Disabled people had rights breached before and after Grenfell fire, says watchdog
Disabled people who died in the Grenfell Tower tragedy had their human rights breached by public bodies that failed to plan how they would evacuate their homes in the event of a fire, a report by the equality and human rights watchdog has concluded.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report says the safety of wheelchair-users and other disabled and older people was overlooked when they were housed on the top floors of the high-rise building.
It says that disabled people and other residents of Grenfell Tower and other nearby housing experienced a series of breaches of their human rights before the fire, including through the failure to ban the combustible cladding that was wrapped around the building, or at least strengthen rules for its use.
But it also says that disabled people’s rights were repeatedly breached in the days and months after the fire.
Disabled people, children, migrants and older people were among the 72 people who died in the Grenfell Tower fire that began in the early hours of 14 June 2017, in homes managed by the state in west London.
The EHRC research, carried out with the social policy think-tank Race on the Agenda, suggests that the right to life of disabled people, older people and families with children was not properly considered in fire safety arrangements, with “particular concerns” about the lack of appropriate planning for evacuating disabled people and other residents.
There is also evidence that the safety notice given to Grenfell residents was only available in English, a language not spoken by many of them.
The report also highlights a continued lack of support after the fire, amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment, particularly in “the inconsistent, and sometimes absent, immediate and long-term support such as medical treatment, counselling, mental health care and adequate housing”.
The report suggests there were breaches of the right to life; the right to safe, adequate housing; and the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; while disabled people and other groups also faced discrimination in how they were treated after the tragedy.
The report says: “The fact that people with limited mobility were living high up in Grenfell Tower, and faced greater difficulties escaping the fire, raises important questions about discrimination against certain groups, accessibility standards, and whether authorities assessed the impact on disabled people of allocating housing in Grenfell Tower.”
The report includes a series of examples of how disabled people had their rights breached in the days, weeks and months after the fire.
One disabled woman, who had been left traumatised by losing five members of her family in the fire, had her out-of-work disability benefits cut after being assessed by a government contractor just five days later.
The woman, who lost her brother, his wife, and their three children in the fire, had been assessed for her fitness for work on 19 June 2017, five days after the fire.
Her husband, her full-time carer, told researchers that when they told the healthcare professional carrying out the work capability assessment that she had lost her five relatives in the fire, “she didn’t care” and “didn’t consider the suffering” that his wife had been through.
His wife had previously been in the support group for employment and support allowance, for those not expected to carry out any work-related activity, but after the assessment she was placed by the Department for Work and Pensions in the work-related activity group.
The report’s researchers were told that she had since been told to attend a work training scheme, even though her health had worsened since the fire.
One disabled older person, who lives on the 14th floor of a block of flats near Grenfell Tower, told the researchers that he told his children “every day” that if there was a similar fire to the one that devastated Grenfell, they should leave him to struggle down the stairs on his own.
He said: “There are five floors above me… So, if I go down and I stop in the middle, the people behind me will not be able to pass. So, we discussed all these issues.”
The report found that none of the local residents they had spoken to who had been forced to leave their homes after the fire had accepted permanent accommodation, but some said they had felt pressured to return home or take unsuitable offers.
One wheelchair-user was pressured to accept the offer of a permanent flat, even though it was not wheelchair-accessible and she could not access some of the rooms.
She was told: “Oh don’t worry, we’ll get a carer in to look after you, help you out with the kids.”
She was then told that if she did not agree to move into the flat, she would be viewed as making herself intentionally homeless.
The report also describes a wheelchair-user with young children – believed to be the same woman – who was left in emergency housing with just one room and no cooking facilities and had to visit the local swimming pool if she wanted a shower.
The report, Grenfell Residents’ Access to Public Services and Support – part of the commission’s Following Grenfell project – describes the lived experience of people who had been “displaced, traumatised and distressed” by the fire.
It shows the “ongoing difficulties and uncertainty they have faced in accessing a range of advice and support services such as housing, immigration, welfare support and healthcare”.
