The Department for Work and Pensions has put ridiculous conditions on the recording of benefit assessments.
So Labour MP Dan Carden has taken it upon himself to meet those conditions.
Funny how it’s never any Conservative MPs doing this, isn’t it?
Perhaps one or two would like to prove me wrong.
Disabled people in Liverpool will be given the chance to fight flawed benefit decisions made by the Department of Work and Pensions.
Work capability assessments carried out by private companies like Atos, Capita and Maximus have been criticised for regularly producing flawed decisions.
Now Liverpool Walton MP Dan Carden has joined the ‘On The Record’ campaign, started in Sheffield and Manchester – which has seen a campaign group called Disabled People Against Cuts raise cash to purchase recording kit that claimants can take to benefit assesments.
Disabled people say that when assessments are recorded, they are far more likely to result in accurate decisions – saving disabled people months of stress and hardship fighting appeals to get the support they are entitled to.
Have YOU donated to my crowdfunding appeal, raising funds to fight false libel claims by TV celebrities who should know better? These court cases cost a lot of money so every penny will help ensure that wealth doesn’t beat justice.
It’s amazing, the number of people and organisations willing to disgrace themselves over the allegations of anti-Semitism against Peter Willsman.
First to do so, it seems to This Writer, is American-Israeli writer Tuvia Tenenbom, who is responsible for making the “off-the-record” recording that has been used against Mr Willsman, and for releasing this confidential information to the public in an astonishing display of bad faith.
We are told that Mr Tenenbom approached Mr Willsman in a hotel in Oxford during January.
According to the BBC, “The author said he had spotted Mr Willsman dining on his own and approached him and they ended up talking for some time, during which time the remarks were made.
“He said he was unaware it was being recorded by the sound man from his crew, until after the conversation was over.”
Mr Tenenbom has admitted that Mr Willsman was covertly recorded – that he was not made aware his words were being recorded. This is a standard tactic of the bad-faith fake-anti-Semitism witch-hunters. The Jewish Labour Movement used it to entrap Jackie Walker, to quote a well-known example. She was unaware that her words were being recorded, too.
We must ask what kind of author sits around hotels with a sound recordist on the off-chance that he’ll happen to run into a Labour activist who has already fallen foul of anti-Semitism accusations in the recent past.
And, even if the recording had been made without his knowledge, what kind of author not only holds on to it, but waits until a moment when it would be damaging to the Labour Party to release it – and then releases it? That constitutes several breaches of the Data Protection Act.
In such circumstances, we must suspect that an attempt is being made to misrepresent Mr Willsman.
Let’s consider the actual recorded words, shall we?
Referring to “the rich”, he said: “One of the things about anti-Semitism is that they’re using that to whip people up. They use anything, you know – any lies. It’s all total lies and they just whip it up.
“Off the record: It’s almost certain who is behind all this anti-Semitism against Jeremy [Corbyn]. Almost certainly, it was the Israeli embassy.
“Yeah, because they caught somebody in the Labour Party. It turns out that they were an agent in the embassy.
“The thing is that the people that are in the Labour Party doing it are people who are linked. One of them works indirectly for the Israeli embassy… My guess would be, they’re the ones working it up all the time.”
It seems clear that there’s a break in the recording at this point. What was said during that break?
The Mr Willsman’s voice resumes: “In The Guardian, not long ago, we had 68 rabbis, obviously organised by the Israeli embassy. 68 rabbis saying anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is “widespread and severe”. “Widespread and severe”. Is 70 out of 600,000 “widespread and severe”?” He expands on the difference between 70 and 600,000 for a moment, then says: “That is the … rubbish they’re coming out with.”
There is a wealth of evidence to show that Israel has been interfering in UK politics – and manufacturing false claims of anti-Semitism against Jeremy Corbyn. Here‘s some.
It would be legitimate to question whether Mr Tenenbom uses this “Act.IL” app – wouldn’t it?
I am not sure who Mr Willsman means when he refers to somebody in the Labour Party who was an agent in the Israeli embassy. This may be a reference to an issue mentioned to him in his capacity as an NEC member, of which the general public is not aware. If anybody can shine light on it, please let me know.
The person who “works indirectly” for the Israeli embassy seems certain to be Joan Ryan. We have the video evidence of her being offered £1 million by the conspirator Shai Masot.
In the reference to the letter by 68 rabbis, “obviously organised by the Israeli embassy” is clearly Mr Willsman’s opinion, based on the evidence of embassy interference in other matters. He rightly points out that the letter relies on no evidence at all to claim “widespread and severe” anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and he is right to say that the claim is false. Anti-Semitism on the left wing of politics is lower than anywhere else in British politics, and among the public generally. I’m sure I don’t have to point educated Vox Political readers to the evidence for that.
Yet the media commentary on this matter has been highly condemnatory of Mr Willsman.
According to the BBC (again), “The Board of Deputies of British Jews president Marie van der Zyl called for Mr Willsman’s expulsion from the party, saying he had ‘not only denied anti-Semitism in the Labour Party but has resorted to a well-known anti-Semitic trope to make his point’.” Firstly, he didn’t deny that any anti-Semitism exists in the Labour Party. Can you see any such claim in his words? As for “a well-known anti-Semitic trope” – which one? We cannot assume she means – for example – the “Jewish conspiracy” trope because she might deny it later on. Therefore her reference to such a thing is pointless and immaterial.
