News analysis on new assessments for disabled people
receiving incapacity benefit, and below a closer look at the new
Homelessness Bill, and new legislation to ensure disabled children
receive the same opportunities at school as their
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Confused signs on benefit proposal
Three-yearly assessments for people on incapacity benefit have
sparked anger among many. But the Department for Work and Pensions
may take a softer line, Joanna Waters
A letter from disability groups landed on Tony Blair’s desk a
few days ago, taking up his offer to discuss the new three-yearly
assessments for people on incapacity benefit.
The announcement last week came out of the blue and received a
hostile reception. But anger is giving way to incomprehension as
disability organisations and Labour backbenchers search for the
real motives behind the change.
With the government sticking to the line that there is an army
of malingerers, and disability campaigners dismissing their view as
ignorant, the meeting promises to be a lively one.
Challenged by frustrated Labour MPs during Prime
Minister’s Questions last week, Blair said: “People were
transferred on to incapacity benefit in the 1980s to disguise the
true levels of unemployment.
“Therefore, it is important for new claimants that we do not
have people on benefit for 10, 15 or 20 years, but that we are
prepared to make sure that those who take from the state have that
money justified.” He was happy to meet disability groups, he said,
but remained unapologetic about the reforms.
Scope’s benefit adviser Mike Hurdiss dismisses the
malingerer theory. “It is based on a number of myths and fallacious
assumptions. To believe that there is an army of hidden unemployed
people is ignorant. Of the thousands of people I have advised I
have only come across a handful who were stretching it a little
bit,” he said.
Incapacity benefit starts at £53 a week, rising to £62
a week after six months, and £66.75 after a year. Hurdiss says
it is difficult to get the benefit in the first place because of
the rigorous tests and points out that 50 per cent of appeals
against refusals are successful.
“If the government is concerned about the legitimacy of
people’s claims they should strengthen the test. What they
are proposing to do adds little value,” Hurdiss argues.
Fraud can be hard to detect, but Lorna Reith, director of the
Disability Alliance, said claimants’ cases were already
reviewed regularly, at six-month, 12-month or 18-months
“Most people are already seen within three years, except for the
most severely disabled,” she adds. She anticipates with keen
interest a government report on incapacity benefit fraud, which is
Blair’s Daily Mail language, encapsulated in the phrase “those
who take from the state”, has prompted speculation that he wants to
reach out to middle England.
Reith is not convinced. “They have just won the election. Now
isn’t the time to be bothered about boosting their electoral
theory is that “when government’s change benefit
regulations, they normally protect existing recipients and apply
the new rules to new claimants.”
“If you have three-year awards, it means everyone effectively
has to reapply. This could mean that everybody is put on to any new
New arrangements include means-testing and tighter eligibility
criteria for new claimants, introduced in 1999, which angered
But the messages coming out of the Department for Work and
Pensions are softer than Blair’s. A spokesperson described the
three-yearly assessment as a “work-focussed interview”. Interviews
would be offered to people whose medical examinations showed their
health had made some improvement, she says, adding: “The interviews
at the end of three years are about what people can do. They
aren’t about withdrawing benefit. They are for people who
have regained some fitness and might like to do some work.”
It is too late to appease Labour rebels, already twitchy about
the government’s private sector agenda. The proposals, part
of the new Welfare Reform Bill, will get a rocky ride through
Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, said: “The idea
that disabled people are not in work because they are malingering
is gross.” Lord Ashley of Stoke, leading disability campaigner,
went further. “It’s war.”
New streetwise policy
Lord Falconer has moved from domes to homes to steer the Homes
Bill through parliament. Gideon Burrows
reports on the benefits the bill will bring to the
lives of homeless people.
Delighted and jubilant are not words Lord Charlie Falconer will
be used to hearing. After two years being pilloried as minister for
the Dome, his appointment as housing minister must be a refreshing
Homelessness charities Crisis, Shelter and Centrepoint have all
warmly welcomed the Homelessness Bill. The legislation was the
first to be to be heard by ministers in the newly elected Commons,
and Lord Falconer will have the pleasure of guiding it into law
some time in the autumn.
In the bill, which was originally the second part of the wider
ranging Homes Bill that was shelved so Labour could get on with
winning the election, local authorities receive more responsibility
for dealing with homelessness but also more flexibility. Homeless
people get more rights and those in priority need are guaranteed
housing. The emphasis is on prevention and partnership, rather than
fire-fighting and fragmentation. No wonder both campaigners and
service providers are pleased.
