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European Elections: What Access At Polling Stations?

May 23, 2019

It may not have escaped your notice that it’s polling day tomorrow for the European Parliamentary elections, and you might have plans to venture out and cast your vote.

But what kind of accessibility can you expect when you arrive, to fill in the ballot paper and place your vote?

According to the Electoral Commission, each polling station should:

  • Provide clear signage to the main entrance and an accessible entrance, if they are separate
  • If the Returning Officer provided information about the election in Braille or pictorial formats, these should be displayed, as should a large-print version of the ballot paper
  • Pace the ballot box on a chair, rather than a table, so everyone can reach it
  • Provide a low-level polling booth
  • Place a white strip around the slot of the ballot box to highlight its opening
  • Provide a tactile voting device (TVD) to enable someone who is visually impaired to mark the ballot paper themselves once details on the ballot paper have been read out
  • Provide chairs for anyone who needs a rest

If you have a vague recollection about a recent High Court ruling making the use of the aforementioned tactile voting templates (TVD) “unlawful”, you haven’t been imagining things.

TVD’s are plastic sheets that fit over ballot papers and guide visually impaired constituents where to put the cross – but it doesn’t provide information about candidates so someone has to read that information out. Some people have reported the device isn’t always placed over the ballot paper accurately so they have to check with someone they’ve put the cross in the right place, making the process less than secret.

Mr Justice Swift made the ruling earlier this month but did not remove the legal requirement for TVD’s to be provided at elections.

Their use is prescribed in law so the UK Government will now have to consider how it moves forward.


UK To Bring In Controls On Plastic Straws And Cotton Buds Next Year

May 23, 2019

In a bid to limit ocean pollution, the UK government will introduce new controls on single use plastic items next year.

The measures cover plastic straws, plastic drinks stirrers and plastic cotton buds in England from April 2020.

Only plastic drinks stirrers will be totally banned from sale – currently 316 million are used a year.

Environmental groups have praised the move but say the government needs to take far more decisive action.

How will plastic straws be affected?

The government press release announcing the new restrictions talks of “a ban on the supply of plastic straws” but in reality the aim is instead to restrict their availability.

Shops including supermarkets will not be allowed to sell the straws but they will on sale by registered pharmacies in stores and online.

That’s because disabled groups have highlighted how straws are essential for everyday life and that a total ban could lead to the risk of dehydration.

According to the announcement, bars and restaurants will not be allowed to display plastic straws or automatically hand them out but they will be able to provide them if people ask.

When asked who could request a straw, a spokesperson for the environment ministry Defra said: “Anyone can ask for a straw and be given one without needing to prove a disability – we’ve been working with disabled groups so that they don’t feel stigmatised.”

What else is covered by the new controls?

Plastic stirrers will be subject to a total ban.

However plastic-stemmed cotton buds, although restricted from general sale to the public, will still be available.

Medical and scientific laboratories will be able to buy them for use in research and for forensic tasks in criminal investigations.

Defra reckons 1.8bn plastic-stemmed cotton buds are used and thrown away every year in England.

Haven’t we heard this before?

The government has been considering action on single-use plastic items since the public reaction to David Attenborough’s landmark Blue Planet II documentaries nearly two years ago.

At the time, Environment Secretary Michael Gove described being haunted by the image of marine life harmed by plastic and launched consultations on a series of measures to curb single-use items.

As part of today’s announcement that controls would come into effect next April, Mr Gove said: “These items are often used for just a few minutes but take hundreds of years to break down, ending up in our seas and oceans and harming precious marine life.

“So today I am taking action to turn the tide on plastic pollution, and ensure we leave our environment in a better state for future generations.”

This comes as Scotland is also taking steps to restrict or ban plastic straws, and plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

The Welsh government has also been considering similar measures.

Earlier this week the European Union formally adopted a plan to ban a longer list of items including plastic straws, plastic cutlery and plastic plates by 2021.

Green groups say they are pleased that the government is taking action but many are critical that the measures do not go further.

WWF called for a ban on all “avoidable single-use plastic” by 2025 and said ministers needed “to really ramp up their commitments”.

