Tag Archives: Department of Work and Pensions

Coalition caught out over ‘strivers v skivers’

Iain Duncan Smith may need to rethink his definition of 'scrounger' after it was revealed that work programme 'provider' companies have been cooking the books to make it seem that more people have moved into work than is the case - thereby pocketing large fees for services they haven't rendered!

Iain Duncan Smith may need to rethink his definition of ‘scrounger’ after it was revealed that work programme ‘provider’ companies have been cooking the books to make it seem that more people have moved into work than is the case – thereby pocketing large fees for services they haven’t rendered!

Well done to the BBC for showing up the Coalition government, whose work programme providers have been cooking the books.

The evidence was revealed in a 5 Live investigation, that discovered job seekers on the work programme are being encouraged to declare that they are self-employed – when they aren’t – in order to get more money in tax credits than they would on Jobseekers’ Allowance.

In fact, that isn’t even true in all cases, so these claimants are being led right down the garden path!

The Employment Related Services Association, the organisation that represents work programme provider companies – and, by the way, why is it that these business-representing organisations are getting such an easy time of it when worker-representatives like trade unions are still considered to be scum? – says its members haven’t been doing anything wrong. It would, wouldn’t it?

But people interviewed by 5 Live freely admitted they had been told to claim tax credits as self-employed people, even when they had no feasible job ideas or could not possibly turn a profit. They said they thought it was fraud.

And that’s what it seems to me – that they’re cooking the books.

Let’s remember that these work programme providers get their money from the government – the same Coalition government that has made great play of “strivers v skivers” rhetoric (claiming to be on the side of the strivers – working people trying to pay their own way in the world, against the skivers – layabouts hiding behind closed curtains where they waste their days watching the Jeremy Kyle show and claiming benefits that they don’t deserve from the state).

Not only are they actively encouraging people – who want to work and pay their own way in the world – to become, in the language of the government, skivers; these companies are actually, themselves, skiving.

They receive small attachment fees for every job seeker assigned to them, right? But they also get far higher fees when they manage to get someone signed off JSA altogether and into work. Self-employment is work. By lying that these people are now in work, they are taking money from the government under false pretences.

And they are also skewing the government’s employment figures. How can David Cameron stand in front of every MP in the House of Commons and have the bare-faced cheek to say a million new jobs have been created, when any number of those jobs could be fake?

Once again, we see that this government and its structures are all about presenting only an appearance of propriety, while secretly getting a hand into the till and removing as much cash as possible.

I wonder how many MPs currently at the Department of Work and Pensions will be getting jobs with these work provider companies after they leave Parliament?

It all amounts to another reason people should sign my e-petition to end corruption in Parliament by stopping MPs from receiving any financial benefit as a result of the decisions they take (other than their MPs’ salaries, of course). If you haven’t signed it yet, please, do it now! If you have, check that your friends have, too – and ask them to get their friends to sign it, in turn. Spread the word!

One last thought: I heard on the radio today that the proportion of pensioners in poverty since 1997 has halved, to 16 per cent. That’s an impressive achievement for the Labour government that was in power from that date until 2010. Its members clearly wanted to reward people who have worked all their lives, paid their taxes and supported British society.

What are those pensioners – who are being courted by the Conservatives, because senior citizens are more likely to vote than any other part of the population – to make of a government that is actively trying to hoodwink the current working-age generation out of the prosperity provided by a proper, working life?

Are today’s pensioners totally selfish, “I’m all right, Jack” types who think that this is nothing to do with them, and there will be no need to rock the boat as long as they’ve got their money?

Or do they understand that, as far as the UK’s prosperity is concerned, we really are all in it together, and the working-age population need the support of their elders – otherwise there will be too few people in work to pay the cost of their pensions!

It will be interesting to find out.

DWP/Atos/WCA: Unanswered questions demonstrate the Coalition’s cruelty

Mark Hoban, sending even his colleagues to sleep in another Parliamentary debate.

Mark Hoban, sending even his colleagues to sleep in another Parliamentary debate.

Citizens of the United Kingdom probably take it for granted that the quality of debate in the House of Commons is usually very high (Prime Minister’s Questions being the dishonorable exception) and that all the questions raised in that place receive an answer.

How sad to see that this is a comfortable lie.

The Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, Mark Hoban, directly answered only 10 questions, among the dozens that were put to him at the debate on Atos’ handling of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for Employment and Support Allowance on Thursday.

He added a handful of ‘answers’ that were not related to specific questions, and left a great deal of very important issues hanging.

It is interesting that Mr Hoban was the minister who attended the debate. Here in the UK we do, in fact, have a minister dedicated to the needs of disabled people. At the moment, that minister is Esther McVey. Where was she on Thursday afternoon and why did she not take part in this important debate?

Let’s have a look at the questions that were graced with responses. I think we’ll see the reasons for Mr Hoban’s choices very quickly.

