The Disability News Service has reported Vox Political‘s victory over the DWP, whose officers have less than a month to report the total number of deaths involving people claiming Employment and Support Allowance between November 2011 and May 2014.
The article quotes John McArdle, co-founder of campaigning organisation Black Triangle, who said the updated statistics would be vital: “When the truth comes out about the devastation that this has caused, the whole of society will be absolutely appalled.”
Rick Burgess, co-founder of New Approach, which campaigns to scrap the fitness for work test, said: “People should know the cost of policies they are voting upon, especially when they are causing mass deaths.”
There is much more, and you are encouraged to visit the Disability News Service‘s website to read the full article.
If the Conservative Party forms the next government, the deaths will undoubtedly continue – no matter what the figures prove to be, or the public response to them.
Denied benefit: This is the late Karen Sherlock. Her illnesses included chronic kidney disease, a heart condition, vitamin B12 deficiency, anaemia, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, underactive thyroid, asthma, diabetic autonomic neuropathy, gastropaeresis, and diabetic retinopathy. She died on June 8, 2012, of a suspected heart attack, after the Department for Work and Pensions stopped her Employment and Support Allowance.
The Department for Work and Pensions has commented on this blog’s success in forcing it to reveal the number of Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died between November 2011 and May 2014.
Readers of this blog will recall that the DWP had refused a Freedom of Information request, made in May last year, but the Information Commissioner’s Office upheld an appeal that used its own rules to demonstrate that the Department had been wrong in law.
The comment appeared in an excellent article by Ros Wynne-Jones of the Daily Mirror. She had contacted the DWP after receiving a press release on the subject from Vox Political – and we should be grateful to her for doing so. Comments to the mainstream media are invariably delivered much more quickly than responses to members of the public.
It is more interesting in what it does not say than it what it does. There is no reference to the fact that the DWP had been found to be wrongly applying the law; no suggestion that it will abide by the Information Commissioner’s ruling; in fact no reference to the Vox Political appeal at all.
Instead, we are told: “It is irresponsible to suggest a causal link between the death of an individual and their benefit claim. Mortality rates among people with serious health conditions are likely to be higher than those among the general population.
“We’ll respond to the Information Commissioner in due course.”
Irresponsible, is it?
There are several ways to disprove this.
Firstly, let us consider the different elements of the Vox Political request. By definition, anybody in the work-related activity group of ESA is believed to be capable of recovering from their illness sufficiently to take a job within 12 months of making their claim. Between January and November 2011, the number of people in this group who died was 1,300; it should have been zero. It is therefore possible to claim that they were put in the wrong group (by a system that may have had targets to meet – but that is a different matter) and that their deaths may have been caused by the stress they faced in having to meet the conditions required by the DWP – or lose their benefit.
We can only say these deaths may have taken place for this reason, because the DWP has not carried out any research on the subject. This displays what many may conclude is a shocking carelessness on the part of the government department. Just one death, in this group, was one too many – but DWP officers, and Coalition Government ministers, allowed more than 1,000 to take place and have done nothing to research the cause and prevent more from happening.
For these reasons, it is simple to conclude that anyone who died while appealing against a DWP decision and those who died after being found fit for work should also be included in the statistics, although it seems likely the DWP will claim it has not researched the number of deaths taking place among those found fit for work. We have news stories covering some of these deaths, so the Department cannot claim ignorance that any deaths were taking place; therefore its omission of any investigation may be considered dereliction of duty on the DWP’s party.
It is possible for the DWP to claim that its comment is accurate regarding people in the support group of ESA – but only to a certain extent. This is why Vox Political initially left support group deaths off the original calculation of the average number of deaths taking place among claimants of ESA; this blog made it out to be around 60 people per week. But a commenter pointed out that being placed in the support group does not mean that a person with a long-term illness will be left alone, and that it is entirely possible that harassment by the DWP could have led to premature deaths in this group; people in the support group are subjected to periodical reassessments that not only cause extreme stress but may be called at random intervals, rather than at regular times. It is entirely possible for a person in the support group to be found fit for work, and have to appeal against the decision – causing more stress. And anyone winning an appeal is entirely likely to find a notice of reassessment in their letterbox the very next day – signalling a return to the beginning of that cycle of stress.
