Hate crime farce, Network Rail new access boss, 600 to 1, Discrimination against disabled music fans, Action needed on independent living, Learning disabled people failed by justice system,

So how are you coping with this extraordinary weather?  It’s getting very interesting where we live. Both our front and back gardens recently turned into mini lakes and we fully expected to see pink flamingos and eider duck taking up residence outside our bedroom window. Herein lies the problem; as a wheelchair user I live on the ground floor and all the recent heavy rain has breached the damp proof course in our house so we now have a wet bedroom floor. Not a real disaster when compared to the terrible difficulties some people in the West Country are coping with. Nonetheless in order to cure the problem the bedroom will have to be completely cleared of furniture and the carpets and solid flooring lifted, repaired or replaced. Question; where do I sleep while all this is going on? We have two bedrooms upstairs which are inaccessible to me. Our motorhome, which is accessible is parked in our new front lake but can be reached. So we have a plan!

The really scary thought is what happens to the many wheelchair users living in parts of the country where floodwaters are washing through their properties and they can't camp out in a motorhome? Aside from pure survival where do they live while the repair work is carried out on their properties?  This country does not have surplus of accessible homes so what happens to those wheelchair users who need temporary accommodation? Residential care, hospitalisation or what? It’s bad enough having to cope with major damage to your home without then being forced to give up your independence.

News Roundup

Kinsella hate crime farce 'highlights need for new laws'

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has admitted that its own barrister failed to follow instructions to ask for a series of violent attacks on a disabled man to be treated as disability hate crime.

The case has once again frustrated hate crime campaigners, who say it highlights the need for better training throughout the criminal justice system, and for more effective legislation.

Craig Kinsella, who has learning difficulties, was kept as a slave in a garage in "squalid" conditions by a Sheffield family, beaten on a daily basis for more than five weeks, and forced to work and scavenge for food.

Nearly three weeks after the sentencing of three members of the family for offences against Kinsella, Disability News Service (DNS) is gradually piecing together the reasons why the offences were not treated as hate crime when the family were sentenced, and is building a picture of confusion and disagreement across the justice system.

South Yorkshire police has confirmed that it never treated the offences against Kinsella as disability hate crime, and insisted that there was "no evidence to suggest the victim had a learning disability".

But the court heard during the sentencing hearing earlier this month that Kinsella had learning difficulties.

And a CPS spokesman said that one of its lawyers flagged the case as a disability hate crime after examining the file of evidence presented by the police.

CPS then instructed David Brooke, who prosecuted the case in court, to ask the judge for higher sentences, on the basis that the offences were disability hate crime, under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

But when the sentencing hearing took place, Brooke did not follow these instructions, and failed to request the sentence uplift, although it is not yet clear why this happened.

A CPS spokesman admitted that there were "lessons to be learned" from the case.

He told DNS: "We have received a full report from counsel and will look into our procedures to ensure we are satisfied that there are clear lines of communication between counsel and those instructing in future and will be reminding all staff in CPS Yorkshire and Humberside of the importance of section 146."

He added: "In general, counsel should follow their brief. We thought section 146 applied because of the hostility towards the victim. That was based on perceived disability."

Brooke has failed to respond to a request for a comment by DNS.

Anne Novis, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network (DHCN) and a member of the Metropolitan police's hate crime diamond group - which advises the force's lead officer on hate crime - said she believed the Kinsella case proves yet again the need for stronger legislation.

She said: "Section 146 is a limited piece of legislation. It is not well-known by judges and not well-used by barristers. There is a need for something better."

She said that public sector funding cuts had had a serious impact on the police.

"A local neighbourhood police officer told me that they will not even investigate an offence unless they know they will get a result because they are so stretched, but it is not just hate crime, it is all sorts of crime locally."

But she said she believed that disability hate crime was now "on the police's lips", whereas 12 years ago "they wouldn't even talk about it".

She said: "There is progress, but we still need better legislation, something that the barristers, magistrates and judges have to apply, not something they can choose to apply.

"I feel like tearing my hair out at times and I feel like a stuck record, repeating myself for so many years.

"It is very disheartening but we can't not keep on about it, because it's people's lives [that are at stake]."

Katharine Quarmby, another DHCN coordinator and author of Scapegoat, a ground-breaking investigation into disability hate crime, said anecdotal evidence suggested that specialist hate crime posts in the police had been lost due to funding cuts.

