Sunday 20 April 2014

Pontius Pilate Found Alive and Well and Editing the Mail on Sunday

I keep thinking the Mail must have reached the absolute limit on hateful bile, only for it to plunge effortlessly to new depths of hate, but today's report in the Mail on Sunday on the foodbank charity The Trussell Trust is going to take some beating. For those who haven't read it, a MoS 'investigative reporter' went to CAB claiming to be unemployed and in need of food, and was referred to a foodbank, which fed him, and apparently this is evidence that there really isn't a foodbank crisis.

That's right, the Mail condemned a charity, for feeding a hungry man, on Easter Sunday.

Beyond the horror that they did this to a charity, we need to be very aware of exactly what was done here, and it is a far murkier story than many will realise. The Trussell Trust has been flagging up the massive growth in people seeking their help for the last year or more, and this is not a narrative that the government is happy with, in particular it seems to be driving Iain Duncan Smith towards apoplexy, and this week saw the launch of a coordinated attack on the Trussell Trust in the pages of, surprise, surprise, The Daily Mail with the claim that "Food bank charity 'is misleading the public': Claim that 1m need food parcels 'just self promotion'" and 'DWP sources' (presumably code for IDS's Special Advisors) alleging the charity was engaged in "misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking". There is something deeply ironic that IDS, who brandishes his Catholicism at every opportunity, should choose Easter Week to launch a coordinated attack on a charity dedicated to feeding those in need.

This MoS story is actually a very carefully calculated piece of political propaganda designed to allow IDS and the Tory party to deny the reality of the foodbank crisis. Tory DWP minister and IDS-mouthpiece Lord Freud has repeatedly tried to claim that people go to foodbanks not because they are in need, but because it is free food; that strategy hasn't been working because no one believes him. The MoS story clearly sets out with the intent of proving that Freud's position is true, by inventing a story that makes it true. It then further twists the narrative by alleging that many of the people receiving food parcels were asylum-seekers, linking the foodbank issue to the xenophobic fears of the Mail's Little Englander readership, and seeks to undermine the Trussell Trust figures by implying that there is massive fraud across the entire foodbank system. The next time that foodbanks are in the news, watch out for IDS and Freud and the Tory hordes to come out waving the MoS story and claiming they knew all along that the figures were lies.

When Ministers and Fleet Street editors set out to make their spin true by creating a story from whole cloth, how can we trust either ever to tell us the truth?

(Updated title to use the religous allusion I actually meant to use, though Herod worked in its own way. Guess I'm even more lapsed than I thought)

Friday 18 April 2014

Labour's New WCA Policy, Damned with Faint Praise

Labour's team of Rachel Reeves (shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) and Kate Green (shadow Minister for Disabled People) had an article in the Independent on Wednesday How Labour would reform the Work Capability Assessment and the reaction from disabled people has been underwhelming.

Labour propose:
  • That the WCA will be changed to be more relevant to work, with the disabled person to get a copy of the assessor's report, detailing how their disability is expected to affect their ability to work, together with information on locally available support.
  • That they would introduce an independent group of disabled people to work with the independent reviewer in producing ongoing annual reviews of the WCA.
  • That the firm(s) contracted to conduct the assessments would be held to tighter standards.

Now any improvement in WCA is clearly better than none, but these proposals aren't exactly earth-shattering. Holding the Atos replacement to tighter standards is already ConDem policy, involving disabled people in the annual review is clearly better on the Nothing For Us, Without Us front, but the ConDems have shown how easy it is to work around the review while making the WCA worse, and promises to change the test to make it more relevant to work don't necessarily mean making it any more honest in the way it proceeds.

