DWP breaks law over secret reports on universal credit deaths
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is refusing to release evidence that would show how many secret reports it has compiled into the deaths of claimants of its new universal credit, in a fresh breach of freedom of information laws.
DWP compiles an internal process review every time a “suicide is associated with DWP activity”, as well as in some other cases involving the deaths of disabled or “vulnerable” benefit claimants.
The last batch of reviews released by DWP were published in heavily redacted form two years ago.
But Disability News Service (DNS) is keen to secure evidence of how many reviews have been carried out since then relating to the introduction of the much-criticised universal credit benefit system.
Repeated concerns have been raised about the introduction of universal credit and its impact on claimants in vulnerable situations.
Disabled activists have warned that universal credit is “rotten to the core” and have warned of “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.
In July, employment minister Alok Sharma was asked by MPs on the Commons work and pensions committee why the benefits of hundreds of sick and disabled universal credit claimants were apparently being sanctioned, even though they should not have had to meet any of the strict conditions imposed by the system.
In the same month, further concerns were raised by the committee about disabled people with high support needs who claim universal credit and face the possibility of strict conditions – such as being forced to carry out hours of job searches every week – as they wait for a work capability assessment.
And MPs on the public accounts committee heard, also in July, how claimants were facing “considerable hardship and considerable deterioration in their mental health” because of universal credit.
As a result of earlier concerns about universal credit, DNS submitted a freedom of information request to DWP on 21 June, asking how many internal process reviews had been carried out since April 2016; how many involved a claimant who had died; and how many involved a claimant of universal credit.
The request also asked for DWP to release the recommendations made by each review.
But DWP’s freedom of information team has failed to respond to the request, and to a follow-up email on 7 August asking why it had not replied, even though it is legally obliged to respond within 20 working days under the Freedom of Information Act.
A legal case taken by DNS secured the publication of redacted versions of DWP’s secret reports – then known as peer reviews – for the first time in 2016, thanks to the pro bono legal work of barrister Elizabeth Kelsey, from Monckton Chambers.
The information rights tribunal ruled in 2016 that DWP should release recommendations from all the peer reviews it held, although not any information directly related to the people who died.
A further batch of redacted reviews into another nine benefit-related deaths was released by DWP later in 2016, following pressure from the Information Commissioner’s Office, but it is believed that no further reports have been released since then.
Last week, DNS revealed how DWP had refused to release other secret reports connected with its welfare reforms, this time those written by disabled people who had been recruited as “community partners” to work with its jobcentres.
When asked why DWP’s freedom of information team had refused to respond to the internal process review request, a DWP spokeswoman said: “As explained last week, any issues relating to FOI requests can be dealt with by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If you are unhappy with the handling of an FOI request please contact the Information Commissioner’s Office.”
DNS will be lodging a complaint with the information commissioner about DWP’s failure to release the internal process reviews.
23 August 2018
Minister snubs DPOs – and ‘breaches UN convention’ – by refusing meeting
The minister for disabled people is refusing to meet a coalition of disabled people’s organisations, in an apparent breach of the UN disability convention.
The coalition wrote to Sarah Newton yesterday (Wednesday) to express its “deep disappointment and concern” about her refusal to meet them to discuss the UK’s failure to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
The letter, signed by 14 prominent disabled leaders, asks Newton: “How can the government improve the lives of disabled people if it is not engaging directly with disabled people?”
The UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities told the UK government last September in its “concluding observations” that it needed to make more than 80 improvements to the ways its laws and policies affect disabled people’s human rights.
In its review of the UK’s implementation of CRPD, the committee raised concerns and made recommendations on all but three of the 33 treaty articles the UK could have breached.
Newton’s letter refusing a meeting was sent on 10 July, two weeks before international development secretary Penny Mordaunt told an international disability rights conference in London: “When disabled people are included, great things happen.”
Mordaunt and her civil servants spent much of the Global Disability Summit last month telling other countries and organisations to sign up to a new Charter for Change.
The charter calls on those signing it to “hold ourselves and others to account for the promises we have made here today” and to “strive for real change” through implementation of CRPD.
CRPD says (in article four) that governments must, in implementing the convention, “closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities… through their representative organizations”.
It also says (article 33) that “civil society, in particular persons with disabilities and their representative organizations, shall be involved and participate fully” in monitoring the implementation of the convention in each country.
Newton’s letter appears to breach both article four and article 33 as the coalition has been seeking a ministerial meeting since February.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, one of the coalition’s members, says in yesterday’s letter: “We are extremely disappointed that as minister for disabled people you are not able to find the time to meet with the only UK wide coalition of disabled people’s organisations set up to monitor and engage with the UK government on CRPD issues.”
