Not smiling: and Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey really won’t be, once it gets through to her that the public now knows her department has been taking the p*ss out of all the people it has killed.
This is typical of the DWP: in the week that the minister for disabled people promises the department is working to improve its response to benefit-related deaths, we find it has been destroying records of them.
Particularly interesting for This Writer is the fact that they were records dated before 2015 – a period that I inquired about in a Freedom of Information request that the Department refused to honour.
I had to force the government to issue what turned out to be a tragically limited response, via an order from the Information Commissioner’s Office.
All of the above suggests that Linda Cooksey, sister of DWP victim Tim Salter (who took his own life after being deprived of benefits in 2013), was right to say the Department has been trying to “cover up” the facts.
It seems the DWP has feebly tried to excuse itself with a claim that the destruction was necessary due to data protection requirements.
But the Information Commissioner’s Office (again) has made it clear that there was no need to destroy any documents by a particular date, and in any case they could have been made subjects of a “public interest” protection.
It is interesting to hear that Stephen Timms, chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, said there was a “lack of seriousness” about “putting things right when they go wrong”.
Perhaps that explains why Justin Tomlinson (the afore-mentioned minister for people with disabilities) was caught smirking during a debate about the DWP’s failure to address these issues.
So we see that the DWP minister was making fun of everybody who has suffered at the department’s hands, and the Department itself is laughing at anybody who seriously expects it to change its ways.
Have YOU donated to my crowdfunding appeal, raising funds to fight false libel claims by TV celebrities who should know better? These court cases cost a lot of money so every penny will help ensure that wealth doesn’t beat justice.
Labour’s shadow ministers, including Stephen Timms (Employment) and Anne McGuire (Disabled People) seem to be in cahoots with right-wing thinktank Reform, according to information that has come to Vox Political.
The fact that members of the UK’s left-wing political party are working with such an organisation is frightening enough, but you should be prepared for that fear to turn into terror when we reveal that Reform is part-funded by the criminal American insurance giant Unum.
That’s right – Unum. The mob who have been influencing British policy on social security from behind the scenes since Peter Lilley invited them in, back in the 1990s. The mob who have been working to turn this country away from what was an excellent nationalised social security system and towards poorly-regulated private health insurance, in order to sell duff policies which offer very little likelihood of ever paying out.
What could possibly have possessed anyone involved with Labour to have anything to do with these corporate pirates?
“Unlike political parties, Reform and other think tanks can accept foreign funds… As a result, a number of foreign companies are now ‘Partners In Reform’ where an annual donation, which now stands at [just] £8,000, allows these companies [UNUM etc] to find representation in Britain’s policy hubs,” an OpenDemocracy report states.
“Reform uses the ‘charitable’ money donated to convene private policy conferences on Health, Education, Social Care, Criminal Justice and Policing, Armed Forces, Welfare and Public Reforms. Through this, the corporate-funded body appears to have gained a high degree of influence over a number of important debates that are central to Britain.”
At the Liberal Democrat conference it will be staged by Steve Webb MP, and at the Conservative conference by the unelected Lord Freud.
Would anybody from Labour care to explain why the Party is in bed with organisations that have decimated the provision of social security, contributed to the deaths of many thousands of ill or disabled individuals, and that intend to con many more thousands of workers out of hard-earned and desperately needed cash in the future, with their inappropriate health insurance policies?
The Nasty Party is at it again, spreading dire warnings about its political foes and trawling opponents’ appearances on the social media for anything it can use against them.
Labour and – especially – UKIP candidates had better watch out; these are people who will take any apparently-innocuous off-the-cuff comment and turn it into galloping racism (for example) before your eyes!
The Party of Smears kicked off in typical fashion yesterday by attacking UKIP as “a collection of clowns” in a protest party with no positive policies, that was primarily opposed to foreigners.
The comment about being a party of protest will also ring in the ears of Labour candidates, after former party leader Tony Blair warned Ed Miliband that Labour must not be seen as one.