“We are, in effect, trying to put a sticking plaster on a gaping wound,” said Labour MP Ian Lavery (Wansbeck). “Atos and the WCA are not fit for purpose. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should bin them both, and start again with the idea of looking after disabled people, rather than the opposite?”

Mr Hoban did not. “Much has been said about employment and support allowance not working—that is untrue,” he said. “What we are seeing is people coming off ESA and getting into work. The number of working-age people on ESA and incapacity benefit in February 2012 was 2.56 million—the lowest level since the introduction of IB in 1995. Early estimates to September 2012 suggest that overall numbers for this benefit are falling and will for the first time be below 2.5 million.”

So his yardstick for success was the number of people who have been cut off from benefit. That’s very revealing.

“Professor Harrington [Malcolm Harrington, who was hired by the DWP to lead three independent reviews of the assessment system] has made it quite clear that the WCA, designed as a first positive step for work, is the right concept for assessing people who need our support. There is a need to improve it. No one doubts that, which is why we have implemented Professor Harrington’s recommendations. The assessment we inherited needed refinement. That is why we accepted and have largely implemented more than 40 of his recommendations over the past two years. That is why twice as many people have gone into the support group in comparison with when ESA was introduced.”

His colleague, Charles Walker (Con, Broxbourne), did not seem to share Mr Hoban’s glowing opinion of these improvements to the system. He asked: “Does my hon. Friend share my fear that the reputation of Atos may be so damaged that it can never really be effective? Perhaps the time has been reached when we need to park Atos and move on in a different direction.”

In response, the minister said: “Let me deal with the issue of Atos’s capability. Atos deals with 100,000 cases every month and it consistency meets the quality thresholds. Only 3.6 per cent of assessments are below standard compared with a threshold of five per cent. It receives complaints about only 0.6 per cent of assessments. DWP decision makers return to Atos assessments that are inadequate for reaching a decision in only 0.2 per cent of cases.”

Note that we are not told what these quality thresholds may be, so let’s turn to the question from Natascha Engel (Lab, North East Derbyshire), who said: “The proportion of original Atos decisions that are overturned is shocking—it is about 30 per cent or 40 per cent. I would be grateful if the Minister replied to that point. Precisely how many people deemed fit for work by Atos have their decisions overturned on appeal and are signed off work?”

Get ready for a shock because this is where Mr Hoban departed from the script with which we’re all familiar: “Let me be clear about the rate of successful appeals. Of all the fit-for-work decisions taken by the Department, only 15 per cent are overturned on appeal. Only 15 per cent of all the decisions we take, then, are overturned on appeal, which I think demonstrates that while we need to ensure that there is a proper appeals process, we should not be bandying around figures that misrepresent the level of successful appeals.”

Only 15 per cent? Where did he get that figure? Other MPs quoted the 40 per cent figure in the debate, including some who had received it as a reliable figure in committee. Perhaps Channel 4’s FactCheckers should get onto this one!

Look, here’s Austin Mitchell (Lab, Great Grimsby) making that exact point: “As our Committee was told, 38 per cent of the cases that go to appeal—I advise all my cases to go to appeal—are successful in reversing the verdict. That demonstrates its inadequacy and the enormous cost in the reassessment process at appeal, a cost that is not taken into account in the Government’s estimates of the savings produced by the system. [We’ll come back to those costs later, although we won’t get an answer to that question] Those reassessments are usually done with the help of the patient’s own doctor, so I do not see why their doctor’s view cannot be invoked and used at an earlier stage in the process. After all, the Government are giving more power to the doctors and claiming that they represent the patients. The doctors know the long-term conditions—they are treating the patient—so why are their views not taken into account by Atos at the start?”

The closest I could find to a response was in fact an answer to a question from Sheila Gilmore (Lab, Edinburgh East): “When we asked judges why they overturned DWP decisions, they said that an error in the Atos assessment was the primary reason for an overturn in only 0.3 per cent of cases. However, although it happens very rarely, I agree with her on one point: I would like to get more information from the judges.” [I was later told that the prime reason for overturns is medical evidence from claimants’ doctors that was ignored by the Atos assessors and DWP decision-makers]

Moving on to specific issues, of the seven questions asked by Michael Meacher (Lab, Oldham West and Royton), Mr Hoban answered only one. That in itself should tell you how selective the responses were, and how little real information was in fact released. Mr Meacher asked: “Will the Minister accept that the current criteria and descriptors do not sufficiently—or even at all—take into account fluctuating conditions, especially episodic mental health problems? How will he rectify that?”

“That is not the case,” said Mr Hoban. “It gives people with a fluctuating condition the opportunity to explain how their condition varies over time. It is not a tick-box assessment, as some have suggested. There is a discussion between the health care professional and the person making the claim for ESA to determine how their condition varies over time. The questionnaire that customers are sent has been redesigned for that purpose, and people are now asked to give more details about how their fluctuating condition affects them as an individual. If a person cannot carry out a function repeatedly and reliably, they will be treated as unable to carry out that function at all. We all recognise that the capacity of people with a fluctuating condition can change, and it is important that proper regard should be given to that fact.”

