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Thursday, 23 October 2014
MPs to probe Government's savage benefit cuts
MPs are to hold a new inquiry into the government’s brutal benefit sanctions regime – following a campaign backed by the Daily Mirror.
It has been triggered by Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, who called on the Work and Pensions Select Committee to investigate after the Government refused an inquiry.
The move follows a 200,000-strong petition set up by Gill Thompson in July following the death of her diabetic brother David Clapson at the age of 59. David, a former soldier who served in Northern Ireland, died destitute after being sanctioned by the Job Centre for missing a single meeting.
Abrahams said she had been inspired by Gill’s bravery to keep fighting for an investigation. “Gill has shown great courage, in the wake of her brother’s appalling death, to take on this cruel government and their inhuman policy of targeting vulnerable people who are reliant on social security,” Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, said.
“The huge response to the Mirror’s reporting on how claimants are being stitched up and sanctioned, and over 200,000 signatures on Gill’s petition, is proof that the British people will not stand by and do nothing when they see vulnerable people suffering.”
Last night Gill said she was hoping to be called to give evidence. “This has been a huge battle, but it isn’t just for my David who died penniless, it’s for all the people who have been sanctioned and who have written to me telling their stories,” she said last night. “It’s an absolute scandal.”
Organisations including the Trussell Trust have repeatedly linked the sanctions regime to the soaring number of people going to foodbanks.
“Ministers in the DWP have used every trick in the book to avoid being held to account,” Abrahams said. “This inquiry will leave them nowhere to hide and that’s why they’ve fought so hard to avoid one.”
The battle for an inquiry dates back to November 2013, when Abrahams got Employment minister Esther McVey to agree to one – only for her to backtrack.
In July 2014, the government instead published the Matthew Oakley Report into sanctioning – on the day the House of Commons rose for summer.
Oakley highlighted systematic problems with the sanctions regime – but did not look into whether they are being unfairly applied. Critics condemned it as a “whitewash”.
Last month, Gill spoke at the Daily Mirror fringe at Labour Party conference. “David had no electricity on his key and the coroner said he had no food in his stomach,” Gill said. “He died alone and hungry. He wasn’t a scrounger – he worked for 29 years and served in Northern Ireland in the Army.”
He died surrounded by job applications. “But he missed one meeting and he was sanctioned,” Gill said.
To sign the petition, visit change.org/benefitsanctions
Wednesday, 22 October 2014
£80 charge for elderly people to go to hospital sparks outcry
People living in Kintyre are asked for £80 if they need to go to Glasgow and £60 to travel to Lorn and Islands Hospital in Oban, although the state pension is only £113.75.
The charges are being applied when a patient has been assessed, via a telephone booking system as not qualifying for NHS transport.
With no public transport available to take people to the hospitals and back the same day, patients with no other means of travel are told to use Red Cross transport.
Although all but £10 of the fee can be claimed back a month later, patients have to pay the Red Cross driver on the day.
The NHS Highland arrangement has been labelled 'bureaucracy gone mad', and a campaign has begun to end the situation which is denying pensioners money for food and bills.
Argyll Liberal Democrat MP Alan Reid said: 'There needs to be a review of the whole system and questions asked as to why the NHS is forcing elderly patients to travel these very long distances.'
Campbeltown councillor Donald Kelly said: 'It's a scandal. It's totally unacceptable to be charging people that amount in this day and age, where a lot of elderly people will be living on the breadline. This could put them into dire straits. It needs to be looked at as soon as possible.'
Steve Byrne of Campbeltown Community Council said: 'The whole thing is wrong. Somebody from Carradale was told they had to pay £80 up-front for transport to a hospital in Glasgow. It's two-thirds of a weekly pension.'
Sarah Borthwick, 81, of Stewarton, near Campbeltown, has had to make a five-hour return trip every three weeks for the last six months to collect chemotherapy tablets.
Mrs Borthwick said: 'I don't think people can believe it, that I have to go all the way up to Oban just to get tablets but I do.
'I go up there to get two packets of tablets. You have your weight taken and your blood pressure taken, but that's it.'
Mrs Borthwick added: 'I phoned to book the transport one day and they said, 'You don't qualify for this transport any more but I will give you another number if you need a lift.' I phoned my cancer nurse and she said it was ridiculous.
