Disabled Peer makes history, Olympic Volunteers praised, PIP Contract twisting the knife, Minister 'fitness for work retest concerns
Hello once again. Did you see the Olympic Opening Ceremony? Wasn't it just fantastic! I don't know about you but I was completely taken by surprise. After the fiasco of the Millenium celebrations I sat in front of the TV waiting to be disappointed! Not a bit of it, the whole thing was stunning and apart for Mr McCartney it all seemed to go off without a hitch.
I was lucky enough to get four tickets from the wheelchair ballot to see basketball, athletics, cycling and the equestrian events. Every venue, every event was thrilling. Access was brilliant, security was tight but efficient, the views inside every stadium were superb, the wheelchair spaces were situated in amongst the rest of the spectators, parking worked, accessible toilets everywhere. The only complaint, long queues for refreshments and the prices were exhorbitant. As a spectacle I wouldn't have missed it for the world. The spectators were fantastic. The noise in every venue was physical and the passion visible. I have never experienced anything like it. The last time the Games came to London in 1948 many disabled people were in institutions and access was more by luck than judgement. This time disabled people were there in all shapes and sizes, playing their part in the greatest show this country has ever produced. We have come a very long way. I can't wait for the Paralympic Games to start.
Disabled Peer set to make history
A pioneering disabled activist will make history this autumn when she becomes the first peer to be allowed to take a personal assistant (PA) into the main chamber of the House of Lords during debates.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell has been told by fellow peers – with none of them voting against the move – that she can now be accompanied by a PA, and that her assistant will be able to finish her speeches if needed.
The decision by the Lords procedure committee overturns a standing order dating back to 1707, which states that “no person shall be on the floor of the House” except peers and House of Lords staff.
Baroness Campbell said the decision was “uplifting” and would make her “feel equal” on the floor of the House.
She said: “It is not easy to overturn these ancient standing orders. It is a part of the ritual and tradition of the House of Lords. I take my hat off to this committee and my fellow peers. There was not one objection.”
Since she joined the Lords in 2007, Baroness Campbell has frequently had to rely on fellow disabled peers, such as Baroness [Rosalie] Wilkins and Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, to finish her speeches for her when she was unable to continue for impairment-related reasons.
Now she will be able to use her PA to make notes, provide other personal assistance, and complete speeches, although it is likely that only one of the several PAs she employs – who has expertise in public speaking – will assist her with her speeches.
Baroness Campbell told Disability News Service that the move would make a “huge amount of difference” to her work in the Lords, and was an example of “the House of Lords at its best”.
She said: “I really understood that they wanted to do their best but they wanted to do their best for everyone and were not just going to go with the sympathy vote.”
She said that she had “never felt more supported in an organisation than I do in the House of Lords”.
She added: “It is what I have always fought for, having complete control of your life, over the way you speak, the way you conduct yourself.
“It will mean I am comfortable in the chamber. When someone speaks I can get a PA to scribble it down for me.”
She said her work in the Lords had been “really difficult” over the last 18 months, particularly on the hugely complex welfare reform bill, on which she helped lead opposition to many of the government’s proposals.
Without being able to take notes, she had to remember what was said during debates, which was particularly crucial when a minister was replying to one of her amendments.
She said: “Having to concentrate [so hard] practically killed me. I was exhausted. This will take a lot of the pressure off and I would hope I will be able to think and act a lot better.”
Baroness Campbell said she believed this pressure contributed to the serious health problems she has experienced over the last year.
And she said she hoped the decision to allow her to take her PA onto the floor of the House would send a message to other disabled people that “if you really want to do something, you can, there is a way to do it”.
She said: “I like to think I provide some kind of idea of the art of the possible. At a time like this when things are so difficult for disabled people it does send out a message that even in really difficult times, things like this can happen.
“It shows that there are people in this country that want us, need us and are ready to stand by that. This shows that not all in the garden is doom and gloom.”
She added: “If I have my PA by my side I do feel I can conquer the world, and it shows how important personal assistance is for people who cannot for whatever reason manage on their own.”
The committee report says Baroness Campbell’s request for her PA to support her is “reasonable”, because not granting it would “limit and ultimately prevent her from taking part in the work of the House”.
But it says that this “reasonable adjustment” applies only to Baroness Campbell and that any future requests by other disabled peers would have to be “considered afresh”.
