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16th June 2022

 In this week’s edition:

  • ‘Feeble’ human rights watchdog should lose its ‘A’ rating, DPAC tells international body
  • Government ‘pauses’ disability policies over ‘unlawful’ national strategy
  • Disabled duo launch legal challenge to government’s ‘outrageous’ Grenfell move
  • New chair of DPTAC must be disabled, say transport access campaigners
  • Minister defends use of misleading jobs figures at UN
  • MPs ask Coffey why she is hiding nine secret DWP reports
  • Disabled councillor describes how PIP and access failings stalled her political career

 

‘Feeble’ human rights watchdog should lose its ‘A’ rating, DPAC tells international body

Disabled activists have told an international human rights alliance that the UK’s “feeble” human rights body should have its prestigious “A” rating removed, because it has become a cheerleader for the UK government.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was “not fit for purpose”, that it had been “co-opted” by the government, and that its primary mission appeared to be to “avoid rocking the boat”.

DPAC said the commission “no longer has credibility”, had “betrayed the communities that need it most” and no longer had the confidence of Deaf and disabled people.

Its evidence has been backed by four other disabled people’s organisations and two  disability groups: Liberation, Being the Boss, Bringing Us Together, Adult Social Care Warriors, Norfolk DPAC and Chronic Illness Inclusion.

DPAC has submitted a statement to the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), along with a similarly-critical statement from the LGBTQ+ organisation Stonewall, with support from the Good Law Project.

Their concerns about EHRC’s actions have been supported by more than 30 other organisations.

GANHRI is partly funded by the UN and oversees national human rights institutions, and it will be reviewing EHRC’s status as an A-rated human rights body this autumn.

In a letter to GANHRI on behalf of DPAC, Stonewall and the Good Law Project, law firm Bindmans criticises EHRC’s “lack of actual and perceived independence” from the government.

The letter says that the commission has been seen as “increasingly close to, and unwilling to criticise” the government since 2015 and particularly since the election of a Boris Johnson-led government in 2019.

A “crucial factor”, it says, has been the appointment of EHRC commissioners who are “broadly supportive of the Government and its agenda”.

It also raises concerns about government cuts to its budget, which in 2021-22 was just £17 million, compared with the £70 million it received at its peak, and its failure to work constructively with voluntary sector organisations.

And it highlights how the commission has “consistently failed to respond to attacks by the Government on trans people’s rights”.

GANHRI rejected an application from Stonewall and other groups earlier this year for it to carry out a “special review” of EHRC’s accreditation, but it has now announced that the commission will have its accreditation assessed in the next round of regular reviews in October.

Among the concerns raised by DPAC is EHRC’s refusal to carry out an investigation into countless deaths of disabled benefit claimants that have been linked to the failings of the Department for Work and Pensions, despite “ample evidence”.

It also highlights its failure to act on the disproportionate application of do not attempt resuscitation orders on disabled people during the pandemic, and the failure to take action to ensure that disabled people’s right to independent living is upheld.

Only last month, DPAC adds, EHRC was heavily criticised for a “highly misleading and provocative” post on social media in which it stated that it “does not recommend that ‘long covid’ be treated as a disability”.

The commission later clarified its position, but DPAC said the effect of the tweet had been to “undermine the rights of disabled people with Long Covid to equality and non-discrimination in the workplace and beyond”.

DPAC also points in its evidence to the commission’s decision to scrap its designated disability commissioner role five years ago, and to dissolve its disability advisory committee in March this year, which it believes are “partly responsible” for the inaction on the DWP inquiry.

DPAC said EHRC’s current leadership and policy direction represented a “serious threat to not just the rights of disabled people, but all communities targeted by this Government”, including those who are trans and non-binary.

DPAC said it stood in solidarity with trans and non-binary people and that the “shift among the EHRC leadership to deny the rights of trans people” echoed the position taken by the UK government.

An EHRC spokesperson said this morning (Thursday) in a statement: “Protecting and advancing the rights of disabled people is a key element of our work, which includes holding government to account without fear or favour.

“We are a strong, independent human rights institution and have put forward a robust case for the renewal of our ‘A’ status that responds to all points raised.

“We value immensely our partnerships with civil society, including disabled people’s organisations, and urge groups who have been critical of the EHRC to work constructively with us to achieve a fairer society for all.”