Disabled bloggers and campaign groups have already responded, and the response has been lukewarm at best. Sue Marsh in the Guardian is perhaps least negative and even she declares herself 'tremendously disappointed', noting that, as ever, Labour seem scared of providing any detail to a policy in case it might scare off the middle ground (I think that's Labour code for Mail readers), I'm not as convinced as Sue is that all the points made are necessarily positive, more of that below, but as she notes, it's a step on from the shirkers they've called us in the past. Mason Dixon is less positive in his assessment, noting that we have no guarantee that Labour are on our side given those same very negative attitudes towards disabled people and benefits expressed in the not-so-distant past by very senior Labour figures (Miliband, Byrne, and Reeves herself). Disabled People Against The Cuts meanwhile have no problem presenting a detailed assessment of where the proposals fall short in their response and in detailing how getting disabled people into work needs a system-wide approach stretching far beyond the bounds of WCA and including reversing cuts to DSA, ILF and PIP, while extending AtW, the accessibility of public transport,  reversing changes to the law on unfair dismissal and enforcing laws against disability discrimination in employment, while also recognising that many disabled people simply cannot be expected to work. These are all issues that do indeed need addressing if disabled people are to be able to compete in the labour market as anything closer to true equals - unfortunately I think they also represent a far wider debate than Labour is prepared to address at the moment, which is another point where Labour is falling short of our needs.

Beyond the issues raised by Sue Marsh, Mason Dixon and DPAC, I spotted some fairly major problems of my own. Nowhere in the Reeves/Green article is DWP itself addressed, and there are few disabled people left with any doubts that DWP is a major part of the problem, not the solution. We have seen openly disablist attitudes from the bottom of DWP to the top: from front line clerks who continually try to undermine disability related provisions in Job Seekers Agreements; through Disability Equality Advisors who believe disabled people should only expect to compete for jobs at the minimum wage; through people sanctioned at the drop of a hat; even when the issue is something like a learning disabled person unable to respond to a written letter, or a blind person DWP consistently fail to write to in braille; through the issues with the Work Programme and its utter failure towards disabled people; and that its DWP overseers allow rampant 'parking' of disabled people; through WCA decision makers who rarely question even the most absurd Atos assessments; on up to the highest levels of the department with their reports saying '75% are faking' and the under-the-counter briefing of the tabloids of the frothing right. Even if much of the higher level issues have originated with IDS, his coterie of junior ministers, and their Special Advisors; the senior civil servants of DWP have a professional responsibility to enforce both the Civil Service and Ministerial Codes in order to stop these abuses, and it is clear that they have not been prepared to do that. It is unfortunately clear that disabled people will not be able to trust DWP until there is a root and branch clear-out of staff with disablist attitudes, and a thorough retraining of every single member of the department in the principles of disability equality, with any who are unable to reform their attitudes transferred out of the department. Issues of staff attitudes also carry through into training providers - anyone willing to 'park' a disabled person is clearly not fit for their role, and to the staff of whichever companies end up conducting the revised WCA. Atos clearly had no shortage of staff who fell far short of the standard of behaviour that would be expected of medical personnel conducting a medical assessment and there was plentiful evidence of worse problems in the highest levels of the organisation.

Equally the subject of the BioPsychoSocial Model of Disability never arises. It is this model, avidly adopted by Labour and the highest levels of DWP from US insurer Unum (they of the 'disability denial mills') which shaped the evolution of WCA into a punitive system which envisages disabled people as being inherently involved in a conspiracy to defraud the government by petulantly refusing to get better (I wish I was joking, but you really couldn't make this stuff up). The BioPsychoSocial Model is used by DWP as an excuse to say 'Why yes, we are listening to the poor cripples and their Social Model', but the truth is that it is a model shaped to avoid any possible aspect of the Social Model infiltrating its way into WCA or any other part of DWP policy, and to maintain WCA as a punitive system to drive down ESA eligibility, rather than an enabling system which ensures all disabled people receive all of the support they need. Until and unless Labour say that the BioPsychoSocial Model is gone, and that it was a fundamental mistake ever to adopt it, then we simply can have no trust that they, DWP, and the WCA are acting in our interests, rather than against them.