And the BBC said: “[Tom] Watson condemned Mr Willsman’s remarks and said they illustrated ‘how serious the problem of anti-Semitism is in our party’.” And ITV News stated: “Labour deputy leader Tom Watson said Mr Willsman must be suspended immediately: ‘The fact that a member of Labour’s governing body feels he can continue to make such offensive remarks after being warned for similar outbursts previously shows how serious the problem of anti-Semitism is in our party,’ he said.” This only illustrates how serious the problem of Tom Watson is in the Labour Party. Mr Willsman’s remarks were about false claims of anti-Semitism against Jeremy Corbyn, remember – not about the wider issue of anti-Semitism in Labour as a whole. His remarks were not offensive; they were honest statements of opinion. And they were also private expressions of opinion, not meant for public consumption.
Labour MP Jess Phillips tweeted as follows:
Amongst other things Pete Willsman is an antisemite, while he remains on the NEC it will completely lack authority. He should be suspended from the party not just the NEC.
This shows she doesn’t know what an anti-Semite is. For clarity: An anti-Semite hates – hates – Jews for the simple reason that they are Jews. It is not anti-Semitic to raise concerns about Israeli political interference with the UK. Thank goodness she isn’t in the party’s National Executive Committee!
In fairness: Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild, one of the 68 who signed the letter in The Guardian, tweeted: “As one of the rabbis who signed the letter I can categorically tell you we noticed and abhorred the anti Semitism in the Labour party, we think for ourselves and the Israeli embassy were not involved at any point. This continued slur on our motives is unacceptable.” There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of her words. But if you read the letter, where is the evidence on which these rabbis based their claims? There isn’t any.
I was going to mention some of the comments on Twitter, but I’d need another article to address the silliness in that snake pit.
It is certainly true that Mr Willsman spoke unwisely. He referred to a highly-sensitive matter in vague, easily-reinterpretable terms that laid him open to the criticisms we have heard.
But there is clear evidence of malice here. The motives of Mr Tenenbom and all those who have condemned Mr Willsman on the basis of his recording are questionable – you’ll notice none of them have said a single word about the use of confidential words that were recorded covertly and then publicised in clear breach of the Data Protection Act.
Now Labour has suspended Mr Willsman’s membership of the party’s National Executive Committee while it investigates.
The nature of that investigation is a matter of public interest and should be made as open as possible. We must judge the party and its procedures on the basis of what is done here.
It may be that the party’s disciplinary procedure will be proved unfit for purpose – again. Perhaps Stella Creasy is right to demand an independent investigations procedure. If so, This Writer would not trust any system endorsed by Ms Creasy and any of her friends on the right of the Labour Party.
My own opinion? Labour should submit its decisions on anti-Semitism and related matters to the courts. If they don’t stand up to judicial scrutiny, they shouldn’t stand.
It’s all going wrong at The Sunday Times, where its investigation – if you can call it that – into anti-Semitism at the Labour Party should soon have a nasty collision with the law of the land.
Today’s (April 14) revelation is that Labour MP Margaret Hodge took a leaf from the Jewish Labour Movement’s playbook and secretly recorded a meeting with Jeremy Corbyn.
She then passed the recording on to Sunday Times reporters Richard Kerbaj, Gabriel Pogrund (him again!) and Tim Shipman in a clear breach of s.170 of the Data Protection Act 2018.
It is a criminal offence for a person knowingly to obtain personal data without the consent of the controller, to retain it without the consent of the person who was the data controller when it was obtained, and to disclose it to another person without the consent of the controller.
Ms Hodge appears to be guilty of all three, along with the Sunday Times and its reporters.
As the recording contains no information that could be said to show wrongdoing on the part of Mr Corbyn, its creation and distribution may not be said to be in the public interest.
Wait – what? The story is about Mr Corbyn not doing enough to tackle anti-Semitism?
Don’t make me laugh.
The content of the illegal recording makes it clear that, having strengthened procedures in the wake of Jennie Formby’s accession to the position of general secretary, Mr Corbyn had become concerned that “evidence was being either mislaid, ignored or not used”.
The Sunday Times reporters have tried to imply that this is evidence of anti-Semitism by Labour Party members, but that is not what Mr Corbyn said.
He did not elaborate on the nature of the evidence in question.
It may be evidence that exonerates Labour Party members of any anti-Semitism allegations.
As a victim of the Labour Party’s bastardised and useless disciplinary procedures, I can affirm that they treat members accused of anti-Semitism on the basis that such people are guilty – and procedures are followed that do everything possible to prevent any proof of innocence being heard.
In my opinion, this would include evidence being “mislaid, ignored or not used”.
And let us not forget that the Labour Party is already a criminal organisation under the terms of the Data Protection Act, having failed to honour my Subject Access Request of February 2018, after a story falsely alleging that I was an anti-Semite appeared in the Sunday Times and other newspapers.
That evidence could have been a vital part of my defence against the charges the party was lining up against me – but Labour Party officers illegally withheld it.
Therefore it seems clear that Mr Corbyn has a strong case for believing party officers have acted wrongly.
The course of action open to the Labour leadership is clear. Legal proceedings under the Data Protection Act should be lodged against the Sunday Times and its individual reporters – Messrs Kerbaj, Pogrund and Shipman – and againt Ms Hodge. Her membership of the Labour Party must be suspended with a view to expulsion.
That is the only logical course of action in response to abuse of the law of this kind.
But, considering the Labour leadership’s record of pandering to bullies like Hodge, I won’t hold my breath waiting.
UPDATE: According to a commenter (see below), the data protection laws apply only to personal information like name, address, date of birth and so on. This does not ring true. Under the General Data Protection Regulations – and the Data Protection Act 2018, personal data is any information that is clearly about a particular person – such as, in this case, the opinions of Jeremy Corbyn. So the people and organisation named above are in a highly actionable position.