Under these circumstances, This Writer had no choice but to include people in the support group among the death toll – pushing the average during the period covered in 2011 up to more than 220 per week. Although the DWP’s claim that “mortality rates among people with serious health conditions are likely to be higher” is more likely to be correct when applied to people in this group, the Department simply has not done any research on the causes of death. Instead, we have news stories which make it very clear where responsibility lies.
That leaves people who are in the assessment phase of the process. Readers will be aware that the DWP has lengthened this part of the claim procedure hugely by adding a new “mandatory reconsideration” procedure – if a claim is refused, the claimant may not appeal against it until after “mandatory reconsideration” has taken place. There is no time limit in which it must take place and no benefit is paid during the “mandatory reconsideration” period. It is hard to believe this is not intended to place the lives of vulnerable people at risk. How are they supposed to pay the bills, with no money coming in? If they have a mental health condition, won’t this be worsened by the incessant money worries being forced on them by this DWP-enforced process? Of course it will.
Examples of ESA-related deaths (and suicides) are a running theme in Vox Political; this blog has recounted the stories of dozens of people who either died after their benefit was withdrawn or committed suicide because they could not see a way out. We have seen stories of people with terminal cancer being ordered to go to work; of people on their deathbeds being told to attend an interview for work-related activity or lose benefits; of one person with severe mental health problems who had been thrown off sickness benefit and sanctioned off of JSA, who froze to death in the street because he had nowhere else to go.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith lied on television yesterday (May 5), during a debate on the benefit system, when he said no such review had taken place. The Green Party subsequently demanded a formal apology from the minister, for misleading the public.
One final point: Duncan Smith’s, and the DWP’s, arguments would never stand up in a court of law. There is a wealth of evidence to show the connections between people losing benefit and their subsequent deaths. The DWP has supplied none to disprove those connections. Therefore, if this matter were being tried under jury conditions (as it may be, if allegations of corporate manslaughter are made after the information becomes available) then a jury would have no choice but to convict the representatives of the public organisation.
Duncan Smith labelled the allegations against him and his department “cheap”.
We’ll see how cheap they prove, when all the information is available to the public.
In the meantime, Vox Political‘s advice to readers is unchanged: The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have withheld the facts from you.
Rachel Reeves: The coalition has distorted the benefit debate so much that 64 per cent of Labour voters think benefits should be cut – and she doesn’t have the backbone to correct them.
Here’s a question that gets asked very often in any debate on state benefits: “Isn’t it right that the taxpayer should only support people who really need it?”
The implication is that the government of the day is right to restrict benefit provision.
The answer, of course, is to point at some of the cases we have known, in which benefits have been taken away from people; cases like that of David Clapson, an ex-soldier who was sanctioned off of Jobseekers’ Allowance and died of diabetic ketoacidosis three weeks into the sanction period. When his body was found by a friend, his electricity card was out of credit, meaning the fridge where he kept the insulin he used to treat his diabetes was not working. A coroner found that when David died there was no food in his stomach. Was the government right to restrict his benefits? Or was this state-sponsored murder?
How about severely bipolar Sheila Holt, who recently died after spending months in a coma caused by a heart attack she suffered after being pushed onto the government’s slave-labour Work Programme? Even while she was comatose, the work programme provider – Seetec – was sending her letters about her suitability for employment. There is no doubt that the stress of being forced onto the Work Programme led to her death – in fact the government has apologised for its actions. It therefore seems redundant to ask the question, “Was the government right to restrict her benefits?” as we already know the answer.
How about Karen Sherlock, who was suffering from kidney failure when her Employment and Support Allowance was cut off by Iain Duncan Smith’s minions. She died, apparently of a heart attack, after an operation was cancelled. Was the government right to restrict her benefits?
How about Stephanie Bottrill, who took her own life by walking in front of a lorry on the M6, just one month after the Bedroom Tax had been introduced by Iain Duncan Smith. Her rent at the time was £320 per month, some of which was subsidised by Housing Benefit – but the imposition of an extra £80 charge, to come from her own money, was too much for her finances to take. She left a note to relatives in which she made clear that she had taken her own life – and that she blamed the government. Was the government right to restrict her benefits?
According to the last figures available to us (from 2011 – and related to ESA alone), four more people die as a result of the government’s benefit regime every three hours – more than 200 every week. These figures are, however, more than three years old; they do not encompass the rise in suicides that takes place in the run-up to Christmas every year and they pre-date the effects of Iain Duncan Smith’s homicidal Welfare Reform Act 2012.
