The only conclusion to be drawn from the “leaked internal documents” being quoted by the BBC today is that – if they think it is reasonable to cut the work-related activity group element of Employment and Support Allowance, the UK’s main incapacity benefit, down almost to parity with Jobseekers’ Allowance – Tories don’t think these people are really ill.
It seems likely the plans have been drawn up by people who have never needed to cope with fibromyalgia or myalgic encephalomyelitis, who have never suffered a workplace injury or who don’t understand the debilitating nature of the depression that often follows interviews with government employees who are determined to strip claimants of their benefits, no matter how disabled they are.
According to the BBC report, the Department for Work and Pensions has claimed the proposals in the documents are “not government policy“.
The papers show that the proposal to cut ESA(WRAG) by £30, making it almost the same as JSA at around £72-3 per week, is not prompted by any interest in reform, but is simply an attempt to save money.
It seems the government has been forced to hire many extra staff members to clear a backlog of ESA claims which has made it attractive for people who have previously been found ineligible for ESA to reapply, and for JSA claimants to try to move across. The proposed benefit cut seems to be aimed at discouraging such activities.
It is far more likely to encourage protest – possibly with violence, from the very last people who may be expected to respond in such a manner. Yr Obdt Srvt was discussing this matter with a friend who is on ESA, and he expressed a wish to visit Downing Street and make a flamboyant gesture – something as powerful as the event that set the Arab Spring alight (although not as final – the aim is to keep people in the best health possible, after all).
The proposal has attracted criticism from Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the Commons Work and Pensions committee. She said: “That’s not reform, that is just saving money. I hope that is not something the government is going to come forward with.”
And fellow Work and Pensions committee member Sheila Gilmore said: “When Labour created the Work-related Activity Group in 2008, the rationale was to ensure that sick and disabled people who couldn’t work in the short term but might be able to in the future weren’t simply written off.
“However we were clear that up until their next reassessment – which would occur at least every two years – these people were still unable to work. This is something Tory Ministers now seem keen to ignore.
“By cutting payments to those in the Work-related Activity Group by nearly £30 per week, Ian Duncan Smith is effectively saying that these people are only a hop, skip and a jump away from being a fully fit, able-bodied Jobseekers Allowance claimant.”
In fact – for most of these people – life is like having to climb a mountain, every day, with no pausing to catch their breath or massage tired and aching muscles and bones. It is an endurance test the like of which most MPs have never experienced.
As Billy Connolly once said of the Pope: “If you don’t play the game, don’t make up the rules.”
That is a maxim that applies here – and our ignorant ruling class had better realise that before somebody takes the law into their own hands.
“This particular Secretary of State, along with his Department, is pushing people through [the] cracks and hoping that the rest of the country will not notice that they have disappeared.” – Glenda Jackson MP, June 30, 2014.
If the man this blog likes to call RTU (Returned To Unit) thought he would be able to show that his behaviour had improved, he was sorely mistaken – as the comment above illustrates.
It is vital that this information reaches the general public despite the apparent news blackout, in the mainstream media, of any disparaging information about Duncan Smith or his DWP.
But we were discussing the debate as a trial. Let us first look at the evidence in favour of the government.
There. That was illuminating, wasn’t it?
Seriously, the government benches were unable to put up a single supportable point against the mountain of evidence put forward by Labour.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary-in-a-State, resorted yet again to his favourite tactic – and one for which he should have been sacked as an MP long ago – lying to Parliament. He accused Labour of leaving behind a “shambles” – in fact the economy had begun to improve under intelligent guidance from Alistair Darling. “The economy was at breaking point,” he said – in fact the British economy cannot break; it simply doesn’t work that way. His claim that “We were burdened with the largest deficit in peacetime history” is only supportable in money terms, and then only because inflation means the pound is worth so much less than it was in, say, the 1940s – or for the entire century between 1750 and 1850. He called yesterday’s debate “a cynical nugget of short-term policy to put to the unions,” but the evidence below renders that completely irrelevant.
He said complaints about long delivery times for benefits were “out of date” – a common excuse. He’ll do the same in a few months, when the same complaint is raised again.
“Universal Credit is rolling out to the timescale I set last year,” he insisted – but we all know that it has been ‘reset’ (whatever that means) by the government’s Major Projects Authority.
He said there had been four independent reviews of the work capability assessment for Employment and Support Allowance, with more than 50 recommendations by Sir Malcolm Harrington accepted by the government. This was a lie. We know that almost two-thirds of the 25 recommendations he made in his first review were not fully or successfully implemented.
He said appeals against ESA decisions “are down by just under 90 per cent” – but we know that this is because of the government’s unfair and prejudicial mandatory reconsideration scheme – and that the DWP was bringing in a new provider to carry out work capability assessments. Then he had to admit that this provider has not yet been chosen! And the backlog of claims mounts up.
He tried to justify his hugely expensive botched IT schemes by pointing at a Labour scheme for the Child Support Agency that wasted hundreds of millions less than his Universal Credit, without acknowledging the obvious flaw in his argument: If he knew about this mistake, why is he repeating it?
Conservative Mark Harper said Labour opposed the Tories’ most popular scheme – the benefit cap. That was a lie. Labour supported the cap, but would have set it at a higher level. We know that the Coalition government could not do this because it would not, then, have made the huge savings they predicted.
Now, the evidence against.
First up is Rachel Reeves, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions: “After £612 million being spent, including £131 million written off or ‘written down’, the introduction of Universal Credit is now years behind schedule with no clear plan for how, when, or whether full implementation will be achievable or represent value for money.
“Over 700,000 people are still waiting for a Work Capability Assessment, and… projected spending on Employment and Support Allowance has risen by £800 million since December… The Government [is] still not able to tell us which provider will replace Atos.
“Personal Independence Payment delays have created uncertainty, stress and financial costs for disabled people and additional budgetary pressures for Government… Desperate people, many of whom have been working and paying into the system for years or decades and are now struck by disability or illness, waiting six months or more for help from the Department for Work and Pensions.
