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A watchdog’s decision to question the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about the information it holds on benefit-related suicides could be a long-awaited recognition of the damage caused by the government’s policies, say disabled activists.
They spoke out after the National Audit Office (NAO) confirmed that it would seek information from DWP about what records it holds on suicides linked by coroners to its actions.
The watchdog decided to act after Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, claimed in a parliamentary answer that it would be too expensive to produce such information.
Tomlinson was asked about the figures last month by Frank Field, the independent MP who chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee.
He had asked Tomlinson how many times since 2013 DWP had submitted evidence to inquests into the deaths of benefits claimants who had taken their own lives, and how many of the coroners holding those inquests had ruled that DWP policies were partly responsible for the suicide.
Field raised concerns about Tomlinson’s answer with NAO.
Now Gareth Davies, NAO’s auditor general, has told Field in a letter – seen by DNS – that it is a “very important and serious topic” and that he will ask DWP about the information it holds.
Davies also suggested that NAO might decide to compile the information itself, depending on how DWP responds to his questions.
The decision to question DWP about benefit-related suicides has been welcomed by disabled activists, despite concerns that much more needs to be done to uncover the actual number of deaths caused by the actions of DWP ministers and officials over the last decade.
Less than two years ago, Field’s committee refused to put questions to the then minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, about figures that showed attempted suicides among people claiming out-of-work disability benefits had doubled between 2007 and 2014.
The figures, which showed how the proportion of claimants reporting a suicide attempt rose sharply after the introduction of employment and support allowance (ESA) and the work capability assessment (WCA) – although the figures did not prove a link to the WCA – had been passed to the committee by Disability News Service (DNS) in advance of an evidence session with Newton.
Field’s committee also refused to comment in May this year when DNS secured proof that DWP had failed to pass crucial documents linking the assessment with suicides and other deaths to its own independent reviewer of the WCA.
Years of research have shown clear links between the government’s social security reforms and suicides.
Four years ago, public health experts from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford showed in a study that, across England as a whole, the process of reassessing people on incapacity benefit for the new ESA between 2010 and 2013 was “associated with” an extra 590 suicides.
A petition calling for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to the actions of DWP, and for any evidence of misconduct by ministers and civil servants to be passed to the police for a possible criminal investigation, secured more than 55,000 signatures by the time it closed last month.
The Justice for Jodey Whiting petition secured almost no support from large disability charities like Leonard Cheshire, RNIB, Scope and Sense, but was backed by grassroots organisations of disabled people and the families of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to DWP’s actions.
Rick Burgess, from Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Anecdotally we all know of deaths that would not have happened if it weren’t for the DWP.
“It is hard to quantify with precision and this exercise will likely undercut the true total due to a reluctance of state authorities to accuse other organs of the state of unlawful killing.
“Perhaps an epidemiological approach could discover the true scale of harm caused.”
But he added: “What I would hope this signifies is a recognition that the DWP’s hostile policies towards disabled people have caused immense suffering, deaths, and human rights abuses, and that this has to be stopped and then accounted for through a truth and reconciliation process, that will inevitably include prosecutions of key government personnel.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, welcomed NAO’s decision to examine the figures held by DWP.
He said: “Black Triangle welcomes Mr Field’s activism on this issue which we have been campaigning on for so long.
“It has come not a moment too soon.”
But he said it came in the wake of the “disappointing” failure of the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition to secure the 100,000 signatures necessary for a parliamentary debate.
He added: “Families are crying out for justice. Really the police and the Crown Prosecution Service should be looking at this.
“We believe there is sufficient evidence that would give rise to the prosecution of DWP ministers and officials for misconduct in public office and possibly other offences.”
Field was not available to comment this week on why he had changed his mind on probing DWP on the issue of deaths linked to the government’s social security reforms.
But he said in a statement issued earlier this week, and passed to DNS by his office, that he had asked the question in parliament after a constituent took his own life when his personal independence payment was withdrawn.
Field said: “I struggle to believe that, given the amount of time it must take to put together evidence for inquests, attend court hearings, and internally review the decisions to see what part the DWP policy may have played in a claimant taking their own life, there is no record of such.
“It shocks me even more that the department is apparently unconcerned with the most drastic effects of its policies and conducts no internal monitoring of the tragedies in which it could be complicit.”
He added: “Amongst many other things, I hope the NAO will, through these initial enquiries, find out the cost the DWP will incur to answer this parliamentary question, as it would be most helpful to understand what expense the department considered out of proportion to the infinite preciousness of the human lives it is supposed to serve and protect.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “The NAO has been clear that they have not opened an inquiry into this and has made no commitment to opening one in the future.
