Successive chairs of the Conservative party snubbed a request from their own equalities minister, after she asked them to explain how they intended to support more disabled people to become MPs and councillors.

Penny Mordaunt wrote last April to the chair of her party, Brandon Lewis, to “confirm what plans you have in your party to support disabled candidates on a longer-term basis”.

The letter was written because the government had refused to set up a new permanent, long-term fund to meet the extra disability-related costs that many disabled candidates face when seeking elected office as councillors and MPs.

It had scrapped the short-lived Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) in 2015 and eventually replaced it three years later with the temporary EnAble fund – which offered only limited support – in response to a legal action taken by a trio of disabled politicians.

In her letter, secured by Disability News Service (DNS) through a freedom of information request, Mordaunt said she believed that “the provision of support for disabled candidates should ultimately be the responsibility of political parties”.

And she asked Lewis to confirm the Conservatives’ long-term plans to support disabled candidates.

She said this would “help us to identify ways in which Government can continue to work with you on this important issue”.

She later received a letter apologising for the delay in replying and insisting that she would receive a response the following week. That letter never arrived.

It now appears that Mordaunt and her successors as minister for women and equalities – Amber Rudd and Liz Truss – made no attempt to follow up on this failure to respond to these questions by their own party.

But the Conservatives were not the only party that Mordaunt wrote to and that failed to answer her questions.

The Liberal Democrats and Greens joined the Tories in producing short holding responses to the letter, explaining that they would reply in detail in due course.

Neither of them ever did.

Labour said it had no record of ever receiving Mordaunt’s letter.

DNS has been able to confirm the lack of response to Mordaunt’s letter through freedom of information requests to the Government Equalities Office (GEO).

Now, more than nine months after Mordaunt’s original letter, a GEO civil servant has told DNS that the three holding responses sent by the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Greens were the only ones received by the GEO, now based in the Cabinet Office.

The civil servant added: “Penny Mordaunt MP’s letter was sent to the Chairs of the Labour Party, Conservative Party, Liberal Democrat Party and Green Party in April 2019.

“I have considered the points you make about whether there were any ‘further responses made’ and can confirm that no further correspondence was received by the Cabinet Office.”

DNS reported last month that GEO’s policy on supporting disabled candidates to stand for elected office was in chaos after the government suggested it could offer funding through the EnAble fund to those standing to be police and crime commissioners, but not to those who wanted to become local councillors or MPs.

GEO has been accused of breaching the Equality Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities after refusing to ensure a level playing-field for disabled candidates in December’s general election.

It insisted again that it was the responsibility of political parties to meet the disability-related costs of their candidates, but it is now considering retrospective payments to disabled people who faced extra costs during the general election campaign.

The Conservative party this week refused to comment on its failure to respond to its own minister’s questions.

And a GEO spokesperson refused to say why Penny Mordaunt, Amber Rudd and Liz Truss had not made any effort to secure responses to the letter from the four parties over the last nine months.

But she said: “Financial support for candidates is a matter for political parties and we expect them to take action, but the government is also considering what support it might provide to succeed the interim EnAble fund.

“Political parties were fully informed that the fund was for a limited period, and strongly encouraged to put support for their candidates in place.”

A Labour spokesperson said in a statement: “Labour is absolutely committed to tackling the under-representation of disabled people in politics, to ensure parliament more closely reflects the society we live in.

“One of the specific ways we do this is to offer bursaries to disabled people to help with the costs associated with standing as a parliamentary candidate.”

The Liberal Democrats refused to say why they had not responded to Mordaunt’s letter.

But a Liberal Democrat spokesperson said the party had been responsible for introducing AEOF when in coalition with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015, and was “deeply disappointed when Penny Mordaunt and the Conservatives subsequently abolished this fund for an inadequate replacement”.

He said the Liberal Democrats were the only party to introduce disabled-only shortlists for selecting candidates to fight some parliamentary seats, and also “provide reasonable adjustments at all stages of the candidate journey to ensure that everyone receives a fair opportunity” as well as “bespoke training and mentoring, provided by experienced staff and members”.

