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MPs Call For Inquiry Into Errol Graham Case

January 29, 2020

MPs and campaigners have called for an independent inquiry after it emerged a disabled man with a long history of mental illness starved to death just months after welfare officials stopped his out-of-work and housing benefits.

Errol Graham, a 57-year-old grandfather, and in his younger days a keen amateur footballer, weighed just four and a half stone (28.5kg) when his emaciated body was discovered by bailiffs who had broken down his front door to evict him for non-payment of rent.

A coroner’s report into the tragedy found that Graham, who suffered from severe social anxiety and had cut himself off from family and friends, had died of starvation. When he was found, his Nottingham flat had no gas or electricity supply. There was no food in the property apart from two tins of fish that were four years out of date.

Graham’s family this week blamed the Department for Work and Pensions for his death in June 2018, saying it should not have cut off the financial lifeline of a man it knew to be highly vulnerable. “He would still be alive. He’d be ill but he’d still be alive,” said his daughter-in-law Alison Turner.

The findings of an inquest into Graham’s death in June 2019 were brought to light by Turner via the independent website Disability News Service. The inquest found that DWP and NHS staff had missed opportunities to save Graham. “The safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it,” said the coroner, Elizabeth Didcock.

Campaigners say the tragedy – the latest in a series of cases where vulnerable claimants have died after having their benefits cut off – showed serious shortcomings in the DWP’s treatment of highly vulnerable claimants. They called for an overhaul of its safeguarding systems and a halt to benefit sanctions against disabled claimants.

The Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, who raised the case in Parliament on Monday, said: “Particularly worrying are the deaths of vulnerable claimants like Errol, following the DWP stopping their payments. This is in spite of departmental procedures which are meant to protect vulnerable people. This has to be looked at as a matter of urgency.”

The DWP said it took Graham’s death seriously and had referred the case to a newly created serious case panel process to learn lessons. The panel’s terms of reference had not been formalised, but its members would be DWP civil servants. A DWP spokesperson said: “This is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family.”

Graham’s case follows that of Jodey Whiting, a vulnerable 42-year-old woman from Stockton who took her own life in 2017 after the DWP stopped some of her benefits for failing to attend a fit-for-work test. It turned out that at the time of the appointment she had been in hospital with pneumonia.

A DWP investigation last year into the case of Stephen Smith, 64, from Liverpool, who was denied benefits in 2017 despite multiple debilitating illnesses and weighing just six stone, found officials had missed “crucial safeguarding opportunities” although policy had been followed. Smith died in April last year.

Graham’s benefits were cut off in October 2017, just weeks after he had failed to attend an appointment for a DWP fit-for-work test. Turner called it a “cruel and dysfunctional” response. “They took the money off someone who was highly vulnerable and they knew he was highly vulnerable.”

Graham had been on incapacity benefits since 2003 after his father died, and had a spell in a psychiatric hospital in 2015. He had been reassessed as unfit for work in 2013 and had been on employment and support allowance (ESA) when the DWP called him for a retest in 2017 “as the claimed level of disability was unclear”.

The inquest heard it was standard DWP procedure to stop the benefits of a claimant marked on the system as vulnerable after two failed safeguarding visits. It made two visits on 16 and 17 October. Graham’s ESA payment due on the 17th was stopped on the same day.

There was no formal requirement for DWP staff to seek more information about Graham’s health or how he was functioning before ceasing his benefits, and it had not done so, the inquest heard. It concluded that at the time of the visits “it is likely that [Graham’s] mental health was poor”.

Didcock described this as “a hugely important decision to make, especially with the knowledge that [Graham] had longterm illness that was unlikely to have improved significantly – also that he was reliant on this benefit as his sole income”.

She could not demonstrate that the loss of benefits had led directly to Graham’s death, but she concluded: “The sudden loss of all income, and the threat of eviction that followed from it, will have caused huge distress and worry, and significant financial hardship.”

Graham had no other money to pay for food or utilities, she noted. He was “vulnerable to life stressors” and she concluded that it was “likely that this loss of income, and housing, were the final and devastating stressors, that had a significant effect on his mental health”.

