Friday 23 March 2012

Budget 2012: the disabled marginalised yet again, with worse to come?

Yesterday's budget contained a kick in the teeth for disabled people, quickly followed by a punch in the face.

The Chancellor's retreat on child benefit, moving the threshold for ineligibility from those earning over £43,000 to those earning over £60,000, was a bare-faced example of the Government looking after its own voters. When the planned benefit cut was announced last year there were howls of outrage amongst higher rate earners, and the Tories, mindful an election has to be fought in perhaps two years time, decided to try and save their own skins.

How is this relevant to disabled people?

When the recent Welfare reform Bill passed through the House of Lords, three defeats were enacted on the Government as the Lords chose to make changes that they believed would safe-guard some of the most sick and disabled in the country. One of those changes was to extend the length of time that people on contributory-based Employment Support Allowance could claim the benefit. The Government proposed that those people place in the Working Capability Group of ESA (so claimants who are too ill to work but should be able to in the future) could only claim the benefit for a year. The Lords voted to extend this to two years to ensure that people had enough time to get better before being forced into work. Macmillan cancer support for example argued that annually 7.000 cancer patients, routinely placed in the Working group of ESA, take longer than 12 months to recover.

Although the Lords followed due democratic process to enact these changes, they have not come into force. The Government used 'financial privilege' to block these amendments. In short, MPs cried "Sorry, no money!" and did so in a way that has seen no precedent.

But suddenly come budget day, the Government discovered a stash of cash to save the child benefit of higher rate tax-payers, those who are doing ok in life, and yet still no money to extend ESA for those who are too sick to work through no fault of their own. More worryingly for democracy, the Government places greater value on the opinion of its voters then on the democratic process of a Bill being passed into law.

The second fear hidden in the budget was Osborne's casual mention that Ian Duncan Smith would have to find a further £10 billion of welfare cuts on top of the £18 billion already slashed from these bills. The biggest slice of welfare is spent on old age - with today's vicious headlines about a granny tax I can't see the Government making any further cuts to pensioners. Child benefit cuts now seem completely off the table, a decision that Ian Duncan Smith may come to resent Osborne for as he frantically tries to cut £10 billion.

So where can more cuts be found? Housing benefit perhaps, childcare credits even, but a clear forerunner would be disability benefits. Disability Living Allowance is already scheduled to be scrapped next year, and replaced by Personal Independence Payments (PIP). In the Government's last spending review it arbitrarily decided to cut recipients of PIP by 20%, before it had even decided the criteria for eligibility or assessed the needs of a single disabled person.

What's the betting that in the next spending review the Government decides to save 25% or even 30% from the PIP bill? I, for one, am very worried.

As first published on nhsbuff

Monday 19 March 2012

The Government’s disability strategy out of touch with the reality of cuts

Earlier this month the Government ended its consultation period asking disabled people to help develop its disability strategy. Maria Miller, minister for disabled people, has said that: “The Government is committed to enabling disabled people to fulfil their potential and have the opportunity to play a full role in their community”. But in reality it is clear that the Government lacks any cohesive policy that will enable this to happen.

In the last three years 31 people have died while awaiting appeals against Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) medicals that had found them fit to work. At their most vulnerable, the sick and disabled were left worrying to the day they died about how they and their family would cope financially while their illness was slowly killing them. Society should be in uproar that people in dire need turned to the state for help and were failed by it, but instead media and Government debate focuses on disabled ‘scroungers’, further isolating the disabled from their communities.

Yet while it could be argued in the case of ESA that Government incompetence is forcing disabled people into hardship, the same cannot be said for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), the new benefit that is replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA). Under PIP eligibility rules, even if you cannot walk more than 50 metres and need a wheelchair to get about for any longer distances, a disabled person still won’t be eligible for higher rate mobility – which in short means they will most likely lose access to a car through the motability scheme and the freedom such a vehicle gives them that their body cannot.

By cold-hearted design, these ‘independence payments’ will in fact take independence away from severely disabled people and force them to remain in their homes. No wonder Lady Grey-Thompson, speaking to the Guardian last month, said: “I worry that it is going to become the way it was when I was young where you just didn’t see disabled people on the street because they were locked away.”

These aren’t the only cuts aimed at disabled people. The Department of Work and Pensions’ own analysis into the housing benefit reforms states that 450,000 disabled people will face cuts to their allowance under new rules. 78,000 disabled people who use legal aid to appeal against decisions to deny them benefit will lose this support under Ken Clarke’s reforms. The Independent Living Fund (ILF) has been entirely closed to new claimants and by 2015 payments to the 21,000 severely disabled people it helps will cease. Tax credits to help with the extra costs of raising a disabled child will be cut from a maximum of £54 a week to £27 a week under Ian Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit changes – cuts that the Children’s Society says will see some families with disabled offspring £1,400 worse off a year. According to a Government Select Committee on Health, nearly two thirds of local authorities in England have reduced their disabled and adult social care budgets. As such councils have drastically altered their criteria for providing care to disabled adults, leaving many people unable to wash and dress themselves properly isolated in their own filth as they are not disabled enough to qualify for care.

