‘Utterly disgraceful’ Public Health England refuses to warn councils of ESA suicide risk
The government’s public health agency has refused to warn local NHS and council bodies that claimants of out-of-work disability benefits are at a hugely-increased risk of attempting to take their own lives.
Last week, Public Health England (PHE) published the latest update of its Suicide Prevention Profile (SPP), which includes detailed data that helps public bodies draw up their own local suicide prevention plans.
The aim of the profile is to develop “an intelligence driven approach to suicide prevention” by providing figures that show the prevalence of suicide among different age groups and in different areas, and how different risk factors vary across those areas.
PHE says its SPP aims to support local areas in developing and monitoring their suicide prevention action plans, helping them to “understand suicide and the risk and service-related factors that may have a causal relationship”.
The profile includes 25 risk factors for suicide, including the prevalence of depression, alcohol-related hospital admissions and how many people live alone, and shows how these indicators vary in every county and unitary authority area in England.
This allows the experts who draw up local suicide prevention plans to see which risk factors are particularly high in their area, so they can pay attention to them and try to produce strategies to prevent people dying through suicide.
But PHE has ignored the proportion of the population in local areas that claims employment and support allowance (ESA) as one of those risk factors, even though it is aware of NHS figures that show nearly half of ESA claimants have attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
NHS Digital’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey showed in September 2016 that more than 43 per cent of ESA claimants had said (when asked in 2014) that they had attempted suicide.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle Campaign, said PHE’s failure was “utterly disgraceful” and “beyond belief”.
He said this “negligence” made PHE “complicit” in the continuing suicides among sick and disabled people that were being caused by the government’s welfare reforms, and the further “catastrophic harm” caused to those who do not take their own lives.
Dr Jay Watts, the activist and consultant clinical psychologist who first highlighted the figures, said there was “clear and undeniable evidence of the exceptionally high rate of attempted suicide by ESA claimants from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, the most comprehensive and widely respected measure of the nation’s mental health.
“This data has been triangulated by other evidences including that from senior health professionals, the police, activist groups and those volunteering on national suicide helplines, all of which concur that the benefits system triggers risk of death by suicide.
“Despite this, Public Health England has chosen to omit this from their new guidance, drawing the focus of local suicide prevention strategies away from an extremely high-risk group where help and care could make a real difference in mitigating risk.”
She added: “It is interesting that the ‘there are always multiple factors’ arguments is used to bat off mentioning evidence where the current government is implicated, yet somehow this rhetoric doesn’t get applied to other more politically neutral factors such as gender and loneliness.
“Given this peculiarity, it is difficult to read Public Health England’s decision to omit the mentioning of ESA claimants as anything but an indefensible politically motivated decision.”
PHE admitted that it had been aware of the NHS Digital ESA statistics.
But a PHE spokeswoman said that, because the 43 per cent figure was a measure of how many ESA claimants had attempted suicide during their lifetime, the timing of suicide attempts and claiming ESA “may not necessarily have occurred at the same time, which has to be considered when looking at the data”.
She also appeared to claim that the reason the national ESA figures could not be included in the profile was because they were based on too small a sample, so producing local figures for the SPP could potentially identify individuals.
This appeared to be a clear and basic misunderstanding of the statistics that would be used in the profile, as Department for Work and Pensions figures show there are many hundreds, and usually thousands, of ESA claimants in each local authority area in England.
And if PHE included ESA as a risk factor in its SPP, it would only produce figures showing the proportion of the local working-age population who claimed ESA, posing absolutely no risk of identifying any individual.
The PHE spokeswoman refused to reconsider her response, despite being asked to explain the apparent flaws and inconsistencies in her statement*.
She also claimed that PHE made clear in its local suicide prevention planning guidance that local areas should “also look at other sources to inform their prevention plans”.
But this planning guidance makes no mention of the ESA figures or any other benefits in the relevant section (section 3) or throughout the document.
Lily Makurah, national public mental health lead at PHE, said: “There are many reasons that can sadly drive someone to take their life by suicide.
“Our data helps to provide the basis for local authorities and partners to develop suicide prevention plans that best meet the needs of their communities.”