How interesting, then, that Stephen Timms (Lab, East Ham) asked when changes to the descriptors for fluctuating conditions and mental health conditions, which were recommended months ago by the disability organisations, would be implemented!

Mr Hoban said: “We have committed to a review of the descriptors for fluctuating conditions, and we are working closely with charities on that. We also need to ensure that any new descriptors are as good as, or better than, the existing ones, for the purpose of assessing someone’s condition. That work is going on at the moment.”

So either people with fluctuating conditions already have a glowingly redesigned new questionnaire to help them make their condition understood, or it is being reviewed at the moment. Which is it?

Former Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan (Con, Chesham and Amersham) picked up on the mental health issue with some questions of her own. Firstly: “More than 2,000 people have signed a National Autistic Society petition to Atos, which was launched following the ‘Dispatches’ and ‘Panorama’ investigations, with which many of us are familiar, into the company last year. The programme claimed that Atos was working to internal targets on the numbers of people being put into the work-related activity group, the support group or as being fit for work. Atos has indicated that it is open to working with the National Autistic Society and other charities, including in the context of this petition, but I have a specific question for the Minister. Will the Minister provide assurances that no such targets are in place?”

He did: “Several hon. Members suggested that Atos had targets for finding people fit for work or placing them in a particular group. Let me be absolutely clear—let nobody in or beyond the House be in any doubt—there are no such targets. There are no targets for who should be put into which group. Instead—hon. Members would want this—there are quality-control checks.”

I do not believe this. I saw the ‘Dispatches’ programme mentioned by Mrs Gillan and it was stated loud and clear by an Atos trainer that there are targets, and they are harsh. A statement to the contrary by a representative of a government that has been more than economical with the truth? That’s not going to cut any ice with me.

Mrs Gillan went on to address the work of new ‘mental and cognitive champions’ employed to advise Atos assessors: “How many of the mental and cognitive champions currently operating at Atos assessment centres have specific autism training? Do WCA assessors receive autism-specific training? If so, of what does it consist?”

Mr Hoban’s response: “I can assure her that that is the case.” But he avoided details.

She asked how he will monitor the effectiveness of the introduction of those mental and cognitive champions, but Mr Hoban slithered away from that question: “It is not for me to dictate the work that Professor Harrington’s successor will undertake as part of the fourth review, but I think that that is a good suggestion. We need to look at the effectiveness of the recommendations that Professor Harrington has made.”

Picking up on the mental health issue, Madeleine Moon (Lab, Bridgend) asked: “We are told that specific support staff for mental health will be provided. Are they in place? Are they aware of the trauma of post-traumatic stress disorder?”

Mr Hoban chose to wax lyrical for a moment: “It has also been said that the work capability assessment does not take full account of mental health conditions. Let me say a bit about that important issue. We have sought to improve the process and the support for the health care professionals who are undertaking the assessments. All Atos health care professionals receive specific and additional training in assessing mental health conditions—Atos has 60 mental health function champions in place to spread best practice.”

Mr Hoban also went on to answer questions that were not, in fact, raised directly in the debate. Perhaps he has a guilty conscience! Let’s look at them briefly.

“It has also been suggested that Atos health care professionals make decisions on benefit entitlement. They do not. Those decisions are made by DWP decision makers.” We know from the previously-mentioned TV documentaries that DWP decision-makers just rubber-stamp the Atos assessors’ recommendations in the vast majority of cases. This is not a reassuring answer.

“It has been suggested that GPs should make the assessment. The British Medical Association has been prayed in aid. Let me quote what the BMA said about that idea: ‘However, it is not part of the GP’s role to provide any opinion…on the patient’s capability to work as part of this process. It is vital that these two roles are kept separate and that GPs are not asked to provide an opinion on their patient for the purpose of receiving the Employment and Support Allowance; doing so could damage the doctor-patient relationship.'” The BMA has already been approached to repudiate that remark; or at least to provide an explanation of what it meant.

“My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford [Jeremy Lefroy] talked about quality. The tribunal service can refer substandard reports back to Atos as an appeal for further action. It has exercised that right only 23 times in the past year. Rigorous checks are in place to ensure that quality applies.” But this number does not include the amount of appeals that they allowed without reference back, of course.

Now here’s his summing-up, with a few things he wanted to shoehorn in but didn’t have the opportunity anywhere else: “Overall, the proportion of people with mental health conditions being awarded ESA has risen from 33 per cent to 49 per cent. We are seeing improvements and more will be introduced later this month on the categories of cancer treatment that allow people to go straight into the work-related activity group. These changes are happening. We should recognise that change is important and that it is happening.

“This is the right approach,” he said in conclusion. “Demonising the work capability assessment does not help our constituents and does not address their concerns.”