The Marine Conservation Society, which said it found on average 17 cotton buds for every 100m of beach in England, said Mr Gove needed to do more to reduce plastic consumption and increase recycling rates.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said Mr Gove should phase out single-use items altogether and warned that replacements made with alternative materials might still be harmful.

The move comes as many takeaway restaurants are already introducing biodegradable alternatives.

BREAKING: Abuse Of Vulnerable Adults Uncovered At Whorlton Hall Hospital

May 22, 2019

The abuse and mistreatment of vulnerable adults at a specialist hospital has been uncovered by the BBC’s Panorama programme.

Undercover BBC filming shows staff intimidating, mocking and restraining patients with learning disabilities and autism at Whorlton Hall, County Durham.

Experts said the culture was “deviant” at the privately-run NHS unit with evidence of “psychological torture”.

A police investigation has been launched and 16 staff suspended.

The 17-bed hospital is one of scores of such units in England that provide care for just below 2,300 adults with learning disabilities and autism.

Many are detained under the Mental Health Act.

Glynis Murphy, professor of clinical psychology and disability at Kent University’s Tizard Centre, said much of what Panorama had found was the “absolute antithesis” of good care.

“It is obviously a very deviant culture.”

Cygnet, the firm which runs the unit, said it was “shocked and deeply saddened”.

The company only took over the running of the centre last year and said it was “co-operating fully” with the police investigation.

The patients are being transferred to other services, Cygnet said.

Swearing and mental torture – what has been uncovered

Image caption Staff were filmed using abusive language about patients

The BBC reporter, Olivia Davies, worked shifts for two months undercover between December and February.

She filmed a number of shocking scenes where staff can be heard using offensive language to describe patients, while another calls the hospital a “house of mongs”.

In another case, a patient is told by her care worker that her family are “poison”.

Two male staff members single out a female patient for particular abuse.

Aware that she is scared of men, they tell her, in an effort to keep her quiet, that her room will be inundated with men.

They call this “pressing the man button”, something which causes her great distress.

This was described a psychological torture by Prof Murphy.

What about violence?

There was certainly the threat of violence. On one occasion, a male care worker threatens to “deck” a patient, while another patient is told they will be “put through the floor”.

Six care workers also told the undercover reporter that they have deliberately hurt patients – including one who describes banging a patient’s head against the floor, and another who speaks about flooring a patient with an outstretched arm, something he called “clotheslining”.

The reporter did witness a number of incidents of physical restraint, which should only be used to prevent a patient harming themselves or others.

In one episode of restraint, a patient was held on the ground for nearly 10 minutes with one member of staff restraining him, while handing out chewing gum to colleagues.

Prof Andrew McDonnell, an expert in autism at Birmingham City University, who develops training to reduce the use of restraint, said it was a “cruel punishment”.

“Restraint should be momentary. It should be short. It should be with as few staff as possible, without an audience.”

What about regulation?

Services for people with learning disabilities are regulated by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

The CQC gave Whorlton Hall a good rating after inspecting it in 2017.

It said that since then, it had warned the hospital about staff training, long hours and excessive use of agency staff.

Dr Paul Lelliott, deputy chief inspector of hospitals at the CQC, told Panorama: “On this occasion it is quite clear that we did not pick up the abuse that was happening at Whorlton Hall.

“All I can do is apologise deeply to the people concerned.”

The Department for Health and Social Care said it treated allegations of abuse with the “utmost seriousness”, but could not comment any further because of the police investigation.

Not the first scandal

The Panorama findings come eight years after abuse was uncovered at another hospital for people with learning disabilities, Winterbourne View, near Bristol.

After that programme, the then prime minister, David Cameron, promised the mistreatment of patients would never happen again.

Winterbourne View was shut down and the government committed to closing other specialist hospitals too, saying care should be provided in the community.

Bed numbers have been reduced – from 3,400 to below 2,300 since 2012 in England – but that falls short of the government’s target to get it down to below 1,700 by March this year.

The official investigation in the Winterbourne View case also made warnings about the excessive use of restraint.