But McArdle said: “Judging from their reaction, it would appear that PHE have not properly examined the empirical evidence before us because had they done so it would be impossible for a reasonable person to reach the conclusion that they have.”
Jackie Doyle-Price, the new “suicide prevention” minister, has refused to pledge to take the simple steps of highlighting that ESA claimants are a high-risk group in that strategy, and of alerting local agencies to the figures.
And this week her department failed to comment on PHE’s failure to mention the figures in its SPP.
The PHE spokeswoman did make it clear, though, that Doyle-Price had not been asked to approve the latest list of risk factors.
*The PHE spokeswoman also admitted that figures showing the proportion of ESA claimants with mental health conditions in the local working-age populations in areas across England were included in PHE’s mental health and wellbeing joint strategic needs assessment, which is designed to “help planners understand needs within the local population and assess local services”. But she failed to explain why similar figures for all ESA claimants in an area could not therefore be used in the Suicide Prevention Profile
15 November 2018
DWP ‘plans to move more benefits onto troubled universal credit IT platform’
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been planning for years to move more benefits onto the hugely-troubled IT platform that hosts universal credit, documents released through freedom of information requests appear to show.
DWP deposited a substantial number of internal documents relating to universal credit in the House of Commons library this month, following the latest in a series of freedom of information requests by campaigner John Slater.
The documents include a series of “programme decision logs”, providing details of decisions taken between 2015 and 2017 by the universal credit programme board, which reviews progress on implementing the system and whose members are mostly senior DWP civil servants.
Universal credit was designed to incorporate six income-related benefits into one, including income-related employment and support allowance (ESA), housing benefit and income support.
But the IT system that supports universal credit claims – as well as the application of sanctions when they breach strict conditions and the online journal that claimants must keep updated – has been repeatedly criticised for being flawed and error-ridden, while critics have warned that the online system is not accessible for many disabled people.
The department is already preparing to transfer millions of people on existing income-related benefits onto universal credit by 2023, with the public accounts committee warning last month that delivery of universal credit was “causing unacceptable hardship and difficulties for many of the claimants it was designed to help” and of “a culture of indifference” within the department to those problems.
Now it appears that DWP is planning to load hundreds of thousands more claimants onto the IT system that supports universal credit, although it is not clear when it intends to begin this process.
The decision logs unearthed by Slater include repeated references to contributory benefits – out-of-work benefits paid to those who have built up sufficient national insurance contributions, such as the contributory form of ESA.
In January 2017, for example, the universal credit programme board “discussed the short, medium and long term approach to Contributory Benefits in UC, progress to date and next steps”.
It also “noted progress made on the development of the contributory benefit strategic business case”.
And it warned that “some senior input might be necessary to drive the business case forward”.
In May 2016, the programme board had “noted progress on Contributory Benefits design proposal for UC Full Service”, while the previous year the board had stated the need to “engage Ministers on the long term plans for contributory benefits and seek a decision by Spring 2016 in order that we can plan any legislative and policy changes”.
But despite these and many other references to contributory benefits by the universal credit programme board, a DWP spokeswoman said: “DWP has no plans to merge contributory benefits into Universal Credit. They will continue to be claimed separately.”
When asked why there were so many mentions of contributory benefits by the programme board and to confirm that the department planned to migrate them onto the universal credit IT platform, she refused to comment further.
Slater, himself a programme manager, said that migrating contributory benefits onto the universal credit IT platform “would appear to place all the DWP eggs into a single basket”.
He said: “Given the problems the UC IT currently experiences (outages, running slow etc), I can’t see it going well if contributory benefits are added to the workload.”
Slater is also concerned that DWP may intend eventually to move disability benefits such as personal independence payment and disability living allowance onto the IT platform developed for universal credit.
He said the potential problems this could cause were “huge”, and he added: “We’re getting a taste of this already under universal credit, with people claiming income-related ESA or just not having the basic IT skills to cope with the UC IT system being sanctioned on a regular basis, which is leaving them destitute.”
Disabled activists have repeatedly warned that universal credit is “rotten to the core” with “soaring” rates of sanctions and foodbank use in areas where it has been introduced.