Next month, the commission will hold a workshop where it will seek views from disabled people’s organisations and others on the implementation of its new three-year strategy.

16 June 2022

 

 

Government ‘pauses’ disability policies over ‘unlawful’ national strategy

The government has “paused” some of its disability policies after being told by a court in January that its National Disability Strategy was unlawful.

In a letter sent out to stakeholders this week, and in a statement to parliament, the minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith, said the government had accepted that it needed to pause a “limited number of policies” that are referred to in the strategy or are linked to it.

She said this decision had been taken to “minimise the risk of acting inconsistently with the Court’s declaration”.

Smith said the government was still waiting for a decision from the Court of Appeal on whether it will be allowed to appeal the high court’s ruling.

The high court ruled in January that both a botched national consultation – carried out under the previous minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson – and the strategy itself were unlawful.

The court had found that the consultation, launched early last year through a national survey, had made it “impossible” for disabled people to “shape” the content of the strategy.

The court concluded that thousands of disabled people who took part in the consultation were not given enough information about the government’s proposed strategy to allow them “intelligent consideration and response”.

The government had argued that the survey was just an information-gathering exercise.

This week’s letter and statement coincided with Smith’s visit to New York for the 15th session of the Conference of State Parties (COSP), in which states signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) meet to discuss the treaty’s implementation.

In her letter, Smith says the government’s ambition is to “deliver long term change through practical actions and wide-ranging policies across government which enable disabled people to live full and independent lives”.

But three examples that she uses to show the government is “delivering on this ambition” have been exposed as either misleading or tokenistic.

She points firstly to figures showing there are 1.3 million more disabled people in employment than in 2017 and to a narrowing of the disability employment gap since 2013.

But analysis of those figures by academics – shared repeatedly with the government – shows they are “meaningless” when it comes to the inequality disabled people face in the jobs market.

This is because what has driven the increase in disabled people in employment since 2017 has been the level of overall employment – which is determined by the economic cycle – and an increase in the proportion of people describing themselves as disabled.

The research – by the Disability@Work group of researchers – shows that, once account is taken of the increasing disability prevalence rate, there has been no improvement in the disadvantage faced by disabled people in the employment market since 2013.

Smith spoke yesterday (Wednesday) about “increasing disability employment” at a UK “side event” at COSP (see separate story).

Her letter also mentions how the government has supported the introduction of both the British Sign Language Act and the Down Syndrome Act – both introduced as private members’ bills – this year.

But the British Sign Language Act has been described as “a token bill that the government are using to look good without costing anything” by some Deaf activists, although it has secured support among many other Deaf people.

Although it recognises British Sign Language as a language in England, Scotland and Wales, it provides BSL-users with no new rights.

The Down Syndrome Act has been criticised as “weak and unnecessary and at worst divisive” by campaigners with learning difficulties, although it has been welcomed by some prominent public figures with Down syndrome.

Smith’s letter appears to confirm concerns that the government’s decision to support both bills would be used as evidence to show it was acting to improve disabled people’s rights, despite the weakness of both pieces of legislation.

Smith referred to the British Sign Language Act – without mentioning that it had not been a government bill – as evidence of the government’s commitment to implementing CRPD, when she read out a statement to COSP on Tuesday.

She also referred to the government meeting its “one million more disabled people in employment” commitment.

She said the government’s 19 Disability and Access Ambassadors were “using their expertise and influence in business, driving and supporting changes in access for disabled consumers and employees”, while the government’s Ministerial Disability Champions were “driving forward work on disability in their respective departments”.

Asked to comment on the pausing of policies from the strategy, a DWP spokesperson said: “The National Disability Strategy set out our ambition to improve the lives of millions of disabled people.

“The secretary of state has sought permission to appeal the high court’s declaration that the strategy is unlawful, and while we await a decision on permission to appeal we are required to take steps to comply with the court’s declaration.

“We will do everything we can to limit the impact of this ruling on disabled people, but in order to ensure compliance with the court’s declaration, we are obliged to pause a limited number of policies which are referred to in the strategy or are directly connected with it.”

DWP is engaging with other departments over the strategy, and it aims to release more information in due course.

