Tag Archives: adjournment debate

‘Mandatory reconsideration’ – more money-saving by sending the sick to their deaths

National disgrace: The green benches were almost empty during yesterday's debate on the DWP's new 'mandatory reconsideration' regime - and the potential number of deaths it is causing.

National disgrace: The green benches were almost empty during yesterday’s debate on the DWP’s new ‘mandatory reconsideration’ regime – and the potential number of deaths it is causing.

It is hard to know where to start. Perhaps with DWP minister Mike Penning’s failure to answer the questions raised in yesterday’s adjournment debate on the ESA ‘mandatory reconsideration’ process, despite having prior notice of Sheila Gilmore’s entire presentation? Perhaps with the DWP’s failure to release accurate statistics, which is especially appalling as press officer Richard Caseby attacked a newspaper for inaccuracies very recently? Perhaps with the DWP’s continuing denial of the deaths caused by its increasingly-bizarre and unreasonable attempts to save money?

(Apparently they’re “anecdotal” so they don’t count. Does everybody recall when Iain Duncan Smith used similarly anecdotal evidence to support his claim that his benefit cap was “supporting” people into work, last year?)

The debate was brought to Parliament by Labour’s Sheila Gilmore who, in her own words, has been trying to get a succession of useless Conservative ministers to acknowledge the homicidal nature of their incapacity benefit “reforms” ever since she was elected. This was her sixth debate on the subject.

Yesterday’s debate was about the stress and poverty caused by the government’s decision to impose ‘mandatory reconsideration’ on ESA claimants who have been found fit for work and want to appeal against the decision. The benefit – originally paid at the ‘assessment’ rate – is cut off during the reconsideration period, meaning that claimants have no income whatsoever; housing benefit and council tax reduction claimants have their claims interrupted during this time.

People might be able to accommodate this if the reconsideration period lasted the maximum of two weeks that was implied when the new system was introduced, but it doesn’t take a maximum of two weeks.

The average length of time an ESA claimant – a person who is so seriously ill that he or she cannot work for a living, remember – has to wait for a decision after ‘mandatory reconsideration’ is seven to 10 weeks.

That puts a different complexion on matters.

Ms Gilmore called on Mr Penning to confirm the length of time claimants are being made to wait for a decision after ‘mandatory reconsideration’ – and asked when the DWP will publish statistics on average times and the total number of claimants who are waiting for a decision (rumoured to be 700,000 at this time).

She said the minister had defended a decision not to set a time limit on reconsiderations, despite concern from the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council that the absence of such a limit could have the effect of “delaying indefinitely the exercise of the right of appeal to an independent tribunal”.

Oh yes – claimants can apply for Jobseekers’ Allowance in the meantime – but this has a high level of conditionality. They have to be available for work, actively seeking work, attending work-focused interviews, searching for jobs and making a minimum number of applications every week.

What these Conservative DWP ministers are saying is that sick people waiting for an ESA decision must undergo a process that is itself extremely stressful, can worsen existing physical or mental conditions, and can lead to them being sanctioned or refused benefit altogether for failing to meet the requirements of Job Centre Plus advisors (who are not, let’s be honest, the most sympathetic people in the country).

Most who have applied for JSA have been refused outright or failed to attend necessary appointments due to their various conditions; or they did not apply, either because they could not face the trial of another benefit application or because they did not know they could.

They were forced to turn to the food banks that the DWP has accused of “misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking” and “aggressively marketing their services”, rather than being vitally important now that the government has reneged on its responsibility to citizens.

Or they turned to high-interest loans – run, undoubtedly, by some of the Conservative Party’s most faithful donors – and amassed debts at such high interest rates that they would struggle to repay them, even after being provided backdated payments. “One constituent sold off his few remaining possessions to survive,” said Ms Gilmore.

The Tories have engineered a situation where people who are seriously ill can be found too fit for ESA and too sick or disabled for JSA.

Ms Gilmore said she had been told by previous minister Mark Hoban – last September – that claimants could request “flexible conditionality”, to ease these pressures – but the DWP’s benefits director acknowledged in April – seven months later – that “not all advisors had been aware of this”.

So claimants had been deprived of a right to extra help because DWP ministers had not provided accurate information to them or to employees.

Ms Gilmore said, “It is hard to have confidence in the Department, given that previous assurances were clearly unfounded,” and it is interesting that this should be revealed in the same week that the useless ex-Murdoch yellow-press spin-machine detritus DWP press officer Caseby (Dick to his… well, to everybody) claimed The Guardian should be blackballed from new press regulation authority IPSO for failing to print, you guessed it, accurate information from the DWP.

