Tag Archives: Polly Toynbee

It’s time for Labour to talk tough about the benefit-deniers

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.

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 Guardian article, 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.

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This benefits bully harasses the powerless but runs away from criticism

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Several months ago this blog accused Iain Duncan Smith of being a liar and a coward because, not only had he fabricated statistics on the number of people leaving benefits because of his new benefit cap, but he had also weaseled his way out of an appearance before the Commons Work and Pensions Committee to account for this behaviour.

The very next day, we had to apologise (to readers) and publish a correction saying that the man we call ‘Returned To Unit’ would be attending a follow-up meeting in September, at which the 100,000-signature petition calling him to account for the benefit cap lies, organised by Jayne Linney and Debbie Sayers, would also be presented to MPs.

Apparently the meeting was being timed to coincide with publication of the DWP’s annual report for 2012-13.

Now it is November, and we have still had no meeting with RTU. Nor have we seen the annual report, which is now almost eight months late. Meanwhile the calamities at the DWP have been mounting up.

The latest appears in a Guardian report published yesterday, about the ongoing disaster that is Universal Credit. You may remember, Dear Reader, that the Department for Work and Pensions has admitted it had to write off £34 million that had been spent on the scheme; it subsequently emerged that the total amount to be written off might actually be as high as £161 million.

The Guardian article appears to confirm this, adding £120 million to the £34 already written off if the DWP follows one of two possible plans to take the nightmarish scheme forward.

This would restart Universal Credit from scratch, creating a system based on the Internet – and reducing the need for Job Centre staff – and tends to confirm the suggestion that staff are seen as a liability in the government’s plan to cut back on benefit payments; despite being told to bully, harass and intimidate everyone who darkens their doors, they have an annoying inclination to help people claim the benefits due to them.

The other plan would attempt to salvage the existing system, and is understood to be favoured by the Secretary-in-a-State. The drawback is that it could lead to an even greater waste of taxpayers’ money (not that this has ever been a consideration for Mr… Smith in the past. He’ll waste millions like water while depriving people of the pennies they need to survive).

Universal Credit aims to merge six major benefits and tax credits into one, restricting eligibility for the new benefit in order to cut down on payouts. It relies on the government creating a computer programme that can synchronise systems run by HM Revenue and Customs, the DWP itself, and employers. So far, this has proved impossible and a planned rollout in April was restricted to just one Job Centre, where staff handled only the simplest claims and worked them out on paper. Later revelations showed that the system as currently devised has no way of weeding out fraudulent claims.

A leaked risk assessment says the web-based scheme is “unproven… at this scale”, and that it would not be possible to roll out the new system “within the preferred timescale”. Smith has continually maintained that it will be delivered on time and on budget but, as concerns continue to be raised by senior civil servants that systems are not working as expected and there are too many design flaws, it seems likely this is a career-ending claim.

Is this why he hasn’t deigned to account for himself before the Work and Pensions Committee?

Earlier this week, the government lost its appeal against a court ruling that its regulations for Workfare and other mandatory work activity schemes were illegal. Public Interest Lawyers, who handled the case against the government, has taken the view that anyone who fell foul of the regulations may now take action to get their money back. But the matter is complicated by the fact that the government unwisely passed a retrospective law to legalise the rules, in a bid to stop the 228,000 benefit claimants it had sanctioned after they refused to work for their benefits from demanding the money that ministers had – in effect – stolen from them. Iain Duncan Smith is the man behind this mess.

Is this why he hasn’t deigned to account for himself before the committee?

We have yet to learn why this man felt justified in claiming 8,000 – and then 12,000 – people had left benefits because of the £26,000 cap he introduced in April (he claimed it is equal to average family income but in fact it is £5,000 and change short of that amount as he failed to consider benefits that such families could draw). Information from polling company Ipsos Mori showed that the real number of people who had dropped their claims after hearing of the scheme was more likely to be 450 – just nine per cent of the figure he originally quoted.

Is this why he hasn’t put a meeting with the committee in his diary?

Perhaps we should not be surprised, though – it seems that RTU has never had a decent grip on the way his department works. For example, he allowed George Osborne to cancel Disability Living Allowance for one-fifth of claimants in 2010, claiming that the benefit had been “spiralling” out of control because it had 3.1 million claimants – triple the number since it was introduced in 1992. Smith said the rise was “inexplicable” but in fact the explanation is simplicity itself, as The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee pointed out just two days ago:

“DLA is only paid to those of working age, but when they retire they keep it, so as more people since 1992 move into retirement, numbers rise fast. There has been no change in numbers with physical conditions, despite a larger population; back injuries have declined with the decline of heavy industry. There has been a real growth in numbers with learning disabilities: more premature babies survive but with disabilities, while those with Down’s syndrome no longer die young. More people with mental illness claim DLA now, following changes in case law: there has been no increase in mental illness, with 7% of the population seriously ill enough to be receiving treatment, yet only 1% claim DLA. Psychosis is the commonest DLA diagnosis, hardly a trivial condition. This pattern of disability mirrors the rest of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, with nothing exceptional here.”

In other words, from the moment he took over this hugely important government department, with its huge – and controversial – budget, Iain Duncan Smith had about as much understanding of its workings as a child.

