Tag Archives: Gerald Kaufman

Mock indignation from IDS won’t halt the uproar over benefit-related deaths

The latest DWP-related death (to be reported in the newspapers): David O'Mar had collected thousands of football kits, to be given to children in Eastern Europe, before he succumbed to pneumonia after a tribunal said he was fit for work - while he was lying in a hospital bed.

The latest DWP-related death (to be reported in the newspapers): David O’Mar had collected thousands of football kits, to be given to children in Eastern Europe, before he succumbed to pneumonia after a tribunal said he was fit for work – while he was lying in a hospital bed.

The Conservative Government’s stalling tactics when confronted with questions about benefit-related deaths have at last tarnished the image of Prime Minister David Cameron, along with his ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions.

When Debbie Abrahams, a Labour MP whose own image is refreshingly glowing after she stood up for her principles and voted against the Tory ‘Welfare’ Bill last night, asked an Urgent Question of him in the House of Commons yesterday (Tuesday), Cameron was nowhere to be found, having run like a jackrabbit and left others to face the grilling.

His Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, was present – but refused to respond, despite this being an issue of serious concern to the public.

Instead, he sent his minister for employment, Priti Patel, to the Dispatch Box and confined himself to muttered comments from the sidelines. At one point he could be heard very clearly, whining, “Don’t lecture us about it.”

It was a public relations disaster – and on the very last day before the summer recess, meaning people will remember it.

Ms Abrahams asked the Prime Minister to make a statement on his commitment of June 24, to publish DWP data on the number of people in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance and Incapacity Benefit who have died since November 2011, including those found fit for work – to honour This Writer’s Freedom of Information request on the subject, and answer more than 240,000 petitioners who have supported it.

“I am disappointed that the Prime Minister is not here in person to explain why he has not yet honoured his commitment,” she said.

“When will we see the data published?” she asked of Ms Patel. “When are they being prepared for publication?”

“Will the Minister commit to publishing the actual numbers of deaths?”

She also asked how much the DWP had spent on staff and legal fees in the decision to refuse my FoI request – and now to contest the Information Commissioner’s ruling that my question should be answered.

She called on Duncan Smith to reconsider his decision not to publish the details on any of the DWP’s 49 peer reviews into social security claimants who died, including – importantly – changes brought forward by the department as a result of them.

Finally, she asked what assessment has been undertaken of the potential impact on the health status of those on Incapacity Benefit or Employment and Support Allowance, given the measures introduced in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.

Ms Patel repeated the platitudes we have heard already – that the information will be published “but before doing so the statistics need to meet the high standards expected”.

She added: “We will publish all aspects of the data that we have been asked to publish.”

Rest assured that this writer will hold her – and the Conservative Government – to that!

She did not say anything about the cost of refusing and appealing against my FoI request, about the 49 peer reviews, or about assessments of the health status of those on IB or ESA – despite being challenged several times by different MPs on the first of these issues in particular.

The tone of Ms Patel’s responses left so much to be desire that it attracted particular comment from – among others – the Father of the House, Gerald Kaufman.

In a room where emotions were already running high, due to the nature of the issue being discussed, she began by demanding: “Would Labour Members like to listen to my response before they start chuntering away?”

Her response was immediately branded “arrogant” by Mr Kaufman and a later claim that the Conservative-led Coalition was the first government to publish statistics on benefit-related deaths was labelled “misleading” by Labour MP Dawn Butler.

It is as though the government deliberately set out to cause upset, as Parliament dissolved for its summer recess.

For the record, the last-published statistics on benefit-related deaths were released in July 2012 and conveyed figures for the period January-November 2011, in which 10,600 ESA claimants died. That’s around one every two or three hours.

As Labour’s Kate Green pointed out: “There is huge disquiet among disabled people, as story after story surfaces in the media about disabled people being found fit for work and dying shortly afterwards—last week another story appeared in the Daily Mirror about a disabled man who died two weeks after his assessment.

“The shenanigans in the DWP around the release of the statistics are concerning—and puzzling, if the Department has nothing to hide.”

Mr Kaufman put Ms Patel right in her place when he said: “I say to the junior Minister that she needs to take some lessons from her boss in dealing with questions in this House, because whatever the nature of his replies, he replies with courtesy. She needs to learn about that as well.”

He had already cast doubt on the honesty of the Conservative Government as a whole, remarking witheringly: “I wish my hon. Friend (Debbie Abrahams) every good fortune in awaiting a reply to a letter to the Prime Minister, in view of the fact that in the last five years I have had exactly one letter from him, and that was after I had received a letter from No. 10 signed by somebody who did not exist.”

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Food bank debate shows yet again the government’s argument has no substance


By now, we should all know how these Opposition Day debates go – but Wednesday’s discussion of food banks was one of the best examples I’ve heard.

The form goes like this: The relevant Labour shadow minister launches the debate, quoting the facts that support the argument (in this case, that the rise of food banks is a national disgrace and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s policies have caused it), the government denies the charge – always with the same feeble excuses, backbenchers queue up to tell their own damning stories of what has happened to their constituents… and then the government wins the vote because its members have been whipped to vote against the motion, rather than because they believe it is wrong.

The food bank debate was textbook. Not only did it carry all these features, but:

  • The Secretary of State responsible, Iain Duncan Smith, declined to speak at all, but turned tail and ran after listening to only a small number of speakers.
  • Minister of State Esther McVey, who spoke in his place, delivered what Labour veteran Gerald Kaufman described as “one of the nastiest frontbench speeches I’ve heard in more than 43 years”.
  • As one story of government-created hardship followed another, Conservative MPs laughed. Clearly they are enjoying the suffering they are causing across the UK.

