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[Image: www.disabledgo.com]

[Image: www.disabledgo.com]

A commenter on the blog sent me a link to Jack Monroe’s Facebook page today. I’m probably as familiar with Jack as you are, but no more so – perhaps mainstream success gives that person more validity in some way than mine in the social media. But Phil’s “Have you seen this?” intrigued me.

The link was to a post following up on an Observer article published over the weekend, and read as follows:

“I would like to publicly apologise to the Department of Work And Pensions for an inaccurate statistic in my Observer article yesterday on the grim reality of the welfare system in what was once ‘Great’ Britain.

“In my article I stated that 2,400 people had died shortly after their Employment Support Allowance had been severed, having been (clearly wrongly) judged as Fit To Work.

“The DWP informs me that the correct figure is in fact 2,380.

“As they are so keen on accuracy, and transparency, I thought I should provide the rest of the stats.

“Between December 2011 and February 2014, 50,850 people who were claiming ESA, died.

“Of these, 7,200 had been judged as ‘able to return to work in the future’ and placed in the ‘work group’ category of ESA to undergo regular gruelling testing in order to continue to claim the pithy pittances they needed in order to stay alive. (For avoidance of doubt, humans do generally need food and shelter to survive.) Spoiler alert- THEY DIED.

“On top of these, 2,380 people who had been stripped of financial support and judged fit to work, subsequently DIED.

“Seeing the DWP are so very keen on accuracy that they send bollocking letters to my editor, I expect they will be now opening the case files of the 9,580 people in a 2 year period who DIED having been judged as ‘fit to work’ or ‘fit to work in the future’. God forbid I make 20 mistakes in the face of your 9,580.”

You can read the Observer article here. The relevant passage states: “Comply or starve. Comply and die, such were the cases, over a two-year period, of 2,400 people who died after their claim for employment and support allowance ended because they were declared ‘fit to work’ by DWP. I wrote in 2013 that my three-year-old could pass an Atos assessment. It doesn’t mean I should have sent him to stack shelves in a supermarket.”

The mention of “2,400 people” is quite clearly a rounding-up because, if you click on the link that has been inserted on that very number, you can visit the original Guardian article quoting the DWP’s response to a Freedom of Information request for the exact number of deaths.

My Freedom of Information request. And one of the reason I am angry as I type these words.

You see, there are two reasons the DWP has no cause to – as Mx Monroe describes it – “send bollocking letters to my editor”. I have already described the first.

The second is the simple fact that the information the DWP sent out on August 27, 2015 was incomplete – and therefore inaccurate. The Department has no business accusing anybody else of inaccuracy when it can’t get its own figures right.

The story of how this information became public knowledge is long and complicated but it is relevant that I had to get a ruling from the Information Commissioner in May last year, ordering the DWP to release the figures. As my request had been made on May 28, 2014, those figures should have run up to that date – but didn’t, as Jack’s post indicates.

When I wrote to the DWP, pointing out that they were now under a legal obligation to provide all the information I had requested, I received an email saying I should submit another FoI request. Ha ha. It took 15 months and the threat of litigation to get a reply to the last one – and that had been a second attempt!

I reminded them that I could take them to court and they gave me what I wanted in the first week of November last year. With that information, I was able to demonstrate that few claimants died after the DWP suspended repeat work capability assessments on ESA claimants on January 20, 2014. Alas, it seems likely that the delay had allowed the public to grow bored with the issue of sickness and disability deaths, so this went largely unreported.

So, after the DWP told the world it had provided me with all the information I had requested, it took another two months and more before my demand was actually answered.

And ministers had the cheek to criticise Mx Monroe for a slight inaccuracy.

It may interest you to know that in the period that the DWP had originally left unreported, a further 120 people died shortly after their claim was terminated, on a claim that they were ‘fit for work’.

What really gets my goat is the petulance of it.

The words that triggered the DWP’s complaint were part of a very moving article about the effect of Tory austerity cuts on benefit claimants, using information that could have been lifted from This Blog – connected to the release of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. In the paragraphs immediately following, Mx Monroe wrote very powerfully about the film’s effect:

“I went to see the press screening of I, Daniel Blake in early September. I sat in a roomful of journalists as the two central characters lit tealights in a tray, under flowerpots, to take the chill off a room left freezing by shoddy windows and cut-off utilities, as I did and wrote about back in 2013.

“I sat and watched with a heavy heart as she stole sanitary products from the supermarket, remembering going without, or folding up a clean sock, or balling up toilet tissue on the heaviest days. I barely left the house anyway, so there was nobody to really notice.

“I sat and watched as she stole food. As she queued for the first time around the block at a food bank. As she gorged cold baked beans from a can with her fingers, having not eaten a thing for days. The young boy turning to his mother, asking her where her dinner was. She replies that she isn’t hungry, but she wasn’t hungry the night before, or the night before that, and soon he’ll realise that Mummy just isn’t hungry any more.

“The woman beside me, a stranger, squeezed my forearm as I choked on guttural, involuntary sobs. I’m sorry, I whispered, sloping out to punch a wall in the corridor and cry into the blinding, unaware streets of west London. I looked mad. I am mad.

“How can anyone sleep at night, knowing what we know? How does the world turn, and children going hungry to bed is a guilt alleviated by a sympathetic nod towards the cardboard food collection box in the supermarket? If you’re not angry, as Loach said, what kind of person are you?”

Apparently the only part of it making the officials at the DWP angry was a slight statistical inaccuracy. What kind of people are they?

I gave up chasing the DWP for a while after I finally won my FoI battle. I was fatigued; I needed a break. The figures were making increasingly less sense.

And now, nearly a year later, nothing has changed. The DWP is still treating people like stock to be culled, and protesting that it is being treated unfairly whenever anybody points that out. In its doublespeak world, I, Daniel Blake is nothing but a work of fiction, whereas those of us with any experience of the DWP at all know that its facts are accurate. I have been away too long.

I am not Daniel Blake. But it’s time I stood up for everybody like him – again.

Will you?

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