Among its conclusions, the report says: “There was poor recognition of additional needs and reasonable adjustments when making housing decisions, particularly for disabled people, older people, women and Muslim families.
“Residents described the dire state of both emergency and temporary accommodation when being rehoused, posing a threat to their physical and mental health.”
EHRC’s Following Grenfell project aims to influence the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, other public bodies and the public about the equality and human rights issues raised by the fire and its aftermath.
David Isaac, EHRC’s chair, said: “Everyone has the right to life and the right to safe, adequate housing, but the residents of Grenfell Tower were tragically let down by public bodies that had a duty to protect them.
“It is our hope that the Grenfell Inquiry finds this information relevant and useful as they continue with their work, but we also need to see action taken by public bodies so we never see a repeat of this tragedy.”
14 March 2019
NHS call for government action on link between mental distress and benefit cuts
The organisation representing NHS service-providers has called on the government to act on the links between mental distress and cuts to benefits, after producing new evidence showing that social security reform has increased demand for mental health services.
NHS Providers spoke out after publishing research showing that more than nine out of ten (92 per cent) mental health trusts that took part in a survey said changes to benefits were increasing demand for mental health services.
And more than six in 10 (63 per cent) said this impact was high, making it the most significant economic and social factor in increasing demand for mental health services.
The NHS Providers report includes a detailed case study of a disabled woman who describes how the process of applying for employment and support allowance (ESA) was so stressful that it caused a relapse in her mental health.
The former mental health nurse told NHS Providers that the ESA process and its repeated assessments were “cruel” and left her feeling powerless, while the work capability assessment process was “the biggest source of worry in my life”.
The report, Addressing the Care Deficit, adds to evidence that shows ESA recipients are at particularly high risk of suicide attempts.
Disability News Service (DNS) has repeatedly drawn the attention of government departments and other public bodies to the findings of NHS Digital’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, which showed that more than 43 per cent of ESA claimants had said (when asked in 2014) that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives, compared with about seven per cent of non-ESA claimants.
Despite that evidence, the Cross-Government Suicide Prevention Workplan does not mention DWP, benefits, ESA or universal credit, while ESA and universal credit claimants are not included among the high-risk groups mentioned in the workplan.
The government has also refused to name ESA claimants as a high-risk group in its cross-government suicide prevention strategy.
Public Health England is another organisation that has resisted making this link. In the latest update of its Suicide Prevention Profile, there are 25 risk factors for suicide but they do not include the proportion of the population in local areas that claims ESA.
NHS Providers has now called on the government and its arms-length bodies to act.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, told DNS: “Our report… revealed deep disquiet among mental health trust leaders about the impact of benefits cuts and universal credit on demand for mental health services.
“The government and its arms-length bodies should examine the evidence behind this link, and act on it.
“We need a benefits system that offers the right support for people who need it, rather than compounding or aggravating mental health problems.”
14 March 2019
DWP silent on figures suggesting ‘fit for work’ deaths may have fallen
Figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) suggest that the proportion of disabled people dying soon after being found fit for work may have fallen since the early years of the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA).
DWP has refused this week to comment on the figures or even to check on their significance with its own statisticians.
But the figures seem to show a difference between the proportion of people dying after being found fit for work in the first five-and-a-half years of the test, and those dying after being found fit for work between 2014 and 2017.
In one set of figures released this week under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), DWP told campaigner Frank Zola that a total of 1,358,000 people were found fit for work after a WCA between the test’s introduction in October 2008 and July 2017.
Of these, 5,690 people died within six months of being found fit for work, a proportion of 0.419 per cent.
In the second set of figures (PDF), this time released under the FoIA to independent researcher Mo Stewart, DWP said that 548,620 people were found fit for work between 1 March 2014 and 28 February 2017, with 1,560 (or 0.284 per cent) of them dying within six months of this decision.
