Johnny Needs More Than Chalk – why welfare reform needs a cumulative impact assessment

To do his schoolwork, the bare minimum Johnny needs is: paper, a pen, a teacher, a school, a chair to sit on, a desk to sit at, and a packed lunch.

If you take away just Johnny’s lunch, he will go hungry. It would be almost impossible for him to concentrate and do well in school. However, in theory, he could still do schoolwork.

If you just took away his desk, it would make it tricky to write, but Johnny could still do his schoolwork. It would just take longer and be less neat.

If you just took away his teacher, he could, in theory, go to libraries and museums to learn. In theory. Hypothetically, it’s still possible that he could teach himself something, so he could still do his schoolwork.

If you take away his paper and pen and school all at once, he can still sit on the floor and use chalk to write on the ground.

But if you take away Johnny’s paper, pen, teacher, school, chair, desk and lunch, all at once, Johnny is sitting on some ground with nothing, hungry, without a roof over his head. It’s hard to learn anything at all sitting alone, on the ground, with nothing but a piece of chalk.

Now imagine you have a disability or a long-term chronic illness. To manage it with a degree of dignity, you need a carer, a roof over your head, a bed, heating, food and transport. You rely on the carer, who comes in twice a day from social services, because she helps you to get up and get dressed and washed. Without her, you would have to spend all day, every day in bed. But at least you still have a bed.

Or maybe you rely on housing benefit to keep a roof over your head. You are forced to move to a smaller property on the 5th floor of a tower block when your housing benefit is cut. The lift doesn’t work. It means you have to move away from family and friends who help you out whenever they can. They cook meals perhaps, or help with all those jobs around the house you just can’t do.

But at least you still have somewhere to live.

Or maybe you rely on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for transport. It means you can get a taxi to the hairdresser or social club. Without it, you would become isolated. It would be impossible to get to your GP or make hospital appointments.

But, in theory at least, you don’t actually need to go anywhere.

If, however, you cut Disability Living Allowance, housing benefits, social care, hospital budgets, the Independent Living Fund,  Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), income support and the Social Fund, then you are just lying in a bed, hungry and isolated, a prisoner in someone else’s home.

Governments must perform what is called an “impact assessment” on any new policy or law. This government has done the bare minimum to fulfil this commitment. Would it surprise you to know, for instance, that when considering the greatest cuts to disability support in living memory, they claim that they will have no impact on health, no impact on well-being, no impact on human rights, and no impact on the justice system?

The crucial flaw is that they have independently assessed each cut to the services disabled people rely on, as if it existed in a vacuum.

The government has refused to do an overall impact assessment. They have repeatedly refused to assess what thecombined impact of their cuts will be. First they said it would be too expensive, then they said it would be too difficult!

Why might it be too difficult? Because they know, as we know, that, metaphorically speaking, the result will be little Johnny sitting on the floor with nothing but a piece of chalk, hungry, without a roof over his head.

The combined impact of removing someone’s DLA so they can no longer afford care or transport, heating or food, cutting their ESA so that they must look for work with cancer or multiple sclerosis, cutting their local care support so that they cannot clean themselves or feed themselves, cutting their housing support so that they risk homelessness and, to cap it all, scrapping the Social Fund so that there is no safety net when all else fails, is a strategy so risky that it ought to be criminalised.

We call upon the government to immediately carry out an overall impact assessment of all the cuts to the support that sick and disabled people rely on to live. I’ll say it again – to live. And they must do it now, before it’s too late. Because it’s hard to survive, sitting in the dirt with nothing but a piece of chalk.

First posted by The Occupied Times.

Please sign WOW Petition calling for a cumulative impact assessment.

What’s the state of ESA?

