Government filthy tricks subvert parliamentary process

Disability campaigners went to bed smiling last night after an apparent victory when the government suffered a huge defeat over key policies of the Welfare Reform Bill. Three amendments were passed that would change the new time limit on contribution-based ESA from one year to a minimum of two years, remove the limit altogether for cancer patients, and would ensure that disabled children with no chance to make national insurance contributions would still be able to receive ESA in their adult life.

But Lord Freud did not accept his crushing defeat so easily. Although the debate on the welfare reform bill finished earlier that day, it resumed again around 8.30pm and Freud introduced a vote on amendment 45a that would render the earlier amendments irrelevant.

Earlier in the day Lord Patel’s amendment 45 had removed clause 52 from the bill, which related to children with no national insurance contributions. Amendment 45A rendered amendment 45 useless by re-inserting the content of clause 52 and thus removing future ESA from disabled children. Since amendment 45 had been voted on and passed by the full house, it is against normal procedure to vote on an amendment that contradicts it. Lord McKenzie furiously tried  to oppose the amendment but many of those in opposition to the bill had gone home already and so the amendment was passed by 132 votes to 49. It is just speculation but I wonder if Conservative peers were briefed to stay behind. Of the amendment McKenzie said:

“This amendment was in the same group as the amendment on which the Government were defeated but runs contrary to the decision that the House made previously. The assumption is that this matter will not be pressed. Otherwise, the Government give us no alternative but to force a vote on it.”

After his first sneaky win Freud attempted to overturn his other two previous defeats however at this point peers were getting very angry with him. Baroness Hollis said:

“I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, does not wish to appear to be subverting the view of the entire House, which was expressed in the full knowledge that the amendment which we voted on was devised—I devised it—as a paving amendment to a substantive one, so that we could debate it in good time. Most of the population of the House has gone home, believing in good faith that the previous vote has established the principle—as it has. However, the noble Lord is trying to renege on that by forcing a vote despite the late-night keeping of the roster. That would be quite improper and quite unprecedented, and I strongly suggest that he think again.”

Lord Bassam said

“My Lords, this is somewhat unprecedented”

At this point it appears that Lord Freud backed down and did not attempt any further amendments.

This behaviour by Lord Freud and the government is astonishing. It cannot be interpreted in any way other than that the government tried to subvert the will of parliament. The language of Hollis and Bassam is important here. Their phrases “quite improper and quite unprecedented” and “somewhat unprecedented” are strong language when it comes to parliament and translate to something more like “what the hell are you doing”.

This morning Chris Grayling said to Radio 4 that the government will reverse the amendments to the bill when the welfare reform bill returns to the House of Commons. Grayling does not live in the real world on these matters. He talks about children inheriting money and still receiving benefits. This is confusing, since I think very few people outside of the circles that Chris Grayling moves in will inherit that much money, and in any case, this bill doesn’t take benefits away from children who inherit money, it takes it away from ALL of them. Current income related benefits already ask the question about savings and these benefits are not given to people with a few thousand in the bank. Baroness Meacher said on the same programme “The British public do not accept that banks screw up and very severely disabled people pay the bill.”

If anyone had previously thought that the government were simply misguided as to what their policy would do they should revise their opinion. This government is corrupt.


Thank you to Karen Sumpter for helping me get my insomnia-addled brain around all of this before noon.

Many thanks to Mason Dixon for uncovering all of this

Live discussion of Welfare reform bill [The Guardian]

Are welfare cuts ‘over the line’? – Radio 4 Today [Radio 4]

Welfare Reform Bill Amendments On Disabled People’s ESA Income Will Be Overturned, Pledges Chris Grayling [Huffington Post]

 

 

Responsible Reform report in simple terms

Clearly we haven’t explained the Responsible Reform report simply enough for busy journalists to take it in. Freedom of information requests were used to gain access to responses to the consultation on replacing disability living allowance with personal independence payments. The response showed that:

  • The government said that the responses support the reforms. They lied. The consultation showed that only 7% do.
  • The consultation did not meet the government’s code of practice. It was too short and it ended two days AFTER they wrote and presented the bill to parliament.
  • The government has consistently claimed a 30% rise in DLA claims. It is 13% and they admit they know this but still claim 30%

In short, this report says that the government broke the rules, LIED, are still lying, and we can prove it. They are lying to force through legislation that will affect millions of people, and could one day affect you. Anyone can become sick or disabled. We simply ask that the legislation is paused and given proper scrutiny.

Surely that has got to be worth a mention in the news?

If you still don’t get why this is important, here is Easy Read version of the report. [PDF]

 

Report on welfare reform shows overwhelming opposition to replacment of DLA

Today sees the release of a report on the welfare reform bill put together under the leadership of Sue Marsh and Kaliya Franklin and with support from sick and disabled people. A freedom of information request was used to obtain some five hundred responses made to the government consultation on Disability Living Allowance reform.