This suggests – although further research must be carried out to show exactly how and why the figures changed – that the proportion of people dying within six months of being found fit for work reduced when comparing the period October 2008 to March 2014 with March 2014 to February 2017.
The figures could show – although there may be other explanations – that improvements in the assessment recommended by the first three independent reviews of the WCA, carried out by Professor Malcom Harrington in 2010, 2011 and 2012, may have made it less likely that someone would be found fit for work if they were very unwell.
Even if that was true, the figures would not show that the assessment process was now fit for purpose, as shown by deaths such as that of Jodey Whiting in February 2017.
And Labour MP Ruth George told a Commons debate on disability assessment services yesterday (Wednesday) that a constituent of hers had died on his first day back at work after being found fit for work because DWP had refused to take evidence from his doctors.
But the figures could at least suggest that years of campaigning by disabled activists to highlight the unfairness of the test did have some impact.
Because of the severe impact of being found unfairly fit for work, demonstrated by years of research by activists that have shown links to many deaths, it may also be that these improvements led to fewer lives being lost as a result of the WCA process.
Both FoIA requests were made last year but were only answered by DWP this week. Stewart’s request was made in early November and Zola’s in August. FoIA requests are supposed to be answered within 20 working days.
Stewart said: “If these figures do suggest fewer people are dying within six months after being wrongly found ‘fit for work’ by the WCA then that must be something to celebrate.
“However, given the thousands who still live in fear of the arrival of yet another brown envelope from the DWP, let’s hope there will be some improvement in the decisions for chronically ill people who didn’t die following the WCA, but who have suffered following this totally discredited and fatally flawed assessment.”
A DWP spokesperson refused to say if its figures showed that fewer very ill people were now being found fit for work, or to comment on what appeared to be a continuing unacceptably high number of very ill people dying after being wrongly found fit for work.
But she said in a statement: “This data corresponds to two different and overlapping time periods and cannot be directly compared.
“Additionally, the figures are from unpublished information which hasn’t been quality assured to National Statistics or Official Statistics publication standards – they should therefore be treated with caution.”
She added later: “As I explained, the data set you’ve provided cannot be compared so it would not be accurate to draw conclusions from them.”
14 March 2019
Chancellor ignores calls to act on impact of austerity, as Newton quits over Brexit
The chancellor has ignored repeated calls for the government to take urgent steps to ease the social care funding crisis and other impacts of austerity on disabled people, as he delivered his spring statement.
Hammond’s statement yesterday (Wednesday) was overshadowed by the continuing parliamentary Brexit fiasco, which led to the resignation of disabled people’s minister Sarah Newton.
Hammond made no mention of disabled people in his speech, and his only mention of social care was to say that future spending would be addressed in the budget, which is not expected until October or November.
Although the spring statement was low-key, Hammond still made a series of announcements across areas such as science and technology, immigration, knife crime, the digital advertising market, affordable homes, Brexit, apprenticeships, period poverty in schools, late payments to small businesses, the minimum wage, biodiversity and climate change.
In his response to the statement, the shadow chancellor, Labour’s John McDonnell, told Hammond that he was “implicated in every cut, every closure, and every preventable death of someone waiting for hospital treatment or social care”.
In November 2017, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published research which linked government cuts in adult social care and health spending to nearly 120,000 “excess” deaths in England since 2010.
The research warned that the cuts could continue to be responsible for an additional death toll of up to 100 deaths a day if significant extra funding was not found.
One prominent disabled activist, Mary-Ellen, had a leading role in a short film released on the day of the spring statement by the Labour party, and she referred to the BMJ research.
She said in the film: “It’s hard work trying to get the world to recognise that something terrible is happening here in Britain, one of the richest countries in the world.”
She said: “Councils across the country are forcing disabled people to use nappies instead of giving us the support to go to the toilet when we need it.
“For me personally it has affected my mental health. It’s broken me, basically.”
Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, said the spring statement “seems like an irrelevance” while the government “ties itself in knots trying to save itself” over Brexit.