This won’t be a short post, but it is a crucially important one.
I have never written about something on this blog that I couldn’t prove to be true. If I didn’t have evidence that I could show you online, I didn’t write about it.
I’ve had many conversations with Labour MPs or peers or journalists or managing directors or trade unions  that I couldn’t share, but each one added to my overall understanding of ESA (Employment Support Allowance)
Today though, I think it’s important that I try to lay out very clearly what I feel I “know” about ESA, WCAs, Atos, the DWP and the current political situation.
I’ve dismissed those I judged to be fools along the way, the way we all do every day as we decide to trust someone or not, to believe something or not. I’ve made my judgements from meeting people, from talking to them. I like to “see the whites of their eyes” when I can. I research people, I try to “know” them and what makes them tick.
I’ve judged evidence and analysis along the way and tried always to get as close to a truth I could prove as possible.
I’ve dug into the history of welfare reform where I could. I’ve tried to find out what was going on with Labour at the time, when were Atos brought in? What was Unum’s involvement, who designed ESA? Which DPOs and charities were involved?
At every stage, with every decision, every   speech, every article, I’ve tried to think of the people who read my blog. I’ve tried to ask what we need to change and why. How to change it. Who are the real enemies? Why? What methods of demanding change are effective?
 Of course, my judgements may not have been yours. I have absolutely no way of actually “knowing” if I was right or wrong, too naïve or too cynical, biased or balanced but the following summary is where I feel we are in my heart from everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve met.
There are so many things that so urgently need changing about ESA, forgive me if I forget any here. For every bullet point, the section in italics is my opinion on where we currently stand.
  •       Medical evidence from own GP or consultant rarely taken into account
One of the most shocking statistics disclosed about WCAs was that DWP decision makers only refer to medical evidence as well as the Atos decisions in 2% of cases. Harrington recommended that medical evidence should always be considered and there has been progress- 8% of decisions are now overturned by DWP decision makers, suggesting they are referring to medical evidence much more. This has not yet been rolled out everywhere, so we might hope to see the figures improve further. However, the ideal solution would be for decisions to be taken by an independent doctor, based on all the evidence available.
  •     Descriptors used to assess fitness to work are far too narrow and not based on real life. They discriminate against those with mental illness, long term chronic illness, learning difficulties and more.
No assessment can ever be fair or functional if the descriptors are wrong. ESA descriptors are so wrong, they need totally fundamental reform. I got the impression that something shifted in the early part of this year. Government suddenly decided to go ahead with a trial of alternative descriptors (you can see them here) that were much fairer and broader and more rooted in a real life test. Though far from perfect, I believe they would give much more realistic results and provide much more opportunity for HCPs to make informed decisions.

The timescales to test these new descriptors is very quick for government. They will be trialled alongside a panel of expert decision makers to see how accurate they are. This process will be run by civil servants and if they are a notable improvement on the current descriptors, government do say that they will be implemented. 

We can help make sure the new descriptors are fairly trialled and the results accurately reported by keeping an eye on the trial, communicating with the charities responsible for writing the new descriptors and making sure that this isn’t somehow quietly shelved while we’re not looking. However, if all went well, we might be looking at the introduction of the new descriptors by 2014.
  •          Disability assessment centres are not all accessible to disabled people, often with no parking (!?!)
This is something that Atos has pledged to change as soon as they can. Whether might choose to be sceptical, but they have said on their blog and elsewhere that they are committed to quickly making all centres fully accessible. 

We can make sure they do this by writing to them and saying how important it is, urging them not to delay and telling them your own stories of trying to access an inaccessible centre.
  •          The Support group is too narrow and far too difficult to get into.
Support group numbers have been steadily rising. Last year the government had to find an extra £1 billion due to paying more people than they had predicted going into the support group. The figures are still rising and suggest they will continue to rise as the Harrington changes are rolled out. Grayling has said that they are “intensely relaxed” about this rise in Support Group numbers if it means those in genuine need are getting help and certainly, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of this rise being suppressed or restricted. 

Once the latest figures are adjusted to take account of appeal decisions, around 35% will end up in the Support Group, around  42% in the WRAG and 23% fit for work. This is a huge improvement on the shocking days of  new-claim only  ESA stats, where just 6% were going into the support group, 18% into the WRAG and a full 77% of claims not resulting in any award of ESA. 

There’s still a long way to go. I would argue that the support group should be bigger than the WRAG and that 23% is too many being found fit for work, but there really has been great improvement.
  •          Sanctions of any kind, but particularly time limiting bad health to one year, are inappropriate for people with serious illnesses or disabilities.
Sanctions and penalties are most beloved by this government despite no evidence at all, anywhere in the world that they work. They have totally refused to listen or compromise at all over this and I can’t see that they will. The public are currently very supportive of sanctions and mostly believe they should actually be tougher.

However, workfare, work providers and some of the reality of sanctions have taken a hit this year thanks to the work of people like Johnny Void and Boycott Workfare, with big companies experiencing a strong public backlash leading them and charities to pull out of workfare and other failing schemes. 

More to the point, the way the government has set up the “payment by results” scheme, means that small providers who tend to get good results are going to the wall while less targeted, less successful large companies are unable to hit the targets set. The reality is, most sanctions will either never be used, or will be quietly abandoned as the government realise they either cause too much embarrassment or the scheme collapses totally because none of the providers are getting paid.
  •          Decisions take far too long. Appealing a wrong decision can take well over a year.
This is only getting worse with backlogs growing, targets for re-assessment falling further behind and tribunals taking longer. Soon, as the government realise that it is, in fact, impossible to actually assess 2 million people and keep on assessing them indefinitely. They cannot achieve accurate assessment rates assessing 11,000 people a week. There simply aren’t the HCPs to do the job. 