To put the cap on it, a Labour representative has contacted at least one of the reporters, stating: “The recording released by Margaret Hodge contains personal data of two individuals, neither of whom has consented to its recording, disclosure or other processing. Because of the political context, the data is special category personal data under the GDPR and DPA 2018. The Sunday Times‘ making use of the content of the recording is further processing for which the paper has no consent, nor does any relevant exception under Party 5 of Schedule 2 to the DPA apply.”
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Audio anywhere: Benefit assessors can use their own laptop computers to create audio recordings of work capability assessments. They can then use onboard software to burn a CD of the interview and hand it to claimants on the spot. What’s the problem?
Watch (and more importantly, listen to) the following:
It is unreasonable that the Tories are still claiming benefit assessments may only be recorded in an extremely limited way after so many years.
Oh, you think this issue has only just arisen?
I was producing articles about it in 2013!
Does anybody remember Mark Hoban?
If not, it’s hardly surprising. He was a Tory MP between 2001-2015 and the Minister of State for Employment who had to answer questions from Labour’s Sheila Gilmore on the recording of Work Capability Assessments by Atos (as it was then known) for Employment and Support Allowance in June 2013. I know ESA is not the same as PIP but the assessment system might as well be – certainly when it comes to the issue of recording the assessments.
I reported on the situation prior to those questions being asked, in June 2013 – when even the hated Atos stated: “Our recommendation would be that recording should become routine as it is in a call centre or for example – NHS direct.”
I wrote: “Ms Gilmore goes on to attack the government’s claim that the number of claimants requesting a copy of their recording is just one per cent. This cannot be regarded as an accurate assessment of the number who would like a copy, for two reasons, she tells us.
“Firstly, the assessors used handheld devices to make their recordings, meaning they would have to be transferred to computer and burnt to CD afterwards, preventing claimants from taking recordings away with them on the day. Instead they had to make a further request – in writing. “Unsurprisingly this suppressed uptake,” Ms Gilmore’s speech states.
“Secondly, claimants were warned off applying for copies by assessors who told them recordings would only be useful to them if they appealed. The report that stated only one per cent of claimants persisted in their request was completed only days after the pilot study ended, meaning most of those involved had not received a decision on their claim and therefore did not know whether they needed to appeal. Demand may well have been higher, had the measurement been taken after a reasonable time.
“This is just one example of the DWP timing processes in order to get its way.
“[Ministers] also stated that the DWP would offer “everyone who wants it” the opportunity to have their assessment recorded. In practice, this seems an empty promise, as Atos had around 50 audio recording machines on May 22 , but undertakes more than 11,000 assessments every week.”
Under questioning, Mr Hoban said, “I do not think that it was that difficult to get hold of [a recording of an assessment]. The recording might need to be held on a handheld device before it is transferred to a computer and a transcript is printed, but that does not stop people asking for a copy.”
I pointed out, in my article after the Parliamentary session: “This is inaccurate. For those who have never attended a work capability assessment, the Atos assessors complete them using laptop computers – because the assessment is a tick-box test that demands simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Laptops generally come with not only audio recording but also CD burning programs as part of the package, and even if they don’t, freeware recording software is widely available and CD-burning software is also available, if not for free, then for a reasonable price. If the onboard microphones aren’t adequate to the task, it is possible to buy them very cheaply – especially if buying in bulk.
“In short, it should be entirely possible to record every single assessment at a reasonably high quality, burn it onto CD and hand it to claimants on the spot.”
Now, four years later – to quote the desperate Theresa May: Nothing has changed.
If anything, the quality of recording software is much better.
So there can only be one reason the DWP is clinging to its demand for people to use “expensive specialist devices that claimants must provide themselves”?
That is: To put people off recording assessments so the DWP may lie about their findings and push people, who deserve the benefit, off it.
There can be no other reason.
A response to a Freedom of Information request (read the story here) shows that four out of five requests for mandatory reconsideration of benefit refusals – the first stage in the appeal process that the DWP deliberately lengthened in order to make appeals more difficult for cash-strapped claimants to endure – supports this assertion.
It is easier to refuse an appeal when there is no recording to show where assessors have lied.
So, despite having claimed they have no targets for benefit refusal since taking office in 2010, the Conservatives are proved to have been lying.
There is no physical reason for claimants to be denied recordings of their benefit assessments.
The only reason the DWP can possibly have for doing so is to deny claimants a decent hearing at benefit appeals.
The only reason the DWP would want to do this is to hide the fact that the assessors hired from private firms to do this work are lying about the information they receive.
And the only reason they would lie is because they have been told to refuse benefits to a significant number of claimants – whether they deserve them or not – and this is the only way to meet their target.
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“At my last Atos ‘assessment’, when mentioning depression, the ‘assessor’ asked me why I hadn’t killed myself yet,” she told astonished members of the Facebook group.
She said the assessors’ attitude seemed to be that she couldn’t be depressed if she had not already killed herself: “I’ve noticed a few people, over the last year or so, going to Atos with depression are being asked that same question.
“I tried signing on for Jobseekers [Allowance], but thanks to the wonderful ‘Y’, who I saw, she said I was no way fit to work under any circumstances because I’d always be set up to fail.
“I had a doctor’s appointment this morning (December 4) and I told my doc. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard a doctor swear like that. The doctor swearing in response – a rather softly spoken voice – said, and I quote: ‘Holy shiiiiiiiit!'”
But it seems the scandalised claimant is set to have the last word because – unknown to her assessor – she recorded the entire incident.
“I shall hold my hands up and admit I did record it without their knowledge because sometimes my memory gets fragmented during these ‘assessments’ – it takes me a while to comprehend what’s happened,” she explained.
