Category Archives: Campaigns

Thank you for playing a crucial role in our Legal Aid campaign

Last December, Scope called on supporters to join our campaign to Save Legal Aid for disabled people.

The absence of this advice would have an adverse impact on thousands of disabled people who use legal aid to challenge decisions when they are let down by the system. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which has been making its way through Parliament, plans to remove legal aid support for those appealing welfare benefits decisions.

Thousands of campaigners, keen to protect the provision of legal aid for disabled people when appealing welfare benefits decisions, took their seat in Scope’s virtual House of Lords. By March, over 2,000 campaigners had taken part in our campaign, telling the Government the adverse consequences this would have for disabled people and helping to pile the pressure on Ministers to revise their plans.

This led to a real breakthrough when Lords from across all parties expressed their discontent with the Bill and defeated the Government’s plans by 237 votes to 198. This was a great success and was the culmination of the efforts shown by all campaigners. Together, we made sure the Lords understood the significance of this issue and forced the Government to think again about its plans.

On 17 April, when the Bill returned to the House of Commons, MPs once again debated the impact of removing legal aid for welfare benefits cases. This time, the Government listened to concerns that legal aid advice is needed for appealing incorrect benefits decisions although they would restrict the help available to just a small number of very complex benefits appeals. Although we welcome the Government moving on this issue, Scope had concerns about how this promise would practically work and how many disabled people it would reach, so we asked the House of Lords to push the Government to go further.

Disappointingly, on 25 April, the House of Lords voted against our amendment which would have kept legal aid advice for disabled people appealing incorrect welfare benefits decisions.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill has now moved on to the next stage and is soon to become law, without the crucial change that we were campaigning for.

Although we are disappointed with this outcome, Scope will be doing all that we can to press the Government to make sure that the concessions that they have made are workable in practice and help as many disabled people as possible.

The support of our campaigners was invaluable in forcing the Government to open up legal aid to a number of welfare benefits appeals, as well as putting them under considerable pressure to make more money available for the advice organisations who provide disabled people with much needed general advice.

The fight is not yet over, and everyone at Scope would like to thank you once again for playing a crucial role in this campaign.

Join our campaigns network

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill 2010-12

The Impact of Legal Aid cuts on Disability Equality North West

Guest post by by Melanie Close, Chief Executive of Disability Equality North West

Disability Equality North West is a Disabled People’s Organisation that started in 1996. We are run and controlled by disabled people and offer a wide range of advice and information services to support disabled people.

We are proud of the work that we do and the positive impact that the advice we are able to provide can have for disabled people. The advice that we are able to provide is largely thanks to the exceptional work by a dedicated team of staff and volunteers, all disabled people.

We know that this advice and information is invaluable, without it many disabled people would not get the information, support and benefits that they are legally entitled to. However, there are some things that we do not have the expertise to give advice on. For discrimination, human rights or complex welfare benefits cases, legal aid can be crucial in ensuring that disabled people get the correct advice in order to receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

However, the Government is proposing to remove social welfare cases from the scope of legal aid. The removal of legal aid for these cases will mean that the specialist advice provided by charities like the Citizens Advice Bureau, Law Centres and other independent advice agencies will not be available.

Furthermore, the proposals will mean that 78,000 disabled people will be denied specialist legal advice for complex welfare benefits problems – that is 58% of the total number of people affected.

As well as the devastating impact on disabled people, we have real concerns that such proposals will place real pressure on advice services such as Disability Equality.

We are anticipating a huge surge in demand for specialist advice that our staff and volunteer base does not have the specialist legal advice to deliver. Furthermore, when disabled people approach us for advice on a complex welfare benefits issue, there will be no-one to send them to so that they can receive the right advice.

The Bill is due back in the House of Commons on 17 April, where MPs will vote on whether to preserve this legal advice for disabled people. At Disability Equality North West, we have written to our local MP to make our concerns clear, and I would urge you to do the same to preserve legal aid for disabled people.

Under-representation of disabled people in public and political life

While disabled people have a vital contribution to make to public and political life, they are significantly under-represented throughout our political system. The reality is that Parliament is nowhere near reflecting the proportion of disabled people in the UK, and local government reveals a similar story in terms of the level of under-representation.

The consequence of this is that the quality of our government suffers from the existing lack of representation. As the Government presses ahead with a wealth of reforms that will have a real effect on disabled people’s lives, it is essential that their voices are being heard – now more than ever.

Tackling under-representation of disabled people

The different barriers that prevent disabled people from standing for elected positions have been widely examined by the Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary representation a few years ago. The Government has already acted upon some of the recommendations, for instance by committing to establish a dedicated fund to address the extra costs faced by disabled people in standing for election.