According to the BBC, UKIP reckons it has evidence that Conservative Central Office is spreading smears about its candidates, after spending months trawling through the Twitter and Facebook accounts of anyone likely to be a candidate.
Meanwhile The Guardian has reported a warning to Labour MPs from party vice-chairman Michael Dugher, that they will all be under “intense scrutiny” from the Tories for the next 18 months to two years, with Conservatives “scouring” opposition MPs’ Twitter accounts (and, we can well expect, Facebook pages) for damaging or embarrassing material.
“The message was that while you might not be household names now, any slip can instantly make you one and do huge damage to the party. The next 18 months is crucial. And the next few weeks are crucial ahead of the June spending review,” a ‘source’ is quoted as saying.
Facebook has already been the subject of controversy over alleged links with the Conservative Party, after blogger Tom Pride said he had been told by a Job Centre Plus employee that the Department for Work and Pensions had conspired with the social media giant to create a blackout around his blog because it criticised the Coalition government.
That blackout spread to other blogs including Vox Political, in a bid to choke off critical political writing, with potential readers warned that sites “may be unsafe” in an effort to turn them away. Although initially successful, with hits on this blog suffering during the early part of last week, the attack was routed after Facebook users were told that they were being manipulated. Hopefully, visits to this site will soon be back to pre-attack levels.
UKIP has taken the Tory attacks in its stride. The relatively young party has taken on nearly 2,000 candidates to contest the local elections on Thursday and has admitted it has not had time to check all their backgrounds properly. Therefore, the party says, it is glad the Conservatives are doing this job and has begun investigating six candidates over alleged links to the British National Party and other far-right groups.
UKIP sources have also stated their certainty that, if they were to investigate Conservative candidates in a similar manner, they might find “even more examples” to use in a counter-attack, summing up the Tory tactic as “morally reprehensible and downright dirty”.
“It isn’t scrutiny; it’s smear,” said a spokesperson.
Of course, this fighting among the right-wing, minority-interest parties (and if you don’t think the Tories are a minority-interest party, you haven’t been following their policies for the last three years) should be very helpful to Labour.
UKIP’s popularity splits the right-wing vote, meaning Labour has more chance to gain a majority in marginal council wards (and, by extension, marginal Parliamentary constituencies). At least, that’s one theory.
The problem is the fact that Labour voters might decide to defect on Thursday, as well – maybe even to UKIP, despite the fact that that party’s position is further to the right than the Conservatives’.
Much of this problem, Labour believes, lies in policy – with many people unaware of what most members of the Labour front bench actually do.
And this is compounded, in my opinion, by the fact that the one policy area in which Labour’s position is known is such a cast-iron, vote-losing, disaster for the party: Welfare/Work and Pensions.
Yet a Guardian article about a possible reshuffle makes no mention of Liam Byrne and his deputy Stephen Timms whatsoever – despite the fact that their decision not to oppose a blatantly illegal stitch-up of the system by the Tory DWP secretary Iain Duncan Smith enraged Labour heartlands across the country. Indeed, a fellow blogger recently headlined an article with the profanity (which I’ll edit here) ‘Liam Byrne f*ck off’.
It is long past time that Ed Miliband told him to do so. If Labour does not abandon Byrne’s horrifying attempt to equal the Tories’ brutality towards Britain’s most vulnerable people, in favour of a new policy that attacks the causes of unemployment, sickness and disability rather than the symptoms, then Labour will lose the next general election.
And that will be an even graver disaster for us all.
Miliband and Byrne: They did the wrong thing, but was it for the right reasons?
A whole week after the crucial confidence-breaking vote on the Bill that gives Iain Duncan Smith retroactive powers to steal benefits from jobseekers, an email appears “from the office of Ed Miliband”.
Here’s what it said:
“Thank you for contacting Mr Miliband about the Jobseekers Bill and my apologies for the delay in replying.
