Sarah Newton: The Conservative minister for disabled people once said there was no “hostile environment” for benefit claimants. Her capacity for inaccuracy, thus demonstrated, seems to be proved again with this case.
The duplicity in the latest attack on the sick and disabled by the Conservatives is enough to make anybody ill – including the doctors it targeted.
People claiming Employment and Support Allowance because they are too unwell to work, but who have their claim turned down by assessors from the private company hired by the Department for Work and Pensions, are entitled to receive the benefit while they await their appeal hearing.
But they need ‘fit’ notes from their doctors, to prove they are too ill to work – and it has emerged that “ministers” (we don’t know which) have ordered changes to the standard letter sent to GPs, in order to make them think these notes are not necessary.
It’s clearly a scam to undermine the law; sick people can’t receive the benefit if they don’t have a note from their GP, so the government has told GPs to stop providing these notes.
Amazingly, the DWP has claimed that the removal of references that made it clear to GPs they may have to issue a medical statement if their patient wished to appeal against a WCA decision was not intended to dissuade GPs from issuing fit notes.
In that case, why change the letter at all?
And why are we told that the wording was changed by agreement with the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners (although it is significant that there appear to be no formal minutes of the meeting at which this agreement was made)?
According to The Guardian:
The standard letter, called an ESA65B, is sent automatically to the GPs of all claimants who fail a WCA and are declared fit enough to work. Until 2017 the letter advised GPs that if their patient appealed against the WCA decision they must continue to provide fit notes.
However, on ministers’ orders, the letter now states that GPs “do not need to provide any more fit notes for ESA purposes”. It does not mention the possibility that the patient may appeal, or that a fit note is needed for the patient to obtain ESA payments until the appeal is heard.
And what has been the result? Back to the Graun:
Advice charity Z2K said the effect of the revised letter could be devastating. “We have seen how our clients, who are seriously ill, suddenly have zero income, become reliant on food bank vouchers and loans, and face a very real threat of homelessness.”
There was national outrage over the case of Stephen Smith, 64, who was deemed fit for work despite suffering from multiple debilitating illnesses, having his weight plummet to 38kg (6 stone) and being barely able to walk. Smith won his appeal after waiting 12 months for a hearing.
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), said the lack of clarity over when GPs should issue fit notes could put patients’ finances and health at risk.
The reason for the change is obvious – it is well-known that 72% of claimants who appeal against their Work Capability Assessment decision are successful.
As readers of This Site know, the Conservatives like to persecute people with long-term illnesses and disabilities to their deaths. So they are trying to make it impossible for claimants to survive long enough to win their appeals.
It seems former minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton (ah, so that’s her name! I had forgotten it already) may have ordered the change. She certainly protested to the Work and Pensions select committee that the change had been to make the letter “simpler and clearer”.
Committee chair Frank Field’s acid reply was that the wording was “not having its desired effect”.
Sarah Newton: The Conservative minister for disabled people once said there was no “hostile environment” for benefit claimants. The seven reviews of wrong decisions carried out by the DWP within the last 12 months suggest otherwise.
As I write this, I, Daniel Blake is on the TV – its television premiere. The scene involves the title character’s work capability assessment (he’s claiming Employment Support Allowance), with a “healthcare professional” who does her level best to avoid discussing the heart attack that put him in front of her, and also to avoid explaining how she is qualified to handle his case.
The implication is clear: The assessor isn’t qualified to deal with him and doesn’t want to talk about his genuine health problem because she wants to deny him any benefits.
Aaaaand sure enough, he’s just been found fit for work. Falsely, of course.
I mention this because the Department for Work and Pensions has been forced to launch a seventh expensive review of its own records to find details of disabled people unfairly deprived of benefits.
This particular review isn’t about people being denied benefits because of wrong assessment decisions – it’s actually more appropriate to the situation faced by single mother Katie (Hayley Squires), who is denied a chance to sign on because she arrives late at the Job Centre.
Disability News Serviceexplains: “The latest review is necessary because of an upper tribunal ruling in the case of a claimant moving from disability living allowance (DLA) to personal independence payment (PIP) who had his DLA stopped because he had failed to attend an Atos face-to-face assessment.
“The upper tribunal found that the claimant, OM – who had long-standing psychosis, and became agitated and aggressive around people he did not know – had “good reason” for not attending the PIP assessment that the government contractor Atos had told his wife he would have to attend in one of its London centres.
“The upper tribunal found that OM should have his DLA reinstated until a final decision was made on his PIP claim, while he should also receive backdated payments from the date DWP stopped his DLA.”
The new review means the DWP has to apply the same approach to other cases in which DLA claimants had their benefits stopped because assessors said they did not have “good reason” for failing to attend or take part in interviews or to provide necessary information or evidence for their PIP claim, but were later found to have had a “good reason” after all, by the DWP or a tribunal.
Of course, the operative question here is, why were all these people denied benefits, based on a false premise?
And, if no fewer than six other reviews have taken place to find other people who have been wronged by the DWP, I have to ask: Were these really mistakes? Or were they deliberate policy decisions designed to harm the people DWP is meant to be helping?
I think anyone who’s seen the film will know the answer to both those questions.
It is nearly four years to the day since I published evidence that private contractors carrying out the Work Capability Assessment for the Conservative government were asking ESA claimants why they had not killed themselves. But Labour MP Laura Pidcock has raised concerns that it is still happening.
It should be plain to everybody that one does not ask why a person who has confessed to suicidal thoughts has not acted on those thoughts.
But that is clearly what happened to Abi Fallows, as described in my December 2014 article. We know it did because she recorded it.