Assessment rates need to fall by around half and government must accept that the whole process will take longer then they predicted. When assessment rates DO fall, the appeal rate also falls drastically as shown in Kettering who have implemented all of the Harrington changes enthusiastically. Getting the decision right first time, by taking the necessary time with each claimant saves the taxpayer millions and the person being assessed trauma and unnecessary waits for tribunals etc.

There is strong anecdotal evidence that Atos and the DWP are now pre-assessing many as unable to work without calling them for assessment. This is exactly what we always said they would have to do. It is how the original IB system worked and though the government are clinging on to the rhetoric, they are realising we were right all along and there really IS no point in assessing people who will never get better and who clearly will never work. This is a big win, but you’re unlikely to hear about it.·         Healthcare professionals (HCPs) used by Atos to assess disability do not have to be doctors and do not need to have any specialism or prior understanding of the condition the claimant suffers from to make a decision.

Atos have pledged “mental health champions”, up and down the country, claiming that they will make the assessments fairer for those suffering from mental illness. This is welcome, but unless the assessor has some knowledge of the conditions they are assessing they cannot possibly make an accurate decision. Atos might consider other teams of expert assessor for other conditions. Though it might mean claimants travelling further to be assessed, if specialist teams were more accurate it would be a small price to pay. All HCPs should have a working knowledge of either general medicine or the speciality of the person they are assessing.
  •         Reports written by HCPs are inaccurate; often bearing no resemblance to what the claimant reports was actually said.
This still seems to be shockingly common. The DWP have said in principle that all assessments can be recorded, but in reality are blocking the process. Until someone being assessed for ESA is afforded the same basic rights as a criminal, and assessments are recorded, claimants cannot make sure this doesn’t happen. 

As both Atos and the DWP have said that assessments can be recorded and have pledged to get working recording machines into assessment centres, we can make sure people get accurate HCP reports by keeping the pressure on the DWP to provide these machines in every centre. This is one area that I know is under great pressure legally too. Having the law on our side can only help.
  •          Questions are misleading, seemingly designed to “catch people out”
A longer assessment using the improved descriptors, should make this less likely, but there is a culture of suspicion between state and claimant that must be talked from the roots up. All the time ESA is only designed to catch the cheats, it will never serve those in genuine need.
  •         Mail containing highly personal and sensitive information on forms is opened and sorted by a third party.
Mails used to be opened by the Royal Mail, sorted and only then sent on to Atos. Once the DWP finally accepted that the practise was commonplace, they have now pledged to stop it. We can make sure they do by keeping the pressure on.
  •          Correspondence sent to the claimant is threatening and frightening.
This is one area where Atos have seemed very keen to make improvements. They have redesigned their website to make information more easily available, less frightening and more sensitive. They now have a patient charter and say that they will work hard to make the whole claimant experience more customer focussed and compassionate. 

They would like people to advise them on how to do that, what we would like to change etc. Of course, we can refuse to make things better right at the point where Atos are asking how to, but that feels a bit like a four year old having a tantrum. We’re grown ups and we can’t change things if we don’t explain what needs to change and why.
  •         Language used by politicians and press to discuss those claiming ESA is derogatory and demeaning. Scroungers, skivers, feckless, festering – we are called all these things. Journalism is often lazy and full of inaccuracies.
For some time now, we haven’t been unheard. Just two years ago, no-one was writing about ESA at all, other than to remind the public that we were all scroungers who could be working. Now, the Guardian, the Mirror, the Independent, Private eye, Political Scrapbook, Left wing blogs and even the Spectator are running regular stories about the failures of ESA and the WCA. Channel  4 have run some fantastic sections on the failures of ESA and even the Daily Mail have allowed blogs about ESA written by the indomitable Sonia Poulton. 

Slowly but surely, things are changing. Bit by bit we are [persuading those that matter to persuade the public that we are right and the government are wrong. 

It is frustratingly slow. The public have to read things many times over before they accept them and we still have a long way to go. But things are totally different now to two years ago and momentum is building in our favour.
  •          ESA had cross party support. There was almost total political consensus that it was good policy.
From my own point of view, this is what I most wanted to change and the thing I’ve worked hardest on. All the time we still have a Labour party blind to the suffering of sick and disabled people, they are not a Labour party. It has been achingly slow with disappointments and faux-pas at every stage. It pains me that I have had to drag Labour to every concession kicking and screaming, that some in the party still think ESA is right. It hurts me to remember some of the judgemental speeches and thoughtless, unfounded coalition policies they originally supported. 