16 June 2022

 

 

Disabled duo launch legal challenge to government’s ‘outrageous’ Grenfell move

Two campaigners have launched a legal challenge over the Home Office decision to reject a key recommendation from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that would have ensured they and other disabled residents could safely evacuate blocks of flats.

Georgie Hulme and Sarah Rennie, co-founders of Claddag, have told the Home Office in a legal letter of the “upset, outrage and betrayal” felt by disabled people and those who survived Grenfell and lost family in the fire.

The letter, which is seeking key government documents and information and is likely to be followed by a claim for a judicial review of the Home Office decision, came as survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives this week marked five years since the Grenfell disaster.

The fire led to 72 people losing their lives, including 15 of Grenfell’s 37 disabled residents, on the night of 14 June 2017.

This followed years of failure to plan for how disabled people living in Grenfell would evacuate if they needed to.

National guidance in place at the time of the fire stated that it was “usually unrealistic” to expect landlords to put in place arrangements for disabled people to evacuate blocks of flats in an emergency.

Claddag’s legal challenge, through solicitors Bhatt Murphy, centres on the Home Office decision to reject the inquiry’s recommendation that all owners and managers of high-rise residential buildings should be legally required to prepare a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) for all residents who may find it difficult to “self-evacuate”.

Last month, the Home Office said its decision was taken on the grounds of “practicality”, “proportionality” and “safety”.

Instead, it is consulting on its own “alternative package” of measures, which it calls Emergency Evacuation Information Sharing, which does not go as far as PEEPs and which will only apply to the minority of buildings that have been assessed as being “at higher risk”.

Hulme told Disability News Service this week: “An evacuation plan is not a big ask and the fact that the Home Office is blocking this is an outrageous act of discrimination.

“Their focus on ‘proportionality’ shows a total disregard for those who died, survivors and bereaved.

“We know that over 40 per cent of those who died were disabled.

“How many disabled deaths would be an acceptable amount for the Home Office to consider proportionate to warrant action?

“We are being framed as a costly hindrance to the taxpayer and a physical obstacle to non-disabled people trying to evacuate. This is despite producing no evidence of either.

“There was overwhelming support in the last consultation for PEEPs, following the Grenfell inquiry recommendation.

“Yet the Home Office chose to have secret meetings behind closed doors which provoked the U-turn in policy and did not give us the same opportunity.

“We therefore have no other choice but to challenge the lawfulness of the process.”

Hulme’s comments came as London’s fire commissioner, Andy Roe – head of London Fire Brigade – told the London Assembly’s fire, resilience and emergency planning committee yesterday (Wednesday) (watch from one hour 16 minutes) that it was “neither morally nor legally justifiable” to tell non-disabled residents living in higher risk tower blocks in London that they must evacuate in an emergency, while leaving disabled residents in their flats to be rescued by firefighters.

He said: “In the highest risk blocks, I have always been clear with colleagues in government, despite the challenges, that some form of PEEPs has to exist, it simply has to.

“We have to do something for disabled residents before we arrive, it’s that straightforward.”

Hulme and Rennie believe the Home Office PEEPs decision breaches the government’s duty to protect life, and its duty not to discriminate against disabled people, under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Among other grounds for a potential judicial review, they believe the decision breaches the government’s public sector equality duty, under the Equality Act, while they say the consultation process on the PEEPs proposal was “clearly unfair”.

Both Hulme and Rennie are wheelchair-users and live in blocks of flats, Rennie in Birmingham and Hulme in Manchester.

They have also joined with Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, and Natasha Elcock, chair of Grenfell United, to write to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, home secretary Priti Patel, housing secretary Michael Gove, and building safety and fire minister Lord Greenhalgh.

They point out in the letter that Johnson promised to implement all the recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry that were aimed at the government.

Nearly three years on, they say, not one of those recommendations has yet been implemented.

They say in the letter: “We would ask you and your government what evidence you have that the – often not costly – implementation of PEEPs is a disproportionate response to saving a life.”

They add: “Those unable to self-evacuate are forced to live every day knowing that they cannot access a safe means of escape.

“Many of these individuals also still live in buildings with dangerous cladding.

“It’s been clear throughout the handling of this issue that the safety and lives of Disabled people is not a priority for your government.”