In June, a report by the National Audit Office said DWP was failing to support “vulnerable” claimants and was unable to monitor how they were being treated under universal credit.
And last week, Disability News Service reported how a man with learning difficulties died a month after attempting to take his own life, following a move onto the “chaotic” universal credit system that left him hundreds of pounds in debt.
15 November 2018
UN expert tells of disabled people’s ‘horrendous’ evidence on poverty
The UN expert investigating the government’s record on eradicating poverty has described how he has heard “pretty horrendous” evidence from disabled people while conducting a 12-day factfinding visit to the UK.
Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, also told Disability News Service (DNS) that the government had not made the progress he would have expected in securing “real equality” for disabled people.
And he made it clear, after speaking at an event in London on Tuesday evening, that the impact of universal credit on the poverty experienced by disabled people and other groups would play an important part in his report.
He said: “I don’t think I could avoid it as a big issue.”
He said that disabled people had made up a “significant proportion” of the community and other groups he had met, and those he had met had told him “stories which are pretty troubling to hear.
“They paint a picture of a system which doesn’t respond to their particular challenges and problems in the way that it should.”
He said that that did not surprise him on one level because disabled people faced discrimination all over the world.
But he added: “On the other hand there is a formal commitment [in the UK, through the Equality Act] to treat them with full respect and care.
“One would have hoped there would have been more progress in terms of real equality for people with disabilities.”
Alston had made it clear earlier that, because of the strict rules of the UN process he was undertaking, he could not yet speak “in a very direct way” about his findings.
In response to a question from DNS during the event, he told the audience that he had met many disabled people during his visit who had described their experiences of poverty, particularly in relation to universal credit and the disability benefit assessment process.
He said: “I have to say that I have heard some pretty horrendous stories.”
He added: “One of the issues that I’m conscious of, and it’s an easy reply if government wants to make it, is that of course my audience is self-selecting.
“In other words, people who feel that the system is working really well, who have had a good deal, who really love their work coach, are not going to come along to a meeting with me nor send me a letter saying the system is great, mate.
“So I naturally tend to get people who are deeply discontented but it has to be said that I have had probably more than my expected share of people with disabilities who have had pretty awful experiences.”
He also told the meeting that the UK government had delivered a “relatively dismissive” response to last year’s report by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, in which the committee had told the government to make more than 80 improvements to how its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights.
But Alston also told the event – organised by the UK human rights consortium Just Fair and the Human Rights Lawyers Association – that he had been told earlier that day by the government that there had been no austerity.
Although he later declined to identify to DNS which minister or civil servant had made the comment, he had just described having meetings that day with work and pensions secretary Esther McVey (who resigned from the cabinet this morning), as well as an unnamed work and pensions minister and a junior Treasury minister.
He said: “I was told today that there isn’t austerity. That government expenditure in almost all areas has gone up steadily in the last 10 years.
“So I asked what Philip Hammond and Theresa May were talking about [when they talk about an end to austerity]. I didn’t get a particularly good answer to that.”
Alston also said that he had received “very surprising” answers from the government when he had asked about the use of foodbanks, although he declined to expand on what ministers told him.
He said: “The impact of these policies on communities is going to be an important element in my final report.”
He was asked by an audience member whether he had been examining whether government austerity measures, including benefit sanctions, might amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Alston said there were problems with the sanctions statistics that the Department for Work and Pensions places on its website, with “a lot of data that is not made available”.
He added: “The challenge to me is to be able to describe accurately what is really going on, but I think I will be able to do that.
“Whether I would categorise it as cruel and inhuman, I will see how I feel on Thursday night when I’m finishing writing my statement.
“There is a whole book that has that title, which I’ve read and I am well aware that many of the people who have experienced these sort of sanctions would categorise them in that way.”
Alston told the meeting that although he had “no power” and could not order the UK government to take any action, he hoped his report would be strong enough to “resonate with people” so that it would “have legs” and would “continue to be discussed”.
He said he knew the UK government would not welcome his report and would not agree to implement it, but he hoped to be able to “shine a light on some issues that could do with added attention”.
