Long-term disability campaigner Samuel Miller sent me the article quoted below, with the following words:
“The news story that I just brought to your attention is solid evidence that seriously ill and disabled people in the ESA WRAG are suffering immense hardship—and validates my tireless campaigning against these life-threatening cuts.”
“Nor are we dealing here with people with minor illness. Charities report that 45 per cent of people who put in a claim for ESA, and had Parkinson’s, Cystic Fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, or Rheumatoid Arthritis, were placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG).
“Around 700,000 apply each year for ESA, of which number around 60 per cent proceed to full assessment (the others generally return to work before the process is complete). Currently around 14 per cent of these go into the WRAG. That’s around 60,000 people affected every year.”
A survey of people claiming ESA shows 60 per cent of 1,755 respondents say the amount they receive is not enough to live on.
When asked about the consequences of this, 62 per cent said they struggled to stay healthy, while 49 per cent said they could no longer pay their bills.
For most people, the news that you have Parkinson’s Disease is earth-shattering enough.
But for sufferer Kevin Stannard, 62, the worst was yet to come.
In 2010, he was made redundant from the blind-fitting firm [where] he had worked for … 40 years due to his worsening symptoms.
He was forced to begin claiming disability benefits or Employment and Support Allowance.
For the next few years, he and his wife, Amanda, struggled financially as part of the ESA Wrag group – which was set up especially for people who may be fit for work in the future.
Unfortunately for Kevin and Amanda, 60, from Colchester, the allowance was not enough to cover the cost of living.
The stress of working while dealing with the “confusing” process of claiming ESA for her husband led to Amanda suffering a minor stroke, which meant she also had to give up her part-time work as a director with a housing association.
The struggle experienced by Kevin and Amanda is not uncommon, according to the latest findings of the Disability Benefits Consortium, a national coalition of more than 80 different charities and organisations.
A classic satirical take on Iain Duncan Smith – but under his “reforms”, tens of thousands of people DID starve. Many more committed suicide in despair. He has yet to be brought to justice for causing these deaths.
Were you aware that more deaths have been linked to the Department for Work and Pensions and its homicidal “welfare reforms” than to aviation accidents?
One reason for this, according to This Writer’s fellow campaigner against murderous DWP activities, Samuel Miller, is that airlines are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that they don’t cut corners and introduce unsafe practices into their business patterns.
The DWP has been merrily inserting unsafe policies into its administration of benefits – but of course it doesn’t have a regulator. Mr Miller says it should have one:
If the DWP were an airline, it would be regulated by the UK Civil Aviation Authority, a watchdog with statutory powers. As it stands, there have been more DWP-linked deaths than airline accident fatalities in the UK—and shockingly, the DWP remains unregulated because the Work and Pensions Select Committee lacks statutory powers.
The DWP is a ‘grave and systematic’ human rights violator and its draconian welfare reforms are prematurely ending the lives of many benefit claimants. We must insist that it be governed by an independent body with statutory powers; otherwise, welfare reform in the UK will remain a ‘human catastrophe’, according to the UN, for sick and disabled Britons.
We should publicly call for the DWP to be regulated by a watchdog. A Private Members Bill (PMB) could help facilitate this, by eliciting discussion of reining in this rogue department, which is gravely and systematically violating human rights. I’m well aware that all Select Committees are devoid of statutory powers and that Private Members Bills have virtually no chance of passing. But it will provoke discussion and that alone is worthwhile.
It’s an interesting idea.
But, as Mr Miller rightly points out, under a Conservative government it would be doomed to failure because Tories don’t want anybody interfering with their genocide of people with disabilities (for one example).
However (again) he is also right that the discussion of such a move would return the issue of the DWP-related deaths to the public eye.
People are still dying because of the DWP’s cruel assessments and sanctions – every day. We need to do all we can to end this and bring those responsible to justice.
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The numbers aren’t huge at the moment, but they are significant – between 2010 and 2014, malnutrition in Salford rose from 43 cases to 85.
The longer we have a Conservative government, the worse it is going to get.
This Blog predicted the problem all the way back in December 2012, when I wrote: “In the UK, there are currently 13 million people living below the poverty line [including] working people, whose income does not cover their costs; the unemployed, who are finding they do not have enough money to buy food due to the vicious and unwarranted benefit cuts thrust upon them… and of course the homeless, a sector of society that is due to grow exponentially, again due to the many cuts inflicted by the bloodthirsty Conservatives.