These cuts will severely curtail disabled people’s ability to “fulfil their potential”. PIP will actually remove independence from disabled people, the scrapping of ILF will see disabled people condemned to care homes, decisions to limit ESA to one year, leaving 7000 cancer patients without any financial support while they are still too unwell to work, will only help in moving disabled people into poverty, not into the workplace. Cuts to legal aid will take away their voice, housing benefit remove them from often supportive communities and homes that are specially adapted for their needs. Harsh reductions in social care budgets will see people stuck in hospital for longer periods of time as they cannot be discharged into communities because they lack provision for their basic care. Disabled people were already twice as likely to be living in poverty than others before these cuts were imposed: no wonder disabled people up and down the country are scared stiff of these ‘reforms’.

The Government’s consultation document, entitled ‘Fulfilling potential’, makes specific mention of “tackling discrimination” towards disabled people and “promoting positive attitudes”. Yet charities have directly linked a rise in disabled abuse with the increasing rhetoric from Government ministers that disabled people are scrounging off society.

So bad has the Government’s attitude become that disability groups are now questioning whether they can continue to work with it on shaping further welfare reforms.

By the end of this parliament, if all these cuts are implemented, far from disabled people fulfilling their potential, the Coalition would instead have successfully reversed twenty years of advances made in helping the disabled play a valued and active part in society. Shame on all MPs if that is their intention. And if it isn’t, then the Government must wake up to the impact of these cuts, ban negative ministerial rhetoric linking the disabled with ‘scroungers’ and honour its supposed desire to develop policies that give back respect and support to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Previously published on the blog nhsbuff (apologies for the slow cross posting - illness took my eye off the ball)

Sunday 18 March 2012

Happy Mother's Day

"Another Brown Envelope arrived today. It's clearly marked from the Department. My neighbours might have seen, but I think I got it in time. It told me I cost too much. They're stopping my money next month. I am a Useless Eater. What will become of me?

They "assessed" me. Forced me to strip, made me touch my toes. It hurt, pain ripping through me. He never looked at me, said the pain didn't matter. He asked if I ever watched the TV. I didn't know how to answer? Was this a new trick? There have been so many. I nodded. He spat the question again "Answer me please". I said I did. The room was small, airless, cameras watched from every angle, moving as I tried to move. Grills at the windows. Grills at the doors. One time, I had to climb a flight of stairs. When I couldn't they stopped my money.

That brown envelope said I could work. They have work programmes now. We work for free, they make us. I don't know when it will end - perhaps it won't You can see my ribs, count them as I bend to reach the lowest shelves. I ate on Monday. Or was it Tuesday? I forget. The Minister said work frees us.

The letters. The endless brown envelopes, The logo makes my heart beat faster. I feel sick, terrified to open each one. The lawyers write to me, the advisers, the courts, the Department, the Providers. I don't understand them all but they never stop, they keep writing until you give up, until you are too worn down.

I saw a paper today. I didn't mean to. There, on the front page, the Department caught someone like me Outside. What was she thinking? Fool. She must have got the new directive? She must know we are not welcome Outside now? Perhaps she stopped opening the Brown Envelopes. I tried that once, but they sent someone to my house. Said I'd get no money at all for 2 weeks. The food ran out after 4 days. I always open the Brown Envelopes now. Eventually.

The paper called us cheats again. Scroungers, shirkers, we are "mugging the state". Every day, there on the front page. They print a telephone number. They get people to call it if they suspect a Useless Eater. Neighbours must report us now. The Department can follow you, take pictures, go through your bins. Check your bank accounts.

They say we're getting ID cards now. They'll list our defects. We must produce them if anyone asks. If a snarling, sneering bulldog of a man attacks me in the street, I must show him my card. The Department said it would make them stop, but sometimes it just makes the beating worse. Sometimes more join in when they see my Useless Eater ID. Another reason not to risk Outside.

I used to use a wheelchair, but it broke and the Department said I couldn't have another. Just as well I suppose. It makes things Outside worse. They said we couldn't afford it. I have to use nappies if I can't get to the toilet now, now one comes to help me get there any more. I live in one room now, use the walls and furniture to get about. It's easier, and saves on heating. The pills are in the drawer. I pretended to take them, but saved them up. The woman who came to change my bed and give me a bath used to make sure I took them, but she doesn't come any more. The Department say I don't need to wash below my waist. I've got lots of pills now. I think I've got enough.