If you weren’t shocked by that last sentence, you haven’t been paying attention to the Atos debate. The whole point is that it is the Work Capability Assessment that does not help our citizens or address their concerns. Demonising it (he’s stealing the word from protestors, who have been using it to describe the government’s attitude to the sick and disabled it is persecuting) is the only way to fight what is happening. But I refer you to the Skwalker blog for a detailed analysis of that statement.

Those were all the questions that were answered by the minister. He did his best to paint a rosy, “nothing’s wrong” picture of the system. But he did so by ignoring important statistics and questions raised by them.

Perhaps he hoped that nobody would notice – or that we would not be cheeky enough to put him on the spot.

Too bad. If that is the case, I intend to misbehave! In this spirit of mischief, let’s look at the questions for which Mr Hoban had no answer, starting with those raised by Mr Meacher:

“How can pursuing with such insensitive rigour 1.6 million claimants on incapacity benefit, at a rate of 11,000 assessments every week, be justified when it has led, according to the Government’s own figures, to 1,300 persons dying after being put into the work-related activity group, 2,200 people dying before their assessment is complete, and 7,100 people dying after being put into the support group?” (NO RESPONSE)

“Is it reasonable to pressurise seriously disabled persons into work so ruthlessly when there are 2.5 million unemployed, and when on average eight persons chase every vacancy, unless they are provided with the active and extensive support they obviously need to get and hold down work, which is certainly not the case currently?” (NO RESPONSE)

“It is true that Harrington has produced minor adjustments—implemented at a glacial place—but the underlying system remains largely undisturbed. The BMA and the NAO have therefore called for a thorough, rigorous and transparently independent assessment of the suitability of the work capability assessment. Will the Minister now implement that?” (NO RESPONSE)

“Will the Minister provide full and transparent details of the Atos contract? They should not be hidden by specious claims of commercial confidentiality when Atos is the sole provider of what is clearly a public service. Better still, given that Atos has failed so dramatically, why does he not in-source the work back into the NHS?” (NO RESPONSE)

“How will the Minister ensure that the medical expertise of disabled persons’ doctors and related professionals is fully taken into account before assessments are completed?” (NO RESPONSE)

“I want to provide a full dossier to the Secretary of State so that he fully understands what is being done today in his name, and to bring a small delegation to see him from some of the excellent organisations of disabled people who have heroically battled to highlight and tackle the distress and pain caused by Atos. Can I please be assured that the Secretary of State will see such a delegation?” (NO RESPONSE)

Mrs Gillan asked: “What steps will the Government take to ensure that Atos collects existing evidence relating to a claimant’s capability to work, which would create a more cost-effective and streamlined system?” (NO RESPONSE)

Natascha Engel asked: “How many people deemed fit for work who do not take their cases to appeal then find work?” (NO RESPONSE)

“Is it really for the best to sign people as fit for work when there are no jobs to be had?” (NO RESPONSE)

“How many of them are getting a job, and how many of them are just being signed over to destitution?” (NO RESPONSE)

Pamela Nash (Lab, Airdrie and Shotts) said: “The Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell [Chris Grayling], made it clear in a Westminster Hall debate last September that he felt that Atos “should make recording available on a voluntary basis”. However, not a single constituent of mine who has come to see me about work capability assessments has told me that they have been offered the prospect of having it recorded. In fact, one constituent told me that she had asked for her assessment to be filmed, following her previous assessment, which resulted in a report that bore little resemblance to that assessment. On that occasion she was found fit for work, but she subsequently won her appeal. She was informed that recording would indeed be possible, but that she would have to pay for a private, independent company to come in to record her assessment. Equipment was not made available to her. She had hoped to take a family member in to film the assessment, but was told that this would not be allowed or appropriate. How on earth is a person living on benefits—living on the breadline—supposed to be able to afford to pay a private company to record their assessment?” (NO RESPONSE)

“Will Atos reschedule an assessment date if the person concerned is told that equipment is not available on the original date?” (NO RESPONSE)

“In the event that a claimant refused to go through with an assessment without a recording, would they be sanctioned in terms of their benefits?” (NO RESPONSE)

Debbie Abrahams (Lab, Oldham East and Saddleworth) asked: “Why does the hon. Gentleman think the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos have been unable to accept the recommendations of the British Medical Association and the Royal Colleges for more specific diagnostic tests that would make the assessments more appropriate?” (NO RESPONSE)

Kevan Jones (Lab, North Durham) asked: “The first contract with Atos was introduced by the previous Government, but why did the present Government renew and extend that contract even though they knew about all the problems that he and others have raised in the House?” (NO RESPONSE)

“The system is also costing the taxpayer money, not only through the additional health care provision for those with mental health conditions but through the extra work load on GPs, the tribunal system, which is at breaking point, and the reassessment system. The other week a 60-year-old nurse with osteoporosis, who has spent 38 years in the NHS, came to see me. She failed the work capability test. She is 61 in April and is now being told that she will be retrained for a new career until she is 62, when she gets her pension. What on earth is the point in wasting money on individuals like that?” (NO RESPONSE)