Nor, returning to the WCA itself, do we see any promise to address the problems with the various disabilities whose needs and issues WCA has systematically failed to address, and remember, issues with WCA failing to address variable disabilities and mental health were identified all the way back in the first Harrington report. Nor is there a promise to do away with the 'imaginary wheelchair' method of assessment, in fact the proposal to have the assessor detail how they envisage the disabled person's disability affecting their ability to work potentially enshrines the 'imaginary wheelchair' in Labour's proposals. Nor is there any promise to do away with the ruling that no symptom can possibly have both physical and psychological effects, no matter that it flies in the face of medical science. Labour will probably argue that these are concerns about the details, but for disabled people, these details are vital in knowing whether we can support the policy, or whether we must oppose it.

Overall: C-, must try harder to address the entire problem.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Spartacus take ESA Beyond the Barriers

Work for those who can

Security for those who can't

Support for all

The Spartacus network of disabled people has launched a new report that not only dissects the many flaws in ESA, and the Work Capability Assessment, but which sets out to present a proposed replacement that will serve disabled people and government both.

The report, Beyond the Barriers, opens with a sobering analysis of the ESA process by the disabled people who have gone through it, with fully 50% saying that ESA causes stress, often to the point of fear.

The Work Capability Assessment is analysed, and beyond all the faults of structure, failure to seek medical evidence, and inadequately trained assessors, it notes that the assessment is irrelevant to work, as no attempt is made to discover what work an individual is supposed to be capable of doing - something most people will agree is a fairly fundamental failing.

While other reports have identified the same failings, where this report goes beyond those that have gone before is that it proposes a complete replacement for the ESA process, an utterly new process that carries out all of the assessment of disability that ESA and WCA were supposed to provide and never did, but which does it in a way that never loses focus on the need to protect the disabled person from being harmed by the process, the need to capture actual medical information, not the WCA’s Daily Mail parody of medical information, and which remains focused throughout on just what form of work the disabled person will, or will not, be able to do. There’s even the radical assertion that someone assessing a disability should actually know something about it.

Recognising that this will take time to implement, the report also proposes an interim solution to protect disabled people undergoing assessment before the replacement system becomes operational.

Perhaps the most radical proposal, but one completely in accord with other initiatives in the disability and care system, is that disabled people themselves should assume control of their own back-to-work support budget.

A report that doesn’t just expose all the flaws of ESA, but which actually sets out to make real progress on getting disabled people back to work, what’s not to like?

Monday 7 April 2014

Disabled Students' Allowance Targeted for Cuts.

A press release and Parliamentary Written Answer (pretty much identical with each other) from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) announces that they are taking 'measures to modernise the Disabled Students’ Allowances'. Allegedly this is in pursuit of 'Making the higher education system more efficient and diverse' and 'Widening participation in higher education'.

Disabled people have heard the language of 'modernising' benefits before, it is exactly the language used to describe the 'need' for PIP to replace DLA, as is the pronouncement that 'It has been almost 25 years since the DSA scheme was reviewed' and we know the reality that the fine words hide is that the intent is cutting support, not enhancing it. Similarly 'We recognise that students will continue to need support. However, we believe that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are better placed to consider how to respond in many cases' could come straight out of the press release announcing the axing of the ILF in favour of care (supposedly) provided by councils. There are also clear parallels with DWP's ham-handed fiddling about with support provided to disabled people under the Access to Work scheme. In fact many of the items targeted for withdrawal of support appear identical to those targeted in the AtW cuts several years ago, the same cuts that produced a disastrous fall-off in uptake of AtW by disabled people.