Other members of the UK CRPD Monitoring Coalition of Disabled People’s Organisations include Disability Wales, The Alliance for Inclusive Education, Disabled People Against Cuts, Sisters of Frida, Inclusion Scotland and the Mental Health Resistance Network, several of which are members of the Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance.
In her two-paragraph letter to the coalition, Newton says she will not be able to meet with them “due to ongoing diary commitments” but “would be pleased to have my officials do so on my behalf”.
It is not the first time that Newton’s commitment to disability rights has been questioned.
Last December, she refused to explain why she had apparently failed to attend or organise any events – or even post a message of support on social media – on the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD).
The coalition’s letter also reminds Newton that she previously stated that she strongly welcomed a meeting to discuss how the government was implementing CRPD.
In February, the coalition wrote to the prime minister, Theresa May, to question the lack of progress since the UN committee produced its “damning” report and to ask for a meeting to discuss their concerns.
In her response, sent on 25 April, Newton said: “I strongly welcome your proposal of a meeting to discuss how Government is implementing the concluding observations of the Committee for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and planning to work with organisations led by disabled people.
“This closely fits with work I have been leading with the Office for Disability Issues within government.”
DWP had not been able to comment by 1.30pm today (Thursday), after being approached yesterday afternoon.
23 August 2018
Leonard Cheshire facing care regulator questions after third Greathouse death
A disability charity is facing questions from the care regulator after a third former resident of a care home died within a month of its sudden closure.
Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported concerns from disabled campaigners, relatives and former staff at Greathouse, near Chippenham, after it emerged that two of its former residents had died soon after being forced to leave the home, which closed on 27 July.
But it has now emerged that a third former resident – who was believed to have been terminally-ill – has also died after being moved to a nearby care home.
Another former service-user, a disabled woman who used the home’s respite service and was said to have been deeply upset at not being able to visit Greathouse, is also believed to have died since the closure, while as many as five or six former residents have had to be admitted for hospital treatment.
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) has now told DNS that it has asked Leonard Cheshire for information about the deaths.
Debbie Ivanova, CQC’s deputy chief inspector of adult social care, said yesterday (Wednesday): “Any death is a matter of concern – and all providers are obliged to notify us whenever a person has died in their care.
“Exactly how we follow up this information will vary according to the circumstances in each case.
“We are aware of the concerns in this case and we have asked [Leonard Cheshire] to provide us with further information – and we will decide what action we take once we are aware of the full circumstances.”
Last week, Anne Keat, whose son Richard was a resident at Greathouse and has now been moved to another home nearby, said she and other relatives were convinced that the deaths and other serious health problems were connected to the closure.
Although it is impossible to prove that the deaths and health problems were caused by the sudden closure of Greathouse and residents being forced to move to new homes, some research has suggested a link between involuntary relocation from residential homes and a negative impact on residents’ health.
Earlier this month, Leonard Cheshire was also criticised over its decision to sell 17 residential homes to other care providers and was accused of making “a complete mockery” of its supposed commitment to service-user involvement.
Three former Greathouse residents are believed to have moved to Leonard Cheshire homes that are among the 17 listed for sale next year and so are likely to go through a further period of uncertainty and upheaval.
Leonard Cheshire faced allegations of “insensitive and abusive” behaviour in May over the way managers from head office told disabled residents of Greathouse that they were about to close the home.
About 20 residents were given just three months’ notice of the charity’s plans to close Greathouse, with Leonard Cheshire blaming staffing problems, a drop in the demand for places and the cost of repairs.
Leonard Cheshire refused to say yesterday (Wednesday) if it was taking any responsibility for the deaths or if it would be investigating what had happened, claiming it would be “inappropriate” to do so.
In response to the death of the third former resident, a spokeswoman said: “We were sorry to hear this news and our thoughts are with [his] family.
“Any unexpected death is always reported and investigated by the relevant regulatory authorities so it is inappropriate to comment further at this point.
“In line with best practice, detailed support and care plans were in place for the former residents of Greathouse prior to their move.
“This included health checks and the transfer of records around complex conditions to the new providers.”
Wiltshire County Council said today (Thursday) that it would be contacting all the local authorities that had funded residents at Greathouse, after it learned of the deaths.
A council spokesman said: “There were 21 people who were residents/received support at Greathouse (of which we fund eight) so we are also making contact with all of the other funding authorities to speak to them about the situation.