“As a consequence of the rise in poverty, overseen and orchestrated by Mr Cameron and his lieutenant Iain Duncan Smith in the Department for Work and Pensions, the classic poverty-related diseases of rickets and tuberculosis are on the increase. In 2012, the Conservatives have achieved their aim to revive the Dickensian Christmas.”
Almost a year later, the UK’s chief medical officer announced the formal return of rickets. One may presume that the disease, while present, did not exist in great enough numbers prior to this but, thanks to the policies of David Cameron, Theresa May and the Tories, that had changed.
This time, I wrote: “Can there be any doubt that this rise in cases has been brought about, not just by children sitting at home playing video games rather than going out in the sunlight, as some would have us believe, but because increasing numbers of children are having to make do with increasingly poor food, as Cameron’s policies hammer down on wages and benefits and force working class people and the unemployed to buy cheaper groceries with lower nutritional value?
“The Tory wage-crushing policy has been ignorant in the extreme… as it has created an extra burden on the NHS. Preventative measures ‘could save the economy billions’.”
More than three decades of neoliberal political rule had had a devastating effect on the nation’s children, I wrote. While our mortality rate for 0-14 year olds was among the best in Europe during the 1980s, it was now among the worst, with five more children dying every day than in the best-performing country, Sweden.
The highest death rates were in deprived areas – in the northwest, northern cities and some of London’s poorer boroughs, with 21.1 deaths per 100,000 people under 17.
I also wrote that the then-government seemed hell-bent on ensuring that predictions of a rise in tuberculosis would come true as well, with its plan to tackle the phantom problem of “health tourism” (see how long that little nonsense has been floating around?) deterring temporary migrants from seeking treatment when they first fell ill.
By October last year, the list of ‘Victorian’ diseases re-surfacing in the UK had increased to include gout, TB, measles, scurvy, rickets and whooping cough.
Social security researcher and commenter – and stalwart friend of This Blog – Samuel Miller called on local authorities to investigate the return of these diseases.
He told us: “There is growing evidence that the draconian welfare reforms are irreparably damaging the mental and physical health of benefit claimants. Health figures recently revealed a 50% increase in the number of people admitted to hospital with malnutrition over the past four years, and a return of Victorian diseases linked to poverty such as gout, TB, measles, scurvy, rickets, and whooping cough are a barometer of failure and neglect,” – and referred to a list of articles which may be found here.
And now Salford council has answered the request, telling us what we all knew – and what we all feared.
Back in 2014, I wrote something that, while accurate then, seems even more true now, so I make no apology for repeating it here:
In the Bible, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not” – meaning he did not want his disciples to stop youngsters from hearing his teachings.
That saying may now be re-worked to fit the philosophy of Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt to read: “Suffer, little children – for you have a Conservative government.”
The number of malnutrition cases in Salford has doubled – with many of the victims children.
Victorian illnesses such as rickets and beriberi – thought to be long eradicated – are on the rise due to food poverty according to a shocking new report.
The number of people being admitted to hospital with the condition doubled over a four year period.
Although health conditions are often a primary cause, Salford council leaders believes that poverty is also to blame.
Painful deformities of the skeleton such as bowed legs: The return of rickets is another sign that the Conservative Government is regressing Britain to conditions during the primitive Victorian era – or even earlier.
Social security researcher and commenter Samuel Miller thinks they are.
He wants health authorities in the UK to investigate whether the return of diseases linked to poverty – and to the Victorian era – such as gout, TB, measles, scurvy, rickets and whooping cough.
This Writer flagged up the possibility as long ago as October 2013, after the UK’s chief medical officer formally announced the return of rickets.
I wrote: “Can there be any doubt that this rise in cases has been brought about, not just by children sitting at home playing video games rather than going out in the sunlight, as some would have us believe, but because increasing numbers of children are having to make do with increasingly poor food, as Cameron’s policies hammer down on wages and benefits and force working class people and the unemployed to buy cheaper groceries with lower nutritinal value?”
Despite Tory claims that the UK is in better shape than it has been in years, it seems clear that these health issues are getting worse.