“The Work Programme has failed to meet its targets, the unfair bedroom tax risks costing more than it saves, and other DWP programmes are performing poorly or in disarray.
“Spending on housing benefit for people who are in work has gone up by more than 60 per cent, reflecting the fact that more people are in low-paid or insecure work and are unable to make ends meet, even though they may be working all the hours God sends.
“More than five million people — 20 per cent of the workforce — are paid less than the living wage. Furthermore, 1.5 million people are on zero-hours contracts and 1.4 million people are working part time who want to work full time.
“This… is about the young woman diagnosed with a life-limiting illness who has waited six months for any help with her living costs. It is about the disabled man whose payments have been stopped because he did not attend an interview to which he was never invited.
“The Government are wasting more and more taxpayers’ money on poorly planned and disastrously managed projects, and are allowing in-work benefits to spiral because of their failure to tackle the low pay and insecurity that are adding billions of pounds to the benefits bill.
“The Government are careless with the contributions that people make to the system, callous about the consequences of their incompetence for the most vulnerable, and too arrogant to admit mistakes and engage seriously with the task of sorting out their own mess.
“What this Government have now totally failed to do is to remember the human impact, often on people in vulnerable circumstances, of this catalogue of chaos. Behind the bureaucratic language and spreadsheets showing backlogs and overspends are people in need who are being let down and mistreated, and taxpayers who can ill afford the mismanagement and waste of their money.
“To fail to deliver on one policy might be considered unfortunate; to miss one’s targets on two has to be judged careless; but to make such a complete mess of every single initiative the Secretary of State has attempted requires a special gift. It is something like a Midas touch: everything he touches turns into a total shambles.
“Meanwhile, the Secretary of State will spew out dodgy statistics, rant and rave about Labour’s record, say “on time and on budget” until he is blue in the face and, in typical Tory style, blame the staff for everything that goes wrong.”
Julie Hilling (Labour) provides this: “The Government do not know what they are talking about… They talk about the number of jobs being created, but they do not know how many of them are on zero-hours contracts or how many are on Government schemes or how many have been transferred from the public sector.”
Stephen Doughty (Labour/Co-op): “another stark indictment of their policies is the massive increase in food banks across this country.”
Helen Jones (Labour): “When I asked how many people in my constituency had been waiting more than six months or three months for medical assessments for personal independence payment, the Government told me that the figures were not available. In other words, they are not only incompetent; they do not know how incompetent they are!”
Sheila Gilmore (Labour): “Although the problems with Atos were known about—and it is now being suggested that they had been known about for some time—a contract was given to that organisation for PIP. Was due diligence carried out before the new contract was issued?”
Gordon Marsden (Labour): “Many of my constituents have been caught by the double whammy of delays involving, first, the disability living allowance and now PIP. They have waited long periods for a resolution, but because a decision is being reconsidered, their Motability — the lifeline that has enabled them to get out of their homes — has been taken away before that decision has been made. Is that not a horrendous indictment of the Government?”
Emily Thornberry (Labour): “I have been making freedom of information requests.. in relation to mandatory reconsiderations. When people get their work capability assessment, and it has failed, before they can appeal there has to be a mandatory reconsideration. The Department does not know how many cases have been overturned, how many claimants have been left without any money and how long the longest period is for reconsideration. It cannot answer a single one of those questions under a freedom of information request.”
Natascha Engel (Labour): “The welfare state is designed as a safety net to catch people who absolutely cannot help themselves… That safety net is being withdrawn under this government, which is certainly pushing some of my constituents into destitution.”
There was much more, including the devastating speech by Glenda Jackson, partly in response to Natascha Engels’ comments, that is reproduced in the video clip above.
The vote – for the House of Commons to recognise that the DWP was in chaos and disarray – was lost (of course). A government with a majority will never lose such a vote.
But once again, the debate was won by the opposition. They had all the facts; all the government had were lies and fantasies.
By now, one suspects we all know somebody who has died as a result of Coalition government polices on welfare (or, preferably, social security). Two such deaths have been reported in the Comment columns of Vox Political since the weekend, and it is only Tuesday.
That is why it is vital that this information reaches the general public despite the apparent news blackout, in the mainstream media, of any disparaging information about Duncan Smith or his DWP.
Share it with your friends, use parts of it in letters to your local papers or radio stations, even mentioning it in conversation will help if the other person isn’t aware of the facts.
Don’t let it be suppressed.
You don’t want to do Iain Duncan Smith’s work for him, do you?
National disgrace: The green benches were almost empty during yesterday’s debate on the DWP’s new ‘mandatory reconsideration’ regime – and the potential number of deaths it is causing.
It is hard to know where to start. Perhaps with DWP minister Mike Penning’s failure to answer the questions raised in yesterday’s adjournment debate on the ESA ‘mandatory reconsideration’ process, despite having prior notice of Sheila Gilmore’s entire presentation? Perhaps with the DWP’s failure to release accurate statistics, which is especially appalling as press officer Richard Caseby attacked a newspaper for inaccuracies very recently? Perhaps with the DWP’s continuing denial of the deaths caused by its increasingly-bizarre and unreasonable attempts to save money?
The debate was brought to Parliament by Labour’s Sheila Gilmore who, in her own words, has been trying to get a succession of useless Conservative ministers to acknowledge the homicidal nature of their incapacity benefit “reforms” ever since she was elected. This was her sixth debate on the subject.
Yesterday’s debate was about the stress and poverty caused by the government’s decision to impose ‘mandatory reconsideration’ on ESA claimants who have been found fit for work and want to appeal against the decision. The benefit – originally paid at the ‘assessment’ rate – is cut off during the reconsideration period, meaning that claimants have no income whatsoever; housing benefit and council tax reduction claimants have their claims interrupted during this time.
People might be able to accommodate this if the reconsideration period lasted the maximum of two weeks that was implied when the new system was introduced, but it doesn’t take a maximum of two weeks.