He said: “Social care is one of the policies that is most about ensuring the quality of people’s lives, especially people who need some help.
“This government’s priorities and preoccupation with self-preservation bear no relation to ordinary people’s lives, concerns and growing fears and uncertainty.
“Hardly surprising then if disabled and older people don’t feature at all in government statements, just one more reason why we should all be very afraid about the state they have got us into.”
Philip Connolly, policy manager for Disability Rights UK, said the failure to mention disabled people in the spring statement should be “a wake up call to the disability sector”.
He questioned why disability organisations have failed to lobby the Treasury directly when all individual government departments had to do so, and when “the Treasury’s own website permits direct dialogue”.
Connolly called for a sector-wide campaign for an inclusive economy, focused upon the next spending review.
Hammond said in his spring statement that he would launch a three-year spending review before the summer recess, with the results to be announced alongside this autumn’s budget.
14 March 2019
Broken promises have shattered hopes of right to independent living, says Morris
One of the architects of the last Labour government’s “life chances” strategy has described how “broken promises” by successive governments have shattered disabled people’s hopes of a genuine right to independent living.
Dr Jenny Morris, who led the independent living section of Labour’s Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People strategy, said its publication in 2005 had been a “moment of hope”.
But she described how that sense of optimism “seemed to disappear almost overnight”, following the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the 2010 election, which led to a Tory-led coalition government.
She said that she and others working on Life Chances had made a “fatal error” by not stressing the need for a nationally-funded independent living system “based on the principle of entitlement”, and had not paid enough attention to the growing focus within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on “getting people off benefits”.
Morris was delivering the first Lorraine Gradwell Memorial Lecture, in memory of one of the key figures in the disabled people’s movement, who died in September 2017. It is hoped the lecture will become an annual event.
She was unable to attend in person but a film of her delivering the lecture – which Morris called Broken Promises: Looking Back on “Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People” – was shown in Manchester on Friday (8 March), followed by a question and answer session.
Morris described how DWP’s emphasis on cutting the number of benefit claimants had been demonstrated by the employment chapter in the 2005 Life Chances report, which spoke of work being “a component of good health” and emphasised the “beneficial health effects of work”.
In the same year, DWP released research that would form the basis of the work capability assessment (WCA), which she said focused on “getting people off benefits”, “scrutinising whether people are ‘fit for work’” and “people’s supposed attitudes and motivations”, instead of workplace barriers and equal opportunities for work.
Worse than that, she said, was “the denial of people’s own experiences of illness and/or impairment”.
In the last decade, the greatest challenges to the WCA and the introduction of personal independence payment, she said, had often come from people with chronic illness, such as members of the Spartacus network, and, more recently, the Chronic Illness Inclusion Project.
Morris said that she and others working on the Life Chances report had made a “fatal error” in their proposals by failing to recognise that the Independent Living Fund “had more potential to deliver a right to independent living than any reform to local authority social care”.
Although they had “floated the idea” that independent living should be funded nationally and “taken away from local authorities”, they did not challenge the government’s insistence that this would undermine local accountability.
Instead, the Independent Living Fund was closed by the coalition government, and the “self-determination” promised by the introduction of personal budgets had mostly “failed to materialise”.
The current social care system, said Morris, was incapable of delivering the right to independent living set out in article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
What was needed, she said, as proposed by the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, was “a national independent living service, funded from general taxation, free at the point of delivery, and delivered locally in co-production with disabled people”.
She also warned of the failure to realise one of the key proposals of Life Chances, for there to be a national network of user-led disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), modelled on centres for independent living.
This, she said, “was never fully realised” and since 2010 many local DPOs had had their funding cut and had “found it increasingly difficult to hold onto existing contracts to provide direct payments support services”.
She added: “Such local organisations are a vital part of any nationally-funded independent living service.”
And she said: “It’s at the local level and amongst disabled people ourselves that we will develop innovative ways to enable people to live ordinary lives.”