“We know how strongly many people feel about this and that you are disappointed that Labour decided to abstain.
“Please be assured that we looked very carefully at all the points raised but in the end the vote came down to the question of whether the DWP should have any legal power whatsoever to stop benefits for people who won’t try to find work at all.
“With record levels of young people out of work, we believe young people must be offered a real choice of a real job with real wages. That’s why Labour is moving amendments to the Bill to demand a tax on bankers’ bonuses to fund over 100,000 jobs for young people with pay at the national minimum wage and training.
“Our approach is completely different to the government.
“We would guarantee everyone unemployed for over two years a properly-paid job, but we want it to apply to young people after a year. In return, we think most people would agree that people would be obliged to take up those jobs or face losing benefits.
“These powers have always existed; for example, in Labour’s Future Jobs Fund, if a young person didn’t take the offer of a job, they would have faced having benefits halted. Labour’s New Deal operated on the same principle.
“We would not support a retrospective bill driven through Parliament at lightning speed – and Labour demanded two crucial concessions, which we forced the government to make.
“First, appeal rights must be guaranteed so that others can appeal against mistakes made by the DWP. We can’t have carte blanche retrospective legalisation of sanctions.
“Second, there must be an independent review of the sanctions regime, with an urgent report and recommendations to Parliament.
“While you may not agree with the decision to abstain, we hope you can recognise that the points you and others have raised were carefully considered and the safeguards Labour have secured.
“Thank you again for taking the time to contact Mr Miliband on this important issue.”
It’s not good enough, is it?
Miliband – and Liam Byrne, Stephen Timms, and all the rest of the current Labour team – need to realise that there is a fundamental difference between what they supported and what they say they want. They should have held out for the latter.
The Coalition government’s scheme puts people to work – for employers who are perfectly capable of paying not only minimum wage but the living wage, for an indefinite period of time, to a person who used to be defined as a paid employee – for, and this is the important part, no remuneration other than their Jobseekers’ Allowance.
Contrast that with what Labour offered in the past – “in Labour’s Future Jobs Fund, if a young person didn’t take the offer of a job, they would have faced having benefits halted. Labour’s New Deal operated on the same principle” – and what Labour says it would offer in the future – “we believe young people must be offered a real choice of a real job with real wages“.
Why put up with anything less?
The concessions are paper tigers – it is understood that appeal rights were enshrined in the original legislation and we have seen no evidence that they were ever going to be dropped, while the timetable of the proposed independent review is such that the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions may never have to act on it.
In other words, Labour let the Coalition run roughshod over the rule of law – for nothing.
Mark Hoban: He talks a lot of nonsense about work schemes.
How did the Labour Party ever find itself supporting a piece of Coalition legislation that, according to its own members, was “the result of an abuse of power and incompetence, mixed with an ideological drive to run down our welfare state”, “a typical component of oppressive regimes”, and something that “undermines the judiciary and the rule of law”?
According to Liam Byrne, it’s because the government’s power to impose sanctions on jobseekers who don’t do their bit to find work needs to be protected; also because amendments had been introduced to protect the power of appeal with good cause, and because there is to be an independent report on the matter. That’s not enough.
Labour MPs who abstained from voting on the issue, or who voted with the government, should not only hang their heads in shame but fear deselection by their local constituency parties. If they won’t stand up for the low-waged and unwaged workers of this country, they should not be allowed to stand for Parliament.
We are, of course, discussing the Jobseekers (back to work schemes) Bill, passed in such injudicious haste by the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Let’s look at the issues. The legislation was brought before Parliament after the government lost a case in the Court of Appeal on February 11. The ruling was that the regulations under which jobseekers had been sanctioned for refusing to carry out Mandatory Work Activity or Workfare schemes were themselves illegal, laying the Department for Work and Pensions, and its Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, open to legal action by any of those jobseekers wishing to claim the money that was illegally taken from them.