Baroness Campbell also welcomed the decision that Hansard, the official record of parliamentary proceedings, would not mention if a speech was completed by her PA.
She said: “It is just me. I am all on my own. This is what personal assistance is all about. It is about facilitating the person to be who they are.”
And she said the decision demonstrated why she opposed the deputy prime minister’s plans for a smaller – and largely elected – House of Lords, as it illustrated how peers “will change and reform, given the right arguments”.
She said Nick Clegg’s plans would mean losing “the highest and the best thinking the country has to offer for a very, very cheap price” and result in a Lords that was “either a mirror of the Commons or something loosely like it”, with more “career politicians”.
She said she had felt “more accountable to the disability movement than probably ever before” since she joined the Lords.
She added: “I think it works incredibly well. You only need to look at the outcome of our work. There is no other second chamber like it in the world.”
London 2012: Praise for volunteers and venue access
The first week of the London 2012 Olympics has seen praise for the assistance given to disabled sports fans by volunteer staff, reports of superb access at venues, but some early concerns about accessible parking and transport.
There has also been critical praise for the Deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, who led the drumming during the much-praised “Pandemonium” section of the opening ceremony, which celebrated Britain’s role as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
And there was also a high-profile appearance by The Kaos Signing Choir, which features both Deaf and hearing children and is based in north London, and sung and signed the national anthem in the ceremony.
So far, there have been no reports of access concerns within the main Olympic venues.
Joyce Cook, chair of Level Playing Field, formerly known as The National Association of Disabled Supporters, said her organisation had yet to hear any complaints from disabled people attending London 2012.
She said: “I have not heard anything about venues at the Olympic Park at all which usually means good news. We normally hear if things go wrong.”
She was closely involved with advising the Olympic Delivery Authority on its plans for building the Olympic Park venues, although not with the London 2012 organising committee LOCOG.
She added: “I would say the fact that we haven’t heard is probably a good sign.”
Lynda Ball, a wheelchair-user from Queensland, Australia, praised access and staff at the two Olympic venues she had visited, the Aquatics Centre on the Olympic Park and Earl’s Court in west London.
She said: “It was great. Everyone looked after us so well. All the happy smiling faces of the volunteers have been wonderful.”
She said that “games makers” – London 2012’s army of volunteers – had even arranged for her to have a wheelchair-accessible place at the side of the volleyball court in Earl’s Court, even though she and her husband had booked regular seats.
Art Pena, from California, another wheelchair-user enjoying the volleyball at Earl’s Court, also praised the “very helpful, cheerful people” who he said were “more than willing to go out of their way to help”.
His one concern so far has been the lack of portable ramps on tube and train journeys, which has meant relying on help from members of the public to lift him into and out of carriages.
He said he had asked staff if they had any portable ramps but was told: “Sorry, we don’t have any.”
He said: “The events themselves, it has been wonderful here. It is just the tubes and the trains where we have had a difficult time.”
In June, Transport for London announced that it would pilot the use of portable ramps at 16 key tube stations across the capital during London 2012, but the scheme only applies to this minority of stations and not to the train network.
TfL has so far been unable to say whether there have been any problems with the pilot programme.
Another foreign visitor again praised London 2012’s accessible venues but raised concerns about some arrangements for disabled visitors.
Malik Badsi, director of Paris-based Yoola, a specialist travel agency which accompanies disabled people to sporting and cultural events, said he had encountered problems trying to obtain entry for his bus to the Olympic Park carpark on the night of the opening ceremony, despite having the necessary accreditation for blue badge parking.
Staff at the entrance gate appeared not to know where they should go, and he and his clients spent an hour being directed from one entrance gate to another before they were finally allowed into the accessible carpark.
He experienced similar problems at the ExCeL centre, which is hosting seven Olympic events, including gymnastics, boxing and table-tennis.
The London 2012 organisers LOCOG had sent him his accessible parking accreditation by email, but staff at ExCeL refused to accept it, and he claims they suggested he was “a liar and a fake”.
He said his experience had been “a disaster” so far, although the venues themselves were “very nice and very accessible”.
He said: “There is too much bureaucracy and administration and there is nothing working. I am not very happy.”
He has brought about 100 clients, including at least 60 disabled people, to London for the games, but will be bringing as many as 200 disabled people to the Paralympics later this month, and called on LOCOG to make improvements before the games begin.