14 March 2019
Flood’s ‘bittersweet’ departure from ‘rock solid’ ALLFIE
A prominent disabled activist has spoken of her “bittersweet” feelings at leaving the organisation that leads the fight for inclusive education after nearly 13 years.
Tara Flood is to leave The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), where she has been director since 2006, for a new post leading strategy on co-production at a pioneering London council.
Her task as strategic head for co-production at Hammersmith and Fulham council will be to implement the recommendations of last year’s ground-breaking report on co-production, which had been commissioned by the London borough.
She will work with fellow disabled activist Kevin Caulfield, chair of Hammersmith and Fulham Coalition against Cuts, who works as a policy and strategy officer at the council.
Flood said she was leaving ALLFIE in a much stronger position than when she had arrived in 2006, when it had just seven months of funding left.
She said: “This organisation is much more confident about what it believes in. We have a much higher profile.
“As an organisation, we are rock solid on our principles, even in the face of extreme anti-inclusive rhetoric.
“It’s probably our absolute strength that this organisation never shies away from saying the difficult stuff, because it’s the stuff we know that people need to hear and need to understand.”
But she said she was leaving ALLFIE at a time when the environment on inclusive education was “far more hostile” than when she had arrived.
Although the “last knockings of New Labour” had seen the government place a reservation and an interpretive declaration against article 24 – on inclusive education – of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities when it ratified the treaty in 2009, government policy had become far more hostile to inclusive education since 2010, she said.
She said: “From 2010 there has been a deliberate and consistent dismantling of any progress that has been made in this country towards a more inclusive education system.
“That has been done publicly, it’s been done with real confidence by a government whose ideology is so opposed to equality and human rights.
“They don’t try to dress it up as anything else.”
Although the “burn-out” she felt after years of tackling this “onslaught” led to a sabbatical last year, to Finland and Canada – two countries where there have been attempts to shift away from segregated education – she said that was not the reason she was leaving ALLFIE.
First, she said, she was ready for a new challenge after 13 years. But she also wanted to “finish the job” in Hammersmith and Fulham.
She chaired the Hammersmith and Fulham Disabled People’s Commission that produced last year’s report and co-wrote it with Caulfield.
She said: “Now is the opportunity to realise all of that change that we set out in that report. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.”
The report is wide-ranging, and it concentrates not just on areas such as social care and education that are usually associated with disabled people’s services, but on “everything the council does”.
And it is not just about council services, she said.
One of the report’s recommendations is about building the capacity of the community and supporting disabled people to be co-producers, and about supporting disabled people’s organisations in the borough to work with disabled residents to be ready to co-produce policy decisions and service delivery with the council.
Flood said her new role would be “a challenge”.
She said: “I think we will meet resistance, potentially at every stage. Very few people do not struggle with fundamental change, particularly in sectors where the traditional approach to disabled people has been very, very well-embedded.
“But the change is already underway, and I wouldn’t have taken the job if I thought this was just a token gesture.”
One of the tasks she will face, she said, will be in education, where she said she would need to challenge the council to move towards inclusion.
But she has already been encouraged by the co-production role played by disabled people in the planning application to redevelop Hammersmith town hall and the surrounding area.
And she said she was encouraged by the council’s moves away from a focus on personal budgets and towards the adoption of an independent living strategy.
Flood said her thoughts about leaving ALLFIE were “bittersweet”, despite the excitement of her new role, because she felt the tide may finally be turning in the battle against the government’s anti-inclusion policies.
Not only is ALLFIE’s membership increasing, but there has been a string of judicial review cases taken by parents challenging attempts to have their disabled children thrown out of mainstream schools.
In the short-term, ALLFIE is set to make an interim appointment while its trustees choose a permanent replacement for Flood.
She believes ALLFIE will benefit from a fresh approach on income generation from a new director, particularly because it is campaigning for social change in an area opposed by the government, which she said was “a double whammy”.
