This should concern anybody who has a long-term illness or disability, who has a family member with one, or may develop one in the future.
Disability News Service has reported that an assessor working for Capita, the sub-contractor hired by the Depatment for Work and Pensions to assess claims for Personal Independence Payment, basically terrorised a household.
The man, believed to be in his 50s, was carrying out the assessment at the home of Cheryl Matthews, in Cardiff.
Ms Matthews works as a customer service agent and has several long-term health conditions, including one that could cause a fatal aneurysm if she becomes anxious.
She already receives the PIP standard rates for daily living and mobility, but had requested a new assessment after her health worsened in recent months.
But the assessor seems to have been determined to ignore her information about recent events, describing them as “irrelevant”.
His attitude angered Ms Matthews’ 22-year-old son, who asked for the assessment to be ended.
On his way out, it seems the assessor shoved her son so hard that he fell against a door – then challenged him to a fight before leaving the front door open and kicking the safety gate – that protects their three dogs – off its hinges, damaging the wall of the house.
He made off, saying that he would be back to fight Ms Matthews’s son.
She has struggled to sleep since the incident, according to the report. Considering her health condition, it seems that – rather than helping Ms Matthews meet the challenges of life with a disability – the assessment put her life in danger.
We are told Capita has suspended the assessor and offered Ms Matthews £600 in compensation. South Wales Police has launched an investigation into allegations of criminal damage.
To This Writer, that seems right and proper – but what about other people facing assessment?
I should say that Mrs Mike had her PIP assessment at home, and the Capita assessor in that instance behaved in an exemplary manner. She was polite and considerate, and paid attention to everything Mrs Mike had to say.
But the incident in Cardiff suggests that others may not be so lucky.
It certainly seems appropriate to raise questions about the standards under which private companies, working for the government, hire people to carry out this work.
While the policy of privatising this task may be attractive – it allows the Conservative government to distance itself from incidents like this – it does suggest that the government is also putting people at risk.
Is this incident not an argument for these assessments to be brought back in-house – under the auspices of the public service, with higher, public-service standards?
Have YOU donated to my crowdfunding appeal, raising funds to fight false libel claims by TV celebrities who should know better? These court cases cost a lot of money so every penny will help ensure that wealth doesn’t beat justice.
Paige Garratt: She managed to recover from Hodgkin’s Lympoma despite the attentions of the Department for Work and Pensions.
Paige Garratt may very well be the one that got away, as far as the Department for Work and Pensions is concerned.
Diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma – advanced cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes and lungs – the 22-year-old from Flintshire found herself fighting for her life.
Her fight was made much more difficult by the DWP – which, as regular readers of This Site will know, exists to make life as difficult as possible for the sick and vulnerable.
Advised that she would be entitled to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – the benefit that we are told is intended to help people with a long-term health condition or disability with the extra cost of living- Ms Garratt was hoping the money would pay for travel costs as she was having to visit the hospital three times a week.
But the assessor sent by the DWP decided that she was not sick enough to receive the benefit.
At the time of her interview, Ms Garratt was couchbound after a chemotherapy round, bald and so lethargic that she had to rest her head on the sofa arm or in her hands, but the assessor said she was physically able to take care of herself – and this person seemed to believe that her mental health was fine, even though she never asked any questions about it.
The conclusion regarding mental health is unsurprising because the PIP assessment never pays any attention to a claimant’s mental well-being. The revelation that no questions were asked about Ms Garratt’s mentality is surprising; I have attended several PIP interviews and it was discussed at length in those. But the decision letters made no reference to those discussions and PIP claimants certainly do not get any points if they are mentally ill.
More worrying still is the lack of attention paid to Ms Garratt’s physical condition. It seems the PIP assessment, a series of tick-box questions with yes/no answers – one example asks whether a claimant can prepare food alone – does not work for people with cancer.
And most worrying of all is the claim that Ms Garratt was not lethargic, when she could not even lift her head. That’s a flat lie – the kind of lie the DWP keeps claiming its assessors don’t make any more.
Put it all together and it seems clear that the intent was to deny Ms Garratt the benefits she was owed, thereby adding to the mental stress and physical incapacity caused by her illness.
Other claimants have been known to die after receiving this kind of treatment – although the DWP insists we are not to suggest that any fatalities are caused by its chequebook euthanasia-style behaviour.