“‘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.”
The resemblance between her words and those of Ms Pidcock – as quoted in this Canary article – is uncanny. The Labour MP stated: “Constituents have told us that they are concerned that some assessors are not specialist qualified mental health professionals. They tell us that they feel they are being judged as ‘not genuine’ – i.e. if you really were suicidal you would have killed yourself by now. This has caused great distress.”
So she tackled now-former Tory Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, asking, in a written question, “what steps she has taken to ensure that (a) work capability assessment providers do not ask claimants with mental health problems why they had not carried out their suicidal ideas and (b) the conduct of assessments does not increase the risk of suicide and self harm among claimants with mental health problems.”
The response from minister of state Sarah Newton seems to suggest that no such steps have been taken. It explains: “All healthcare professionals (HCPs) carrying out WCA assessments were given face to face training on exploring self-harm and suicidal ideation in May 2018. The training which was quality assured by the Royal College of Psychiatrists was designed to enhance the skills of HCPs in sensitively exploring self-harm and suicidal ideation.”
Unfortunately, as Ms Pidcock herself complained, that does not answer the question. She did not want vague comments about training in sensitivity; she wanted to know that assessors had been banned from asking what is potentially an extremely harmful question.
And the Royal College of Psychiatrists has distanced itself from Ms Newton’s claim, saying its contribution could hardly be described as quality assurance: “The College’s role has been limited to assessing the written training material sent to them by the Centre for Health and Disability Assessment to ensure that it is factually correct.”
We don’t know what that material is. We don’t know what it says. And we don’t know what readers are intended to draw from it.
Ms Pidcock is quoted as saying: “The minister has not answered the specific question. MPs on the Work and Pensions Select Committee put it to Newton in December 2017 that this was a standard question on the assessment. Although some discussion of suicidal thoughts may be appropriate in order to safeguard vulnerable people, she has not answered whether this particularly direct question has been removed.”
We must, therefore, draw the only logical conclusion: The question is still part of the assessment and government assessors are still drawing the attention of people with mental health issues to suicide.
And the Conservative government is doing its best to hide these facts because the Conservative government wants to attract suicidal benefit claimants to suicide.
It gets them off the benefit books and the Tories know they can dodge the blame for it.
Stop lying: Sarah Newton made the appeal to Opposition MPs who accused the government of creating a “hostile environment” for disabled benefit claimants – but she was the one who was telling porkies.
The Conservative minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, is a desperate woman.
So desperate is she, it appears she is happy to lie to Parliament about the plight of people with disabilities who are trying hard to survive the governments of David Cameron and Theresa May.
The simple fact is that 71 per cent of PIP appeals in the first three months of this year were granted, because the Tory system is rigged to prevent claimants from receiving the benefit.
The figure represents only five or six in every 100 claimants who have been turned down for the benefit – despite the fact that benefit fraud is known to occur in fewer than one per cent of cases – because there is scant support for them to appeal with no legal aid to pay for it; because an appeal is a lengthy time-consuming process and appeals are not routinely undertaken by welfare rights agencies such as the CAB.
Before they even get to appeal, claimants have to go through the lengthy process of ‘Mandatory Reconsideration’, with no chance of payment until any decision is made. No wonder so many give up on the process and try to find another way – although we have no information on what that other way may be – apart from this:
A number of coroners have come out and stated that the DWP played a role in the death of chronically sick and disabled benefit claimants, yet DWP minister Sarah Newton doesn't seem to give a damn.
Still, from a certain point of view Ms Newton is right.
It isn’t a “hostile environment” along the lines of that faced by the Windrush Generation – the environment for disabled benefit claimants under the Tory government is downright homicidal.
I seem to recall mentioning this quite recently… oh yes! It was a few days ago when Jeremy Corbyn was coming out with his weak claim that there is “evidence” to show Tory austerity policies have caused people to die. We don’t just have evidence – we have proof.
It was certainly persuasive enough for the United Nations to find that the UK’s Tory government has committed “grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights” after an investigation.
But Ms Newton had the nerve to try spin the situation, claiming that talk of a “hostile environment” is actually putting people off claiming benefits – when we all know it is Tory policies that are turning genuine claimants away.
The information about PIP appeals (above) is clear. Yet Ms Newton has the insolence to say those who accurately attack Tory policy should “stop saying things which they know are not true.”
She knew she was saying things that were not true.
Of course, Parliament is supposed to have procedures to penalise MPs who lie to their fellows. Those procedures have failed time and time again over the last eight years.
One wonders if those who allegedly safeguard Parliamentary standards will ever get their fingers out and do their jobs.
Esther McVey’s promotion to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has left many without hope [Image: REX/Shutterstock].
Already the arrival of Esther McVey as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been followed with lies.
Disabilities Minister Sarah Newton misled Parliament – less than 24 hours after Ms McVey’s appointment was announced – with a claim that, although her 2012 decision to close the Independent Living Fund (ILF) was challenged with a judicial review, “throughout the process the DWP won on all points.”
In fact, the Tory-Liberal Democrat Coalition government was forced to reconsider, after a damning verdict from three Court of Appeal judges in November 2013.
The three judges unanimously overturned an earlier ruling by the high court and found that her decision to close the fund was unlawful, and that she had breached the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty.
She was heavily criticised by the judges, with one saying there was no evidence that she had “directed her mind to the need to advance equality of opportunity”.
He added: “Nor is there evidence she considered the proposals having due regard to the need to minimise the particular disadvantages from which ILF users and other disabled persons suffer or the need to encourage such persons to live independently and to participate in public life and other activities.”