She said there was a sense that the progress that had been made in raising awareness of disability hate crime was "starting to crumble".

She said: "We have lost our way and all that hard work is being lost. Case after case after case of really violent crimes are not making it through as hate crimes. There is always some excuse."

And she said she feared that judges "do not believe in disability hate crime".

"We are coming across the same barriers we saw in 2007-08 [when she began campaigning on hate crime]. It seems as if we never did that work."

London 2012 access boss's 'enormous task' at Network Rail

The disabled consultant who played a key part in ensuring the accessibility of London 2012's purpose-built venues says she will use that experience in her new role as Network Rail's access and inclusion manager.

Margaret Hickish is now responsible for access and inclusion issues across Network Rail's huge estate of depots, offices and 17 of Britain's largest stations, including Paddington, Liverpool Lime Street, Glasgow Central, Charing Cross and Waterloo.

Although she has been working on a short-term contract for Network Rail since last February, she was appointed to a permanent post only last month.

She told Disability News Service that her new job had much in common with her work with the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA).

She began working as an access consultant with the consortiums that produced the London 2012 “masterplan” in early 2007, before later joining ODA as its accessibility manager.

Her priority in her new role has been to ensure Network Rail's policy and strategy on accessibility and inclusion is right, and to keep visiting stations until that policy is "well-known and well-rehearsed".

"Rather like I did at ODA, at the beginning I was very involved and then once you get people up to speed you can start to step back," she says.Picture of Margaret Hickish

"It is about making people comfortable with the process, about them being able to ask questions and being able to understand why they are doing it."

The task is huge, with the equivalent of 12 Olympic stadia being built by Network Rail every year. It is, she says, an "interesting challenge".

"Looking at new buildings, adapting old buildings, how you can best concentrate efforts to improve accessibility right across the rail network... it is an enormous task.

"It is not one that is going to be finished quickly because Network Rail has a huge estate, but equally it is a wonderful challenge and the people here want to get it right, they want more disabled people to travel on trains, and they want more disabled people to work at Network Rail."

She is working hard to improve inclusive design across the organisation, again taking the same approach as ODA, so thinking not just about disabled people but anyone who might have issues with the built environment, and "future-proofing" the work, "getting it right not just for the next five years but for the next 10 to 15 to 20 years."

Asked to sum up the current state of accessibility across the rail network, she admits it is "inconsistent", and adds: "That is the main thing. You can leave from one station, which may be wonderfully accessible, and arrive at one which isn't. That impinges on people's confidence to travel."

A powerchair-user herself, she travels "almost everywhere" by train. Last week, it was to Bristol and Glasgow, and York and Leeds the previous week. This week it is Birmingham and across London.

Her work base is Milton Keynes, and she travels there from her home in east London, and so Euston and Milton Keynes are stations she knows well. Both have "challenges", Euston because of the sheer number of people who use the station, and Milton Keynes because of a lack of amenities. Both are in the process of being upgraded.

"I have not ever managed to find the accessible loo on Milton Keynes station," she says, "although I know there is one somewhere."

Hickish says she was comfortable with the conclusions of the Commons transport select committee, which reported last September on the transport barriers faced by disabled people.

Much of the committee's concern was directed at the bus industry, but there were recommendations for rail as well, not least to end the requirement for disabled passengers to have to book assistance 24 hours in advance of their journey.

She says Network Rail is examining how a turn-up-and-go system of assistance might be achieved, and is working with the Association of Train Operating Companies, but warns that it is not as easy to make it happen as it might appear.

"It is about making sure people are safe, not leaving them abandoned somewhere because something didn't happen," she says.

"Network Rail don't run any trains, so we have to work with the train operating companies on this."

Being able to "turn up and go" is easier to achieve at staffed stations, because if a station has no staff, someone on the train has to deliver the assistance instead.

But Hickish points out that many journeys from Network Rail's stations - in fact, more than half - are carried out without the disabled passenger giving 24-hour notice of their need for assistance.

She says she is "quite confident" about turning up and going, despite falling foul of a logistical foul-up herself, although she declined to name the offending train company.

"I have never been stuck off a train," she says, "but I got stuck on a train last August. Nobody came to get me off the train and I had to get off at the next available stop. They turned me around and got me back in half an hour... but it shouldn't have happened."