The average length of time an ESA claimant – a person who is so seriously ill that he or she cannot work for a living, remember – has to wait for a decision after ‘mandatory reconsideration’ is seven to 10 weeks.
That puts a different complexion on matters.
Ms Gilmore called on Mr Penning to confirm the length of time claimants are being made to wait for a decision after ‘mandatory reconsideration’ – and asked when the DWP will publish statistics on average times and the total number of claimants who are waiting for a decision (rumoured to be 700,000 at this time).
She said the minister had defended a decision not to set a time limit on reconsiderations, despite concern from the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council that the absence of such a limit could have the effect of “delaying indefinitely the exercise of the right of appeal to an independent tribunal”.
Oh yes – claimants can apply for Jobseekers’ Allowance in the meantime – but this has a high level of conditionality. They have to be available for work, actively seeking work, attending work-focused interviews, searching for jobs and making a minimum number of applications every week.
What these Conservative DWP ministers are saying is that sick people waiting for an ESA decision must undergo a process that is itself extremely stressful, can worsen existing physical or mental conditions, and can lead to them being sanctioned or refused benefit altogether for failing to meet the requirements of Job Centre Plus advisors (who are not, let’s be honest, the most sympathetic people in the country).
Most who have applied for JSA have been refused outright or failed to attend necessary appointments due to their various conditions; or they did not apply, either because they could not face the trial of another benefit application or because they did not know they could.
They were forced to turn to the food banks that the DWP has accused of “misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking” and “aggressively marketing their services”, rather than being vitally important now that the government has reneged on its responsibility to citizens.
Or they turned to high-interest loans – run, undoubtedly, by some of the Conservative Party’s most faithful donors – and amassed debts at such high interest rates that they would struggle to repay them, even after being provided backdated payments. “One constituent sold off his few remaining possessions to survive,” said Ms Gilmore.
The Tories have engineered a situation where people who are seriously ill can be found too fit for ESA and too sick or disabled for JSA.
Ms Gilmore said she had been told by previous minister Mark Hoban – last September – that claimants could request “flexible conditionality”, to ease these pressures – but the DWP’s benefits director acknowledged in April – seven months later – that “not all advisors had been aware of this”.
So claimants had been deprived of a right to extra help because DWP ministers had not provided accurate information to them or to employees.
Ms Gilmore said, “It is hard to have confidence in the Department, given that previous assurances were clearly unfounded,” and it is interesting that this should be revealed in the same week that the useless ex-Murdoch yellow-press spin-machine detritus DWP press officer Caseby (Dick to his… well, to everybody) claimed The Guardian should be blackballed from new press regulation authority IPSO for failing to print, you guessed it, accurate information from the DWP.
Ms Gilmore also pointed out the cost to the taxpayer of all this hustling of claimants between benefits: “There is also an administration cost involved in a claimant receiving the assessment rate of ESA, ceasing to receive it, claiming JSA and then potentially claiming the assessment rate of ESA again. These are significant costs when multiplied by the number of people involved. In addition, if everybody claimed JSA successfully, they would receive benefit at exactly the same rate as they would have been getting on ESA, so if there are any savings to be anticipated, is it because ministers thought that people would, in fact, struggle to claim JSA during the reconsideration process, given that administration costs are likely to outweigh anything else?
“I am sure that cannot be the case,” she added. Of course that’s exactly what ministers wanted.
Her point was as follows: Why not amend the law so that ESA claimants can continue to receive the benefit at the assessment rate during the reconsideration process? “The only way that could be more expensive for the Government would be if ministers expected sick and disabled people to go without any benefit — and I am sure that that cannot be the case,” she said, ramming home her previous point about benefit savings.
Reinstating assessment-rate ESA during ‘mandatory reconsideration’ would be simpler than setting a time limit and may be an incentive for the government to speed up the process, she added.
Finally, she called on Mr Penning to publish the number of successful reconsiderations, rather than lumping them in with original decisions so it is impossible to tell exactly what has happened. She said this was particularly important because the DWP has been celebrating a drop in the number of appeals.
Her claim was that it is premature to celebrate a drop in appeals – or to claim the DWP was making more correct decisions – when the number of successful applications for ‘mandatory reconsideration’ was not known and many cases may still be caught up in the process as part of the enormous backlog built up by the Department.
Mr Penning made no offer to reinstate assessment-rate ESA during the reconsideration period.
He made no offer to impose a time limit on reconsiderations.
He made no attempt to confirm the size of the ‘mandatory reconsideration’ backlog or the length of time taken to reach decisions.
His response was about as inhuman as he could make it, within the Chamber of the House of Commons:
“I would rather have slightly more delays than have decisions incorrectly taken and then turned over at tribunal.”
This is an admission that he would rather push sick people into unendurable poverty, debt, stress and possibly towards suicide than make his department do its job properly.
He knows he’s in trouble: Mike Penning, staring down the hole in his claims about Atos.
The Liverpool Echo has reported the death of a woman who had been ordered to claim the new Personal Independence Payment – and was then denied any benefit payments for six months.
At the same time, we have learnt that disabilities minister Mike Penning has been caught giving false evidence to a Parliamentary committee on the way contracts for the assessment of disability benefits have been awarded.
The two are not unconnected, it seems.
Annette Francis was found dead at her home in Garston on May 22. She had been suffering severe mental illness but had not received a single penny of disability benefit for six months, since the Department for Work and Pensions had stopped her claim for Disability Living Allowance and told her to apply for PIP.
She did so – but was still waiting for her first payment at the time of her death. She leaves an 11-year-old son, who is currently in the care of his great-aunt.
Problems with the private companies that carry out work capability assessments for benefits including PIP and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) were discussed with disabilities minister Mike Penning in December last year – right around the time Ms Francis’s DLA was being cut off.
He told the Commons Work and Pensions Committee that problems with the firm carrying out the assessments – Atos – were created because it was not possible to make a profit on the contract it signed with the previous Labour government.