The judges were also highly critical of DWP officials, with one saying there was a tendency for officials “to tell the Minister what they thought she would want to hear”, although he added that he was convinced that McVey “was sufficiently aware of the very real adverse consequences which closing the fund would have on the lives of many of the more severely disabled”.
A DWP spokeswoman told Disability News Service the minister had not intended to discuss the proceedings in any depth, and: “The preparation for the ILF debate was carried out well before the reshuffle, and the minister had no prior knowledge of its outcome.”
That’s not good enough.
It is dishonest – and that word sums up Ms McVey’s ministerial record very well.
DNS has also reported on the backlash against Ms McVey’s appointment to the Cabinet:
Soon after McVey’s appointment this week as the new work and pensions secretary, a petition calling on the prime minister to sack her was launched by a disabled campaigner on the website 38 Degrees as a way to “give people hope, a visual representation of numbers of support for those of us who’ve woken to this frightening news today”.
One of those who signed the petition said: “This is a terrible insult to every disabled and sick person.
“She didn’t show any understanding of the struggles people endure on a daily basis and I doubt she learned anything from her past experiences.”
Another pointed out that the UN had criticised the government for causing a “human catastrophe” with its disability policies, with the appointment showing Theresa May “returning one of the very ministers who has been at the heart of this ‘conscious cruelty’ meted out by the Tories to society’s disabled, sickest and poorest citizens”.
Disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale said McVey’s appointment had been “a heartsink moment”, and that she felt “anguished on behalf of people on employment and support allowance especially”.
She said: “The appointment of McVey as secretary of state for work and pensions must be the Tories’ darkest hour yet.
“We can’t give her the benefit of the doubt in her intentions towards us, given her record as minister for disabled people.
“She and her morally bankrupt party have to be unseated urgently if disabled people are to survive and thrive.”
Anne McGuire, a former Labour minister for disabled people, said: “This is an unbelievably worrying decision.
“Esther McVey will be treated with justifiable suspicion after her tough, uncompromising and insensitive approach when last a DWP minister.
“Her lack of understanding of the severe problems facing those at the sharp end of benefit cuts means her appointment will fuel the fear that disabled people and other benefit recipients will continue to bear the brunt of government’s austerity policies.”
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “The appointment of the much-hated Esther McVey as secretary of state for DWP has provoked a massive backlash from disabled people and their organisations against Theresa May and her government.
“People see this as a deliberately provocative appointment which they feel will lead to the further abuse and denial of rights for disabled people.”
She said that neither McVey nor Jeremy Hunt – who was re-appointed as health secretary, with his role renamed as health and social care secretary – were “fit to be MPs, let alone hold any office”.
Disability rights activist Alice Kirby said: “In Esther McVey, the prime minister has selected someone whose actions had already caused considerable harm to disabled people to oversee a department already renowned for abusing our rights.
“In the past she has championed sanctions, the bedroom tax, and reducing the number of people being awarded disability benefits by replacing DLA with PIP.
“She also stated that it was ‘right’ and to be expected that people needed food banks as well. McVey’s record speaks for itself, she is not to be trusted.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said: “The fact that Theresa May has appointed someone with such an infamous reputation for defending policies that the chair of the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (UNCRPD), Theresia Degener, has described as a ‘human catastrophe’ reveals in stark relief the utter contempt with which this government holds the human rights and welfare of disabled people.
“We can now expect an intensification of the government’s campaign of violations against the fundamental human rights of the UK’s disabled population.
“We urge everyone to protest vigorously by signing the petition on 38 Degrees calling for McVey to be sacked and urge a campaign of peaceful direct action against Conservative members of parliament to highlight this grave injustice at local, national and international level.
“Along with other organisations we will be keeping the UNCRPD informed of developments as they occur and will seek by every means at our disposal to hold the government to account in the courts and in the court of public opinion at home and abroad.”
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said McVey had “a very full in-tray when it comes to disabled people”.
She said: “We hope she’ll work with us to come up with practical responses to some of the critical issues around disabled people’s ability to live as full and equal citizens in the UK.
“High on the list are the assessment process for disability benefits such as employment and support allowance and personal independence payment; these assessments were a growing problem during her earlier tenure as minister for disabled people, and that remains the case.
“The injustices around the bedroom tax and the burgeoning problems with universal credit are also things that disabled people are worried about.
“We want to see concrete proposals to support disabled people coming out of the previously announced industrial strategy, and the health and work discussion paper – that is the only way we might start making progress on the stated aim to get more disabled people into paid work.
“If the new secretary of state really wants to make a difference to disabled people’s lives, she’ll have to do more than promote the Disability Confident initiative and encourage employers to be more disability friendly.
“Actions, not words, need to be the order of the day.”
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This seems a reprehensible – but all-too-typical – dereliction of duty by MPs on all sides of Parliament.
Labour’s shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams, is usually red-hot on this subject, and I wonder if she has been notified and asked to seek explanation, at least with regard to those members of her own party who – it seems – couldn’t be bothered to ask the obvious questions.
Nine MPs on a Commons committee are refusing to explain why they failed to ask the minister for disabled people about shocking figures that suggest attempted suicides among people claiming out-of-work disability benefits doubled between 2007 and 2014.
The work and pensions select committee was passed the figures by Disability News Service (DNS) a few days before Sarah Newton gave evidence last month.
But despite being promised that the figures had “informed the briefing” prepared for the MPs on the committee ahead of the minister’s evidence session – and Labour MP Neil Coyle telling DNS that he was “sure it will be raised” – no effort was made to ask Newton about them.