The Green party claimed it did not respond to Mordaunt’s questions because it was not clear which minister was responsible for supporting disabled candidates after the Tories called a leadership election last summer.

A spokesperson said: “When the government informs us who is now leading work to support disabled candidates, we will provide further information to them about the support we offer as a party.”

He said that Green MP Caroline Lucas had continued to press for AEOF to be reopened, as had the party’s general election manifesto.

He added: “We support our local parties through our field staff to anticipate barriers to the participation of disabled members in our activities, and help with removal of those barriers.

“We also help our local parties with reasonable adjustments that any member or candidate may need.”

20 February 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

 

 

A disabled student has been left “isolated” and “segregated” by her university’s failure to make her lectures accessible to her.

Sarah-Marie Da Silva, a first-year zoology student and a wheelchair-user, has been trying since her first day on the course to persuade the University of Hull to make changes that would allow her to attend lectures alongside fellow students.

She said the university’s failure to act on her access concerns persuaded her to publish a photograph taken by one of her lecturers last Friday, which showed her being forced to sit alone at the back of a lecture theatre – segregated from fellow students – without a desk to take notes on.

The university later admitted the situation was “not acceptable”.

Now she has warned she will consider legal action against the university for breaching the Equality Act if it fails to take action.

Hull is just the latest university to face complaints from disabled students and staff over the last 18 months.

Last month, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how disabled students had accused University College London of repeatedly failing to make reasonable adjustments and overcharging them for their accessible accommodation.

Last summer, disabled students at London South Bank University said they were taking legal action over claims of disability discrimination.

And in August 2018, DNS reported how the University of Liverpool was facing claims that it forced a disabled member of staff to scour the campus for accessible rooms in which she could deliver her lectures, and even told her that it might be considered “reasonable” for her to go down stairs on her bottom in some circumstances rather than be timetabled into ground floor or fully accessible rooms.

In some lectures, Da Silva has been forced to sit at the back in isolation because of a flight of steps, while in others she has had to sit at the front near the lecturer, separated again from her fellow students.

Sometimes, after arriving to see a set of stairs that prevent her from joining other students, she has left before the lecture begins after finding the access barriers she was facing too distressing.

On other occasions, she has been able to access the front of the lecture theatre, where there has been a moveable desk.

But these desks have a brake on their wheels that she cannot reach because of her impairment, so she can only use the desk if she arrives early enough and the lecturer is able to help her adjust it.

Even if there is a desk and she can use it, she is still left isolated from her fellow students at the front of the class.

She told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday): “I have experienced access issues in pretty much every building I’ve been in and some of the buildings are like three years old – I’ve been told this by several staff members.

“I feel segregated from everyone, I’m isolated and I feel abandoned by the university.

“It has severely impacted my mental health. It is degrading and inhumane.”

She has had support since September from lecturers, her tutor, the student union and the university’s disability team, as well as her boyfriend and her university wheelchair basketball team.

But she said the university had “done nothing except move to slightly more accessible lecture theatres and then ignore us”.

She added: “I’ve gone through many departments, lecturers, my tutor and tried to suggest temporary and long-term solutions and nothing has been done.

“I don’t blame my lecturers or the disability team because they’ve been trying their best, but it’s the people higher up who are refusing to do anything, other than move me about.

“I won’t consider legal action until Hull university comes forward with a solution.

“If it’s not good enough then I will consider legal action.”

The university has only commented on the access failure shown in the photograph, and it has refused to comment on the other concerns Da Silva has raised throughout her course.

A spokesperson said: “We are very sorry that this has happened, clearly it is not acceptable.

“We take these matters very seriously and a colleague from our student services team is looking into what has happened now.

“We are committed to working with our students to put in place any additional support or adjustments where needed. Unfortunately, it is clear this hasn’t happened in this case.

“We carry out independent accessibility surveys and audits across our estate and make every effort to ensure the campus is accessible for all.