“They are interested in the information we hold.
“The death of a claimant is always a tragedy and whilst this is not an inquiry, the NAO rightly considers it an important topic which we will engage with them on.”
An NAO spokesperson said: “We can confirm that we have received correspondence raising concerns about a reply by the Department for Work and Pensions to a written parliamentary question relating to inquests of benefits claimants who ended their lives by suicide.
“We are engaging with the DWP about the information it holds on this issue and will reply to the correspondent with our findings in due course.”
24 October 2019. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com
There are currently almost 14 million people in the UK with some form of disability. Many of these people have ‘hidden disabilities’ such as a stoma, urinary or bowel incontinence, autism or a visual impairment. With an ageing population, there are also increasing numbers of people living with dementia.
However, as the number of people with disabilities has grown, the number of public toilets has decreased. Over the last twenty years, cash strapped local councils across the UK have closed hundreds of toilets in order to save money. They can do this because there is no statutory requirement on them to provide public toilets. The lack of appropriate accessible toilets can prevent many people with disabilities and their carers from going out, increasing social isolation and loneliness.
The Nowhere to Go project, which aims to improve the accessibility and availability of public and customer toilets, began as a student project at Newcastle University in collaboration with Carers Northumberland. Drawing on the experiences of people with disabilities and their carers in Northumberland and working with a number of North East organisations, including Disability North, the Nowhere to Go team have produced a toilet accessibility guide: How to Improve The Accessibility of Public and Customer Toilets – Easy, Low Cost Ways to Make A Big Difference to People’s Lives.
In the guide, we highlight some simple and often inexpensive ways to make toilets that are already available for customer or public use more accessible. For example, better signs can make life much easier for people with dementia, those who are partially sighted, or who have learning difficulties. People with dementia and learning difficulties find it easier to understand standard symbols. One of the participants in our research, Leanne, who has learning difficulties, told us that it was easy to walk into the men’s toilet by mistake when the signs were not clear. Another participant, Iain, who is partially sighted, talked about the importance of having large signs with clear writing and with good colour contrasts and clear borders.
Another simple way of improving access is to provide some staff training. Many people, particularly those who might need to use a toilet urgently because they have urinary incontinence or a stoma can find it embarrassing to ask to use a toilet. Providing good signs and information can reduce the need to ask questions, but in addition, raising awareness of the importance of access to toilets through good training can help to ensure staff deal with customer toilet requests discreetly and helpfully, and treat people with dignity. Staff training can also help to promote awareness that “not every disability is visible” so that people are not made to explain why they need to use the accessible toilet. It can also help to ensure that accessible toilets remain clutter-free and aren’t used for storage.
The guide includes a handy ‘Twenty Top Tips’ section with simple and practical advice. There is also an opportunity to hear the voices of some of the people we spoke to during our research – their stories appear throughout the guide, and can also be accessed in this short film Nowhere to Go Video.
In the guide, we talk about the importance of community toilet schemes, which can ensure greater availability of toilets people can use in local communities. We also recommend local authorities and commercial and voluntary sector organisations work in partnership to create local toilet strategies to tackle the problems that have been created by the closure of public toilets. Finally, the guide also explains why more specialist accessible toilets called Changing Places are essential for people with multiple or profound physical or learning disabilities and their families and carers. It would be great to see new commercial and public developments and existing large organisations consider providing more of these vital facilities. For information there are currently 10 Changing Places Toilets in Newcastle.
To find out more, please visit our website Nowhere to Go, which provides lots of useful links to other resources, websites and information, as well as copies of previous reports from the Nowhere to Go Team. But most importantly, the website is where you will find copies of the guide (and a shorter leaflet). The guide is free to download in a range of accessible formats including large print, screen reader and audio, and it is available in braille on request. We can also supply free paper copies of the guide and leaflet in the different formats, just get in touch.
We hope the guide will be shared widely and that it will encourage businesses and individuals in our local communities to make improvements to their toilet provision, however small. Small changes can still make a BIG difference to people with disabilities and their carers.
2nd October 2019. Blog provided by Professor Janice McLaughlin (Professor of Sociology in The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University).
A police force has been accused of discrimination and “abusive” behaviour after confiscating ramps, wheelchairs and even accessible toilets that were intended to make this week’s Extinction Rebellion climate change protests in London more inclusive – and safer – for disabled activists.
Members of the Disabled Rebels group had spent months working with the organisers of Extinction Rebellion (XR) to ensure that the protests taking place this week and next would be accessible and inclusive, as reported last week by Disability News Service.