Another major issue she faces in her new post is the controversy over London's huge Crossrail project, which despite its £15 billion budget will not be completely accessible, with seven of its 37 stations failing to offer step-free access from street to platform.

Hickish is currently examining the seven stations one by one, and says colleagues are "looking at what is achievable".

But she admits to being "puzzled" by the comments of the London mayor Boris Johnson last summer when - during a live television interview with retired Paralympian Ade Adepitan - he pledged that all of the Crossrail stations would be made accessible, although his office later retracted that promise.

"It really does depend on the topography of each site and what there is surrounding it," says Hickish. "You really need to know if you will have to knock down another building.

"It is far more complex than just putting in a couple of ramps. Particularly in and around London, there are big land ownership issues."

Hickish says that part of her task will be to ensure that inclusion is built into every Network Rail project from the start, and not tacked on frantically at the end with a last-minute funding bid.

But she insists that her job is about not just "allowing people in and out" of a station. The inclusion part of her brief, she says, is "allowing people to enjoy the stations", particularly the big terminals that have been refurbished at huge expense, such as King's Cross and St Pancras.

"Passengers are enjoying their wait between trains, with stations becoming destinations as well as places simply to travel through. We are trying to ensure everyone can enjoy their wait between trains."

The same applies to Network Rail's offices. Its commercial premises should be just as accessible and inclusive as its stations, she says, so everyone is "welcome, and warmly welcome, and included".

Network Rail is setting up a built environment accessibility panel and is looking for applications from disabled people. The closing date is 3 February.

Advisers outnumbered 600 to one by ESA claimants, say MPs

There are more than 600 claimants of out-of-work disability benefits to every specialist government employment adviser, according to a new report by a committee of MPs.

The work and pensions select committee, which published the report into the effectiveness of Jobcentre Plus (JCP), called on JCP to address urgently the "unacceptably high" proportion of employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants to disability employment advisers (DEAs). 

Witnesses to the committee's inquiry raised concerns about the "relative lack of JCP resources devoted to supporting ESA claimants", with just 900 DEAs to about 546,000 ESA claimants in the work-related activity group - those who are supposed to be moving towards employment - a ratio of one to more than 600.

This compares with an average caseload of one JCP adviser to about 140 claimants of the mainstream jobseeker's allowance.

One witness told the committee that the average ESA claimant attended a jobcentre no more than twice a year before they were eventually referred to the Work Programme or the specialist Work Choice scheme.

Only one in 20 ESA claimants is on the Work Programme or Work Choice.

Although the government is piloting three new approaches to providing employment support for ESA claimants - with one group receiving enhanced support from JCP - only about 8,300 disabled people are due to take part, and the pilots will not be completed until August 2016.

The report concludes that "urgent action" is needed to improve the level of JCP support for disabled job-seekers.

Sue Bott, director of policy and development for Disability Rights UK, said the figures raised questions over how seriously the government was taking the task of supporting disabled people into work.

She said: "All we get is the rhetoric about how we are all workshy, but it is very difficult to get any advice when you want it.

"We had a young people's forum last August and people were telling us there that it is really difficult to see a DEA. You have to wait weeks for an appointment. It is something we highlighted to the Department for Work and Pensions back in the autumn."

She said the quality of advice from DEAs was mixed. "What we really need is employment support that is given by people who really understand about disability and that is personalised to that individual."

She added: "What it demonstrates is that there is very little support out there for disabled people getting into work."

The committee's report is also heavily critical of the way sanctions are used by JCP.

It points out that more claimants than ever before were sanctioned - losing some or all of their benefits as a punishment for not meeting strict conditions - in the year to June 2013, while sanctions for ESA claimants were strengthened through the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

The committee said JCP's performance should be measured by its success in finding jobseekers work and not by how many claimants it pushed off benefits.

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: “Increasingly strict conditionality must be accompanied by more in-depth and effective advice and support for people struggling to find work, particularly those facing real barriers to employment, including health conditions and disabilities.”

Dame Anne said the current system takes no account of whether someone is leaving a benefit to start a job "or for less positive reasons, including being sanctioned or simply transferring to another benefit".

She said: "We believe this risks JCP hitting its targets but missing the point. JCP must be very clearly incentivised to get people into work, not just off benefits.” 

Among its recommendations, the committee calls on DWP to take "urgent steps" to monitor the levels of financial hardship caused by benefit sanctions, including research on how many claimants are being “signposted” to food banks by jobcentres and the reasons for their need for such help.