“As a university we are continuing to invest in and develop our campus and ensuring our buildings are accessible forms a large part of this.

“This particular building is listed and as a result we are unable to make structural alterations to this room.

“A rigorous process is undertaken to ensure rooms allocated for teaching sessions take into account students’ additional requirements but unfortunately it is clear a mistake has happened on this occasion.

“We will immediately look into what happened and ensure that we take necessary steps to make sure this does not happen again.”

But when asked to comment on the other concerns raised by Da Silva, a spokesperson said: “We will continue to work with Sarah-Marie to offer the support that she needs.

“It would be inappropriate for us to comment any further on individual cases.”

13 February 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

 

 

Campaigners will tomorrow (Friday) take part in a vigil in Nottingham to highlight how the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) led to a disabled man starving to death after his out-of-work benefits were withdrawn.

Disabled activists and allies will join the vigil and protest in Nottingham city centre* – organised by Nottingham People’s Assembly Against Austerity – to remember Errol Graham and try to ensure that his death leads to change, an independent inquiry, and justice.

The event will include a minute’s silence in memory of Graham and other victims of austerity, and speeches by local councillors and Disabled People Against Cuts.

It came as Graham’s MP, Labour’s Lilian Greenwood, confronted Boris Johnson about the case at yesterday’s prime minister’s questions, asking how many more disabled benefits claimants would have to die “before this government start to value their lives”.

In his reply, Johnson said she was right to raise the “tragic case” but he claimed the government had set up an “independent serious case panel” to look at such deaths, even though DWP previously admitted that the panel’s members would all be DWP civil servants so it would not be independent at all.

A DWP spokesperson said today (Thursday) that the panel would now include “members who are independent of the department”, although he declined to provide any further information.

Alison Turner, the partner of Errol Graham’s son, who has led the fight to secure justice and has called for a criminal investigation into the former DWP ministers and senior civil servants she believes are responsible for this and other deaths, plans to attend tomorrow’s vigil in Nottingham if her health allows her to.

She said the support the family had received from across the country and in Nottingham since DNS first reported on his death last month had been “absolutely outstanding”.

She said the vigil would highlight how supportive local people have been and how angry they were that Errol Graham was abandoned without any money by DWP.

She added: “I am ever so grateful [to the vigil’s organisers]. It does mean a lot. It says to me that we are not going to tolerate this happening to people living locally.

“People are saying it is not acceptable and that they are willing to fight for that.”

She added: “It has helped me in a huge way to see the level of support that he has had in his own city.

“I can’t bring Errol back, but what I can do is see that no other family suffers in the way that we did.

“I would never want to see somebody going through what we have gone through. It’s torturous.

“You sit there and question yourself: ‘What else could I have done?’ The reality was there was nothing we could have done.”

She said she hoped the vigil would show DWP “how many people will take time out of their own life to support the change that needs to happen”.

And she said that the ministers and civil servants at DWP who were responsible for his death “have got to take some responsibility” and understand the damage and the “ripple effect” a death like that causes to the family and friends of the person who has died.

A spokesperson for Nottingham People’s Assembly Against Austerity said: “Errol’s family are calling for justice.

“They want the DWP to be held to account for his death, to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

“Errol’s death should shock Britain into awareness of the damage that austerity is doing. Errol was one of us, a citizen of our city.

“If we don’t mark his passing, there will be more Errol Grahams, and austerity will become a permanent feature of British life.”

Last month, Disability News Service revealed how Errol Graham starved to death two years ago after DWP removed his employment and support allowance, leaving him without any income.

A civil servant told an inquest into his death last summer that DWP staff followed departmental guidance and had acted “appropriately” by leaving him with no income.

They had stopped his benefits when they were unable to contact him to discuss why he had not turned up to a work capability assessment.

Deprived of all financial support, experiencing significant mental distress and unable or unwilling to seek help, he slowly starved to death. He was 57.

*The vigil will be held between 5.30pm and 6.30pm tomorrow (Friday) near the Brian Clough statue in King Street, Nottingham NG1 2DT

6 February 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com