But as I wrote here Labour have made real steps in the past year to put the mistakes of ESA behind them. They are now saying they are listening and travelling the country discussing sickness and disability policy with those actually affected. They have laid out a set of “rights” they believe sick and disabled people should be able to rely on and they have admitted ESA is a mess and isn’t working . Byrne’s Beveridge 2 speech was a turning point in which Labour started to dare to say the word disability again. I DO believe Labour are listening. They realise that we face very grave threats, that we are not just the usual suspects making a fuss. It’s up to us to tell them what we need. We can’t sit at our keyboards complaining then refuse to say what we want. 

The EDM raised by John McDonnell was signed by 114 MPs and became the 3rd most signed EDM Every day a new Labour MP or even a Lib Dem or Conservative join the growing chorus of MPs opposed to WCAs. Again, it’s slow and it’s frustrating, but we’re getting there. 

It is also now Lib Dem policy to oppose WCAs despite their actions. This might not help now, but could come in very handy in the event of a future Lib/Lab coalition,

Once the political consensus is broken, it gets much harder for the government to get away with leaving ESA a shambles. 

Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour’s policy review, has promised to make sure anything we send to Liam Byrne and Anne MacGuire goes to the very heart of discussions over future policy. I believe him because he’s a good guy who’s written articles about sickness and disability that sound just like mine. He is a politician who really understands our issues. 

I honestly believe we have a chance if we just make sure we tell Labour what they have to do and keep the pressure on them to do it. 

But we have to tell them.
  •          It’s pointless expensive and unnecessarily distressing to constantly re-assess those with disabilities so severe and profound that they will never work.
(Dealt with under delays and appeals above)
  •          The help & support politicians say people with serious illnesses and disabilities will get to find work is totally inappropriate and ineffective. It conflates disability benefits with JSA (Jobseekers Allowance) Most people who lose ESA have not found work.
As I’ve argued here and here it is no good sorting out all of the problems above if there is no work sick and disabled people can actually get or do. The work provision is woefully inadequate, the system is not going to make work pay for us and we need to totally re-design the help and support government provide. If you can take part, please leave your comments below the articles and let politicians know what you need to work and what that work should be
  •          The public were unaware of all these faults and generally thought ESA was a good policy.
Sadly, this is the area where we still have the most work to do. Most people still don’t know what’s happening and disability is not an issue they think about often or that interests them much. If we are sitting around waiting for people to wake up and say “Oh, this is terrible, we have to stop it!” they aren’t going to do that any time soon. Think how long it took for Tom Watson to expose phone hacking?  It took years to spill over into genuine public outrage. There isn’t going to be a revolution.
All we can do is chip away, every day, telling more and more people, getting them to tell even more people. Slowly but surely, opinion will change.
If you look at all I’ve written above, we’re well on the way to winning most of the points above. If we haven’t won, we’re at least at the place where we’ve won a seat around the table. We’ve made massive progress since 2010 and the truth is that with new descriptors, accessible centres staffed by respectful courteous experienced staff, more paper assessments taking place, higher support group and WRAG numbers a commitment from Labour to make rights a reality for disabled people and to really listen to what we need we have all the ingredients of success. With Atos claiming that they are willing to improve assessments  implement the Harrington changes and allow assessments to be recorded we’ve come a huge way in two years.
Of course we still have a long way to go, of course it isn’t enough but I think it shows for itself how successful a strategy of engagement and lobbying can be. We would have achieved none of this without sustained and often boring small changes, bit by bit, day by day, chipping away at everything that is warped and wrong with ESA. The government become more and more isolated by the day as the BMA, every main charity, Atos, the press and the opposition parties edge further and further away from supporting ESA.
This might not be the way everyone would do business but I don’t care about saving face or an ultimate glorious win that may never come.
I want to ACTUALLY win and that means compromise, boring detail, hard work and disappointments.
The proof of the pudding will be ESA in 2015. Tragically that will be too late for many, but better to win slowly but surely than to never win at all.
First published at Diary Of A Benefit Scrounger.

If you can only walk twenty metres you’ll get no help

20m in the house of commonsWhen PIP starts to replace Disability Living Allowance next year anyone who can walk just twenty metres will not qualify for help with mobility. Twenty metres is less than the distance most of the disabled parking bays at my local Tesco are from the door. It’s really not much. Hundreds of thousands of people will no longer get a mobility allowance and as a result will no longer be eligible to lease a Motability car. One day it might be you that needs this.

The government has also left out the phrase “safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a timely manner” from the PIP regulations. This means that if a person can do something just once, or can push through pain to do it, they might not get help and can’t even challenge it at tribunal.