Meanwhile, as Polly Toynbee has pointed out in her latest Guardianarticle, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary puts her foot in her mouth every time she talks about benefits. “She has the hardest shadow post, reconciling the party’s mission to stand with the underdog while facing a public fed by a stream of statistics-free anecdotes about welfare cheats,” writes Ms Toynbee.
That’s as may be, but she should be challenging those preconceptions, not conforming to them. “When last in power Labour failed to shift the enemy’s terms of engagement, hiding its own good actions behind tough talk,” writes Ms Toynbee.
“This mirrors too much Labour policy, foggy messages hiding agonised ambivalence – and voters smell out that inauthentic verbal triangulation.”
How true those words are. This writer was recently attacked by the shadow Welsh secretary, Owen Smith, for pointing out that he had confirmed, in his own words, that Labour would not speak out against the work capability assessment (that is responsible for three of the four deaths mentioned above) for fear of the right-wing press. This effectively means that his party is asking the sick and disabled to die for Labour’s election hopes.
Mr Smith threatened me with legal action after this blog put his words into plain English. He has since gone quiet, which is just as well. Not only has there been a national debate on the subject (of which Ms Toynbee’s article is just the latest part) but at least one reader has been able to confirm that my words were accurate, after a doorstep conversation with his own Labour candidate. Other readers are encouraged to do the same.
“On benefits, most voters are conflicted,” Ms Toynbee continues. “No one, least of all those working hard for very little, wants people cheating.” That is true. But then, 99.3 per cent of benefit claimants aren’t cheating at all. This government just treats them as if they are.
“Labour can’t win this internalised tussle by replicating it, but could earn credit by encouraging the nation’s better instincts,” writes Ms Toynbee.
The shame is that all the words coming from Labour suggest it will do the former, rather than the latter.
Finger-wagging rant: One tweeter commented, “You just KNOW IDS wanted to call Owen Jones a pleb back there…”
Iain Duncan Smith probably went home last night feeling satisfied that he had done his job well, putting forward his case for benefit cuts that will push thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of people out of their homes, on the BBC’s Question Time. After all, he had the last word, didn’t he?
Perhaps he didn’t count on the absolute twatting he received from the inhabitants of the social media.
Those who had seen the show wasted no time in putting forward their opinions about the clash between Smith and socialist “braying jackal” Owen Jones. Here’s what happened and what they said.
The question that sparked the clash was about whether the Work and Pensions Secretary’s plan to cap benefits would push large families out of their homes in London.
Yvette Cooper, also on this week’s panel, said the full consequences of the benefit cap and other measures being pushed through by the government were pushing up homelessness. “We’ve seen a 50 per cent increase in the number of families – families with children – living in bed and breakfast accommodation… That costs us a huge amount more… It’s a mix of the housing benefit changes but also the benefit cap – the way they have been introduced.”
Then Owen Jones stepped into the ring: “The reason this whole debate has become so toxic is a cynical demonisation campaign of people on benefits by the government,” he said. It’s as if he has been reading this blog.
“What they have tried to do is redirect people’s justifiable anger over ever-declining living standards from those at the top who’ve caused this crisis to people’s neighbours down the street. The working poor against the unemployed over benefits. Non-disabled people against disabled people. Private sector workers against public sector workers over pensions.” Absolutely correct, as pointed out and reiterated here many times in the past.
“Housing benefit is not going into the pockets of tenants, it’s lining the pockets of wealthy landlords charging extortionate rents,” he said, going on to utter something indistinct because others were talking over him. The impression I got was that he was saying successive governments, New Labour included, didn’t build council housing.
He went on to point out a statistic that the Tories have worked very hard to bury: “Most new claimants of housing benefit are in work; they don’t have enough money to pay extortionate rents.” Again, factually correct – and one must ask why employers do not pay enough. Why do they ask the government to subsidise the workforce?
“If we built housing in this country, we’d bring down the welfare bill, stimulate the economy, and create jobs.”
Having scored his first few points, Mr Jones went for the knockout blow. Although blocked in his first attempt to mention the disabled, he tried again: “There is a point that has to be made about the treatment of disabled people in this country, and there are two names I want to give Iain… Brian McArdle, 57 years old, paralysed down one side, blind in one eye; he couldn’t speak. He died one day after being found ‘fit for work’ by Atos. Another example – Karen Sherlock.”