The vast majority of responses were against nearly all of the changes. While most people accept that some reform of Disability Living Allowance is necessary, there is widespread agreement that Personal Independence Payments are not it. Of the five hundred responses to the consultation, 74% were against the proposals for PIP, and 19% had reservations. Of particular note is that Boris Johnson submitted a response to the consultation, in which he slammed the proposed reforms and even questioned the motivation of the government.

“While some reform may be necessary and some proposals are positive in terms of simplifying the benefit and reducing bureaucracy, the Mayor is concerned that if the focus of this reform is solely efficiency driven government, may fail to ensure that the needs of disabled people are adequately met and many will suffer additional hardship and isolation.”- Boris Johnson

You can read his submission in full at Left Foot Forward.

None of this matters though, because not only was the consultation two weeks shorter than is usual, but it also took place over the Christmas break, eating into the time even more. And the bill was written and presented to parliament two days before this shorter consultation ended. Assessing the results of a consultation ought to take some time, and writing a bill based on the results would take even longer, so it is clear that this bill was written to fit Conservative party policy regardless of any evidence that the consultation presented.

This is not the only problem with the behaviour of the government. They have consistently claimed that there has been a 30% rise in claims for DLA, but  it is actually 13%. The government has even admitted that this figure is “distorted” but continues to claim 30% which is the figure that MPs and peers have been told and have used in Parliamentary debates. The government has failed to note that much of the 13% rise in claims for DLA is due to an increase in diagnosis of mental health problems and learning disabilities. This reflects improved health care rather than nefarious claims for DLA.

It is important to note that DLA is not an out of work benefit. DLA is paid to cover some of the extra costs incurred when living with an illness or disability, and is paid regardless of income. By covering those costs DLA allows independence and freedom to people which they would not otherwise have, and if taken from them would cause them to fall back on other health care and welfare services instead. Many people are able to work only because DLA provides them with the ability to travel or make expensive adaptions, and without DLA will be forced to claim other benefits instead. As such DLA actually saves money by preventing the need for much greater expenditure elsewhere.

It is clear that the proposed 20% cut to the budget for PIP over that of DLA is an idealogical one which is not supported by evidence but has been pushed by the government regardless of the facts. PIP would also introduce frequent testing, much like the work capability assessment used for Employment and Support Allowance. This testing is pointless in a great many cases where disability is permanent and may be degenerative, which given how hard it is to get DLA, is a lot of them. It seems that the purpose of introducing such tests is to pander to ignorant tabloid media and general public rather than common sense. In April last year Tory councillor Ollie Flitcroft, a wheelchair user, resigned in protest at these changes.

So please, help us put a stop to the welfare reform bill in its current form. Spread this report wherever you can. Post it to Facebook and Google Plus. Tweet it with the hashtag #spartacusreport. Send a copy to any politician that you can find, and to your local newspaper and TV station. Contact a peer in the House of Lords and tell them why they must oppose the Welfare Reform Bill, and tell your MP too. If there is enough of an uproar then maybe there is a chance that this bill can be halted.

Read the report in full: Responsible Reform – A Report on the proposed changes to Disability Living Allowance [Skydrive document]

Read about the problems: What’s Wrong with Personal Independence Payments? [WtB]

Disabled people listened to on welfare plans? It’s a goverernment sham [Sue Marsh writes in The Guardian]

Conservatives: Protecting the vulnerable?

When I contacted my Conservative MP a year ago to express my concern about government policy towards sick and disabled people, he told me that “I see something different, I see the vulnerable protected.”

I still can’t see that.

Conservatives,

Your ministers and special advisers constantly give incorrect information to the press and in speeches. You give misleading statistics to the press, and you leak it in advance to press that are sympathetic to conservative policies. That leads to headlines that seriously harm those reliant on benefits. Your language is itself harmful. You talk of benefit cheats, and scroungers, and the benefit lifestyle, and yet you ignore your own official statistics which show how tiny the levels of fraud really are. You ignore the massive damage done to the vast majority of claimants by your portrayal of those forced to rely on benefits and your constant references to deserving and undeserving; genuine and fake. Rhetoric from conservatives and the press has led to an increase in hate crimes such as stoning of people in wheelchairs and verbal abuse against those who need to use crutches or walking sticks. That has directly led to many disabled people being terrified of leaving the house.

You legislate on the assumption that with mobility aids, disabled people are on an equal footing with everyone else when moving around. They aren’t. Shops have steps in their doorways. Pavements lack dropped kerbs, leaving those who are on wheels or cannot manage a change in level to make extended detours. Cars and vans are routinely parked blocking ramps and dropped kerbs. Bus drivers refuse to lower their bus to allow wheelchair users on, or pretend not to see them. Trains and buses allow only one wheelchair on the whole vehicle. Those who need an electric wheelchair for use outdoors are denied one because they have no need to use one at home. Others wait months or even years to be supplied with one.

You continue the broken system of assessing people that was introduced by Labour. The concept of the Work Capability Assessment is broken in itself as the impact of most health problems cannot be assessed in 45 minutes by a health care professional who has no knowledge of the problems that the patient has. Atos continue to recommend that people go in the Work Related Activity Group and attend Work Focused Interviews at the Job Centre when they will be seriously harmed even by attending the Job Centre, IF they manage to do so, and never mind the fact that there are no available jobs that are suitable for them and competition for the unsuitable jobs is more than five to one and up against healthy people.

