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It seems clear that the new ‘statistical releases’ from the Department for Work and Pensions aren’t worth the immense amount of time they took to prepare – other than as tools for confusion and corruption.

In the three days since they have been released, there has been confusion in the media about their interpretation, and dissent in the social media about how they may be used. Meanwhile, the DWP has withdrawn its appeal against my Freedom of Information request, claiming that it has provided all the facts I wanted. Iain Duncan Smith is no doubt delighted.

Here’s something to make him choke on it: The DWP has not provided all the facts I wanted and my FoI request has yet to be fully addressed.

I am well within my right to contact the First-tier Tribunal (information rights) and demand that the hearing scheduled for November 10 go ahead, allowing me access to the full range of data I wanted, and to question DWP lawyers in order to clarify the information that was released on Thursday (August 27).

This writer has examined some of the information provided in the DWP’s release of Age-Standardised Mortality Rates, and has been able to compare the background information with the facts (if we can call them that) in its attempted response to my FoI request. They don’t all add up – and where they do, the results are horrifying.

For example, it seems we now have an answer to a question that has disturbed many of us ever since the DWP’s first ‘ad hoc’ statistical release, Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of recipients was released on July 9, 2012. The request stated: “Can you please provide me with the number of ESA claimants who have died in 2011?” But the response provided figures only to the end of November that year – a total of 10,600, equating to around 32 deaths per day or 222 per week.

The supporting tables for Mortality statistics: Out-of-Work Working Age benefit claimants show that the total number of deaths in 2011 was 13,490 – implying that a staggering 2,890 ESA claimants died in December that year alone.

That is more than 93 deaths every day – almost 653 per week – during the so-called festive season. Vox Political has previously pointed out that the period leading up to Christmas every year is a known suicide hotspot, but a near-tripling of the ESA death rate is appalling.

No wonder the DWP withheld it from the ‘ad hoc’ statistical release. Any claim that the information was not available in time for the release, which took place no less than half a year later is clearly not credible.

Another interesting aspect of the DWP’s statistical legerdemain is its curious inconsistency about the benefits to which its figures refer. Note that the figures in the 2012 statistical release showed 10,600 deaths among ESA claimants only. The same release responded to a question about “the number of Incapacity Benefit claimants who have died in 2009, 2010 and 2011” with figures covering IB, SDA and ESA for what we may believe to be the tax years 2008-9, 2009-10 and 2010-11 (“data is sourced from quarterly point in time data… for example 2010/11 includes the quarters May 2010, August 2010, November 2010 and February 2011”) – but even then the reference is vague enough for this not to be accurate. Why not just say, “this refers to the tax years in question, rather than the calendar years”? In any case, the question is not answered because it referred to calendar years and the answer referred to a different period.

Returning to the final question to which that statistical release responds, “Can you please provide me with the number of ESA claimants who have died in 2011?” the answer refers only to ESA claimants – and, caveats about the period covered by the response aside – you may feel that it is justified.

However, in response to my own question regarding the number of IB and ESA claimants who have died since November 2011, the DWP chose to include not only IB and ESA claimants but also those on SDA. I didn’t ask for SDA figures – perhaps I should have – but the DWP provided them anyway. Since it was so obliging for me, why could it not be similarly obliging for the previous requester?

Now, dear reader, you may feel that this is needlessly picky, considering the new releases contain death figures for people on IB/SDA during 2011. The trouble is, we can’t trust them.

We know from the background information that the DWP’s statistics on the total incapacity benefits population counts people only once, even if they claimed both IB/SDA and ESA in the same year – which is possible as people began to migrate from the old system of benefits to the new. This should not affect the number of deaths; if you die on IB/SDA, you won’t have made it onto ESA – right?

But the DWP figures show that if you add deaths on IB/SDA to deaths on ESA, the totals for each year are greater than the total number of deaths recorded for the whole population. In 2009 there were 80 more deaths, in 2010 there were 50. For 2011: 640. For 2012: 1,880. And for 2013: 1,330 more deaths.

Ian Fleming may have said “You only live twice” but, according to the DWP, it seems you can die twice as well.

This means that, although we now have IB/SDA death figures for 2011, we cannot add them to the number of ESA deaths to get an accurate figure. The total would be a horrifying 38,270 – but this is 640 higher than the equally-horrifying total of 37,630 provided by the DWP elsewhere. Which do we believe?

(For information, you may remember that the figures for ESA alone, producing a death rate of 32 per day/222 per week, sparked a horrified public reaction which led to the DWP’s moratorium on providing further figures – a ban it took myself and my fellow campaigners more than three years to break. Add in the lower set of IB/SDA figures and we have a death rate of 103 per day/nearly 722 per week. The higher set of figures raises this to nearly 105 per day/734 per week. No wonder those figures weren’t released in 2012 – the outcry would have been overwhelming.)

