Ian Austin’s attempt to take the moral high ground after being notified of disciplinary action against him suggests he is a very cynical individual.
He says he is angry about anti-Semitism – but then why did he verbally attack the poet Michael Rosen at a committee meeting examining Holocaust education?
Mr Rosen tweets about the experience here:
No, no, no. There was a sub-committee of the Education Committee looking at Holocaust Education. A wide range of people were invited to give submissions an talk to them. For some reason, @IanAustinMP decided to break the pattern and start shouting at me. https://t.co/yBd0HWocgy
What was weird was that it wasn't a Select Committee grilling. It was meant to be an information and experience exchange. And it was up until @IanAustinMP singlehandedly changed the terms of reference and started shouting at me. https://t.co/kjHdYIPOj0
He was enraged that I had questioned the narrative that 'Britain stood alone'. I hadn't questioned that. I questioned whether Holocaust Education in the UK should insert gratuitous self-congratulation. https://t.co/zsinGghGQs
Mr Austin is probably best known for trying to shout down Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the report of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War.
It seems he also refused to vote against the fiscal rules brought in by George Osborne, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, that introduced us all to Tory austerity.
And his expense claims are, reportedly, a disgrace.
Yet he is trying to use the manufactured anti-Semitism crisis in the Labour Party to gain sympathy – and attack Mr Corbyn again.
Labour faced fresh controversy over its policy on antisemitism on Saturday after it emerged that a second MP who has criticised the party’s new code on the issue may face disciplinary action leading to suspension from the party.
Ian Austin, whose adoptive parents were Czech Jewish refugees who lost relatives in the Holocaust, was sent a letter earlier this month from the party’s head office warning that he was being investigated for “abusive conduct” in parliament.
The MP for Dudley North had clashed with the Labour party chair, Ian Lavery, in the House of Commons just before the parliamentary recess in a heated exchange that was witnessed by other MPs.
Austin was angry about the party’s new code, which recognises the internationally accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism but does not replicate in full its list of examples.
Austin told the Observer: “Wouldn’t it be great if they dealt with the people responsible for racism as quickly as they dealt with the people who are understandably upset about it? I am angry about antisemitism and I am angry that the Labour party can’t deal with it adequately.”
Ian Lavery launched his ambitious Bill to abolish the Bedroom Tax yesterday. [Image: Daily Mirror]
Make no mistake about it – the purpose of the legislation tabled yesterday (Wednesday) by Labour’s Ian Lavery is to discover how many Liberal Democrat MPs are redeemable and how many have been irreversibly corrupted by their current alliance with the Conservatives.
The Bill to abolish the hated Bedroom Tax is unlikely to gain Royal Assent unless Liberal Democrats who supported the imposition of the Bedroom Tax reverse their point of view. There is even the possibility that some Conservatives may now realise that they, as Mr Lavery put it, “underestimated the real consequences of walking through the Government Lobby to support the introduction”. He also said: “It is an olive branch… I would hope that my Bill would receive support from members in all parties.”
MPs voted almost unanimously for the Bill to be brought in, with 226 votes in favour and only one against – but readers of this blog will be familiar with the fact that this happened with Michael Meacher’s motion for a commission of inquiry into the impact of social security changes on poverty. The House approved; the government did nothing.
So don’t get your hopes up too high.
Mr Lavery was the only person to speak on the subject, and his words are well worth noting here.
“The full and sole intention of this Bill is to sweep away the dreaded bedroom tax,” he said.
“It seeks to restore justice for up to 660,000 people — some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens, two-thirds of whom are disabled. They have been inhumanely let down by the Government’s reforms to housing benefit in the social sector. The tax has caused heartache and devastation to thousands of residents up and down this country. It is a tax whose forced implementation has put extreme pressure on councils, housing associations and social landlords. It is a tax that has put extreme pressure on the ordinary working people who are forced to deal with those unable to move and those unable to pay.
“On the introduction of the tax, Ministers argued that the changes would encourage people to downsize to smaller properties and, in doing so, help to cut the £23 billion annual bill for housing benefit; would free up living space for overcrowded families; and would encourage people to get jobs. Significantly, it has achieved none of those objectives.
