Our sick and disabled are being stifled; we should give them space to breathe

The People’s Assembly Against Austerity will be holding a mass demonstration against the government’s austerity measures on Wednesday (July 8) – which is when George Osborne is set to deliver his benefits-bashing ’emergency’ budget.

They have invited Maggie Zolobajluk, who organised the petition in support of my bid to find out how many people have died while claiming sickness/disability benefits, to speak – but not me.

Maggie kindly asked me if I would be able to make it to London and speak instead of her – and I’d love to – but I don’t think it’s possible. The distance is too great, and I can’t justify being away from Mrs Mike – and also the blog, on a day that will affect the way the UK develops for the foreseeable future.

I started drafting out a few words for her to deliver on my behalf – but they turned into a full-blown speech instead. I ended up writing far too much – so, rather than ask her to say it, I’m publishing it here instead.

A previous demonstration, staged by the People's Assembly Against Austerity in 2014.
A previous demonstration, staged by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in 2014.

I am neither sick, nor disabled – but I choose to side with the sick and disabled against oppression.

It isn’t an entirely altruistic choice. Mrs Mike – as she is known on my blog, Vox Political – has been ill for many years, and we have fought battle after battle with the Department for Work and Pensions over the benefits to which she is entitled.

You’re probably sick of hearing the famous verse by Pastor Martin Niemoller, but he was right. Who’s going to stand up for me, if I don’t stand up for other people first?

Mrs Mike and I are used to winning those battles, and I wonder how much of that success is due to the fact that I am able-bodied. Think about it – if you are battling constant pain, or are a victim of depression, or your condition fluctuates so you simply don’t know if you’ll be able to get out of bed in the morning, or you have any number of the other maladies that may affect the sick or disabled – then the last thing you’ll want to do is argue over tiny details with a gang of suited pedants in Whitehall.

Additionally, these pedants have employed private contractors to make sure they judge the severity of a person’s sickness using information that is wrong.

If you’re sick, or disabled, the pressure can be too much to bear. And not every sick or disabled person has an able-bodied partner like me to take up the slack.

So, inevitably, the worst happens.

Only last weekend I learned about Graham Shawcross, of Manchester. Mr Shawcross had lived – and worked – with Addison’s Disease for 40 years before having to claim sickness benefit. It is a potentially fatal condition whose symptoms include exhaustion, muscle weakness, dizziness, fainting and cramps that can lead to adrenal crisis, which can be fatal. But that isn’t what killed him!

No – Mr Shawcross died of a heart attack in February, after being ruled “fit for work” by the DWP in November last year. He had been preparing to present an appeal against the decision – writing out the details several times a day, and talking about it constantly.

His widow said the stress of having to do this – stress that was created by, and only by, the DWP’s “fit for work” decision – was what killed him.

You should be aware that the DWP says it is “irresponsible to suggest a causal link between the death of an individual and their benefit claim”, and “mortality rates among people with serious health conditions are likely to be higher than those among the general population”. We’ve seen that comment in the newspapers very often over the last few weeks.

It’s a statement that falls flat when the DWP’s own position is that the individual was “fit for work” at the time of his death.

Months after Mr Shawcross passed away – and despite being told this had happened by his widow – the DWP initially invited him to an appeal hearing, and then admitted he was seriously ill and deserved Employment and Support Allowance.

It’s a bit late for that now!

How many other benefit denials have been reversed after the claimant has died?

We don’t know – but it’s the subject of my next Freedom of Information request!

The man responsible for this regime, Iain Duncan Smith, is said to be religious so he should understand me when I say people claiming benefit must feel as though they have been crucified by their physical or mental ill-health. Instead of offering relief, Mr Duncan Smith and his department complete the job with a ‘crown of forms’ that push them into an early grave.

One has to question the morality of a supposed Christian who approves of crucifixion!

But then, it seems even leading members of the Catholic Church to which he belongs have tried pleading with him to alter the fatal direction of his policies – there was an article to that effect in the most recent edition of Catholic newspaper The Tablet.

But government ministers say it is “irresponsible” to claim that the benefit assessment system had anything to do with the death.

I wonder if they’ll say that to Mrs Shawcross, who is adamant that the system is what killed her husband. That would be a conversation worth hearing!

I first became concerned about the number of people who were dying while claiming benefits when the DWP itself revealed that 10,600 deaths had occurred between January and November 2011. Note that the official figures did not include December, which is considered to be a season of increased suicides.

This concern became alarm after I learned that Freedom of Information requests by other individuals, calling for updated figures, had been refused for no reason other than that the 2011 statistics had been part of an ‘ad-hoc’, one-off, release.

So I sent off a request, and asked readers of the blog to support it with requests of their own – to show that it was a matter of wider public concern. Only 23 did, but that was enough for the DWP to refuse me on the grounds that I was being “vexatious” – trying to flood the Department with work.

I’m still not sure how that claim can be justified. It’s the same information – all they had to do was put it together and send it off to the people who wanted it. It seems that creating a mailing list of email addresses is too much for a government department with more than 100,000 employees.

The tribunal that turned down my appeal did express considerable sympathy for my position, and suggested that another FoI request should result in publication of the statistics. So I wrote another one.

I won’t go into the details – it’s enough for you to know that, after several months of fighting with the DWP, I won.

The DWP then chose to take the matter to a tribunal, employing an expensive Treasury barrister to make out the case. It seems that, while Freedom of Information requests cannot cost more than £600 – that’s the legal limit – the government can spend as much of your money as it likes, if it wants to withhold the facts.

That’s when Maggie Zolobajluk started her petition, calling on the tribunal to refuse the appeal.

