EIA) of the measure last October, DWP conceded that the policy would affect about 700,000 people by 2015-16, with about 280,000 of them losing all of their ESA.

DWP estimates suggest that disabled people hitting the one-year time limit will lose an average £32 per week for men, and £43 for women.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The welfare system must support those with the most need.

“ESA for people who could be expected to get back into work was never intended to be a long-term benefit and the time limit of one year strikes the best balance between recognising that some people need extra help to enter the workplace and that the taxpayer cannot afford to support people indefinitely who could return to employment.”

She added: “Although a person’s ESA has ended they may be entitled to other help such as housing benefit, council tax benefit or working tax credits.”

She said DWP would monitor the impact of the time limit through its “frontline operation” and by “making sure people know what other benefits may be available to them”.

She added: “In terms of helping people, even if you are not eligible for benefit you can continue to claim national insurance credits and be eligible for all the support to help you get closer to the labour market, such as the Work Programme.”

She said this was another way for DWP to “stay in touch” with former claimants.

For more information on ESA, visit the government’s benefits adviser online service.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Government’s immigration decision will ‘marginalise disabled people’

The government has been heavily criticised for its decision not to accept the part of the UN disability convention that protects disabled immigrants.

The UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC) spoke out after immigration minister Damian Green announced that the government would not be removing the UK’s “reservation” on article 18 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

If there was no reservation, article 18 would recognise the rights of disabled immigrants to the UK not to be discriminated against on the grounds of their impairment.

But the Labour and coalition governments have both kept the reservation in place since the UK ratified the convention in 2009.

Last week, Green said the reservation allowed the coalition to apply its own immigration rules and avoided creating another way for people to challenge immigration decisions.

But he also said the reservation would “preserve the right to safeguard the public purse from excessive demands which may be placed on it”.

UKDPC called on the government to produce the equality impact assessment it should have carried out on the decision so it could demonstrate what these “excessive demands” were.

It said the government had already used the argument of financial necessity to push through its Welfare Reform Act, and accused the government of “using the financial situation of the country against the promotion of disabled people’s rights, whenever possible”.

UKDPC said it was “very disappointed” with Green’s decision, which would “further marginalise disabled people in our community”.

It pointed out that article 18 does not give disabled people any extra rights than under immigration laws, but merely exists to “strengthen existing laws and promote disabled people’s rights”.

A Home Office spokesman said:  “We do not believe this decision will marginalise or segregate disabled people.

“The UK already has some of the strongest laws in the world on disability discrimination and this is not affected by the reservation.

“We believe the reservation was necessary to safeguard our ability to apply immigration policies and safeguard the border.”

But he declined to comment on UKDPC’s claim that the government was using the country’s financial situation to attack disabled people’s rights, or on whether the Home Office would produce an impact assessment on its decision.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Funding for ‘one size fits all’ advice service leads to fears for disability specialists

A user-led advice service that has lost its council funding fears similar cuts could have serious financial consequences for disabled people in other parts of the country.

Calderdale DART (Disabled Advice Resource Team) has provided information to disabled people for nearly three decades, but its long-term future is now in “serious doubt” after its local authority withdrew its funding.

Calderdale Council in west Yorkshire will provide funding for a “one size fits all” general advice and information service, run by Calderdale Citizens Advice Bureau, rather than continuing to fund specialist advisers such as Calderdale DART.

But Tony Kay, DART’s manager, said: “This just isn’t going to work. Disabled people are going to suffer financially because they are not going to get the advice that they need.”

DART has received widespread support from disabled people, with one calling the council’s funding decision “downright disgusting and disgraceful” and another a “travesty”, while praising DART’s “first class” and “invaluable” service.

Kay pointed to the need for specialist advice on a raft of changes to disability benefits that will soon be introduced through the government’s Welfare Reform Act, including the new personal independence payment that will replace working-age disability living allowance.

DART, which is based in Halifax, this week heard that it had secured a transitional council grant while it seeks alternative long-term funding over the next 18 months.

But Kay warned that other councils could copy Calderdale’s move in a bid to cut costs, and added: “If other councils follow the route that Calderdale Council has gone down, inevitably it is going to exclude a lot of small, specialist organisations.”

Kay has been involved with DART for almost its entire 28 years, and said it was originally set up because of the need for specialist advice services.

He said the transitional grant was “very good news”, but added: “What still appears to be clear to us is that the council no longer believes it has the responsibility to provide funding for a specialist disability advice service and that it wants to pass on this responsibility to other funders.”

In 2010-11, DART helped nearly 1,200 people and dealt with more than 7,000 problems.

Calderdale Council’s cabinet member for communities, Cllr Pauline Nash, said the council was “confident that specialist advice for people with disabilities and their carers can be provided through the Citizens Advice Bureau”.

She said: “Within the contract with CAB, we have a number of agreed specific targets to ensure that people with disabilities and their carers have access to the best advice available.

“However, we recognise the valuable work that DART has been doing and have provided £74,000 transitional funding over 18 months to give DART the time and the opportunity to look at ways in which it can either provide advice services in a different way or seek alternative funding.”

Any organisations or individuals who can help with funding or support should visit the Calderdale DART website.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Shock and anger over DWP’s hate crime claims

Disabled activists have reacted with astonishment after the government claimed in a new action plan that its sweeping welfare reforms and cuts to disability benefits would help in the fight against disability hate crime.

The new cross-government action plan contains more than 50 measures aimed at tackling hate crime over the next three years.

The plan focuses on challenging attitudes, early intervention, increasing reporting of hate crimes and access to support for victims, as well as improving how the criminal justice system responds to hate crime, including racist crimes and those based on religion and sexual orientation.

The plan also mentions the crucial role disabled people and their organisations will play in combating disability hate crime, including through the government’s new disability strategy, and by helping to address negative media stereotypes.

But disabled people reacted with anger and astonishment after learning that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was also claiming that measures in its new Welfare Reform Act would “reduce the negative media portrayal of disability issues”.

Disabled people have been arguing that the government’s rhetoric on “benefit scroungers” and “fraudsters” has been increasing hostility towards disabled people, particularly through the language of coalition ministers and DWP’s misuse of benefits statistics.

Disabled activists have repeatedly criticised newspapers like the Daily Mail for publishing offensive, disablist and inaccurate stories about disability benefits, based on DWP briefings.

One disabled person told Disability News Service (DNS) this week that DWP was guilty of “institutional discrimination”, while another said she was still “too afraid to go out alone” because of ministers’ rhetoric on disability benefits.

Another who replied to DNS on Twitter said: “I can’t even comprehend it, are they utterly deluded, lying or is policy written by nice [people] with good intentions in a cave?”

Kirsten Hearn, chair of Inclusion London, said the reference in the action plan was “extraordinary” because the government’s welfare reforms had made disability hate crime “much worse”.

Hearn pointed to a report commissioned by Inclusion London, published last October, which found a significant increase in the number of negative stories about disabled people between 2004-05 and 2010-11, while the proportion of stories about disability benefit fraud had more than doubled.

She also called for the government to put much more effort into connecting with grassroots disabled activists, who have been fighting disability hate crime for many years and were “actually at the coal face”.

The new action plan says that strategies for dealing with hate crime “must be developed locally”, with a key role for the new elected police and crime commissioners, while the government’s job was to “set the strategic direction, with a clear and consistent message on the importance of tackling hate crime and protecting victims”.

The government will also publish a response next month to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) inquiry into disability-related harassment. Last September’s Hidden in Plain Sight report called for action across the criminal justice system.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com