Although the Home Office confirmed that none of the recommendations aimed at the government after phase one of the inquiry has yet been implemented, nine of the 15 will be considered to have been implemented on 8 July, when its new fire safety regulations should receive parliamentary approval.

They will then come into force on 23 January 2023.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our fire reforms will go further than ever before to protect vulnerable people as we are determined to improve the safety of residents whose ability to self-evacuate may be compromised.

“That is why we have launched a new public consultation seeking views on an alternative package of initiatives, building on the information garnered from the Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans consultation, that enhance the safety of those residents.”

The Home Office confirmed it had received the letter from Claddag, Disability Rights UK and Grenfell United and would respond in due course.

16 June 2022

 

 

New chair of DPTAC must be disabled, say transport access campaigners

Campaigners have warned the government of the vital importance of choosing a disabled person to head its influential committee of advisers on accessible transport.

The warning comes as the committee is set to assume an important new role as part of the government’s major rail reform programme.

Tomorrow (Friday) is the deadline for applications for the eight-days-a-month role of chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC).

But the role has assumed even greater importance after the Department for Transport published a new consultation on the major changes in legislation needed to deliver its rail reforms, which include setting up Great British Railways (GBR) as a new over-arching body to run the rail system.

Among those changes, ministers intend to expand DPTAC’s role so that it also has a statutory role as an adviser to GBR.

Caroline Eglinton, a disabled accessibility expert who has worked in the rail industry for 16 years and is the government’s disability and access ambassador for rail travel, said the role of the chair will be even more important with DPTAC’s new responsibilities as access adviser to GBR.

She said: “I do think it’s really important that the new DPTAC chair is a disabled person – it’s one very straightforward way to value and amplify the voices of disabled people.

“With all the talented and experienced disabled people out there, I would find it difficult to understand how a non-disabled person could be a better fit for the role.

“I’d go as far as saying that I would be very disappointed if the new chair didn’t have personal lived experience of disability.”

Eglinton, who will not be applying for the role herself, said it was important not only to have a disabled chair of DPTAC but also to have a chair who was comfortable with talking about their own experience of disability and public transport.

She said: “I think it also helps to break down stereotypes people may have about disabled people. That’s why I’m always open about being disabled myself.”

In recent years, DPTAC has called on the government to invest billions more pounds in removing the “deeply-rooted barriers” disabled people face across the rail system.

Tony Jennings, co-chair of a rail accessibility panel and a disability rights campaigner and member of the Campaign for Level Boarding, said he also believed the appointment of the DPTAC chair was crucial and that it should be “an influential disabled person with authority and not a ‘yes person’ ticking boxes”.

The new consultation also says that the new role of passenger champion for rail users, which will be given to Transport Focus, the independent watchdog for transport users – although it is sponsored by the Department for Transport – will include “championing accessibility across all stages of the passenger journey”.

Jennings said that inclusion and accessibility must sit “at the heart of GBR strategy”, with disabled people with expertise and lived experience of accessible transport part of the decision-making process at GBR board level.

He would like to see a new accessibility panel at the top level of GBR, feeding into the organisation’s board “as a voice for disabled people”.

But he said the major change needed in a reasonable timescale would not come without “significant investment” and efforts to join up work on accessibility across the industry.

He said the current structure of the industry – including the influence of the industry body, the Rail Delivery Group – was “broken” and now needed to be far more “transparent and accountable”.

He also raised concerns about the impact assessments published alongside the consultation, which reveal the government’s “preferred” option for establishing a new accessibility duty for Great British Railways.

The document says ministers want to include this duty in GBR’s licence, rather than making it a statutory duty, because this retains “flexibility” if “policy objectives change”.

There will be a reference to the duty in primary legislation, but it will only state that the GBR licence must include a duty on accessibility.

Jennings said he was concerned that this was the government’s current preference.

He said: “Legislation is enforceable, flexibility isn’t.”

He said that past government pledges on accessibility had shown why such a promise needed to be clearly laid out in legislation, without allowing for exemptions or relaxations in certain circumstances.

He said: “Without a legislative timescale for all stations to be accessible and to enable level boarding, the duty will be pointless and in reality will be virtually impossible to enforce.”

Transport for All (TfA), the disabled-led group that campaigns on accessible transport, said it hoped the creation of GBR would “increase accountability and consistency”, and strongly supported it having an accessibility duty.