He said: “We are picking up the mess behind that.”
If he was telling the truth, he didn’t pick it up quickly enough. But it seems more likely that he was lying.
According to Sheila Gilmore, a Labour MP who sits on the Work and Pensions committee, “he is not entitled to access advice given to the previous Government on the assumptions Atos made as part of their tender”. In that case, he could not possibly have been aware of the terms under which Atos was employed by Labour and was therefore lying to his fellow MPs.
So we are left to ask which situation is worse – one in which a woman has died because a private company carrying out a public service was upset that it couldn’t make a profit, or one in which she died because the same public service has been unforgivably delayed while the private company and the government have been arguing about how much profit it should make?
Either way, unless Penning gets his apology and correction sorted out quickly, he should be booted out of Parliament in disgrace.
His boss is Iain Duncan Smith, who will be appearing on the BBC’s Question Time on Thursday. Do you think this will get a mention?
Isn’t it nice to see some clear blue water emerge between the main political parties on an important issue?
Less than two weeks after Ed Miliband announced that he would tackle the “epidemic” of zero-hours contracts if Labour wins the next general election, the Conservatives have confirmed that Universal Credit – if they can ever get it working – will force jobseekers into those very contracts.
Labour said workers on zero-hours contracts should not be obliged to be available outside contracted hours; be free to work for other employers; have a right to compensation if shifts are cancelled at short notice; have ‘clarity’ from their employer about their employment status, terms and conditions; have the right to request a contract with a ‘minimum amount of work’ after six months, that could only be refused if employers could prove their business could not operate any other way; and have an automatic right to a fixed-hours contract after 12 months with the same employer.
At the time, the Tories said the number of zero-hours contracts had increased under the last Labour government, which had done nothing about it.
This tired excuse has been trotted out far too many times to be taken seriously any more, but it may have led some members of the public to believe that the Tories were distancing themselves from zero-hours contracts as well. They are, after all, supposed to be The Party of More Choice. Perhaps they are, themselves, less than keen on this kind of exploitation.
Currently, people on Jobseekers’ Allowance are able to refuse such jobs without facing penalties.
The policy change was revealed in a letter from employment minister Esther McVey to Labour MP Sheila Gilmore. She said Job Centre “coaches” would be able to “mandate to zero-hours contracts” – basically forcing them to accept this kind of exploitation by employers.
The DWP has also stated: “We expect claimants to do all they reasonably can to look for and move into paid work. If a claimant turns down a particular vacancy (including zero-hours contract jobs) a sanction may be applied.”
The message from the Conservatives – the Party of More Choice – is clear: Beggars can’t be choosers.
Their chums on the boards of big businesses want more profits, and know the way to get it – employ people on low pay and with no employee benefits. Zero-hours contracts mean you can be made to work fewer hours than you need in order for employers to have to pay National Insurance credits for you. You don’t get sick pay; holiday pay; or a pension. And you’ll probably still be on benefits, meaning the work that you do is subsidised by other hardworking taxpayers, most of whom earn only a little more than you do.
It’s a racket – as bad as workfare/mandatory work activity/the work programme/whatever-they’re-calling-it-today, in which taxpayers subsidise work carried out by jobseekers for participating employers, hugely boosting those firms’ profits while ensuring that the number of people without proper, paid jobs remains high.
Their attitude is that, if you don’t have a job, you are a beggar.
Beggars can’t be choosers.
So they’ll choose what you do, and they – or their boardroom chums – will benefit from it.
If you are a working taxpayer, think about this before casting your vote later this month – and especially before you do so in May 2015: A vote for the Conservative Party means more of your fellow citizens will be prevented from getting proper jobs and becoming contributing members of society by the greedy – and idle – rich.
A vote for the Conservative Party means more of your tax money going to subsidise fat business board members who already have more money than they can ever use.
A vote for the Conservative Party means a better life for them and their friends – and a poorer life for you.
I have complained to the BBC and the UK Statistics Authority about this disgrace.
Today (January 25) the BBC published a scurrilous little screed claiming that “nearly a million people who applied for sickness benefit have been found fit for work”. Needless to say, the figures come from the Department for Work and Pensions and aren’t worth the time it took to type them in.
The story states: “The DWP claims 980,400 people – 32% of new applicants for Employment and Support Allowance – were judged capable of work between 2008 and March 2013.
“More than a million others withdrew their claims after interviews, it adds.”
It goes on to say that disability campaigners had stated that the work capability assessment tests were “ridiculously harsh and extremely unfair”, but says nothing about the fact that an almost-identical story was withdrawn last year after it was found to be riddled with inaccuracies – if not outright lies.
Even more bizarre is the fact that the story does provide the factual reason for claims being withdrawn. They “either returned to work, recovered or claimed a benefit “more appropriate to their situation”.
In other words, these people used the system in exactly the right way, yet the DWP – and the BBC – are pretending that they were trying to fiddle it in some way.
To explain what happened last year, let’s look at a letter from Sheila Gilmore MP to Andrew Dilnot, head of the UK Statistics Authority, and his response. You can find it on page 39 of the DPAC report on DWP abuse of statistics.
The letter from Sheila Gilmore states: “On 30 March 2013 an article by Patrick Hennessy entitled ‘900,000 choose to come off sickness benefit ahead of tests’ was published in the Sunday Telegraph. Please find a copy enclosed. I believe that the headline and the subsequent story are fundamentally misleading because they conflate two related but separate sets of statistics. I would be grateful if you could confirm that my interpretation of what has happened is correct.
“The sickness benefit in question is Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). People have been able to make new claims for ESA since October 2008, but those in receipt of the benefits it replaced – Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, and Income Support on the grounds of disability – only started migrating across in April 2011.
“The article implied that many of this latter group were dropping their claim rather than having to go through a face-to-face assessment, with the implication that they were never really ill in the first place and had been ‘playing the system’.