“At the same time, the Department for Work and Pensions has trumpeted the measure as ‘returning fairness to housing benefit’. The words ‘fairness’ and ‘bedroom tax’ should not be uttered in the same sentence.”
He said: “This tax is a problem in each and every constituency up and down the country; this is not simply a problem in Labour-dominated authorities. I was contacted only last week by a distraught resident from the Tory shires who is hoping that my Bill will be successful, because he, a disabled man, is living in a three-bedroom property and has just received an eviction notice for bedroom tax arrears. He is not alone. The bedroom tax sufferers in Liberal Democrat and Tory constituencies number around 250,000. Perhaps we should ask them whether they think this abominable tax has restored fairness to housing benefit.”
Mr Lavery said his Bill seeks “to restore fairness and to end the misery that the bedroom tax has caused”. He said there are hundreds, if not thousands, of “appalling” examples of suffering, mentioning (but not naming) mother-of-two Stephanie Bottrill, a woman suffering a crippling illness who committed suicide after realising that she could not pay the bedroom tax. Her family received correspondence later saying that she should have been exempt from the charge.
He also mentioned a case he said was “hard to comprehend; it really is difficult to try to get to grips with”. He said: “The family of the 1999 child of courage, who spent years battling multiple cancers, is suffering at the hands of this horrible reform. These people are not living a life of luxury in palatial properties; they are living in a place in which they feel safe and which they call home. It is time to listen. I am sure that most fair-minded individuals would agree that a bedroom is not spare when carers sleep in it, when couples use it because one of them has health problems and they cannot share a bed, or when it houses vital medical equipment, yet this indiscriminate tax deems it so.
“The reality is that yet another measure introduced by this Government is in total and utter chaos. It lies in tatters, with the victims left to pick up the pieces. As thousands suffer, there is a real risk that the bedroom tax will end up costing more than it saves. The National Housing Federation has said that the savings claimed by the Government are ‘highly questionable’, partly because those who are forced to move to the private rented sector will end up costing more in housing benefit.
“Surely, as politicians and members of the general public, we are entitled to question the motives behind the introduction of the bedroom tax. The tax does not deal with the problem of under-occupation. In fact, the Government’s costings on the yield raised from the bedroom tax explicitly assume that people will not move into smaller properties. There are simply not enough smaller properties for people to move into.
“Some 180,000 households were deemed to be under-occupying two-bedroom homes, yet only 85,000 one-bedroom homes became available during the whole of 2012. The savings projections of the Department for Work and Pensions assume that not one of the 660,000 households affected would respond to the policy by moving to a smaller home. Put simply, this is yet another example of the Government balancing the books on the backs of the disabled and the vulnerable. The tax must be scrapped now.
“Housing associations say that tens of millions of pounds are likely to be lost through the build-up of arrears. Reports this morning estimate that 144,000 people have fallen behind with their rents since the introduction of the bedroom tax and that 14 per cent have received eviction notices [20,160].
“Was that really meant to happen? Was this eviction of the poor really the plan of the Government?
“In October, research by the University of York, which was based on data by the housing associations that have tenants affected by the bedroom tax, suggested that the policy could save up to 39 per cent less than the DWP had predicted. In the past week, it has emerged that more than half of the £500 million that the Government claim will be saved by the hated tax will be spent on re-housing disabled people. These are vulnerable people who already live in properties that have been adapted for their needs and who have built up local support networks with their friends, family and neighbours. The future for them lies in communities that are unknown and foreign to them. They have been cast out like the proverbial dog in the night.”
Interrupted when he mentioned the loophole that exempted Stephanie Bottrill from paying the bedroom tax – another member said that the loophole had been closed – Mr Lavery continued: “As Ministers scramble to mop up the mistakes, another challenge to the hated tax has arisen. A judge has overturned the tax in the case of a Rochdale man who argued that one of his bedrooms was used as a dining room. The appeal was upheld on the basis that the dictionary definition of a bedroom is a room that contains a bed that is used for sleeping in. An avalanche of appeals is on its way.
“I am proud to see that, only last week, the Scottish Labour party shamed the Scottish National party into abolishing the bedroom tax. I must put it on the record that I am also proud that one of the first acts of a future Labour Government will be to end this full frontal attack on the vulnerable. However, we cannot afford to wait until the general election of 2015. I urge the supporters of this tax to think again.