A TfA spokesperson said: “As ever, the key will be in the implementation and monitoring.

“The new structure must be sufficiently resourced to deliver, and work on accessibility must be effectively monitored and driven by the priorities that matter to disabled people.”

Alan Benson, TfA’s chair, added: “In all our work TfA is committed to ‘nothing about us without us’.

“We actively promote the value of lived experience and have been pioneers in ensuring that both professional consultants and volunteers are properly compensated for their contribution.

“We are very keen that whoever is appointed has lived experience as a disabled person.”

16 June 2022

 

Minister defends use of misleading jobs figures at UN

The minister for disabled people and a senior civil servant have defended the use of misleading figures about the government’s performance on disability employment at a United Nations event in New York.

They made the comments yesterday (Wednesday) at an event hosted by the UK government as part of the 15th session of the Conference of State Parties (COSP), in which countries signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are meeting to discuss the treaty’s implementation.

Chloe Smith, the minister, told an audience of civil servants from across the world, including Ukraine, Barbados and the Netherlands, that she was “really pleased” that the UK had managed to increase the number of disabled people in work by 1.3 million in just five years.

She had used the same figure in delivering the UK’s statement to COSP the previous day, but failed to point out on Tuesday that the UK government’s National Disability Strategy had been declared unlawful by the high court in January.

Smith told yesterday’s event in New York that the increase in disability employment “means that more disabled people are able to enjoy the empowerment that good work can provide”.

She added: “This is an achievement that actually everybody can be proud of.

“It belongs to all of us because it takes many partners of course to bring that about: employers, work coaches, charities, representative organisations, and most of all disabled people themselves.”

But she did not share with the meeting the analysis of those figures that has been carried out by academics and shared repeatedly with the government, which shows they are “meaningless” when it comes to the inequality disabled people face in the jobs market.

This is because what has driven the increase in disabled people in employment since 2017 has been the level of overall employment – which is determined by the economic cycle – and the increasing proportion of people describing themselves as disabled.

The research – by the Disability@Work group of researchers – shows that, once account is taken of the increasing disability prevalence rate, there has been no improvement in the disadvantage faced by disabled people in the employment market since 2013.

Disability News Service had submitted a question to the meeting in advance, in the expectation that Smith would use the misleading figures without putting them into context.

The question asked if the minister accepted the Disability@Work analysis that shows there has been no change in the inequality or disadvantage disabled people face in the jobs market since 2013.

The question put to her by a civil servant was slightly different, and asked instead: “The research shows that the one million disabled people in work that the minister referenced results from more people identifying as disabled and a general employment increase.

“How are these factors accounted for?”

Jennifer Heigham, from the government’s Work and Health Unit, said that no measure of disability employment was perfect and that was why the government used “lots of different measures”, including the disability employment gap.

She said the one million target – which the government had set and exceeded – was used because it was “easy to understand and ambitious”.

She claimed that the increase in prevalence accounted for about half of the increase in disabled people in employment, and that the government was “absolutely transparent about that, that prevalence is a major factor, but it’s definitely not the only factor”.

Heigham said the government wanted to see more people disclosing that they are disabled, and to “capture” those people falling out of work where prevalence has increased, as well as those who had previously described themselves as disabled.

Smith said she wanted to add that the government needed to “work together” with the third sector, the private sector, disabled people and disabled people’s organisations to come up with solutions and how to share them.

She said the government had always produced the disability employment gap measure alongside the figure for the number of disabled people in work, which together provided a “fuller picture” and helped demonstrate the “injustice” disabled people face.

Mike Adams, the disabled chief executive of the social enterprise Purple, spoke to the event from the UK about Purple’s high-profile access campaign Purple Tuesday.

He said Purple’s approach had been to engage with businesses to improve the experience of disabled consumers, which he claimed acts as an “accelerator” for disability employment.

He said: “It moves the model from seeing disability as one solely thinking about charity, vulnerable people, welfare and the responsibility of government, to one which is more akin to contribution, value, community and opportunity for both disabled people and for organisations.”

He said the key to disability employment was “seeing the talent, the individual that happens to have a disability or impairment, not seeing the barriers or the risk in the first instance”.

