Access to DWP buildings

P V Sutton made this Freedom of Information request to Department for Work and Pensions

The request was successful.

From: P V Sutton

Delivered

Dear Department for Work and Pensions,

I notice from your pdf file "MAC Info" that several of the medical assessment centres are part of DWP buildings. I also know that the ATOS website says,

"Not all the assessment centre locations that we use are accessible for customers who have difficulty or are unable to manage stairs. The majority of the centres are government owned, often co-located with Job centres.

"If an assessment centre is not on the ground floor and you cannot use the stairs in the event of an emergency, we will look at an alternative venue."
(http://www.atoshealthcare.com/claimants/...)

By my calculation about half the MACs listed as not accessible to those in wheelchairs are in DWP buildings.

I think that ATOS have said elsewhere that this restriction is due, in part, to a re-assessment by the DWP of Health and Safety regulations.

1] Does this access restriction apply only to those reliant on wheelchairs, or to anyone who would have substantial difficulty managing stairs - perhaps due to arthritis or COPD - who might be a serious obstruction to others in the case of emergency evacuation?

2] Does this restriction apply only to medical assessment centres, but to all DWP buildings?

3] Does this restriction apply only to visitors, or does it apply to staff as well?

4] Is this change in regulations part of a DWP initiative, or is it the result of a change in public policy? If so is the restriction likely to apply to buildings of other government departments?

Yours sincerely,

P V Sutton

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From: P V Sutton

Delivered

Dear DWP freedom-of-information-requests,

I am still waiting for a response to my FoI request about access to DWP and other public buildings.

I believe that you are supposed to respond within 20 working days. By my calculation 30 working days have now passed, or 6 calendar weeks, and I would like to know if a response to my query is imminent.

If it would speed matters up, then the omission of a answer to question 4 - about a wider implication for public policy - would be acceptable in the short term. I will then re-submit that question as a separate request later.

I hope to have a truly prompt reply to this query.

Yours sincerely,

P V Sutton

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From: P V Sutton

Delivered

To: Department for Work and Pensions Subject: Internal review of Freedom of Information request - Access to DWP buildings Dear Department for Work and Pensions,

Please pass this on to the person who conducts Freedom of Information reviews.

I am writing to request an internal review of Department for Work and Pensions's handling of my FOI request 'Access to DWP buildings'.

I quote from http://www.dwp.gov.uk/freedom-of-informa...

"How long should I wait for a reply? A reply should be sent to you within 20 working days of the Department receiving your request. If your request is complicated we may need longer that 20 working days but if this is the case we will let you know within the original 20 day period and will keep you informed of the progress of your request."

PLEASE READ THE WHOLE OF THIS MESSAGE BEFORE TRYING TO REPLY

You confirmed via an automated reply that you had received this request on 3 September.

I received no reply from you by 15 October 2012, or 30 working days after your initial reply. I left it that long as I had no wish to harass you after an exact 20 days, even though you had made no reply. You had not even contacted me within the 20 day period to tell me that you were having problems finding the information I had requested - as you say you will in your own guide.

On 15 October, having given you 10 extra days' grace, I wrote again - not as a complaint, but as a reminder. I also said that of the 4 related questions I had asked, the last could be omitted. I realise that it might require more extensive enquiries than the other three questions and it might be better if it were treated as a separate enquiry.

It is now 25 working days since my reminder email and a total of 55 working days since you received my initial request. I think this is quite long enough for you to have sent at least a partial reply to the questions I asked. There is no excuse for you not having replied at all - even to explain the delay. You have clearly passed the legally established deadlines for a reply.

In fact some of the delay cannot be excused at all. In the 10 weeks, there has been some information put into the public domain. One benefit claimant contacted their MP, Sir Alan Meale, on this issue and the DWP gave him a statement which included the following,

"adjustments can and must be made such as home visits and alternative centres, with the latter being considered for those members of the public that cannot use the stairs without being at risk to themselves or other building occupants. **Claimants who are considered to be at risk during such an evacuation from premises are excluded from access to areas above the ground floor **, because in the event of such emergencies lifts cannot be used during such an evacuation"

For your information I will repeat my first 3 questions:

1] Does this access restriction apply only to those reliant on wheelchairs, or to anyone who would have substantial difficulty managing stairs - perhaps due to arthritis or COPD - who might be a serious obstruction to others in the case of emergency evacuation?

2] Does this restriction apply only to medical assessment centres, but to all DWP buildings?

3] Does this restriction apply only to visitors, or does it apply to staff as well?

Question 1 seems to be answered by your statement to Sir Alan Meale, since the wording does not mention wheelchairs just "Claimants who are considered to be at risk during such an evacuation," but I would like you to confirm this point specifically.

Question 2 is a natural follow-on from the issues of Medical Assessment Centres. If those offices, so much visited by those with limited mobility, cannot be accessed then the rest must surely follow. I do not know how far the remit of the DWP extends, but surely this must also apply to Job Centres and all offices where the public might be called to attend, such as Benefit Fraud offices.