She added: “He needed the DWP to obtain more evidence at the time his ESA was stopped to make a more informed decision about him, particularly following the failed safeguarding visits. If anyone had known he was struggling, help could have been provided.”

Ken Butler, a welfare rights and policy adviser at Disability Rights UK said: “The tragic and unnecessary death of Errol Graham again shows that the DWP is failing in its safeguarding responsibilities towards vulnerable disabled people.”


How Deaf And Disabled People Are Transforming Theatre

January 28, 2020

From yesterday’s Guardian.

Athena Stevens: ‘We should establish quotas’

More stories are being told on stage by artists with disabilities. But the biggest problem is the architecture of theatres. Even if you have the talent to perform in some of these venues, just getting in the building is impossible. Actors and writers are told they can earn their stripes at the fringe level. How do you do that when accessible rehearsal rooms are the most expensive and every pub theatre is up a flight of stairs? I ended up opening my own rehearsal space, run by my production company, Aegis Productions.

A huge step forward would be to establish quotas in West End ensembles. Ensembles, by definition, are meant to be everyone, so they should be inclusive. There is no reason why an ensemble for a musical can’t include a performer with a disability. These shows have the money and they should have the imagination. We need mainstream theatre organisations and producers to rise to the challenge of equal representation for disability.

My show at the Finborough, Scrounger, was inspired by a case of discrimination I experienced when I was about to fly from London to Glasgow but ended up being removed from the flight, directly because of my disability. When the airline returned my wheelchair, it was damaged. The fallout from that incident made me very aware of the everyday injustices that are perpetrated by ordinary people. People who mean well often stand in the way of progress, because they are afraid of conflict. You see a lot of micro-aggressions and silencing, people saying things like: “Oh, it will be fine, don’t make a fuss.”

And actually it won’t be fine, trying to get along and avoid conflict is how every political horror starts. This is a culture that prides itself on being progressive but also on avoiding conflict. I’m sorry, but you can’t have both. Progress and equality always mean confronting the status quo and that will always create conflict. I don’t like it, but I have to let go of the egotistical desire to be liked by everyone in order to not be complicit in the world’s injustice.

Sophie Woolley: ‘Get the experts in’

Venues need to employ deaf and disabled people – that is the best way to improve access. It’s about getting the experts in. Deaf people are really good at shouting and changing things because we have to be. We can’t be passive.

I’m a writer and actor, and since 2013 I’ve self-described as a deaf cyborg. After I got my cochlear implant, I felt proud and decided to own my new identity.

I didn’t train at drama college but started performing in nightclubs, pubs and galleries. I was going deaf when I made my early theatre work and I used interpreters in rehearsals, but I could not follow BSL-interpreted theatre. I preferred subtitles. I was conscious that I couldn’t enjoy the same cutting-edge productions that my peers could because of the lack of subtitled performances.

At this time – around 15 years ago – there weren’t many shows that integrated subtitles into the stage design. I didn’t want anyone to feel the same sense of exclusion so I modelled best practice and made sure my work was creatively captioned.

Even with my implant, I often need captions to properly engage with the performance. In big old theatre buildings such as the Old Vic, I can’t follow without captions; in mid-size theatres such as the New Wolsey in Ipswich, I can follow everything. It all depends on the acoustic.

In Augmented, my latest show, we have a really amazing lighting and projection designer, Joshua Pharo. He has the unique skillset of being able to do both lighting and video projection – that ensured our captioning was part of the show’s overall design. It’s exciting that more theatre-makers are playing with access as a theatrical form, like Midnight Movie did at the Royal Court. The Court now offers more than one captioned show per run, too. It just shows that we can change things. Access can be liberating and uplifting for everyone.

Amit Sharma: ‘Theatre changes perceptions’

Theatre is powerful and has a way of changing people’s perceptions. There is a social and civic responsibility here. As a director – and deputy artistic director of Birmingham Repertory theatre – I am passionate about representation, particularly those voices who have been marginalised historically.