And this week, none of the nine committee members who attended the session – Labour’s Frank Field, who chairs the committee, Coyle (pictured), Ruth George and Stephen McCabe, Tory MPs Heidi Allen, Andrew Bowie, Alex Burghart and Chris Green, and SNP’s Chris Stephens – would explain why they failed to ask the minister about the figures.
Instead, they hid behind the committee’s media officer, who accused DNS of trying to “circumvent” her by asking the MPs individually why they failed to raise the issue with Newton.
Sarah Newton: The Conservative government’s new Liar of State for Disability-based Genocide.
Sarah Newton must have a very short memory – or perhaps she lacks intelligence.
The new minister of state for disabled people, who was installed on November 9, had the following exchange with SNP fair work and employment spokesperson Deirdre Brock just four days later (November 13):
Ms Brock said “Changes to benefits are actually resulting in huge cuts to the money that people with disabilities have to live on… Does the Minister agree that starvation does not encourage anyone into work and that cutting off funding to people in need does not help to end that need? Will she commit to reversing these invidious cuts?”
To this, Ms Newton replied: “There are no cuts for people on those benefits.”
What? Does she not remember voting to remove the “work-related activity component” totalling £29.05 per week, from payments of Employment and Support Allowance to people in the Work-Related Activity Group receiving that benefit?
In fact, Judy Hamilton is mistaken – Ms Newton a teller at the vote in 2015.
She did vote at a division in 2016, though – and fully supported the cut. Read about it here.
Her voting record as a whole shows that she has wholeheartedly supported cuts in social security benefits wherevery possible. Read about that, here.
So we have yet another filthy liar, shovelling falsehoods at us from the government benches of the House of Commons.
How much longer must we put up with this contempt from our so-called elected “representatives”?
Sarah Newton doesn’t represent sick people – she doesn’t represent the disabled.
She represents the interests of rich people who don’t want to pay their taxes.
And that’s strange, because many people who are claiming benefits have been forced onto social security because of illnesses or disabilities sustained while working for the same rich people who don’t want to pay their taxes.
So perhaps we should call for Ms Newton’s job title to be amended. She clearly is not a minister of state for disabled people.
Considering Ms Brock’s comment about starvation – a comment that is easily proved accurate with reference to the multitude of deaths since the Conservatives started cutting benefits, one title presents itself.
Ms Newton should be known as the Liar of State responsible for Disability-based Genocide.
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Fighting for the NHS: Dr Louise Irvine will challenge Jeremy Hunt for his seat in Parliament.
Why is the fight against creeping NHS privatisation no longer gaining national headlines in the mass media? Do editors think it is no longer fashionable, or do they think the job’s done and they don’t have to bother any more?
Thank goodness for the Daily Mirror and its report that Dr Louise Irvine is to stand against Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt at the 2015 election, as the National Health Action Party candidate for South West Surrey.
She joins Dr Clive Peedell, who will challenge David Cameron for his Witney seat.
Both candidatures were announced at the NHAP’s national conference, which took place over the weekend. You probably didn’t even know it was happening, thanks to the priorities of the mainstream media.
The doctors have a hard challenge ahead of them – Hunt’s majority at the 2010 election was more than 16,000 votes. That’s 16,000+ more than his closest rival. Cameron’s was even higher – nearly 23,000 votes ahead of the pack.
But Dr Irvine told the Mirror she was ready for the fight: “I’ve faced Jeremy Hunt in the courts and beaten him twice. Now I’ll face him at the ballot box.
“He needs to be held to account for what he’s doing to our NHS and the way in which he has bulldozed democracy, changing the law to push through hospital closures when he was beaten in court.”
Of course, Dr Irvine’s pledge to stand against Hunt is a deep embarrassment for the Health Secretary – not only did she lead the successful Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, which won a High Court ruling that Hunt acted outside his powers when he decided to cut the hospital’s emergency and maternity units, but she is also a council member of the British Medical Association, which represents 150,000 doctors.
It is a sign that the medical profession at large is entirely opposed to his money-grubbing, postcode-lottery, health-for-profit policies.
Vox Political calls on voters in South West Surrey and Witney to support their NHAP candidates.
In Conservative stronghold seats like these, it seems realistic to expect voters to respond more to respected medical professionals like Drs Irvine and Peedell; there is also considerable distrust in Labour’s will to reverse NHS privatisation – but this may be alleviated if NHAP candidates are in the House of Commons, holding Labour to account.
The Mirror has been running a poll, asking readers whether they would vote for Dr Irvine against Mr Hunt. At the time of writing, 99 per cent of readers would, while less than one per cent support Hunt.
Other candidates announced at the conference include disability rights campaigner Naveen Judah, who challenges Liberal Democrat leader and Tory enabler Nick Clegg for Sheffield Hallam.
Ex-GP Dr Paul Hobday will take on Tory Sports Minister Helen Grant for her shaky majority in Maidstone.
In Truro, Rik Evans will try to topple Tory Sarah Newton, who has a majority of around 400.
Karen Howell, a popular member of the Support Stafford Hospital campaign, will stand for Stafford.
And Dave Ash, of the Keep of St Helier Hospital campaign, will take on Liberal Democrat former health minister Paul Burstow in Sutton and Cheam.
Kent GP Dr Bob Gill will be against Immigration Minister James Brokenshire in Old Bexley and Sidcup; Brighton University mental health expert Dr Carl Walker is standing in East Worthing and Shoreham and Oxford health journalist Roseanne Edwards will stand in Banbury where Tony Baldry has just announced he will not be seeking re-election.