“There are also cases such as the 21-year-old young lady who ended up in the local psychiatric hospital because she failed the Atos interview. What is the cost of that to the NHS?” (NO RESPONSE)

Kevin Brennan (Lab, Cardiff West) asked: “The head of Atos was recruited from Unum in the United States. Is it not disturbing that the lieutenant governor of California has stated that Unum was operating ‘claims denial factories’ for working men’s compensation?” (NO RESPONSE)

Mrs Moon asked: “Atos received £112.8 million in 2010-11 for its DWP services. About 60 per cent of all claims are judged fit to work; 41 per cent of those people appeal, and 38 per cent of those appeals are successful. Last year, appeals cost £54 million. How can that be seen as value for money? How can this be seen as evidence of a supportive and caring Government in action?” (NO RESPONSE)

“Is sensitivity training available, because it has certainly not been made available to the ex-GP who works as an Atos assessor in my area?” (NO RESPONSE)

“Has the DWP looked at the cost—to Members, to citizens advice bureaux and to welfare rights organisations—of fighting this iniquitous system?” (NO RESPONSE)

Jeremy Lefroy (Con, Stafford) asked a couple of real questions, besides the non-existent one that Mr Hoban answered. They were: “There are cases in which people have had to wait for up to a year before winning appeals and then immediately face another work capability assessment, so the whole process starts again. Why cannot such people be given at least a considerable period of grace?” (NO RESPONSE)

And: “Do the health care professionals employed by Atos always take account of the fact that people have to get to work in the first place, or that, while they may be able to perform an action once, they may not be able to perform it repeatedly when it causes severe pain?” (NO RESPONSE)

Andrew Stunell (Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove) asked: “Would not speeding up the appeal process also relieve stress and bring about certainty much more quickly?” (NO RESPONSE)

Sarah Newton (Con, Truro and Falmouth) (Con): “Does my hon. Friend agree that we must make Atos understand that in remote rural constituencies such as those we both represent some people have to travel long distances? That problem is leading to a lot of no-shows at the Truro Atos centre, which in turn is leading to lots of delays in assessments, thereby causing a great deal of anxiety.” (NO RESPONSE)

Ian Mearns (Lab, Gateshead): “The Minister for disabled people, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), told this House that by October 2015 560,000 claimants will have had their assessments, and 160,000 will get a reduced award, 170,000 will get no award, and 230,000 will get the same support. How can we know the assessments are valid when we have had such a prediction?” (NO RESPONSE)

Iain McKenzie (Lab, Inverclyde): “What does the Minister think of Citizens Advice’s detailed year-long study “Right first time?” on the controversial work capability assessment run by Atos, which has revealed evidence of widespread inaccuracies in the medical reports that help to determine whether individuals are eligible for sickness benefits? Citizens Advice also tracked a group of people through the process of claiming employment and support allowance and looked at how their claims were handled. The report’s conclusions are stark: 37 individuals were tracked and had their reports examined, with serious levels of inaccuracy revealed in up to 43 per cent of the reports. That level is significant enough to have an impact on the claimant’s eligibility for benefits—surely our sick and disabled deserve better than this.” (NO RESPONSE)

“Is it not better to have an accurate, fair and just system of medical assessment, one that claimants know will treat them fairly and with the humanity they deserve, rather than a system that is, frankly, unfit for purpose and that uses a company, Atos, that instils fear and loathing in people, resulting in a system where people are continually appealing against decisions? We have already heard that the success rate against the decisions is about 60 per cent.” (NO RESPONSE)

Heather Wheeler (Con, South Derbyshire): “When someone drops down dead within three months of being assessed as being perfectly capable of going back to work, what is the review process for Atos?” (NO RESPONSE)

Julie Hilling (Lab, Bolton West): “Why are Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions cruelly finding people fit for work or putting them in the work-related activity group when they are clearly unable to work?” (NO RESPONSE)

“People being placed in the work-related activity group is the next scandal. When people score 15 points and are found not fit for work, but are put in the work-related activity group, they will lose their benefit after 365 days. Is that another way of saving money, but one that also puts disabled people into abject poverty and causes them terrible stress?” (NO RESPONSE)

“Why do the assessors give more weight to work capability assessment descriptors than to professional medical assessments?” (NO RESPONSE)

“Why do they reassess people who have just won their appeal?” (NO RESPONSE)

“Why do they not record the number of people who die through illness or suicide when being rejected for disability benefit?” (NO RESPONSE)

“Why do they not track people who have been found fit for work and people who no longer receive benefit?” (NO RESPONSE)

“How much do all the botched assessments cost us?” (NO RESPONSE)

And Sheila Gilmore asked: “Research commissioned by the previous Government, which I understand is not being continued by this Government—the Minister might reassure us on that—found that 43 per cent of those found fit for work were neither in work nor in receipt of an out-of-work benefit a year later. We must ask where they are. What is happening to them?” (NO RESPONSE)

The conclusion? This is a government that is perfectly happy with a system that is throwing thousands of sick and disabled people to the wolves. It has made – or is making (Mr Hoban wasn’t all that clear) – cosmetic changes in the hope of diverting our attention. As long as the claimant figures are coming down, they will be happy.