Each of these is a damning indictment of the depths to which the Coalition has driven British politics. But the debate is only half of this matter. Now it is our duty to publicise what happened. Many people may not know about this, or may not understand its significance.

They need to understand that food bank use has risen exponentially under David Cameron’s Conservative-led government, from 41,000 people in 2010 to half a million by April this year, one-third of whom were children. People are resorting to them because the cost of living is rising while wages have stagnated and social security benefit payments have been delayed or slashed. The government promised to publish a study on food banks in the summer of this year, but has delayed publication with no stated reason. The government department responsible – DEFRA – did not even put up a minister to speak in the debate.

Probably the most damning indictment was the vote. The Coalition government defeated a motion to bring forward measures that would reduce dependency on food banks. The obvious conclusion is that this government is happy to be pushing ordinary working and jobless people into crushing poverty – and intends to continue putting more and more people in the same situation for just as long as it possibly can.

We heard that:

  • People in Slough are fighting each other over discount fruit and vegetables in the local Tesco.
  • Food banks are visited by skilled workers who are unable to get jobs because of Coalition government policies.
  • Serious failures including administrative error in the benefit system mean one-fifth of the people visiting food banks are there because the Department for Work and Pensions has been unable to do its job properly.
  • The Bedroom Tax has hugely increased the number of people using food banks.
  • “The working poor are emerging as the Prime Minister’s legacy, as millions of people live in quiet crisis.” (Labour’s Jamie Reed).

In response, the Tories trotted out the old, old arguments, trying yet again to sell us the long-disproved claim that Labour forced the country into poverty by mismanaging the national finances. We heard, again, the turncoat Lord Freud’s claim that people were visiting food banks because the items there were free (ignoring the fact that everyone who visits a food bank is referred by a qualified organisation, and verified as being in crisis). We heard, again, the suggestion from our ignorant Education Secretary Michael Gove, that people are turning to food banks because they cannot manage their own finances (good management makes no difference if costs outweigh income; but then he clearly hasn’t been educated well enough to understand that).

Esther McVey’s speech showed clearly why she should have remained on breakfast television, where comparatively few people had to put up with her. She accused the previous Labour government of a “whirl of living beyond our means” that “had to come to a stop” without ever pausing to admit that it was Tory-voting bankers who had been living beyond their means, who caused the crash, and who are still living beyond their means today, because her corporatist (thank you, Zac Goldsmith) Conservative government has protected them.

She accused Labour of trying to keep food banks as “its little secret”, forcing Labour’s Jim Cunningham to remind us all that food banks were set up by churches to help refugees who were waiting for their asylum status to be confirmed – not as a support system for British citizens, as they have become under the Coalition’s failed regime.

She said the Coalition government was brought in to “solve the mess that Labour got us in”, which is not true – it was born from a backroom deal between two of the most unscrupulous party leaders of recent times, in order to ensure they and their friends could get their noses into the money trough (oh yes, there’s plenty of money around – but this government is keeping it away from you).

She said the Coalition had got more people into work than ever before – without commenting on the fact that the jobs are part-time, zero-hours, self-employed contracts that benefit the employers but exploit the workers and in fact propel them towards poverty.

She lied to Parliament, claiming that children are three times more likely to be in poverty if they are in a workless household. In fact, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in-work poverty has now outstripped that suffered by those in workless and retired households; children are more likely to be in poverty if their parents have jobs.

She attacked Labour for allowing five million people to be on out-of-work benefits, with two million children in workless households – but under her government the number of households suffering in-work poverty has risen to eight million (by 2008 standards), while workless or retired households in poverty have risen to total 6.3 million.

She claimed that 60,000 people were likely to use a food bank this year – but Labour’s Paul Murphy pointed out that 60,000 people will use food banks this year in Wales alone. The actual figure for the whole of the UK is 500,000.

She said the government had brought in Universal Credit to ensure that three million people become better-off. There’s just one problem with that system – it doesn’t work.

She said the Coalition’s tax cuts had given people an extra £700 per year, without recognising that the real-terms drop in wages and rise in the cost of living means people will be £1,600 a year worse-off when the next general election takes place, tax cuts included. She said stopping fuel price increases meant families were £300 better-off, which is nonsense. Families cannot become better off because something has not happened; it’s like saying I’m better off because the roof of my house hasn’t fallen in and squashed me.

Then, on top of all that, she had the nerve to tell the country, “Rewriting history doesn’t work.” If that is the case, then hers was one of the most pointless speeches in the history of Parliament.

Labour’s Jamie Reed had the best comment on the debate. He said: “The final verdict on any Government is based on how they treat the poorest in society during the hardest of times,” after pointing out that “the laughter from some of those on the Government benches … says more than words ever could.”

On a personal note, my own MP, Roger Williams, spoke about the food bank situation in Brecon and Radnorshire. It is gratifying that he is proud of the food bank set up by New Life Church, here in Llandrindod Wells – I well remember the telephone conversation I had with the organisers, in which I encouraged them to set it up. I am glad they took up the baton – and that he has appreciated their work.

Rather more worrying is the suggestion that he considers a possible new food bank in Brecon to be only the second in our constituency. There are food banks in many other towns, including Knighton, Ystradgynlais and Hay-on-Wye – with satellite facilities in smaller towns and villages. It is disturbing that the MP does not seem to know this.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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