But figures show “restrictive practices” have become more common – the use of seclusion and restraint has nearly doubled in the past two years, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Panorama.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock ordered an investigation into the cases last year and an interim report published by the Care Quality Commission this week described the system as “broken” and said people who ended up in hospital were being failed.

The sector has also come under fire for some of the deaths that have occurred.

The most high-profile case of recent years was Connor Sparrowhawk, who had learning disabilities and epilepsy, and died when he had a seizure alone in a bath at an NHS unit in Oxford in 2013.

Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust admitted breaching health and safety law and was fined £2m for the deaths of Mr Sparrowhawk and another patient, 45-year-old Teresa Colvin, who died in Hampshire in 2012.

The deaths of people with learning disabilities are now routinely monitored.

The latest report, also published this week, found that there were concerns about care provided in more than one in 10 cases.

Jonathan Beebee, of the Royal College of Nursing, said Panorama had shined a light on a “dark corner” of the sector.

He said the scale of what had been found would not be happening everywhere, but he still had concerns about the state of services.

“The sector is plagued by high vacancy rates and a lack of properly trained staff. There will be problems elsewhere.”


DWP Pays Compensation For Misadvised UC Claims And Would “Welcome” More

May 22, 2019

With many thanks to Benefits And Work.

The DWP have paid compensation to five claimants who have complained that they were wrongly advised by the department to claim universal credit (UC) and lost out as a result. The DWP say that they would welcome complaints from others who have been affected.

Universal Credit Director General Neil Couling told MPs in the Work and Pensions Committee this month that they have looked at 26 cases since April 2018 which may have involved claimants being wrongly advised by the DWP. In five of these cases they have paid compensation.

“For example, a claimant wanted to claim effectively contributory employment support allowance. They were wrongly advised to claim Universal Credit because the person on the end said, “There is no employment support allowance anymore.” There is contributory employment support allowance, so it was a mistake. The claimant claimed UC and lost their tax credits and is £63.84 a week worse off as a consequence. We are topping that amount back up to them every week as compensation because of our mistake in directing them to claim Universal Credit.

It is cases like that, where the claimant has complained to us and said, “Look, I am worse off. All I wanted was contributory employment support allowance.” We made a mistake so we stepped in and compensated them. I found five cases like that by looking at our records.”

Alok Sharma MP, Minister of State for Employment, was then asked by Steve McCabe MP:

“Anyone who is watching this and listening to it who thinks they have been misadvised or a victim of maladministration, who are not in the 26 that you referred to, you would welcome them making a complaint?”

Alok Sharma replied: “Yes, absolutely.”

You can read the Work and Pensions Committee oral evidence here (from Q212 onwards)

Future Claimants Could Face ‘Gruelling’ Journeys To Appeal Tribunals

May 22, 2019

With many thanks to Benefits And Work.

Future claimants could face “gruelling journeys” to attend appeal hearings, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union argued last week, following the release of reform plans by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS).

Under the new plans, a “reasonable journey” is one that allows a court or tribunal user to leave home no earlier than 7.30am, attend their hearing, and return home by 7.30pm the same day, including by public transport where necessary.

Thee PCS has strongly condemned the proposed 12 hour day claiming that:

“Court users and staff face gruelling journeys which we believe are unreasonable for the overwhelming majority of people who attend court.”

“We believe efficiency is a euphemism for cuts to a public service which we maintain is already creaking under unrelenting pressure and chronic underfunding and is largely reliant on the goodwill and professionalism of our members.”

The union believes that HMCTS has rushed out its report before the parliamentary justice committee can complete its investigations into changes to courts and tribunals.

“We believe that the timing of this announcement is extremely cynical and that HMCTS should not have made any decision, let alone announce it, before the select committee has published its report on HMCTS and its recommendations addressed. We also have grave doubts HMTCS will honour its commitment not to propose court closures unless they have sound evidence that the reforms are actually reducing the use of those buildings.

“This is also the case for its commitment to fully consult on future plans as previous consultations have been based on fundamentally flawed utilisation figures and HMCTS has closed courts against overwhelming public opposition.”

PCS has given evidence to the justice committee that far from improving access to justice, “so-called modern ways of working” are “are slowing down and threatening the quality of justice and service that is delivered.”