“However I have checked the figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions and it would appear that the figure of 900,000 actually refers to all those who have made new claims for ESA since its introduction over four years ago, but who have since withdrawn their application before undergoing a face-to-face assessment. These people were not claiming the benefit before and generally drop out of the system for perfectly innocent reasons – often people become ill, apply as a precaution, but withdraw when they get better.
“Of the 600,000 people who have been migrated from Incapacity Benefit over the past two years, only 19,700 have dropped their claim. This is the figure that should have featured in the headline, but the 900,000 figure was used instead.”
Mr Dilnot replied: “Having reviewed the article and the relevant figures, we have concluded that these statements appear to conflate official statistics relating to new claimants of the ESA with official statistics on recipients of the incapacity
benefit (IB) who are being migrated across to the ESA.
“According to official statistics published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in January 2013, a total of 603,600 recipients of IB were referred for reassessment as part of the migration across to ESA between March 2011 and May 2012. Of these, 19,700 claims were closed prior to a work capability assessment in the period to May 2012.
“The figure of “nearly 900,000” referenced in the article appears to refer to the cumulative total of 878,300 new claims for the ESA (i.e. not pre-existing IB recipients) which were closed before undergoing assessment in the period from October 2008 to May 2012.
“In your letter, you also expressed concern about the apparent implication in the Sunday Telegraph article that claims for ESA had been dropped because the individuals were never really ill in the first place. The statistical release does not address the issue of why cases were closed in great depth, but it does point to research undertaken by DWP which suggests that ‘an important reason why ESA claims in this sample were withdrawn or closed before they were fully assessed was because the person recovered and either returned to work, or claimed a benefit more appropriate to their situation’.”
What he was saying, in his officialese way, was that the Conservatives had wrongly ‘conflated’ monthly figures into a cumulative total; they had misled the press about the figures’ significance; and the press release (which then mysteriously disappeared) ignored a clear caveat in the DWP’s own report that the reason the claims were dropped each month had nothing to do with fear of medical assessment but were because people recovered and went back to work, or else were switched to another benefit deemed more suitable to their circumstances.
Now the BBC has resurrected this story, with brand new, larger numbers that add in the totals for 2013 without telling you whether these were all new claims, or repeat claims, or a mixture; they are all treated as new.
The claim that 980,400 people had been found fit for work after medical tests – the feared Atos work capability assessments – is also extremely questionable – as the BBC well knows.
Its own Panorama programme, ‘Disabled or Faking It?’, investigated whether the DWP was knocking people off-benefit in order to hit financial targets – in essence, making people destitute in order to show a budget saving. A Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, ‘Britain on the Sick’, proved that this was happening. Both were shown at the end of July 2012.
I have complained to the BBC and to Mr Dilnot about the deeply offensive and defamatory way in which these lies have been resurrected, in order to encourage the general public to hold people who are genuinely ill in hatred, ridicule and contempt. If you believe this cause is just, go thou and do likewise.
The number of sick and disabled people wrongly declared “fit for work” after taking the Atos-run work capability assessment for Employment and Support Allowance could be far higher than previously thought, it has been revealed.
It seems the Coalition government has been artificially inflating its figure for the number of people initially awarded the benefit by including the results of informal appeals, known as ‘reconsideration’.
The dodge was uncovered by Labour MP Sheila Gilmore, who sits on the Commons Work and Pensions select committee. She raised concerns about the figures in September.
A reply by Tory Employment Minister Esther McVey has admitted that figures covering the number of people initially awarded the benefit have been artificially boosted by the reconsideration process, in which people who have been found “fit for work” ask DWP civil servants to re-examine their cases.
If the decision remains the same, claimants can lodge a formal appeal with HM Courts and Tribunal Service. Separate statistics have been published on the number of people reaching this stage – but not on the number seeking reconsideration.
In her letter, Ms McVey admitted figures are “not clear” and promised to “ensure greater clarity in future”.
ESA replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2008. The assessment process often involves a face-to-face assessment, and data on the number of people awarded and refused the benefit is published every three months.
“I regularly meet sick and disabled people who are unable to work but who have been declared able to do so following a flawed ESA assessment,” said Sheila Gilmore
“Up to now we thought that the assessment was getting about one in ten fit for work decisions wrong – far too many in most people’s eyes – but now we know the Government have been fiddling the figures, the reality could be much much worse.
“Up until today Ministers led us to believe they were publishing figures that showed the number of people awarded benefit immediately after assessment and before any appeals. It now turns out that informal appeals to officials – as opposed to formal ones to judges – were being taken into account.”
She said: “This has clearly masked the true extent of the failings in the ESA assessment process.”
The latest revelation follows the omission of the number of successful appeals from October’s round of figures.
“Taken together, these events suggests that rather than trying to fix the test to reduce the number of incorrect decisions, Ministers’ priority is to fix the figures to downplay the extent of the problem,” said Sheila Gilmore.
Her letter to the Department for Work and Pensions, dated September 27, 2013 can be found here.
Esther McVey, Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, replied on November 2, and her letter can be found here.
Statistics on the number of people successfully appealing Fit for Work decisions were absent from the release in October 2013. The relevant tables were blank but for this statement: “An update of these statistics is currently unavailable. Please see the July 2013 release for the latest statistics on outcomes of appeals.”
Audio anywhere: This image proves that Atos assessors can use their own laptop computers to create audio recordings of work capability assessments. They can then use onboard software to burn a CD of the interview and hand it to claimants on the spot. What’s the problem?
He did – and some of the responses were actually encouraging. Most were questionable – meaning, it seems, the government will continuing trying to obstruct attempts to make the assessment process more open.
Those of you who read yesterday’s article will know that the adjournment debate in the House of Commons yesterday was about the audio recording of work capability assessments, which are made as part of the claim process for Employment and Support Allowance.
The government has claimed that, when the service was offered in a pilot scheme, too few people requested it, and only one per cent of them wanted a copy of the recording that was made – but Sheila Gilmore MP, in her speech, pointed out that Atos, the company running the hated assessments, said enough requests had been made to make it desirable. She also pointed out that the procedure for getting a personal copy of the recording was extremely bureaucratic and off-putting.