He claimed the Olympic Park “mobility service” was too slow, with a shortage of vehicles to shuttle disabled people from the carpark to the various venues.
A LOCOG spokeswoman said the problem with the accessible parking on the Olympic Park was probably an “isolated incident”, but that they had “spoken to the venue transport managers to make sure it doesn’t happen again”.
She said the mobility service had to obey speed restrictions in the packed Olympic Park, and had received “really great feedback” from disabled people.
She added: “It is not like a speedy taxi service. The feedback I have been getting is that people are really grateful to have this kind of service.”
LOCOG has not yet commented on the ExCeL parking concerns.
There were also criticisms from disabled visitors to one of the BT London Live events, which are showing London 2012 action on big screens, and include sports participation activities, live music and other entertainment, and have been organised by the mayor of London, The Royal Parks and Tower Hamlets council.
Disabled student Louise Hickman was at the BT London Live event in Victoria Park in east London to watch Friday’s opening ceremony.
She and her friend – also a wheelchair-user – were disappointed by the failure of stewards to know the arrangements for disabled visitors.
She said: “They lacked any common sense, or the ability to use their own initiative. They were aggressive and had no disability awareness.”
Decision to award PIP contracts to Atos is ‘twisting the knife’
The decision to award benefit assessment contracts to the company that carries out controversial “fitness for work” tests for the government has caused widespread shock and anger among disabled activists.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) finally announced today (2 August) that two of three regional contracts to assess claimants of the new personal independence payment (PIP) will go to Atos Healthcare.
The third contract has been awarded to the outsourcing company Capita, while two further contracts have yet to be awarded.
The two five-year contracts awarded to Atos will see its staff deliver PIP assessments across Scotland, north-east England and north-west England, as well as in London and southern England, while Capita will assess disabled people in Wales and central England.
PIP will begin to be introduced from April 2013, as it gradually replaces disability living allowance for working-age people.
The announcement came only three days after two prime-time television documentaries were highly critical of Atos, which carries out thousands of work capability assessments (WCAs) every week for DWP.
One leading disabled activist said the decision to grant the contracts to Atos was “like turning the knife when they stab us”.
Sasha Callaghan, former president of the University and College Union, went even further and said: “If this decision doesn’t end in open civil disobedience and even bloodshed I’ll be amazed. People can only be pushed so far and we could well be at the tipping point.”
Another activist, who tweets under the name La_crip, said: “No real surprise. They seem immune to effects of criticism & will no doubt reach Govt targets.”
Others told Disability News Service on Twitter that they were “disgusted but not surprised” and “mortified”, while another said Atos’s treatment of disabled people through the WCA had been “abysmal”.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), which this week announced plans for several days of direction action against Atos in protest at its sponsorship of the London 2012 Paralympics, said it was “astonished” that Atos had been awarded the new contracts.
DPAC said that Atos was the company “most responsible for driving through the government’s brutal cuts agenda” and had “devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people”.
But Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK (DR UK), said Atos had been in prime position to win contracts because of its existing WCA infrastructure.
He insisted that the biggest problem facing disabled people was with the government’s testing system, rather than the way it was applied by Atos.
He added: “The same is likely to be true with the PIP assessment, which we know is designed to allow a government policy that will take 20 per cent off the budget and deny support to half a million disabled people.
“Atos could be better, but they are delivering government policy. Government policy on PIP is going to be much more significant for disabled people [than who carries out the assessments].”
Members of the Disability Benefits Consortium – including DR UK – had asked all the bidders for the PIP contacts to sign up to 10 pledges that they hoped would ensure the assessments were delivered more fairly than the WCA. As yet, none of the bidders have signed up.
But there are also unanswered questions over the involvement of disability organisations in helping Atos win its contracts.
DWP has made it clear that the three successful bids “demonstrated strong evidence of working with a range of partner organisations such as health groups and the voluntary sector, and of close working with disabled people’s representative groups”.
Capita said it had carried out “extensive consultation” with “representative groups” – including Assist UK, a national disabled people’s organisation which promotes independent living – that would now be “a part of our supply chain”.
Some of these organisations will help Capita train assessors, while some will provide premises where the tests will take place.
A Capita spokeswoman said: “We believe that peer-to-peer interactions will provide the best claimant experience and as a result we expect that around 40 per cent of our advisers, centre hosts and administrators will have long term health conditions or be disabled.”