We know the additional financial disadvantage – arising, for example, from the cost of employing an interpreter or from the extra cost of taking a taxi rather than a bus due to the inaccessibility of transport – is a real concern to many disabled people who want to put themselves forward and stand for election. Over the last months, Scope has been working with the Government to help develop the fund.

With the fund set to become operational by later this year, this will no doubt represent a crucial moment in terms of improving disabled people’s participation in public life. In the meantime, we are seeing welcome progress on a number of other proposals.

Following the consultation last year, the Government is now publishing guidance for political parties to ensure that parties are clear about their legal obligations. Many disabled people fear that their reasonable adjustment requirements would not be met if they were to stand for election.

In light of this, the guidance is welcome indeed. All political parties have important roles to play in making sure that disabled people feel confident about seeking support and are provided with the reasonable adjustments they need, thus enabling them to perform to the best of their ability.

In addition, the Government is also currently working with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations to develop a training package for disabled people wishing to access elected office – which is due to be launched in the months to come.

We still have a long way to go before there is any prospect of achieving an equal representation of disabled people in public life. More needs doing, but as Lynne Featherstone, the Minister for Equalities, writes, “These policies are just the start of what we are doing to make Parliament and councils more representative of the people they serve.”

What is absolutely clear – and as the Minister acknowledges – is the positive effect this would bring in terms of decision-making: “As the Minister for Equalities, it seems obvious to me our democratic institutions make the best decisions when they have a mix of people with different skills, backgrounds and experiences, from right across the country.”

Scope’s call of Lords Help Us answered as Government is defeated

Members of the House of Lords once again gave the Government a further bloody nose over proposals to cut legal aid.

Peers are in the final stages of scrutinising the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which attempts to save £350 million by limiting the availability of legal aid. But so far the House of Lords is far from convinced.

Following three defeats on Monday night, the Government lost three more. Most significantly, the Lords voted to keep legal aid for people who need advice and support to appeal incorrect decisions about their benefits – most of these people are disabled.

This advice can be crucial in ensuring that disabled people receive the support to which they are entitled and, at a time of such a dramatic overhaul of the welfare benefits system, it is more important than ever before.

Scope and our supporters have been campaigning tirelessly on this issue – particularly calling on the Lords to save legal aid for disabled people in the innovative Lords Help Us campaign. And we were heard.

There were some particularly powerful speeches from Peers who demanded that the Government not take this vital advice away. Introducing the debate, Baroness Doocey said that “the decision to press ahead with the proposals… sends a very confused message to the disabled people that the Government have promised to protect.”

Lord Low added, “The proposal to remove legal aid for welfare benefits cases represents a triple whammy for disabled people”, while the Bishop of Exeter called on his own experience with his disabled daughter to call on the Government to save this legal advice, which gives “essential help to ensure that disabled people have access to the benefits and support to which they are entitled”.

This is a significant victory for campaigners, and we are now determined that the Government sits up and thinks about the impact that this Bill will have on disabled people.

However, the battle is far from over. The Bill will now return to the House of Commons where we can expect the Government to try to force through the changes. We saw the Government use ‘financial privilege’ to reject the changes that the House of Lords made to the Welfare Reform Bill, and we must work to keep up the pressure on MPs to make sure they realise how important this help and advice is to disabled people so that this not repeated.

We called upon Peers to help us save legal aid, and they did. Now we must ask MPs to finish the job.

Ensuring support for disabled people and their families

Government plans to radically overhaul Disability Living Allowance and replace it with a new payment, Personal Independence Payment, got the go-ahead last week. The changes will see people who were previously entitled to Disability Living Allowance having support withdrawn as new assessment criteria is start to bite.

Both DLA and PIP are designed to help disabled people pay for the extra costs their impairment incur, but I struggle to see how this can be the reality when an estimated half a million disabled people stand to lose support when new eligibility criteria come in to force in 2013.

Over recent weeks the papers have been full of disabled people’s stories and their concerns for the future, but we must not forget that many of these people have children (young and old). What will the impact be on their lives if their parents lose the support that gets them up in the morning?

The stakes have never been higher for disabled people and their children. Both my parents are disabled and I am desperately worried about what the future holds for us all if the new PIP assessment sees their support cut.

As DLA is my parents’ only source of income, the impact of any change to the amount they receive could have a devastating impact on the whole family. We only just manage to pay for the basics as it is, to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. I’m really worried about what the future may bring…

I’m determined to ensure the Government understands the impact of these reforms on families across the country. Time is running out to influence their plans.

The Government’s new PIP consultation is likely to be our last chance to have our say before the changes become law and I need your help.

I’m looking for other children (young and old) of disabled people to help me put together a joint response to these proposals that leave them in no doubt of the impact the changes will have. If you share my concerns please get in touch with any comments, stories or concerns you have that you think might persuade the Government to think again.