She asked five questions about the issue and, in an unusual but welcome move, ensured that employment minister Mark Hoban had advance notice of them, thereby offering him no excuse for failure to answer.
In the main, he did. But… well, you’ll see.
Hoban prefaced his responses by affirming that the DWP considers the issue to be important, something that “we must get it right. It accords firmly with our commitment to improving the WCA process continuously”.
But he said: “While we accept that there has been an increase in demand for its use, we must be sure that we understand the evidence base, including that relating to the value to claimants… The evidence needs to be balanced against potential costs, and that is the process in which my officials are currently engaged.”
We’ll go into those extra costs in a moment, but the comment begs an obvious question: Wouldn’t the extra cost be offset by the savings made by having fewer ESA appeal tribunals?
Later he confirmed that a claimant has no legal right to an audio-recorded assessment, and neither the DWP nor Atos Healthcare has a legal obligation to provide an audio-recording service or equipment. “The unavailability of audio recording facilities does not mean that the WCA process can be delayed indefinitely. That could slow down the process unnecessarily.” But he added that, since the introduction of audio recording, only nine requests have been refused owing to the unavailability of equipment.
He said (but the statement is disputable): “All those having face-to-face assessments have been able to request that their sessions be recorded… Claimants can ask for their assessments to be recorded, either by means of the service offered by the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos Healthcare or through the use of their own recording equipment. Requests for an audio recording, whether through the use of Atos Healthcare’s equipment or through the use of equipment provided by a claimant, must be made in advance when a face-to-face assessment is arranged. The purpose of that is to provide adequate notice so that recording equipment can be made available and ready for use.”
This is not what I have found. Long-term readers will know that my partner, the long-suffering Mrs Mike, suffers from a long-term ailment and has undergone the work capability assessment. It took place in early July last year – remember the date. I went with her.
We were not informed of the procedure for requesting audio recordings in any way. I went along with my dictaphone, but when we announced our intention to use it, we were told that would not be acceptable and the assessment would not take place if we insisted on this condition.
Therefore it occurs to me (admittedly from anecdotal evidence) that Hoban’s figures must be skewed. How many claimants found themselves in the same position when they arrived for interview – ready to record – only to have the carpet pulled out from under them? For a disabled person, the only option then is to continue with the assessment because – for many of them, it is a very difficult and painful process simply to reach an assessment centre.
Let’s look at the questions. The first was this: Will the Minister now accept that the number of claimants requesting a copy of their recording is not an accurate reflection of demand, and that the number of people acquiescing to their assessment being recorded is a more appropriate metric to use?
Hoban’s response: “I do not think that it was that difficult to get hold of a copy. The recording might need to be held on a handheld device before it is transferred to a computer and a transcript is printed, but that does not stop people asking for a copy. I thought that was one point in the hon. Lady’s thoughtful speech that was not well substantiated.”
This is inaccurate. For those who have never attended a work capability assessment, the Atos assessors complete them using laptop computers – because the assessment is a tick-box test that demands simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Laptops generally come with not only audio recording but also CD burning programs as part of the package, and even if they don’t, freeware recording software is widely available and CD-burning software is also available, if not for free, then for a reasonable price. If the onboard microphones aren’t adequate to the task, it is possible to buy them very cheaply – especially if buying in bulk.
In short, it should be entirely possible to record every single assessment at a reasonably high quality, burn it onto CD and hand it to claimants on the spot. For example, I have an audio copy of yesterday evening’s debate which I can burn off and hand to anybody who wants it for reference. There is no justification for the bureaucratic process through which the DWP currently demands claimants to navigate, which is – as Ms Gilmore noted – off-putting.
Hoban continued: “The results also provided little evidence that audio recording of face-to-face assessments improved the quality of assessments. There was only limited evidence of improvement in the customer experience for some individuals.”
SOME individuals? We must question these ministers’ use of language and that word is telling.
“Of those who took part, fewer than half the claimants thought that audio recording would be helpful to them.”
How were they to know? Did they expect to have to go to appeal and use it to persuade a tribunal? Were they even made aware that this could happen?
“Those are the key areas that Professor Harrington wanted to understand when he called for the original pilot. As a result the Department decided not to introduce audio recording of face-to-face assessments universally on the basis that a facility for all assessments would be extremely costly, with no apparent substantial benefit or improvement in the quality of assessments.”
“Since the introduction of a limited audio recording facility in September 2011, fewer than 4,000 claimants have requested a recorded assessment. To date, Atos has conducted more than 2,000 audio-recorded assessments.”
So almost half those who requested a recording were refused it, despite that fact that using laptops to record assessments is cheap and easy?
“During that period almost 1.5 million face-to-face assessments for both ESA and incapacity benefit reassessments have been completed. Therefore, the proportion of recorded assessments is less than 0.2% of all assessments carried out during the period. We need to continue to monitor that take-up, but universal recording for such low numbers does not seem prudent and might not provide value for money.”
Not (provably) true.
We move on to the second question. I give you advance warning that the reply is scandalous: Can the Minister confirm whether any official DWP communications inform claimants that they can have their assessment recorded?
His response was to say that the DWP has recently provided more information about the audio-recording facility on the ‘Inside Government’ section of the gov.uk website. recently? Two years after the option was made available?
And he said: “I am pleased to say that we are … taking steps to boost awareness of audio recording. The Department and Atos are in the process of amending written communications to claimants by updating the WCA AL1C form. The document is sent to claimants when they need to arrange a face-to-face assessment and will provide more information on how to arrange an audio-recorded assessment. We expect the revised form to be sent out to claimants by the end of next month, once the necessary changes have been made and the form has been cleared for use.”
Sheila Gilmore rightly took issue with this, demanding: “Perhaps the Minister might be able to explain why it has taken nearly two years to make that amendment?”
Even if he was, he didn’t.