Things are changing – slowly. There is deaf and disabled representation on primetime TV, whether for one-off series or recurring characters. Is it enough? Absolutely not, but 10 years ago you didn’t see such breadth of characters. It’s the same on our stages. But we need to do more than just talk about how well we are doing. Recently, the Stage released a report on leadership of the top 50 theatres – with people of colour at 8%, which is shocking. How many of the top 50 are being led by a deaf and disabled person? Or the top 100? Or top 150? There’s a phrase that disabled people often use, which is: “Nothing about us without us” and it is paramount we now put this into practice, starting with leadership.

The Rep is part of a consortium of six venues (including Nottingham Playhouse, Stratford East, Sheffield Theatres, New Wolsey in Ipswich and Leeds Playhouse) which, with the company Graeae, have collaborated on the Ramps on the Moon programme. This is a commitment to having one mainstage show each year which is predominantly cast with deaf and disabled performers, as part of their season. That kind of commitment makes a real impact – off and on stage. If you were to remove a Ramps production, you would see the gap in work being presented at that scale. When Ramps finishes, what then? It needs to be a catalyst for all our theatres to make a genuine commitment to deaf and disabled artists, and audiences, in our big spaces.

The next generation of deaf and disabled artists need to feel like there are opportunities for them to act, write, direct, design and produce just like their non-disabled counterparts. There’s much work to do. We can’t let them down.

Jenny Sealey: ‘Everyone can make shows accessible’

As the artistic director of Graeae I surround myself with tales from deaf and disabled artists who bring with them diverse communication and access requirements. Together, we weave this into a theatrical narrative so it becomes an aesthetic artform.

Graeae, along with other deaf and disabled-led companies, have been pushing the agenda for years. Since Reasons to be Cheerful (our Ian Dury-inspired musical by Paul Sirett) hit middle-scale stages, other directors have seen the richness of our aesthetic and the skill and talent within our community. This led to the Ramps on the Moon consortium. Things are moving on. Derby theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe and the National Theatre and are also casting more disabled actors and starting to work with disabled writers and directors.

It comes down to attitude and a concern that employing deaf and disabled actors, writers and directors is going to cost more. It does cost more, but that is when Access to Work comes in. This government scheme supports the cost of audio describers, access workers, creative enablers (a term coined by Graeae where the conversation between enabler and artist is a creative collaborative process) and sign-language interpreters – although there is a cap on how much is paid out, which is very limiting. I work with interpreters almost constantly, so I have to have a “dry period” when my allowance has run out.

To improve accessibility and representation throughout our industry, the answer is very simple – employ deaf and disabled people across the organisation (front of house, bar, marketing, senior management, board, etc) as well as on stage and backstage. Work with all creative teams to embed captioning, signing and audio description into the heart and design of all productions so that deaf and disabled audience members can enjoy any show they like rather than just on the “access night”. Graeae has been making every show accessible for more than 20 years and we are a small company. If we can do it, everyone can. Access is a human right – not a tag-on.

Extraordinary Wall Of Silence Review

January 28, 2020

Devised from 40 hours of interviews with members of the deaf community, Ad Infinitum’s Extraordinary Wall [of Silence] tells the contemporary narratives of Helen, Alan and Graham, setting their coming-of-age stories against a history of violence and oppression suffered by those who are deaf. Directed with precision and care by George Mann, it is part history lesson and part lecture on deafhood, but also a subtle interrogation of theatre itself.

The show is performed by an ensemble of three deaf actors (David Ellington, Matthew Gurney and Moira Anne McAuslan) and one hearing actor (Deborah Pugh). Pugh speaks aloud much of the text as the actors articulate three stories through different forms of expression: sign language, speech and physical movement. But this is more than translation. It questions how meaning is made and who gets to make it. Hands cannot sign when they are tied behind one’s back.

The show creates its own visual vocabulary. The actors use physical gestures for different objects: for trees, they stand, head down, arms outstretched, bent at the elbow; for desks, a slight squat with a forearm straight out in front. Though this performance style could become reliant on cliche and exaggeration, there is a neat tension between the obviousness of some gestures and the nuance of others: the holding of a small powder compact is mimed with absolute precision, leading to a lovely moment of self-actualisation.