Mr Miller writes: “There’s an urgent need for health authorities to investigate whether Ian Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, and cuts to social services, are responsible for the alarming rise in cases of malnutrition and the return of Victorian diseases.
“There is growing evidence that the draconian welfare reforms are irreparably damaging the mental and physical health of benefit claimants. Health figures recently revealed a 50% increase in the number of people admitted to hospital with malnutrition over the past four years, and a return of Victorian diseases linked to poverty such as gout, TB, measles, scurvy, rickets, and whooping cough are a barometer of failure and neglect.”
The Conservative Government has been challenged to let experts analyse the effects of its policies on benefit claimants, following the publication of – extremely limited – mortality figures in August.
Disability studies specialist and disability activist Samuel Miller has written to Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, and employment minister Priti Patel, asking whether they would co-operate if epidemiologists – experts in studying the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations such as benefit claimants – requested permission to conduct a thorough investigation of government policy.
In 2013, Duncan Smith turned down Mr Miller’s request to have his department hire an epidemiologist to conduct an independent study of the impact of the welfare reforms on the mortality of claimants on Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance.
“The professionals most qualified to analyse the recent DWP statistical releases on benefit deaths are Professor David Stuckler and Dr Sanjay Basu, the co-authors of The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills. Why haven’t you asked them to analyze the mortality releases?” wrote Mr Miller.
“In my opinion, thousands of sick and disabled benefit claimants died needlessly because of the benefits backlog, long waits for mandatory reconsideration decisions, and the failure of the DWP to implement a sensible Work and Pensions Committee recommendation: In 2014, that Committee called on the Government to pay sick and disabled people benefits while they appealed against incorrect ‘fit for work’ decisions.
“Why didn’t you implement that recommendation, and if you would do so, how much more would it have cost your department in additional benefit expenditures?
“It’s a hard truth, but it must be stated: The purpose of a benefits backlog is to ensure that people die waiting for their claims to be processed, thus saving the Government money. The Government failed to set a reasonable timescale for the mandatory reconsideration process, leaving it open-ended. The human cost was enormous and thousands died.
“Why is your department so unwilling to implement sensible and humane mortality avoidance measures?”
‘Daftie’ Duncan Smith before a previous hearing of the Work and Pensions committee.
It’s a valid question.
More than a year ago, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith told us “In work conditionality” within the Universal Credit system could encourage part-time workers and the low-paid to seek additional hours.
But it seems nothing is being done to “encourage” employers to provide the extra work.
So what, exactly, did Duncan Smith think he was playing at?
It seems we may soon find out, because Disability Studies specialist and disability activist Samuel Miller has written to the Secretary-in-a-State and his employment minister, Priti Patel, to find out whether employers will face sanctions for refusing to offer part-time and low-paid workers additional hours.
“My field of interest is disability,” wrote Mr Miller. “If the British government is truly interested in increasing employment opportunities for the disabled, why doesn’t it follow the U.S. example and compel businesses to significantly increase the number of people with disabilities that they employ?
“The U.S. rule requires most federal contractors to ensure that people with disabilities account for at least 7 percent of workers within each job group in their workforce.
“While officials at the U.S. Department of Labor say they are not establishing a firm hiring quota for contractors, they do expect that businesses servicing the government will work toward achieving the target. Contractors that fail to meet the goal and do not show sufficient effort toward reaching the 7 percent threshold could lose their contracts under the new rule.
“Disability advocates say the added pressure on federal contractors will go a long way—and, in my opinion, Britain should follow suit.”
“She wanted to know about cuts to benefits, having carefully gathered evidence from charities and food banks in advance. ‘Minimum JSA [jobseeker’s allowance] sanction,’ she began, ‘went from two weeks to four weeks and the maximum went from six months to three years. These are quite sizeable lengths of time, so what evidence did you have on the likely impact on claimants that these extended sanction periods would have?’
“Were there any reasonable grounds that could be shared with any reasonable person to think this policy would be effective – any attempt to visualise how it would look?… There were not. There was a lot of faffing, and some broad and extraneous evidence about sanctions in general. ‘I take it from your failure to answer the question that you did not do any research,’ the chair finally concluded, having grilled McVey and the DWP’s Chris Hayes for long enough.”