“We already have regular direct contact with the people we fund and are not aware of any issues related to their ongoing care.”
He had said earlier, in a statement: “We are very sorry to hear that some former residents of Greathouse have passed away since the home closed, and our thoughts are with the families affected.
“We currently fund the care and support needs of eight people who were previously receiving care services at Greathouse [four residents and four who received respite and day services] and their needs are now being met by other providers.
“Although the closure notice period is out of our control, we always ask for as much notice as possible when homes have to close but this depends on the individual circumstances.
“As soon as we were made aware of the closure, we put processes in place to work with partners to ensure a smooth transition of residents to a new care provision of their choice.
“Our safeguarding team work to protect vulnerable people’s right to live in safety, free from abuse or neglect.
“We are in regular contact with the residents whose care we fund and we have not been made aware of any safeguarding issues related to them.
“We are happy to speak to anyone who has any concerns about the ongoing care of the former residents at Greathouse.”
A CQC spokeswoman said earlier this week that it was “unable to influence a provider’s decision to close a service” and that its priority was to ensure “consistently safe, effective, responsive and high quality care is given to people who use services and we will always take action when we consider it necessary to do so”.
She said CQC had been contacted “by some relatives and people who used the service raising concerns about the closure and the way and manner it was being handled.
“In response to these concerns we maintained regular contact with the provider, [Leonard Cheshire], and received regular updates from them notifying us of how and when people were moved to alternative accommodation.
“Our understanding is that the provider also worked with the various local authorities involved to ensure that suitable alternative accommodation was found and in addition provided support to people and their relatives, including discussing options and facilitating visits to their new homes prior to moving in.”
23 August 2018
Deaf campaigner takes court action over BSL jury ban
A Deaf campaigner has launched a legal action aimed at stopping the government discriminating against users of British Sign Language by preventing them from serving on juries.
David Buxton, chief executive of the London-based disabled people’s organisation Action on Disability, is seeking a judicial review of the government’s failure to allow him to sit on a jury.
He was called up for jury service at Kingston Crown Court earlier this year, but when he told the Jury Central Summoning Bureau he was Deaf, he was informed that he was not required.
A crown court judge later deferred a decision on whether he would be allowed to serve as a juror.
In his claim for judicial review – which is being funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – Buxton is arguing that justice secretary David Gauke is discriminating against him and breaching the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty, and the Human Rights Act, by not allowing him to serve on a jury with the assistance of an interpreter.
The Ministry of Justice said this week that allowing a non-juror into the jury room during its deliberations breaches common law.
But Buxton’s call is backed by the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which said last September that the UK government should enable BSL-users “to fully and equally participate as jurors in court proceedings”, under article 13 (access to justice) of the UN disability convention.
The committee, in its concluding observations on the government’s implementation of the convention, said it was concerned that “regulations exclude persons with hearing impairments from participation in jury proceedings, and that personal assistants/interpreters are not deemed to constitute procedural accommodation”.
The refusal to allow BSL-users to take part as jurors is a long-standing source of frustration for many Deaf campaigners.
Jeff McWhinney, at the time the chief executive of the British Deaf Association (BDA), was told by a crown court judge in 1999 that he could not let him serve as a juror because the law prevented him bringing an interpreter – a “13th person” – into the jury room.
The Labour government said it was considering a change in the law at the time, but successive governments have failed to take steps to do so in the last 19 years.
BDA said it had persuaded the Ministry of Justice to look at this and other issues affecting d/Deaf people across prisons, courts and juries, but that the government had yet to take any “meaningful action”.
Now Buxton, himself a former BDA chief executive, has launched another legal bid to force a change in the law.
He spoke out this week as the high court rejected his separate judicial review claim that the government had discriminated against him and other BSL-users by imposing an Access to Work cap that affects those with the highest support needs (see separate story).
Buxton said that ruling showed that the Equality Act “does not sufficiently protect Deaf people using BSL despite ministers and MPs repeatedly saying that it does.
“This judicial review judgment shows how hard it is to protect our rights as Deaf people using BSL as our first or preferred language.
“The government supports the economies of cost over our basic human rights, therefore we have to campaign for the Equality Act to be strengthened, especially as there is no legal status for BSL in this current act.”
He said that one reasonable adjustment that would solve the problem of the “13th person in the jury room” would be for the court to provide an interpreter in another room while he watched a video relay screen in the jury room.
The failure to allow BSL-users to serve on juries is further evidence, Buxton believes, that the Equality Act 2010 does not provide sufficient protection to Deaf people who use BSL, “despite ministers and MPs repeatedly saying that it does”.
