The Conservative Government’s stalling tactics when confronted with questions about benefit-related deaths have at last tarnished the image of Prime Minister David Cameron, along with his ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions.
When Debbie Abrahams, a Labour MP whose own image is refreshingly glowing after she stood up for her principles and voted against the Tory ‘Welfare’ Bill last night, asked an Urgent Question of him in the House of Commons yesterday (Tuesday), Cameron was nowhere to be found, having run like a jackrabbit and left others to face the grilling.
His Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, was present – but refused to respond, despite this being an issue of serious concern to the public.
Instead, he sent his minister for employment, Priti Patel, to the Dispatch Box and confined himself to muttered comments from the sidelines. At one point he could be heard very clearly, whining, “Don’t lecture us about it.”
It was a public relations disaster – and on the very last day before the summer recess, meaning people will remember it.
Ms Abrahams asked the Prime Minister to make a statement on his commitment of June 24, to publish DWP data on the number of people in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance and Incapacity Benefit who have died since November 2011, including those found fit for work – to honour This Writer’s Freedom of Information request on the subject, and answer more than 240,000 petitioners who have supported it.
“I am disappointed that the Prime Minister is not here in person to explain why he has not yet honoured his commitment,” she said.
“When will we see the data published?” she asked of Ms Patel. “When are they being prepared for publication?”
“Will the Minister commit to publishing the actual numbers of deaths?”
She also asked how much the DWP had spent on staff and legal fees in the decision to refuse my FoI request – and now to contest the Information Commissioner’s ruling that my question should be answered.
She called on Duncan Smith to reconsider his decision not to publish the details on any of the DWP’s 49 peer reviews into social security claimants who died, including – importantly – changes brought forward by the department as a result of them.
Finally, she asked what assessment has been undertaken of the potential impact on the health status of those on Incapacity Benefit or Employment and Support Allowance, given the measures introduced in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.
Ms Patel repeated the platitudes we have heard already – that the information will be published “but before doing so the statistics need to meet the high standards expected”.
She added: “We will publish all aspects of the data that we have been asked to publish.”
Rest assured that this writer will hold her – and the Conservative Government – to that!
She did not say anything about the cost of refusing and appealing against my FoI request, about the 49 peer reviews, or about assessments of the health status of those on IB or ESA – despite being challenged several times by different MPs on the first of these issues in particular.
The tone of Ms Patel’s responses left so much to be desire that it attracted particular comment from – among others – the Father of the House, Gerald Kaufman.
In a room where emotions were already running high, due to the nature of the issue being discussed, she began by demanding: “Would Labour Members like to listen to my response before they start chuntering away?”
Her response was immediately branded “arrogant” by Mr Kaufman and a later claim that the Conservative-led Coalition was the first government to publish statistics on benefit-related deaths was labelled “misleading” by Labour MP Dawn Butler.
It is as though the government deliberately set out to cause upset, as Parliament dissolved for its summer recess.
For the record, the last-published statistics on benefit-related deaths were released in July 2012 and conveyed figures for the period January-November 2011, in which 10,600 ESA claimants died. That’s around one every two or three hours.
As Labour’s Kate Green pointed out: “There is huge disquiet among disabled people, as story after story surfaces in the media about disabled people being found fit for work and dying shortly afterwards—last week another story appeared in the Daily Mirror about a disabled man who died two weeks after his assessment.
“The shenanigans in the DWP around the release of the statistics are concerning—and puzzling, if the Department has nothing to hide.”
Mr Kaufman put Ms Patel right in her place when he said: “I say to the junior Minister that she needs to take some lessons from her boss in dealing with questions in this House, because whatever the nature of his replies, he replies with courtesy. She needs to learn about that as well.”
He had already cast doubt on the honesty of the Conservative Government as a whole, remarking witheringly: “I wish my hon. Friend (Debbie Abrahams) every good fortune in awaiting a reply to a letter to the Prime Minister, in view of the fact that in the last five years I have had exactly one letter from him, and that was after I had received a letter from No. 10 signed by somebody who did not exist.”
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