These are just two of the largest problems. Please write to your MP and ask them to fix this urgently. I can’t stress enough how urgent this is. You can contact your MP at Write To Them

There is lots more information at We Are Spartacus.

Please also sign the (Stop the) War On Welfare petition which is calling for government to do a cumulative impact assessment on welfare reform. A great many changes are being made all at once and yet the government have not stopped to consider how they will affect people when taken all together.

This is the message that I sent to my MP, you can use mine as a starting point for your own if you are stuck. Remember that MPs pay more attention to unique messages.

Dear xxxxxxx,

I am writing to you about the new Personal Independence Payments (PIP) which will soon replace DLA. It has emerged following the publication of the PIP regulations last week that there are many problems with the regulations, two of which are extremely serious.

Under PIP a person who can walk just 20 metres will not be eligible for the mobility component of PIP. That is an astonishingly short distance. Even the closer disabled parking bays at my local Tesco are twenty metres from the entrance. This decision will deny mobility allowance to hundreds of thousands of people who rely on it, and an estimated 100,000 people will lose their Motability cars in the first year alone as a result.

I also note with alarm that the phrase “safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a timely manner” has not been included in the regulations. This phrasing is extremely important, since a person may be able to do something once but then not again for hours – effectively meaning that the activity cannot be done, but PIP will take no account of that.

Government ministers claim that the vulnerable will be protected. I hope that you can see why I am so concerned about PIP and how this will leave people trapped in their homes without transport and denied support for even the bare minimum of activities that they must perform. Please can you give me your assurance that these regulations will be amended so that disabled people can continue with their lives.

Sincerely,

[Name and address]

 

There’s a war on welfare – FIGHT BACK

Pat’s Petition took a year to accumulate 62,694 signatures asking the government to

“Stop and review the cuts to benefits and services which are falling disproportionately on disabled people, their carers and families.”

Pat’s Petition has secured a debate to take place in parliament in January.

A small debate by MPs took place in Westminster Hall on the 18th of December 2012. That debate although short, was full of speeches and stories by MPs vindicating what campaigners have been telling the government for the past two years. But that debate was not enough. It was ended with a speech by “Minister for disabled people” Esther McVey which was dismissive of all that had been said, if she even listened to it.

You can view the debate below or on the Parliament website. It makes damning evidence against the Welfare Reform Act.

Now there is a new petition, the WOW Petition. It reads as follows:

WOW-splash

We call for a Cumulative Impact Assessment of Welfare Reform, and a New Deal for sick & disabled people based on their needs, abilities and ambitions

Responsible department: Department for Work and Pensions

We call for:

A Cumulative Impact Assessment of all cuts and changes affecting sick & disabled people, their families and carers, and a free vote on repeal of the Welfare Reform Act.

An immediate end to the Work Capability Assessment, as voted for by the British Medical Association.

Consultation between the Depts of Health & Education to improve support into work for sick & disabled people, and an end to forced work under threat of sanctions for people on disability benefits.

An Independent, Committee-Based Inquiry into Welfare Reform, covering but not limited to: (1) Care home admission rises, daycare centres, access to education for people with learning difficulties, universal mental health treatments, Remploy closures; (2) DWP media links, the ATOS contract, IT implementation of Universal Credit; (3) Human rights abuses against disabled people, excess claimant deaths & the disregard of medical evidence in decision making by ATOS, DWP & the Tribunal Service.

Don’t wait a year to sign this petition. A hundred thousand signatures in a few days would send a strong message to government. Please sign the petition, follow @WOWpetition on Twitter and like the Facebook page.

 

Sign the WOW Petition

Poor vs poorer

The Conservative party have launched this advert in 60 areas.

Tory scrounger ad

It reads

Who do you think this government should be giving more support to?

Hardworking families…

Or people who won’t work?

Compare that to the recent findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

We undertook concerted, intensive fieldwork in very deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow and Middlesbrough but we were unable to locate any families with three generations who had never worked.

If we cannot find a ‘culture of worklessness’ here, amongst these extreme cases of very long-term unemployed families, we are unlikely to find it anywhere.

Even worse, the adverts lead to a statement at the Conservative web site which tries to present benefit rises with inflation as unfair by pointing out that wages have not risen as much. Two questions are asked:

Should benefits increase more than wages?

Do you think it’s fair that people can claim more in benefits that the average family earns through going to work?

There is a text box to enter your own comments but it is limited to 300 characters which makes it very difficult to say much at all. Here is what I wrote:

I object; your questions are loaded. Benefits must rise in line with with the cost of living but wages must rise dramatically to stop exploiting workers. Austerity is an ideological choice and is destroying our country. Stop pitting poor against poorer in the hope that we won’t notice your crimes.