The issue of who gets what support and how this is decided has long since moved on from being a debate about public finances. It is now, in my opinion, a struggle to defend the human rights and the dignity of people most in need of our support and a debate in which we should all engage.

If you would like to get involved, please get in touch via the campaigns network. Email campaigns@scope.org.uk

Access to places of worship

Guest post from Angela Dobson

Imagine not being able to visit the places that are important to you. Imagine the frustration of trying to go somewhere and finding that you can’t get in while other people can, where the people who work there have no interest in helping you and end up leaving you out in the cold.

That’s what happened to me when I went to visit St Paul’s Cathedral in December.

The wheelchair-accessible side entrance to St Paul’s is usually locked, which is frustrating for anyone wanting to come in that way. As I planned to visit, I called up and told the cathedral I was coming, once several days before and again when I was on my way so that they could make the entrance available. However, when I got there, it was locked. The pavement by the front entrance was blocked off and I had to go into the road to reach the dropped curve at the front of the cathedral. My support worker went up to speak to a member of staff and was informed that there was no room in the cathedral. She was then ignored when she asked why the accessible entrance is always locked.

This is not the first time I’ve been unable to go into St Paul’s, where some of the people who work there have been very unhelpful. It is frustrating and dispiriting not being able to access such an important building that ought to be open to everyone. I think it’s vital that places of worship are made to be accessible to everyone who wishes to visit them, and many places could do more to make their spaces accessible to disabled people.

I’d like to hear other people’s stories about access to places of worship. To support my campaign, email campaigns@scope.org.uk with your experiences.

Employment Support Allowance appeal

Guest post from Panther

After having sent all the paperwork and extra medical evidence in for an appeal in November I still hadn’t heard anything so I spoke to the appeals person from my welfare rights team who had helped me fill the forms in yesterday and they advised me to ring the benefits people. Although the welfare rights person is acting on my behalf he said he wouldn’t be able to phone as I wasn’t with him to answer the security questions and give my permission for him to talk to them for me.

For 10 minutes yesterday I was left hanging on the phone while I waited to speak to an advisor, when I eventually got to speak to someone I was told that yes there was a note on my file that said I had requested an appeal and she could see the letter on the system that had been sent in dated 21st November 2011. The advisor told me it can take months for them to reach a decision when they look at your ESA claim again but she would put a link through to the department dealing with it and ask them to contact me to give me an update.

So this morning I got a phonecall from a DWP office in Hyde why I was getting a phonecall from an office in Hyde when I’d been told to send all the paperwork to Cosham I don’t know. The person at the Hyde office told me there was no note on the system saying that I had requested an appeal and that they hadn’t received any paperwork relating to it. They were going to put another link through to Cosham to see if they had the paperwork somewhere.

I then made another phonecall to the DWP on the number I’d rung yesterday and after another wait of over 10 minutes I was told by another advisor who I discovered aren’t advisors at all just call centre workers that the Hyde office are right there is no record of me asking for an appeal or any of the paperwork that I’d sent in to support my appeal. After a very stressful phonecall where I got very upset arguing how could one person tell me there were notes of an appeal being requested plus when I said a letter was sent requesting for an appeal and that letter was dated 21st November I was told yes I can see that, in less than 24 hours all these things have disappeared!!

I’ve now got an appeal form being sent out to me so have to arrange another visit from the welfare rights appeal person again and have been advised by the call centre that I can either send it back in the envelope provided or I can go to my local job centre. But even going to my local jobcentre isn’t straight forward I can’t just pop in there when it is done I have to phone the call centre back and make an appointment to go into the jobcentre because that is the only way I will be given a receipt for the paperwork I take in. How hard can it be for someone to write a receipt?

Apparently on this second appeal paperwork I have to state that this is a second request for an appeal and we want it accepted because the first paperwork was lost. I’ve got to do this because by only now finding out that none of the appeal stuff was received I am passed the time period I had in which to request an appeal.

This afternoon as I sat still thinking over all I’ve heard this morning I decided to try and speak to the Cosham office so I rang again and yet again was in a queue for over 10 minutes to find out that you can’t be put through to a specific benefit office it all has to go via the call centre who put a link on the system then asking that particular office to call you back!

By talking to this third person I learnt that at the call centre they only have access to certain things on the system they are unable to see any correspondence that has been sent in etc so she can’t understand how the first person I spoke to told me she could see the letter I was talking about.

I also finally had it explained to me why there were two offices involved, if I was a new claimant of ESA then my claim would be dealt with in Cosham that’s why letters I receive have Cosham’s address on it. But because I am moving from Incapacity Benefit to ESA it is dealt with by Hyde.