“I went to that assessment armed to the teeth with as much stuff as I could take with me. It’s not my fault that the evidence I needed didn’t arrive until after my assessment – as is the case with many others.
“[It is] almost like Atos want you to be there for your assessment as helpless as possible so they can fail you quicker – and if that behaviour can be proved, a lot more cases could be overturned.
“I’ve recorded two out of three assessments that I’ve had in recent years – and no doubt I shall continue to record them and expose them for the abject failures that they are. In fact, if we all do that, then there’s no way ever that they’d be able to get away with things. It’s the simplest and best form of direct action.
“For some of us, it’s the only action we’ve got left to take.”
She added that she had been “instructed” to email her MP. “That email went out at the end of last week and I’m sitting here waiting to get an answer – if not, I know the time and date of her next surgery and will attend that.”
In conclusion, she said: “Yeah – I’m sick of being sick.
“And I’m sick of sick-thinking people, sickly requesting that we should all pretty much piss off and die.”
Tell him about it: Dr Paul Litchfield is carrying out a review of the Work Capability Assessment and needs to know how you think the system could be improved. The Coalition government would like him to think that there is no need for any change at all; if you don’t tell him exactly what you think of it, he won’t know any different.
An article on this site earlier today publicised the DWP’s call for submissions to its independent review of the Work Capability Assessment and called for anyone with experience of the process to contribute by answering the four questions at this web address:
As someone with direct experience of the assessment procedure, I made my own submission shortly after writing the piece, and I am reproducing it here. I threw as much information into the submission as I could, and I would like to take this opportunity to beg everybody who has also experienced a work capability assessment to do the same. It is weight of numbers that will carry any changes to this diabolical, unfit-for-work assessment system; if you have been affected, you cannot rely on other people to get it changed for you.
Here are the questions and my responses:
1. If you have undertaken a WCA yourself or represented somebody who has, what has been your/their experience of the face-to-face assessment and follow up contact with the DWP?
Before the assessment we were not provided all the information we needed, such as details of how to arrange to have the interview recorded. I went along with a Dictaphone, expecting this to be allowed, but the Atos employees made a huge fuss about it and it was clear that they were not prepared to go ahead with the interview if we insisted on recording it. This would not have been our fault or theirs, but the fault of the DWP for failing to make the situation clear. The DWP claims to have only 31 recorders available to it, but this seems ridiculous when every work capability assessment is carried out on a laptop computer which is perfectly capable of running audio recording programmes and burning the resulting files to disc. Fears that someone might tamper with the files (hardly likely between finishing the interview and creating the disc minutes later) can be allayed with a simple time-check at the beginning and end of the recording; the length of the recording should match the time expired between the start time-check and the stop time-check. Microphones are extremely cheap – even more so if ordered wholesale – so there is no reason not to provide them in order to ensure sound clarity. The assessment itself was inadequate – not fit for purpose. The problem is that the questions have been devised in order to shoehorn ESA claimants into particular categories – therefore the assessor needs straightforward “yes” or “no” answers about conditions that are NOT straightforward, and for which such answers would be inappropriate. I attended my partner’s WCA and, with almost every question, she was trying to explain how her situation affects her. This was of no interest to the person conducting the assessment. The problem lies in the fact that the whole system was originally devised by an American insurance company – Unum – in order to find ways of refusing payouts to customers whose policies had matured. Despite the fact that this strategy led to the company being successfully prosecuted in its home country, the UK government enthusiastically hired Unum to transform the assessment of disability/incapacity benefit claimants along the same lines. The implication is always that the claimant’s illness is in his or her mind, and in fact they are perfectly capable of doing a job. There is no effort to find out the claimant’s actual medical condition – all effort is devoted to finding which category they can most easily be put into. There’s more but I’m out of space!
2. On the basis of your experiences, can you suggest any changes to improve the face-to-face part of the WCA? Please give details of why you think these changes would help.
Scrap the work capability assessment as it currently exists; it is a waste of time and money. The interview should be a genuine fact-finding exercise in which a genuine medical doctor gathers all the evidence possible about a claimant’s case, including evidence from their GP and other experts involved with it, and makes an assessment without having to conform to any requirements imposed by the government (which has its own agenda). My partner has mental health issues but there was no attempt to address them. She also has fluctuating health conditions but these were not explored either. New guidelines on these may have been brought in after her assessment but she was not contacted about them afterwards.
3. Thinking about the overall WCA process from when you make a claim for ESA to when you receive a notification of a decision from the DWP, what changes do you think are needed? Please give details of why you think these changes would help.
The ESA50 form should be scrapped and re-thought. The questions in the ‘descriptor’ section are bizarrely-worded and unfit for use as any means to judge a person’s fitness for work. For example, section 8, ‘Getting around safely’, is said to be about visual problems, but the request is “please tick this box if you can get around safely on your own”. I had to write “This is a misleading question. She can’t, but not because of sight problems”. The form provides an opportunity to mislead assessors about the issues they will face at the assessment. The decision notification must be much more detailed. Claimants need to see not only what the decision was, but why it was made. They do not currently receive a copy of the assessment/assessor’s notes, and must instead request it after receiving the decision notice, if they intend to appeal. Why? What does the DWP/Atos/the individual assessor have to hide? Making the recording of assessments mandatory and providing all the documents used to make a decision along with the decision notice itself would hugely increase transparency in the process, helping to prevent costly mistakes.
4. Please give us any further information and evidence about the effectiveness of the WCA, particularly thinking about the effect on claimants, that you consider to be helpful.