He added: “My assertion, and the assertion of Purple, is that good businesses will reflect their consumer base in their workforce.

“If disabled people are increased in the consumer base this will act as a pull to organisations to want to attract and retain disabled talent in their workforce.”

Adams also highlighted the importance of “unlocking” the rate of employees who disclose that they are disabled to their employers, to increase the number of “known” disabled employees within organisations, and help to give disability issues “a real voice, a real credibility” from the top of an organisation to frontline staff.

He said: “I have seen so many organisations where that starts to happen, people feel that they are able to disclose and at the point that that disclosure comes in, the reasonable adjustments can come in, wellbeing goes up and performance rates also go up as well.”

16 June 2022

 

MPs ask Coffey why she is hiding nine secret DWP reports

MPs have asked the work and pensions secretary to justify her refusal to release nine potentially embarrassing reports about her department’s work, at least four of which focus on disabled claimants of benefits.

Stephen Timms, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, wrote to Therese Coffey yesterday (Wednesday) to ask her to explain her failure to publish the nine documents.

He told her that the committee was concerned that the department’s “lack of transparency” could undermine trust in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Three of the documents mentioned by Timms in his letter are currently the subject of freedom of information battles between DWP and Disability News Service (DNS).

Only this week, DWP told DNS that releasing potentially “embarrassing” information that would show which of its websites were breaking accessibility laws – one of the documents the committee is concerned about – would prevent its civil servants from giving “honest views” in their work.

DWP released figures earlier this year which showed that fewer than one third of the websites and other digital services it runs complies with regulations, with 36 of the 141 “live” digital services run by DWP said to be “very high risk”.

These services include websites, mobile phone apps and software used by the department.

But DWP has now refused again to release an internal report which would show exactly which websites and other digital services are failing to comply with the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018.

In a response to a freedom of information appeal lodged by DNS, the department’s Central FOI Team claims the information relates to the “formulation and development” of government policy.

It says that if the report was released, DWP civil servants would be “reluctant to give their own honest views” on progress, which would “damage our ability to continue to improve”.

DWP argues that releasing the report would “give a misleading picture of our progress” and would “present a false picture and be open to misinterpretation” because of the way the report expresses risks in “worst-case terms”.

It says that its officials “must have the freedom” to draw up these reports “fully, frankly and with absolute honesty” and with the confidence that their work will not be released to the public.

Timms told Coffey in the letter that the committee “share the view that websites and other digital services run by the Department must be accessible to everyone who needs to use them, in compliance with regulations”.

The committee is also concerned about DWP’s refusal to release recommendations made by its own secret internal process reviews (IPRs).

Last month, the department branded DNS “vexatious” for attempting to use freedom of information laws to obtain key details from more than 90 IPRs into deaths and other serious incidents involving benefit claimants between 1 September 2020 and 28 April 2022.

The committee has also asked Coffey about her refusal to release any statistics about universal credit claimants who have gone through the work capability assessment process.

DNS is currently waiting for DWP to reply to a letter from the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) about what OSR describes as a “gap in the information”.

Other crucial documents the committee has asked Coffey about include a report on whether the sanctions regime within universal credit (UC) is effective at “supporting” claimants to search for work; another on the effectiveness of support for “vulnerable” claimants of UC; and an evaluation of the impact of lowering the benefit cap, which was completed three years ago.

Stephen Timms, the Labour chair of the committee, told DNS earlier this week, when asked about the website access report: “The department’s refusal to publish information which would be of widespread interest, but might mildly embarrass it, is ill-advised.

“Trust in the department is at a low ebb.

“Needless secrecy is just making the problem worse. It would be far better for the department to be open and straightforward.”

16 June 2022

 

Disabled councillor describes how PIP and access failings stalled her political career

A disabled councillor has described how the lack of support from the disability benefits system and the removal of the right to contribute to meetings remotely have stalled her political career.

Blossom Gottlieb was elected as a Green councillor to East Hampshire District Council in a by-election last October.

But she told an online event discussing how to increase the representation of disabled people in politics that the barriers she faced meant she was unlikely to be able to stand for re-election next year.

Gottlieb said she had stood for election, despite the barriers she faced as a wheelchair-user, because she had been prevented from attending university by her health condition.