Nearly all disabled music fans 'face discrimination' when buying tickets

Nine in 10 disabled people felt discriminated against when they bought tickets to watch live music, because the booking system they had to  deal with was so inaccessible, according to a new report by a pioneering user-led charity.

Nearly half of those questioned said this discrimination caused them to consider taking legal action.

The report by Attitude is Everything (AiE) - which works to persuade the music industry to implement best practice in disabled people's access to live music - found that only two of every 10 music venues offered disabled customers the option to buy tickets online.

But the report also found that three-quarters of those customers prefer to purchase tickets online, rather than by phone.

And 83 per cent of the Deaf and disabled mystery shoppers who completed a questionnaire said they were put off buying tickets by the access problems they had faced, with most blaming both ticketing agencies and venues.

Suzanne Bull, AiE's chief executive, said this was the "most striking statistic" in the report, as it illustrated how improving access could benefit businesses. She said the report was the first to provide evidence of this strong business case for the live music industry.

Bull said the number of Deaf and disabled people buying tickets to Reading Festival in 2013 increased by more than 100 per cent on the previous year.

Including their family and friends, these disabled customers brought in more than £115,000 in ticket revenue, as well as an estimated £70,000 spent on food and drink.

Bull said there was now "no denying from the statistics that there is a strong business case for improving access, and the customer base of Deaf and disabled people is growing year-on-year".

She said later: "If you get it right, the increase is dramatic. [Venues and festivals] are more engaged with us now and I think that is the difference.

"They care a little bit more and it is not just that they see a moral responsibility to do that.

"Now we have uncovered the business case, that will make a difference."

The charity plans to campaign for accessible ticketing systems to be introduced across the live music industry, following larger festivals such as Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds, which are "leading the way".

It wants clear access information provided in advance of tickets going on sale; ticket-buying options that are identical to those offered to non-disabled customers; and a new system that would prevent customers having to provide proof of their impairment every time they buy a ticket.Crowd scene at a rock concert

Jonathan Brown, secretary of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR), admitted that the report was "so clear in documenting that there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed", but that it provided a "clear commercial opportunity" for the industry.

STAR is coming together with AiE and organisations representing music arenas and theatres to set up a working group to examine the issue of accessible ticketing.

Despite progress on physical access since the last report - published in late 2011 - AiE's State of Access Report 2014 reveals that only two-thirds of venues had a step-free entrance, while less than half were step-free throughout and had an accessible toilet.

The report is based on more than 200 mystery shopping reports from venues and festivals, 40 questionnaires and 13 interviews, all collected between April 2011 and March 2013.

It reveals that "probably the key factor" in deciding the accessibility ratings given by the mystery shoppers and whether they enjoyed an event was if the venue or festival provided a viewing platform for disabled customers.

More than two-fifths of venues and two-thirds of festivals provided at least one viewing platform.

Graham Griffiths, AiE's business and operations manager, said there had been "huge progress" with access to festivals, particularly with the provision of platforms.

In 2005, there were 150 people using Glastonbury Festival's accessible campsite. In 2013, there were 1,500.

But Griffiths said the biggest change was in policies on access. "The idea that you would get a free ticket for a personal assistant is widespread. A few years ago we were really having to convince the music industry that this was not a concession."

Bull said that AiE now wanted to look at how the industry markets itself to people with learning difficulties, who she said could often be put off by inaccessible information or question whether they could cope with attending a live music event.

The report's launch was held at the Roundhouse in Camden, north London, which was presented with AiE's Charter of Best Practice gold award. It is one of only four venues and two music festivals that have so far secured the gold award for their accessibility.

MPs and peers call for government to act on independent living

The government should meet one of its obligations under the UN disability convention by introducing a legal right to independent living, according to a committee of MPs and peers.

The joint committee on human rights said it was "disappointed" that the government had not taken the opportunity through its care bill to provide "a free-standing right to independent living that could be directly enforceable by individuals in domestic law".

The right to independent living is enshrined in article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the last Labour government ratified.

In its new human rights scrutiny of the care bill - published this week - the committee calls on the government to give "concrete effect in UK law" to a right to independent living, through an amendment to the bill, which is currently on its Commons committee stage.

In its report, the committee welcomes the bill's new duties on local authorities to make enquiries where they reasonably suspect that an adult is at risk of neglect or abuse, and to set up a safeguarding adults board.