My partner was put in the work-related activity group of ESA and told she would be contacted about what she would be required to do. She had to wait FOUR MONTHS (out of a 12-month benefit period) before anybody got in touch. After an interview at the Job Centre, a work programme provider contacted her and established, within half an hour of telephone conversation, that there was nothing they could do with her. She was advised to request reassessment, which she did. That was six months ago and we have heard nothing. As her benefit period is coming to an end, she is currently undergoing reassessment anyway, but this does not excuse the DWP from its tardiness. You can see from this that the WCA, in my partner’s case, produced an inaccurate response. She is not the only one – statistics from the tribunals service show the number of appeals against WCA decisions between January and March have more than doubled, compared with the same period last year, and findings for the claimant have risen to almost half of cases (43%). The work programme has failed most WRAG members – as it failed my partner. Only 10% of them have found work, according to the DWP – around 1.7% of all ESA claimants. This conforms with the view that the rest have been misplaced and are too sick or disabled to work. Of course, the WCA has had a devastating effect on many claimants – statistics last year showed dozens were dying every week, while going through the process, while appealing, or after having been found ‘fit for work’. The DWP is refusing to release current figures, which implies that they have not improved. This proves that the system does not work and should be scrapped. The fact that claimants have DIED while going through this process, and ministers have done nothing about it, implies corporate manslaughter and I would certainly recommend that criminal investigations take place on this basis. Hopefully others will provide details of some of the deceased; otherwise I should be able to provide contact details.
What we’re fighting: Not only are work capability assessments leading to many deaths every week (we don’t know how many because the DWP won’t release the numbers), but administrative idiocy has led to at least one of the deceased being harassed AFTER DEATH, for failing to attend an interview. And Mark Hoban says no significant reforms are required. Dream on…
The Coalition government is launching a call for evidence to help with its fourth annual independent review into the Work Capability Assessment process – and I, for one, will be delighted to be part of it.
The review will be carried out by Dr Paul Litchfield, a senior occupational physician replacing Professor Malcolm Harrington, who ran the review process for the previous three years.
According to the Department for Work and Pensions’ press release, it “will continue the process of monitoring whether the assessment is effective in identifying people who could be helped back to work, while ensuring financial support goes to those who are too sick or disabled to seek employment”.
Now – if you have had the same experience of the assessment process as I, and Mrs Mike, have – it is time for you to have your say.
If you are an individual or a member of an organisation with information on how the Work Capability Assessment is operating and further changes that may be needed to improve the process, then you can submit it using the online form on this web page:
It also includes links to more information about the reviews, large print and Easy Read documents. Audio and BSL versions “will be made available on this page shortly”.
The DWP press release has a lot to say about how well they have performed in changing the system so far. It is worth quoting here, just to show you the importance of the need to challenge this attitude. It states:
“In launching the call for evidence, Dr Litchfield will be considering both how the suggested improvements from previous reviews are working, and what further refinements can be made. Dr Litchfield is particularly interested in hearing how the WCA works for people with mental health conditions.
“Dr Paul Litchfield said: ‘This fourth review is an appropriate time to review the impact of the changes that have been made to the WCA in recent years, including those recommended by my predecessor Professor Malcolm Harrington. I will also be considering if more can be done to ensure that the assessment process is both effective and perceived as being objective by all stakeholders.
“‘I am keen to hear from people who have constructive and evidence-based ideas for improvement. The WCA touches many lives and it is in the interest of all of us to try and make it as good as we can.’
“Employment Minister Mark Hoban said: ‘Helping people who can work into a job, while giving financial support to people who need it, is one of my top priorities. That is why it is so important that the Work Capability Assessment is as effective as possible.
“‘Following the previous independent reviews we have already made considerable improvements to the assessment process, so this new review is a great opportunity to build on that progress.’
“This is the fourth in a series of 5 annual independent reviews into the Work Capability Assessment. The previous reviewer, Professor Harrington, made a number of recommendations, and in his third review found that – as improvements were starting to have an impact – no fundamental reforms were needed to the current WCA. Over 40 recommendations have been, or are being, implemented including:
Better communication with claimants, including phone calls from decision-makers to ensure all medical evidence has been provided
Introducing 60 mental health champions into assessment centres to provide advice to Atos healthcare professionals
Working with charities to test out new descriptors covering mental function and fluctuating conditions
Simplifying the process for people undergoing treatment for cancer – reducing the need for face-to-face assessments and ensuring more are placed in the Support Group.”
You’ll notice the possibility of having the Work Capability Assessment recorded is not mentioned, even though there was a debate within the last month. Does Hoban really think our memories are so short?
A submission from myself and Mrs Mike would include information on the run-up to the assessment, including the fact that we were not told we had to announce in advance our desire to have the interview recorded. When I arrived, dictaphone in hand, the Atos employees kicked up a fuss about it that could have stopped the interview taking place at all. That would not have been our fault but theirs, for failing to make the situation clear. We would also point out that claims by the DWP to have only 31 recorders are in error, as the tick-box assessment they use is carried out on laptop computers that can easily – and probably do – carry recording and CD-burning software. It would be simplicity itself to provide simple microphones for both assessor and assessee to use, to make questions and responses clear, and concerns over tampering with recordings may be addressed by a time-check at the start and finish.
I would raise issue with the ESA50 form, that includes ‘descriptors’ that are said to be intended to help describe a claimant’s condition. In fact they do no such thing. They are there to help Atos assessors fit you into the categories laid out by Unum when it originally devised the process as a way to avoid making payments to customers whose insurance policies had matured. It would be far better to allow claimants to describe their symptoms and provide medical evidence from their doctors; the fact that this would require the DWP staff reviewing the forms to use their brains in consideration of the individual situation, rather than slavishly follow instructions that try to shoehorn people into pre-defined groups, is of no concern to the claimant.