“The question is this: Are they happy to see the misery and social disruption of the vulnerable and disabled? I began this speech by expressing the view that those who voted in favour of introducing this dreaded bedroom tax may have underestimated the human suffering that it would cause. That is no longer in any doubt, so I urge them all to do the honourable thing and support my Bill.”
That really is the question for members of the public to consider, along with MPs. If your MP votes against Mr Lavery’s Bill, then you will know that they are, indeed, happy to inflict misery and disruption on the vulnerable and disabled.
Do you want to live in a country where people like that are allowed to rule?
Make no mistake: This legislation is unlikely to succeed without support from people who previously helped bring the Bedroom Tax into law. As such, it might not work.
But this is also legislation that should help you decide how you will vote in May next year.
We can hope that our MPs – and you yourself, dear reader – choose wisely.
The Bill will have its second reading on February 28.
Labour’s Chris Bryant took the opportunity afforded by Mr Lavery’s motion to bring a point of order – that Iain Duncan Smith, Esther McVey and Lord Freud had been using false statistics. He said: “Earlier this year, when asked how many people had been affected by the loophole in the bedroom tax legislation, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions… said that the number was between 3,000 and 5,000. In a written answer, the Minister of State… (Esther McVey)… said that she did not know how many had been affected. Lord Freud, a Minister in another place, said that it was an insignificant number. Today, however, he told the Work and Pensions Committee of this House that the number was 5,000.
“We have been doing their work for them, and from Freedom of Information requests to local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, we already know, from just the third that replied, of 16,000 cases.”
Debbie Abrahams, a member of the Work and Pensions committee to whom Lord Freud provided the false figure, said committee members will be pursuing the matter.
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!
The callousness of this Coalition government and its Conservative figurehead never ceases to disappoint me.
It seems that some commentators, in focusing on the issue of food banks raised by Ed Miliband in Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, completely missed the discussion of an even worse scandal – one that the Coalition has encouraged and that legislation coming into effect next year will escalate.
“I have in my hand a genuine suicide note,” said Ian Lavery, Labour MP for Wansbeck, “from a constituent of mine who, sadly, took his own life after he was informed that he was no longer entitled to Employment and Support Allowance and disability benefits. Across the UK, more than 1,000 people have died only months after being told to find work.
“This is 2012 — we are supposed to be a civilised society. We should be looking after disabled citizens in the UK. Will the Prime Minister listen to the 62,000 people who have signed Pat’s Petition and please finally order an assessment of all changes hitting disabled people in this country?”
David Cameron began his response with an anodyne expression of sympathy to the family of the deceased, before going on to support the government’s actions: “Some people have been stuck on these benefits and not been reviewed for year after year after year.” Like Iain Duncan Smith, who responded in a similar manner to a teenage boy who had lost his father because of the government’s choice to cut his benefits unnecessarily, he refused to address the fact that it was his choices – and those of his government – that had led to the death. If I was a family member of Mr Lavery’s constituent, I would be nauseated.
In itself, you might think that was offensive enough, but worse was to follow when Canterbury’s Conservative MP, Julian Brazier, stood up and opened his mouth: “May I reassure my Right Honourable friend that those of my constituents who are most strongly in favour of reforming benefits — focusing them more on those who need them and taking them away from those who do not — are people who live on council estates and are fed up with working long hours to subsidise the lifestyles of those who do not want to work?”
Did this creature not realise how offensive that remark would be, coming after the exchange with Mr Lavery? The whole point of Pat’s Petition – and its successor, the WOW Petition – is that people on council estates are not working to subsidise the lifestyles of those who don’t want to work. Their tax pounds are subsidising the luxury lifestyles of government ministers, whose actions are killing people who, already, don’t have enough to live on. I’m referring to people who may have worked their entire lives before illness or infirmity stripped them of that ability, and of their dignity.
I have a few examples of the people affected by the Coalition’s benefit cuts. Perhaps readers can work out for themselves whether these cuts really are “focusing… more on those who need them and taking them away from those who do not”. I am grateful to my Facebook friend Jim Moore for supplying the list.