Fortunately for Ms Garratt, the DWP’s best efforts proved to be in vain. Helped by a social worker, she successfully appealed against the decision and was awarded PIP in May this year – two months after she finished her chemotherapy.
A scan has shown she is now cancer-free, so I wonder how long she will be allowed to continue drawing the benefit.
And the DWP? It came out with the usual load of old flannel. “We have never spent more on benefits for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions, totalling over £50bn a year – up £7bn since 2010.” This is a lie.
Still, the announcement that the DWP will pilot video recording of assessments may well lead to improved confidence in the process.
For now, Ms Garratt should consider herself lucky to be alive – in spite of the Department for Work and Pensions.
Michael Gibson, 36, said his Parkinson’s symptoms were made much worse as he was being assessed for personal independence payments [Image: PA].
As recently as Tuesday (September 12), This Writer was talking about the bad old days of disability benefit assessment to an acquaintance.
I referred to the infamous incident in which a claimant who happened to be an amputee was asked how long it would be until their limb grew back.
I said: “Thank goodness that doesn’t happen any more!”
How wrong I was.
The following happened to – of all people – a TV producer.
Now, you might think somebody working in television would have all the money they need in any case, but it turns out not to be the case.
Besides, Disability Living Allowance (DLA) was intended to provide extra help for people with disabilities and long-term conditions to get on with their lives, and we were all told that the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) served the same purpose.
Clearly, that isn’t the case, because Mr Gibson showed a clear need for a mobility car, and his assessors took it away.
PIP is clearly a step backwards and I would urge any future Labour government to scrap it.
It isn’t intended to help the disabled; it seems clear that it is about harming them instead.
Michael Gibson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease when he was just 18.
But despite Parkinson’s being a serious, progressive neurological illness with no known cure, the 36-year-old from Chorley says assessors who were deciding whether he could keep his mobility car asked him when his condition would clear up.
TV producer Michael says he relies on his mobility car to get to work at MediaCity in Salford because he cannot manage the 30-minute train and 20-minute tram journey because of his condition. Parkinson’s can affect movement and can leave him stiff and struggling to walk.
When his wife was on maternity leave, he was reassessed from the old Disability Living Allowance to the new Personal Independent Payments and was told he would lose his car.
Mr Gibson said he had a “terrible” experience with his PIP assessors, adding: “At one point I was asked how long would I have Parkinson’s for, and another assessor told me that I wouldn’t be eligible before she’d even started the assessment.
“Assessors are determining people’s futures with very little or no knowledge of the conditions people are living with.”
“At my last Atos ‘assessment’, when mentioning depression, the ‘assessor’ asked me why I hadn’t killed myself yet,” she told astonished members of the Facebook group.
She said the assessors’ attitude seemed to be that she couldn’t be depressed if she had not already killed herself: “I’ve noticed a few people, over the last year or so, going to Atos with depression are being asked that same question.
“I tried signing on for Jobseekers [Allowance], but thanks to the wonderful ‘Y’, who I saw, she said I was no way fit to work under any circumstances because I’d always be set up to fail.
“I had a doctor’s appointment this morning (December 4) and I told my doc. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard a doctor swear like that. The doctor swearing in response – a rather softly spoken voice – said, and I quote: ‘Holy shiiiiiiiit!'”
But it seems the scandalised claimant is set to have the last word because – unknown to her assessor – she recorded the entire incident.
“I shall hold my hands up and admit I did record it without their knowledge because sometimes my memory gets fragmented during these ‘assessments’ – it takes me a while to comprehend what’s happened,” she explained.
“I went to that assessment armed to the teeth with as much stuff as I could take with me. It’s not my fault that the evidence I needed didn’t arrive until after my assessment – as is the case with many others.
“[It is] almost like Atos want you to be there for your assessment as helpless as possible so they can fail you quicker – and if that behaviour can be proved, a lot more cases could be overturned.
“I’ve recorded two out of three assessments that I’ve had in recent years – and no doubt I shall continue to record them and expose them for the abject failures that they are. In fact, if we all do that, then there’s no way ever that they’d be able to get away with things. It’s the simplest and best form of direct action.
“For some of us, it’s the only action we’ve got left to take.”