He also pointed to the role that tabloid newspapers and others – including those owned by his fellow Australian Rupert Murdoch (now a US citizen) – had played in stigmatising and distorting human rights “so we all know that human rights are only for drug dealers and terrorists”.
He said this had “highlighted for many of us in the human rights community the need to start rehabilitating the notion of human rights”, and to emphasise that human rights “are for the average person and not just for the particularly vulnerable groups”.
He said: “If people aren’t getting enough food to eat I think there should be reasonable outrage and I think it would be useful to see that from a rights perspective, but I think that’s going to take time.
“I think that’s what many of us in the field need to start working on.”
Alston also said that the international system of human rights provided a way to hold governments accountable for their actions.
He said: “What has to be recognised is that being in poverty is a grave threat to your civil and political rights.
“Most of the people [in the world] who are tortured, most of the people who are killed, most of the people who are abused in prisons or elsewhere are poor. They are abused in part because they are poor.
“They are easy victims, they don’t have recourse, they don’t have people to defend them, they can’t afford lawyers.
“Attacking the poor is easy, and they as a result suffer highly disproportionately in terms of their civil and political rights.”
Alston and his team carried out months of detailed research in advance of their 12-day visit, which saw them visit Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Essex, Glasgow, Jaywick, London, and Newcastle.
He is set to issue a preliminary 10-page statement tomorrow (Friday) before publishing his final report in June.
15 October 2018
Regulator sets out ideas for better assisted rail travel
The rail regulator has revealed a series of draft measures designed to force the industry to improve the assistance it provides to disabled passengers.
Many of the proposals suggested by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) yesterday (Wednesday) aim to address key concerns that have been highlighted publicly by disabled campaigners.
They include measures to make it less likely that users of mobility scooters will be prevented from boarding trains, improvements to information on whether on-board accessible toilets are out-of-order, better training for staff – with disabled people involved in its delivery – and measures aimed at ensuring that more rail replacement services are wheelchair-accessible.
There is also the possibility of a significant reduction in the standard notice required from disabled passengers seeking to book assistance before they travel, which could be reduced to two hours from the 24 hours notice often required, although other options are also included.
ORR says it wants all rail operators to introduce schemes offering compensation to passengers if they fail to receive the assistance they booked in advance.
And it says it wants the industry to introduce text relay services that would allow passengers with hearing or speech impairments to book assistance using text-to speech translation services.
The ORR consultation will eventually lead to the first changes to the rules governing how Network Rail and train operating companies ensure their services are accessible to disabled people – through their Disabled People’s Protection Policies (DPPPs) – since 2009.
The DPPPs are important because every train and station operator must have one and they have a legal obligation to comply with them.
Other suggested ORR changes include improving and standardising information on assistance and making improvements to the process of booking that assistance.
There are also plans to introduce a formal procedure for communication between staff at different stations to ensure that passengers who have asked for help “consistently receive assistance to alight the train”.
ORR also wants to ensure that wheelchair-users are told when buying a first-class ticket if there are no spaces for wheelchair-users in the first-class carriage.
The suggested changes have come following months of consultations with disabled people’s organisations, passenger bodies and the rail industry.
Few disabled campaigners have yet had a chance to read the 116-page report, but initial reactions suggest many of the measures will be welcomed, although further improvements to the document will be needed.
Doug Paulley, who has raised publicly at least two of the key issues raised by the report, said his initial impression was that the report included some positive recommendations, but that there would need to be improvements through the consultation process.
He particularly highlighted the section on rail replacement services, an issue he has raised, and said the ORR needed to strengthen the new guidance in that area.
He said DPPPs were “important”, and he added: “It’s the key document that sets out in detail what each train operating company is legally required to do to make its services accessible for disabled people.”
The crossbench disabled peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, who has repeatedly highlighted cases of discrimination against herself and other disabled passengers on public transport – and last month suggested she would write to the Department for Transport every time she heard of a disabled person having an access problem on a train – said she would welcome anything that made rail transport easier for disabled people.
She said: “The number of complaints I am receiving is unacceptable.”
She said she would send ORR a full response to its consultation.
Stephen Brookes, the government’s rail sector champion and an ambassador for Disability Rights UK, welcomed the ORR report.