But the Metropolitan police have sabotaged those preparations by impounding two mobile accessible toilets that had been rented by XR, and arresting two members of staff working for the charity that was providing the equipment.
That police action on Monday near St James’s Park, Westminster, followed a police raid on a building in south London on Saturday, which led to eight arrests and the seizure of independent living aids and other equipment being stored by XR.
Organisers said later that the equipment seized included wheelchairs, ramps, noise-cancelling headphones for autistic protesters, camp beds for those unable to sleep on the floor, and solar-powered charging equipment for wheelchairs and scooters.
As a result of the seizure of this equipment and the accessible toilets two days later, plans for a disability hub in St James’s Park had to be abandoned.
The hub was to have provided a central place for disabled people to gather, rest, receive information, take part in training, provide peer support, and begin to build a movement of disabled people on climate change.
There was further anger over Monday’s police’s actions, after it emerged that – following six hours of negotiations with XR – a senior officer had apparently given permission for the two converted vans, each containing an accessible toilet, a changing bench, shower facilities and a ceiling hoist, to be driven into the occupied protest area.
Two members of staff working for the charity that hires out the vans at subsidised rates – Mobiloo, founded by retired Irish Paralympian James Brown – were then arrested, along with two XR protesters, even though they had been given permission to bring the vans into the protest area and had apparently been following instructions from a police officer on where to park them.
One of the two Mobiloo staff members later had to be taken from a police station to hospital after an angina attack, believed to have been caused by the stress of being arrested and held in custody.
All four are believed to have been arrested for conspiracy to cause a public nuisance and obstructing a public highway.
Sandra Daniels, one of the activists behind XR Disabled Rebels, said the police actions had caused health and safety problems for disabled protesters, and were likely to lead to an official complaint to the force, and possibly legal action.
She said: “The access for disabled people has been limited by the police. It has stopped disabled people being included.
“We have the right as disabled people to protest. In effect they have stopped that right.”
She said Disabled Rebels had challenged XR to make the fortnight of protests accessible and inclusive, and XR had been “supportive”, but because of the police action that inclusion had not been possible.
She said: “Once again I feel we have been excluded as disabled people, and we have a right to protest.”
Another Disabled Rebel, Nicki, said the police decision to impound the Mobiloos “could have huge implications” for disabled people’s health, wellbeing and dignity.
She said: “It has meant that some people have had to stay away; their right to peaceful protest has been taken away by this decision.
“This has been a huge blow to disabled people wanting to participate, coming just days after so much access equipment was seized from the XR warehouse on Saturday.
“This equipment was crucial for the safety and welfare of sick and disabled people.
“One of XR’s principles states that we welcome everybody and every part of everybody.
“We really hoped to achieve this and XR had been so positive about embracing radical inclusion of disabled activists.”
Alex Howell, Mobiloo’s operations director, has been told that his charity’s two drivers waited for six hours while XR’s liaison team negotiated permission to bring in the two vans.
They were then given permission to do so by a senior officer, and the vans were driven through the police cordon by two XR volunteers, with the Mobiloo staff – who were not part of the protest – in the cabs.
All four of them were then arrested, and taken to Acton police station, with the two vans impounded.
Howell said: “My concern is for my staff, first and foremost. Them being put in a situation where they were following police instructions and were arrested is quite concerning.
“It does make us reticent to be involved in protests in the future.”
He said Mobiloo had not heard from the police about how or when they could retrieve their vans, which had been booked by XR for the two weeks Extinction Rebellion is expected to last.
Howell said: “Taking part in a protest is something someone should be able to do. If someone is disabled, they need accessible toilet facilities to be able to do that.
“We were just providing a service as we would do to anyone.”
Extinction Rebellion said today (Thursday) that it was keeping a record of “abusive police behaviour”, following the forceful confiscation of “shelter, food, water and anything that might allow disabled people to conveniently participate”.
It has called for witness accounts of such behaviour to be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Met police spokesperson said all those arrested in south London had been released under investigation, while the property had been searched using powers under section 32 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
He said: “Officers seized a large amount of equipment at the address. The property will be retained while the investigation is ongoing.”
He added: “It is the police’s role to provide a lawful and proportionate policing response to any planned protest, balancing the community impact with the right to protest.
“Officers have powers to seize any equipment which they believe will facilitate unlawful protest.
“This forms part of our robust, proportionate policing plan which we continue to keep under review.
“If protestors break the law, officers will look to arrest those people. Furthermore, those people can expect to be charged, prosecuted, and receive a criminal record.”
The force had not commented on the St James’s Park negotiations and arrests by noon today (Thursday).
11 October 2019. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com