The report also provides backing for the disabled crossbench peer Lord [Colin] Low, who has pledged to reintroduce his amendment to the care bill - when it returns to the Lords - which would ensure protection under the Human Rights Act for all service-users of organisations regulated by the care watchdog, the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Coalition MPs succeeded in throwing out his amendment last week.

Although the joint committee on human rights calls on the government to use the bill to "urgently" fill the gaps in human rights protection for all those receiving publicly-arranged care, it shies away from recommending similar protection - as called for by Lord Low and his supporters - for those who pay for and arrange their own care and support from private providers.

But it does say the government should assess how the stronger regulatory powers available to CQC since 2008 have led to more "human rights compatible care to all service-users".

And it suggests that CQC considers forcing providers to include terms in private care contracts that oblige them to comply with the Human Rights Act.

Dr Hywel Francis, the committee's Labour chair, said: "The Human Rights Act currently does not protect hundreds of thousands of people who are receiving care which has been publicly arranged or paid for, including care provided in people’s own home and in some cases in residential care homes. 

"The care bill which is currently before parliament should be amended to ensure that this gap in protection is urgently filled."

He added: "The bill is also a missed opportunity to legislate for a free-standing statutory right to independent living. 

"The government should use the report stage of the bill in the Commons to introduce an amendment to provide for such a free-standing, enforceable right."

Criminal justice system 'is failing offenders with learning difficulties'

The treatment of people with learning difficulties should be "significantly improved" right across the criminal justice system, from arrest to sentencing, according to a new report.

The report concludes that the needs of offenders with learning difficulties are going unnoticed when they are arrested by police, appear at court, and during sentencing.

And it says that little has improved since an independent inquiry, headed by Lord Bradley, reported in 2009 that more should be done to keep offenders with mental health conditions and learning difficulties out of the prison system.

One of the key problems is that there is no agreed definition of what a "learning disability" is, says the new report, although previous research suggests that up to one third of the adult prison population have such an impairment.

The report, which covers the first of two phases of a joint inspection by the inspectorates for the probation service, police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), and the Care Quality Commission, says that examples of good practice are "the exception rather than the norm".

The bosses of the four organisations said it was "disappointing" that little had changed with the screening of detainees for learning difficulties at the point they were arrested.

Only one of the police forces visited for the report has introduced a way to "divert" offenders from ending up in custody, on the grounds of a mental health condition or learning difficulty, while police officers are often unable to understand the difference between mental distress and learning difficulties.

And in two-thirds of cases inspected, the police failed to pass the CPS information about the offender’s learning difficulty before the decision was made to charge them with an offence.

The report says that the court environment "could very easily, and with little extra cost, be made less intimidating for defendants (and witnesses) with learning disabilities", through the use of information displays, easy read documents, and equality training for court staff.

Michael Fuller, chief inspector of the CPS and chair of the criminal justice chief inspectors group, said: “Although we found some excellent examples of professionals going the extra mile to ensure that individual offenders with learning disabilities received the appropriate support they required, such instances were exceptional and these deficits were mirrored across the criminal justice system.

“A balance needs to be struck between the support needs of those with learning disabilities and the need to hold them to account, where appropriate, for their offending."

The bosses of the four organisations concluded: "We found unwieldy processes, the absence of services or a simple lack of knowledge and training led to offenders with a learning disability being perceived as a problem to be processed, rather than an individual with particular needs requiring individual help.

"Far too often offenders with learning disabilities were not receiving the support they required to address their social care needs, or to reduce their risk of harm to others and their likelihood of reoffending."

They welcomed the Department of Health decision to provide an extra £25 million for mental health professionals - as part of the government's "liaison and diversion" trial - to help ensure that decisions about charging and sentencing take into account mental health conditions, learning difficulties and substance misuse problems.

The Labour government had pledged that, by 2014, all criminal courts and police stations would have access to “liaison and diversion services” that could assess the health needs of offenders.

These services would “reduce the number of people with learning disabilities and mental health problems who are in prison unnecessarily” and allow the police and courts to make “informed decisions about charging and sentencing”.

But Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said resources had been cut and the timescale for a full national liaison and diversion service had been delayed by the coalition from 2014 to 2017.

She said: "For too long people with a learning disability, many of whom should be diverted from police stations and courts into social care, have ended up in prison as a default option, while others are left without the support they need as they continue through the justice process."

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

 

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