He said: “I am particularly pleased to see that the consultation will examine new arrangements to strengthen communication between stations and measures to introduce greater accountability for assistance provision.
“This all too frequent failure has been a regular criticism shared with me by disabled people in my work.”
He said he also welcomed the plan to produce “a more concise passenger leaflet focused on what to expect before travelling, at the station, on the train and if things go wrong.
“The publicity currently available is not consistent and nor is the on-the-ground implementation, so any simplification has to be a real and significant win.”
John Larkinson, ORR’s chief executive, says in the report: “We know from our previous research and consultation that more needs to be done: to raise awareness of what assistance is available and how to get it; to improve the reliability of this service; and to provide staff with the information, skills and confidence to give the best customer service possible – including to those with hidden disabilities.
“We are encouraged by the good practice we have found, but we have been clear with train operators and Network Rail that they must consider what more they can do in these areas.”
ORR will consider the responses to its consultation – which ends on 18 January – and then publish its final revised guidance in spring 2019.
15 November 2018
Petition raising fears over ‘freedom deprivation bill’ tops 100,000 signatures
More than 100,000 people have signed a petition demanding the government makes major changes to a bill that campaigners say would make it easier for many disabled people to be deprived of their freedom.
The Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA) only launched the petition at the end of last month, but within about two weeks 100,000 people had added their names.
That petition and other campaigning and lobbying efforts appear to have had some impact, with ministers due to announce some amendments to the mental capacity (amendment) bill today (Thursday), although it is unlikely that they will meet all ROFA’s demands.
ROFA’s petition raises grave concerns about the bill – which is set for its report stage in the House of Lords on Wednesday (21 November) – and the powers it will grant care home managers, local authorities and NHS organisations.
The bill will affect an estimated 300,000 people in England and Wales with impairments including dementia, learning difficulties and brain injuries.
It will introduce a new system, Liberty Protection Safeguards (LPS), to replace the crisis-ridden Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS), for service-users who are said to need to be deprived of their liberty as part of their care but are considered to lack the mental capacity to consent to those arrangements.
The bill is based on recommendations by the Law Commission but critics say it is “significantly different” from the commission’s own draft bill and omits most of its most progressive elements.
The petition warns that the bill as it stands “will make it easier to deprive someone of their liberty if they are judged unable to make decisions for themselves” and could mean disabled people being “forced to live in care homes because it’s cheaper and easier for the local council even though it’s not what they want or need”.
Decisions on deprivation of liberty are currently taken with the help of an independent assessment that “considers the opinions and wishes of the person and makes sure the care that is provided is what the person needs”, says ROFA.
But the petition says the bill would scrap most of these independent assessments and would often give decision-making power instead to care home managers, “who have an interest in keeping people in their care homes”.
An independent assessor will only be asked to carry out a review if the service-user is believed to be objecting to the deprivation of their liberty, and it will be up to the care home manager to decide if that person is objecting.
Similar powers would be given to managers in local authorities, hospitals or NHS clinical commissioning groups when considering LPS for disabled people in other care settings.
Andrew Lee, director of policy and campaigns for People First, said he hoped the number of people responding to the petition would raise awareness with the general public and “put pressure on the government and MPs to change and improve the bill”.
Among his key concerns with the bill are the lack of an automatic right to independent advocacy; the conflict of interest created by a care home manager having responsibility for arranging assessments, as it would “give them permission to put their financial gain over someone’s wishes to live independently”; and the lack of a duty to promote liberty.
He also said there was “a lack of a right to accessible information” about the LPS process, which “is vital if a person is going to be a part of what is happening”.
Lee said the bill had been “rushed through and rather than look at any of the main issues with the Mental Capacity Act and get it right, rights and safeguards have been stripped away.
“Real research needs to be done around the definition of deprivation of liberty, when it is applied and what it covers.
“For now, this bill has just made it easier for people to be deprived of their liberty by taking away their rights.”
He said the bill “gives people who already have power, more power over the decisions in a person’s life”, and he warned that if it was passed in its current state it would “send the rights of disabled people back around 40 years”.