Instead of admitting his mistake and paying up, Mr Smith chose to create a law that would legalise his actions retrospectively. This is an appalling abuse of governmental power.
This was not done in order to improve the law or the position of British citizens in relation to it. It was done for the worst possible reason: to save some money.
Employment Minister Mark Hoban gets wheeled out whenever Mr Smith has work to do that he finds too embarrassing to carry out himself – therefore he has been receiving a large amount of exposure in Westminster of late. It was he who told Parliament, and the British public, that “the Bill will ensure that the taxpayer does not have to repay previous benefit sanctions to claimants who have failed to participate in certain employment programmes, and it ensures that we can properly impose sanctions for such failures. Without this Bill, the cost to the taxpayer would be up to £130 million”. He added later that “it is vital that, in the present economic climate, the public purse be protected from such claims.
Is it? Or is it vital to the Conservative-led Coalition government that it is protected from the embarrassment of having to admit that these people deserve to have their money back, and it is poor administration of ill-conceived jobseeker schemes that has created this issue?
“The reality is that our schemes are helping to get people back into work,” Hoban claimed, against the evidence. “It is vital that people who are looking for work are given help to get into work, and we are offering that. Up to the end of September, 200,000 people found work as a consequence of the Work programme.” This is not strictly true. See previous Vox Political articles on the failure of Mandatory Work Activity, Workfare and the Work Programme. A strategy that had, as its low target, finding lasting employment for five per cent of users did not even manage half that staggeringly unambitious total.
“To allow people not to take part in [these schemes] is breaking a contract between us and the unemployed,” he said, conveniently ignoring the fact that any contract between the government and a private individual is perverted before it is even entered. What sanctions can a jobseeker bring against a government that reneges on its contract, as was proven in the case of Wilson and Reilly, when the government can legislate to remove its liability?
“We give them the support that they need to get back into work,” or rather they give money to work programme providers who take it and do the absolute minimum, see previous Vox Political articles, “and we expect them to take up that offer of support. If they do not take up that offer, it is right that they are penalised.” Even if they have a good reason? His argument had so many holes he should have been wearing it as a string vest.
“The unemployment rate in the UK is below the average of the eurozone and the European Union,” he prattled on. Does that figure include people on Mandatory Work Activity? Of course not – the government removes those people from the figures, claiming by the omission that they are in work – but if they are not receiving minimum wage, how can that be right? There should be no claim that they are in work at all if they are only getting Jobseekers’ Allowance. Mr Hoban claimed that the Office of National Statistics insists on this for reasons of “international consistency” – an excuse.
“We are seeing one of the fastest rates of job creation in the developed world and we have record numbers of people in work,” he said. Is that part-time work? Full-time work is very hard to find and the government is doing nothing to promote it other than jeopardising part-time workers’ positions by pushing them to ask for more hours.
“And record numbers of women in work.” Down by 5,000 in the last month, according to figures released the following day.
“Our policies to help people into work are effective.” No. They are not.
“We have seen the effectiveness of our welfare reforms — 230,000 fewer people are claiming out-of-work benefits than they were in May 2010 — and they have contributed to an increase in the numbers of people in work,” said Mr Hoban. “People are coming into the labour market and finding jobs.” Are they? Or is the government’s system of unfair – and currently illegal – sanctions stopping people’s claims from being registered? The weight of evidence suggests the latter – and this could be another reason for this pitifully poor excuse for legislation.
“When a person signs on to receive jobseeker’s allowance, they accept that they have certain responsibilities. It could be called a contract between the jobseeker and the taxpayer. We will offer a huge amount of support to jobseekers, including help to search for jobs” – this would be the Universal Jobmatch online jobsearch programme which is universally derided as it is riddled with identity theft schemes, open to data mining from even the poorest of hackers and bereft of any major job opportunities – “work experience” – the schemes that enrich work programme providers and those companies and charities that don’t want to pay even the minimum wage, while removing jobseekers from activity that could help them into a useful, long-term career – “and jobseeker’s allowance. That is our part of the deal. The jobseekers’ part of the contract is to take up the help that we offer.” Considering the drawbacks of the government’s side of this contract – as outlined above, why would anybody accept those conditions unless they were given no choice?