NHA Party co-leader Dr Richard Taylor is hoping to regain his old seat of Wyre Forest, which he won as an independent in 2001 and held in 2005.
Notably no NHA Party candidate is standing for South Cambridgeshire, the seat Andrew Lansley holds with a majority of nearly 8,000. Perhaps this shows that they consider him a spent force who simply doesn’t matter any more.
This blog considers that it would be a valuable victory to unseat the man who spent seven years working in secret on what became the Health and Social Care Act – the legislation that allowed privatisation of the health service on an unprecedented, and entirely unwanted, scale.
Nobody should forget that the Conservative Party won its 300+ Parliamentary seats with a lie – the pledge, carried on posters of an airbrushed David Cameron, that the NHS would be safe under a Tory government.
Mark Hoban, sending even his colleagues to sleep in another Parliamentary debate.
Citizens of the United Kingdom probably take it for granted that the quality of debate in the House of Commons is usually very high (Prime Minister’s Questions being the dishonorable exception) and that all the questions raised in that place receive an answer.
How sad to see that this is a comfortable lie.
The Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, Mark Hoban, directly answered only 10 questions, among the dozens that were put to him at the debate on Atos’ handling of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for Employment and Support Allowance on Thursday.
He added a handful of ‘answers’ that were not related to specific questions, and left a great deal of very important issues hanging.
It is interesting that Mr Hoban was the minister who attended the debate. Here in the UK we do, in fact, have a minister dedicated to the needs of disabled people. At the moment, that minister is Esther McVey. Where was she on Thursday afternoon and why did she not take part in this important debate?
Let’s have a look at the questions that were graced with responses. I think we’ll see the reasons for Mr Hoban’s choices very quickly.
“We are, in effect, trying to put a sticking plaster on a gaping wound,” said Labour MP Ian Lavery (Wansbeck). “Atos and the WCA are not fit for purpose. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should bin them both, and start again with the idea of looking after disabled people, rather than the opposite?”
Mr Hoban did not. “Much has been said about employment and support allowance not working—that is untrue,” he said. “What we are seeing is people coming off ESA and getting into work. The number of working-age people on ESA and incapacity benefit in February 2012 was 2.56 million—the lowest level since the introduction of IB in 1995. Early estimates to September 2012 suggest that overall numbers for this benefit are falling and will for the first time be below 2.5 million.”
So his yardstick for success was the number of people who have been cut off from benefit. That’s very revealing.
“Professor Harrington [Malcolm Harrington, who was hired by the DWP to lead three independent reviews of the assessment system] has made it quite clear that the WCA, designed as a first positive step for work, is the right concept for assessing people who need our support. There is a need to improve it. No one doubts that, which is why we have implemented Professor Harrington’s recommendations. The assessment we inherited needed refinement. That is why we accepted and have largely implemented more than 40 of his recommendations over the past two years. That is why twice as many people have gone into the support group in comparison with when ESA was introduced.”
His colleague, Charles Walker (Con, Broxbourne), did not seem to share Mr Hoban’s glowing opinion of these improvements to the system. He asked: “Does my hon. Friend share my fear that the reputation of Atos may be so damaged that it can never really be effective? Perhaps the time has been reached when we need to park Atos and move on in a different direction.”
In response, the minister said: “Let me deal with the issue of Atos’s capability. Atos deals with 100,000 cases every month and it consistency meets the quality thresholds. Only 3.6 per cent of assessments are below standard compared with a threshold of five per cent. It receives complaints about only 0.6 per cent of assessments. DWP decision makers return to Atos assessments that are inadequate for reaching a decision in only 0.2 per cent of cases.”
Note that we are not told what these quality thresholds may be, so let’s turn to the question from Natascha Engel (Lab, North East Derbyshire), who said: “The proportion of original Atos decisions that are overturned is shocking—it is about 30 per cent or 40 per cent. I would be grateful if the Minister replied to that point. Precisely how many people deemed fit for work by Atos have their decisions overturned on appeal and are signed off work?”
Get ready for a shock because this is where Mr Hoban departed from the script with which we’re all familiar: “Let me be clear about the rate of successful appeals. Of all the fit-for-work decisions taken by the Department, only 15 per cent are overturned on appeal. Only 15 per cent of all the decisions we take, then, are overturned on appeal, which I think demonstrates that while we need to ensure that there is a proper appeals process, we should not be bandying around figures that misrepresent the level of successful appeals.”
Only 15 per cent? Where did he get that figure? Other MPs quoted the 40 per cent figure in the debate, including some who had received it as a reliable figure in committee. Perhaps Channel 4’s FactCheckers should get onto this one!
Look, here’s Austin Mitchell (Lab, Great Grimsby) making that exact point: “As our Committee was told, 38 per cent of the cases that go to appeal—I advise all my cases to go to appeal—are successful in reversing the verdict. That demonstrates its inadequacy and the enormous cost in the reassessment process at appeal, a cost that is not taken into account in the Government’s estimates of the savings produced by the system. [We’ll come back to those costs later, although we won’t get an answer to that question] Those reassessments are usually done with the help of the patient’s own doctor, so I do not see why their doctor’s view cannot be invoked and used at an earlier stage in the process. After all, the Government are giving more power to the doctors and claiming that they represent the patients. The doctors know the long-term conditions—they are treating the patient—so why are their views not taken into account by Atos at the start?”