'She phoned and sorted it, but they told her the other transport was the Red Cross where you have to pay £60 and then claim the money back.'
Iain McNicoll, a retired GP in Port Appin in Argyll with a life-long interest in rural medicine, said: 'I think this is bureaucracy gone mad.'
He added weight and blood -pressure could be taken locally and he saw no reason why the chemotherapy tablets could not be transported from Oban for patients to collect them from a doctor in Campbeltown.
Kintyre resident Val CannelI said she intervened for one local woman who was wrongly told she had to pay £80 for Red Cross travel to hospital in Glasgow, when she actually qualified for NHS transport.
An NHS Highland spokesman said: 'With regard to transport costs, we are aware that the situation is not ideal and we are currently looking into this issue to see if we can find a solution.'
He said cancer patients had to go to Oban for a regular assessment of their condition - not just a standard health check - in a place where specialist health professionals were based.
Blood samples may be needed and there were checks for any adverse reactions to the chemotherapy drugs.
He said: 'The dose of the drug may also need to be changed as a consequence of the assessment that it carried out.'
Smith Commission overwhelmed by 6,000 visions for Scotland
The commission tasked with coming up with a plan for more powers for Holyrood has been overwhelmed with ideas from civil society more than a week before the official deadline for responses.
Nearly 6,000 submissions from individuals and organisations including voluntary groups, trade unions and faith communities have already been sent to Lord Smith of Kelvin, who is leading the commission.
However, as the commission met with the representatives of Scotland's five main political parties this week, many of the country's biggest civil society groups were still finalising their input.
“It’s clear the strength of feeling within civil society is enormous,” said Sime. “With 6,000 individuals and organisations already submitting information to Lord Smith, it is vital that politicians don’t rule anything out until they’ve digested everything that has to be said.”
Last week the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), Church of Scotland, National Union of Students and Electoral Reform Society Scotland all joined SCVO in calling for the commission’s report to be reviewed by a citizen led process before any final decision is made.
Bodies that haven’t yet submitted information to Lord Smith can do so at smith-commission.scot until 31 October.
Tuesday, 21 October 2014
Family could lose home after theme park pursues discrimination case costs
A disabled man who lost a discrimination case against a theme park due to a legal loophole is now at risk of losing the family home because the company is insisting on recovering its legal costs.
Paul and his wife Belinda, from Kilmarnock, Scotland, had been planning to enjoy lunch with their four children at The Coach House, a pub run by the Flamingo Land theme park in Yorkshire, where they were spending a week’s holiday in July 2010, paid for by a children’s charity.
One of their daughters, Melissa, who has Down’s syndrome and autism, struggles with crowds, and Paul is blind and uses a guide dog, so they chose a picnic table a few feet outside the restaurant’s own seating area, but also owned by Flamingo Land.
Despite both Belinda and Paul explaining that they had two disabled children, a member of bar staff and the pub manager both refused them permission to eat at the picnic table.
Paul lodged a complaint, but when the company that runs the park refused to back down, he launched a legal claim under the Disability Discrimination Act for its failure to make a reasonable adjustment.
Although Carlisle county court rejected claims of disability discrimination from Paul and his daughter Isla, who has cystic fibrosis, it awarded Melissa £4,000 damages.
But Flamingo Land appealed, and won, and was successful again last year when Paul took the case to the court of appeal, even though he and his family had secured the support of the specialist discrimination law experts Unity Law and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The appeal court found that the restaurant did not have to allow the Edwards family to eat their meal in the picnic area, because – even though that might have been a reasonable adjustment – it would have meant they were asking for a takeaway, rather than restaurant service.
Flamingo Land is now pushing Paul to pay its £6,000 court costs from the original county court case.
Unable to pay these costs, Paul has been presented with a summons from two sheriff officers – who enforce court orders in Scotland – which warns that if he does not pay the £6,000 in the next fortnight, he could lose his home.
Paul said he did not believe justice had been served.
He said: “What began as a much-needed family holiday in the summer of 2010 has ended with the threat of being made homeless.”
He said he found it “absolutely incomprehensible” that Flamingo Land could have been “so insensitive to our family’s needs ”, and then “to add insult to injury, pursue us for the costs set by [the county court judge], which we can ill afford”.