You are time-limiting contribution-based ESA with no regard for the actual length of time that a person will be sick for. The prospect of losing that income causes stress and seriously damages the mental and physical health of many of those people, leading to even longer recovery times.

You are introducing Personal Independence Payments to replace DLA, but apart from assessing people more often which is highly damaging to the health of those who are permanently sick or disabled, you are reducing the budget by 20%. The costs of being sick or disabled have NOT gone down by 20%!

Conservative cuts to council budgets have come directly out of budgets for personal care. People who can barely get out of bed have been left to shop and cook for themselves; others have been given incontinence pads and told to soil themselves rather than receive help to get to the toilet, and this despite having full control over their bowels but simply being unable to walk. Forcing people to lie in bed for hours in their own faeces and urine is now conservative policy.

You reassured me that the vulnerable would be protected. You were wrong. You are attacking the vulnerable. You are abandoning those in need. Your policies leave people more sick, more disabled, blamed for needing your help. You should be ashamed.

Welfare Reform Bill: Contact a Crossbench Lord

This guest post written by DarkestAngel and provided to me by Sue Marsh.

As you may be aware, the Welfare Reform Bill passed its second reading
in the House of Lords and has now moved onto committee stage.

Last Wednesday, Lords tabled a “highly unusual” motion to send the bill to
Grand Committee, which will take place in side rooms, rather than a fully accessible
public room. The motion was voted through, 263 votes to 211, and the bill will now
be sent to the Grand Committee.

The main difference between a Committee and a Grand Committee is that no
votes take place during a Grand Committee. Therefore, amendments will not
be voted on individually. There is also no public gallery and less room for all
peers to attend at once.

The reasons given for taking this step were that a bill of this complexity would
block up the chamber and delay other bills. Also, that too many people would
want to take part in the debate and it would take up too much time. However,
It now appears that the Main Chamber will actually be sitting empty during Grand
Committee

Several Lords have stated their objections to this:

“There is a great deal of consternation that is being expressed by disabled
people about this decision.
Noble Lords have received a number of e-mails. There is both a practical and
a symbolic significance to this decision. Disabled people feel that their democratic
right to observe the proceedings at the Committee stage is being severely curtailed
by any decision to take the whole of the Committee stage off the Floor of the House.
I think it is wrong . As well as this, we are now starting a week earlier than
previously announced – when some Lord’s may still be on holiday – this is because
the recess dates were changed late in the day. I’m concerned also about my
fellow peers who are wheelchair users. Apparently we may be meeting in a
committee room upstairs, which is larger than the Moses Room, though
still far from ideal. It had already been accepted on this side that some of the
Committee stage should be taken in Grand Committee, but there are clauses
in the Bill that are highly controversial. It is not just about experts coming in;
it is about people who feel that their lives or livelihoods are at stake. “

Baroness Lister

“I am very concerned that we are debating a bill that has many aspects which
are yet to be finalised. This is a most unsatisfactory situation which many
people have expressed concern about. Yesterday matters were made worse
by the Coalition Government insisting that the bill is discussed in Grand
Committee and not in the Chamber of the House of Lords. It will make
scrutiny more difficult and cause real problems for members of the public
who want to come and observe proceedings.”

Lord Kennedy

“I am seriously concerned about the ability of all noble Lords to participate
in the proceedings on this Bill. The noble Baroness has rightly drawn attention
to the shortcomings of the Moses Room. Those shortcomings are just as
apparent on the Committee Corridor. Several colleagues have told me in
clear terms that the rooms upstairs are not much better and that a lot of
furniture will need to be moved to facilitate those who have difficulty with
mobility and to enable lobby groups and those who are interested in the Bill
to participate and observe proceedings.”

Lord Bassam, Opposition Chief Whip

Some also stated their approval:

“I would prefer that every bill were considered in Grand Committee. It avoids
votes at an early stage of examining the bill, the atmosphere is more intimate
and business-like and we can spend more time on the detail. It feels to me
like a more normal less stilted way of discussing an issue. The Education Bill
was on its 10th day in committee yesterday for example whereas in the Chamber
it would be rushed through more quickly. There is room to spread out one’s
papers on a table in front of the speaker, the Minister has his support team
of bill experts immediately behind him to consult and because it is not televised
there is usually precious little grand-standing and posturing. It is easier to
interrupt to question without it seeming rude. A technical bill like the Welfare
Reform Bill in particular is best examined outside the Chamber. Then it
returns to the Chamber for the important Report Stage when the
important votes are taken.”

Baroness Murphy

We have three main concerns regarding this development:

• Firstly, access is poor. We are concerned that wheelchair users in particular
will be affected by this, not to mention members of the public who wish to attend.

• Secondly, we are still unsure if live streaming will be available allowing
campaigners like us and the general public to follow debates and scrutinise
them properly and democratically.