In my opinion this campaign is a disgusting attack on the poorest people in our society and it is aimed at pitting poor people against poorer people by vilifying unemployed people and presenting a false dichotomy that we can only help one group. It tries to incite resentment among people who are not paid enough against people who receive even less. This campaign is furthering that favourite Tory lie of deserving and undeserving poor. It is utterly disgusting.

 

 

 

Why government plans to censor internet connections are a bad idea (Updated)

This blog post is a bit late, because government plans to turn on censorship on all home internet connections have just been scrapped. [Edit: not so – see update at the end.] However I know people who are disappointed about this and so I want to give my reasons why I think it is a very bad idea.

A censored connection is already available for those that want it. Mobile phone companies for the most part block access to sites that may contain content unsuitable for children on all new connections. They do this censoring at their end of the connection, before the web page in question ever reaches the mobile phone handset or computer. They will turn off the censoring when given proof of age.

Large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) mostly offer censoring of some kind too. Some such as TalkTalk will block unwanted web pages at their end of the connection in the same way that mobile providers do. Others such as BT, Sky and Virgin provide software to be installed on home computers that will block inappropriate pages within the home but before the end user sees them.

The original plan by government and campaigners was to require all ISPs to censor web pages at their end of the connection such that every device in the home would be censored. The justification is that children would not be exposed to unsuitable material, even in households where the parents have not made that choice. The filtering would happen unless the customer asked for an uncensored connection. However, despite the fact that censorship is an additional feature, I notice the campaigners for the filter have twisted the language. They refer to opting in to pornography but you don’t opt-in to pornography, it’s the filter that is the addition and they really mean that you opt out of that. I think it is important to keep this language the right way around.

Censorship of this kind is fraught with problems. There are several methods of blocking inappropriate content: whitelists, blacklists, keywords, and automatic recognition of pornographic material.

The ideal would be for a computer to be able to look at any given web page and recognise pornography or inappropriate text however computers are actually pretty useless at this. They tend to either allow the inappropriate content to slip through, or block completely innocent content. Most filters end up doing both. Whether recognising the amount of skin on show in images or picking out keywords from the text computers are unable to tell whether what they are looking at is actually sexual / violent etc, or perhaps is a support forum or an educational web site that should be allowed.

Because of this most filters rely on blacklists containing the addresses of web sites that are to be blocked. The problem here is that the internet is vast and always changing and so no-one can list every inappropriate page. Blacklists work to some extent but frequently fail to block pages that appear on a new server and they are easily bypassed using a proxy server (Which is not itself blocked and relays the pages desired) or a VPN. (Virtual Private Network – an encrypted “tunnel” which web pages pass through without being checked.) Blacklists also have something of an all or nothing approach. For example most block whole websites like YouTube and Facebook because some things contained within are more adult. They can’t tell and so they block the whole lot. They also tend to block Google Image Search and even Google Search because Google can show image and text previews from inappropriate websites. Google does have a “Safesearch” option and some filters only allow Google to be accessed if Safesearch is turned on but Safesearch is itself a filter with all of the related problems which that brings.

The harshest method is a whitelist containing just the web pages to which someone has been granted access. This is an extremely restrictive method and involves a lot of frustration when resources cannot be accessed and a lot of work for the person maintaining the whitelist in checking and adding necessary websites.

In practice most filters contain a combination of all of these methods – blacklists, whitelists, keywords and image recognition. The proposed national filter imposed by law would have been just a blacklist, but with government ultimately in control of what websites were put on it. In fact there is already such a list, which blocks child pornography and is run by the Internet Watch Foundation – an unaccountable and privately-run group – and implemented by all the large ISPs. Even this small amount of blocking which few would argue against is flawed and open to abuse. For example in 2008 the IWF blacklisted an image on Wikipedia, a 1976 album cover which depicted a naked child, despite the album cover never having been subject to any censorship or prosecution. As a result of this blocking and the method used by the ISPs to implement the filter many people in the UK were no longer able to edit Wikipedia until the block was reversed.

The IWF blacklist is also subjective and dependent on the personal opinions of a few people who are employed by the IWF to classify images. We are not allowed to see the list or the images and so we must trust that they are only blocking illegal images but there are claims that many images that are not illegal have been blocked too.

This blocking already in place at big ISPs has also been subject to a slow creep into other areas. Courts have ordered the main ISPs to block torrent website The Pirate Bay and file sharing site Newzbin and so these have been added to the system too. Some ISPs like Sky don’t even tell the end user that the site has been blocked, it just never appears on screen. (Try clicking those links to see f your ISP blocks them.) Again, they are easily circumvented and there is even a proxy server dedicated to allowing access to The Pirate Bay.