She added that she had been “instructed” to email her MP. “That email went out at the end of last week and I’m sitting here waiting to get an answer – if not, I know the time and date of her next surgery and will attend that.”
In conclusion, she said: “Yeah – I’m sick of being sick.
“And I’m sick of sick-thinking people, sickly requesting that we should all pretty much piss off and die.”
Inaccurate: This meme – and others like it – provided an inaccurate interpretation of DWP statistics that the Torygraph and the BBC have seized, using them to hide the real issue. Thousands of ESA claimants are still dying every year but the DWP refuses to say how many. Why not? As David Cameron himself has said many times, “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.”
BBC Radio 4’s More or Less promised a feature on the long-discussed deaths of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance in its programme on Friday – and delivered five minutes of drivel that is an insult to the intelligence of anybody concerned.
As a reporter, I am staggered that the BBC has had the bare-faced cheek to patronise us in this manner.
The feature (which may be downloaded here – it’s the August 29 edition) took as its premise claims made on the social media that 10,600 people have died within six weeks of being declared ‘fit for work’ by Atos assessors.
There are several issues with this. Firstly, this claim is two years out-of-date. Many more are likely to have died since then but the figures are not available because the Department for Work and Pensions has refused to release them. Secondly, the claim is inaccurate, based on a misunderstanding of the DWP statistical release ‘Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of recipients’ published in July 2012.
We already know that the claim was inaccurate. Why is the BBC determined to rake over these old coals?
For the sake of the BBC and anyone else who is similarly hard-of-thinking, let’s go back to what the statistical release actually says.
Officially – according to the DWP – the 10,600 deaths were of people leaving ESA with a recorded date of death, between January and November 2011. The government document made it clear that “data on the number of ESA claimants who have died following a ‘fit for work’ decision is not available, as the Department does not hold information on a death if the person has already left benefit”. Efforts to persuade the DWP to change this policy and follow up ‘fit for work’ decisions by checking on claimants’ health at intervals afterwards have been refused at all times.
Therefore we may safely conclude that the number of deaths of ESA claimants is probably many times greater than official figures suggest.
In the Now and Then piece, the Daily Telegraph‘s Tom Chivers, enlisted to provide some spurious relevance to the show’s finding, said: “The DWP say they don’t keep records of the number of people who died after their benefits were cut off because that’s irrelevant to them; it’s no longer their problem. So we don’t have the full figures.” This is correct.
The trouble is, it is the DWP’s problem – and it’s certainly a problem for the rest of us – because anyone who has died in this way almost certainly did so as a consequence of the loss of their benefit! The news media has been riddled with stories of these people over the last few years, and we can be sure that the volume of known stories is a fraction of the true number of cases.
Back to the statistical release: Of the 10,600, the government said 2,200 died when their assessment had not been completed. This clearly suggests that the assessment process had failed these people – they died before they were able to access the support they needed.
A further 1,300 were in the Work Related Activity group. This suggests that they had been placed in the wrong group and should have been in the Support Group.
Finally, 7,100 were in the Support group. The statistical release states that “those in the Support Group receive unconditional support due to the nature of their illness, which can include degenerative conditions, terminal illness and severe disability”. However, just three paragraphs above, the same release states that the information it provides relates to people “whose latest WCA [work capability assessment] date (or activity towards assessment) was before the end of November 2011”.
This means that people in the Support Group do not receive “unconditional support” at all – they have to undergo periodic reassessment, at irregular intervals (due to the nature of the assessment process – you never know when they’ll get round to you again). This meant that people with degenerative conditions, terminal illness and severe disability are subjected to the stress and anxiety of having to face a flawed assessment system – rigged to find them ‘fit for work’ if at all possible – at any time. Stories in the press about people with terminal cancer (the most famous example) being forced back to work can only have increased this stress, making the possibility of early death more likely.
That is the situation. Now let us examine what the BBC had to say about it.
The More or Less feature is inaccurate from the start.
It states: “In 2011, existing Incapacity Benefit and Income Support claims were replaced with something called Employment and Support Allowance.” In fact, ESA was introduced by the previous Labour government on October 27, 2008 and while IB and IS claims were not migrated until 2011, it would be wrong to think that the deaths under discussion were of the migrated claims in isolation.