• Thirdly, amendments will not be voted upon in Grand Committee, all
amendments must be agreed upon unanimously. Just one objection can
prevent any attempt to fix the faults of this bill.

We would like to urge you all to contact crossbenchers in the House of
Lords (details below) to express your own concerns over this development.
We suggest asking for live streaming so that we can at least see events as
they happen, not 3 hours later and, of course, raising your objections to
the bill so that the Lords understand how it will, as it currently stands, affect so many of us.

We made a difference last time. We can make a difference this time.

Contact details for crossbench peers in the House of Lords

Continue reading “Welfare Reform Bill: Contact a Crossbench Lord”

Atos: Why are we campaigning?

The Stream – a programme on Al Jazeera English – are covering the protests against Atos in their show this evening at 19:30 GMT. They asked me what I thought should be included.

[blackbirdpie id=”108923075919216640″]

These are the key points that I think are the problem.

  1. That Atos staff and Lima system do not adequately assess whether patients fit the descriptors as set by government, instead asking their own questions to fit their tick boxes then trying to make the answers fit the legislation set out by government. (Found at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2011/228/made)
  2. That Atos as a private contractor is not accountable in the same was as gov, e.g. FOI requests
  3. That the whole concept of assessing patients as fit for work or not is flawed, this cannot be tested in a 45 minute session as Atos does not draw on medical history, variation from day to day, etc.
  4. Atos judge a person’s ability to walk, stand, concentrate, communicate etc on what they look like in one 45 minute session which can be very different from other times.
  5. In making the decision Atos ignore impact of work on state of health and they don’t account for the health impact of doing many things in sequence to work, just ability to do any one of those things in isolation!
  6. Asking trick questions to catch people out.
  7. Having “Medical Centres” that are not fully accessible, including centres with no lifts, no disabled car parking bays, or sometimes no parking at all, and unsuitable chairs in their waiting rooms.
  8. Frequently keeping patients waiting hours for their appointment, and observing them in the waiting room for behaviour that might mark them as liars.
  9. Having assessments carried out by staff other than fully qualified doctors.

I would particularly like to know why Atos do not ask the questions as set out by legislation, instead asking their own random questions, including trick questions to catch people out. For example, “Do you watch Eastenders?” if answered with yes is taken as proof of ability to set in one place for an hour, and to concentrate fully. “Do you have any pets?” is used to determine that the patient is capable of feeding, cleaning and caring for the pet and therefore themselves. “How did you get here?” is another trick, since it can be taken as proof of being fully able to use public transport, when in fact the journey might have caused considerable deterioration in health for the patient but was undertaken out of fear of losing benefits.

This list is just what I can think of in a few minutes, I am sure there are other problems too.

 

Godwin’s law must die

On the internet we have a rule. It is called Godwin’s law. Godwin’s law states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 (100%).”

In the 21 years since Godwin first made this observation, it has been quoted whenever anyone has mentioned Nazis, as a way of saying “You have mentioned Nazis, therefore your argument is ridiculous, therefore you have lost the debate.”

The use of Godwin’s law to end and win an argument by default has been helpful in keeping arguments from straying into ridiculous comparisons but it also brings a risk; the danger that when a comparable situation does arise, it will be ignored because the comparison cannot be made in argument. Godwin’s law has power because of the idea that nothing as bad as the Nazis and the holocaust will ever happen again because we have learnt from what happened in the past. I think that this assumption is foolish and dangerous. Of course such atrocities will happen again. Throughout history we have had bloodthirsty power-hungry leaders of pure evil, over and over again. Pol Pot, Pinochet, Mao, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and many other leaders have killed thousands, even millions each. Genocides are an relatively frequent occurrence. Groups have been singled out and slaughtered for many different reasons over the centuries, and others will be in the future.

My point here is important so I will state it again. Atrocities of this sort are not rare, have happened and will happen again, and to ridicule anyone making a comparison with the Nazis is to dismiss warnings in a very dangerous way.

Godwin’s law and disability rights

I and many other disability rights activists abandoned Godwin’s law some time ago. I believe that sick and disabled people in the UK are under attack and are the subject of a government and media smear campaign with the aim of turning public opinion against them. Although the Nazis ran a eugenics programme to eradicate all incurably sick and mentally ill people, (Called Action T4) the comparison that I am drawing is mostly with the propaganda element of that programme and the attitude behind it.

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda
English translation: 60000 RM - this is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the Community of Germans during his lifetime. Fellow Citizen, that is your money, too.

The poster seen here speaks of the cost of caring for the disabled person depicted, the same message that is echoed in the cries of “this is taxpayer’s money” that we hear from indignant right-wing tabloid papers today. Papers like the Daily Mail and the Express routinely publish every “benefit cheat” story that they can find, with big front page splashes about people with houses and multiple cars. Headlines claim that just 1 in 14 are unfit for workWe even have “Saints and scroungers” from the BBC spreading the hate. Otherwise nice people are being convinced that there are legions of benefit cheats faking their inability to walk or the horrendous pain that makes every activity torture. (Apart from me. For some reason they never mean me.) All of these politicians and journalists seem to be adept at twisting the facts and lying through omission just for the public outrage that they feed on. They also ignore the realities of illness, of having good days and bad days, of choosing to push through pain to have a good day out, or just to pretend to your family that you are having a good day out so as to keep them happy. As Sue Marsh said, by their standards, we are all benefit cheats now.