As an IT manager I once was made to set up a filter at the company where I worked. The filter used a combination of blacklists, whitelists, image recognition and keywords as described above. In addition to pornography it also blocked social networking, games and a few other things which the management felt were being abused by staff. The result was constant stress and frustration both on my part and the part of all the staff at the company. For a month I had multiple requests every day for websites to be unblocked because they were necessary for work. Staff still used social networks, only on their mobile phones instead of the company computers. I was often unable to find important information about computer maintenance and support because it was blocked by Google SafeSearch, which the filter forced to be switched on. After a month management conceded that the filter did far more damage than good and instructed me to turn it off.

A few years ago I was at a conference in the middle of rural Hereford with no transport available. I needed to access twitter on my Orange mobile to send a message to someone but I was horrified to find that it was blocked. I phoned Orange to get the filter turned off but was given only two ways to prove my age to them (Despite it being a contract phone which you must be over 18 to sign up to) – to provide a credit card number or to go into an Orange shop with a passport or birth certificate. I was unable to do the latter since I was stranded far from civilisation, and I was unable to do the former because I did not have a credit card. Orange’s view was “tough luck”. Fortunately for me I remembered that a web browser called Opera Mini happens to have a proxy server on tap, not to bypass censorship, but to compress web pages before sending them to a mobile phone to speed things up and reduce the phone bill. I installed Opera Mini and connected to twitter through that straight away. I hope it is clear from this that the filter was a huge inconvenience in preventing a legitimate use, and was easily bypassed with a little thought.

Many teachers find that the resources they wish to use in schools are blocked by the school’s filters. It is common for teachers to want to use video from YouTube (Such as the excellent Periodic Table of Videos) but be unable to show them in class. I helped my wife to download videos from YouTube (unofficially) on several occasions so that she could make use of them with her class. School connections are usually filtered by RM Education and so there are no exceptions to the filter and sites cannot be whitelisted. School children are not stopped for long by these filters either, swapping addresses for proxy servers as a matter of course.

I hope I have explained why website blocking of this nature does more harm than good. Filters do not work well at all, blocking desired sites and failing to block unwanted sites. They are easily bypassed with a little knowledge (or knowledgeable friends) and in any case don’t apply to other methods of swapping data such as encrypted emails or disks physically handed over or posted. Filters applied to the whole connection affect parents as well as children, and also to people who don’t have children, at least until they get the filters turned off. Last but not least, censorship is available to anyone that wants it simply by asking their internet provider, or even installing free software from Microsoft or turning on the filters that are built in to Macs. Parents are free to use these methods to protect their children although I would never advise trusting such software with your children’s internet access without supervision. I should also point out that smarter children (and those with smart friends) can work out how to bypass the software installed on their own computers.

For all of these reasons I believe that the plan to turn on website blocking on all internet connections until asked not to was a mistake and I am happy to see it go.

UPDATE
Writing in the Daily Mail, David Cameron says [Tech week link] he has hired Claire Perry MP to force computer manufacturers to pre-install software that will ask if there are children in the house and turn on porn blocking software on the computer itself. This is an even worse idea than blocking at the ISP end.

PIP resources

Yesterday the government released the final regulations for Personal Independence Payments. I haven’t absorbed enough detail to do a full blog post on this yet but these are some useful links related to it.

 

Read the new regulations: The Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) Regulations 2013

The new distance past which you are considered not to need assistance to walk is 20 metres. Jane Young has written a blog post on the results of this alarming regulation. Well over 100,000 to lose Motability vehicles under draconian new rules

 

The Government’s response to the consultation on the Personal Independence Payment assessment criteria and regulations

Watch the recording of the announcement of the regulations in Parliament (Jump to 11:19) or read the transcript

DWP: Personal Independence Payment – information for support organisations and advisers

 

Reassessing chronic illness

A thought occurred to me this morning. I know a hell of a lot of people who were labelled with the wrong diagnosis for years before receiving the correct diagnosis. Several people I know were diagnosed with ME before later discovering that they have EDS. Others have been told that their symptoms are somataform disorder (All in the head) and all further symptoms ignored even when life threatening. (Even somataform symptoms can be life threatening.) Plenty of people accumulate conditions and symptoms but never receive a further diagnosis for it, instead having everything attributed to the first illness or ignored. For example I had burning pain for a couple of years before being told that it was diabetic neuropathy rather than being caused by my ME.