As long as claimant figures are coming down.

Yesterday, in my article The High Street implosion is just beginning, I advocated the ‘constructive dismissal’ of the Coalition government by making its work so difficult that it couldn’t go on. If I was feeling mischievous, in the light of the evidence, I think I would suggest that we all ruin that drop in claimant figures by going out and filling ESA50 forms of our own – whether we deserve the benefit or not.

Clearly this government intends to keep Atos in work, so we may as well make it work hard!

Living under the threat of welfare ‘reform’

If I could force Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, politicians, and supporters to read what follows, I would. It was sent to me today in response to my article, Bedroom tax will put people on streets while homes go empty, and details exactly what the author – a fellow blogger going by the monicker Clarebelz – expects will happen to her after the bedroom tax and other so-called welfare ‘reforms’ come into effect, starting in April 2013.

This is not fiction.

It is what this person expects to become her reality.

While you are reading it, please ask yourself: Do you want to live in a society that treats its most vulnerable like this?

“I went shopping today to my local town with my carers. I only go a couple of times a year to get necessary things that are not available either online or at my local village. I had to pay for these things with a credit card.

“As the deadline for paying bedroom tax and council tax draws near I, along with others commenting here and elsewhere, are feeling ever more hopeless about the whole situation. I just wanted to go to bed when I came back, unable to face another day worrying about how the hell I’m going to manage when I’m hardly managing now.

“I pay back out of my DLA and ESA to the local authority £3,000 per year (it’s a myth that people with no assets pay nothing for care). My care plan has just been reduced by 25 per cent, the LA justifying that by saying, “We don’t fund that activity/job anymore”. Initially they wanted to cut it by 75 per cent, but I took advice and fought it. The activities/jobs that they won’t fund I still need, which will cost in the region of another £1,500 per year. When I next have a financial review, if they don’t reduce my contribution to take account of this, and I’m forced to pay rent and council tax, this will wipe out my food budget.

“And, if I lose out under Universal Credit, then I may as well just end it all because I am not going to be forced to go cap in hand to family or friends to survive; I couldn’t stand the humiliation after all I’ve been through both personally and physically, and such a situation makes you very vulnerable to abuse. A friend of mine had her DLA taken away and because of her mortgage costs she was left with £12 per week to live on (she daren’t apply for a flat anywhere as most are in horrible blocks that are drug/thief ridden). Her so-called friends offered help willingly at first, then they started bullying her and taking advantage of her. She got her DLA back, but she is still in a terrible psychological state because of the way people treated her. No thank you: I’m not going to go through that!

“Prior to complete destitution, I intend to demonstrate/beg on my street. I’m going to make large boards with my message on it, and get my carers to wheel me onto the main road to sit all day if necessary, so that the whole community can see what the government are doing to the vulnerable. I refuse to be hidden away like I was many times before when I used to go days or even a week at a time without heat, light or food. And whole winters without heat. No, this time I’m going to make sure that everyone knows. I’ll have nothing left to lose.

“This disgusting, despicable government has stolen the last two years from me through fear. I’ve just started painting again and doing other creative things that I used to, but it’s really hard to feel inspired when you’ve had the life sucked out of you, especially when your illness leaves you with little life left to do anything.

“I say that I’ll end it all, but really, we need to stick around so that the public can see our predicament. It’s just like others, it all feels so hopeless.

“By the way, my care plan assessor inquired about the bedroom tax for me from someone she knows at the DWP. The assessor said that the bedroom tax hits those of working age, which I knew anyway, but – interestingly – she said that the DWP person told her that the government has informed them that, once they have dealt with housing benefit in relation to people of working age, they will then move on to apply the same sanctions to pensioners, because many larger homes belong to pensioners who won’t move.

“So yet again the government are liars. Two years ago this autumn, Grant Shapps stated in a TV interview that the new rules would not apply to existing tenants; obviously not true. You can’t believe a word they say.

“Well, sorry to go on and on, but it’s been one of those days when I feel like, “What’s the point?” My home doesn’t even feel like my home any more; I have recurrent nightmares of my clothes and all my belongings strewn in the street, and my coming home to find a family have just moved in.

“It’s a horrible feeling.”

Just when you thought the DWP/Atos death trail couldn’t get worse…

This cartoon was clearly devised before the latest figures came out. They are diabolical and make the punchline here look quaint in its optimism.

According to an FOI (Freedom of Information) response publicised by the journalist Sonia Poulton on October 7, the current weekly average Atos/DWP death toll of people found fit for work after an ESA work capability assessment now stands at 73 people per week.

