BBC Radio 4’s More or Less promised a feature on the long-discussed deaths of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance in its programme on Friday – and delivered five minutes of drivel that is an insult to the intelligence of anybody concerned.
As a reporter, I am staggered that the BBC has had the bare-faced cheek to patronise us in this manner.
The feature (which may be downloaded here – it’s the August 29 edition) took as its premise claims made on the social media that 10,600 people have died within six weeks of being declared ‘fit for work’ by Atos assessors.
There are several issues with this. Firstly, this claim is two years out-of-date. Many more are likely to have died since then but the figures are not available because the Department for Work and Pensions has refused to release them. Secondly, the claim is inaccurate, based on a misunderstanding of the DWP statistical release ‘Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of recipients’ published in July 2012.
We already know that the claim was inaccurate. Why is the BBC determined to rake over these old coals?
For the sake of the BBC and anyone else who is similarly hard-of-thinking, let’s go back to what the statistical release actually says.
Officially – according to the DWP – the 10,600 deaths were of people leaving ESA with a recorded date of death, between January and November 2011. The government document made it clear that “data on the number of ESA claimants who have died following a ‘fit for work’ decision is not available, as the Department does not hold information on a death if the person has already left benefit”. Efforts to persuade the DWP to change this policy and follow up ‘fit for work’ decisions by checking on claimants’ health at intervals afterwards have been refused at all times.
Therefore we may safely conclude that the number of deaths of ESA claimants is probably many times greater than official figures suggest.
In the Now and Then piece, the Daily Telegraph‘s Tom Chivers, enlisted to provide some spurious relevance to the show’s finding, said: “The DWP say they don’t keep records of the number of people who died after their benefits were cut off because that’s irrelevant to them; it’s no longer their problem. So we don’t have the full figures.” This is correct.
The trouble is, it is the DWP’s problem – and it’s certainly a problem for the rest of us – because anyone who has died in this way almost certainly did so as a consequence of the loss of their benefit! The news media has been riddled with stories of these people over the last few years, and we can be sure that the volume of known stories is a fraction of the true number of cases.
Back to the statistical release: Of the 10,600, the government said 2,200 died when their assessment had not been completed. This clearly suggests that the assessment process had failed these people – they died before they were able to access the support they needed.
A further 1,300 were in the Work Related Activity group. This suggests that they had been placed in the wrong group and should have been in the Support Group.
Finally, 7,100 were in the Support group. The statistical release states that “those in the Support Group receive unconditional support due to the nature of their illness, which can include degenerative conditions, terminal illness and severe disability”. However, just three paragraphs above, the same release states that the information it provides relates to people “whose latest WCA [work capability assessment] date (or activity towards assessment) was before the end of November 2011”.
This means that people in the Support Group do not receive “unconditional support” at all – they have to undergo periodic reassessment, at irregular intervals (due to the nature of the assessment process – you never know when they’ll get round to you again). This meant that people with degenerative conditions, terminal illness and severe disability are subjected to the stress and anxiety of having to face a flawed assessment system – rigged to find them ‘fit for work’ if at all possible – at any time. Stories in the press about people with terminal cancer (the most famous example) being forced back to work can only have increased this stress, making the possibility of early death more likely.
That is the situation. Now let us examine what the BBC had to say about it.
The More or Less feature is inaccurate from the start.
It states: “In 2011, existing Incapacity Benefit and Income Support claims were replaced with something called Employment and Support Allowance.” In fact, ESA was introduced by the previous Labour government on October 27, 2008 and while IB and IS claims were not migrated until 2011, it would be wrong to think that the deaths under discussion were of the migrated claims in isolation.
“Claimants were made to undergo a Work Capability Assessment to determine whether they were entitled to the new allowance and how much money they might get. Now some critics complain that these assessments are stacked against claimants. Seriously-ill people are being dismissed as malingerers by Atos Healthcare and having their claims denied. And in the middle of this argument, up pops the truly shocking finding that 10,600 people have been cut off from this vital benefit and then died within six weeks.”
Two things: Firstly – THAT IS NOT THE FINDING! See the analysis of the statistical release (above). Secondly – the claim is two years old; it was made when the statistical release was issued back in July 2012 and debunked shortly afterwards. Why is More or Less covering this old news when it could be asking relevant questions?