Sadly, for the purposes of calculating whether the current system is needlessly harmful to benefit claimants, This Writer does not believe the figures for IB/SDA are useful. In fact, they muddy the issue because, taken together with the figures for ESA, they show the total incapacity benefits population has stayed more or less consistent over the years since ESA was introduced, at around three million people. The number of deaths has done roughly the same thing.

However…

a) We know that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition government adopted harsh new assessment policies from 2011 onwards, which meant many more people were refused incapacity benefits than previously. I am told that the number of refusals in 2013 was almost 750,000, although this included repeat claims so the figure cannot be used to calculate the number of claimants who were refused. Still, that’s a very large figure.

How many of those people have died? We don’t know. The DWP provided figures for ESA and IB/SDA “off flows with a date of death at the same time” who had been classified “fit for work”, but this relates to people who died up to 14 days (in the case of ESA claimants) or 42 days (for IB/SDA claimants) after the claim ended. Some commenters have quibbled over what this means, but their comments are irrelevant; these people were found fit for work and then died – which tends to prove they weren’t. What happened to all the people who were found fit for work but didn’t die within the period of the DWP’s “regular scans” (as the process is described in the new statistical release)? We don’t know. The DWP has said it does not monitor what happens to them. Some may have claimed JSA, in which case it may be possible to find out what happened to them – but there may remain a large number whose fate will be a permanent mystery – unless, perhaps, Parliament launches an investigation.

b) The fates of those who have successfully claimed ESA provide an opportunity for us to ask some pertinent questions.

We can see that, between 2012 and 2013, the support group grew by 81 per cent, while the number of deaths increased by 54 per cent. The support group was the hardest to join after Iain Duncan Smith introduced his changes in 2011; it includes people with degenerative conditions, terminal illnesses and severe disabilities, many of whom are likely to die during the period of their claim. But this does not mean that all the deaths in that group are due to what we might describe as “natural causes”. We have heard many examples of DWP harassment that harms the health of people in the support group or pushes them to suicide. We have no reason to believe they are lies. Therefore the conduct of the DWP towards people in this group requires much closer scrutiny.

Moving on to the work-related activity group – this is for claimants the DWP consider will be capable of work in the future and may take steps towards moving into work (work-related activities) immediately. In other words, this is the group in which people are admittedly ill, but are expected to get better. Between 2012 and 2013, this group grew by nine per cent – but the number of deaths increased by 24 per cent, from 2,990 to 3,720. This is in a group where people are not expected to die due to their condition. Other commenters have pointed out that it is wrong to expect none of these people to die, and they are correct. If this group was populated according to its stated aims, they would have a slightly lower chance of dying as anybody else in the general population (as benefit claimants, they wouldn’t be subject to all the same risks). The general population has a 0.19 per cent chance of death, according to the DWP’s own figures. In 2013, the work-related activity group had a population of 596,010, which would suggest the total number of deaths should have been less than 1,132. When the actual number of deaths is more than three times more than what we should expect, it’s time to demand reasons.

Between 2012 and 2013 the number of people in the assessment phase of ESA increased by two per cent, while the number of deaths increased by six per cent. Assessment has been the subject of considerable scrutiny over the last few years, with a new ‘mandatory reconsideration’ stage introduced after claimants were shown to be winning a remarkably large number of appeals against adverse decisions. The aim of this stage is generally accepted as being to discourage people who have been found fit for work from arguing against the decision (isn’t it right that they get no benefit during the reconsideration period?) therefore the size of the assessment phases population and the number of deaths within it are both likely to be affected and the information we have is suspect.

Then we have the claims marked ‘unknown’. According to the DWP, “Where the claimant is not in receipt of any benefit payment, such as ESA (Credits only), then the phase is shown as unknown. This is opaque. It seems likely that these are people whose entitlement to contribution-based ESA has run out but are still entitled to National Insurance credits. Some commenters have speculated that it may also include people who have been sanctioned, but This Writer’s understanding is that NI credits are suspended when a sanction is imposed.

In 2012, the number of claimants marked ‘unknown’ was 207,390 – of whom 1,550 died. The following year, membership of this group had dropped to 172,670 – that’s an impressive 17 per cent fall. But the number of deaths had increased to 1,810 – a shocking 13 per cent increase on the previous year.

This suggests that people in the work-related activity group (they tend to be on contributory ESA) are being left with nothing (but NI credits) after their 365-day period is over – so they die.

This seems to demand the most serious scrutiny.

Does anybody disagree?

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