I don’t know if this is an increase on the 32 per week average that was originally put out for the period January to August 2011, or if it includes that period and runs up to the present. If the latter, then that makes a total of 6,643 deaths in this tiny part of the welfare sector alone, since the beginning of last year.

The horror stories are still coming in. Among the worst I’ve seen is this, from Michael Meacher MP: “Mr. D had diabetes, heart condition, and lymphoedema. The DWP made three appointments for him because he had major walking difficulties. The DWP then agreed that he could complete the ESA form in his car, though he had asked the DWP officer to come out to complete the form, which was refused.

“Mr. D died while completing the form.”

If you’re reading this and thinking how glad you are that they’re not taking your livelihood away, just remember this: They will come for you eventually. The time to take action against this brutality is now.

Cabinet reshuffle: Does Cameron think he’s the Joker?

Today’s blog entry will be relatively short. I had an operation on my leg yesterday (September 4) and it seems to be affecting my ability to think.

… And if you think that’s bizarre and illogical, let’s have a look at the decisions made by David Cameron in yesterday’s Cabinet reshuffle!

Firstly, the really shocking news: George Osborne is remaining as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Not really news, I know, but at the outset it makes a mockery of a process that is supposed to be about improving the government of the UK. Osborne’s policies are a disaster; he has sent British industry nosediving while increasing borrowing by £9.3 billion in the last four months. He was booed when he got up to give out medals at the Paralympics and he was booed at Prime Minister’s Questions today. But he remains in the Number Two government job.

Also remaining in post are Home Secretary Theresa May and Foreign Secretary William Hague; Education Secretary Michael Gove surprisingly keeps his brief, despite having proved by his activities that he is not up to the intellectual challenge (see previous Vox articles).

And Iain Duncan Smith will remain at Work and Pensions – oh yes he will! – despite having been offered Justice by David Cameron. This shows the weakness of the Prime Minister. As LabourList’s Mark Ferguson put it: “Cameron tried to move IDS. IDS said no. Cameron said ‘ah…um…ok’. Weak, weak, weak.”

Fellow Tweeter Carl Maxim added: “Iain Duncan Smith was offered a job at Justice but refused to take it. Therefore his benefits should be cut.”

And a fellow called ‘Woodo’ tweeted: “Gove and Duncan-Smith to stay in roles to ‘get the job done’. ‘The job’ being making educating poor kids harder and killing off the disabled.”

Biggest winner in the reshuffle has to be former Culture moron – I mean secretary – Jeremy Hunt, who has been moved up to take the Health brief. This has been seen as a reward for his work on the phone hacking controversy that led to the departure of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson from the Downing Street press office, and to the Leveson Inquiry into the behaviour of the media.

This seems a nonsensical move. Leveson has ordered not only Cameron, but Cameron’s friends Coulson, Rebekah Brooks (who now faces criminal charges for her part in phone hacking), and Hunt himself to give evidence in hearings that were highly embarrassing for those under scrutiny.

Hunt’s own close connections with Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation owns the papers that were mainly responsible for the crimes, is well-documented, and led to this tweet from James Lyons: “BREAKING – Rupert Murdoch to buy the NHS.”

This may not be far from the truth. Hunt co-authored a book dealing with the NHS at length, with Daniel Hannon MEP who called the NHS a 60 year mistake. The book states: “Our ambition should be to break down the barriers between private and public provision, in effect denationalising the provision of health care in Britain“.

He reportedly tried to remove the NHS tribute from the Olympic Games opening ceremony and his record in government is as dodgy: he voted to halve the time allowed for an abortion from 24 weeks to 12. His support of homeopathy has also attracted ridicule from some quarters.

Hunt’s arrival at Health follows the ejection of Andrew Lansley, the man who worked for eight long years on his Health and Social Care Bill, that effectively privatised health care in England. This work constituted the biggest lie this government ever sold to the public – that the Conservatives would safeguard the well-loved 64-year-old national institution. His reward? Demotion to become Leader of the House of Commons.

Former employment minister Chris Grayling, a man who believes bed and breakfast owners should be allowed to ban gay couples, has been promoted to the Justice brief. In response, one tweeter asked if Cameron will be building more prisons.

This means the oldest Cabinet member, Kenneth Clarke, has been ejected from Justice. David Cameron reportedly tried to sack him outright, along with departing Conservative co-chair Baroness Warsi, but ended up compounding his weakness by creating new roles for them instead. Clarke will be a minister without portfolio (although it is believed he’ll be sticking his oar into Osborne’s business at the Treasury), and Warsi will be minister for faith and communities.

Nick Parry tweeted: “Now ‘Baroness’ Warsi really knows what it’s like to be Northern and working-class – she’s been made redundant by the Tories.”

And Rory Macqueen asked: “Who has replaced Warsi in the <issue off-the-shelf statement about “Labour’s union baron paymasters”> role? It looks really challenging.”