But she told the meeting, hosted and organised by The Disability Union, that her position as a councillor had been made much more difficult because the ability to contribute remotely during the pandemic had now been removed, which meant she had not been able to attend meetings or use her vote.

She said: “It’s really, really disheartening because you go into something wanting to make a difference and then you’re not able to, even though it’s the same government that has defined what discrimination is and what reasonable adjustments are.

“It’s been so wonderful to be on this call because I feel I’m not alone and for the last year I’ve felt really isolated and have just not been offered any help.”

She said she had twice had applications for personal independence payment rejected, which meant she probably would not be able to stand for re-election next year.

She said: “It’s not just that disabled people are struggling on the benefit system… even if you get through the process you’re not getting enough to live on, and many people don’t get through the process.

“We need to be aware of the strain that this application system has on disabled people and their families and carers in terms of mental health and lifestyle.”

She added: “Disabled people are a quarter of the country and that’s not represented in politics and it never will be unless we introduce a better and more accessible and actually truly democratic voting system like proportional representation.”

Kirsty Smillie, strategic development officer for The Disability Union, said the union wanted to empower disabled people and carers to be “active in democracy from a community level all the way up to parliament”.

She told the event: “Your voices need to be heard. You need to be sat around that table when people are making the policies and decisions that directly affect you.”

The union has launched a year-long programme that it hopes will equip disabled people and carers “with the tools to have their voices heard” and become leaders.

Kirsty Blackman MP, the SNP’s shadow work and pensions secretary, spoke at the online event of the mental distress she experienced during the pandemic, which meant she had had to step back from her role as deputy leader of the SNP group in Westminster.

In last year’s elections to the Scottish parliament, she said, the SNP placed disabled candidates at the top of four of their eight regional list seats, to try to ensure that more disabled people were elected to the Scottish parliament, although not all of them were elected because the party did so well in individual constituencies.

Blackman said: “I don’t think that’s enough, I don’t think we are there yet.”

She also said she was in favour of allowing job-sharing MPs, although this is not SNP party policy.

She said: “It’s my personal position that if you can’t be an MP and a carer, or an MP and a disabled person, or an MP and a single parent, then we are failing to be representative so I wholeheartedly agree that that is a good way forward and would make a difference.

“It is the case that if parliament, or the Scottish parliament, or councils, do not have representative members then we will not make good decisions across the board.

“Parliament doesn’t look like the world.

“We don’t have the ability to hear and learn from people’s real life lived experiences in the way that we should, and that should not just be in social security or workers’ rights or particular issues that are considered to be disability-related issues.

“That should be in every single thing that we do, every decision that we make, because disability impacts every facet of life and because the legislation that we make impacts every facet of life.”

Another MP to back the idea of allowing MPs to job share was John McDonnell, Labour’s former shadow chancellor.

McDonnell is a long-time supporter of introducing job-sharing for MPs and 10 years ago introduced a private members’ bill on the issue, which he said this week was an idea that “came from the disability movement” and disabled people who said they could work a certain number of days a week as an MP but not full-time.

He said such a change to the law would be a “small step forward”.

He also backed the idea of including disabled candidates on Labour’s shortlists for selecting parliamentary candidates.

He said: “I do think we need to have positive discrimination.”

McDonnell said Labour had increased the number of its female MPs through all-women shortlists.

He said: “It did work, and I actually do think the ability to have disability on the shortlist is a step we need to take because we can’t go on the way we are.”

He later pointed to last week’s Disability News Service story, which found that MPs have asked the prime minister fewer than 20 questions on subjects focused on disabled people and their rights in the last 18 months of prime minister’s questions.

He said he agreed that this was partly a result of a lack of disabled MPs.

But he also pointed out that the priority for many disabled people over the last year was “just fighting to survive” in the cost-of-living crisis.

He said: “Unless we overcome this issue of the link between disability and poverty, a lot of it is just sticking plaster stuff.”

Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrat MP and deputy party leader, who has a long-term health condition, called on the UK government to follow the Scottish government in creating an Access to Politics scheme, as well as a new Access to Elected Office scheme.

Before her election as an MP in 2019, Cooper worked for the cross-party campaign group More United, which launched a legal action against the UK government after it closed down the Access to Elected Office Fund.