In both cases there is a clear public interest in having these restrictions clearly stated as soon as possible. Mobility-restricted claimants or visitors to DWP offices should be told in advance whether they will be restricted to ground-floor offices. Presumably staff would want to know this information when making appointments.

The matter of wheelchair and other access is being made on Health & Safety grounds. It seems logical to me that such rules would also extend to staff, as their H&S is also a prime duty of the DWP as an employer. A quick check with your H&S experts should produce a simple answer.

These questions are therefore clearly in the public interest and do not require the collecting of evidence or difficult cross-referencing. These issues are not a matter of government policy, but of a judgement made by your in-house professionals, and about which you have already issued some fairly circumscribed guidelines to an MP. I do not have the entirety of your reply to Sir Alan available, but presumably you do.

You have, I consider, no good reasons for refusing to respond at all three to these questions on any of your standard grounds. They are not difficult to answer, do not involve any other department, do not need the manipulation of figures or lists, are not costly, policy in the making or matters which should be kept confidential.

I would therefore like to have the DWP's handling of this FoI request investigated as soon as possible with the result - I hope - of them sending me as soon as possible three straight answers, for example, (1) Yes, (2) Yes and (3) Yes, but we are pretending that it doesn't.

A full history of my FOI request and all correspondence is available on the Internet at this address: http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/ac...

Yours sincerely,

P V Sutton

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From: DWP freedom-of-information-requests
Department for Work and Pensions

This is an automated confirmation that your request for information has
been accepted by the DWP FoI mailbox.

By the next working day your request will be forwarded to the relevant
information owner within the Department who will respond to you direct. 

If your email is a Freedom of Information request you can normally
expect a response within 20 working days.

Should you have any further queries in connection with this request do
please contact us.

For further information on the Freedom of Information Act within DWP
please click on the link below.

[1]http://www.dwp.gov.uk/freedom-of-informa...

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Jim Otram left an annotation ()

The DWP's blatant and extensive contempt for the statutory time-limits really has become outrageous.

The ICO has been fully and repeatedly informed about this. It really is time it stepped in to enforce the law. It has ample powers: it should flaming well use them.

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P V Sutton left an annotation ()

I deliberately did not jump on them the minute they passed the 20 days deadline since I know that DWP staff are over-worked (and under-trained) because of the current combination of foolishness, over-ambition and malice at the top. And by "at the top" I mean not only the government but the DWP's own senior management.

So I cut them some slack. And by sending up a follow-up email rather than a request for a review I hoped to jiggle their (collective) elbow without involving yet another official.

Next time they go over the 20 day limit I shall be back to them as soon as it is convenient for me. I suspect that "is not complaining immediately" does not translate as "is trying to be reasonable" but as "mug".

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J Newman left an annotation ()

For what it is worth, in my own experience you are exactly right. The only communication that receives any attention at all is a formal IRR and any generosity on your part will sadly never be reciprocated. We just have to play it by the book.

By contrast, I have a request lodged with the ICO itself and (not surprisingly I guess), the response is perfect in every respect – letter & spirit of the legislation. The law is straightforward and there is no good reason why DWP could not achieve the same standard. Better quality initial responses does of course = far fewer IRRs, but as they have not yet learnt this same simple lesson with WCAs and appeals it is a long way of here!

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From: DWP DWP Medical Services Correspondence
Department for Work and Pensions


Attachment 3763 3396 P Sutton Response.pdf
18K Download View as HTML


Dear Mr Sutton

Please find enclosed a response to your request for information
under the Freedom of Information Act by the Health and
Disability Assessments (Operations) Correspondence Team Freedom
of Information Officer, who apologises for the delay in
providing you with a response.

<<3763-3396 P Sutton Response.pdf>>
Kind regards

Health & Disability Assessment (Operations) Team, Department
for Work and Pensions, Room 306, Block 3, Norcross, Norcross
Lane, Blackpool, FY5 3TA

Please consider the environment before printing

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P V Sutton left an annotation ()

There's some stuff on the Beeb website yesterday

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20...

"The Commons Work and Pensions Committee heard evidence from [Employment minister] Mr Hoban, who said: "There's a challenge in ensuring interview centres are accessible. What we don't want to do is to get people to turn up to centres that they can't effectively access."

Curious that the reply here and the appearance of a minister in front of the Select Committee should coincide.

The answer when it arrived was simple and straightforward and could have been trotted out as soon as someone had been allocated to write a reply.

So possibilities are

1] that they hadn't got round to working out what to say to anyone until the last minute (which is credible) or

2] it's just coincidence and the delay was due to short-staffing at the DWP FoI department (which is also credible) or

3] they didn't want this reply out in the open in enough time for the MPs to have seen it and asked some awkward follow-up questions (which I think is also credible - given the tricks just exposed over the NHS "consultation".)

There are some really juicy follow-up questions waiting as well.

You will see that it isn't only wheelchair users who are affected, but anyone who would have problems getting down stairs during a fire. Start making a list of all the conditions, physical and mental covered by that rubric.

Now start making a list of all those building to which this restriction might apply.

NOTE: This doesn't usually affect hospitals as they have lots of staff trained for this sort of thing - I think.