He said he feared a worst case scenario with nothing to stop a care home manager “locking up a person for the rest of their lives, just through the simple fact that they are the ones making the decisions about whether a person has any say about where they live, whether a person has an assessment and whether they get an advocate”.
He added: “For me, this law will lead to further institutionalisation of people with learning difficulties and it is unacceptable that in this day in age, after fighting so hard to be treated as equal under the law, that this bill can come along and treat us like objects.”
Simone Aspis, director of Changing Perspectives, said the response to the petition was “fabulous” in such a short period of time.
She said the legislation “starts from the wrong place” and needed to begin instead with “the promotion of people’s liberty” rather than its current starting-point of creating a legal framework to allow care homes and local authorities to deprive someone of their freedom.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said the bill would “reform a broken system and reduce the number of vulnerable people waiting for access to essential protections by simplifying the process and making it less burdensome.
“We agree safeguards must be protected. That is why the proposed model has all authorisations decided by a responsible body, and independent oversight from approved mental capacity professionals.
“We are also considering changes to strengthen safeguards, such as the explicit exclusion of care home staff from conducting assessments.”
15 November 2018
Care charges are driving disabled people into debt, says report
Charging disabled people for their care and support is driving many of them into debt and forcing them to cut their spending on food or heating, according to new research by a network of disabled people’s organisations and their allies.
The study by the Independent Living Strategy Group (ILSG) found that four in 10 (41 per cent) of those responding to a survey had experienced a substantial increase in charges over the last couple of years.
Nearly half (43 per cent) had had to cut back on their spending on food to pay for care.
And two-fifths of respondents (40 per cent) said they had had to cut back on heating costs to pay for care and support.
The study concludes that charging for the support disabled people need to go about their daily lives is “unfair, counterproductive and undermines the primary purpose of the care and support system”.
The effect of charging, it says, is often to “drive disabled people into care poverty, and to create confusion, stress and complexity in an already overly burdened bureaucratic system” through what is effectively “an unhelpful and unnecessary tax on disability and old age”.
The study analysed the results of an online survey of more than 600 disabled people who had received a community care assessment, and freedom of information responses from all 152 English local authorities with social care responsibilities.
All but one of the local authorities – Hammersmith and Fulham – impose charges on some of their service-users.
The study heard from one disabled person who benefited from Hammersmith and Fulham’s no-charging policy, who said: “Social care is a human right. It’s an essential service like education or the NHS.
“It’s not ethical to charge for it, in effect it’s an extra tax.”
Charging for care, says the study, only raises “modest” sums of money – about 12 per cent of spending on care and support – but has a “profound impact on the individual”, with an average charge per year of more than £2,000 (£2,243).
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, who chairs ILSG, said: “Support provided under the Care Act is meant to improve the wellbeing and independence of disabled people.
“By charging many for that support, the system is making a mockery of the spirit of the legislation and causing worry, stress and poverty.
“Charging raises a relatively small sum of money which is pushing up costs elsewhere.
“The financial impact of personal care neglect such as pressure sores, kidney infections or falls, as well as stress related illnesses, means finding extra resources for the NHS.”
The group called on the government to scrap all charges.
But if it refused to do that, ILSG said, it should introduce other measures to “mitigate” against the “worst effects” of charging.
These should include monitoring the number of people who decline or decide to stop receiving council-funded support after a charge is imposed or increased.
Only 17 of the 152 councils said they knew how many people had declined or abandoned social care packages they had been assessed as needing once they were told how much they would have to pay.
All councils should also carry out an equality impact assessment of their charging policies, said the group.
And it said that all councils should introduce an “early warning” system to identify people getting into charges-related debt, introduce a “breathing space” before any debt collection action is taken, and provide access to support to manage such debts.
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, one of ILSG’s members, said: “If councils are to persist in this iniquitous tax on disability, they must at least reintroduce some consistency and clarity to their approach.
“The many councils that have failed to conduct an equality impact assessment – and to monitor the numbers of disabled people driven out of the care system by charging – must also get their act together.”
The government is expected to publish its long-awaited green paper on adult social care funding within weeks.
The Independent Living Strategy Group has been working on protecting and promoting disabled people’s rights to independent living in England since 2013.