I would raise issue with the Work Capability Assessment itself, which also attempts to bypass explanations of the issues in order to shoehorn claimants into providing “yes” or “no” answers to its questions. We have seen from the Conservative Party’s own ‘voodoo’ polling that, if a question is framed in a particular way, the questioner will get the answer they want, and this would not necessarily be productive.
Mrs Mike has mental health issues. There was no concession to those issues during her assessment and I do not recall them being explored at all.
Mrs Mike has fluctuating health conditions. There was no inquiry into how those changes affect her daily life.
Changes for both of the above may have been brought in after the assessment, but they are still relevant to my partner. However, no attempt has been made to contact her or explore her situation in the light of these developments. That is a grave omission.
She was put in the work-related activity group and asked to visit her local Job Centre Plus for interviews. After doing so, and being passed on to a Work Programme Provider, it took just one half-hour telephone conversation to establish that this organisation could do nothing for her, and she was advised to seek re-assessment. This was six months into her one-year period on ESA (remember, those in the work-related activity group get benefit for one year only). Nobody had contacted her during the first four months she was on the benefit.
Mrs Mike did ask for reassessment but nothing was done about it. She is, in fact, going through the assessment process again, but this is because a year has passed since her initial assessment and it is therefore time for her to go through the whole torturous process again. The form went off in mid-May and we have yet to hear back from the DWP.
From our point of view, the whole situation has been a farce.
If you have been through the process, how did you find it?
Audio anywhere: This image proves that Atos assessors can use their own laptop computers to create audio recordings of work capability assessments. They can then use onboard software to burn a CD of the interview and hand it to claimants on the spot. What’s the problem?
He did – and some of the responses were actually encouraging. Most were questionable – meaning, it seems, the government will continuing trying to obstruct attempts to make the assessment process more open.
Those of you who read yesterday’s article will know that the adjournment debate in the House of Commons yesterday was about the audio recording of work capability assessments, which are made as part of the claim process for Employment and Support Allowance.
The government has claimed that, when the service was offered in a pilot scheme, too few people requested it, and only one per cent of them wanted a copy of the recording that was made – but Sheila Gilmore MP, in her speech, pointed out that Atos, the company running the hated assessments, said enough requests had been made to make it desirable. She also pointed out that the procedure for getting a personal copy of the recording was extremely bureaucratic and off-putting.
She asked five questions about the issue and, in an unusual but welcome move, ensured that employment minister Mark Hoban had advance notice of them, thereby offering him no excuse for failure to answer.
In the main, he did. But… well, you’ll see.
Hoban prefaced his responses by affirming that the DWP considers the issue to be important, something that “we must get it right. It accords firmly with our commitment to improving the WCA process continuously”.
But he said: “While we accept that there has been an increase in demand for its use, we must be sure that we understand the evidence base, including that relating to the value to claimants… The evidence needs to be balanced against potential costs, and that is the process in which my officials are currently engaged.”
We’ll go into those extra costs in a moment, but the comment begs an obvious question: Wouldn’t the extra cost be offset by the savings made by having fewer ESA appeal tribunals?
Later he confirmed that a claimant has no legal right to an audio-recorded assessment, and neither the DWP nor Atos Healthcare has a legal obligation to provide an audio-recording service or equipment. “The unavailability of audio recording facilities does not mean that the WCA process can be delayed indefinitely. That could slow down the process unnecessarily.” But he added that, since the introduction of audio recording, only nine requests have been refused owing to the unavailability of equipment.
He said (but the statement is disputable): “All those having face-to-face assessments have been able to request that their sessions be recorded… Claimants can ask for their assessments to be recorded, either by means of the service offered by the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos Healthcare or through the use of their own recording equipment. Requests for an audio recording, whether through the use of Atos Healthcare’s equipment or through the use of equipment provided by a claimant, must be made in advance when a face-to-face assessment is arranged. The purpose of that is to provide adequate notice so that recording equipment can be made available and ready for use.”
This is not what I have found. Long-term readers will know that my partner, the long-suffering Mrs Mike, suffers from a long-term ailment and has undergone the work capability assessment. It took place in early July last year – remember the date. I went with her.
We were not informed of the procedure for requesting audio recordings in any way. I went along with my dictaphone, but when we announced our intention to use it, we were told that would not be acceptable and the assessment would not take place if we insisted on this condition.
Therefore it occurs to me (admittedly from anecdotal evidence) that Hoban’s figures must be skewed. How many claimants found themselves in the same position when they arrived for interview – ready to record – only to have the carpet pulled out from under them? For a disabled person, the only option then is to continue with the assessment because – for many of them, it is a very difficult and painful process simply to reach an assessment centre.
Let’s look at the questions. The first was this: Will the Minister now accept that the number of claimants requesting a copy of their recording is not an accurate reflection of demand, and that the number of people acquiescing to their assessment being recorded is a more appropriate metric to use?
Hoban’s response: “I do not think that it was that difficult to get hold of a copy. The recording might need to be held on a handheld device before it is transferred to a computer and a transcript is printed, but that does not stop people asking for a copy. I thought that was one point in the hon. Lady’s thoughtful speech that was not well substantiated.”
This is inaccurate. For those who have never attended a work capability assessment, the Atos assessors complete them using laptop computers – because the assessment is a tick-box test that demands simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Laptops generally come with not only audio recording but also CD burning programs as part of the package, and even if they don’t, freeware recording software is widely available and CD-burning software is also available, if not for free, then for a reasonable price. If the onboard microphones aren’t adequate to the task, it is possible to buy them very cheaply – especially if buying in bulk.