“Claimants were made to undergo a Work Capability Assessment to determine whether they were entitled to the new allowance and how much money they might get. Now some critics complain that these assessments are stacked against claimants. Seriously-ill people are being dismissed as malingerers by Atos Healthcare and having their claims denied. And in the middle of this argument, up pops the truly shocking finding that 10,600 people have been cut off from this vital benefit and then died within six weeks.”
Two things: Firstly – THAT IS NOT THE FINDING! See the analysis of the statistical release (above). Secondly – the claim is two years old; it was made when the statistical release was issued back in July 2012 and debunked shortly afterwards. Why is More or Less covering this old news when it could be asking relevant questions?
One has to ask why the programme enlisted help from – of all people – Daily Telegraph blogger Tom Chivers. He published a controversial piece about the Atos deaths on July 9, proceeding from the same – wrong – starting-point as More or Less. His argument is irrelevant because it does not relate to the problem.
In the broadcast, Chivers compounded the error with further inaccuracies: “In July 2012 there was a Freedom of Information request about how many people died within six weeks of their benefit claim ending,” he blithely spouted. WRONG. Here is the request, copied verbatim from the DWP’s statistical release and pasted here:
Information request: Can you please provide me with the number of ESA claimants who have died in 2011?
Can you please break down that number into the following categories:
Those who are in the assessment phase
Those who have been found fit to work
Those who have been placed in the work related activity group
Those who have been placed in the support group
Those who have an appeal pending
(This is the format I have used in both of my own, subsequent, FoI requests on this matter, and I believe Samuel Miller’s was phrased the same way. The DWP has sidestepped all three.)
There is nothing about any six-week period after the claim ended. The request is about ESA claimants who died during 2011 – no more, no less.
Chivers accurately quotes a paragraph from the response which mentions the six-week time figure. He goes on to say that he found it questionable and checked it with the DWP. What he then tells us suggests that the fault lies with the Department for Work and Pensions, for deliberately failing to directly answer the direct questions that had been put to it.
“They said no – actually there is a rather weird, obtuse meaning of it, which they mean it was six weeks either side of this thing – there was a six-week period either side of the death and that was when the claim ended.”
That has nothing to do with the original request! If they died, they died!
“A lot of these people would have died, and then the claim ended shortly afterwards because they were dead,” Chivers said, as though it excused the DWP of any wrong-doing. All he was doing was reiterating the problem – that people have been dying while claiming ESA!
Presenter Tim Harford then chimed in: “So what the DWP are doing here is, they take a snapshot, they see a certain number of people are making a benefit claim and are alive, and then six weeks later they take another snapshot and they discover that these people are no longer making a benefit claim, and these people are no longer alive?”
This would make a nonsense of the DWP’s statistical release from 2012. It covers a period from January to November 2011, inclusive. That’s 11 months, not six weeks! No ‘snapshots’ were taken – it was a running total showing all deaths during the c.48 weeks covered, not the sum of two ‘snapshots’ taken six weeks apart. In fact, the DWP should be grateful for this because 10,600 deaths within six weeks comes out at 1,767 deaths per week, rather than the 220 maximum that some of us have been suggesting.
Not content with producing a statement of utter nonsense, Harford decided to confuse the listening public with a completely different interpretation within minutes of the first: “So 10,600 claimants didn’t die six weeks after their claim ended; 10,600 claimants died within the same six-week period as their claim ended – not the same thing at all.” Correct – it’s not even the same thing you said moments previously, Tim.
And it still isn’t accurate! Look at the top of this article again. The DWP made it perfectly clear that it does not monitor what happens to people after their claim ends – these are all people who died while claiming the benefit, who should have been receiving the maximum amount of care possible, but didn’t.
That is the issue More or Less should have been investigating. That is why the show, Harford, Chivers and the BBC have failed us so appallingly.
The perpetrators of this atrocity decided to end with some unbearably smug platitudes – to show how completely they have misunderstood the situation, it seems.
From Chivers: “What this comes down to, as far as I’m concerned, is just a dreadful piece of communication by the DWP. This fairly, well, not simple but not complicated piece of information has been translated into 10,000 people dying within six weeks of being callously removed from their benefits.”