This is a policy that kills people. We only have to look at the recent record of Ashton-under-Lyne Job Centre to realise that. Remember the man whose Jobseekers Allowance was sanctioned just before Christmas? “Without warm clothes and very little food he fell asleep on the streets and never woke up. He died of hypothermia.”
Jobcentre staff reportedly said they were “only following orders” – the ‘Nuremberg defence’ used by guards in Nazi extermination camps.
Then – again, just before Christmas – another claimant at Ashton-under-Lyne died. This one was driven to suicide after being sanctioned, and was found hanged.
That’s two, within two weeks – claiming at just one Jobcentre. Working on the law of averages, that gives us 52 deaths per Jobcentre per year, and with 800 Jobcentres in the country our average number of deaths per year would be 41,600.
Both of these claimants had mental health problems but had been dumped off incapacity benefits and onto JSA. Clearly they had failed their Work Capability Assessments – but then, we all know that these are phony tests based on a long-ago-debunked assessment system.
Again, there was no evidence to show the WCA was a valid assessment procedure. Blame for its use falls at Labour’s door (it was introduced in 2008, under a Labour government) – although it should be recognised that Labour soon realised its mistake and would have changed the system if the Conservative-led Coalition had not sidled into office in 2010.
The Tories introduced changes that made the assessment much harder, and it is from the introduction of those changes that the Employment and Support Allowance deaths really started to pile up (the article referenced suggests 73 deaths a week, but the total number was in fact more than 220 – deaths from the support group were included after it was pointed out that random reassessment of people in this group created stress that could easily lead to death).
Right: 220 deaths per week is 11,440 per year. Add that to the 41,600 we already have and our rolling total is 53,040 deaths per year – and remember this is only an extremely rough average to demonstrate the possible extent of the problem. The ESA death figure is from 2011 and may have increased hugely since then – we don’t know because the DWP is hiding the figures from us.
To cut a long story short, we could be looking at as many as 100,000 deaths and more, in the benefit system alone. This carnage, driven by Coalition Government policy, would be the largest genocide of the British people by their government in history, beating even the Harrowing of the North in 1070.
Samuel Miller, who has spent more years researching the fatal effects of evidenceless DWP policy than this writer, had this to say about it yesterday: “There exist only a few studies on the effectiveness of sanctions in social welfare systems, yet that did not deter the DWP from implementing one of the harshest sanctions regimes of all OECD countries.
“Moreover, the Department failed to conduct a ‘real world’ impact assessment of the effect of extended sanctions on claimants. So when the minimum JSA sanction went from two weeks to four weeks and the maximum went from six months to three years, people died as a result.”
Last week, Iain Duncan Smith was campaigning for a Tory government to be elected in 2015. In the face of all the misery and death for which he should be held directly accountable, this creature squelched out of his lair and tried to convince you that he has saved the country £50 billion – because the number of benefit claimants is falling. Even this was a lie.
The Tory insistence on evidenceless policy means that, if a Conservative government is elected in May, the deaths will continue. Every one of the thousands who have died already was some mother’s son or daughter, somebody’s brother, niece, cousin; somebody’s friend or relative.
Maybe somebody close to you will be targeted after May – how would you feel about that?
Maybe it will be you. By then, it will be too late to do anything about it.
Tarnished record: Mark Harper previously came to our attention when it was discovered that he dodged a £20,000 fine for employing an illegal migrant worker. Vox Political covered the story on August 7 this year. [Image: Political Scrapbook.]
The new Conservative minister for disabled people has insisted that his department is right to ignore reports of deaths linked to the loss or non-payment of disability benefits, according to the latest article from kittysjones.
It seems that, in an interview with the Disability News Service at last week’s Conservative conference, he said he did not accept that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should be collecting this information or trying to learn lessons from such deaths.
“But Harper said he did not ‘accept the premise’ that DWP should collect and analyse reports that suggest a disabled person’s death could have been linked to the non-payment or withdrawal of benefits.
“He said: ‘If somebody in those sort of cases, if someone has [a] mental health [condition] and then something happens, trying to disaggregate what was the cause I don’t think is as simple as you are trying to suggest.’