Paul Reekie, 48, left no suicide note – but a letter informing him that his welfare benefits were to be stopped were found next to his body. Was that the action of someone who had been taking advantage of hard-working council estate residents?
Paul Willcoxson, 33, Who had mental health problems, was found hanging in Pignals Enclosure, near Hollands Wood campsite. A suicide letter and next of kin note were found in which he expressed concerns about the cuts to his benefits.
Leanne Chambers, 30, was found in the River Weir five months after she walked out of her home. She had battled depression for a number of years and had taken a turn for the worse after receiving a letter telling her she had to be assessed by a doctor she did not know, to see if she was fit to return to work.
Christelle Pardo, 32, and Kayjah Pardo, 6 months: After having all her income cut off and her housing benefit withdrawn, and with a baby to care for, she had been left destitute. When she begged for help, the only response from the Department for Work and Pensions was that she didn’t qualify under the rules. So she killed herself and her young child. Destitute.Is there anybody reading this who is shameless enough to say this woman was cynically exploiting her working neighbours?
Elaine Christian, 57, was found in a drain after walking out of her home. A post mortem revealed she had died from drowning, despite having more than 10 self-inflicted cuts on her wrists.The inquest in Hull was told Mrs Christian had been deeply worried about a meeting she was due to have to discuss her entitlement to disability benefits.
David Groves, 56, died of a massive heart attack the night before his medical assessment as he sat at his computer and scoured the internet for ways to raise cash in case he lost his entitlement. He was a striver. He knew the odds were against him keeping his benefit, even though he clearly deserved it, and was trying to find other ways of earning money. That is not the action of a scrounger.
Mark and Helen Mullins were found lying side by side in their home after committing suicide together. They had been left destitute after Helen had her claim for benefit turned down. They had no food, no heating and no electricity. If that’s the kind of lifestyle subsidised by working people, under this government, ask yourself: Would YOU want it?
Stephen Hill, 53, died of a heart attack a month after his benefits were stopped. He had been told his heart problem were not serious enough to stop him working.
Craig Monk, 43, was found hanging in his home. He’d had one leg partially amputated and was described by his family as “vulnerable”. He became depressed because his benefits had been cut.
Martin Rust, 36, a schizophrenic, had his benefits cut and was ordered back to work. He left a note saying: “To those I love, I’m sorry. Goodbye.” Coroner William Armstrong said the Department of Work and Pensions’ decision to cut his benefits “caused distress and may well have had an adverse effect”. He recorded that Mr Rust had committed suicide while suffering from a treatment-resistant mental illness.
Paul Turner, 52, died from ischaemic heart disease – caused, his family claim, by the stress of losing his benefits. He was told his heart problems were not serious enough for him not to work, and died four weeks after receiving the notification.
Mark Scott, 46, who suffered from anxiety and epilepsy, was left penniless when he was declared fit for work and his benefits were stopped. He died six weeks later in the Southport flat where he lived alone.
Colin Traynor, who was a lifelong epileptic, was assessed as fit for work. He appealed, but according to his parents he became depressed and lost weight. He died less than four months later. The day after his death, his parents found out he had won his appeal.
If you are getting depressed by the details on this list, let me remind you that these people are a drop in the ocean. According to the last set of official figures I’ve seen, 73 people die every week after being involved in a government reappraisal of their benefits in some way. As you can see from the evidence, those reassessments were wrong more often than they were right.
It is thanks to the support of people like Julian Brazier and the council-estate constituents he quotes (if his remark was accurate) that the Coalition is getting away with these deaths. I hope he reads this article and reconsiders. I hope his constituents do the same. It’s too late to save people like David Groves or Mark Scott, but there are hundreds of thousands more who face hardship that will be just as bad, if the repression of the sick and disabled is allowed to continue. As far as they are concerned, it’s not too late for you to change your minds.
The WOW Petition (it stands for the resistance to the War On Welfare) is now open and can be found here. If you have found any of the above to be persuasive, please sign it.
And for those of you who remain homicidally determined to continue with the policy, no matter how much harm it does – that means you, Mr Brazier, you, Iain Duncan Smith, you Mr Cameron…
Merry Christmas. You’ll get what’s coming to you, soon enough.
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