She also raised the issue of timing, which the DWP frequently uses to skew its statistics: “If I understood him correctly, he said that the evaluation of all this process was being extended to the end of the summer, so if the revised letter is not going out until the end of this month or the end of next month, there will be very little time to judge whether that has made any difference.”
Absolutely correct. This is how the DWP produces many of the figures it uses to hoodwink Parliament and the general public. If a procedure has been available for 24 months, but official documentation has publicised that to claimants for just two or three months, then the results are unreliable.
You will, undoubtedly, be on tenterhooks to know what Hoban had to say about this.
He said nothing.
Question three: Can he indicate how many audio recording devices Atos now have access to?
Yes he can. The total is a staggering 31 audio recording machines, three of which are currently being repaired – so 28 functioning machines. Atos also has access to 21 cassette machines which are on loan from the DWP.
“We constantly monitor the updating of audio recording assessments to ensure that the supply of the equipment meets demand,” said Hoban. Utterly ridiculous, for the reasons already outlined.
Question four: Can he confirm that what few recordings currently occur are part of a wider rollout or a mere further pilot?
This was the question he did not answer.
Finally: Will he accept Professor Harrington’s call for more work to be done on this? And will he rerun the pilot using the level of successful appeals as the key metric in determining whether or not audio recordings improve the quality of assessments?
It seems that he did! “we have decided to extend the evaluation period until the end of the summer to allow us to gather additional data on quality and potential take-up for a subsequent robust decision on any potential future audio-recording provision.
“We now have a benchmark for current take-up but, as has been rightly pointed out, we cannot get a true comparison until we routinely let people know about its availability.”
So what are we to make of these responses?
They’re a mixed bag. There is no excuse for failure to make recordings and hand them over to claimants on the day – that is glaringly obvious and the most scandalous part of this affair. Thanks to computer technology, it is cheap, easy and available. Considering the size of the DWP and the number of assessors employed by Atos, it is inconceivable that nobody was aware of this and therefore we must conclude that the failure to offer the service is an attempt to obstruct transparency by the DWP and its ministers.
There is also no excuse for the almost-two-year delay in revising DWP correspondence to make it clear that audio recording is available to anybody who wants to request it. In fact, because it should be possible to use assessors’ laptops to make those recordings, it is entirely possible to argue that they should offer it verbally at the start of the assessment procedure.
The extension of the evaluation period is to be welcomed – but the brevity of the extension is to be lamented and the “benchmark” data being used to judge the evaluation are entirely questionable.
As ever, with this Coalition government, any dialogue over its procedures is a war of attrition. This issue is not buried yet, and the debate was useful in teasing out the details.
The best we can say for the moment is that this is TO BE CONTINUED…
Now get out of that: Mark Hoban has been challenged to come clean with the facts. If he does, he’ll be the first DWP minister to do so since Labour left office.
Let’s get something straight from the outset: By Parliamentary convention, if a government minister lies to MPs – or is found to have told falsehoods and does not then correct the inaccuracies, that is a resignation matter.
Until the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, this convention was observed by all parties. The fact that the current administration – which, let’s remember, did not win any elections to get into office – does not observe this convention is yet another indication that it is an outlaw government.
Iain Duncan Smith is a classic case of the Coalition attitude. He has told so many porkies to Parliament and the public that he is to be dragged before the Commons Work and Pensions committee to account for them. The trouble is, even if he is forced to admit knowingly misleading us all, there is no reason to expect him to do the decent thing and fall on his sword. He’ll damn our impertinence for having the cheek to question him.
Probably the best way forward with him would be for the Work and Pensions committee to take his case to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the committee on Standards and Privileges, as this seems to be the correct route to take, in order to expel an MP.* If he won’t go willingly, he’ll have to be pushed.
Of course Mr… Smith might decide to claim he cannot answer some of the more involved questions, if he hasn’t had prior notice of them; he could say he hasn’t been able to put the facts together. Then, instead of admitting he is dishonest, he’ll just be admitting incompetence. No Coalition minister has yet been sacked for that.
One of his fellows who’ll have no such excuse is Mark Hoban, due to face questioning by Sheila Gilmore MP – who also sits on the Work and Pensions committee – in an adjournment debate on the audio recording of Atos work capability assessments at 7pm today (Wednesday, June 12).
Why not? Because she has sent him advance notice of all the questions she will be asking, in her speech, which she has published here for everyone to see.
Firstly, she attacks the government’s assertion – made by Hoban’s fellow truth-bender Chris Grayling, when he was in Hoban’s job – that there is a lack of demand for audio recording of assessments. He said a pilot scheme to test whether audio recording assessments improved their quality had produced a negative result: “We decided not to implement universal recording because, based on the trial experience, people did not want it.”
This is – to nobody’s surprise – untrue.
The Atos pilot concluded, “68% of customers agreed to the recording when contacted by telephone prior to the appointment.”
This total dropped to 46 per cent due to some claimants not taking the assessment. This is most likely caused by the phenomenon of ‘churn’, as discussed on this blog, and others, in previous articles – a fairly consistent number of claimants stop their claim before taking the assessment because they either get better, find a job that can accommodate their disability, or die.
As far as Atos were concerned, the result was beyond doubt: “Our recommendation would be that recording should become routine as it is in a call centre or for example – NHS direct.”
This is the recommendation of the company running the much-criticised assessment scheme, remember. Even Atos wants better accountability and an improved quality of assessment that this may bring.
Ms Gilmore goes on to attack the government’s claim that the number of claimants requesting a copy of their recording is just one per cent. This cannot be regarded as an accurate assessment of the number who would like a copy, for two reasons, she tells us.
Firstly, the assessors used handheld devices to make their recordings, meaning they would have to be transferred to computer and burnt to CD afterwards, preventing claimants from taking recordings away with them on the day. Instead they had to make a further request – in writing. “Unsurprisingly this suppressed uptake,” Ms Gilmore’s speech states.