Ms Gilmore also pointed out the cost to the taxpayer of all this hustling of claimants between benefits: “There is also an administration cost involved in a claimant receiving the assessment rate of ESA, ceasing to receive it, claiming JSA and then potentially claiming the assessment rate of ESA again. These are significant costs when multiplied by the number of people involved. In addition, if everybody claimed JSA successfully, they would receive benefit at exactly the same rate as they would have been getting on ESA, so if there are any savings to be anticipated, is it because ministers thought that people would, in fact, struggle to claim JSA during the reconsideration process, given that administration costs are likely to outweigh anything else?

“I am sure that cannot be the case,” she added. Of course that’s exactly what ministers wanted.

Her point was as follows: Why not amend the law so that ESA claimants can continue to receive the benefit at the assessment rate during the reconsideration process? “The only way that could be more expensive for the Government would be if ministers expected sick and disabled people to go without any benefit — and I am sure that that cannot be the case,” she said, ramming home her previous point about benefit savings.

Reinstating assessment-rate ESA during ‘mandatory reconsideration’ would be simpler than setting a time limit and may be an incentive for the government to speed up the process, she added.

Finally, she called on Mr Penning to publish the number of successful reconsiderations, rather than lumping them in with original decisions so it is impossible to tell exactly what has happened. She said this was particularly important because the DWP has been celebrating a drop in the number of appeals.

Her claim was that it is premature to celebrate a drop in appeals – or to claim the DWP was making more correct decisions – when the number of successful applications for ‘mandatory reconsideration’ was not known and many cases may still be caught up in the process as part of the enormous backlog built up by the Department.

Mr Penning made no offer to reinstate assessment-rate ESA during the reconsideration period.

He made no offer to impose a time limit on reconsiderations.

He made no attempt to confirm the size of the ‘mandatory reconsideration’ backlog or the length of time taken to reach decisions.

His response was about as inhuman as he could make it, within the Chamber of the House of Commons:

“I would rather have slightly more delays than have decisions incorrectly taken and then turned over at tribunal.”

This is an admission that he would rather push sick people into unendurable poverty, debt, stress and possibly towards suicide than make his department do its job properly.

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ESA audio recordings: Did Hoban answer and does it matter either way?

Audio anywhere: This image proves that Atos assessors can use their own laptop computers to create audio recordings of work capability assessments. They can then use onboard software to burn a CD of the interview and hand it to claimants on the spot. What's the problem?

Audio anywhere: This image proves that Atos assessors can use their own laptop computers to create audio recordings of work capability assessments. They can then use onboard software to burn a CD of the interview and hand it to claimants on the spot. What’s the problem?

He did – and some of the responses were actually encouraging. Most were questionable – meaning, it seems, the government will continuing trying to obstruct attempts to make the assessment process more open.

Those of you who read yesterday’s article will know that the adjournment debate in the House of Commons yesterday was about the audio recording of work capability assessments, which are made as part of the claim process for Employment and Support Allowance.

The government has claimed that, when the service was offered in a pilot scheme, too few people requested it, and only one per cent of them wanted a copy of the recording that was made – but Sheila Gilmore MP, in her speech, pointed out that Atos, the company running the hated assessments, said enough requests had been made to make it desirable. She also pointed out that the procedure for getting a personal copy of the recording was extremely bureaucratic and off-putting.

She asked five questions about the issue and, in an unusual but welcome move, ensured that employment minister Mark Hoban had advance notice of them, thereby offering him no excuse for failure to answer.

In the main, he did. But… well, you’ll see.

Hoban prefaced his responses by affirming that the DWP considers the issue to be important, something that “we must get it right. It accords firmly with our commitment to improving the WCA process continuously”.

But he said: “While we accept that there has been an increase in demand for its use, we must be sure that we understand the evidence base, including that relating to the value to claimants… The evidence needs to be balanced against potential costs, and that is the process in which my officials are currently engaged.”

We’ll go into those extra costs in a moment, but the comment begs an obvious question: Wouldn’t the extra cost be offset by the savings made by having fewer ESA appeal tribunals?

Later he confirmed that a claimant has no legal right to an audio-recorded assessment, and neither the DWP nor Atos Healthcare has a legal obligation to provide an audio-recording service or equipment. “The unavailability of audio recording facilities does not mean that the WCA process can be delayed indefinitely. That could slow down the process unnecessarily.” But he added that, since the introduction of audio recording, only nine requests have been refused owing to the unavailability of equipment.