The Scream - how chronic illness feels

Given that original diagnoses may be wrong, new symptoms may be missed, new tests and new treatments become available, and new research is undertaken, it makes sense to me that after a long period of chronic illness people should get a chance at uncovering new diagnoses and accessing new treatments. I would like to see patients automatically being offered a chance to start again with a blank slate after a decade of serious illness. A new GP (or perhaps two or three) would assess the patient, new tests would be run based on the latest research, and referrals to new specialists could be made. The latest treatments could then be offered. This could be life-changing for a huge number of people. It would be important for this to happen without referrence to notes except where life-threatening treatment needs to be maintained and without patients pointing the doctors towards their preferred diagnosis. There would also have to be patient choice and other safeguards at the heart of this.

The scheme would be expensive, of course, but it could well also pay for itself in replacing ineffective treatments with treatments that work and in enabling people to restart their lives. And in any case, MPs seem adamant that all articles and disability changes often enough that we have to be reassessed for benefits every year, so I don’t see how they can complain about the cost of this scheme.

What do you think?

MP’s expenses and other inaccurate claims

People often make claims to support their protest about something. Claims about tax avoidance, deaths, benefit fraud levels, or, on the other side of the political spectrum, claims about income, NHS spending, climate change etc. It is important to get facts right when making claims to protest about something because using a false claim to support your protest can wipe out any benefit from all the correct facts that you have claimed. The problem arises not just from a desire to mislead, but often from a complete failure to understand the claim and to check the facts, or the date on the information. In our efforts to make a political argument we often seize on a “fact” that we find and repeat it in a massive game of “Chinese Whispers” until it bears no resemblance to reality and is out of date anyway.

False claim about MP's groceries allowance

One such example is the idea that MPs routinely get £160 per week for groceries.It’s just not true. I have asked some MPS and they confirm that they do NOT get £160 per week for groceries. What is true is that MPs can claim for dinner if they are away from home late on parliamentary business or debating after 7:30pm in the House of Commons.

From the Parliamentary Standards Authority:

MPs can claim:

  • £25 per night for food and non-alcoholic drinks when travelling outside of the London Area and their constituency in pursuit of parliamentary functions
  • £15 per night for food and non-alcoholic drinks when the House of Commons sits beyond 7.30pm*

The typical amount that an MP might claim, in the rare circumstance of being away for five nights, is £125 for dinner out. If they have to eat out and aren’t living on kebabs while away then this is a likely cost. In normal circumstances they wouldn’t be claiming this at all. I’m not making any claim as to whether it is fair or not, just what the actual numbers are. (Also note that food in the Houses of Parliament is subsidised, a separate issue.)

The important point I want you all to take away from this is CHECK YOUR FACTS. If your claim is wrong, or even if it is nearly right, opponents will dismiss all your claims. I am guilty of this mistake too, but we should all try not to. Whether quoting benefit fraud rates or MPs expenses, find a trusted source and make sure you have the facts.

 

How to download from BBC iPlayer using get-iplayer for Linux

You can download BBC shows from iPlayer using software for Linux called get-iplayer. Because get-iplayer downloads the whole programme before watching there are no buffering problems. The files are also handy for producing clips from shows. get-iplayer is operated through typed commands but it’s not too difficult. Here’s how to install and use it on Ubuntu Linux.

Open “Terminal” from the main menu. You will get a window you can type in.

get-iplayer guide open terminal

Type: (Or copy and paste)

sudo apt-get install get-iplayer

Enter your password when prompted to allow the software to install.

get-iplayer guide install 1

Press enter at the next prompt to continue.

get-iplayer guide install 2

If all goes well then you should end up back at a command prompt like this.

get-iplayer guide installed

get-iplayer needs to download the list of programmes on iPlayer. Type:

get-iplayer --refresh

get-iplayer guide refresh

Then a list of programmes will be displayed.

get-iplayer guide programme list

The list is too long to view properly. There are two ways you can address this. To browse through the whole list, type the following.

get-iplayer | less

Then you can scroll up and down the list using Page Up and Page Down or the up and down arrows. Press q to get back to the command prompt.

Alternatively, you can search for what you want.

get-iplayer newsnight

Put quotes around the name if it has spaces in.

get-iplayer "daily politics"

Either way, the bit you need to know is the number on the left. That’s the number that you type to actually download the programme.

To download your chosen programme type this.

get-iplayer -g 610

Replace 610 with the number of your choice.

get-iplayer guide download 1

You’ll see some information about the video file and then a display of how much has been downloaded at the bottom.

get-iplayer guide download 2

After the download has finished the .flv file will be automatically converted to a .mp4 file.

get-iplayer guide downloaded

Open your home folder and double-click the file to watch it.

get-iplayer guide done