And in a supposedly free country, why is the government forcing such poor conditions on people who need real support to get the previously-mentioned useful, long-term career?
“For that group of people, it is right that we have the power to mandate them on to different back-to-work schemes, which we think will help them improve their chances of finding work,” said Mr Hoban. That’s interesting – schemes they think will help people improve their chances of finding work. Is the government, then, required to state its reasons for thinking particular schemes will improve a particular jobseeker’s chances of finding work? If not, why not? It can hardly be said to be living up to its side of a fair contract if the contract it offers is no help to the other participant.
Mr Hoban then damned the Labour front bench with the following words: “I am grateful for the constructive way in which the right hon. Members for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions) and for East Ham (Stephen Timms, shadow employment minister) have approached this topic. In supporting the Bill, they have allowed us to expedite its progress, thus safeguarding taxpayers’ money.” So the Labour employment team supported this travesty. We can infer from his words that Labour was blackmailed into giving support, under threat of seeing £130 million removed from the current benefit budget to pay claims for back-benefit. But that’s not what was said. Hoban said Byrne and Timms were “supporting the Bill” in a “constructive way”. My conclusion is that the Labour frontbenchers conspired with the Coalition on this.
Mr Timms’ words seem to confirm this: “We do not want to risk an additional £130 million cut to benefit spending over the period ahead, particularly not on a day on which it has emerged that the Government want to cut £2.5 billion from spending across Government, some of it doubtless from the budget of the Minister and the Secretary of State. Nor do we want to be in a position in which people who were sanctioned months ago — in many cases, well over a year ago — have to be refunded.”
In other words, it’s all about the money.
Mr Byrne also gave his approval to the Bill, as a tool allowing the government to impose draconian sanctions. “I do believe that the DWP should be equipped with the power to issue sanctions,” he said. “However, nor do I believe they should be in the ether — in the hands of ministers who have no obligation to put in place genuine back-to-work programmes that are better than doing nothing, unlike today’s Work programme.” This is confusing. Why support it, then?
He said amendments agreed with Labour included the commission of an independent report, to be brought before Parliament within 12 months, after which the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions would have an unspecified period to consider its findings. This is unsatisfactory as he could delay any response forever. If this is the carrot the Coalition used to gain Labour’s support, it lacks nutritional value.
Also, the grounds of good cause in respect of appeals will remain undisturbed and will include an unsuitable course, full-time study, health and caring reasons, travel time that is inappropriately long, religious belief, bereavement, attending court and other emergencies, while the timetable for lodging appeals will remain at 13 months. The DWP breaks these rules already on a regular basis. The House of Commons heard, during this very debate, the tale of a woman who was offered work experience too far from her home. When she requested a posting that was easier to attend, she was refused and sanctioned for breaking her “contract” with the government.
It simply wasn’t enough to justify a law that violates justice to such a catastrophic extent.
Byrne and Timms should have listened to their own backbenchers. They made their arguments against the Bill abundantly clear.
Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth), said: “The Bill is a new low for the Government. It is the result of an abuse of power and incompetence, mixed with an ideological drive to run down our welfare state. I, for one, do not support it.
“Not only are the Government trying to push through retrospective legislation that undermines the judiciary and the rule of law, with all the appalling implications that that has; I believe that the Bill is part of the divide-and-rule narrative that underpins the Government’s ideology. They are again pointing the finger at the undeserving poor. They are emaciating our hard-fought-for welfare system on the convenient back of austerity. I believe in our country and our people. I believe that in good times and bad the welfare system is there to protect them. There will always be a few who abuse that system and we need to have measures in place to prevent that. However, the Bill goes beyond the pale and I, for one, will fight this emaciation of our welfare system.”
Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) pointed out: “It is unfair to claimants to legalise, retroactively, penalties that the Court has judged unlawful… It is of constitutional concern if the DWP undermines the judiciary and the rule of law by using retroactive legislation to avoid accountability for its own errors… Other civil liberty groups and human rights campaigners have today explained to the press… that they believe this type of retrospective legislation is a typical component of oppressive regimes…they said that the DWP ‘broke the law, now they want to retroactively change the law so that they didn’t break the law in order to keep £130m out of the pockets of some of the poorest people in the country’.
“It has been correctly argued that the Bill would set a dangerous legal precedent if passed, and send a message that when citizens defeat the Government in court, the Government can overturn the Court ruling retrospectively with primary legislation — effectively making the Government, and the DWP, above the law.”
Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway): “In life, when things regrettably go wrong, we have to face the consequences. I firmly believe that the Government should be facing the consequences in respect of this £130 million penalty. Can the Minister tell me exactly how many of these people were, like Reilly and Wilson, innocent? I think that a fair number of those 300,000 should have had their money repaid to them.”
Grahame Morris (Easington): “The Government, and especially Government backbenchers, have characterised jobseekers who have been sanctioned as workshy and feckless — the sentiment expressed was ‘Are you really suggesting these people shouldn’t be sanctioned?’ Let us have a look at the Work programme, however. It has gone from chaos to farce. We talk about ‘workshy’, but what about wage-shy employers who exploit the unemployed, with the connivance, approval and funding of the Government?
“The programme has … had the perverse effect of blocking real jobs.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas added: “This is a multi-billion pound failed flagship scheme, which was condemned by the Public Affairs Committee as extremely poor. Having lost a case and fearing that they will lose the appeal, the Government, instead of respecting our justice system, are abusing our emergency procedures to fix the consequences of losing. Does that show not a shocking disrespect both for our courts and for the principle that workers should be paid the minimum wage?” Labour supporters will no doubt be asking why Parliament needs a Green MP to make these valuable points in favour of justice and workers’ wages.
Angus Brendan MacNeil of the SNP sealed the argument when he asked, “Is it not the case that it is not only the low-paid, but the non-paid that Labour are not backing? By sitting on their hands, Labour members are helping the Government to ensure that the people who are already being affected – by the bedroom tax – get no further support.
“It is worse than two bald men fighting over a comb.”
Travesty though it was, the Bill was passed with only 57 votes against it at the second reading, and 52 against it at the third.
Below are the names of the MPs who voted with their consciences, to block the Bill. If you are a Labour Party member, and you have a Labour MP, consider this: The selection process for future Parliamentary candidates is beginning, with a view to the 2015 election. If your MP’s name does not appear below, should they really be in Parliament? Or should a new name be chosen – that of someone who can show that they genuinely stand for the rights of the common British citizen, whoever they may be, low or high?
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!
The most telling moment in today’s (September 4) Westminster Hall debate on Atos and Work Capability Assessments came when Chris Grayling was delivering his speech. A woman shouted, “You’re killing us!” and was immediately told to shut up or the public gallery would be cleared.
It was an act of insensitivity that put into a nutshell the Coalition government’s attitude to public discontent over its Work Capability Assessment regime for claimants of the new Employment and Support Allowance (and soon, the new Personal Independence Payment); it doesn’t care what we say, it will carry on doing what it wants, and it will lie to us about what that is.
I was listening to the debate and watching responses on Twitter. John McDonnell MP tweeted: “Protesters sum up exactly what this debate is all about. The Atos system is causing immense suffering & killing people.”
Mr Grayling did not address these concerns in his speech.
He said the DWP would not be changing the controversial ‘descriptors’, that are used in WCAs by the tick-box assessors, who need them to understand whether any person’s abilities mean they deserve a much-coveted place among the 13 per cent of claimants in the ‘Support Group’ – or whether they should be turfed out into the ‘Work-Related Activities Group’ or market “Fit For Work”.