I did get told this afternoon that the person I’d spoken to this morning had put a link into Cosham and they have said they never received any of my paperwork regarding an appeal.

So now I’ve been advised that when I’ve filled out the appeal form and got any supporting evidence together to phone and make the appointment to go to the job centre and get them to fax it over to where it needs to go to as that will be the quickest and safest way of ensuring it is received.

I suggested to the call centre worker that perhaps letters of acknowledgement should be sent out for example when I do a DLA form I receive a letter to say they have received it and it should be processed in X number of weeks. At least if ESA did that I would of known within 2 weeks of send all the information in that my request hadn’t been received and could of acted on it sooner. I said this whole change over of benefits is stressful enough without having to deal with hearing different things from various people when you phone up and paperwork getting lost. The call centre worker agreed with me and said many of the suggestions disabled people had made the call centre workers agreed with but they were just call centre workers on behalf of DWP so couldn’t do anything

Now I just have to hope when I’ve filled everything in for the appeal that it is accepted and then wait for the outcome.

Panther

Shining the spotlight on cinema accessibility

Our Campaigns Department has teamed up with the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s Trailblazers to try to tackle the issue of cinema access, following two separate campaigns run by the charities earlier this year.

The two campaigns had led to approaches from the cinema industry to discuss our respective concerns so Scope and Trailblazers have been working together to present a series of joint proposals to the industry.

We met with representatives from the three largest UK cinema chains – Odeon, Vue and Cineworld – as well as the Cinema Exhibitors Association, the body representing more or less all the cinemas in the country.

There was a very positive atmosphere in the room and while the disability charities obviously approached the issue of access from a different perspective to the industry, there did seem to be a real willingness to listen and learn on both sides.

The topics discussed were influenced directly by what you told us you wanted to see improved at a local level and included physical access to cinemas, the availability of access information online, and the attitude of staff towards disabled people. It was great to hear about some innovative things the industry is doing to improve disability access, but also to quiz them directly about some of the things you’ve told us they could do better.

The suitability of wheelchair spaces in many cinemas was an issue you, and therefore we, were keen to address. The industry said that accessibility in their cinemas was a top consideration. In planning new buildings they said they always tried hard to meet their obligations under the DDA (now the Equality Act). However, they said that even with new buildings there were still issues of the most cost-effective way to use space. Basically, this means that they felt making better provision for people using wheelchairs would come at the expense of the overall seating capacity of the cinema and that they had to balance the need for inclusion with their business need to maximise customer-generated income.

We told them about some of the difficulties you been having with awkwardly-positioned seating at the front and sometimes the extreme edges of the cinema. They said that the industry tries to offer flexibility in seating but that in some older locations this was not always possible. They said that they recognise the preference for seating in the middle of the auditorium to avoid a strained neck rather than at the front but said that the arena-style seating of many modern cinemas make this impractical and expensive to implement (this is partly because the gradient inside the auditorium can be very steep). We asked whether it would be possible for them to include ramps up to the middle area of seating. They said that this would involve taking out seats which would have implications on the numbers of tickets they could sell.

On the issue of providing tickets for carers and support workers, the news was more positive. The CEA card allows for disabled people to purchase tickets for carers at a reduced rate. The industry said they are keen to expand the scheme. We highlighted the importance of online booking facilities in order to make the use of the CEA card easier. Online booking for CEA card users is something that Cineworld already offer on their website and the other industry representatives were keen to follow suit if this approach proved successful.

Many of you told us that you found it difficult to find out online which cinemas and screens were accessible. We said that it was important to improve the access information so that disabled customers can have all the facts ahead of their visit and can avoid the ‘awkward unknown’ or a wasted journey. They said the industry is keen to improve the access information online and are looking at ways to improve the way it is presented. We will keep you posted as to how they get on.

The attitude of staff towards disabled customers was another issue you said was important. We highlighted this and they said they were keen to make sure every customer enjoyed a great experience in their cinemas. We suggested that it might make their training more ‘real’ for their staff if they were able to involve disabled people in the training sessions.

They said they were committed to offering high-quality disability equality training to all of their staff at every level and that they would work with us and disabled people’s organisations to improve its quality and relevance.

Overall the meeting itself was a positive one. It’s good to hear that the industry is committed to addressing your concerns. We will continue to work with them to ensure they understand the importance of accessibility to disabled people and will keep you updated as to how we get on. In particular, we will be pressing for changes to be made as quickly as possible as many disabled people are missing out on the full social experience of going to the cinema right now.

Talking with the industry is only the first step, we are absolutely committed to making sure that they turn words into action, but we need your experiences and your stories to help us do this. Keep sharing your stories with us atcampaigns@scope.org.uk