Typically, New Labour emphasises a joined-up strategy. Within a
year of the bill’s enactment, local authorities will have to
draw up an action plan to tackle homelessness on their patch. They
will be obliged to draw together social services, health workers,
home providers and voluntary organisations to find the most
effective response to local need, and work with them to implement
and review the strategy.
Restrictive red-tape is being torn up to allow a more flexible
approach. The requirement for housing authorities to maintain a
housing waiting list, even if they have no-one waiting, is being
repealed. So is the ban on using council-owned housing stock as
temporary accommodation. Local authorities will have a duty to
provide information and advice to non-priority housing cases, but
are encouraged do more if they have the resources.
John Beer, chairperson of the health and social inclusion
committee of the Association of Directors of Social Services, says:
“Social workers are in the best position to determine
people’s vulnerability. I think social workers will be
pleased to be involved.”
The bill increases local authority responsibilities towards
vulnerable people, and the length of time they are responsible. The
criteria for “priority need” are still to be finalised, but 16- and
17-year-olds, under-21s leaving care and people with an
institutionalised background, such as ex-prisoners and soldiers,
will be included.
Housing authorities will be obliged to house these priority
cases. Where previously local authorities could decide to exclude
groups of people, for instance those with a history of late rent
payment, they will now have to consider each case on its own
merits. Only anti-social behaviour will be concrete grounds for
Applicants must be placed in accommodation appropriate to them.
They will have a right to know how their application is progressing
and any reasons for rejection.
They will have a right to challenge decisions over their status
as a “priority case”, as well as where they are housed. A judge
will be able to rule that a client is housed while any challenge is
The bill also abolishes an anomaly in the 1996 Housing Act that
forced people onto the streets if they refused accommodation they
felt was unsuitable. Currently, if a person wants a review of the
accommodation they have been offered they have to refuse it, which
ends a council’s obligation to house them. Under the new
bill, a client can move into the accommodation but still seek a
review of its suitability.
The bill also makes special reference to those fleeing violence
and harassment. For the first time they will be regarded as
priority homeless, a move that has been welcomed by women’s
The bill is not without its problems, and campaigners will be
lobbying for provisions to be added during consultation. Shelter is
concerned that non-priority homeless people may not be given enough
help at a local level. The bill only obliges housing authorities to
give advice and help to people not considered priority cases.
“Our evidence is that the standard of the advice and assistance
provided by local authorities varies greatly,” says director, Chris
Holmes. “In some cases it may amount to as little as being given a
list of bed and breakfast hotels.”
Gwyneth Taylor, head of housing at the Local Government
Association, predicts disputes over allocation of housing and
people’s status as priority cases. “Making decisions about
who can cope on their own is very subjective, and I see lots of
challenges ahead in the courts,” she explains. “That could
potentially be very expensive.”
Other problems could be a definition of “violence” that entitles
people, who are at risk from it, to housing, and questions still
remain about what status the children of anti-social parents will
have with local authorities.
Stephen Byers, secretary of state for local government,
transport and the regions, acknowledges some things still need to
be ironed out. He told MPs the government would consult and issue
guidance later in the year.
But despite the problems, homelessness charities are keen for
the bill to become law.
Chris Holmes of Shelter, says: “We have already made plans for
training local authority staff and those agencies who can make this
bill make a real difference to people’s lives.”
The government seems determined to ensure the safety net for the
homeless will be stronger than ever before.
Will new code crack discrimination?
Children with special needs who attend mainstream schools have
often had to endure discrimination which has left them excluded. A
proposed code of practice, backed by a recently passed act, looks
set to change this state of affairs. Sarah Wellard
A code of practice launched for consultation last week promises
to revolutionise the way schools respond to children with
The guidance, published by the Disability Rights Commission,
sets out in detail how schools should implement the provisions of
the Special Needs and Disability Act 2001, which received royal
assent in May.
In essence, the act attempts to level the playing field between
disabled pupils and non-disabled pupils. It outlaws discrimination
against disabled pupils in admissions procedures and in
school-based activities and excursions. It creates a tribunal to
offer redress to pupils who may have been discriminated against.
And, significantly, it puts a duty on local authorities to increase
access to schools for disabled children.
The act has been widely welcomed by campaigners, who believe
tackling discrimination in education is the key to promoting a more
Caroline Cooke, policy officer at Scope, says: “It’s going
to make a big difference for disabled children. Schools will no
longer be able to exclude children from any aspect of school life.”