Wrong! Thanks to a few inaccurate memes, Chivers has tried to translate the DWP’s information into something it is not, diverting attention away from the real problem.
People are still dying – on a daily basis – because of the way the Department for Work and Pensions has decided to handle claims for incapacity benefits. It is a national scandal.
Remember: Those 10,600 deaths cover a period of just 11 months, ending nearly three years ago. How many have died since then? Has the number escalated or decreased? If More or Less had done its research, it could have been reporting on the biggest genocide of the British people by their own government since the Harrowing of the North.
Instead, we got this from Tim Harford: “So the moral of this story: It’s always worth asking what a statistic is really counting, rather than assuming we know.”
Really? What a shame Mr Harford did not practise what he was preaching.
Denied benefit: This is the late Karen Sherlock. Her illnesses included chronic kidney disease, a heart condition, vitamin B12 deficiency, anaemia, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, underactive thyroid, asthma, diabetic autonomic neuropathy, gastropaeresis, and diabetic retinopathy. She died on June 8, 2012, of a suspected heart attack, after the Department for Work and Pensions stopped her Employment and Support Allowance. John LoCascio would describe her as a malingerer. Considering the list of her illnesses, how would you describe him?
Some of our least favourite people contributed to a book entitled Malingering and Illness Deception in 2003, that seems to provide much of the ammunition used by the current government to demonise claimants of disability and incapacity benefits.
One of the relevant chapters is ‘Malingering, insurance medicine and medicalization of fraud’ by John LoCascio of the criminal American insurance giant Unum, that has been heavily involved in British social security work since the 1990s.
The other is ‘Origins, practice and limitations of Disability Assessment Medicine’ by Mansel Aylward, the Unum puppet who was formerly chief medical officer at the Department for Work and Pensions.
These are the two charmers who put forward a perversion of Professor George Engels’ biopsychosocial theory that calls an individual’s illness into question, rather than treating it, to the then-Department of Social Security back in the 1990s.
The assertion that it was a tool to reduce claimant numbers can be proved by the fact that Mr Aylward was asked to change the test used to determine whether a claimant deserved benefit, in order to reduce the flow of claimants with mental health problems. When politicians ask for specific results, you know impartiality has gone out the window!
Look at the title of the book: It labels incapacity and disability claimants as “malingerers”, defined in the book’s first chapter as those who engage in “the intentional production of false or exaggerated symptoms motivated by external incentives” – in this case, the desire to receive state benefits.
This fits with what we know of the Unum-influenced benefit system already – that claimants are to be treated as if they are trying to cheat the system, unless they can prove to a state-provided official (not necessarily medically-trained) – who has been briefed to find ways to prevent them receiving the benefit – that they are unwell. Their own doctor’s reports are ignored.
Let’s look at LoCascio’s chapter. He starts by suggesting that “disability-related programmes in both the public and private sectors are faced with increasing numbers of disability claims despite improved health care and job design (the disability paradox).”
Already we are in the realm of fantasy as he fails to mention the logical reasons for these increases, which include poor implementation of health and safety measures in the workplace under ‘light touch’ regulation, and the discovery of new medical conditions whose causes are unknown and which require protracted study before they are understood – all made possible by the “improved health care” to which Mr LoCascio refers.
Amusingly, LoCascio also claims that the commercial insurance industry “is neither medically nor legally driven. It is driven by societal imperatives”. What a whopper! Commercial insurance is driven by the desire for money. That is why his company has a criminal conviction to its name – it changed its medical procedures to make it almost impossible for anyone to claim successfully that their Unum health insurance policy had matured.
Much of the remainder of his chapter attempts to convince the reader that the lack of data available – to support claims that a medical patient is “malingering” – should not be used as evidence that they really are ill. He asks the reader to believe that three questions should be asked: Did the patient understand the medical issues? Are the patient’s reported and actual behaviours consistent through time and across observers? And are the functional capacities in question (the patient’s abilities) well-defined?
What a cheat.
It seems perfectly likely that any patient will understand the medical issues informing their condition. However, in a Work Capability Assessment it is common for the assessor to have a completely different opinion of what those issues are. This discrepancy allows the assessor to find fault with the benefit claim.
