The equality watchdog is facing concerns over links between the government and two of its leading figures as it prepares to investigate whether Tory welfare reforms have breached the human rights of disabled people.Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) revealed that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was to examine the impact of changes to the welfare system on independent living and poverty.The announcement was included in the watchdog’s new business plan for 2016-17 which was published by EHRC last week without any publicity.But concerns have now been raised about the impartiality of two key figures in the commission, who are both likely to play a key role in the inquiry.Disability Rights UK (DR UK) has come forward to raise concerns over the voting record of Lord [Chris] Holmes (pictured), the watchdog’s disability commissioner and a Conservative peer, who voted in the House of Lords in favour of those welfare reforms.But there are also concerns over David Isaac, the lawyer the government has chosen to take over as the commission’s new chair.Isaac, a former chair of the gay rights charity Stonewall, is a partner in law firm Pinsent Masons, and specialises in providing advice on “major public and private sector UK and global commercial and outsourcing projects”.His own profile on the firm’s website states that he “leads teams of lawyers on major projects” for, among others, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).But Pinsent Masons this week refused to say which outsourcing projects Isaac has worked on for DWP, leading to the possibility that he could have been involved in some of the reforms his own watchdog will now be investigating.Sue Bott, DR UK’s deputy chief executive, said Lord Holmes had voted in favour of the government’s welfare reforms, including cutting payments by £30 a week for new employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants placed in the work-related activity group.She said: “He is solidly in favour of the ESA cuts, he is solidly in favour of the cuts to PIP [that were later withdrawn by the government] and every other cut to disabled people’s income in recent time.”But she said these were measures the commission would be investigating as part of its probe into the human rights impact of the government’s welfare reforms, with Lord Holmes likely to take a lead role.She believes EHRC was pressured into carrying out the inquiry by the work of the House of Lords Equality Act 2010 and disability committee, which concluded last month that government spending cuts were having “a hugely adverse effect on disabled people”.Bott said: “We are concerned about the voting record of Lord Holmes because it is straight down the line voting for the government and we wonder therefore how disabled people are to have confidence in the inquiry whilst Lord Holmes has his position as a commissioner and chair of the EHRC’s disability committee.”She pointed out that other Conservative peers had voted against the government or abstained from votes on the welfare reforms.She said: “We think Lord Holmes has some questions to answer as to what his position is. I think that he needs to make his position clear so that it is all upfront and transparent.”Asked whether she would be concerned if Lord Holmes played a role in the investigation, she said: “I think he should consider his position and whether he feels able to lead such an inquiry, given that he is so clearly in favour of everything the government has done to date.”Asked whether she also had concerns about Isaac, she said: “It is important that disabled people have confidence in what the EHRC is doing and that there is clear independence and leadership.”EHRC plans to commission an assessment to “determine how changes to the welfare system have affected equality of opportunity and the human rights of people who share certain protected characteristics”.It also says in its business plan that it is “not clear whether the government’s reforms to tax, welfare and public spending have taken into account the cumulative impact of these changes on the standard of living of disabled people”.Asked about the impartiality of Lord Holmes and David Isaac, an EHRC spokesman said in a statement: “We have an ambitious programme of work to tackle discrimination and promote equality of opportunity based on comprehensive evidence about the barriers and unfairness faced by disabled people.“The fact our business plan includes these priorities underlines that we are fully independent, and we will show neither fear nor favour in how we do our work.“We have rigorous processes in place to avoid any conflicts of interest. Commissioners are required to comply with the principles of public life [first set out by Lord Nolan in 1995] and our code of conduct, with a register of interests publicly available.“The strength of our board comes from the diverse range of professional skills, experience, personal qualities and perspectives our commissioners bring to bear on our important work.”A Pinsent Masons spokesman said that the company’s “professional obligations governing client confidentiality mean we are unable to comment”.