She is also hopeful about Labour’s new shadow minister responsible for special educational needs, the disabled MP Emma Lewell-Buck, who visited ALLFIE last month for a discussion with Flood.
Flood said: “We were really honest with her about our disappointment about how lacking in detail Labour have been since they recommitted to inclusive education at the party conference last September.
“We really hope that with Emma at the helm we will see a new approach to how Labour talk about inclusive education and putting some detail into their policy of a national education service.
“It’s a relationship that we have started and we intend to build and she seems to really understand what it is we are trying to do and she is a disabled person herself and has her own story to tell about her own education.”
Flood will also leave as ALLFIE puts the finishing touches to a new version of its manifesto for inclusive education and is planning a private members’ bill that she hopes will act as “a vehicle to build political relationships and support”.
She said the thought of leaving later this month was “awful”.
She said: “I feel ALLFIE is so part of me and I hope that I am part of ALLFIE and I think I am, and I will be really sad to leave, but I think ALLFIE is in a very different, better, stronger place than when I started.
“We have an amazing staff team, we are very clear about our vision, we can articulate it with well-evidenced examples, and we are never swayed from our commitment to inclusive education and the ending of segregation, and that’s an amazing achievement in such difficult times.
“I hope that as its director I have helped that happen.”
14 March 2019
Anger over government’s plans for 37 new special schools
Inclusive education campaigners have condemned the government’s announcement that it is funding 37 new special free schools, with segregated institutions for disabled children set to be opened in every part of England.
The announcement by education secretary Damian Hinds means there will be nearly 3,500 more free school places in segregated settings.
There will also be two alternative provision free schools, for children who have been, or are at risk of being, excluded from mainstream education.
Hinds’ announcement comes 18 months after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities was highly critical of the UK government’s record on inclusive education.
When the committee published its “concluding observations” on the progress the UK had made in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in August 2017, it was highly critical of the UK government’s approach, and the “persistence of a dual education system” that segregates increasing numbers of disabled children in special schools.
It called instead for a “coherent strategy” on “increasing and improving inclusive education”, which would include raising awareness of – and support for – inclusive education among parents of disabled children.
But The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) said the government had instead continued its ideological drive towards more segregation.
It said it “condemns the government’s mass expansion of segregated education” while at the same time “cutting mainstream school budgets”.
Simone Aspis, ALLFIE’s policy and campaigns co-ordinator, said: “This is no longer about austerity and cuts – this government’s ideological drive is towards the dogma of investing in more segregated provision despite its association with poorer educational, employment and emotional outcomes.
“The government continues to ignore the evidence that good mainstream education provision is more likely to produce better outcomes for disabled pupils and that mainstream schools are the first preference of parents.
“The establishment of special schools with poorer outcomes for disabled children is in breach of the government’s obligation to promote disabled children’s human right to inclusive education under UNCRPD article 24, which requires the development of a fully inclusive education system for all.”
Hinds said in a statement: “We want every school to be a school for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
“That’s why we are investing significant funding into special education needs units attached to mainstream schools and in additional support so children with education, health and care plans can access mainstream education.
“But we recognise some children require more specialist support.
“These new special free schools and alternative provision schools will make sure that more complex needs can be provided to help support every child to have a quality education.”
The government’s announcement was welcomed by the Council for Disabled Children (CDC).
Dame Christine Lenehan, CDC’s director, said: “We are pleased to welcome the new wave of special free schools and the extra choice they will bring to the system for children with special educational needs.”
Flood criticised CDC’s support for the government’s announcement.
She said: “We are very, very disappointed about how the CDC have toed the government line over and above the human rights of disabled children and young people to be included in the mainstream.
“Of course, when ALLFIE is talking about including in mainstream we do not mean tweaks to the current system.
“This is about an education system that reflects the spirit and tone of article 24.
“If only CDC had the same values.”
Applications for potential providers will now open in the 39 local authorities that bid successfully for a special or alternative provision school to be opened in their area.