The Department say I have to move. Well, I only use one room now anyway. There aren't many places Useless Eaters like me can go these days. Just the area beyond the river, on the edge of town, where it's cheaper. There are lots of us there. You can tell, because the curtains stay drawn. There is no bus. Another Department stopped them. It's far from the hospital now they've closed the one I used to go to. They stopped my drugs too, but it's OK, because I've got mine, safe in the drawer. They said it wouldn't apply to us, but it does.

I wonder where it will all end? I can't possibly imagine. Can't imagine things getting worse than they are now. I heard that some tried to protest, took to the streets! Outside! All around the world, they say! The police sprayed gas in their faces, hurled them back withwater cannon. Closed their internet sites down so they couldn't tell anyone. Arrested some. One got dragged backwards, tipped out of his wheelchair . I suppose that's why no-one really knows what is happening to us. I suppose they couldn't do all this if they did? Could they?

Where will it end? Will it end?

Monday 12 March 2012

Workfare: Privacy? What Right to Privacy?

One of the comments on my piece on Workfare, the DWP and Duty of Care raised a further alarming prospect, that DWP believe their right to impose Workfare takes precedence over a disabled person's legal right to privacy regarding their medical records.

The comment pointed out that a FOI request at the 'What do they Know' site contains the following statement by DWP:

Section 3 of the Social Security Act 1998 allows DWP to reuse personal information relating to social security and employment and training for another social security function. This includes reuse by persons providing services to DWP, such as Work Programme providers, where acting as the DWP's data processor.

In addition,
in order to carry out their functions under the Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme, the Work Programme provider may need additional personal information from the claimant. If the claimant does not wish to provide this information it may be the case that, with the provider, they can investigate ways in which they can still participate in the Scheme,  without the additional information being provided.

However, there may
come a point when the Work Programme provider becomes concerned that the claimant’s withholding of information potentially amounts to non-participation in the Scheme. If this is the case, they will refer the matter to a decision maker who will consider all the facts of the case, including any good cause issues the claimant wishes to raise, and determine whether the claimant has failed to participate. If the decision maker considers that the claimant has failed to participate, their benefit will be sanctioned.

Now the first paragraph is disturbing enough, but clearly falls within the legal powers granted to DWP, however the second and third paragraphs are particularly troubling, both in general and specifically for disabled people, as they seem to show the DWP taking the position that they can insist that any information they feel relevant is provided under threat of sanction, even where that insistence is counter to a disabled person's rights under the Equality and Data Protection Acts..

A disabled person when considering an employment position is forced into the iniquitous position of having to decide whether or not to reveal their disability. Declare your disability and you have the protection of the Equality Act when requesting a reasonable adjustment, but declaring your disability also opens you to the threat of discrimination. Equally there may be considerable privacy issues wrapped up in information that could be relevant to Duty of Care issues, as examples mental health issues, continence and epilepsy all draw considerable negative opinions, if not outright discrimination, in contemporary society.

When we face a new job, disabled people face a whole additional set of decisions over and above non-disabled people: do we declare, if we do declare, then how much of the extent of our disability do we declare, and how widely do we allow that knowledge to be spread. The Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act before it provide specific protections for disabled people, we cannot be penalised for not declaring (though we have to declare to make the reasonable adjustment provisions enforceable) and we can insist that the details of our disability are not spread to people other than those we declare to. So for instance, I could declare my disability to HR, but insist that my line managers are told nothing more than that I am disabled and can legally request reasonable adjustments. If those provisions are breached. particularly in instances where that data is passed to other organisations entirely, then I can bring legal action against my employer for violations of both the Equality Act and the Data Protection Act.

The DWP statement above appears to attempt to subvert those rights, by stating that they can insist that information is provided to the Workfare provider, no matter that the Equality Act gives disabled people a right in law to insist that it is not, no matter that the Workfare provider is not an employer in any normal sense. Given the overwhelming disablism in recruitment decisions that disabled people face, forcing people to reveal details of their disabilities is actually going to undermine any chance of them getting a job out of the mandated assignment, the overwhelming advice from recruitment consultants is not to reveal disability until you have the written offer of a full time job in your hand. So DWP are actually shooting the whole point of the exercise in the foot by forcing declaration of disability. Worse than this, however, is the way it tramples over the right of disabled people to maintain privacy around the details of their disability. If I am being forced against my will into some utterly inappropriate position,  with an utterly inappropriate company, a company whose data protection measures I have no confidence in and with whom I have no hope of a job at the end of it (and we've seen plenty of those reportedly involved with Workfare), then there is no way that I am willing to provide them with the full details of my disability, and I will be far from the only disabled person to feel that way. It will particularly be a problem for people with Mental Health issues, who are likely to be particularly frightened of being forced to declare details of their disability, and where there is already considerable evidence of them being deliberately targeted as 'an easy mark' for sanctions by JCP staff.