In short, it should be entirely possible to record every single assessment at a reasonably high quality, burn it onto CD and hand it to claimants on the spot. For example, I have an audio copy of yesterday evening’s debate which I can burn off and hand to anybody who wants it for reference. There is no justification for the bureaucratic process through which the DWP currently demands claimants to navigate, which is – as Ms Gilmore noted – off-putting.
Hoban continued: “The results also provided little evidence that audio recording of face-to-face assessments improved the quality of assessments. There was only limited evidence of improvement in the customer experience for some individuals.”
SOME individuals? We must question these ministers’ use of language and that word is telling.
“Of those who took part, fewer than half the claimants thought that audio recording would be helpful to them.”
How were they to know? Did they expect to have to go to appeal and use it to persuade a tribunal? Were they even made aware that this could happen?
“Those are the key areas that Professor Harrington wanted to understand when he called for the original pilot. As a result the Department decided not to introduce audio recording of face-to-face assessments universally on the basis that a facility for all assessments would be extremely costly, with no apparent substantial benefit or improvement in the quality of assessments.”
“Since the introduction of a limited audio recording facility in September 2011, fewer than 4,000 claimants have requested a recorded assessment. To date, Atos has conducted more than 2,000 audio-recorded assessments.”
So almost half those who requested a recording were refused it, despite that fact that using laptops to record assessments is cheap and easy?
“During that period almost 1.5 million face-to-face assessments for both ESA and incapacity benefit reassessments have been completed. Therefore, the proportion of recorded assessments is less than 0.2% of all assessments carried out during the period. We need to continue to monitor that take-up, but universal recording for such low numbers does not seem prudent and might not provide value for money.”
Not (provably) true.
We move on to the second question. I give you advance warning that the reply is scandalous: Can the Minister confirm whether any official DWP communications inform claimants that they can have their assessment recorded?
His response was to say that the DWP has recently provided more information about the audio-recording facility on the ‘Inside Government’ section of the gov.uk website. recently? Two years after the option was made available?
And he said: “I am pleased to say that we are … taking steps to boost awareness of audio recording. The Department and Atos are in the process of amending written communications to claimants by updating the WCA AL1C form. The document is sent to claimants when they need to arrange a face-to-face assessment and will provide more information on how to arrange an audio-recorded assessment. We expect the revised form to be sent out to claimants by the end of next month, once the necessary changes have been made and the form has been cleared for use.”
Sheila Gilmore rightly took issue with this, demanding: “Perhaps the Minister might be able to explain why it has taken nearly two years to make that amendment?”
Even if he was, he didn’t.
She also raised the issue of timing, which the DWP frequently uses to skew its statistics: “If I understood him correctly, he said that the evaluation of all this process was being extended to the end of the summer, so if the revised letter is not going out until the end of this month or the end of next month, there will be very little time to judge whether that has made any difference.”
Absolutely correct. This is how the DWP produces many of the figures it uses to hoodwink Parliament and the general public. If a procedure has been available for 24 months, but official documentation has publicised that to claimants for just two or three months, then the results are unreliable.
You will, undoubtedly, be on tenterhooks to know what Hoban had to say about this.
He said nothing.
Question three: Can he indicate how many audio recording devices Atos now have access to?
Yes he can. The total is a staggering 31 audio recording machines, three of which are currently being repaired – so 28 functioning machines. Atos also has access to 21 cassette machines which are on loan from the DWP.
“We constantly monitor the updating of audio recording assessments to ensure that the supply of the equipment meets demand,” said Hoban. Utterly ridiculous, for the reasons already outlined.
Question four: Can he confirm that what few recordings currently occur are part of a wider rollout or a mere further pilot?
This was the question he did not answer.
Finally: Will he accept Professor Harrington’s call for more work to be done on this? And will he rerun the pilot using the level of successful appeals as the key metric in determining whether or not audio recordings improve the quality of assessments?
It seems that he did! “we have decided to extend the evaluation period until the end of the summer to allow us to gather additional data on quality and potential take-up for a subsequent robust decision on any potential future audio-recording provision.
“We now have a benchmark for current take-up but, as has been rightly pointed out, we cannot get a true comparison until we routinely let people know about its availability.”
So what are we to make of these responses?
They’re a mixed bag. There is no excuse for failure to make recordings and hand them over to claimants on the day – that is glaringly obvious and the most scandalous part of this affair. Thanks to computer technology, it is cheap, easy and available. Considering the size of the DWP and the number of assessors employed by Atos, it is inconceivable that nobody was aware of this and therefore we must conclude that the failure to offer the service is an attempt to obstruct transparency by the DWP and its ministers.
There is also no excuse for the almost-two-year delay in revising DWP correspondence to make it clear that audio recording is available to anybody who wants to request it. In fact, because it should be possible to use assessors’ laptops to make those recordings, it is entirely possible to argue that they should offer it verbally at the start of the assessment procedure.
The extension of the evaluation period is to be welcomed – but the brevity of the extension is to be lamented and the “benchmark” data being used to judge the evaluation are entirely questionable.
As ever, with this Coalition government, any dialogue over its procedures is a war of attrition. This issue is not buried yet, and the debate was useful in teasing out the details.
The best we can say for the moment is that this is TO BE CONTINUED…
Now get out of that: Mark Hoban has been challenged to come clean with the facts. If he does, he’ll be the first DWP minister to do so since Labour left office.
Let’s get something straight from the outset: By Parliamentary convention, if a government minister lies to MPs – or is found to have told falsehoods and does not then correct the inaccuracies, that is a resignation matter.