Black Triangle Campaign recently received an email referring to comments on their forum making comparisons with the past as “dangerous and extreme”. The email said: “I am not interested in extreme, left wing politics. I am trying to bring attention to government funded medical tyranny, copied from America, and such extreme comments are a distraction from what’s happening at government level. (…) you are playing a very, very, VERY dangerous game with desperate peoples’ lives by posting such extreme comments relating to past war time atrocities that belongs in the past. I DO understand why people feel like this but there are many, many very frail people out there and this will cause harm.

I disagree with the author of that email. I’ve talked before about how government ministers are spreading these stories and lying about the facts and how party special advisors are feeding the media frenzy in a previous blog post. No one here is suggesting that anyone be killed, but our government is focussed on ruthlessly cutting benefit costs along with healthcare and services, all while smiling and announcing that “the most vulnerable will be protected.” Well the most vulnerable are having their benefits cut, being told to shit themselves rather than receiving help to get to the toilet, being told to find jobs when they can barely leave the house, losing their homes, and committing suicide. Many of those that aren’t in that situation expect to be soon and many have talked of suicide. The policies of this government and the relentless abuse coming from newspapers have people living in fear – if what they fear hasn’t already come to pass. In Nazi Germany the killing of sick and disabled people was at first kept well hidden away from any chance of public opposition. What plans are our politicians hiding from us? Is it their intention to force all sick and disabled people out on the streets where they will helpfully freeze to death? Quite honestly, I think that they don’t even care as long as it’s not their problem. I think it is completely fair to compare this demonisation of the sick and disabled to the start of the Nazi attack on the same.

References

Daily Mail: Callous judges have sentenced Elaine to life without dignity (Daily Mail link. Yes, I was surprised too.)

DPAC: Elaine McDonald case: Court puts prisoners before the disabled

Purple noise: The beginning of the end (Warning, discusses suicide.)

Guardian: Jobcentre staff ‘sent guidelines on how to deal with claimants’ suicide threats’

 

 

 

Twisting the facts, printing lies. How the DWP and tabloids are wrong about fit for work stats

 

Headlines claim that just 1 in 14 are unfit for work. Photo by @opinion8ed_dyke

The headlines today are screaming that a mere 7% of ESA claimants aren’t fit for work. The Daily Mail says that “Benefits Britain marches on: Just one in 14 disability handout applicants are too ill to work” while the BBC claim “Tests claim few benefit claimants unfit to work” These figures are grossly misleading. These actually come from a Department of Work and Pensions press release, 26 July 2011 – Work Programme provides tailored support as latest figures show people are being found fit for work. Those news stories haven’t actually mislead about the contents of the press release too much, the propaganda comes from the DWP. The Express, on the other hand, has gone for “Sick benefits: 75% are faking” which is just an outright lie.

Lets start with the figures from the DWP.

For all new ESA claims from 27th October 2008 to 30th November 2010, the result of the initial WCA is as follows

  • Support Group – 7%
  • Work Related Activity Group – 17%
  • Fit for Work – 39%
  • Claim closed before assessment complete – 36%
  • Assessment still in progress – 1%

These figures are true, but lie by omission. First of all, the figures given are for ALL that start a claim for ESA. As stated, 36% of people that start a claim drop out before they even get to their Work Capability Assessment. Some of these people will drop out because they perhaps shouldn’t have applied in the first place. Some might even have been trying it on and then realised that they would be caught. Some recover enough to find work, some find work that fits around their disabilities. Some, however, drop out because they are so ill that they cannot face the application and testing process. We don’t know, as no records are kept of reasons for dropping out, but I contend that many more than we know drop out because they are too ill to finish the process. Given that 36% of claimants are not tested, we cannot include them in the ‘fit for work’ category. That 7% of claimants is actually 11% of claimants who complete the process.

11% is still a very small number. That still casts 89% of claimants as cheats, doesn’t it? Well no. No it doesn’t. Not unless you are a tabloid writer. You see, 17% of total claimantss – or 26.6% of claimants that finish the process – are put in the Work Related Activity Group. Being put in this group DOES NOT mean that the claimant is fit for work! It means that there may be some job, as yet unknown, that the claimant could possibly manage to do, if they push themselves hard enough,possibly at high cost to their health, IF they receive the right support in terms of information, equipment, services and grants. People in this group must attend six interviews at the Job Centre over the course of a few months to try and determine just what this possible job could be, and the support that would be needed to do it. People in this group STILL RECEIVE ESA.

Adding those two together and leaving out the people that dropped out, that means that 37.5% of people tested were not fit for work. That still leaves 61% that were receiving ESA who were found fit for work. Are they all cheats? No. Here’s why.