The second question supports evidence of those who have read assessment reports claiming that patients did not display the behaviours expected of a person with their condition – one famous example was that the patient was not “rocking back and forth”. The simple reason for this was that their condition did not display in that manner but the assessor – who was not an expert in this field of medicine – did not know that because the only advice available was a biased screed from the Unum-influenced DWP.
The final question – are the functional capacities in question well-defined? – can be defeated with a simple, two-word counter-question: By whom?
Also of interest is the concept of ‘Functional Capacity’ (FC). LoCascio argues that a person should not be expected to be incapable of any type of work, just because they are incapable of one. His example is that a person limited to typing for 20 minutes due to forearm pain may be able to play piano for an hour. This is entirely possible but contradicts one of the quotations Mr LoCascio uses four pages previously: “The question of disease—that and nothing more—is the one for the physician to determine” (Drewy 1896). It is not the assessor’s job to dream up functions a claimant might be able to carry out and then discount a claim for benefits on the basis of that possibility. That is not evidence; it is fantasy.
All of the above questions are also rendered pointless by the simple fact that a claimant’s condition may be variable. LoCascio acknowledges this! However, he then goes right off the rails: “I favour a series of three questions: ‘Please describe a bad day. Please describe a good day. Please tell me how many good days and bad days you have in an average week.’ Armed with this knowledge about any particular symptom and the corresponding reduction in an FC, the medical resource can proceed to analyse the consistency of the history against the medical or observational data.”
That is an inaccurate assumption. When you are ill with (for example) fibromyalgia, there can be a huge range of difference between days. Sometimes Mrs Mike has seemed able to function almost normally (she can never walk far without suffering a huge amount of pain in the following days, as an example of why she only seems more able); other times she has been confined to the sofa for days on end in terrible pain for which medical science currently has no alleviation. At other times her condition may be anywhere between those extremes. Asking for a description of a good or bad day, or how many of these take place in an average week, is not only pointless – it hinders understanding of the condition.
“In conclusion,” LoCascio writes, “the most important product of the medical consultant is clear, credible, and defensible
documentation.” It seems strange, then, that the most clear, credible and defensible documents – those written by the patient’s doctor – are the first to be ignored in any Work Capability Assessment.
What we have here is a propaganda screed, riddled with inconsistencies and running against reason, that has been used to support the government’s position on sickness and disability benefits. As an argument in favour of current policy, it is worse than useless. In fact, it should be a tool for campaigners to use against that policy.
It tells us why a claimant who lives in agony every day should be outraged when assessors use LoCascio’s nonsense to explain away their pain.
Who do you bank with? This piece of public opinion was picked up from Twitter [Author: Unknown].
Isn’t it a shame that on of our national Sunday newspapers has chosen to disrupt everybody’s enjoyment of our Easter eggs with a specious attempt to expose abuses of food banks and make operator the Trussell Trust look hypocritical?
Isn’t it also a shame that the Mail on Sunday didn’t make a few inquiries into the procedure for dealing with people who turn up at food banks without having been referred?
The paper’s reporters and editor could have, at least, opened a dictionary and looked up the meaning of the word “charity”.
Unfortunately for reporters Simon Murphy and Sanchez Manning, both situations are – in fact – allowed, because food banks must be flexible in the way they deal with individual cases. They would have known that if they had done their homework – as yr obdt srvt (who’s writing this) did at several meetings on the organisation of food banks here in Powys.
The paper’s investigation claims that there were “inadequate checks on who claims the vouchers, after a reporter obtained three days’ worth of food simply by telling staff at a Citizens Advice Bureau – without any proof – that he was unemployed”.
It turned out that this person had to fill out a form providing his name, address, date of birth, phone number and the reason for his visit before an assessor asked him why he needed food bank vouchers. In contradiction of the introduction to the story, he explained – not simply that he was unemployed, but that he had been out of work for several months and the harsh winter had left him strapped for cash and food. He said his wife had left her job and was not earning and that they had two children. These lies were sufficient to win food bank vouchers.
What the report didn’t say was how the details given by reporter Ross Slater would have been used afterwards. The CAB would have booked him in for a further interview with a debt advisor, to which he would have had to bring documentary evidence of his situation. When he didn’t turn up, he would have been identified as a fraud. The food bank would also have taken his details, to be fed back into the referral system. Job Centre Plus would have picked up on the fact that he isn’t unemployed. From this point on, he would have been identified as a fraud and refused further service.