The closest I could find to a response was in fact an answer to a question from Sheila Gilmore (Lab, Edinburgh East): “When we asked judges why they overturned DWP decisions, they said that an error in the Atos assessment was the primary reason for an overturn in only 0.3 per cent of cases. However, although it happens very rarely, I agree with her on one point: I would like to get more information from the judges.” [I was later told that the prime reason for overturns is medical evidence from claimants’ doctors that was ignored by the Atos assessors and DWP decision-makers]
Moving on to specific issues, of the seven questions asked by Michael Meacher (Lab, Oldham West and Royton), Mr Hoban answered only one. That in itself should tell you how selective the responses were, and how little real information was in fact released. Mr Meacher asked: “Will the Minister accept that the current criteria and descriptors do not sufficiently—or even at all—take into account fluctuating conditions, especially episodic mental health problems? How will he rectify that?”
“That is not the case,” said Mr Hoban. “It gives people with a fluctuating condition the opportunity to explain how their condition varies over time. It is not a tick-box assessment, as some have suggested. There is a discussion between the health care professional and the person making the claim for ESA to determine how their condition varies over time. The questionnaire that customers are sent has been redesigned for that purpose, and people are now asked to give more details about how their fluctuating condition affects them as an individual. If a person cannot carry out a function repeatedly and reliably, they will be treated as unable to carry out that function at all. We all recognise that the capacity of people with a fluctuating condition can change, and it is important that proper regard should be given to that fact.”
How interesting, then, that Stephen Timms (Lab, East Ham) asked when changes to the descriptors for fluctuating conditions and mental health conditions, which were recommended months ago by the disability organisations, would be implemented!
Mr Hoban said: “We have committed to a review of the descriptors for fluctuating conditions, and we are working closely with charities on that. We also need to ensure that any new descriptors are as good as, or better than, the existing ones, for the purpose of assessing someone’s condition. That work is going on at the moment.”
So either people with fluctuating conditions already have a glowingly redesigned new questionnaire to help them make their condition understood, or it is being reviewed at the moment. Which is it?
Former Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan (Con, Chesham and Amersham) picked up on the mental health issue with some questions of her own. Firstly: “More than 2,000 people have signed a National Autistic Society petition to Atos, which was launched following the ‘Dispatches’ and ‘Panorama’ investigations, with which many of us are familiar, into the company last year. The programme claimed that Atos was working to internal targets on the numbers of people being put into the work-related activity group, the support group or as being fit for work. Atos has indicated that it is open to working with the National Autistic Society and other charities, including in the context of this petition, but I have a specific question for the Minister. Will the Minister provide assurances that no such targets are in place?”
He did: “Several hon. Members suggested that Atos had targets for finding people fit for work or placing them in a particular group. Let me be absolutely clear—let nobody in or beyond the House be in any doubt—there are no such targets. There are no targets for who should be put into which group. Instead—hon. Members would want this—there are quality-control checks.”
I do not believe this. I saw the ‘Dispatches’ programme mentioned by Mrs Gillan and it was stated loud and clear by an Atos trainer that there are targets, and they are harsh. A statement to the contrary by a representative of a government that has been more than economical with the truth? That’s not going to cut any ice with me.
Mrs Gillan went on to address the work of new ‘mental and cognitive champions’ employed to advise Atos assessors: “How many of the mental and cognitive champions currently operating at Atos assessment centres have specific autism training? Do WCA assessors receive autism-specific training? If so, of what does it consist?”
Mr Hoban’s response: “I can assure her that that is the case.” But he avoided details.
She asked how he will monitor the effectiveness of the introduction of those mental and cognitive champions, but Mr Hoban slithered away from that question: “It is not for me to dictate the work that Professor Harrington’s successor will undertake as part of the fourth review, but I think that that is a good suggestion. We need to look at the effectiveness of the recommendations that Professor Harrington has made.”
Picking up on the mental health issue, Madeleine Moon (Lab, Bridgend) asked: “We are told that specific support staff for mental health will be provided. Are they in place? Are they aware of the trauma of post-traumatic stress disorder?”
Mr Hoban chose to wax lyrical for a moment: “It has also been said that the work capability assessment does not take full account of mental health conditions. Let me say a bit about that important issue. We have sought to improve the process and the support for the health care professionals who are undertaking the assessments. All Atos health care professionals receive specific and additional training in assessing mental health conditions—Atos has 60 mental health function champions in place to spread best practice.”
Mr Hoban also went on to answer questions that were not, in fact, raised directly in the debate. Perhaps he has a guilty conscience! Let’s look at them briefly.
“It has also been suggested that Atos health care professionals make decisions on benefit entitlement. They do not. Those decisions are made by DWP decision makers.” We know from the previously-mentioned TV documentaries that DWP decision-makers just rubber-stamp the Atos assessors’ recommendations in the vast majority of cases. This is not a reassuring answer.
“It has been suggested that GPs should make the assessment. The British Medical Association has been prayed in aid. Let me quote what the BMA said about that idea: ‘However, it is not part of the GP’s role to provide any opinion…on the patient’s capability to work as part of this process. It is vital that these two roles are kept separate and that GPs are not asked to provide an opinion on their patient for the purpose of receiving the Employment and Support Allowance; doing so could damage the doctor-patient relationship.'” The BMA has already been approached to repudiate that remark; or at least to provide an explanation of what it meant.
“My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford [Jeremy Lefroy] talked about quality. The tribunal service can refer substandard reports back to Atos as an appeal for further action. It has exercised that right only 23 times in the past year. Rigorous checks are in place to ensure that quality applies.” But this number does not include the amount of appeals that they allowed without reference back, of course.