Its members include disabled people who were part of the independent living movement during the 1970s and in later years, as well as younger activists, other individuals and organisations concerned with independent living.
15 November 2018
High court go-ahead for challenge to government’s ‘failure to ensure secret vote’
A disabled woman is challenging the government’s failure to ensure that she can vote secretly and independently in elections.
The high court has granted permission for the case being brought against the Cabinet Office by Rachael Andrews to proceed to a full hearing, after the court decided that her case was “arguable”.
Andrews, from Norwich, who is blind, said she had repeatedly been left distressed and upset by a system that either left her unsure whether she had voted for the right candidate, or relying on an election official to tell her whether she had marked the correct box on the ballot paper.
She said: “It is the fact that it is not secret that distresses me so much. As a disabled person I am fairly used to asking for people’s help.
“But the fact that I have to ask somebody to do something that is so simple, and it still isn’t private, it just distresses and upsets me more than I can explain.
“I feel like I am 12 years old, like I am not a confident, whole person.”
Andrews has already secured one legal victory, over her local authority, Broadland council, following its failure to enable her to vote independently and secretly at the 2015 election.
Since then she has cast her vote in the 2016 European Union referendum and at the 2017 general election, but on both occasions – despite the council’s best efforts – she has still been unable to vote independently and in secret.
She blames the government, because she says the tactile voting device (TVD) – a plastic template placed over the ballot paper that is supposed to allow blind people to vote in secret – is not fit for purpose.
She is challenging the government’s decision to designate the TVD as a suitable device to allow blind people to vote without any need for assistance under the Representation of the People Act 1983.
But she is also arguing for her right to a secret ballot under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Andrews successfully settled her claim against Broadland council for failing to have a TVD available for the 2015 general election.
But although she said its council officers have since done “everything they can within the law” to help her at subsequent elections, the system is still failing her.
In 2016, when voting in the referendum, she was not sure if she had placed her cross in the correct box and had to ask the presiding officer to tell her.
And last year, at the general election, she tried to use a postal vote, and was assisted by a member of council staff, but still had to use a TVD.
She said: “To this day I do not know if I put the cross in the place that I intended to vote.
“He read everything out to me and I am assuming he also saw my vote as well because he was literally sat right next to me.”
Andrews, who is represented by human rights lawyers Leigh Day, said that other countries had introduced systems that allow blind voters to vote more easily, including introducing “audio voting booths” and telephone voting.
Graham Kirwan, who was forced to take legal action against his own local council over its failure to make the process of registering to vote and voting accessible to him as a visually-impaired person, said: “I fully appreciate the frustrating difficulties Rachael repeatedly faces having, like many other visually-impaired voters, faced them myself.”
He pointed to devices such as audio and magnification aids which could assist independent and secret voting, and said the government was “simply kicking accessible voting into the long grass”.
He added: “I 100 per cent support Rachael’s legal challenge and wish her all the best with her action.”
The government has argued in correspondence with Andrews’ lawyers that the legal challenge is unnecessary because it is already addressing the issue.
This refers to pledges in its much-criticised response to a consultation on how to make voting more accessible.
The government talked in its response in September about promoting guidance, improving training, and the possibility of allowing disabled voters to try out practice ballots in advance of elections.
And it said it would consider what improvements could be made for voters with sight loss “and look to make the necessary legislative changes when a suitable opportunity arises”.
But Andrews’ lawyers point out that the government’s response did not say what these improvements would be, or when it would change the law.
The Cabinet Office said it could not comment on ongoing legal cases.
But a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: “We consult with disabled individuals, and organisations that represent them such as RNIB regularly, to hear about their experiences of voting and recommendations on how government can make elections more accessible.
“Every voice matters and this government is committed to building a democracy that works for all.”
The government’s accessibility of elections working group is set to meet in January, and will discuss again the improvements that could be made to the support provided to visually-impaired voters in polling stations.
But Andrews said: “I have always voted in general elections. I see it as a very important civic duty and feel very strongly that I should simply be afforded the same right to vote independently and in secret as everyone else.
“Sadly, I believe that many blind voters are currently put off voting because of the difficulties they face.