The Work Capability Assessment takes place at the end of the assessment phase of the claim. That means the test can take place up to 14 weeks after the person started to claim ESA. 14 weeks is a long time, and it should also be noted that people are often sick for a long time before they even apply for ESA, either on Statutory Sick Pay for 28 weeks, or just unaware that they can claim. Those people could easily have been sick for 9 months before being tested. 9 months is long enough for people to recover or start recovering from many health issues, and so these people would have been correctly being given ESA while unable to work. Health issues change, and finding these people fit for work now would be correct, but does not invalidate their claim in the previous months. I think if the WCA correctly finds someone capable of work after many months of illness but heading towards recovery, this is usually a good thing.

Assuming that changes in health conditions account for a chunk of that 61%, let’s say a third, that still leaves the rest. Here’s the thing. The accuracy of the testing process has been found to be wrong, broken, inadequate, however you want to put it, by MPs, a house of commons select committee, many disability rights charities, and many many individuals and activists. Even a person involved in designing the test has said that it is not fit for purpose.

33% of people found fit for work between October 2008 and August 2009 appealed against that decision. 40% of those overturned that decision and were awarded ESA. That’s 27,500 people who were provably found fit for work when they were not. Many more people did not appeal, for many of the same reasons that may have caused people to drop out of the claims process.

Today the Commons Select Committee on the Migration from Incapacity Benefits to Employment Support Allowance released its 6th Report – The Role Of Incapacity Benefit Reassessment In Helping Claimants Into Employment. Among other things, that report criticised media coverage and stated that government had a duty to take more care when engaging with media.

5.  Sections of the media routinely use pejorative language, such as “work-shy” or “scrounger”, when referring to incapacity benefit claimants. We strongly deprecate this and believe that it is irresponsible and inaccurate. The duty on the state to provide adequate support through the benefits system for people who are unable to work because of a serious health condition or illness is a fundamental principle of British society. Portraying the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants as some sort of scheme to “weed out benefit cheats” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Government’s objectives. (Paragraph 40)

6.  Whilst fully accepting that the Government, and this Committee, have no role in determining the nature and content of media coverage, we believe that more care is needed in the way the Government engages with the media and in particular the way in which it releases and provides its commentary on official statistics on the IB reassessment. In the end, the media will choose its own angle, but the Government should take great care with the language it itself uses and take all possible steps to ensure that context is provided when information about IB claimants found fit for work is released, so that unhelpful and inaccurate stories can be shown to have no basis. (Paragraph 41)

I disagree with part of this in that I think that consciously or not, Conservative ministers have an ideological motive to move people off of benefits, portraying them as cheats if necessary, with the help of special advisors. (SPADS.) I believe that ministers and SPADS have been feeding selected information to the press to create a national view that is biased against sick and disabled people that claim benefits, and the press have been only too happy to amplify this.

Related Links

Why won’t ATOS let us record our Work Capability Assessments?

As you will know if you have read my recent blog post “What’s wrong with ATOS“, there is often a large disparity between what is said during a Work Capability Assessment and what ATOS actually reports to the department of work and pensions. The reports take no account of context in answers (“I can do x IF…”) and often fail to note that an action or activity may be possible for a patient, but will have consequences for their health and may not be repeatable. As a result claims are often appealed and ultimately referred to a tribunal.

At that tribunal the patient must demonstrate that the ATOS report is not true for the above reasons.  It is permitted for the patient to be accompanied by a friend to witness the assessment, but an audio recording would be the ideal proof. Unfortunately ATOS have made it nearly impossible for anyone to record their assessment.

Many people have attempted to record their assessment using mobile phones, digital sound recorders or dictaphones. Nearly every time ATOS have halted the assessment and refused to continue while being recorded. On some occasions the patient has relented and stopped recording, on others they have been asked to leave and their report has stated that they did not attend their assessment, resulting in their benefit being stopped.

In a response to a Freedom of Information request made at the end of 2010 the Department of Work and Pensions provided the official guidelines to ATOS staff regarding recording of assessments. The most important parts are quoted here.

“Such a request can only be agreed with the prior consent of the HCP, and then only if stringent safeguards are in place to ensure that the recording is complete, accurate and that the facility is available for simultaneous copies to be made available to all parties present. The recording must be made by a professional operator, on equipment of a high standard, properly calibrated by a qualified engineer immediately prior to the recording being made. The equipment must have facility for reproduction so that all parties can retain a copy of the tape. The responsibility for meeting the cost of the above requirement rests with the claimant”

“It is for Atos Healthcare, in conjunction with their legal advisers, to determine the action to be taken in the event of a claimant making an audio or video recording without the prior knowledge and consent of the HCP, or without ensuring that the safeguards defined above are in place”

“If you suspect a customer of trying to film or record an assessment the following action should be taken

Advise the customer that such action is not permitted, explain why not, and ask them to switch the device off. If the customer refuses to comply:

  • The assessment should be suspended
  • Inform your site manager and/or medical manager immediately”

From this it is clear that recording by the patient will not be permitted, will result in the assessment being stopped and might result in legal action by ATOS. What is strange is the circumstances in which they will allow recording. It must be

  • Recorded by a professional operator
  • on professional equipment
  • immediately duplicated in front of ATOS staff
  • paid for by the patient

This is obviously impractical to arrange and priced far out of reach of the patient,  who is receiving Employment and Support Allowance to live on, at approx £60 – £100 per week.