HMCTS claim that they will take into account the needs of vulnerable users and consider providing local video links in some circumstances.

You can download a copy of the HMCTS document Fit for the Future: transforming the court and tribunal estate from this page

Amber Rudd Finally Responds To Death Of Stephen Smith

May 21, 2019

Benefits secretary Amber Rudd has finally acknowledged the death of six-stone Liverpool man Stephen Smith – who died after being repeatedly and wrongly denied vital support by her department.

Mr Smith died last month following a gruelling battle with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) – who repeatedly denied him benefits despite numerous doctors warning of his dramatically failing health.

In the end, 64-year-old Mr Smith – who weighed just six stone at the time – had to get a pass out of hospital to allow him to fight the DWP at a tribunal and finally win back the benefits he had been denied.

After his story was made public, the DWP also agreed to pay him back around £4,000 in backpay that he should never had been denied.

Sadly, this money arrived too late for Mr Smith – and was instead used to pay for his funeral.

The ECHO has been following his story for some time – and we have been repeatedly asking for Ms Rudd to respond to how he was treated following his tragic death.

So far, we have only been sent generic responses from a DWP spokesperson.

But Birkenhead MP Frank Field has also taken up the case, alongside the ECHO.

Mr Field is the chair of the Work and Pensions Committee – and has written to Ms Rudd asking for a full inquiry into Mr Smith’s case.

And in a response received today – it looks like that is now underway.

Ms Rudd writes: “This is a grave and tragic case. I speak on behalf of the Department when I say that we are very sorry to hear of the experience Mr Smith had and that our thoughts continue to be with his friends and family.

“You asked for an official inquiry into this matter. I can advise you that an urgent Internal Process Review has been commissioned on Mr Smith’s case, which will be complete by the end of May.”

Ms Rudd explains that Internal Process Reviews ‘enable full and open scrutiny of cases internally’ and that a ‘factual sequence of events will be put together for Mr Smith’s case and will be provided to a panel of subject experts within the Department.’

However, despite Mr Field’s call for a public inquiry it appears that Mr Smith’s case will only be reviewed within the DWP.

The Secretary of State’s letter continues: “This will be objectively reviewed against the customer journey and what should have happened – including safeguarding processes.

“This will help us to understand what happened, with recommendations for improvements and changes to be shared with the Permanent Secretary following this review.”

Ms Rudd said she recognises the ‘gravity of this case’ and will consider any further steps necessary following the outcome of the review – and will notify Mr Field.

She concludes by saying that Mr Smith’s case has her ‘personal attention’ and that ‘if there is a need to take further action, it will be taken.’


Game Of Thrones Was A Big Win For Portrayal Of Little People

May 21, 2019

When was the last time America’s most talked-about pop culture epic had a 4-foot-4-inch hero?

Precisely never. Which is why “Game of Thrones,” which ended its sensational eight-year run Sunday, was a watershed — for all of us, certainly, but particularly for the population that (mostly) prefers to be known as little people.

“It really helps people in the dwarf community in a positive way,” says Tony Soares, former Hoboken, New Jersey, city council president, who has worked in advertising and real estate.

“I was just listening to people down the hall in the office, the other day, talking about Tyrion Lannister, and they were talking about how great he is,” Soares says. “And there was never a discussion about Peter Dinklage as a dwarf.”

Tyrion Lannister, played by Dinklage in a role that has made him an international star, was arguably the show’s hero, its brains, and its moral compass. In a series with more than 50 major roles, he was more or less the central character. In the opening credits, Dinklage is the first name listed. Ask most people who their favorite “GoT” character is, they’ll tell you Tyrion.

“We’re all rooting for that character,” says Mark Povinelli, president of Little People of America, a 62-year-old organization based in California. “I think everyone is. But we have a vested interest.”

Dinklage, and his character, have been a game-changer for the entertainment industry’s depiction of dwarfism, and the opportunities it may open for actors of small stature.