“When asked whether he accepted that any deaths had been caused, or even partly caused, by the loss or non-payment of benefits, he said: ‘Of the cases I have seen since I have been the minister where there have been allegations, when you look at the detail they are not as simple and straightforward as people are alleging.’
“But Harper did promise to ‘go back and look back at what processes we have in place to track cases’ and to look at the Freedom of Information Act response from DWP that led to the DNS story.
“Many of the cases became widely-known through media reports of inquests, but in the case of Ms DE, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland concluded that the work capability assessment process and the subsequent denial of ESA was at least a ‘major factor in her decision to take her own life’.”
Of course this all goes back to the Freedom of Information requests submitted by Samuel Miller and others that prompted Yr Obdt Srvt to make the now-infamous “vexatious” request of June 2013. When it was refused on appeal to an information tribunal, Disability News Service submitted its own request.
A repeat request by Vox Political has since been refused on the grounds that the DWP intends to publish some or all of the information at an unspecified time in the future. These ‘section 22’ refusals must be supported by certain conditions which the DWP did not meet, and a reconsideration request has been met with stony silence (other than the acknowledgement of receipt), so once against it seems an appeal to the Information Commissioner (and possibly another tribunal hearing) will be necessary.
It’s all stalling tactics. The Conservatives in the government know that, if the true extent of the deaths becomes clear, the game will be up for them.
After all, who in their right mind would want to vote back into office an organisation that had just caused the deaths of anything up to or beyond 50,000* of their fellow citizens? Nobody would be safe under such a government.
Turning back to Mr Harper, independent disability researcher Mo Stewart has written to him with a stern rebuke that he will, no doubt, ignore. Here it is:
“Please be advised that the public are beginning to challenge why, historically, your predecessors don’t manage to remain in post for very long and I note your website continues with the government rhetoric whilst totally disregarding the human consequences of the austerity measures.
“I often wonder what exactly MPs mean when claiming that we are living in ‘difficult times for families’ when failing to take responsibility for the deaths and devastation you have clearly created, using cash as the only justification for the fact that ‘malnutrition’ is now regularly found in Coroners’ reports. The poor, the sick and the disabled people of the UK didn’t create the banking crash Mr Harper, so why are you hurting them but refusing to publish the growing mortality rates of government policies?
“Please be advised that your defensive claims that that you do not “accept the premise” that the DWP should collate and analyse the many, many thousands of deaths now directly linked to the withdrawal of DWP benefits is tantamount to an abandonment of responsibility by the British government, it may well lead to charges of crimes against humanity once all the detailed and often disturbing evidence has been collated and analysed by other sources and the British government is already about to be investigated by the UN for the demonstrated human rights violations of disabled people. All this whilst the UK faces the return of Victorian diseases linked to extremes of poverty…. That’s quite a track record this government has built up.
“With respect, you are not professionally qualified to assess these reported cases and regardless of if you admit it or not, high calibre REAL experts are now advising that: ‘…there is growing evidence that the draconian welfare reforms are irreparably damaging the mental and physical health of benefit claimants.’
“If someone is already surviving on a token income and the government reduce or remove it, with savage sanctions or by using a totally compromised ‘assessment’, how precisely do you expect these people to live, to eat or to survive when they are already the poorest in the land?
“This question isn’t going to go away because DWP Ministers fear the public reaction if the figures of welfare reform related deaths are ever published.
“Now the DWP are attacking our older disabled veterans by threatening to remove the DLA of our War Pensioners, whilst the PM continues to wax lyrically at Conference about the debt this nation owes to our armed forces. Unwise Mr Harper, very, very unwise.
“Release the mortality figures Mr Harper and don’t ever presume that we are about to stop asking for them.”
In addition to the above, it seems appropriate for Vox Political to reiterate:
Not only does the DWP have mortality statistics for benefit claimants, but it has them in a form that may be freely distributed to anybody asking for them, within the cost limits imposed by the Freedom of Information Act.
The only reason these numbers are not in the public domain is the fact that ministers like Mark Harper refuse to allow their release.
The only reason they have for refusing to release these figures – that makes any sense – is that they fear the consequences: Public shock and outrage.
That is not the response of a responsible government. It is the response of a gang of criminal killers who are terrified their misdeeds will be revealed.
*This is an estimate based on the known number of deaths related solely to a single benefit – Employment and Support Allowance – between January and November 2011.