But Atos has so far not released the names of any of the disability organisations it has worked with, or is planning to work with to deliver PIP assessments.
A DWP spokesman said the three contracts were awarded “following the usual procedures for open and fair competition, and assessed against established and published selection criteria”.
But he said it was up to Capita and Atos to name those organisations they had worked with.
MPs suggest minister ignored ‘fitness for work’ re-test concerns
Questions have been raised over a government minister’s failure to listen to serious concerns about the controversial “fitness for work” test.
The concerns emerged after the airing of two prime-time television documentaries this week, both focusing on the operation of the test used to assess eligibility for the new out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA).
A Channel 4 investigation through its Dispatches strand on Monday evening was immediately followed by a Panorama expose on BBC Two, and both heavily criticised the work of Atos Healthcare, the company which carries out the work capability assessments (WCA) for the government.
Panorama interviewed several disabled people who had been found “fit for work” following WCAs carried out by Atos “health professionals”, despite serious health conditions.
Among those interviewed was the family of a man with a heart condition who was found fit for work, successfully appealed against that decision, but was then called in for another assessment.
His family told how, on learning that he had been found fit for work a second time, he had decided Atos must be right and had decided to vacuum his car, before collapsing and dying minutes later.
During the programme, Chris Grayling, the Conservative employment minister, said it had become clear “in the last few months” that the government had been “calling people back too regularly” for assessments, and so he had told civil servants to “make sure we leave a much more sensible interval”.
But Grayling’s admission has been called into serious question by two leading Labour MPs.
The disabled MP Dame Anne Begg said the work and pensions committee that she chairs told Grayling in the spring of 2011 of its concerns that people who had won appeals against being found fit for work were then almost immediately called in for another WCA.
She has recently received an email from a man with Huntington’s disease who had been called in for his third assessment in three years, was “absolutely feeling persecuted”, and has been told by Atos that if he fails to fill in the necessary form his ESA will be stopped.
The Labour and Co-op MP Tom Greatrex, who has led moves in the Commons to probe Atos’s performance through scores of written questions to ministers, said he had been raising concerns about repeat assessments since last year.
Greatrex said: “It is wrong for Chris Grayling to claim he is only now being made aware of this problem.
“I met him last year [on 7 December], along with Parkinson’s UK, to highlight concerns that people were being trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of assessment-appeal-reassessment.
“For many people with progressive incurable conditions they are never going to get better.
“The continuous reassessment is a waste of their time and energy, as well as a waste of taxpayer money.”
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman said: “We are aware that very shortly after appeal, some individuals are being asked to attend a reassessment.
“We have strengthened guidance to ‘decision makers’ to ensure claimants are recalled after appropriate periods of time and are working to get better feedback from the Tribunals Services on their reasons for overturning decisions.”
But DWP has so far been unable to say why Grayling has taken so long to respond to the concerns.
The Dispatches programme, which was watched by 1.3 million people, followed a GP as he trained to become an assessor for Atos.
His Atos trainer was shown admitting that the WCA was “toxic” and “very, very tough”.
She then warned the GP that any assessor who allowed too many disabled people to join the ESA support group – for those not expected to carry out any work-related activity – would be told this rate was “too high”.
Campaigners pointed to the admission as proof that Atos had been given targets for the number of disabled people it should find “fit for work”, a claim the Department for Work and Pensions continues to deny strenuously, although it says Atos has “contractual arrangements they need to adhere to in terms of quantity and quality”.
Dame Anne said she was “shocked” by some of the statements made by the Atos trainer and her apparent “harsh interpretation” of the WCA rules.
She said: “It gives the lie to the assertion that those who are most disabled are protected and have nothing to fear.”
She said DWP must investigate the training being given to new Atos assessors to find out “whether it is so harsh and unforgiving and unbending as it appeared in Dispatches”.
Atos this week refused to answer a series of questions from Disability News Service (DNS) about the two documentaries, declining to say which key facts and conclusions it disputed.
An Atos spokeswoman instead emailed a statement, which claimed the company spends “a great deal of time and resource in training and reviewing the work of our medical professionals to ensure that those assessed are treated both professionally and sympathetically”.
She said: “It is important to underline that the assessment forms an important but single part of the information used by the DWP when it makes its decisions on benefits.”
She refused to say whether Atos was investigating any of the issues raised by the two programmes.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com