Today I had a long chat with a Russia Today reporter, thanks to a recommendation from John McArdle of Black Triangle. It seems a foreign-owned news corporation is more interested in the plight of the UK’s most vulnerable than our home-grown media or – worse – our government.
She was asking about Vox Political‘s Freedom of Information requests, seeking information from the Department for Work and Pensions on the number of people who have died while going through the now-tortuous process of claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which includes the now-infamous work capability assessment (WCA).
As part of the dialogue she told me the government’s current line is that publicising the figures would not be instructive as they do not provide information on the causes of death and many of the deceased may have died because of their medical conditions, rather than due to government harassment or stress brought on by the assessment regime. This is, of course, nonsense.
The government cannot say that people in the Work-Related Activity Group have died because of their medical conditions without admitting that they should never have been put in that group in the first place. The WRAG is for people who are getting better, and who are expected to be healthy enough to seek employment within a year. If they die instead, then the work capability assessor (working for Atos, Maximus or whoever else) clearly missed an important point, or they, possibly together with the DWP decision-maker, disregarded it because regulations handed down from Conservative Party ministers told them to do so.
It is not quite as easy to accuse the government over people in the Support Group, because these have been judged to be in need of the maximum amount of help allowed by the law, due to the severity of their medical conditions. They are more likely to pass away. However, if fatality statistics had been published regularly and properly, it would have been possible to see whether the number of Support Group fatalities was increasing disproportionately; if it was, it follows that ministers should order an investigation into the causes of death. It does not follow that they only died because they had a medical condition. Was it worsened by the stress caused by the DWP’s regime of irregular re-assessments? What about the financial insecurity caused by benefit uprating caps? What about the personal insecurity caused by cuts in care services? With the figures hushed up, it is easy to ignore any such trends. Nobody knows about it, so why make a fuss? When politicians are in government, they have a vested interest in publicising only the information that makes them look good.
How does the government account for deaths in the assessment stage of ESA? These must be mushrooming due to well-publicised delays in processing claimants. Again, some may be due to claimants’ physical conditions but delays in assessment mean they have been deprived of the help they needed.
Then there are the suicides.
Some claimants take their own lives while on the benefit. This could be due to many reasons including the hopelessness of a situation where they foresee themselves being pushed off-benefit (this goes for people in both the WRAG and the Support Group because they are all under the threat of continual reassessment), or suffering more and more cuts to the amount received (in comparison with inflation) that their quality of life will suffer, or they’ll be kicked out of their homes, or they won’t be able to afford the necessities of their lives. The government does not record the number of people who do this and pays no attention to the verdicts of coroners performing inquests on them.
Then there are those who die after being refused the benefit. There is no information on these people at all because the government does not consider them to be its responsibility any more. They could die because of their medical condition; they could commit suicide – it won’t appear in government figures.
But, the possibility of suicide indicates a mental imbalance which should be picked up by the ‘medical experts’ conducting work capability assessments – right? In fact Dr Litchfield, the independent assessor, pointed this out in his recent evaluation of the WCAs’ performance – commenting on how numbers of people in the Support Group had increased due to fears for the safety of the claimants or those near them – and in fact this indicates a grudging nod towards progress. Somewhere, someone noticed that something was going wrong – but while the figures are kept hidden, we know that this is not nearly enough.
And now we are nearly at Christmas. Suicide season.
More people take their own lives under Conservative governments than Labour. And more people do so at Christmas than at any other time of year.
The festive season is great when you are in fine health, surrounded by a family and friends who love you, and are wealthy enough to enjoy the season to the full (we shan’t go into whether your family and friends are only around because you are wealthy enough because there’s no reason to assume any such selfishness and it is, after all, the season of goodwill).
It’s a different proposition when you don’t have your health, when benefit dependency means you can hardly keep yourself, let alone think about presents for other people, and when the lack of both of these have driven away what friends and family you might have – for whatever reasons.
Back in the summer a Twitter acquaintance with fibromyalgia remarked on how lucky Mrs Mike was to have a partner who had stuck with her, because the pressures of the condition lead to partners who are also carers walking out, leaving the sick or disabled (or both) person on their own. Put yourself in that position and ask how you would feel.
Taking all this into consideration, why do you think the death statistics for 2011 – the only year for which we have any figures at all, courtesy of an ‘ad hoc’ DWP release – run from January to November, rather than for the whole year?
There’s nothing to be done about the government’s attitude at the moment. Because of it, people are going to die this month and in January.
But there is a way to minimise the situation.
If you know someone who has a long-term sickness or disability and who is going to be on their own this Christmas, why not see what you can do to make it brighter?
It could be the difference between life and death.
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