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Friday, 14 November 2014
Wheelchairs or pushchairs: Who should take priority?
A court will decide whether wheelchair users have priority over pushchairs on buses, but how do you decide who is more entitled to the space?
In February 2012, wheelchair user Doug Paulley was not allowed to board a bus in Leeds because the wheelchair space was taken by a pushchair. The mother, not wanting to wake her sleeping baby, refused to move.
Paulley was left with no choice but to get off and wait for the next bus. That one was an hour away, and took him to the wrong side of the city. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. 'That day in February resulted in me not using a bus again for a year. I lost all confidence and couldn't face it any more,' he said last year.
But did he have more of a right to the space than a mother not wanting to wake her sleeping child?
The law says he did because disabled people are a 'protected group' under the Equality Act 2010. This means that they have a legal right to protection from discrimination and access to facilities, including public transport. The same protection is not given to parents travelling with pushchairs, because they have other options - they could fold the pushchair away, and sit with their child on their lap.
For Baroness Tanni-Grey Thompson, who knows what it is like to be a wheelchair user and a mother with a pushchair, the psychological significance for disabled people of knowing they can get on the bus is an important factor that should be noted.
'I'm a mum, I've been there with a pram, but for disabled people it's important they have the ability to travel in the same way as anyone else,' she says.
That, for disability campaigners, is what it boils down to, a person's basic ability to get around. They argue that other travellers, including parents with pushchairs, could ultimately walk the remaining distance whereas disabled people could not.
But Claire Muller, a mother who recently had to get off the bus for a wheelchair user, feels as entitled to that space as a wheelchair user. She says that people could end up resenting disabled people. 'At the moment you're firstly hoping there's not another pushchair on there, and then at every stop you're hoping there's not a wheelchair user,' she says. 'It shouldn't be the case, but it is.'
Back in 2012, First Bus, the company in charge of the bus Paulley tried to get on, had a 'first come, first served' policy that meant the driver could ask the woman to move, but could not force her. It relied on the goodwill of passengers to give up their spot for a wheelchair user, and as became evident, this reliance was open to failure.
Paulley was so upset by the experience that he embarked on an 18-month legal battle against First Bus, a case he eventually won. A judge at Leeds County Court ruled in September last year that First Bus's policy of 'requesting but not requiring' non-disabled travellers to move was unlawful discrimination, in breach of the Equality Act 2010.
The judge, Recorder Isaacs, ruled that Paulley had been put at a substantial disadvantage because of the incident. If the next bus had arrived more quickly then Natalie Rodgers, spokesperson for Unity Law who represent Paulley, says he would have lost the case as he would not have been at a substantial disadvantage to other travellers. It was the waiting, and the stress incurred, that led to the judge's decision.
Now, First Bus have appealed against that decision, and it has reached the Court of Appeal. They are arguing that they made reasonable adjustment to allow wheelchair users access by providing the bays, and that it was not a requirement for the driver to move the mother.
They want legal clarity on whether this should be a driver's role. It is a precedent-setting case that, if First Bus lose, would result in drivers having a legal requirement to move people from that bay if a wheelchair user needs it, and it would stretch further too, for all bus companies and trains across England and Wales.
Pushchairs could be folded, but Sally Whittle, a mother and writer of a blog called Who's The Mummy? explains that it is not that simple.
'Public transport is not a joyous experience at the best of times, but if you're travelling with a young baby in a pushchair there might be all kinds of reasons why it can't be collapsed,' she says.
Some pushchairs, such as parent-facing ones, are not designed to collapse. If there are items underneath then it can be tricky, and pushchairs and prams can be extremely large. As Whittle says, 'if you do collapse it the question is often, where do you put it?'
Muller thinks there is a risk of prioritising one group and excluding the other. 'The issue should really be about equality of access for everybody,' she says.
It is a fact that more parents with pushchairs and people with large suitcases regularly use buses than wheelchair users so a change could affect many, but for Paulley it is important to push as far as necessary for equality, to ensure that the protection of disabled people continues.
'These bays were designated as wheelchair spaces and they happened because disabled people protested and chained themselves to buses in the 1990s,' he says. 'If that space isn't available, that person can't travel.'
For Whittle, Paulley and Muller the onus should be on the bus companies to provide suitable transport for all, but if First Bus lose their appeal it will be a landmark decision for disability rights.
DWP admits investigating 60 benefit-related deaths since 2012
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has carried out 60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths in less than three years, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.
DWP released the figures in response to a series of Freedom of Information Act (FoI) requests by DNS.