You see, it is true that food banks run on a voucher system, but that is only a part of the scheme. The questions asked of people who need vouchers are used to ensure that they get the help they need to avoid having to come back – that’s why they’re asked. They also weed out abusers like Mr Slater.
If the paper’s editor had looked in a dictionary, he might have seen charity defined as “voluntary provision of help to people in need, or the help provided” in the first instance. However, reading further, he would have seen “sympathy or tolerance in judging” listed as well. It seems the Mail on Sunday would have no such sympathy and would have deserving cases turned away to starve.
It is telling, also, that the paper had to go to Citizens Advice to get its evidence. Far more food bank vouchers are handed out in the Job Centre Plus, where all a citizen’s circumstances are available to advisors. But not one word is said about the fact that the vast majority of food bank referrals are for people in real need and not newspaper reporters.
The paper also stated: “Staff at one centre gave food parcels to a woman who had visited nine times in just four months, despite that particular centre’s own rules stipulating that individuals should claim no more than three parcels a year.”
It continued: “Individuals experiencing severe financial hardship are able to claim food vouchers but there are no clear criteria on who should be eligible. Once received, the vouchers can be exchanged for three days’ worth of food at an allotted centre.
“The Trussell Trust has a policy that an individual can claim no more than nine handouts in a year, but undercover reporters found this limit varied in different branches.”
No – it is far more likely that it varied according to the circumstances of the person who needed the help. Rigid rules, such as one that limits people to only three visits, mean those who need the most help would be cut off while they still needed assistance. People working in food banks would be aware of who these were, and would be more likely to be tolerant towards them.
Meanwhile, the other support services – Job Centre Plus, Citizens Advice, Social Services and so on – would be working to help them. With some people, it simply takes longer. It should be easy for anyone to think of reasons why this may be the case.
This may also explain the situation in which a worker at a Trussell Trust food bank said people “bounce around” locations to receive more vouchers. The assessment system is a way of monitoring these people and determining whether they need extra help.
It is not true that the criteria are not clear – the paper is misleading with this claim. Food banks, the charities running them, and referring organisations all have to agree on the circumstances in which they permit people to receive parcels. You really can’t just walk in the door and expect to get a free handout. That’s why the questions are asked and forms filled out – they will check up on everybody.
Another claim – that “volunteers revealed that increased awareness of food banks is driving a rise in their use” is unsubstantiated, and is clearly an attempt to support the government’s claim that this is the case. But it is silly. Of course starving people will go to a food bank after they have been told it exists; that doesn’t mean they aren’t starving.
And the paper wrongly said the Trussell Trust had claimed that more than 913,000 people received three days’ emergency food from its banks in 2013-14, compared with 347,000 in the previous financial year. This is a misreading of the way the charity records its work, as the Trussell Trust records visits, not visitors. It would be hard to work out exactly how many people attended because some will have visited just once, others twice, a few for the full three times, and some would have required extra help.
The claim that many visitors were asylum-seekers is silly because food banks were originally set up for foreign people who were seeking asylum in the UK and had no money or means of support.
Of course it would be wrong to say that nobody is trying to abuse the system. There are good people and bad people all over the country, and bad people will try to cheat. Look at Maria Miller, Iain Duncan Smith (Betsygate), George Osborne (and his former paddock), Andrea Leadsom’s tax avoidance, Philip Hammond’s tax avoidance, Charlotte Leslie who took cash to ask Parliamentary questions – to name but a few.
The Trussell Trust has agreed to investigate the newspaper’s allegations – but it is important to remember that these were just a few instances of abuse, and only claimed – by a newspaper that is infamous for the poor quality of its reporting.
Nothing said in the article should be used to undermine the vital work of food banks in helping people to survive, after the Conservative-led Coalition government stole the safety net of social security away from them.
UPDATE: Already the Mail on Sunday is facing a public backlash against its ill-advised piece. A petition on the Change.org website is calling for the reporter who claimed food bank vouchers under false pretences in order to make a political point to be sacked. Vox Political has mixed feelings about this – it targets a person who was sent out to do a job by others who are more directly to blame for the piece, but then he did it of his own free will and this action brings all newspaper reporters into disrepute. Consider carefully.
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