Secondly, claimants were warned off applying for copies by assessors who told them recordings would only be useful to them if they appealed. The report that stated only one per cent of claimants persisted in their request was completed only days after the pilot study ended, meaning most of those involved had not received a decision on their claim and therefore did not know whether they needed to appeal. Demand may well have been higher, had the measurement been taken after a reasonable time.
This is just one example of the DWP timing processes in order to get its way. We’ll return to that topic in a moment.
Chris Grayling also stated that the DWP would offer “everyone who wants it” the opportunity to have their assessment recorded. In practice, this seems an empty promise, as Atos had around 50 audio recording machines on May 22 this year, but undertakes more than 11,000 assessments every week.
Also, the option to request recordings is not offered in any official DWP communications to claimants. As Arthur Dent points out in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s not like they’ve gone out of their way, “like actually telling anyone or anything!”
What we’re seeing is a series of attempts to distort information and skew the facts, to create a story that supports DWP ministers’ intentions, rather than the evidence. That’s bad for the country, because it means decisions are taken on the basis of fantasy, diverting attention and effort away from where it is needed.
“Today I have taken the unusual step of emailing a copy of my speech for an upcoming debate to Mark Hoban, the Minister due to speak for the Government,” said Ms Gilmore. “Now he can have no excuse for not answering the important questions I intend to put to him…. I want to ensure the Minister can’t ignore these points, and that’s why I’ve take this action today.”
Whatever happens this evening, it seems unlikely that anything can be done about the DWP’s latest misuse of statistics – actually withholding performance data about the Work Programme (as reported previously in Vox Political) and the Youth Contract until the day after the government’s comprehensive spending review.
This means decisions are likely to be made on ministers’ recommendations, rather than on the basis of fact – and we now know that we cannot trust those recommendations at all.
The Telegraph, reporting the delay, stated that the figures – when they arrive – “are expected to be very disappointing.
“It is hardly unreasonable to say that the Government would sooner Labour did not have these to throw at it when George Osborne gives details of the Comprehensive Spending Review in Parliament on June 26.”
Columnist Tim Wigmore concludes – and this is in the Torygraph, remember: “The Government only has itself to blame if it’s getting harder to give it the benefit of the doubt.”
That time is long gone.
There must be no dishonesty in Parliament.
If Mark Hoban fails to give full and frank answers to the questions Sheila Gilmore has put to him, but resorts to distortions of the figures or outright falsehoods, then he must be expelled from his job, not just as a minister but as an MP.
That goes for his boss, Iain Duncan Smith. It goes for Grant Shapps, Michael Gove (mentioned in the Telegraph article) and, above all, it also goes for David Cameron.
*If any MP is reading this and able to provide details of the correct procedure, please get in touch.
‘Snail’ media: The BBC News website was nearly two months behind the political blogs in its reporting of a major story.
“On Tuesday, this was a serious Conservative Party policy proposal, being reported in national newspapers. Now, it’s ‘never’ going to happen,” trumpeted web campaigners 38 Degrees in an email last night.
They were, of course, referring to the Tory idea that it would be all right to restrict consultations with an NHS doctor to three per year per person – presumably the Rupert who dreamed it up thought everybody who mattered would have private health insurance instead, and this seems to be borne out by the material in the rest of the policy document.
I’ll admit, the material in the article was sourced from the newspapers, but what’s interesting is that it took a further two days for the mass – or as I intend to call it from now on, the ‘snail’ – media to cotton on that the whole idea is utterly ludicrous and the public won’t fall for it.
During that time, the Vox article went viral, and Vox readers have never really been known for keeping their opinions to themselves.
A ‘snowball’ effect then ensued, leading to reports in the papers of the public reaction and the 38 Degrees petition, which resulted in Jeremy Hunt’s grumpy tweet: “In case being misled by ‘neutral’ 38Degrees e-petition, it IS NOT and WAS NEVER going to be Conservative policy to limit GP appointments.”
He’s only upset because we spoiled his fun, I expect.
Vox Political was not the only blog covering this story, as far as I’m aware, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that it was any more instrumental in this little victory than anyone else. What I’m saying is it demonstrates that bloggers are starting to drive the political agenda.
The problem is the length of time it takes the mass – sorry, ‘snail’ – media to catch up.
Under the headline ‘Incapacity benefit test claims ‘conflated figures’ – watchdog’, it states: “Suggestions that 878,300 benefit claimants dropped their claims rather than take a medical test have been challenged by the statistics watchdog.
“Tory chairman Grant Shapps was quoted saying that nearly a million people had “taken themselves off” incapacity benefit instead of sitting the test.”
Again, it’s great that this nonsense has been challenged, and the challenge has been reported. What’s not so great is the timescale.
The comment in the BBC story – by Andrew Dilnot, the now famous head of the UK Statistics Authority – was that “research by the Department for Work and Pensions suggested that one important reason for those cases being closed was because the person ‘recovered and either returned to work or claimed a benefit more appropriate to their situation’ instead.”
That is uncannily close to Steve Walker’s comment that “this represents nothing more than ‘churn’ – a turnover of claims withdrawn because of perfectly normal things like people getting better, or finding a job they can do even if they’re ill” – published on April 2!
I’ll accept some people may dispute the blogs’ influence on the outcome of the ‘NHS consultation’ issue, but on this one it seems unlikely there can be any doubt. Mr Dilnot’s letter followed an inquiry from Sheila Gilmore MP, who follows Vox Political and is certainly likely to have read my report on this matter. It seems likely that she also follows Skwawkbox. The amount of time between those articles’ appearance and the piece on the BBC website is the time it took for her to receive a response to her inquiry on the matter from Mr Dilnot.
Isn’t it a shame that the BBC didn’t do any fact-checking for itself?
So there you have it: If you want proper political news – and proper analysis of events – forget the ‘snail’ media and go to the blogs. We’re faster and more accurate, and what’s more, we make things change.
For the better (in case Iain ‘We’re changing their lives’ Smith was wondering).
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