In a court case in June 2008 a judge ruled on a patient who had been denied benefit and lost his appeal after ATOS reported that he did not attend because he attempted to record his assessment.   The judge ruled that he should be allowed to start his assessment process all over again, because he had not been advised that he could arrange for recording of the assessment in stricter circumstances. What is interesting is the other comments by the judge in his findings.

45. The appellant makes a number of good points in this context. He draws attention to the considerable (and probably prohibitive) cost that would be involved for an individual living on benefits in meeting the Department’s restrictive criteria. He rightly points out that those conditions (which include the presence of a qualified engineer) are actually stricter than those in place for police interviews with suspects. He might also have added that the Department’s own protocols for interviewing claimants under caution in the course of benefit fraud investigations do not require the presence of a qualified engineer (although dual-tape machines and sealed tapes are used).

Let me repeat that: ATOS’ requirements are stricter than those for police interviews, and stricter than their own interviews for benefit fraud applications.

So, we get to the really important question. Why do ATOS make it so difficult to record assessments?

There is one relatively good reason. They are worried that a single recording taken by the patient could be digitally altered and then presented before a tribunal as proof. They wish to counter this by having a duplicate recording in their own possession. This does seem a reasonable request, but their chosen methods are over the top and unnecessary.

ATOS also state that “Medical Services view unauthorised and secret recording to be an invasion of privacy.” Now, if this were a private conversation between two friends, that might be the case. But this is not. This is an assessment carried out on behalf of the government and with life-changing consequences for the patient.  It often starts a process which ends up in the legal system. In these circumstances, it is wrong to claim that recording is an invasion of privacy. In an assessment as grave and important as this, are they really saying that the assessor is going to say something which should not be reported, and that he won’t do so when officially being recorded? Because to me, that suggests that they think their staff might be unprofessional in their behaviour.

I think ATOS is clearly wrong to obstruct recording of Work Capability Assessments. At best, this is an uncaring attitude which shows lack of respect for the patient or of any concern over the outcome of their benefit claim. At worst, this is wilful obstruction of justice and a prevention of a proper outcome at a tribunal. There is a simple solution to this. ATOS should allow every patient to record their interview in any way that they wish to, openly so that their staff need have no concerns about privacy. If they are worried about a recording being altered to be used against them, then they should also record every interview themselves. They need not go to the expense of dual recording equipment if they allow patients to make their own recording.

Of course, they won’t do this. ATOS must be fully aware of the failure rate of their assessments and the large number of successful appeals against them. They know that if a large number of recordings were to be made, they would be shown up by the vast contradiction between what is said and what is recorded. They would be shown to be either incompetent or to have an agenda against benefit claimants.

Response to the attack on DLA in today’s papers

Several papers have run with a story today about Disability Living Allowance, the numbers of people receiving it and what they receive it for. Unfortunately that coverage has been highly negative and has largely complained about the increase in people claiming DLA (from 2.2 million to 3.2 million – The Telegraph) and about DLA being paid out for back pain, addiction, and mental health problems. Interestingly, the papers all cite “new figures” but give no indication of where they came from. As far as I can tell there has been no new press release from the DWP on this subject.

First of all I want to address the rise in claimants. There are many reasons for this, but the claims process has definitely not got easier. A large part of the reason is simply more awareness of eligibility for the benefit. In the early days of DLA far less people knew that they could claim it. Another reason for the increase is that medical science has advanced, and we are now able to diagnose and name many more health conditions than before. Once these problems have been recognised, people are more likely to apply for help in dealing with them.

The statements made in The Sun, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail and particularly in the Daily Express appear to be highly misleading. Here are some of the statements made from the Daily Express.

“Between May 2000 and May 2010 the overall number of people being paid Disability Living Allowance soared from­ ­2.1million to 3.1million.”

All of these people have had to go through the existing highly rigourous and extremely difficult application process, including a 50 page form, letters from doctors and specialists, and an examination by a doctor on behalf of the DWP. No one without a crippling disability or illness would have received DLA, and in fact many more that could claim have not done so through lack of awareness or through fear of the process.

“The benefit is designed to help disabled people who cannot walk, have difficulty walking or need help getting around.”

This is true, but not the whole truth. DLA has two components, mobility and care. It pays for wheelchairs, scooters and cars, walking sticks, taxi costs for those that cannot drive, and also pays for the expense of getting someone to care, lost income, pays for more food that a disabled person can actually access, e.g. pre-prepared meals or ready peeled and chopped vegetables.

“Yet, astonishingly, the number of people claiming DLA for back pain shot up by more than 80 per cent during the decade.”

There are several problems with this one. First of all, DWP doctors often write “Back pain” as a simple summary for much more complex problems. One person that I spoke to was claiming for Hypermobility type EDS, Dural Ecstasia, rib impingement and nerve damage in hips affecting legs. This means she suffers frequent dislocations, has blinding headaches, can’t move her legs properly, severe pain in hips and… has mild back-ache. The doctor wrote down “Back pain.”