She adds: “It’s hard to get a national picture of the extent
of discrimination, but we still hear about lots of disabled
children denied places on grounds of cost.”
Phillippa Russell, director of the Council for Disabled Children
and a disability rights commissioner, explains that the principle
behind the new legislation is to promote inclusion in its broadest
sense. “A child can be in the same class as their peers but still
be excluded from many activities, such as sport and after school
clubs. Inclusion can involve providing a separate unit within a
school, for example for hearing-impaired children to learn British
The new legislation also has the potential to help troubled
children who may be experiencing severe problems in school because
of emotional and behavioural difficulties. Russell says: “There
will be debates about whether they are covered by this legislation,
but I think many children with emotional and behavioural problems
meet the criteria of disability.”
Under the new provisions, schools will be required to plan ahead
to take account of the needs of disabled pupils, and to make
provision accordingly. Russell points to the experience of
Australia and the US, where similar legislation already applies.
She says: “We will get a much more purposeful and proactive
approach to looking at barriers to inclusion.”
Under the new act, the presumption is that all disabled children
will be able to attend mainstream schools.
But many parents of disabled children still want separate
schools. Sometimes this stems from fears about bullying and how
children will cope in a mainstream school. And often parents
believe resources in mainstream schools will be inadequate and a
special school is the best way for their child to get the extra
support they need.
Russell acknowledges that resources are a major issue, but
believes a great deal may be achieved by training to challenge
stereotypes. She says: “Negative attitudes are often the main
barrier to disabled children being included. People make
assumptions about health and safety, about expense and about
disruption to other children’s education.”
David Potter, head of information and publications at the
National Autistic Society, agrees that awareness training for
teachers is vital. He explains: “There’s been an increase in
the numbers of children with autism spectrum disorders attending
mainstream schools. This is welcomed by parents as long as teachers
have specific training to understand children’s needs. But
it’s a mixed picture.”
A survey carried out by the society1
found that many parents of children with autistic spectrum
disorders reported problems for children in mainstream schools.
Twenty nine per cent of more able children with autism had been
excluded at some time. Parents were most likely to be happy with
their child’s education where they were attending
autism-specific units in mainstream or special schools.
Even higher functioning autistic children need to be constantly
told what is happening in school and are vulnerable to bullying
because other children perceive them as being different. So the
code of practice’s recommendations on training and
implementing anti-bullying policies should make a difference.
On the other hand, for the most severely autistic children, it
is debatable whether mainstream schooling has much to offer. Potter
says: “Parents with children in the lower functioning range often
don’t see the possibility of inclusion and feel their
children would not understand what inclusion means.”
1 T Chambers, Inclusion and Autism, Is It
Working? National Autistic Society, 2000
Why code is good news for children with special needs
A new code of practice on special educational needs (SEN) is due
to come into effect for the start of the school term in September.
The code will set out schools’ and councils’
responsibilities for identifying children with SEN and taking
Experts believe the code will mean fewer children receiving
statements of SEN. Since the first code of practice was introduced
in 1994, the numbers of children receiving statements has been
rising. In January 2001, 260,500 children or 3.1 per cent of the
school population had statements of SEN, compared with 235,000
pupils or 2.9 per cent of the school population in January 1997. It
is not clear that this trend is because of rise in children with
difficulties. A spokesperson from the Department for Education and
Skills explained that earlier identification of pupils with SEN may
have increased the statementing rate. There has also been a rise in
the diagnosis of conditions such as autism, and a rise in the
numbers of children with behavioural difficulties.
The trend may also reflect parents’ concerns that their
children’s needs will not be met without a statement. At the
moment, if a child has special needs but does not have a statement
the school is expected to pay for specialist support or equipment
out of their own budget. Once a child has a statement, the local
authority is required to provide the resources to fund the extra
Some education authorities already provide extensive support to
children with SEN without going through the lengthy and
bureaucratic process of drawing up a statement. Under the new code
of practice, all authorities will be expected to move in this
direction, giving greater responsibility to individual schools.
Phillippa Russell, director of the Council for Disabled
Children, believes the government’s motivation for revising
the code of practice is not to cut costs, as some have claimed, but
to channel more money into support for children. She says: “Some
children will always need a statement, because their needs are too
complex for schools to be expected to plan and provide for on their
own. But I hope the new code will mean more support being given to
children much earlier, without people having to go through