Dinklage, the actor named People magazine’s “sexiest man alive,” subject of Esquire and GQ cover stories, is a new kind of small-statured star, unlike the Hervé Villechaizes and Verne Troyers of years past. Having made his bones in films like “Living in Oblivion” (1995) and “The Station Agent” (2003), he shot to the stratosphere in “Game of Thrones,” beginning in 2011, for which he won three Emmys and the world’s affection.

Here was a little person who was not a sidekick, not a jester, not pathetic or grotesque or a novelty. Tyrion is a character of great dignity, played by an actor of great dignity.

“Someone said to me, they knew this was really different when they saw average-size kids dressing up as Tyrion for Halloween,” says Cara Egan, a heath insurance administrator from Collingswood, New Jersey.

In “Game of Thrones,” Tyrion’s size is mostly beside the point. Though occasionally, he talks about his difficulties making his way in the world, and the audience comes to realize that his brains — and his basic decency — are partly a byproduct of the way people have treated him. For small-statured viewers, starved of anyone in movies or TV to identify with, he was a revelation.

“I was always watching the show, following the story line, waiting for what (Tyrion) is going to say this week that’s going to blow my mind,” Egan says. “When he’s saying look, it’s hard for me to be a dwarf, and these are the things I have to do, he’s not asking for pity. He’s saying, Look at what I have done, and recognize me and recognize the work I’ve put into this. That’s like every dwarf I know. That’s what we want. We want to be recognized for our work, our talents, our personality. We don’t want to be noticed for our size.”

Not a stellar record

Hollywood, and TV’s, record of dealing with little people is not much more distinguished than its record with African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, gay people, and all the other “others.”

At best, they could be whimsical fantasy characters, like the Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz,” or the Oompa-Loompas of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Otherwise, they might be a kind of dirty joke, like the characters Billy Barty — probably Hollywood’s first dwarf star — played in the 1930s. If a bunch of chorus girls, in a crazy production number, were costumed in metal gowns and halter tops, Barty was the leering little guy with the can opener.

At worst, little people were treated almost literally like sideshow attractions — as they were in 1938’s “The Terror of Tiny Town,” billed as an “all-midget” Western (“midget” is considered an offensive term).

“It’s so rare to see someone with dwarfism as having a fully dimensional character,” says Povinelli, himself a stage, screen and TV actor (“Water for Elephants,” “Mirror Mirror,” “Boardwalk Empire”).

“So often, in the entertainment industry, we are painted — as well as many people with disabilities — in two ways,” Povinelli says. “One is disability porn — where we’re some helpless creature that some average-height person needs to save. Or we’re some villain, mad about their height and can’t get over it, and therefore lashes out at everyone. There’s very little middle ground.”

Actors like Barty, back in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, had to play the hand they were dealt. He eventually got to prove his mettle as an actor,  playing non-stereotyped characters in films like 1975’s “Day of the Locust.”  But meanwhile, Barty parlayed his notoriety into something worthwhile, when he used his fame and clout in 1957 to create Little People of America, an organization that works to improve the lives of little people through education, advocacy, and social support. It now has 8,000 members nationwide.

“He took his fame, whatever way he cultivated it — whether you find it, in this era, a little less than idea — and used it to connect to little people all over the country, and change their lives,” Povinelli says.

Now Dinklage has taken another great leap forward, and little people — just like viewers everywhere — are thrilled. The only downside, says Povinelli: passers-by keep mistaking him, and every other small person, for Dinklage.

“There’s only one of us, apparently, because we all get mistaken for Peter Dinklage,” he says.

This has, in fact, happened repeatedly to Soares when he’s gone to Hollywood as part of his advertising work. Playwright David Mamet mistook him for Dinklage. So, he says, did Jill St. John and husband Robert Wagner. “Jill and I think you’re fabulous,” Wagner said. When Soares introduced himself and pointed out their mistake, she said, ‘Tony, we think you’re fabulous anyway.’ It was pretty funny.”

Actually, that’s a bit of a step up, Soares says.

“Many of us used to be confused with Verne Troyer,” he says. “Now, when people think I’m Peter Dinklage, I’m not offended. If you’re an average-sized man and people think you’re Bradley Cooper, you’re not going to get upset. If they think you’re John Candy, that’s a different story.”