A note from the editor:Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations. Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009. Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS… The government’s mainstream benefit sanctions regime has been discriminating against disabled people throughout nearly the whole of the last decade, according to new figures secured by Disability News Service (DNS).The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures, obtained through a freedom of information request, show that disabled people claiming the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) were more likely to have their benefits sanctioned than non-disabled people in all but two years.The figures show this has been true for every year from 2009 to 2018, except for 2017 and 2018 when the figures for disabled and non-disabled JSA claimants were almost identical.They provide further evidence for the call in the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition for DWP to be declared institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose*.The DNS research builds on work by the academic Ben Baumberg Geiger, from the University of Kent, which was published in February 2018 and reported figures for 2010 to 2014.It has taken DNS nearly 18 months to secure the necessary data from DWP – which has repeatedly breached its legal obligations to provide the information – to show whether the discrimination continued after 2014.The figures show that, when the JSA sanctions system was at its most discriminatory – in 2009 and 2013 – disabled people claiming jobseeker’s allowance were about 50 per cent more likely (2009) and a third more likely (2013) to have their benefits sanctioned than non-disabled people claiming the same benefit.The figures take a snapshot of how many disabled and non-disabled JSA claimants were sanctioned in one month – May – for every year and compare that with how many disabled and non-disabled people were claiming JSA in that month, using figures provided by DWP through the freedom of information request.When DWP’s sanctioning regime was at its most extreme, in 2013, more than seven per cent of disabled people claiming JSA were sanctioned in May of that year, compared with more than five per cent of non-disabled JSA claimants.In May 2013, more than 21,000 disabled people (21,526) claiming JSA had their benefits sanctioned for breaching conditions laid down by DWP.But even in 2018, when far fewer JSA claimants were being sanctioned, a disabled JSA claimant was still almost as likely to be sanctioned (0.41 per cent) as a non-disabled claimant (0.45 per cent).A DWP spokesperson did not dispute the DNS figures, but he said that DWP did not accept that the evidence showed the department was institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose.He also pointed out that the figures were drawn from “an amalgamation of two different sources”.He said: “Since 2012, of all decisions that have been referred to a decision maker, disabled claimants are less likely to get an adverse sanction decision imposed, compared to non-disabled claimants.“Furthermore, the likelihood of the outcome of a sanction referral being adverse [a recommendation that a claimant should be sanctioned being confirmed by DWP] is lower for disabled claimants than non-disabled claimants.”He added: “It is completely untrue to say that sanctions are applied more harshly to disabled people.“In fact those with a severe disability or health condition, who are not required to seek work, are not subject to sanctions at all.“Sanctions are only ever used where a claimant has failed to meet their agreed obligations without good reason, and any obligations will vary depending on an individual claimant’s circumstances.“The latest figures show that universal credit sanctions have fallen to the lowest rate on record, affecting fewer than three per cent of claimants who are subject to obligations for their benefits.”Although the DWP figures are important in showing how the department appeared to repeatedly discriminate against disabled people for nearly a decade, there are now crucial concerns over its failure to show how many disabled claimants of the new universal credit, which is gradually replacing JSA for most people, are being sanctioned.Anita Bellows, a researcher for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), this week told a parliamentary inquiry into the impact on children and disabled people of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 that many disabled people were “becoming invisible” on universal credit.She told the evidence session, chaired by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, that the lack of clear information about universal credit (UC) being provided by DWP made it impossible to tell how many disabled people were being sanctioned.Dr David Webster, a leading researcher on unemployment and sanctions at the University of Glasgow, made a similar point to the Commons work and pensions select committee last year.He warned then that it was impossible to tell from DWP statistics how many claimants of UC who had been sanctioned were sick and disabled people.A House of Commons briefing paper last September – drawing on Dr Webster’s research – said that sanction rates under UC appeared to be “several times higher” than under the benefits they were replacing.Bellows said: “It is not surprising to learn that disabled JSA claimants are being disproportionally sanctioned, as it has been a constant feature in the benefit system that some people, including disabled unemployed people, are seen as soft targets by the DWP: people who have learning difficulties, mental and physical health issues, along with people for whom English is their second language, etc.“What is worrying is that the introduction of UC has led to the invisibility of disabled people in the system. “Information given by UC statistics does not desegregate the data by claims, or by work capability assessment outcomes, but by ‘conditionality group’.“These different conditionality groups include disabled and non-disabled claimants, which makes it impossible to know the percentage of disabled people exposed to sanctions, or who are being sanctioned. “What it means is that it is more difficult to know what is happening to disabled people in the benefit system and to hold the DWP accountable for its performance, at a time where the DWP is more and more resorting to exemptions in order to refuse answering freedom of information requests.”*Sign the Jodey Whiting petition here. If you sign the petition, please note you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee
AWAY days are some of the best you can have with the Saints.Bouncing on the terraces at Warrington after the opening win of 2014… beating Salford Red Devils on a cold night… and that last gasp win at Castleford.Saints ‘on the road’ conjure memories that will never be forgotten – and this is the kit in which new experiences can be created.The Sky Blue body colour with Black shoulders and sky criss-cross details make it a cut above its peers in Super League.“Sky Blue and Black have been two of the most popular colours with fans on the Away kits we have produced over the years,” Steve Law, Merchandising Manager, explained. “We asked O’Neills to develop a kit that would feature both colours whilst ensuring it is modern, distinctive and retaining a vee that is synonymous with this club.“The black speckled vee highlights this superbly and the players that modelled the shirt said it was one of best they had seen.“We’re sure it will be equally as popular with the fans too.”As with the home shirt, it is available in pro, adult, kids, toddlers and ladies’ versions – and we have also reduced its price without neglecting its quality.An adult home shirt is £45 making it even better value for season ticket holders when you use your 10 per cent discount.Sizing and Price:Adult: Small to 7XL – £45Kids: 5-13 – £35Ladies: size 8 to 18 – £45Toddlers: From £30Shorts and socks are also available.The sizing is designed to be ‘snug’, so please refer to the guide on the Saints Superstore.Personalisation will be available but please note 2015 Squad List hasn’t been confirmed yet.You can pre-order the away kit by popping into the Saints Superstore or logging on here.We are expecting delivery in the first week of December.