He said (but the statement is disputable): “All those having face-to-face assessments have been able to request that their sessions be recorded… Claimants can ask for their assessments to be recorded, either by means of the service offered by the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos Healthcare or through the use of their own recording equipment. Requests for an audio recording, whether through the use of Atos Healthcare’s equipment or through the use of equipment provided by a claimant, must be made in advance when a face-to-face assessment is arranged. The purpose of that is to provide adequate notice so that recording equipment can be made available and ready for use.”

This is not what I have found. Long-term readers will know that my partner, the long-suffering Mrs Mike, suffers from a long-term ailment and has undergone the work capability assessment. It took place in early July last year – remember the date. I went with her.

We were not informed of the procedure for requesting audio recordings in any way. I went along with my dictaphone, but when we announced our intention to use it, we were told that would not be acceptable and the assessment would not take place if we insisted on this condition.

Therefore it occurs to me (admittedly from anecdotal evidence) that Hoban’s figures must be skewed. How many claimants found themselves in the same position when they arrived for interview – ready to record – only to have the carpet pulled out from under them? For a disabled person, the only option then is to continue with the assessment because – for many of them, it is a very difficult and painful process simply to reach an assessment centre.

Let’s look at the questions. The first was this: Will the Minister now accept that the number of claimants requesting a copy of their recording is not an accurate reflection of demand, and that the number of people acquiescing to their assessment being recorded is a more appropriate metric to use?

Hoban’s response: “I do not think that it was that difficult to get hold of a copy. The recording might need to be held on a handheld device before it is transferred to a computer and a transcript is printed, but that does not stop people asking for a copy. I thought that was one point in the hon. Lady’s thoughtful speech that was not well substantiated.”

This is inaccurate. For those who have never attended a work capability assessment, the Atos assessors complete them using laptop computers – because the assessment is a tick-box test that demands simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Laptops generally come with not only audio recording but also CD burning programs as part of the package, and even if they don’t, freeware recording software is widely available and CD-burning software is also available, if not for free, then for a reasonable price. If the onboard microphones aren’t adequate to the task, it is possible to buy them very cheaply – especially if buying in bulk.

In short, it should be entirely possible to record every single assessment at a reasonably high quality, burn it onto CD and hand it to claimants on the spot. For example, I have an audio copy of yesterday evening’s debate which I can burn off and hand to anybody who wants it for reference. There is no justification for the bureaucratic process through which the DWP currently demands claimants to navigate, which is – as Ms Gilmore noted – off-putting.

Hoban continued: “The results also provided little evidence that audio recording of face-to-face assessments improved the quality of assessments. There was only limited evidence of improvement in the customer experience for some individuals.”

SOME individuals? We must question these ministers’ use of language and that word is telling.

“Of those who took part, fewer than half the claimants thought that audio recording would be helpful to them.”

How were they to know? Did they expect to have to go to appeal and use it to persuade a tribunal? Were they even made aware that this could happen?

“Those are the key areas that Professor Harrington wanted to understand when he called for the original pilot. As a result the Department decided not to introduce audio recording of face-to-face assessments universally on the basis that a facility for all assessments would be extremely costly, with no apparent substantial benefit or improvement in the quality of assessments.”

Not true.

“Since the introduction of a limited audio recording facility in September 2011, fewer than 4,000 claimants have requested a recorded assessment. To date, Atos has conducted more than 2,000 audio-recorded assessments.”

So almost half those who requested a recording were refused it, despite that fact that using laptops to record assessments is cheap and easy?

“During that period almost 1.5 million face-to-face assessments for both ESA and incapacity benefit reassessments have been completed. Therefore, the proportion of recorded assessments is less than 0.2% of all assessments carried out during the period. We need to continue to monitor that take-up, but universal recording for such low numbers does not seem prudent and might not provide value for money.”

Not (provably) true.

We move on to the second question. I give you advance warning that the reply is scandalous: Can the Minister confirm whether any official DWP communications inform claimants that they can have their assessment recorded?

His response was to say that the DWP has recently provided more information about the audio-recording facility on the ‘Inside Government’ section of the gov.uk website. recently? Two years after the option was made available?

And he said: “I am pleased to say that we are … taking steps to boost awareness of audio recording. The Department and Atos are in the process of amending written communications to claimants by updating the WCA AL1C form. The document is sent to claimants when they need to arrange a face-to-face assessment and will provide more information on how to arrange an audio-recorded assessment. We expect the revised form to be sent out to claimants by the end of next month, once the necessary changes have been made and the form has been cleared for use.”