The fund had offered grants to disabled people to pay for some of their additional impairment-related costs in standing for election, and the legal challenge forced the government to re-open the fund temporarily under a new name.

Cooper said: “I am 100 per cent of the view that even though political parties need to change the way they operate and the way that they engage with their own disabled members, fundamentally the only way that disabled people can compete on an equal basis, on a level playing-field, in elections is the support of a national fund to support them to do that.”

Her party has made it mandatory for every local party to decide if it wants to set up a disabled-only shortlist or reserve places on their shortlist for disabled candidates for general elections.

Although only one has agreed to an all-disabled shortlist so far, others have reserved places on the shortlist for disabled candidates.

Kathy Bole, chair of Disability Labour, told the meeting: “We are not asking for anything other than what people who are not disabled are asking for.

“We are disabled by the built environment, we are disabled by other people’s opinions and assumptions about us as disabled people.

“Unless we bring in allies from across the piece we will never get things passed because we will fight and fight and fight and then drop, and then get up again and start fighting and then drop.”

Julie Jaye Charles, founder and executive director of Start Change, said it was also crucial to focus on disabled people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

She said she attended a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on disability earlier in the week and had been shocked to see only three people out of 60 who identified as being a disabled person from a BAME community.

She said: “I find that not only does society discriminate against disabled people, it is difficult for me not to say that the disability movement sometimes does too.

“The disability movement itself has a lot of work to do around engaging with other communities.

“I want us to work together to make this a reality for all of us.

“It’s got to be broader and it’s got to be wider, and we need to include everybody.”

She said she had been the only black disabled person supported by the Access to Elected Office Fund.

She added: “I wasn’t successful in being a councillor and that saddens me.

“It was because there was not enough encouragement, support from the equalities department in government that should have been supporting individual disabled people to go forwards and stand, there just was not enough support there.

“We were kind of put there to fail.”

George Baker, founder of The Disability Union, told the online meeting: “For disabled people to get really involved in politics and for there to be a truly representative system, we have to fix all the other basic problems disabled people face.”

He pointed to poverty, access to work, social care, and being able to access the local community.

As a wheelchair-user, one of the problems he faced when campaigning to stand in the last general election in Winchester was door-knocking.

Baker, who has recently been elected as a parish councillor in Winchester, said: “There are multiple different ways to make door-knocking or canvassing accessible to me.

“It shouldn’t be my job to do that, it should be part of the structure of how these things are run.”

He said that accessibility should be a human right, and a basic service.

He added: “A lot of what we are going to fight for as The Disability Union is the basic services to get people out of poverty so they can get involved in these things.”

16 June 2022

 

 

Other disability-related stories covered by mainstream media this week

Police have launched an investigation into the deaths of two people who were reportedly strapped into wheelchairs when the boat they were on capsized. Devon and Cornwall Police and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch have opened parallel probes into the accident on Roadford Lake, near Okehampton: Read The Independent article

The aviation watchdog has told airports to address “unacceptable” failings affecting disabled people and warned it could use legal enforcement powers if they continue. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said it had seen an increase in reports of “significant service failings”, including incidents where passengers needing assistance have been taken off a plane hours after other passengers. In a letter, CAA said the incidents were unacceptable and distressing for those involved: Read The Independent article 

Doctors who worked on the frontline during the pandemic and have been left with long Covid say they have been denied financial support by the UK government, with some left with little option but to sell their houses. Months or even years after an initial Covid infection some people continue to have symptoms, from fatigue to brain fog. Now healthcare staff in the UK have told the Guardian that despite being left with serious impairments as a result of long Covid, they have been turned down for personal independence payment: Read The Guardian article 

Tributes have been paid to a disabled British scientist who has died aged 64. Dr Peter Scott-Morgan had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2017, but said he wanted to push the boundaries of what science can achieve and decided to extend his life and become a “human cyborg” and so not only stay alive, but thrive, despite an apparently terminal condition: Read The Mirror article 

Pop star Lizzo has changed the lyrics to her latest song after fans complained it used a disablist slur. Grrrls, which was released last week, originally contained a derogatory term for people with cerebral palsy. Fans said they were “shocked” and “disappointed” and asked her to re-record the song with alternative words. The star released a new version omitting the word on Monday night: Read The BBC article 

16 June 2022

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com