A further paper from BIS provides some additional, but still incomplete details on the changes. Taking all the documents together still leaves some explicit blanks, and some deliberate obfuscation, but we know the changes include the following:

As BIS now expects every student to have their own PC it will no longer provide standard-spec computers to students whose disability means that they need one in order to complete their course. This policy is justified based on a survey by student insurer Endsleigh (yes, really) that found 96% of students do - so that would be 4% who don't (and likely more, as the survey was reportedly conducted via email, which rather presupposes access to a computer), which with 2,340,275 students in 2012/13 equates to 93,600-plus students without computers of their own, a not-inconsiderable number. As disabled students will often be multiply disadvantaged, with families potentially having straitened finances due to relying on benefits such as Carer's Allowance and the like, together with a much reduced ability to access part-time work while undertaking their degree, those 93,600 students without computers of their own are likely to include a greater proportion of disabled students than in the main, computer-owning, student population. Worse, disabled students who cannot afford PCs of their own will generally find it more difficult to access publicly available computers on the college network. Additionally axed are any software or peripherals that might be generally applicable, together with insurance costs.

These cuts deliberately ignore an fundamental principle of disability equality: a non-disabled person, who can if they so desire choose to complete their degree without a PC of their own, has the option to decide whether to buy PC or software or insurance, or not; paying for them is a voluntary cost for their own convenience. For a disabled student, on the other hand, who would not be able to complete their degree without computer and supporting software, they are mandatory costs to participate, and absolute dependence on the computer means that so too is the insurance payment.

Higher-spec computers will now only be provided if a student's disability requires it and not "simply because of the way in which a course is delivered". It is unclear precisely what BIS mean by this, but students whose courses rely on them having access to better than standard PC/laptop because of the subject matter, for instance a computer-graphics based degree, may in future find themselves unable to access the hardware they need in order to proceed with their degree. And of course the complexity of disability means that this isn't simply an either/or question; if I was re-doing my computer science degree course now then I would likely require both PC and laptop, laptop because dyspraxia means I couldn't take notes in lectures by hand, PC because hypermobility means I can't sit hunched over a laptop for hours back in my room. It is this kind of subtle interaction of multiple disabilities feeding through into non-obvious individually specific requirements which is likely to be significantly more poorly served as a result of these changes.

Also no longer supported are consumable costs, which initially may not sound too significant, however the absolute dependence of a disabled student on their computer necessarily means parallel needs for computer consumables, to a degree not experienced by non-disabled students, together with disability specific consumable needs such as braille paper, coloured paper (needed by some people with dyslexia), together with additional photocopying costs, additional travel costs if public transport is not accessible, mini-fridges to hold medication, and so on. One of the constants of disability is it always costs more, and often in ways which are specific to individual disabilities, and even to individual experiences of disability.

Worryingly an entire group of disabilities is singled out in a way which suggests support for them is to be axed. The press release states: "Students with Specific Learning Difficulties will continue to receive support through DSAs where their support needs are considered to be more complex", with the clear implication that people with less-complex support needs are to have their support axed entirely. (In the spirit of academic openness I should note here that I have at least one Specific Learning Disability - dyspraxia). Dyslexia is perhaps the best known SpLD, but the group also include dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADD/ADHD and Auditory Processing Disorder. So ironically the group of students targeted for cuts explicitly on the grounds of their particular disability are those whose disability explicitly affects their abilities around learning. The press release also notes "We will be consulting with specialists in the sector to ensure that Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) students understand the type of support they can expect to receive and who will provide it." Which rather seems to say that students with SpLDs are at fault for expecting any support from BIS. And 'SpLD students'? Really, BIS? Is that the best way to refer to us you can think of? Equally the statement informs us that BIS are launching the cuts now, but that they haven't yet bothered to speak to the subject matter specialists. Sadly this kind of cut first, consult the experts later exercise is all to common.

A comment on Twitter in response to the news noted that many people with SpLDs use DSA funding/support for dictaphones/high-end voice recorders to allow them to record lectures and tutorials to allow them to analyse and annotate what was said at their own pace, another comment pointed out that students with SpLDs have already been having to self-fund assessments by Educational Psychologists in order to access the support they need through DSAs, but if that support isn't going to be there at all, then they won't be able to justify the cost, even though it might help in dealing with their HEI in other ways.