It said in one response that DWP had carried out “60 peer reviews following the death of a customer” since February 2012.
There have been numerous reports of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to the employment and support allowance (ESA) claim process, or the refusal or removal of ESA and other benefits, including the writer Paul Reekie, who killed himself in 2010, and the deaths of Nick Barker, Jacqueline Harris, Ms DE, and Brian McArdle.
The Scottish-based, user-led campaign group Black Triangle has collected more than 40 examples of people – most of them disabled – who appear to have died as a result of being found “fit for work” through a work capability assessment (WCA), or having their entitlement to benefits otherwise refused or removed.
Many of the cases became widely-known through media reports of inquests, but in the case of Ms DE, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland concluded that the WCA process and the subsequent denial of ESA was at least a “major factor in her decision to take her own life”.
But DWP has consistently denied any connection between the coalition’s welfare reforms and cuts and the deaths of benefit claimants.
This week, DWP also released guidance used by its staff to decide whether a peer review was necessary, and guidance for authors of a peer review.
This reveals that the role of a review is to “determine whether local and national standards have been followed or need to be revised/improved”, while a review must be carried out in every case where “suicide is associated with DWP activity”.
It also says that peer reviews might also be considered in cases involving “customers with additional needs/vulnerable customers”.
As with previous FoI requests by DNS and many other disabled campaigners, DWP refused to answer some of the questions because it claimed that it planned to publish information itself “in due course”.
It also said it had only begun to keep national records of internal reviews since February 2012, and that it was too expensive to find figures from local and district records showing how many such reviews there had been before that date.
Another of the FoI responses stated that it was too expensive to produce information showing how many letters DWP has received from coroners expressing concern that a death may have been linked to the non-payment or withdrawal of a benefit.
Bob Ellard, speaking on behalf of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said the disclosure that DWP had investigated 60 claimant deaths since 2012 was a “damming revelation”.
He called for an urgent independent inquiry into the suicides and other deaths of benefit claimants.
Ellard said: “We still don’t know enough about this as the DWP continue to use the small print in the FoI laws to prevent disclosure of information that is in the public interest.
“We are calling for the deaths and suicides of benefit claimants to be urgently investigated by an independent authority.
“We believe that these tragic deaths are as a direct result of [Conservative work and pensions secretary] Iain Duncan Smith’s policies and we want him to be called to account.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said that if 60 people had died in a major accident there would have been “hell to pay” and a “massive inquiry”.
He said NHS figures showed a general rise in self-harm and suicide, which Black Triangle (BT) believes is connected with the effects of “cuts and austerity”.
McArdle said he would like to know how many coroners had made recommendations to DWP in the wake of inquests into benefit-related suicides and other deaths.
He said: “I think the public has a right to know whether coroners have made these recommendations to prevent similar tragedies happening again.”
DNS reported last month how DWP had repeatedly contradicted its own position on benefit-related deaths.
It originally stated, in an FoI response, that it did not hold any records on deaths linked to, or partially caused by, the withdrawal or non-payment of disability benefits.
Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, later told DNS that he did not “accept the premise” that DWP should collect and analyse reports of such deaths.
But the Liberal Democrat DWP minister Steve Webb appeared to contradict Harper when he said the following week that when the department becomes aware of worrying cases “they do get looked at”.
A DWP spokesman finally told DNS last month that it carries out reviews into individual cases, where it is “appropriate”.
Thursday, 13 November 2014
Housing body calls on commission to get welfare sorted
A leading housing body has told the first public session of the Smith Commission that the bedroom tax debacle was a classic example of Westminster getting it wrong for Scotland.
Mary Taylor, Scottish Federation of Housing Associations’ chief executive, said there had to be better mechanisms for managing the boundary between the two parliaments to ensure effective policy making.
In its submission to the commission, SFHA argued full powers over the social security system - excluding pensions - and of its financing are needed.
And it called on the commission to avoid cherry-picking elements of the social security system.
Taylor said: “There are many complex interactions between the different welfare benefits, policies and tax allowances that pay for them, too many to separate some out on their own; and we need the Scottish Parliament to be able to exercise full control over the system to make change which will improve the lives of people living in poverty.'
Tackling poverty includes tackling fuel poverty, which is at shocking levels in remote and rural areas of Scotland said Taylor.
She added: “We know that our argument for devolution of these news powers to tackle poverty and inequality are echoed in the submissions of many other organisations and individuals and hope the Smith Commission will listen and be bold in its recommendations.'
Motherwell charity cuts ties with controversial work scheme
A Motherwell charity has pulled out of a Government employment programme after being targeted in a ‘slave labour’ protest.