Chris Fry, Unity Law’s managing partner, said the court of appeal ruling had been “roundly criticised by legal commentators, and ignores [the fact] that Flamingo Land owned the restaurant and the seating area that the food was requested to be taken to”.
Fry said: “Whilst it is clear that Flamingo Land are entitled to be reimbursed for those legal fees, we would have expected a reasonable approach to have been to engage with him to find out how that could be done without causing severe financial hardship to their family.”
But he said that none of that had been done, while Flamingo Land had failed to tell Unity Law that it was planning to enforce the court order for costs and had then arranged, without notice, “for a bailiff to attend with an order to take away the family’s television and furniture”.
Fry said: “This was test litigation supported by the EHRC and one of the leading equality QCs in the country.
“No one should be punished for taking proper points at court, especially those relating to such socially important legislation.”
A Flamingo Land spokeswoman said there had also been “positive commentaries” on the court of appeal’s findings by legal experts, and added: “The company is unaware of the claimant’s personal financial circumstances but had to defend this disability discrimination claim to protect our reputation and standing within the industry.
“This could have been avoided simply by the claimant moving to an available table within our restaurant venue’s service area rather than insisting on being served some distance away on a picnic table.
“The claimant’s request for service away from our licensed premises was against our health and safety guidelines and therefore unreasonable, and unhygienic from a food standards point of view.”
She said that Flamingo Land “has won both of the appeals in regard to this case and resent the suggestion that the company has done anything wrong”.
She said: “The claimant could have stopped this claim at any stage and one would have presumed that they had considered their personal financial position before gambling on a favourable outcome.”
An EHRC spokesman said it had paid Edwards’ court of appeal costs, but added: “We have no knowledge of the costs position in relation to the county court proceedings, at first instance and on appeal, as we did not assist Mr Edwards in them.”
EHRC refused to comment when asked about the situation Paul Edwards finds himself in, and about the ruling itself.
New strategy to make Scotlandís transport network fully accessible
A draft strategy to make Scotland’s transport network fully accessible for disabled people has been drawn up by an alliance of transport users, planners and operators.
The Scottish Accessible Transport Alliance (SATA), which consists of 80 members, has outlined five main areas that must be improved so everyone can have the best possible opportunity to travel and access the services or facilities they need.
The report, Accessible Transport Strategy and Action Plan for Scotland, points to physical barriers preventing people from being able to travel, as well as there not being enough services available – some of which are too costly.
The full plan, available on the charity's website, identifies seven objectives and has made a list of 89 actions to achieve them.
These include consulting with disabled people in the early stage in the development of transport policies and projects, ensuring a higher proportion of buses and taxis are accessible, providing information such as timetables in a range of accessibility formats and creating a range of travel concessions for disabled people throughout Scotland.
Alan Rees of SATA said improvements have been made since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was introduced but considerable inequalities in transport provision and access to services by older and disabled people remain.
“Public transport in many rural areas is scarce or non-existent,” he said.
“Those without use of a car, or someone to give them lifts, are lucky if there is a local voluntary transport scheme.
“Too many vehicles are still inaccessible to wheelchair and scooter users and the lack of on-board audio and visual information presents difficulties for people who are deaf or blind. Basic information on services is often not provided in suitable formats.
“There are fare concessions on buses and trains; in a few areas on taxis too. But people with learning disabilities are not eligible for the free bus concession scheme unless they have another impairment, while the balance to be paid on discounted train and taxi fares is increasingly unaffordable by those on low incomes.”
The strategy, which covers the period 2015-20, is the first such access plan for Scotland and follows the mould of similar plans which have been created throughout the rest of the UK.
SATA is inviting transport planners and service providers in Scotland to respond and come behind the plan.
This includes the Scottish Government and local authorities who can, it says, play a large part in bringing about the needed improvements.
It also welcomes the views of transport users and those currently unable to access transport.
Rees continued: “To make further progress, an overall sense of direction and plan of action is vital.
“There will be some financial implications – which will be a huge challenging to meet in times of budget cuts – but providing equality of opportunity should be of the highest priority. And many things will cost little or nothing.
“The Scottish Government does need to take the lead. But the core aim of this SATA initiative is to get as many people and agencies as possible on board. If that can be achieved it will be a major step forward.”
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