The BIS paper also state that it will now only fund "the most specialist Non-Medical Help," which is clarified as only Band 3 and 4 staff. The Band 1 and 2 support workers who will no longer be funded include: "Practical Support Assistants, Library Support Assistants, Reader, Scribes, Workshop/Laboratory Assistant, Sighted Guides, Proof Readers (Band 1) and Study Assistants, Examination Support Workers, and Manual Notetakers (Band 2). Practically every disabled person I know who has been through the university system in the last few years has been absolutely dependent on one or more of that list. I rather suspect BIS are hoping that disabled students can be forced to rely on friends and classmates in order to provide these services, much as much of the care system depends on unpaid or poorly paid family carers.

The press release further states "HEIs are expected to consider how they deliver information to students and whether strategies can be put in place to reduce the need for support workers", which appears to specifically address notetakers/readers/library support assistants, and utterly fails to understand how a notetaker in particular is used, particularly how they may be used in tutorial groups around spontaneous discussion. Equally the paper states "We no longer expect assistive technology and non-medical helper support to be provided for the same purpose. This is regarded as double-funding." never mind that a disabled person might need a notetaker in a tutorial, but find it easier to record a lecture to work through later. In an bizarre attempt at victim-blaming, the press-release justifies this as "encourag(ing) greater independence and autonomy for their students." So apparently if a disabled person needs a support worker, BIS feel that this is because they are somehow inadequate.

With regard to specialist accessible accommodation, BIS say they will not meet any additional costs, except in exceptional circumstances. Now clearly a disabled person shouldn't be charged more for accessible accommodation than a non-disabled person is charged for standard accomodation, but if BIS withdraw support, and the HEI does charge more, then clearly it isn't BIS that will suffer, it is the disabled person.

And in fact this discrepancy between what BIS expects the HEIs to provide and what they actually provide appears to be fundamental to a major part of the cuts. "it is expected that HEIs", "HEIs are expected","It is for HEIs to consider". BIS clearly believes HEIs should be doing more to support their disabled students/wants to transfer support costs from central government to the individual HEIs. In order to force them to take action on this BIS is therefore going to withdraw most of the support it has been giving disabled students, victimising them twice over, and no doubt expecting change to happen not because the HEIs suddenly realising they haven't been giving enough support, but through the medium of individual disabled students being forced to sue for reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. There is a single word description for this policy of using disabled students as their weapon: cowardice.

The Equality Act 2010, and the Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2005 before it, were deliberately hamstrung by devolving enforcement onto disabled people, in full knowledge that they would generally lack the physical, mental and monetary resources to take a legal action through the courts against what would generally be a larger and much better funded opponent. (I have done this with an Employment Tribunal, the process was mentally and physically exhausting, even with legal support from my union, and we settled before we ever got to Tribunal). A disabled student, away from home for the first time, trying to find out how to manage their necessary personal assistants, access an often inaccessible campus, explain their access needs to often profoundly ignorant academic staff, negotiate all the complexities of grants and funding, with a whole extra level of disability specific funding on top, and have a normal campus life on top of that, is simply in no position to take on a legal action under the Equality Act. Worse an action under the Equality Act is likely to take months, if not years, and the student needs that support now. And all the time BIS will be piously saying "It is the HEI that failed to meet its legal obligations, not us." Like I said, cowardice.

As an afterthought, note that there should be an Equalities Impact Assessment to go with this change, in fact the press-release explicitly references it, saying changes are "subject to the Equality Impact Assessment", and BIS are legally required to produce one under the Equality Act 2010 as this is a policy change specifically affecting disabled people, but I cannot find one on the BIS website, though EIAs for earlier changes to DSA are present. Have BIS actually published the policy without doing the EIA first?