But a potential new set of descriptors, more appropriate to the conditions suffered by the sick and disabled, is still being considered. Where’s the truth?
He said the assessment regime had “no financial targets”. This was a flat-out lie. We know there are targets because Atos trainers made that perfectly clear in the recent Dispatches and Panorama documentaries on the subject.
“Atos do not take decisions.” Another lie. The DWP decision-makers rubber-stamp Atos recommendations in the vast majority of cases.
He repeatedly told us the process was “not an exact science” before contradicting himself by stating that the government wants to “get it right”.
Before he got up to speak, the criticisms had been mounting up like a tidal wave against him. All to no avail, as he sailed on, oblivious.
“How many people have died between being rejected and their appeal, and how many committed suicide?” This was a question I was hoping to hear, as this blog has been criticised for using the “32 deaths per week” statistic. No response to that one, though!And what about corporate manslaughter? The issue wasn’t even raised, but the government – and Mr Grayling, together with his (now former) boss Iain Duncan Smith – might be guilty of killing thousands.
“Will claimants still get ESA while they ask for a reconsideration?” The current answer is no. Judging from the lack of response in the debate, that will remain the case.
Assessors’ lack of mental health knowledge came up time and time again.
One MP after another got up to speak, making it clear that they had all received multiple accounts of mistreatment at the hands of a company that clearly couldn’t give… well… Atos: “There cannot be an MP that hasn’t heard terrible constituent stories over WCAs.”
Labour MP Stephen Timms made some strong points. He pointed out the fluctuating nature of many claimants’ conditions, and warned that the work capability assessment does not take account of changes. “The WCA must not be a snapshot,” he said, and went on to add that the test needs “radical improvement”.
He admitted that Employment Support Allowance was a Labour initiative – but made it clear that the Coalition rolled it out before trials to ensure it was fit for purpose had been completed.
And Dame Anne Begg MP won praise for listing poor decisions by assessors and the failings at Atos, repeating, like a mantra: “When people feel this persecuted, there is something wrong with the system.”
She called for the contract to be re-written, saying it “can’t be fixed with a few tweaks here and there”.
Tom Greatrex, who opened the debate, said too many people were being found fit for work when they weren’t fit at all. He said the £60 million cost of appeals against assessment findings meant the taxpayer was effectively paying for a system that doesn’t work, then paying again to put it right. He said details of the Atos contract should be made public (a forlorn hope; confidentiality is a large part of many government contracts with private firms, although the Atos contract is particularly vague).
And he pointed out that, although Mr Grayling had said the transfer schedule for moving people off Incapacity Benefit and onto ESA was on-target, it was in fact very far behind, with waiting times up by 85 per cent.
Honourable mention was given to the disability campaigns Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Black Triangle. Dishonourable mention was made of police brutality at last Friday’s protest outside the headquarters of Atos and the DWP in London.
Calls were made to reduce unnecessary assessments (of people whose condition was unlikely to change), anger was expressed that Atos is a sponsor of the Paralympics. The debate heard that applicants find the process of going through the Work Capability Assessment terrifying (I can personally attest to this, having witnessed my girlfriend’s. Terrifying and humiliating) – and that it was felt to take away their dignity as human beings.
Sadly, nobody called for a comprehensive study of the mortality rate.
Not one single Coalition backbencher indicated a desire to speak.
Amid all this, one online wit tweeted: “I do hope Osborne comes in at the end to take the now-traditional booing” – a reference to an incident the day before, which has already become infamous, when the Chancellor appeared at the Paralympics to hand out medals and was booed by the 60,000-strong stadium crowd.
Sonia Poulton, the Daily Mail columnist who became a campaigner against Atos, summed up the event: “W-C-A….SEIZE THE DAY! Yes, Labour started it, we ALL know that now…but Con-Dems butchered like never before. Time to get rid!”
If only we could.
For another perspective on the debate, please see the BBC website’s report at – oh. There isn’t one.
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