One has to ask why the programme enlisted help from – of all people – Daily Telegraph blogger Tom Chivers. He published a controversial piece about the Atos deaths on July 9, proceeding from the same – wrong – starting-point as More or Less. His argument is irrelevant because it does not relate to the problem.
In the broadcast, Chivers compounded the error with further inaccuracies: “In July 2012 there was a Freedom of Information request about how many people died within six weeks of their benefit claim ending,” he blithely spouted. WRONG. Here is the request, copied verbatim from the DWP’s statistical release and pasted here:
Information request: Can you please provide me with the number of ESA claimants who have died in 2011?
Can you please break down that number into the following categories:
- Those who are in the assessment phase
- Those who have been found fit to work
- Those who have been placed in the work related activity group
- Those who have been placed in the support group
- Those who have an appeal pending
(This is the format I have used in both of my own, subsequent, FoI requests on this matter, and I believe Samuel Miller’s was phrased the same way. The DWP has sidestepped all three.)
There is nothing about any six-week period after the claim ended. The request is about ESA claimants who died during 2011 – no more, no less.
Chivers accurately quotes a paragraph from the response which mentions the six-week time figure. He goes on to say that he found it questionable and checked it with the DWP. What he then tells us suggests that the fault lies with the Department for Work and Pensions, for deliberately failing to directly answer the direct questions that had been put to it.
“They said no – actually there is a rather weird, obtuse meaning of it, which they mean it was six weeks either side of this thing – there was a six-week period either side of the death and that was when the claim ended.”
That has nothing to do with the original request! If they died, they died!
“A lot of these people would have died, and then the claim ended shortly afterwards because they were dead,” Chivers said, as though it excused the DWP of any wrong-doing. All he was doing was reiterating the problem – that people have been dying while claiming ESA!
Presenter Tim Harford then chimed in: “So what the DWP are doing here is, they take a snapshot, they see a certain number of people are making a benefit claim and are alive, and then six weeks later they take another snapshot and they discover that these people are no longer making a benefit claim, and these people are no longer alive?”
This would make a nonsense of the DWP’s statistical release from 2012. It covers a period from January to November 2011, inclusive. That’s 11 months, not six weeks! No ‘snapshots’ were taken – it was a running total showing all deaths during the c.48 weeks covered, not the sum of two ‘snapshots’ taken six weeks apart. In fact, the DWP should be grateful for this because 10,600 deaths within six weeks comes out at 1,767 deaths per week, rather than the 220 maximum that some of us have been suggesting.
Not content with producing a statement of utter nonsense, Harford decided to confuse the listening public with a completely different interpretation within minutes of the first: “So 10,600 claimants didn’t die six weeks after their claim ended; 10,600 claimants died within the same six-week period as their claim ended – not the same thing at all.” Correct – it’s not even the same thing you said moments previously, Tim.
And it still isn’t accurate! Look at the top of this article again. The DWP made it perfectly clear that it does not monitor what happens to people after their claim ends – these are all people who died while claiming the benefit, who should have been receiving the maximum amount of care possible, but didn’t.
That is the issue More or Less should have been investigating. That is why the show, Harford, Chivers and the BBC have failed us so appallingly.
The perpetrators of this atrocity decided to end with some unbearably smug platitudes – to show how completely they have misunderstood the situation, it seems.
From Chivers: “What this comes down to, as far as I’m concerned, is just a dreadful piece of communication by the DWP. This fairly, well, not simple but not complicated piece of information has been translated into 10,000 people dying within six weeks of being callously removed from their benefits.”
Wrong! Thanks to a few inaccurate memes, Chivers has tried to translate the DWP’s information into something it is not, diverting attention away from the real problem.
People are still dying – on a daily basis – because of the way the Department for Work and Pensions has decided to handle claims for incapacity benefits. It is a national scandal.
Remember: Those 10,600 deaths cover a period of just 11 months, ending nearly three years ago. How many have died since then? Has the number escalated or decreased? If More or Less had done its research, it could have been reporting on the biggest genocide of the British people by their own government since the Harrowing of the North.
Instead, we got this from Tim Harford: “So the moral of this story: It’s always worth asking what a statistic is really counting, rather than assuming we know.”
Really? What a shame Mr Harford did not practise what he was preaching.
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