Often, this feels subtly profound. While the characters’ stories are told in British Sign Language and spoken English, they are also expressed through light and music, facial expressions and touch, and a series of props that represent quite different objects (a spanner is used as microphone in a speech therapy session). The work reminds us that theatre allows, and perhaps demands, that worlds can be conjured anew each time: we can find new symbols and signs to tell stories, and both terror and beauty can be realised through shared codes and gestures.

Are Bogus Observations Being Used To Refuse PIP Awards?

January 27, 2020

With many thanks to Benefits And Work.

Benefits and Work has heard several accounts lately of awards of the mobility component of PIP being refused based on allegedly bogus observations of claimants walking in assessment centres. We have now been contacted by a disability group to ask if such cases are on the rise?

One claimant posting a comment on the Benefits and Work website recently about an assessment centre warned:

“It is a few feet along a corridor, maybe 2 metres or less, then a small waiting area. The office I went into was no more than 4-5 metres from my seat. The office was quite small. Somehow I was “observed walking 15 metres in 10 seconds”. which is ludicrous because there is not a 15 metre length to walk in there, so take note of the distance. Disabled spaces right at the door, not sure about the car parks.”

A disability organisation has also been in contact with us in relation to a claimant who was allegedly observed walking 50 metres at an assessment centre. They are certain there was no corridor of anything like that length in the centre.

Another poster, in relation to a different centre warned that :

“There are markings on the floor to measure how far you can walk either aided or unaided.”

There is nothing legally wrong with health professionals observing how far a claimant walks and using that as evidence. From that point of view, having markings on the floor could aid accuracy.

However, even if the distance and time are correctly measured, there are many other issues that need to be taken into account.

For example, can the claimant cover the distance reliably and repeatedly? Do they suffer pain or severe discomfort? Could they walk a similar distance on pavements outdoors where there are uneven surfaces or kerbs?

If the assessor bases their entire opinion on mobility on a snapshot of the claimant on the day, walking indoors in the assessment centre and without asking any questions about issues such as whether they are experiencing pain or discomfort, then their evidence is of little value.

A tribunal is likely to take all of this into account. There is nothing new about questionable or incomplete observations by health professionals.

But is such evidence being increasingly relied upon?

If the DWP are refusing many more claims on the basis of unreliable observations, we know that a very large percentage of claimants will not go on to appeal, even though there is a very strong probability they would win.

The result will be fewer successful PIP claims.

We also know that PIP award rates have fallen dramatically, from 42% overall to just 30% last October for new claims.

There has not been any change in the law or in publicly available guidance to account for this dramatic drop.

Could bogus observations be one of the hidden explanations?

Please let us know your experiences.

192,000 Claimants May Have Had PIP Claim Unlawfully Stopped

January 27, 2020

With many thanks to Benefits And Work.

Up to 192,000 claimants may have had their PIP claim unlawfully stopped because letters sent out did not make it clear that failure to attend an assessment without good reason would definitely result in their claim ending.

An upper tribunal judge ruled last week that PIP appointment letters sent out by Atos were flawed and that a claimant who failed to attend without good cause could not lawfully have their PIP claim closed for non-attendance.

Judge Wikeley was ruling in relation to a claim made in February 2017.

The claimant had a number of medical conditions including severe epilepsy, severe depression and anxiety as well as daily faecal incontinence and used a colostomy bag.

The claimant was being moved from DLA to PIP.

They cancelled their first assessment appointment three days before it was due to take place.

They were given a second appointment which they failed to turn up for.

The claimant said they had missed the second appointment because of an epileptic fit which had resulted in an overnight hospital stay.

They said they would provide medical evidence of the hospital stay but did not do so.

A decision maker found that they had failed to attend their PIP assessment without good cause and stopped their claim.

The claimant appealed but the tribunal upheld the DWP’s decision.

The claimant then appealed to the upper tribunal.

Judge Wikeley held firstly that the original tribunal’s decision was wrong because they had not seen the appointment letter the claimant was sent. This in itself was an error of law.

But Judge Wikeley did have a copy of the letter and went on to consider whether it was legally enforceable.