For those who don’t know, Karen Sherlock was a desperately ill woman, suffering from kidney failure, whose Employment and Support Allowance was cut off by Iain Duncan Smith’s minions. She died on June 8 this year, apparently of a heart attack, after an operation was cancelled. Read her story here.
This is where IDS lost it. Irately wagging his finger in Mr Jones’s general direction, he barked: “We’ve heard a lot from you. I didn’t hear you screaming about two and a half million people who were parked, nobody saw them, for over 10 years, not working, no hope, no aspiration. We are changing their lives; I’m proud of doing that. Getting them off-benefit is what we’re going to do.”
What he didn’t say was, “We’re changing their lives for the better.” As for getting them off-benefit – that’s a threat, if there are no jobs for them to take (and there aren’t – or at least, not enough).
And that was the end of the programme. Owen Jones later commented that, as chairman David Dimbleby was finishing up, “a protestor yelled about Atos and left – not sure that will come across because it descended into total chaos.” It didn’t, but it would be interesting to know what their point was.
Jamie Laverty made a point about it: “Woman shouting about Atos on BBCQT – how symbolic. The BBC fails to listen to the people whilst giving the Tories a soapbox.”
Then came the verdict. Nathaniel Tapley saw through the Secretary of State straight away: “IDS thinks it’s unreasonable for anyone to receive more than £35,000 pa from the state. And claimed £98,000 in expenses last year.” Hypocritical? I think I’ve written a blog about that…
‘The UK today’ tweeted: “Only the wealthy moan about benefits for the poor but don’t complain about the bankers and shareholders who created the present problem.”
Mark Ferguson of LabourList tried sticking to the thrust of the question: “Shockingly, London MP IDS seems totally ignorant about the impact of his own government’s housing benefit cap in the capital. Astonishing.
“Build more houses, lower the cost of renting, save money on benefits. It’s not f*cking rocket science is it?”
To Iain Duncan Smith, it is. He’s a Tory, Mark! You’re suggesting they lay out money on public works. They don’t do that! Their plan is to hold money back, and use it to say they’ve balanced the books a bit more. Pointless and utterly unworkable in the long-term, but it is what it is.
Jenny Landreth made the point that’s been on everyone’s mind about housing benefit: “Do benefit claimants profit from their rent being paid? No. Landlords do. They are the reason the rents are high. HELLO?” Exactly right. Perhaps it’s time to change its title to one that is more appropriate, like Landlord’s Benefit?
John McDonnell MP applauded Mr Jones: “Well done for getting the tragedy of Mr McArdle and barbarity of Atos on the record. We must never forget or forgive this cruelty.”
Finally, there came the comments on the cabinet member himself.
Zoe Williams, Guardian columnist, tweeted: “‘we’ve heard a lot from you’ IDS says to Owen jones. Only narrowly avoids adding ‘oik’.”
Matthew Walker added: “IDS has finger wagging rant at Owen Jones – he just needed to finish with ‘you need a damn good thrashing, lad’ and it would have been perfect.”
Simplem+ths: “All that remained was for IDS to say ‘shut it you fu#@ing pleb best you learn your [email protected]#ing place'”.
And the amusingly-named ‘Jeremy Twunt’ concluded: “You just know IDS wanted to call Owen Jones a pleb back there…”
Isobel Waby went for the jugular: “Iain Duncan Smith is an insult to the British people. How dare he undermine the British people, insulting our sick, disabled, unemployed kids?
“He should be sacked NOW… MPs’ inhumanity to the less fortunate.”
And Gracie Samuels made the most telling point: “The lying bastard he’s killing people, BBCQT, and we were not allowed to discuss it.”
But Diana Foster put viewers’ fear into words when she tweeted: “Disability hatecrime up, IDS gets final say – giving impression he’s whiter than white and no disabled people are affected by reform. Disgusting.”
Well, if Mr Smith (I never call him ‘Duncan Smith’ because that kind of attempt at a double-barrelled name is nothing other than pretentious) is reading this, I wonder if he’ll still be putting that appearance in the ‘plus’ column. The net result, according to the public is that he is ignorant, cruel, an insult to the British people, inhuman, a lying bastard and disgusting. Wag your finger at that, Iain!
Since IDS got the last word on television, let’s give the last word here to Owen Jones: “Blimey, thanks everyone. But what a a shame that stating the bleeding obvious on telly is such a revolutionary act.”
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