Sheila Gilmore rightly took issue with this, demanding: “Perhaps the Minister might be able to explain why it has taken nearly two years to make that amendment?”

Even if he was, he didn’t.

She also raised the issue of timing, which the DWP frequently uses to skew its statistics: “If I understood him correctly, he said that the evaluation of all this process was being extended to the end of the summer, so if the revised letter is not going out until the end of this month or the end of next month, there will be very little time to judge whether that has made any difference.”

Absolutely correct. This is how the DWP produces many of the figures it uses to hoodwink Parliament and the general public. If a procedure has been available for 24 months, but official documentation has publicised that to claimants for just two or three months, then the results are unreliable.

You will, undoubtedly, be on tenterhooks to know what Hoban had to say about this.

He said nothing.

Question three: Can he indicate how many audio recording devices Atos now have access to?

Yes he can. The total is a staggering 31 audio recording machines, three of which are currently being repaired – so 28 functioning machines. Atos also has access to 21 cassette machines which are on loan from the DWP.

“We constantly monitor the updating of audio recording assessments to ensure that the supply of the equipment meets demand,” said Hoban. Utterly ridiculous, for the reasons already outlined.

Question four: Can he confirm that what few recordings currently occur are part of a wider rollout or a mere further pilot?

This was the question he did not answer.

Finally: Will he accept Professor Harrington’s call for more work to be done on this? And will he rerun the pilot using the level of successful appeals as the key metric in determining whether or not audio recordings improve the quality of assessments?

It seems that he did! “we have decided to extend the evaluation period until the end of the summer to allow us to gather additional data on quality and potential take-up for a subsequent robust decision on any potential future audio-recording provision.

“We now have a benchmark for current take-up but, as has been rightly pointed out, we cannot get a true comparison until we routinely let people know about its availability.”

So what are we to make of these responses?

They’re a mixed bag. There is no excuse for failure to make recordings and hand them over to claimants on the day – that is glaringly obvious and the most scandalous part of this affair. Thanks to computer technology, it is cheap, easy and available. Considering the size of the DWP and the number of assessors employed by Atos, it is inconceivable that nobody was aware of this and therefore we must conclude that the failure to offer the service is an attempt to obstruct transparency by the DWP and its ministers.

There is also no excuse for the almost-two-year delay in revising DWP correspondence to make it clear that audio recording is available to anybody who wants to request it. In fact, because it should be possible to use assessors’ laptops to make those recordings, it is entirely possible to argue that they should offer it verbally at the start of the assessment procedure.

The extension of the evaluation period is to be welcomed – but the brevity of the extension is to be lamented and the “benchmark” data being used to judge the evaluation are entirely questionable.

As ever, with this Coalition government, any dialogue over its procedures is a war of attrition. This issue is not buried yet, and the debate was useful in teasing out the details.

The best we can say for the moment is that this is TO BE CONTINUED…

Nowhere to hide, Mr Hoban: With advance notice of questions there’s no excuse for failure to answer

Now get out of that: Mark Hoban has been challenged to come clean with the facts. If he does, he'll be the first DWP minister to do so since Labour left office.

Now get out of that: Mark Hoban has been challenged to come clean with the facts. If he does, he’ll be the first DWP minister to do so since Labour left office.

Let’s get something straight from the outset: By Parliamentary convention, if a government minister lies to MPs – or is found to have told falsehoods and does not then correct the inaccuracies, that is a resignation matter.

Until the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, this convention was observed by all parties. The fact that the current administration – which, let’s remember, did not win any elections to get into office – does not observe this convention is yet another indication that it is an outlaw government.

Iain Duncan Smith is a classic case of the Coalition attitude. He has told so many porkies to Parliament and the public that he is to be dragged before the Commons Work and Pensions committee to account for them. The trouble is, even if he is forced to admit knowingly misleading us all, there is no reason to expect him to do the decent thing and fall on his sword. He’ll damn our impertinence for having the cheek to question him.

Probably the best way forward with him would be for the Work and Pensions committee to take his case to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the committee on Standards and Privileges, as this seems to be the correct route to take, in order to expel an MP.* If he won’t go willingly, he’ll have to be pushed.

Of course Mr… Smith might decide to claim he cannot answer some of the more involved questions, if he hasn’t had prior notice of them; he could say he hasn’t been able to put the facts together. Then, instead of admitting he is dishonest, he’ll just be admitting incompetence. No Coalition minister has yet been sacked for that.