LAMH Recycling says it has been bombarded with abusive messages and its Range Road premises have been vandalised since the Motherwell Times highlighted a daily vigil being carried out by former employee John McArthur.
He has been spending two hours every day standing outside the factory with placards critical of LAMH for taking part in the employment scheme. Participants get a six-month placement but no payment above their usual jobseeker’s allowance.
Mr McArthur (59) said his benefits were stopped after he refused a placement at LAMH where he had worked previously for a wage. He can’t afford to switch on his heating and is ‘living on 16p tins of spaghetti'.
Since our story two weeks ago Mr McArthur has received messages of support and offers of cash from home and abroad, but LAMH said it, in contrast, has been swamped by e-mails and other messages containing abuse and threats.
People on LAMH placements this week lined up to defend the work scheme which, they claim, is improving their chances of finding a job.
One, John Dowdie, said: “It’s completely wrong that the people here are getting hatemail and threats. This is a Government programme and the Jobcentre sent us here. It’s nothing to do with LAMH.”
Joe Fulton, operations and development manager at LAMH, also defended the scheme, saying seven people who signed up in June when it first started have gone on to find jobs elsewhere.
He said the 15 current participants will be allowed to complete their placements, but no more will be taken on.
Mr Fulton stated: “We are not in the business of surviving through slave labour, but it was obvious the people behind this campaign were not going to stop.
“We are forced into this action reluctantly for the protection of the people with us plus the safeguarding of the organisation, which is highly regarded for the good work it has achieved in the local community since 1999.”
Under the scheme, jobless people join the LAMH workforce, whose tasks include repairing computers and collecting materials such as cans and bottles for recycling.
They also get access to telephones and computers to make job applications under the supervision of an employment co-ordinator.
Elaine Tollan, from Craigneuk, gave the scheme her approval.
She said: “I’ve been unemployed for four or five years, but after 14 weeks at LAMH, I feel more motivated to get a job.
“I’m getting unemployment money and I’m fine with that.”
Richard Dawson, from Muirhouse, praised the ‘welcoming’ atmosphere at LAMH and scoffed at the ‘slave labour’ claim.
He said: “Before, I didn’t get out of bed till dinner time. I was very negative about this when I started, but now I feel motivated and confident.
“I don’t think about the money. I come here with a spring in my step. It’s another step towards getting a job and it’s all positive.”
Wednesday, 12 November 2014
Soaring fuel bills will kill a pensioner every SEVEN minutes this winter, a new report reveals
The survey for the charity Age UK also warns that one in three pensioners now fear they cannot afford to heat their homes.
A pensioner will die from cold every seven minutes in Britain this winter, a damning report warns today.
Soaring fuel bills and poorly insulated homes are blamed by Age UK for the tens of thousands of older people who die due to cold weather each winter.
A new survey for the charity published on Tuesday reveals one in three pensioners now fear they cannot afford to heat their homes.
In total more than five million people aged over 65 say the soaring cost of fuel is one of their biggest worries over the winter months.
Labour’s shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint raged: “Britain is facing an energy bill crisis. Millions of people - especially older people - are struggling to heat their homes.”
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: “The spectre of struggling to afford to heat their homes this winter is looming large in the minds of millions of older people.
'Increasing energy costs coupled with poorly insulated homes means the UK is fighting a losing battle against cold weather and it is very difficult for increasing numbers of people to properly protect themselves.
“The only long-term solution to this problem is an ambitious programme to bring all our housing up to a high energy efficiency standard.
'We realise a national infrastructure project of this scale would require major investment; but not only would it reduce illness and deaths among older people, it would also cut associated costs to the NHS, create jobs and growth and help future generations.
“No older person should worry that they could die from the cold in their own home.
'Fuel poverty is a national scandal which has claimed the lives of too many people – both old and young – for far too long and left many more suffering from preventable illness.
'We want a permanent solution and we believe it is within our grasp, if there is the necessary imagination and political will.”
The Government insisted it is already doing enough to protect older people struggling to heat their homes.
A spokesman for the Department for Energy and Climate Change said; “We’re working harder and investing more to tackle fuel poverty than any previous Government – with fuel poverty down every year since 2010.
“Across Government we’re spending £2.15 billion this winter to help Britain’s pensioners pay for their bills through Winter Fuel Payments, along with an additional £310 million on the Warm Home Discount for those at risk of fuel poverty.
“But we know the way to help people permanently is to make their homes warmer and cheaper to heat. That’s why we’ve introduced an ambitious strategy, the first in a decade, to get the UK’s housing stock up to scratch.”
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