Of the special schools, there will be three in the north-east, six in the north-west, five in Yorkshire and the Humber, one in the East Midlands, four in the West Midlands, four in the east of England, five in London, three in the south-east, and six in the south-west, while the two alternative provision schools will be opened in the West Midlands.
14 March 2019
DWP handed petition of 200,000 names on benefit assessment travel
A disabled woman has handed the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) a petition of more than 200,000 names in a bid to stop companies forcing claimants to travel long distances to attend face-to-face benefit assessments.
Claudette Lawrence only launched the petition on the 38 Degrees website in November, but by yesterday (Wednesday) it had been signed by more than 213,000 people.
She started the campaign after becoming increasingly concerned about the distances disabled friends were being asked to travel to attend face-to-face assessments with disability assessment contractors Maximus, Atos and Capita.
But she is also concerned about disabled people being charged up to £40 by their GPs to write a letter explaining why they need a home assessment, rather than having to travel to an assessment centre for their eligibility tests for personal independence payment (PIP) or employment and support allowance (ESA).
Lawrence says in her petition: “People who are on benefits due to ill health, cannot afford to pay for private letters.
“There is a risk that people who are entitled to PIP or ESA will lose out, causing hardship and suffering.”
Last week, Lawrence and Lorna Greenwood, campaigns manager for 38 Degrees, were at DWP’s headquarters in London to discuss the issues and hand the petition to civil servants and a special adviser to work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd.
Lawrence told Disability News Service (DNS) that a friend of hers from Thamesmead in east London had been asked to attend a work capability assessment in Wembley, on the other side of the capital in north-west London.
Another friend, from Charlton, in south-east London, had been asked to attend an assessment in Southend, on the Essex coast.
Lawrence said: “It’s just not right. The whole process is unfit for purpose.”
She said she had been expecting a strong response to her petition but had been “absolutely shocked” by how many people had signed it.
One of the disabled people who signed the petition said: “I have a long term mental health disorder and I was expected to take a journey with my baby which would involve three buses and two trains.
“When I rang to say I couldn’t cope with even walking out of the door, let alone figure out the details of a very expensive journey, they treated me with contempt and rudeness.
“They ignored my doctor’s letter. Needless to say they decided in my absence that I was fit for work.
“Luckily my local DEA [disability employment adviser] saw the truth and made up for their nastiness.”
Another said: “They make people travel a great distance then say if you can travel this far then you are fine.”
And a third said: “I have had to travel for an assessment be completely unable to move for a week afterwards [and was then] turned down.”
And one said simply: “I was asked to attend an assessment in Milton Keynes and I live in London!”
A DWP spokesperson declined to say what action the department would take in response to the petition.
But she said in a statement: “We want everyone to have a good experience at their PIP or work capability assessment.
“Whenever we can we will make benefit decisions using paper evidence so that people don’t need to travel to an assessment.
“Anyone we need to see in person who is not able to travel to an assessment centre can request a home assessment.
“Wherever possible our assessment providers will use supporting evidence which does not incur a fee to claimants.
“No one is required to travel for more than 90 minutes by public transport to their assessment.”
Five years ago, MPs on the Commons public accounts committee used evidence collected in a lengthy investigation by DNS and the disabled journalist Richard Butchins to accuse Atos of lying in the document it used to win a £184 million contract to provide PIP assessments across London and the south of England.
Atos had won the contract by boasting of its “extensive” network of 16 NHS trusts, two private hospital chains, and four physiotherapy providers, all of which it said would provide sites where the PIP tests would take place.
But in the months after the contract was awarded, all but four of the NHS trusts and both of the private hospital chains dropped out.
Atos had stated in the tender that it had a network of 740 assessment sites across London and the south of England.
But after the contract was signed, it only managed to secure 96 assessment centres, including not a single one covering a vast sweep of north London, and only one in Suffolk and one in Cambridgeshire, although it has since improved these numbers.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com