A BDA spokeswoman said: “The current UK practice of denying Deaf people the right to sit on a jury is an overt form of institutional discrimination and failure to accord Deaf people their rights as full citizens.
“Justice should not only be received but also dispensed by all sections of the community including Deaf people.”
Louise Whitfield, Buxton’s solicitor, from legal firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, said the jury case would “further test the government to show its commitment to the spirit of the Equality Act or to continue simply ignoring the fact that it is possible for Deaf people to serve as jurors in this modern, inclusive and accessible society without any direct or indirect discrimination”.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “It would be inappropriate to comment while legal proceedings are ongoing.”
23 August 2018
Deaf boss forced to appeal for charity support after Access to Work court defeat
A Deaf chief executive is having to appeal to charity to fund the support he needs to do his job, after the high court decided that a cap the government imposed on Access to Work (AtW) payments did not breach the Equality Act.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) set an annual cap of £42,500 on AtW payments in 2015, but later increased it to £57,200 (twice the annual salary) after David Buxton launched a high court challenge, funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Buxton argued that the higher cap on AtW payments – which fund workplace adjustments for disabled people such as support workers and travel costs – still had a disproportionate impact on the job and career prospects of Deaf users of British Sign Language (BSL) and other disabled people with high support needs.
He said this placed them at a disadvantage when trying to get into jobs and develop their careers.
Now Mr Justice Kerr has ruled that the higher cap did not breach the government’s public sector equality duty and was not “indirectly discriminatory”.
He said the cap was not introduced as a cost-cutting measure but “as an intended cost-neutral measure, changing the distribution of available funding but not its overall level”.
And he concluded that the higher cap “strikes a balance” between funding more low-level cost awards and the needs of existing high-cost recipients, who must “forego some of the available funds to provide the money to spend on achieving the government’s aims”.
But Buxton, chief executive of the London-based disabled people’s organisation Action on Disability, said this week that the court’s ruling means he will now have to seek support from charitable trusts or donors to pay for the BSL interpreters he needs to do his job.
Buxton, whose first language is BSL, believes that Deaf people are being “punished” by the government for their high support needs through the “ideologically driven” cap, which was “directly discriminatory towards d/Deaf people”.
The cap means he currently only receives enough support to pay for one BSL interpreter for four days a week.
He said that this forces him to spend large parts of the week re-arranging his schedule to ensure there is an interpreter in the office when he needs one.
He also has to pay for a second interpreter to cover meetings that will last more than an hour, to allow the first interpreter to have the necessary breaks.
Evening meetings are an even greater stretch on his AtW support budget as they are more expensive.
This means he is frequently left with enough interpreter support for just three days a week, or sometimes just two.
And he can never predict when he will receive unexpected phone calls, or if staff will need to see him urgently at short notice.
He said: “This cap has caused me a lot of stress and isolation. Some days I don’t have any funds to pay for interpreters, mainly because I booked co-workers on other days, [and because] evening meetings cost more.
“I had to organise my AtW support nearly every day, planning ahead, making sure that I have enough cover. This is overbearing and unnecessarily creates hours of extra work.”
He added: “DWP did not assess or meet me at all. They simply decided to give me funding at the level of the cap, expecting me to sort myself out by getting less support every day.”
Buxton said he had worked “so hard for many years” to reach his current position, which he achieved because of his skills and experience, not because he was Deaf or a BSL-user.
He said: “The cap has real and lasting effects on my ability to do my job.
“This is not about greed, it is not about having every whim catered to – it is about ensuring that of the many things that I have to think about in my role, that communication and language access are not among them.”
And he questioned whether such a cap would be appropriate for a minister who used BSL as their first language.
He is also concerned that ministers have refused to say how much revenue is returned to the Treasury for every £1 spent on Access to Work, through taxes paid by recipients and their support workers and interpreters and the benefits that ATW-recipients do not need to claim if they are in work.
Previous research has suggested a return of as much as £1.48 for every pound spent on AtW.
A DWP spokeswoman refused to respond to concerns that the cap meant that disabled people – particularly BSL-users – with high support needs would never be able to achieve full equality.
She also refused to say if DWP accepted that the cap was imposing a limit on how far the careers of some Deaf professionals could go, and whether the minister for disabled people would expect a Deaf minister to cope with less than full-time communications support.
She also refused to say if DWP had calculated the financial return to the Treasury for every £1 invested in Access to Work.
But she said in a statement: “We welcome the high court’s judgment.
“We’ve set out a commitment to see one million more disabled people in work by 2027, and Access to Work forms an important part of our plans.