Those of you who have read my report on the benefit deaths tribunal will know that Samuel Miller received a response to his own Freedom of Information request for updated death statistics of incapacity benefit (and ESA) claimants a few weeks ago – but it did not cover the correct dates and was not ordered in a similar way to the ‘Incapacity benefits: Deaths of recipients’ report released in 2012.
It was impossible for anyone to consider it an update of the figures in that report, as the Department for Work and Pensions was claiming by sending it to Mr Miller.
I reported on Thursday that he had requested another response, made out in an appropriate manner, and that he had been advised he would receive this soon.
In fact, he was told the response would arrive yesterday (Friday).
That’s right – no show.
“As you know, I had asked the DWP to put these latest mortality statistics into context. Well, they haven’t responded by today’s date, as promised,” Mr Miller said on Twitter.
Perhaps we can hope this is a simple mistake and the numbers will be with him soon.
Just don’t hold your breath waiting – or you may become another government statistic.
Seen to be done: The tribunal took place at the Law Courts in Cardiff (pictured), in public – which allowed friends of Vox Political to hear the case.
The Information Commissioner’s Office and the Department for Work and Pensions have highlighted the weakness of their own case for hiding the number of people who have died while claiming sickness and disability benefits – by failing to turn up at a tribunal on the subject.
They had the opportunity to explain why mortality statistics for people claiming Employment and Support Allowance since November 2011 have been suppressed, at a tribunal in the Law Courts, Cardiff, yesterday (April 23).
But, rather than be grilled on the reasons for their decision by a judge, a specialist in this area of law, and a ‘lay’ person (representing the opinions of right-thinking members of the public), they chose to stay away.
The tribunal had been requested by Vox Political‘s Mike Sivier, after he made a Freedom of Information request for access to the information – and it was refused on the grounds that it was “vexatious”.
The Department for Work and Pensions said he had written an article about his request on the blog, containing the line, “I strongly urge you to do the same. There is strength in numbers.” According to the DWP, this line constituted a co-ordinated, obsessive and protracted campaign of harassment against the department.
One line in a blog article, added as an afterthought – an obsessive campaign designed to “disrupt” the workings of the DWP. It’s ludicrous.
The DWP claimed it had received 23 requests that were similar or identical to Mike’s, in the days following his own, and inferred from this that they were from other members of this fictional campaign. Mike has only been able to track down evidence of seven such requests and, of them, only one mentions him by name. Without a tangible connection to Mike or Vox Political, the case is not made out – and one connected request does not constitute a campaign.
In fact, Mike’s own request was made after he read that a previous request had been refused – that of disability researcher and campaigner Samuel Miller. Mr Miller had published this fact in the social media and expressed that he was “furious” about it, and this inspired Mike to write his own request. Who knows how many other people did the same in response to Mr Miller? Yet he has (rightly) not been accused of starting any conspiracy.
Mr Miller’s original request has now received a reply, after the Information Commissioner’s office ruled that it had been mishandled by the DWP. This reply contained the wrong information and Mike urged Mr Miller to point this out. Clearly Mr Miller’s claim is not being treated as vexatious, even though it has inspired others to follow his example – as Mike’s article shows that he did. The contrast in treatment betrays a clear double-standard at the DWP (and the Information Commissioner’s office, after appeals were made to it in both cases).
Perhaps it is because of this fatal flaw in their logic that neither the ICO nor the DWP saw fit to send representatives to the tribunal. This left the floor free for Mike to make his own case, with nobody to speak against him or cross-examine him. Tribunal members asked questions, but these were entirely helpful in nature – allowing Mike to clarify or expand on his argument.
So the claim that the number of similar requests, received soon after the blog article appeared, indicated a campaign against the DWP was refuted with the simple observation that the subject was of topical interest at the time, because of what had happened to Mr Miller. Mike said an appropriate comparison would be with complaints to the BBC over the now-infamous radio show involving Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. The corporation received only a couple of complaints from people who listened to the show at the time, followed by thousands from people who heard about it later. Mike asked: “Were all those thousands of complaints vexatious in nature? Were they the result of organised campaigns against Messrs Ross and Brand? Or were they genuine expressions of horror at behaviour they considered to have gone beyond the pale? The BBC accepted the latter choice because logic mitigates in its favour.”