“I am disappointed that it has been necessary to commence legal proceedings but am keen that the government stops dragging its feet and takes action to allow me to vote independently and secretly in time for the next general election.”
Sean Humber, head of Leigh Day’s human rights department, said: “The provisions made for blind voters by the government are quite simply not fit for purpose.
“The right to vote freely, independently and in secret is fundamental to any democracy.
“We hope that the courts will hear our client’s challenge and order the government to reconsider the assistance they provide for blind voters.”
15 November 2018
Disabled activist calls for evidence of blue badge delays
An activist whose local authority warns disabled people that it could take up to 12 weeks to renew their blue parking badges is calling for disabled people in other parts of the country to pass on their experiences of problems and delays in the system.
It took Bob Williams-Findlay, a former chair of the British Council of Disabled People, more than six weeks to receive his new badge from Wolverhampton council, although he had been warned that it could take even longer.
He believes such delays are “unacceptable” and are not restricted to his local authority, and that other applicants face even longer delays.
Now he wants to hear from disabled people in other areas who have had similar problems*.
Wolverhampton council admitted this week that it warns disabled people to expect it to take up to 12 weeks for their applications to be dealt with.
Williams-Findlay pointed to a Disability News Service news story written nearly four years ago which described delays of up to 12 weeks in dealing with applications, and he said this showed little had changed around the country since then.
The system was introduced by the coalition government in 2011 and saw councils told to carry out more independent mobility assessments, while the government introduced a national database of blue badges.
The new electronic badges are sent out by a private contractor, Northgate Public Services, part of the Japanese IT multinational NEC Corporation.
But councils kept responsibility for dealing with badge applications and had to source occupational therapists or other health professionals to carry out the assessments.
Williams-Findlay said the current system was “oppressive, stressful and discriminatory” and the weeks he had been left without a badge had made his life “more disabling” because he had been deprived of “being able to park and participate within society”.
He said the delays curtailed the rights of disabled people under article 19 (on independent living) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Williams-Findlay said the Department for Transport (DfT) was guilty of institutional discrimination and that the centralised part of the system was “not fit for practice”, while the delays were “unacceptable”.
He left it too late to renew his badge and only applied to renew it a day or two before it expired, but he filled in the application form online on 28 September, taking written evidence to the council in person the same day.
On 25 October, he received a letter – dated 18 October – which said his application had been successful, and that once he paid the £10 fee the council would order a new badge, which would take up to 21 days to arrive. His badge eventually arrived on 8 November.
A DfT spokeswoman said the delays were “primarily a matter for local authorities, who are responsible for processing applications, and timescales do vary”.
She added: “The department has not been made aware of any significant problems.”
But she said the department was currently developing “an improved online application process”.
She said: “There have been no problems with the private contractor, whose performance is monitored regularly.”
A Wolverhampton council spokeswoman said: “Our advertised timescales are 12 weeks (from the time of receiving all relevant supporting documentation) for processing.”
And she said the council website advises applicants to apply 10 weeks before their badge is due to expire.
She said she understood that the badges were “very important” because “having a blue badge can significantly change a person’s independence, which motivates us to continue to improve our service by reviewing our processes and listening to feedback received from our customers”.
She said the council had “recently updated its webpage to be clearer on the process and pre-requisites”, and that the government was updating the blue badge application form after consulting with users.
Asked whether she believed delays were a national problem, she said: “Each council has a statutory duty to administer Blue Badges on behalf of the central government.
“We are unable to comment on other councils.”
Another disabled activist, Barbara Lisicki, a trainer and writer, has told Williams-Findlay that the renewal process in her London council area was “shoddy, unclear and utterly useless”.
She said the centralised online system was “not fit for purpose, especially as it is misleading and gives incomplete, poorly phrased instructions”.
If a local councillor had not intervened on her behalf to speed up the process, she would have been left unable to park in the accessible bay outside her house, she said.
A third disabled activist has told Williams-Findlay that she was told by her local authority in the south of England to expect a 12-week wait for her blue badge.
*Any disabled people with reports of problems or delays with renewing or applying for a blue badge can email Bob Williams-Findlay at email@example.com
15 November 2018
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com