One of his fellows who’ll have no such excuse is Mark Hoban, due to face questioning by Sheila Gilmore MP – who also sits on the Work and Pensions committee – in an adjournment debate on the audio recording of Atos work capability assessments at 7pm today (Wednesday, June 12).

Why not? Because she has sent him advance notice of all the questions she will be asking, in her speech, which she has published here for everyone to see.

Firstly, she attacks the government’s assertion – made by Hoban’s fellow truth-bender Chris Grayling, when he was in Hoban’s job – that there is a lack of demand for audio recording of assessments. He said a pilot scheme to test whether audio recording assessments improved their quality had produced a negative result: “We decided not to implement universal recording because, based on the trial experience, people did not want it.”

This is – to nobody’s surprise – untrue.

The Atos pilot concluded, “68% of customers agreed to the recording when contacted by telephone prior to the appointment.”

This total dropped to 46 per cent due to some claimants not taking the assessment. This is most likely caused by the phenomenon of ‘churn’, as discussed on this blog, and others, in previous articles – a fairly consistent number of claimants stop their claim before taking the assessment because they either get better, find a job that can accommodate their disability, or die.

As far as Atos were concerned, the result was beyond doubt: “Our recommendation would be that recording should become routine as it is in a call centre or for example – NHS direct.”

This is the recommendation of the company running the much-criticised assessment scheme, remember. Even Atos wants better accountability and an improved quality of assessment that this may bring.

Ms Gilmore goes on to attack the government’s claim that the number of claimants requesting a copy of their recording is just one per cent. This cannot be regarded as an accurate assessment of the number who would like a copy, for two reasons, she tells us.

Firstly, the assessors used handheld devices to make their recordings, meaning they would have to be transferred to computer and burnt to CD afterwards, preventing claimants from taking recordings away with them on the day. Instead they had to make a further request – in writing. “Unsurprisingly this suppressed uptake,” Ms Gilmore’s speech states.

Secondly, claimants were warned off applying for copies by assessors who told them recordings would only be useful to them if they appealed. The report that stated only one per cent of claimants persisted in their request was completed only days after the pilot study ended, meaning most of those involved had not received a decision on their claim and therefore did not know whether they needed to appeal. Demand may well have been higher, had the measurement been taken after a reasonable time.

This is just one example of the DWP timing processes in order to get its way. We’ll return to that topic in a moment.

Chris Grayling also stated that the DWP would offer “everyone who wants it” the opportunity to have their assessment recorded. In practice, this seems an empty promise, as Atos had around 50 audio recording machines on May 22 this year, but undertakes more than 11,000 assessments every week.

Also, the option to request recordings is not offered in any official DWP communications to claimants. As Arthur Dent points out in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s not like they’ve gone out of their way, “like actually telling anyone or anything!”

What we’re seeing is a series of attempts to distort information and skew the facts, to create a story that supports DWP ministers’ intentions, rather than the evidence. That’s bad for the country, because it means decisions are taken on the basis of fantasy, diverting attention and effort away from where it is needed.

“Today I have taken the unusual step of emailing a copy of my speech for an upcoming debate to Mark Hoban, the Minister due to speak for the Government,” said Ms Gilmore. “Now he can have no excuse for not answering the important questions I intend to put to him…. I want to ensure the Minister can’t ignore these points, and that’s why I’ve take this action today.”

Whatever happens this evening, it seems unlikely that anything can be done about the DWP’s latest misuse of statistics – actually withholding performance data about the Work Programme (as reported previously in Vox Political) and the Youth Contract until the day after the government’s comprehensive spending review.

This means decisions are likely to be made on ministers’ recommendations, rather than on the basis of fact – and we now know that we cannot trust those recommendations at all.

The Telegraph, reporting the delay, stated that the figures – when they arrive – “are expected to be very disappointing.

“It is hardly unreasonable to say that the Government would sooner Labour did not have these to throw at it when George Osborne gives details of the Comprehensive Spending Review in Parliament on June 26.”

Columnist Tim Wigmore concludes – and this is in the Torygraph, remember: “The Government only has itself to blame if it’s getting harder to give it the benefit of the doubt.”

That time is long gone.

There must be no dishonesty in Parliament.

If Mark Hoban fails to give full and frank answers to the questions Sheila Gilmore has put to him, but resorts to distortions of the figures or outright falsehoods, then he must be expelled from his job, not just as a minister but as an MP.

That goes for his boss, Iain Duncan Smith. It goes for Grant Shapps, Michael Gove (mentioned in the Telegraph article) and, above all, it also goes for David Cameron.

Liars all.

*If any MP is reading this and able to provide details of the correct procedure, please get in touch.