But the tower block which holds all our local government offices ...

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P V Sutton left an annotation ()

P S Also worth noting, however, is that these restrictions do not apply to *permanent* staff in any organisation.

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John Slater left an annotation ()

I wonder if we should be looking at the examination rooms as well. Some of the so-called tests that HCP use (sight and hearing test for example) require specific distances and lighting for the tests to be valid. It was certainly true in my case that the room did not meet those requirements. It is only my opinion but surely this must invalidate the tests. I wonder if there are other problems with the examination rooms that called the whole WCA into question?

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J Newman left an annotation ()

The irony is that DWP uses the principle that access and working environments generally have been developed to the point where they no longer place disabled people at any form of disadvantage, which in turn forms the basis of scoping descriptors within the WCA and incorporating the surrepticous wheelchair assessment.

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P V Sutton left an annotation ()

Though see reply that permanent staff have a personalised evacuation plan. Still, agency staff, temps and - presumably - anyone on a "work placement" would not be covered by that provision.

Still I'd be interested to know whether all those employees who might have difficulty on the stairs during a fire do in fact have such plans in place. But asking any organisation, "Do your staff stick to the rules" is not going to get a useful answer!

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From: P V Sutton

Delivered

Dear DWP DWP Medical Services Correspondence,

Re: Your Ref: VTR 3763-3396

Thank you for your helpful reply. It may seem a little churlish, but I can't help wondering why it took you 60 working days (and 2 interventions from me) to get this information out, when you clearly already had to hand.

I would also like to add one additional FoI request. Are those who make appointments, not just for WCA assessments but all the other interviews, document checks etc, trained to ask for every appointment whether the person is capable of descending stairs in a brisk, safe and orderly fashion in the event of a fire or other emergency. This would be necessary if they ever had to work in offices on upper floors which the public might need to access.

Yours sincerely,

P V Sutton

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From: DWP DWP Medical Services Correspondence
Department for Work and Pensions


Attachment IR692 IR775 P Sutton Final Response.pdf
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Dear P Sutton

Please see your Internal Review response attached

Kind regards

Health & Disability Assessments (Operations)/Department for Work and Pensions/Room 306/Block 31/Norcross/Norcross Lane/Blackpool/FY5 3TA

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P V Sutton left an annotation ()

I'm going to mark this one as closed and make any follow-up questions separate FoI requests. I think that there are, in fact, many avenues which might need exploring.

One that I mentioned, but which was not recognised as a FoI issue, is whether training has been given to all DWP staff who might have to make appointments with members of the public or visiting staff about checking if they need ground-floor interview space.

Then, of course, one could check explicitly whether all JC staff are aware of this restriction - given the numbers of the disabled who are now "fit for work".

Should this restriction also apply to anyone referred to a private company handling people on the Work Programme?

Perhaps local councils should also be asked about this access restriction. And other government departments. And local libraries - that haven for the elderly and arthritic - should perhaps have notices saying that no one who cannot walk up/down sets of stairs briskly can be allowed into the reference section.

Schools and colleges? If those visiting the DWP are at risk, certainly one person dependent on sticks is going to prevent the speedy evacuation of any educational building with more than one floor.

I shall send the info to a friend who works in an HE college - a newly-built 4-storey affair.

The point is that this is not about the silly side of H&S. We're not talking about forbidding children from playing conkers at school. This is about evacuating buildings in case of fire. Anyone who thinks that is trivial has not seen the videos of 9/11 often enough. The death rate amongst the fire fighters trying to get rescue those on higher floors was considerable.

We now know that someone at an ATOS appointment in a wheelchair was abandoned when there was a fire in such a building. They were unharmed, but might not have been. It does not seem that any thought had been given to fire drills involving a wheelchair-bound person. No fire-fighting personal were risked trying to rescue them, but they might have been. And no one else seems to have been trapped because someone had collapsed across a main stairway, but they might have been.

It may be a question of a balance of priorities - access for the officially disabled and the mobility-compromised (old, breathless, confused, etc etc) with the rights of the young, the standardly fit etc to be able to get out of a building in case of fire.

This should probably be a case of applying common sense, but legal regulation is so rarely one where common sense applies. Your insurance company can refuse to pay out in the event of a burglary if your windows were not key-locked. Fire-safety officers can prosecute anyone who puts in key locks to a window which might be needed for egress in the event of fire. Currently the fire regs win and (as someone about to replace a lot of windows) I'm hoping that insurance companies know this.

So, we have potentially a major revision of disability access laws, which seems to be going unrecognised by the disability lobby and unacknowledged by policy makers.

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From: DWP DWP Medical Services Correspondence
Department for Work and Pensions


Attachment FOI 4173 4754 Sutton.pdf
13K Download View as HTML


Dear Mr Sutton

Please see your FOI response attached

<<FOI 4173-4754 Sutton.pdf>>

Kind regards

Health & Disability Assessments (Operations)/Department for Work and
Pensions/Room 306/Block 31/Norcross/Norcross Lane/Blackpool/FY5 3TA

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