Now, instead of 23 supporters, my request has 230,000.

So David Cameron told Parliament that the figures will be published. What he didn’t tell Parliament was that they would be homogenised, amortised, Age-Standardised Mortality Rates, that show the deaths as a ratio compared with the death rate amongst the wider population – and he certainly won’t tell anyone how many people have died while claiming sickness and disability benefits since November 2011.

And now the Justice Secretary is trying to make it harder for Freedom of Information requests to succeed. It seems the embarrassment they cause is just too much for the administration that once said it intended to be the most open government ever.

Michael Gove wants to include “thinking time” in the cost of handling FoI requests.

What does that even mean?

Parliament’s Justice Select Committee has already stated that including “thinking time” in FoI costs would introduce an unwelcome variable into the system, which relies on everyone having equal access to the facts. The cost of “thinking time” would depend on the abilities of the civil servant dealing with the request.

Not only that, but we should ask what “thinking” has to do with it in any case. When a request is made under the Freedom of Information Act, the only questions a public authority may ask are whether it has the information and can publish it within the £600 cost limit. Questions about – for example – the motives behind the request are immaterial.

What are we to conclude?

That we have a government that intentionally complicates benefit claims for the sick and disabled.

That people who might live decent and, in many ways, productive lives are having those lives cut short because of goverment policy.

That the government does not want the wider population of the UK to know the true number of deaths.

That the government wants to shut down the Freedom of Information system so inconvenient questions like this can no longer be asked.

In short, that the government wants to smother any attempt to question it.

Too many sick and disabled people have been smothered already.

They need space to breathe.

It is up to the rest of us to help them get it.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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12 Thoughts to “Our sick and disabled are being stifled; we should give them space to breathe”

  1. As i have said many times before mike the uk government wont to rule just like in the middle east where everything on the surface is ok but underneath there is hell to pay all round like all of the middle eastern countries abusing some groups of their own people and abusing all immigrants like making sure that the children of the immigrants can’t go to school

    This is just one of many abuses but there are many and slavery and death are a very real concern

    It is the sort of place IDS loves it is a pity he is not living over there as he has a lot in common with them and their conservative views

    The bottom line on conservative governments around the world including the uk is that they like to control people and that’s what they do best they’re control freaks not only that but every word they speak is a lie

    How they ever manage to form a government in the first place is a mystery and that may never be fully understood as that indicates that the people of the world are Narcissistic but my own findings over the past 60 years do not buy in to that logic

    My own findings are that all the people I have met overseas over the years are very decent despite they live in terrible conservative conditions and have been abused for many years in a whole raft of ways so it’s never surprising when things go bad and the mental state of an individual snaps or breakaway groups form be it in the middle east or the far east and then go on to make life bad for all concerned

    The only long-term answer is to rid the world of the conservative logic of power money and control but that is never going to happen so the deaths of those at the bottom of society will continue

  2. Pam Sanby

    I’ve emailed my MP as requested by the people behind the petition. He’s Tory so I don’t expect any help from him! But the more we let our MP’s know our wishes the more we can prove, or disprove, our ‘democratic’ society! So far my Tory MP has refused to support any of my requests.

    1. Don’t forget your MEPs, Pam.

      1. Pam Sanby

        Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Thank you for your continued campaigning, Mike.

    The contortions made by the government mean that the deaths figures are probably much more horrendous than we can imagine! All of us must keep up the pressure.

    As Maggie Zolobajluk says (if you didn’t see it already on her petition:

    “…Please take a moment to email your MP and ask them if they will support 235,000 people who have signed this petition calling for the Government to publish statistics showing how many people have died after their benefits were stopped.

    You can write to your MP at https://www.writetothem.com/
    When you receive a response from your MP – please forward it to [email protected]

    It is so important we keep going with this campaign.
    Write to your MP today: https://www.writetothem.com/
    …”

    Thank you Maggie.

  4. As always Mike -In UNITY xx

  5. Steve Grant

    Mike,your right 100%. I like yourself have looked after my other half for 17 years after she had a life changing RTA….I have had to fight for her every day whilst the jackals of the DWP are always circling looking for weaknesses in my resolve…as long as I draw breath they won’t break me….The 25% of the voting population who voted TORY or the minority, won an election in a bastardised voting system with a majority in parliament,now how crazy is that? It would be better for the government to just say no more welfare but It can’t do that because so many businesses rely on the money that circulates into the coffers of the supermarkets,energy companies,fuel companies and every business that feeds off the poor on welfare but paid for by working citizens of this country….Thats the rub…..government needs a whipping horse to look good so takes away much as it dares and those who are the most vulnerable are an easy target…..Let the government take all welfare away,give us nothing at all and then see the rest of society divide into the haves and have nots…….it will cause unemployment in a grand scale and the breakdown of this so called democracy……I can’t wait!

  6. Tony Dean

    Mike I suggest posting that speech to IDS’s home address.

    1. @Tony Dean
      “Mike I suggest posting that speech to IDS’s home address”…….laced with a dose of weapons grade anthrax.

      1. Mike Sivier

        No, I don’t support that kind of direct action.

  7. This is brilliant, Mike and deserves taking up by the MSM. Until you are in the position of being harassed by the DWP or an advocate for someone who is then you simply have no idea how horrendous and stressful it is.
    Many, many thanks for all you do. It is very helpful to have your excellent, knowledgeable and professional expertise at our fingertips.
    All the best to Mrs Mike as well – she is so lucky to have you at her side!

  8. Joan Edington

    What do you reckon the odds are of the BBC reporting on this demonstration? I would bet a year’s pension that they won’t.

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