Now here’s his summing-up, with a few things he wanted to shoehorn in but didn’t have the opportunity anywhere else: “Overall, the proportion of people with mental health conditions being awarded ESA has risen from 33 per cent to 49 per cent. We are seeing improvements and more will be introduced later this month on the categories of cancer treatment that allow people to go straight into the work-related activity group. These changes are happening. We should recognise that change is important and that it is happening.
“This is the right approach,” he said in conclusion. “Demonising the work capability assessment does not help our constituents and does not address their concerns.”
If you weren’t shocked by that last sentence, you haven’t been paying attention to the Atos debate. The whole point is that it is the Work Capability Assessment that does not help our citizens or address their concerns. Demonising it (he’s stealing the word from protestors, who have been using it to describe the government’s attitude to the sick and disabled it is persecuting) is the only way to fight what is happening. But I refer you to the Skwalker blog for a detailed analysis of that statement.
Those were all the questions that were answered by the minister. He did his best to paint a rosy, “nothing’s wrong” picture of the system. But he did so by ignoring important statistics and questions raised by them.
Perhaps he hoped that nobody would notice – or that we would not be cheeky enough to put him on the spot.
Too bad. If that is the case, I intend to misbehave! In this spirit of mischief, let’s look at the questions for which Mr Hoban had no answer, starting with those raised by Mr Meacher:
“How can pursuing with such insensitive rigour 1.6 million claimants on incapacity benefit, at a rate of 11,000 assessments every week, be justified when it has led, according to the Government’s own figures, to 1,300 persons dying after being put into the work-related activity group, 2,200 people dying before their assessment is complete, and 7,100 people dying after being put into the support group?” (NO RESPONSE)
“Is it reasonable to pressurise seriously disabled persons into work so ruthlessly when there are 2.5 million unemployed, and when on average eight persons chase every vacancy, unless they are provided with the active and extensive support they obviously need to get and hold down work, which is certainly not the case currently?” (NO RESPONSE)
“It is true that Harrington has produced minor adjustments—implemented at a glacial place—but the underlying system remains largely undisturbed. The BMA and the NAO have therefore called for a thorough, rigorous and transparently independent assessment of the suitability of the work capability assessment. Will the Minister now implement that?” (NO RESPONSE)
“Will the Minister provide full and transparent details of the Atos contract? They should not be hidden by specious claims of commercial confidentiality when Atos is the sole provider of what is clearly a public service. Better still, given that Atos has failed so dramatically, why does he not in-source the work back into the NHS?” (NO RESPONSE)
“How will the Minister ensure that the medical expertise of disabled persons’ doctors and related professionals is fully taken into account before assessments are completed?” (NO RESPONSE)
“I want to provide a full dossier to the Secretary of State so that he fully understands what is being done today in his name, and to bring a small delegation to see him from some of the excellent organisations of disabled people who have heroically battled to highlight and tackle the distress and pain caused by Atos. Can I please be assured that the Secretary of State will see such a delegation?” (NO RESPONSE)
Mrs Gillan asked: “What steps will the Government take to ensure that Atos collects existing evidence relating to a claimant’s capability to work, which would create a more cost-effective and streamlined system?” (NO RESPONSE)
Natascha Engel asked: “How many people deemed fit for work who do not take their cases to appeal then find work?” (NO RESPONSE)
“Is it really for the best to sign people as fit for work when there are no jobs to be had?” (NO RESPONSE)
“How many of them are getting a job, and how many of them are just being signed over to destitution?” (NO RESPONSE)
Pamela Nash (Lab, Airdrie and Shotts) said: “The Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell [Chris Grayling], made it clear in a Westminster Hall debate last September that he felt that Atos “should make recording available on a voluntary basis”. However, not a single constituent of mine who has come to see me about work capability assessments has told me that they have been offered the prospect of having it recorded. In fact, one constituent told me that she had asked for her assessment to be filmed, following her previous assessment, which resulted in a report that bore little resemblance to that assessment. On that occasion she was found fit for work, but she subsequently won her appeal. She was informed that recording would indeed be possible, but that she would have to pay for a private, independent company to come in to record her assessment. Equipment was not made available to her. She had hoped to take a family member in to film the assessment, but was told that this would not be allowed or appropriate. How on earth is a person living on benefits—living on the breadline—supposed to be able to afford to pay a private company to record their assessment?” (NO RESPONSE)
“Will Atos reschedule an assessment date if the person concerned is told that equipment is not available on the original date?” (NO RESPONSE)
“In the event that a claimant refused to go through with an assessment without a recording, would they be sanctioned in terms of their benefits?” (NO RESPONSE)
Debbie Abrahams (Lab, Oldham East and Saddleworth) asked: “Why does the hon. Gentleman think the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos have been unable to accept the recommendations of the British Medical Association and the Royal Colleges for more specific diagnostic tests that would make the assessments more appropriate?” (NO RESPONSE)
Kevan Jones (Lab, North Durham) asked: “The first contract with Atos was introduced by the previous Government, but why did the present Government renew and extend that contract even though they knew about all the problems that he and others have raised in the House?” (NO RESPONSE)
“The system is also costing the taxpayer money, not only through the additional health care provision for those with mental health conditions but through the extra work load on GPs, the tribunal system, which is at breaking point, and the reassessment system. The other week a 60-year-old nurse with osteoporosis, who has spent 38 years in the NHS, came to see me. She failed the work capability test. She is 61 in April and is now being told that she will be retrained for a new career until she is 62, when she gets her pension. What on earth is the point in wasting money on individuals like that?” (NO RESPONSE)