Workfare alone is bad enough, but to combine it with an contempt for the right to privacy of the people with most to lose from privacy and data protection violations, and to do so in apparent contempt for the protections granted by the Equality Act and the Data Protection Act, suggests that this is just one more piece of evidence that DWP consider themselves above such menial issues as the law, particularly laws relating to equality and discrimination.

Friday 9 March 2012

Workfare: DWP Don't Care....

A recent Freedom of Information request seems to raise huge concerns over whether the Department of Work and Pensions accept that they have a legal Duty of Care with respect to benefit claimants forced onto mandatory Workfare placements. With DWP intent on implementing new policies which will see disabled people in the ESA WRAG being forced onto indefinite mandatory Workfare placements under threat of sanctions, never mind all of the complexity, risk and privacy concerns that disability adds to the existing Workfare farrago, this is obviously hugely concerning.

The DWP have apparently stated "If however, a work placement is considered appropriate then the responsibilities of the individual, the provider and the organisation accepting the placement must be discussed and made clear (including liability)." and pointed their respondent at the generic guidelines for workfare, which state "All participants involved in any way with DWP Provision are entitled to train and work in a healthy and safe environment with due regard to their welfare. Under Health and Safety Law they are regarded as your employees, whether they are paid by you or not. You must, therefore, comply with your Duty of Care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Act’s associated regulations in the same way as you would do for any other member of your workforce"

This may seem quite responsible on the surface, however the implications are anything but. The Workfare situation is an unusual one, in which people are being forced to work by (or is it 'for'?) a government agency, the DWP, at a private contractors, while the DWP pay them benefits - which of course amounts to people being forced, under threat of having their benefits stopped entirely for anything up to three years, to work for less than the national minimum wage. Under normal circumstances the person paying your wages would be considered your employer, no matter where you were working. So if I work for Company A, but they send me to work at Company B, then both Company A and Company B would have a Duty of Care towards me, Company A because I am their employee and they have a legal responsibility to ensure that I am not exposed to unnecessary risk wherever I am, and Company B because they have a similar responsibility towards anyone on their premises. Yet DWP seem to be denying that they have the Duty of Care towards me that would normally descend from me being their employee. They also seem to be insisting on a process which would require the disabled person to fully reveal details of their disability to a company they are being forced to work for, in order to allow a risk assessment, no matter the privacy concerns of forcing someone to reveal full details of disability to an organisation for whom they not an employee.

This would be worrying enough for anyone in any circumstances, but for a disabled person dealing with the DWP it is a recipe ripe for disaster. The Workfare process involves someone, either from Job Centre Plus or one of their providers, such as the much castigated A4e (facing two more probes for fraud just this week), deciding that the benefit claimant would be helped by a work placement - or at least that is the spin on it, there is a considerable body of evidence pointing at JCP and contractors like A4e being very heavily target-driven, with JCP employees under massive pressure from management to hit targets such as number of people sanctioned per week, which whistleblowers have revealed means they are driven to target people with intellectual and mental disabilities as 'easy marks'. Now extend that pattern of behaviour to Workfare, and we will undoubtedly see large numbers of disabled people being forced onto Workfare not because it is in their interest, or appropriate for their disability, but because the JCP employee will be bawled out by their manager if she doesn't mandate another dozen crips before the end of the week, or because the training agency employee will miss a bonus if their figures aren't better than the rest of the office's...

I've dealt with JCP Disability Employment Advisors and training agency employees from the benefit claimant's position, a more clueless bunch of people about disability employment it would be difficult to imagine. The JCP staff persistently pushed the boundaries of what my disability allowed me to do, if I could do something for 10 minutes, they would write down 30, and then persistently try to undermine that at every other meeting. The training agency people (once I'd climbed the rickety outside staircase to their office - god help me if I'd arrived with a wheelchair not crutches....) knew so little about privacy and data protection that they saw nothing wrong in asking me to discuss the intimitate details of my disability while the gentleman sat immediately behind me was discussing his drug problem. Do either of these sound like organisations likely to give the necessary weight to the complexities of disability, or to their Duty of Care - especially if they seem to believe that Duty of Care doesn't apply in the first place?

When I was working I regularly ended up curled up in pain on the office floor because of my inability to sit for extended periods, Duty of Care can potentially be something as basic as recognising that someone cannot even sit at a desk, but how much recognition and understanding are we going to see when showing those may mean a bollocking in the manager's office, or a missed bonus? And if basic physical constraints are so readily targetted for undermining, what chance does someone with complex mental health issues have.

I thought this was scary when it was just the prospect of DEAs or A4e employees mandating disabled people onto indefinite Workfare assignments under threat of sanction, but if they don't even think they have a Duty of Care towards us....