The letter from Atos said:

“It is important that you attend this appointment. If you fail to attend without good reason the decision maker at the Department for Work and Pensions is likely to disallow your claim. If you can’t attend please contact our Customer Service Centre straightaway on [phone number to be inserted].”

The judge found that it was not sufficiently clear that the Atos letter involved the imposition of a legal requirement on a claimant to attend the assessment.

This is because it only said it was ‘likely’ that the decision maker would disallow the claim if there was not a good reason for not attending. This suggested that there were some circumstances where failure to attend, even without a good reason, would still not result in a claim being stopped.

The judge held that the letter ought to have said something like: “You must attend this appointment. If you fail to attend without good reason the decision maker at the Department for Work and Pensions will disallow your claim.”

The DWP, rather outrageously tried to claim that it was out of concern for claimants that they had been ambiguous:

“The letters are addressed to persons with a disability, many of whom will be vulnerable. It is necessary to strike a balance between clear communication which stresses the need to attend the assessment, and the likely consequences of failure to attend, but without frightening claimants into being so fearful of punitive action that they will attempt to attend an appointment even if the nature of their health condition or disability makes this difficult or impossible.”

Many claimants who have been threatened with sanctions will know only too well how little the DWP cares about “frightening claimants into being so fearful of punitive action”.

The judge dismissed the DWP’s argument, pointing out that the letter could have explained how to change an appointment and also that it was wrong to argue that “politeness” should take precedence over clarity.

The judge overturned the decision of the first-tier tribunal and awarded the claimant the enhanced rates of both components of PIP.

Up to October 2019, 192,000 claimants had been refused PIP due to failure to attend an assessment. It now seems that many of those refusals were unlawful.

We should stress that this absolutely does not mean that you can simply fail to attend an assessment without fear of consequences.

But it does mean that if you are refused PIP because of failure to attend an assessment without good cause then, depending on the precise wording of the letter, you should seek advice because you may be able to get the decision overturned.

You can download the full decision from this page.

The DWP Still Think Amputated Feet Heal

January 27, 2020

We have no words.

Paralympic Games To Remain On Free-To-Air Television

January 27, 2020

The Paralympic Games will remain on free-to-air television after the government added it to the ‘crown jewels’ list of protected events.

Both the summer and winter Games will be added in the first change to the list – which includes the Olympics and football World Cup – in 20 years.

In 2016, 31.6 million watched at least 15 consecutive minutes of Rio coverage.

“I am delighted the Paralympic Games has been added,” said Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.

“When you look at the other events it will now sit alongside, it means so much to athletes, current and retired, to know the level that the Paralympic Games has reached in the public consciousness and how much it means to everyone.”

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is also expected to announce a decision on whether the women’s equivalents of men’s events already on the list will be added.

“The Paralympic Games is one of the highlights of the sporting calendar, as the country comes together to support our world-class Paralympic athletes,” added sports minister Nigel Adams.

“So it is only right the event is available on free-to-air television for all to enjoy. Adding the Games to the crown jewels list of major sporting events guarantees it the platform it deserves every four years that will help inspire the sporting stars of the future.”

Officially known as the Ofcom Code on Sports and Other Listed and Designated Events, the so-called ‘crown jewels’ list was first created in 1991.

It was then revised in 1999 and split into two categories, A and B, with events on the A list being those which must offer live rights to free-to-air broadcasters at a “fair and reasonable” cost. Events on the B list must offer highlights packages.

The revised list of free-to-air listed events is as follows:

Group A (full live coverage protected)

  • The Olympic Games
  • The Paralympic Games
  • The Fifa World Cup finals
  • The European Football Championship finals
  • The FA Cup final
  • The Scottish FA Cup final (in Scotland)
  • The Grand National
  • The Wimbledon Tennis finals
  • The Rugby World Cup final
  • The Derby
  • The Rugby League Challenge Cup final

Group B (secondary coverage protected)

  • Cricket Test matches played in England
  • Non-finals play at Wimbledon
  • All other matches at the Rugby World Cup
  • Six Nations Rugby matches involving England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland
  • The Commonwealth Games
  • The World Athletics Championship
  • The Cricket World Cup – the final, semi-finals and matches involving England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • The Ryder Cup
  • The Open Golf Championship