It seems Sir John Major was exactly right when he expressed fears about the DWP Secretary’s ability last week, claiming his genius “has not been proven”.

Is this why we’ve seen neither hide nor … head of the Secretary of State?

Finally, Dear Reader, you will be aware that Vox Political submitted a Freedom of Information request to the DWP, asking for up-to-date statistics on the number of Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died during a claim or while appealing against a decision about a claim – and that the request was dismissed on the indefensible grounds that it was “vexatious”. This was not good enough so the matter went to the Information Commissioner’s office and, according to an email received this week, will soon be brought to a conclusion.

Is this why Iain Duncan Smith is hiding?

Perhaps it’s time to drag him out of his bolt-hole and force some answers out of him.

Jayne (Linney), in her blog, has called on people who use Twitter to start tweeting demands for Smith to come forward, using the hashtags #whereisIDS and #DWPLateReview. This is good, and those of you who do so are welcome to use any of the information in this article as ammunition in such a campaign.

There is nothing to stop anyone writing to the press – local or national – to ask what is going on and why benefit claimants are being left in suspense about the future of their claims. People have to work out how they will pay their bills, and the continued uncertainty caused by Mr… Smith’s catalogue of calamities is causing problems up and down the country.

A short message to your MP might help stir the Secretary of State out of his slumber, also.

In fact, let’s use all the tools at our disposal to expose this man for what he is – just as this blog stated in July and in May: A liar and a coward who has committed contempt of Parliament and should be expelled – not just from public office, but from public life altogether.

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Carving up the NHS is Cameron’s vanity project

The more we find out about Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill – his bid to privatise the NHS – the more childish it all seems.

This has been a week of shocks for the architects of the Bill, starting with the revelation that a Conservative ‘insider’ had described Mr Lansley as “a disaster” who, far from winning over critics of the Health Bill, has managed “to further annoy and alienate NHS staff”, and that a Downing Street briefing had called for him to be “taken out and shot”.

“Health reform should have been carried out by stealth,” said one strategist, according to an article in The Times.

It seems that many of Mr Lansley’s changes could have been carried out without primary legislation, thereby avoiding the glare of the public spotlight and all the adverse publicity that has come with it. Nevertheless, the idea of fundamental changes to our greatest national institution taking place covertly is outrageous and Jon Trickett MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, has written to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, seeking reassurance that “there will be no such covert attempt to bring about fundamental change in the ethos or the care offered by our National Health Service”.

In fact, changes have already been implemented by the government – at considerable cost to the taxpayer – without waiting for the Bill to finish its passage through Parliament and get Royal Assent. Apparently these things are mere formalities for our Coalition leaders (who, let’s not forget, are composed of members of two political parties who could not win the confidence of a majority of the electorate on their own).

But a judicial review, to establish the legality of these moves, is now a distinct possibility.

The decision to implement as much as he has without waiting for the bill’s royal assent is a “flagrant flouting of parliament”, according to Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. But while a U-turn would be embarrassing, failing to do so would be worse, she argued.

Andrew George, the Lib Dem MP and member of the health select committee, put it like this: “It will now cause havoc either way, but going ahead is even more catastrophic”.

Even Tory commentators have turned on the Bill. Craig Barrett, writing in Tory blog Egremont, said: “The fact that many of the reforms do not even require primary legislation makes the resulting headache look embarrassingly self-inflicted. Without a proper mandate, it looks undemocratic.

“For the good of the NHS, Andrew Lansley must admit defeat and head to the backbenches.”

Hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, midwives and others have called for the government to abandon this proposed legislation before it does great harm to the NHS. The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing have voiced concerns, and the Royal College of GPs wrote last week to Mr Cameron to ask for the bill to be scrapped. The Faculty of Public Health became the latest healthcare body to call for the Bill to be dropped, “in the best interests of everyone’s health”.

Downing Street has insisted that Mr Lansley and his reforms have the Prime Minister’s full support, though.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Cameron said his government was increasing its spending on the NHS, while the Labour administration in Wales was making cutbacks. It is easy to dismiss this criticism, though – the cutbacks in Wales are entirely due to cuts in funding from Mr Cameron’s own Westminster government.

The government has offered more than 100 concessions in an effort to get the Bill passed, but this did not stop the House of Lords passing another amendment when peers discussed it on Wednesday.

So – as one can see – there’s a huge amount of opposition to this Bill. It is seen as undemocratic. Only a tiny minority of healthcare professionals want to see it implemented, and they tend to belong to the administrative side – the bean-counters and pen-pushers, rather than the medical practitioners themselves. And Mr Lansley’s time as Health Secretary has been a “disaster”.

Why, then, do both he and our comedy Prime Minister persist with it?

Well, it’s their vanity project, isn’t it?

It’s their attempt to write their names into the history books – the biggest change to the National Health Service since it was created in 1948 and, they hope, the blow that will lead it into a long-drawn-out death, to make way for private health companies and block millions of people from receiving health care of any kind in the future. You just won’t be able to afford it.

In short, they want to graffito “David and Andrew were here” across the face of Britain’s biggest and best-loved national institution, and they’ll do it at any cost.

Childish.