That would be tireless self-promoter and foot-in-mouth artist Grant Shapps.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel… The new Transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, is afraid of flying.

And the former minister for the disabled, Maria ‘Killer’ Miller, is the new Equalities minister. She’ll be victimising women, gays and ethnic minorities as well, from now on. If you think that’s harsh, bear in mind that she voted for a (heavily defeated) proposal to stop abortion providers like Marie Stopes counselling women, and is on record as being in favour of defining homophobia, racial hatred and prejudice as ‘freedom of speech’.

Beyond that, we’re into comedy territory. For example, Mid Wales Labour member Ryan Myles said: “Apparently David Cameron was planning on moving Eric Pickles but couldn’t afford the crane.”

All in all, it’s been a wholesale replacement of anybody with talent, by idiots. The tweeter who identifies himself with Yes Minister lead character Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP summed it up perfectly: “Expected a night of the long knives, may just be a morning of insignificant pricks!

Workfare ruling leaves too many questions unanswered

Cait Reilly, the graduate who was forced to leave her voluntary work in a museum to stack shelves at Poundland on the government’s Workfare scheme, has lost her case against the government.
Mr Justice Foskitt, at the High Court in London, said, “characterising such a scheme as involving or being analogous to ‘slavery’ or ‘forced labour’ seems to me to be a long way from contemporary thinking”.
What an interesting choice of words!
Back at the turn of the century, contemporary thinking stated that a woman’s place was in the home, and that she must never contradict her husband, take a job, or be allowed the right to vote. A few decades ago, contemporary thinking about homosexuality forced Alan Turing, the Bletchworth Park genius who cracked the Enigma code, thereby hugely boosting the Allies’ chances of winning World War II, to commit suicide.
Contemporary thinking has been responsible for terrible injustices and this is one of them.
I wonder if he really meant “contemporary thinking”, anyway. Did he, in fact, mean it’s a long way from what the government of the day thinks?
The judge ruled that Workfare does not contravene article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits forced labour and slavery.
A friend of mine looked up “slave” in the dictionary and found among its definitions the following: “A person who is forced to work for another against his will” and “A person who works in harsh conditions for low pay”.
I think we can agree that Cait Reilly was made to work at Poundland against her will (we’ll get to the failings of the DWP’s correspondence in a moment) and, while I can’t comment on the conditions, it is certain that her benefit payment was below minimum wage and therefore, by definition, was low pay.
So by dictionary definitions, she was a slave. Perhaps the judge was commenting on the fact that the legal definition needs to be rewritten?
It wasn’t all good news for the government, though. Although this scheme will remain unpaid, it seems it must be totally voluntary, and communications between the DWP and claimants must reflect this. In other words, the DWP must clean up its correspondence to make it clear that claimants can say no.
Those who have already had their benefits removed for refusing Workfare might now be entitled to compensation. Law firm Public Interest Lawyers, who acted for Ms Reilly, said more than 22,000 people had been stripped of their benefits for refusing Workfare by January 2012. By now (August) this figure may have doubled.
The DWP has announced that it will appeal against the decision. A spokesman has been quoted by the Guardian, saying: “We do not believe there is anything wrong with the original letters and we will appeal this aspect of the judgment, but in the meantime we have revised our standard letters.”
This begs the obvious question: If there was nothing wrong with the original letters, why change them?
The saddest fact about the case is that none of the above touches the real problems with Workfare.
It is not the taxpayers’ responsibility to pay the wages of people employed by a private company. If Poundland wants people to stack its shelves, it should hire them at a living wage, rather than ask the government to provide workers and pay them only in state benefits.
Poundland’s annual profit in 2010 was £21,500,000. Split among its 390-odd stores, that’s more than £54,000 – or enough to pay three extra employees, per store, on minimum wage, with cash to spare. Make it a decent, living wage, and that’s still two extra employees (with a lot more cash to spare).
It could be argued that Poundland has been providing a public service for the government by taking on Workfare jobseekers when it didn’t need any more employees. If this is the case, we must ask why Cait Reilly was promised a job interview at the end of it. The fact that the promised interview never happened, I think, also provides our answer: Poundland has been taking advantage of the scheme to get cheap labour.
If that is true, then the company has gained financial benefit from having Ms Reilly – and others on Workfare – stacking its shelves. Poundland has made money from it, so Poundland should pay all those working for the company a decent wage – including those on Workfare who have helped create that profit.
If this does not happen, then no employer in his or her right mind would think of paying the full amount for an employee when they can get them on Workfare instead, and have the taxpayer foot the bill. Workfare is therefore a way of ensuring that the current lack of full-time jobs continues into the future.
At a time when the government is complaining that the benefits bill is too high – and trying to blame that on so-called workshy scroungers fraudulently claiming they are disabled (fraud rate on those is less than 0.4 per cent) – it is insane for ministers to send those on benefits to work for profitable firms at no cost to the employer.