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The following article was written together with Maggie Zolobajluk, the creator of the Change.org petition in support of my Freedom of Information request on the subject of the ESA deaths.

Maggie thought this particular version was a little too confrontation for her taste and a toned-down version was sent to the organisation that commissioned it from her. I have no idea whether it was published.

I’m publishing this version in response to The Independent‘s garbled article that mistakenly claims the petition is about people who have been sanctioned off-benefit. As I’ll be saying in a letter/comment to that paper, people who died after sanctions may be included in the overall number but, in isolation, they would only tell part of the story.

It would be wrong to let that pass uncorrected as this would allow the DWP to comment on the mistake, rather than the substantive issue.

Here’s the article, with apologies to Maggie. This is all I have to hand, that I can use:

[Picture: Skwawkbox blog]

[Picture: Skwawkbox blog]

Facts are funny things. These simple statements of information are neither good nor bad in themselves, but the fear of them can drive some individuals – and organisations – to extremes.

Take the fact that, between January and November 2011, 10,600 people died while claiming Employment and Support Allowance. It was published by the Department for Work and Pensions, presumably in the belief that it was harmless; people are expected to die while claiming a sickness benefit.
Well, yes and no.

Analysis shows that 1,300 of those deaths were in the Work-Related Activity Group – people expected to be well enough to return to work within a year. Unless they all died by accident (unlikely), they were misdiagnosed. It is possible the pressures of work-focused tasks pushed them to their graves.

Then there are those in the Support Group, for people with serious conditions including – yes – some likely to die. How much more likely is it, when the government randomly reassesses them, throws them off-benefit, forces them to appeal or re-claim, makes them undergo the painful and humiliating Work Capability Assessment medical and then – if they regain their benefit – hits them with notice of another reassessment soon after?

The government says it does not keep details of the causes of ESA claimant deaths, so it would be unreasonable to assume that none of them were suspicious. It follows that it would be reasonable to consider all of them to be suspicious until evidence to the contrary is provided.

For me, this became clear after I learned that Freedom of Information requests to determine the number of deaths after November 2011 had been refused. I submitted a request of my own in June 2013. The DWP rejected it. The reason? I had asked others to submit similar requests, motivated by a determination to ensure the DWP took it seriously. This was defined as “vexatious” and the request was dismissed by an information tribunal.

But the tribunal did comment that it had “considerable sympathy” for my position and “the request did seem, on its face and in context, to be one which might well have resulted in disclosure of the information requested”.

So I submitted another. This time the DWP claimed it was already working to release the information. I had read this excuse in a response to another requester two years ago, so I appealed.

The government also claimed the request would create an undue burden on its time and resources – but this was nixed by the revelation, in an email from the DWP to the Information Commissioner, that “the Department does hold, and could provide within the cost limit (£600), some of the information requested”.

On April 30, I was told I had won my appeal. The Information Commissioner stated that the DWP “has had reasonable time to prepare for publishing such information and that disclosure was not so novel or unusual given the previous requests and disclosures made”.

The DWP’s response? Appeal to a higher authority to quash the decision. This is where Maggie Zolobajluk came in.

Both of us wanted to do something to about it so, learning of the DWP’s appeal against Mike, she started a petition in my support. Before this we had never heard of each other.

There are two very important issues: The impact of these deaths on the families of those affected and those who have assisted them, and the accountability of government departments and implications for future FOI requests.

Many people have stated that loved ones have died after being incorrectly assessed by the DWP. The government uses the unproven “biopsychosocial” theory to judge whether a person is fit – a method developed by the Unum insurance corporation in America specifically to find reasons not to accept that a person is ill.

In a January 2013 Commons debate, politicians from all parties gave accounts of very sick individuals who had been incorrectly assessed and told to return to work. Some of them later died. The government took no action.

We have a government that works very hard to hide the facts.

It seems unlikely the appeal will be heard by the Information Tribunal before October. The DWP wants a ‘paper’ hearing – all information provided in writing, with nobody appearing in person. I believe this would not be in the interests of justice; the DWP must send a representative to face cross-examination.

There is a strong case for overturning the appeal before it gets to a hearing – as an abuse of process. There must be at least a 50/50 chance of success and this seems unlikely, as the reasons for granting my request corresponded with the Information Commissioner’s own rules.

We need these statistics to be released, so that we can have an informed debate on what they really mean.

But if the DWP wins its appeal, it would become very difficult for any FoI request to succeed in the future – if the government wishes to conceal the information.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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