“There are also cases such as the 21-year-old young lady who ended up in the local psychiatric hospital because she failed the Atos interview. What is the cost of that to the NHS?” (NO RESPONSE)
Kevin Brennan (Lab, Cardiff West) asked: “The head of Atos was recruited from Unum in the United States. Is it not disturbing that the lieutenant governor of California has stated that Unum was operating ‘claims denial factories’ for working men’s compensation?” (NO RESPONSE)
Mrs Moon asked: “Atos received £112.8 million in 2010-11 for its DWP services. About 60 per cent of all claims are judged fit to work; 41 per cent of those people appeal, and 38 per cent of those appeals are successful. Last year, appeals cost £54 million. How can that be seen as value for money? How can this be seen as evidence of a supportive and caring Government in action?” (NO RESPONSE)
“Is sensitivity training available, because it has certainly not been made available to the ex-GP who works as an Atos assessor in my area?” (NO RESPONSE)
“Has the DWP looked at the cost—to Members, to citizens advice bureaux and to welfare rights organisations—of fighting this iniquitous system?” (NO RESPONSE)
Jeremy Lefroy (Con, Stafford) asked a couple of real questions, besides the non-existent one that Mr Hoban answered. They were: “There are cases in which people have had to wait for up to a year before winning appeals and then immediately face another work capability assessment, so the whole process starts again. Why cannot such people be given at least a considerable period of grace?” (NO RESPONSE)
And: “Do the health care professionals employed by Atos always take account of the fact that people have to get to work in the first place, or that, while they may be able to perform an action once, they may not be able to perform it repeatedly when it causes severe pain?” (NO RESPONSE)
Andrew Stunell (Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove) asked: “Would not speeding up the appeal process also relieve stress and bring about certainty much more quickly?” (NO RESPONSE)
Sarah Newton (Con, Truro and Falmouth) (Con): “Does my hon. Friend agree that we must make Atos understand that in remote rural constituencies such as those we both represent some people have to travel long distances? That problem is leading to a lot of no-shows at the Truro Atos centre, which in turn is leading to lots of delays in assessments, thereby causing a great deal of anxiety.” (NO RESPONSE)
Ian Mearns (Lab, Gateshead): “The Minister for disabled people, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), told this House that by October 2015 560,000 claimants will have had their assessments, and 160,000 will get a reduced award, 170,000 will get no award, and 230,000 will get the same support. How can we know the assessments are valid when we have had such a prediction?” (NO RESPONSE)
Iain McKenzie (Lab, Inverclyde): “What does the Minister think of Citizens Advice’s detailed year-long study “Right first time?” on the controversial work capability assessment run by Atos, which has revealed evidence of widespread inaccuracies in the medical reports that help to determine whether individuals are eligible for sickness benefits? Citizens Advice also tracked a group of people through the process of claiming employment and support allowance and looked at how their claims were handled. The report’s conclusions are stark: 37 individuals were tracked and had their reports examined, with serious levels of inaccuracy revealed in up to 43 per cent of the reports. That level is significant enough to have an impact on the claimant’s eligibility for benefits—surely our sick and disabled deserve better than this.” (NO RESPONSE)
“Is it not better to have an accurate, fair and just system of medical assessment, one that claimants know will treat them fairly and with the humanity they deserve, rather than a system that is, frankly, unfit for purpose and that uses a company, Atos, that instils fear and loathing in people, resulting in a system where people are continually appealing against decisions? We have already heard that the success rate against the decisions is about 60 per cent.” (NO RESPONSE)
Heather Wheeler (Con, South Derbyshire): “When someone drops down dead within three months of being assessed as being perfectly capable of going back to work, what is the review process for Atos?” (NO RESPONSE)
Julie Hilling (Lab, Bolton West): “Why are Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions cruelly finding people fit for work or putting them in the work-related activity group when they are clearly unable to work?” (NO RESPONSE)
“People being placed in the work-related activity group is the next scandal. When people score 15 points and are found not fit for work, but are put in the work-related activity group, they will lose their benefit after 365 days. Is that another way of saving money, but one that also puts disabled people into abject poverty and causes them terrible stress?” (NO RESPONSE)
“Why do the assessors give more weight to work capability assessment descriptors than to professional medical assessments?” (NO RESPONSE)
“Why do they reassess people who have just won their appeal?” (NO RESPONSE)
“Why do they not record the number of people who die through illness or suicide when being rejected for disability benefit?” (NO RESPONSE)
“Why do they not track people who have been found fit for work and people who no longer receive benefit?” (NO RESPONSE)
“How much do all the botched assessments cost us?” (NO RESPONSE)
And Sheila Gilmore asked: “Research commissioned by the previous Government, which I understand is not being continued by this Government—the Minister might reassure us on that—found that 43 per cent of those found fit for work were neither in work nor in receipt of an out-of-work benefit a year later. We must ask where they are. What is happening to them?” (NO RESPONSE)
The conclusion? This is a government that is perfectly happy with a system that is throwing thousands of sick and disabled people to the wolves. It has made – or is making (Mr Hoban wasn’t all that clear) – cosmetic changes in the hope of diverting our attention. As long as the claimant figures are coming down, they will be happy.
As long as claimant figures are coming down.
Yesterday, in my article The High Street implosion is just beginning, I advocated the ‘constructive dismissal’ of the Coalition government by making its work so difficult that it couldn’t go on. If I was feeling mischievous, in the light of the evidence, I think I would suggest that we all ruin that drop in claimant figures by going out and filling ESA50 forms of our own – whether we deserve the benefit or not.
Clearly this government intends to keep Atos in work, so we may as well make it work hard!
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