The claim that abusive or aggressive language exhibited by blog commenters indicated harassment that was likely to cause distress to members of the DWP was batted away with the argument that nobody from the department would have seen it if they had not gone looking for it (after reading the FOI request from a Vox Political reader who referenced the blog).
Mike said it would be “like a social landlord gatecrashing a residents’ association meeting, listening to the grievances of the tenants and then saying they are harassing him and he’s not going to service any of their requests for repairs. That is not reasonable”.
The DWP had claimed that actioning the 24 requests it insisted on connecting with Mike’s “could impose a burden in terms of time and resources, distracting the DWP from its main functions”, but Mike showed that this was not true, as an email to the ICO, dated October 21, 2013, makes clear: “We can confirm that the Department does hold, and could provide within the cost limit, some of the information requested.”
Nevertheless, the ICO had upheld the claim, saying on November 27, 2013: “For the DWP to respond to all of the requests, it is not simply a matter of sending an email to 24 people. There is a requirement to collate the information, consider exemptions under the Act which may apply, provide a formal response and then, if necessary refer the decision to an internal review…. The Commissioner considers that 24 requests on the same topic in a few days could represent… a disproportionate use of the FOIA.”
In his speech to the tribunal, Mike responded: “It is reminiscent of the line in the TV sitcom Blackadder The Third, when the title character, butler to the Prince Regent in Georgian times, demands a fortune in order to buy votes in a by-election for a ‘tupenny-ha’penny place’. Challenged on the amount, he responds: ‘There are many other factors to be considered: Stamp duty, window tax, swamp insurance, hen food, dog biscuits, cow ointment – the expenses are endless.’” He said the ICO’s claim “smacks of desperation”.
One aspect that worked in Mike’s favour from the start was the fact that both the DWP and the ICO have accepted that there is a serious purpose to his request – publication of figures showing how many people have died while claiming ESA. This is important because the assessment regime for this benefit has been heavily criticised as harmful to claimants and the government has claimed that it has made changes to decrease any such effect. The only way the public can judge whether this has worked, or whether more must be done to prevent unnecessary deaths, is by examining the mortality statistics, but these have been withheld. This is the matter at the heart of the request and the fact that the ICO and DWP acknowledge this is a major element in Mike’s favour.
Perhaps realising this, the ICO tried to claim that the intention was changed by the volume of requests submitted: “The purpose of the totality of the requests as a whole may have gone beyond the point of simply obtaining the information requested and may now be intended to disrupt the main functions of the DWP.”
It is not reasonable to suggest that the purpose of an action changes, just because other people carry out the same action within a similar time-frame. Mike put it this way: “Millions of people make a cup of tea in the advertising break after Coronation Street; would the Information Commissioner suggest that this was a campaign to overload the national grid?”
With nobody on hand to provide the ICO/DWP side of the case, the hearing ended at around midday, after Mike had been speaking for two hours. He was grateful to be supported by his McKenzie friend, Glynis Millward, who provided help and advice, and by a group of Vox Political readers who attended to hear the case.
Now the bad news: No decision was handed down on the day. The tribunal judge explained that the panel must now think about the issues raised and discuss their findings. He said they would aim to provide a full, written decision within 21 days.
It is interesting to note that Mr Miller has acted on Mike’s advice and has been advised that a revised response to his request should be with him soon.
If this response contains updated information under the same headings as the original ‘ad hoc’ statistical release provided by the DWP in July 2012 (and from which we derived the 73-deaths-per-week figure that shocked so many people at the time), then a decision by the tribunal to release the same information may seem redundant. In fact, it is possible that the DWP may provide the information to Mr Miller, simply to spite Mike.
But this would be yet another misunderstanding of what this case is about. Mike doesn’t care who gets the mortality statistics first; for him, it is not about who gets to say they were the one who forced the government into submission – this is about getting the information out to the public, so the people can decide whether ESA does more harm than good.
The tribunal’s decision will still be important as it will establish whether the DWP – and other government departments – will be able to manipulate the principles behind the Freedom of Information Act to avoid providing politically inconvenient information in the future.
In Mike’s opinion, a decision in the government’s favour would effectively turn the Act into a dead letter.
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