Secondly, many problems with the back seriously affect ability to walk. Crumbling spine, missing vertebrae, fused vertebrae, damaged discs and  trapped sciatic nerves can all prevent a person from walking or make walking intensely painful.

“Furthermore, there was a 250 per cent increase in those getting the benefit for drug and alcohol abuse.”

That favourite of the tabloid newspapers, drugs and alcohol. In many of these cases, drugs and alcohol is a secondary problem and addiction or use of them is a result of a primary health problem. Where NHS medicine is inadequate to treat pain, desperate people may turn to cannabis or drink.  Some of these cases, therefore, might well be misreported as addiction rather than the original problem, or addiction might have become a bigger problem than the original health conditions. I believe it is unfair to look down on these cases as undeserving of help. Someone also commented “I volunteer at a charity, most of whose clients are poly-addicted. Many of them *do* get DLA, but not for the /addiction/ but for, inter alia, collapsed veins, Hep C, HIV, renal failure etc.  Most of them either use street drugs or have a methadone regime, which is meant to wean them off heroin. Alcohol is used either as a replacement when heroin is too expensive/crap quality or because they are street drinkers: the street drinkers along with heroin addicts, are often given diagnoses of severe chronic depression.”

“There was also a 200 per cent rise in the number of people claiming for allergies over the same period.”

There has been a massive increase in allergies full stop. Is it so surprising that people need help with them? We are not given any indication of the actual numbers claiming for allergies, but I suspect the numbers of people so severely affected as to have care needs or mobility problems is low. For example, 1,000 people increasing to 3,000 people would be a 200% increase, but would still only represent a tiny part of the cost of DLA.

“Figures unveiled by the Daily Express earlier this year showed that 19,400 alcoholics and drug addicts claim the mobility component of DLA, which is meant for the severely physically disabled. It also goes to 30,900 people with asthma and 128,300 with back pain.”

I am astonished at the inability of the writer to make the connection between these conditions and severe disability. Drugs and alcohol is given as the primary reason for the claim, but there could be one or many more other health problems that are not reported in the summary, and there could be severe disability as a result of drugs and alcohol. There is also a serious mistake or an outright lie here; DLA is also NOT just for the physically disabled, it covers mental health conditions too if those conditions cause care or mobility needs.

“The handout is paid at different rates depending on how the disability affects the claimant. Many get the higher rate of £51.40 a week, which is meant to be paid to those who have the most severe difficulties walking.”

This is loaded emotive language that implies that higher rate claimants should not be eligible, but gives no reason for this implication.

“Under strict new rules, claimants will get a face-to-face assessment to ensure the benefit goes to the people with the greatest need.”

As face to face assessment already happens as part of the application, it is nothing new. Claiming DLA is already incredibly difficult, as I said at the start of this article. The DWP already sends doctors to assess those who are claiming. The new PIP benefits include a test administered by ATOS Origin instead of a doctor sent by the DWP to people’s homes. (The test is seriously flawed, but that is another article.)

“Disability Living Allowance will be replaced by the Personal Independence Payment. It will remain a non-means tested, non-taxable cash benefit paid to disabled people whether they are in or out of work.”

I am glad that they mentioned that DLA is not an out-of-work benefit. DLA is paid to people whether they are working or not. In both cases, there are extra costs incurred through disability, and DLA pays for these. In many cases, DLA allows the recipient to arrange care and transport for themselves, thus saving the local government from having to provide for these needs. DLA also provides support that allows people to work. In many cases, the loss of DLA would mean dropping out of paid employment, new requirements for care provision paid for by the local authorities, or both.

“A source close to the reforms said: “There has been a huge increase in cash payouts for things like back pain over the past decade and too often people are left on benefits without further contact with the department. We are going to bring in a new assessment and ­regular checks to make sure support is getting to those who need it.”

I am worried by this “source close to the reforms.” We are not told where this information has come from, and yet it has appeared in several newspapers at the same time. I have been unable to find a press release that correlates to this information, and therefore I must assume that the figures have been leaked to chosen newspapers with a particular political agenda in mind.

Finally, I should also point out that there are indeed people who are left on DLA without further checks. These are people with missing body parts, permanent deformities, degenerative diseases, and worse. They are NEVER going to get better. They will probably get worse. What point is there in dragging these people through more assessments which will often damage their health further and cause severe stress and worry?

 

Original Stories

The Daily Express: Anger as disability benefit claimants soar by one million

The Sun: Allergic to work

The Telegraph: Numbers paid benefits after claiming to be hyperactive rockets

Daily Mail: Drink and drug addicts on disability benefits soars by 250% in a decade to almost 23,000

Related blog posts

My dad, working through the pain

The benefit claims ordeal

Invisible illness, invisible benefits

Diary of a benefit scrounger: ESA assessments pushing mentally ill to suicide.

Existing on benefits

People on benefits? They’re all scroungers aren’t they?

Compare and contrast