Until the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, this convention was observed by all parties. The fact that the current administration – which, let’s remember, did not win any elections to get into office – does not observe this convention is yet another indication that it is an outlaw government.
Iain Duncan Smith is a classic case of the Coalition attitude. He has told so many porkies to Parliament and the public that he is to be dragged before the Commons Work and Pensions committee to account for them. The trouble is, even if he is forced to admit knowingly misleading us all, there is no reason to expect him to do the decent thing and fall on his sword. He’ll damn our impertinence for having the cheek to question him.
Probably the best way forward with him would be for the Work and Pensions committee to take his case to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the committee on Standards and Privileges, as this seems to be the correct route to take, in order to expel an MP.* If he won’t go willingly, he’ll have to be pushed.
Of course Mr… Smith might decide to claim he cannot answer some of the more involved questions, if he hasn’t had prior notice of them; he could say he hasn’t been able to put the facts together. Then, instead of admitting he is dishonest, he’ll just be admitting incompetence. No Coalition minister has yet been sacked for that.
One of his fellows who’ll have no such excuse is Mark Hoban, due to face questioning by Sheila Gilmore MP – who also sits on the Work and Pensions committee – in an adjournment debate on the audio recording of Atos work capability assessments at 7pm today (Wednesday, June 12).
Why not? Because she has sent him advance notice of all the questions she will be asking, in her speech, which she has published here for everyone to see.
Firstly, she attacks the government’s assertion – made by Hoban’s fellow truth-bender Chris Grayling, when he was in Hoban’s job – that there is a lack of demand for audio recording of assessments. He said a pilot scheme to test whether audio recording assessments improved their quality had produced a negative result: “We decided not to implement universal recording because, based on the trial experience, people did not want it.”
This is – to nobody’s surprise – untrue.
The Atos pilot concluded, “68% of customers agreed to the recording when contacted by telephone prior to the appointment.”
This total dropped to 46 per cent due to some claimants not taking the assessment. This is most likely caused by the phenomenon of ‘churn’, as discussed on this blog, and others, in previous articles – a fairly consistent number of claimants stop their claim before taking the assessment because they either get better, find a job that can accommodate their disability, or die.
As far as Atos were concerned, the result was beyond doubt: “Our recommendation would be that recording should become routine as it is in a call centre or for example – NHS direct.”
This is the recommendation of the company running the much-criticised assessment scheme, remember. Even Atos wants better accountability and an improved quality of assessment that this may bring.
Ms Gilmore goes on to attack the government’s claim that the number of claimants requesting a copy of their recording is just one per cent. This cannot be regarded as an accurate assessment of the number who would like a copy, for two reasons, she tells us.
Firstly, the assessors used handheld devices to make their recordings, meaning they would have to be transferred to computer and burnt to CD afterwards, preventing claimants from taking recordings away with them on the day. Instead they had to make a further request – in writing. “Unsurprisingly this suppressed uptake,” Ms Gilmore’s speech states.
Secondly, claimants were warned off applying for copies by assessors who told them recordings would only be useful to them if they appealed. The report that stated only one per cent of claimants persisted in their request was completed only days after the pilot study ended, meaning most of those involved had not received a decision on their claim and therefore did not know whether they needed to appeal. Demand may well have been higher, had the measurement been taken after a reasonable time.
This is just one example of the DWP timing processes in order to get its way. We’ll return to that topic in a moment.
Chris Grayling also stated that the DWP would offer “everyone who wants it” the opportunity to have their assessment recorded. In practice, this seems an empty promise, as Atos had around 50 audio recording machines on May 22 this year, but undertakes more than 11,000 assessments every week.
Also, the option to request recordings is not offered in any official DWP communications to claimants. As Arthur Dent points out in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s not like they’ve gone out of their way, “like actually telling anyone or anything!”
What we’re seeing is a series of attempts to distort information and skew the facts, to create a story that supports DWP ministers’ intentions, rather than the evidence. That’s bad for the country, because it means decisions are taken on the basis of fantasy, diverting attention and effort away from where it is needed.
“Today I have taken the unusual step of emailing a copy of my speech for an upcoming debate to Mark Hoban, the Minister due to speak for the Government,” said Ms Gilmore. “Now he can have no excuse for not answering the important questions I intend to put to him…. I want to ensure the Minister can’t ignore these points, and that’s why I’ve take this action today.”
Whatever happens this evening, it seems unlikely that anything can be done about the DWP’s latest misuse of statistics – actually withholding performance data about the Work Programme (as reported previously in Vox Political) and the Youth Contract until the day after the government’s comprehensive spending review.
This means decisions are likely to be made on ministers’ recommendations, rather than on the basis of fact – and we now know that we cannot trust those recommendations at all.
The Telegraph, reporting the delay, stated that the figures – when they arrive – “are expected to be very disappointing.
“It is hardly unreasonable to say that the Government would sooner Labour did not have these to throw at it when George Osborne gives details of the Comprehensive Spending Review in Parliament on June 26.”
Columnist Tim Wigmore concludes – and this is in the Torygraph, remember: “The Government only has itself to blame if it’s getting harder to give it the benefit of the doubt.”
That time is long gone.
There must be no dishonesty in Parliament.
If Mark Hoban fails to give full and frank answers to the questions Sheila Gilmore has put to him, but resorts to distortions of the figures or outright falsehoods, then he must be expelled from his job, not just as a minister but as an MP.
That goes for his boss, Iain Duncan Smith. It goes for Grant Shapps, Michael Gove (mentioned in the Telegraph article) and, above all, it also goes for David Cameron.
*If any MP is reading this and able to provide details of the correct procedure, please get in touch.
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