“When making changes to Access to Work we work closely with stakeholders from the deaf community, including the UK Council on Deafness as well as deaf individuals.
“We’ve decided to increase the limit on the amount people can claim under Access to Work by £15,000 to up to £57,200 a year, and last year 25,000 people had their request approved by Access to Work, an increase of eight per cent from 2015-16.
“The award limit was introduced to enable the programme to continue to help as many people as possible, and we’re taking steps to make more people aware of the scheme by working with employers, charities and health professionals.”
But Louise Whitfield, Buxton’s solicitor, from legal firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, said: “Despite the very real gains of the massively increased cap, it is extremely disappointing that the government failed to recognise the significant adverse impact on Deaf people of preventing them from working in roles that need high levels of support.
“We will never see equality for Deaf and disabled people if this remains the government’s position.”
And the Stop Changes To Access To Work campaign praised Buxton for taking the case and said the ruling “highlights the fragility of our rights protections whereby government can decide to implement measures that discriminate and curtail the equalities of Deaf and disabled people so long as they prove they have considered the impacts and cite funding constraints.
“It also fails to give any weight to our concerns about the impact of the glass ceiling that the cap sets for Deaf BSL-users and wider social impacts on inequality.”
The campaign said the judgment showed there was “far more to do in the fight for the rights of Deaf and disabled people to work on an equal basis with others in line with article 27 [on work and employment] of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”.
23 August 2018
Minister condemned for ‘woeful’ response to residential special school review
Inclusive education campaigners have condemned the government’s “woeful” response to a review of the experiences of disabled children and young people in residential special schools.
The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) said the government had again failed to take action that would “turn the tide against increased segregated education” and improve inclusive education in mainstream schools.
Dame Christine Lenehan, director of the Council for Disabled Children, who co-chaired the independent review, said last November that she had found the quality of support in residential special schools “extremely variable”, while there was “far too little focus” on educational outcomes.
Far too often, she said, the disabled children and young people who ended up in residential special schools had been failed by the system.
And she called for a system which enabled disabled children to attend schools in their local communities.
Dame Christine’s review, which was commissioned by the government, concluded that “experiences and outcomes for these children and young people are too often not as good as they should be”.
About 6,000 disabled children and young people are educated in about 330 residential special schools and colleges, in the state, non-maintained and independent sectors, costing about £500 million a year, with each placement costing between £35,000 and £350,000 a year.
In his response to the review, education secretary Damian Hinds said in a letter to Dame Christine this week that he recognised there had been “a steady movement of children with special educational needs out of mainstream schools and into specialist provision, alternative provision and home education”, with increasing rates of school exclusions.
He said it was “right that the presumption in law is for mainstream education” but that he was also “clear that specialist provision can be the right choice for many of those with more complex needs”.
He said he wanted to “equip and incentivise” mainstream schools “to do better” for disabled children and young people, and said the government had begun a review of the national minimum standards for residential special schools.
Hinds also pointed out that the government had put in place a contract with the Whole School SEND Consortium – worth £3.4 million over two years – to “embed SEND [special educational needs and disabilities] within approaches to school improvement in order to equip the workforce to deliver high quality teaching across all types of SEN”.
But ALLFIE said it was “very disappointed by the government’s lack of action to eradicate residential and day special schools and continued failure to turn the tide against increased segregated education, resulting in too little being done to improve inclusive education practice”.
It pointed to the comments of the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities last September – in its “concluding observations” on the UK’s progress in implementing the disability convention – in which it said it was concerned about “the persistence of a dual education system that segregates children with disabilities in special schools”.
The committee called for “a coherent and adequately financed strategy… on increasing and improving inclusive education”.
The UN has separately made it clear that inclusive education means that all disabled children and young people are educated in mainstream settings and that the right for disabled students not to be discriminated against “includes the right not to be segregated” into special schools.
ALLFIE said the contract awarded to the Whole School SEND Consortium was a “distraction” from the findings in Dame Christine’s report that £500 million was spent supporting just 6,000 disabled young people in residential special schools every year – an average of about £80,000 per pupil – while mainstream schools were facing “substantial cuts” to their budgets.
It said that the suggestion by Hinds that parents “actively make a choice” of specialist provision was not based on evidence, with Dame Christine finding that “many of the children and young people currently in residential special schools and colleges could be educated in their local communities if better support was available”.
An ALLFIE spokeswoman added: “We know of families who have been offered residential special school placement in lieu of no suitable provision being made available in their local mainstream schools. It’s not a choice.”
23 August 2018
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com