“No, we have not carried out a review […] you cannot make allegations about individual cases, in tragic cases where obviously things go badly wrong, you can’t suddenly say this is directly as a result of government policy”– Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 5 May 2015.
Back in July, the Information Commissioner’s Office opened an investigation into four of the UK’s largest charities, following allegations that their fundraisers contacted people registered with the government’s opt-out nuisance call database.
David Cameron led the calls for fundraising regulators to investigate whether a 92-year-old poppy-seller, found dead in Avon Gorge after committing suicide, had been under pressure from charities asking for donations.
A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office, the watchdog responsible for enforcing data protection laws, said: “We’re aware of allegations raised against several charities, and will be investigating whether there have been any breaches of the Data Protection Act or privacy and electronic communication regulations.”
It was the workers at a London call centre, fundraising on behalf of the charities, who were accused of calling, and being prepared to take money from, vulnerable people, including the elderly and those living with dementia, the Daily Mail reported.
Those with dementia and Alzheimer’s were allegedly being treated as legitimate targets – as long as they agree to the call and are able to answer a few basic questions over the phone.
Cameron said: “I know there is a code that is meant to protect people from feeling pressured by charities and I hope the Fundraising Standards Board will look at whether any more could have been done to prevent this.”
So, Mr Cameron didn’t hesitate to make a connection between a tragic suicide and the policy of “charities, who were accused of calling, and being prepared to take money from, vulnerable people.” As it happens, he drew the wrong inference from remarkably little empirical evidence. I say remarkably little, because in similar circumstances involving suicides and deaths in other social groups, David Cameron demands that people don’t make any inferences at all and from much more reliable evidence than he had to draw on in order to conclude that an investigation was warranted into the impact of charities’ fundraising requests.
This said, one tragic death really ought to trigger an inquiry into policy. That is the right thing to do.
The Stark Contrast.
In 2013, a disabled man committed suicide as a direct result of being found “fit to work” by the government’s work capability assessment. In a report to the Department of Work and Pensions, the coroner for Inner North London demanded that the Government department take action to prevent further deaths.
The coroner’s report on the death of Michael O’Sullivan warns of the risk of more such deaths. Michael, a 60-year-old father of two from north London, killed himself at his home after being moved from employment support onto jobseekers allowance, despite providing reports from three doctors, including his GP, that he was suffering from serious long-term depression and agoraphobia and had been certified as unable to work.
The coroner said that Michael’s anxiety and depression were long-term problems, but the intense anxiety that triggered his suicide was caused by his (then) recent assessment by the DWP as being fit for work.
Surprisingly, David Cameron did not lead any calls for an investigation into the policies that caused this tragic suicide, despite the coroner’s report and widely shared, well-documented, (and evidenced) concerns that the Department of Work and Pensions is placing sick and disabled people under enormous strain which is unacceptably harmful and distressing. The Conservative welfare reforms included an increase in benefit “conditionality” which involves punitive sanctions and rigid assessments that are not designed to provide support, but rather, to save money and remove people’s eligibility for lifeline social security benefit, causing them severe hardship, harm, and sometimes, causing their death.
In other words, the Department of Work and Pensions “are prepared to take money from vulnerable people.” This is the only income that people claiming benefits have to meet their basic survival needs.
Furthermore, Mr Cameron has persistently refused to carry out even basic monitoring of the impact of his government’s policies despite longstanding public concerns about the fact that they are causing sick and disabled people harm. This government have doggedly refused to release information regarding the mortality rates of people who face the negative impact of Conservative policies every day.
David Clapson, 59, was a former soldier and had type-one diabetes, he died in last year after he was sanctioned – his benefit was stopped as a punishment – because he missed an appointment at the jobcentre. The coroner reported that Mr Clapson had no food in his stomach, £3.44 in the bank and no money on his electricity meter card, leaving him unable to operate his fridge where he kept insulin, which has to be kept refrigerated. He died of diabetic ketoacidosis because he couldn’t take his insulin.
In addition to tragic cases like those of Michael and David that are reported in the media, there are many others raised in parliament by MPs and through the work of select committees, which are evidenced on the parliamentary Hansard record of course. Additionally, some of us also keep a record of the growing number of people who have died prematurely because of the welfare “reforms”.
Furthermore, the United Nations believe there is sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation into the impact of Tory policies, the UK has become the first developed country to be the subject of an inquiry into “grave and systematic” violations of the rights of disabled people. Wouldn’t you think that this would prompt some concern and scrutiny of policies and impacts from the Government? But it hasn’t.
The government persistently deny there is any correlation between suffering, hardship, an increase in suicide and deaths amongst disabled people and their punitive policies. Yet there is substantial evidence to demonstrate a very clear correlation, and certainly more than enough to warrant an inquiry into the harmful impact of the policies on sick and disabled people. After all, one unrelated death was sufficient to warrant an inquiry into the fundraising policy of charities.
Yet we are told by David Cameron that “it is quite wrong to suggest any causal link between the death of an individual and their benefit claim” when evidence strongly suggests such a link. An inquiry is the only way that the correlation could possibly be refuted, but the Government realise that a refutation is an unlikely outcome, hence their refusal to allow an inquiry in the first place.
Campaigners have fought to ensure that information about the harmful impact of government reforms was open to public scrutiny. The truth, however, still remains hidden beneath the excessively and purposeful bureaucratic management of this information and political denials of culpability. Mike Sivier, a fellow campaigner and writer at Vox Political, requested a tribunal after he made a Freedom of Information request for access to the information – and it was refused. Over the last three years, many of us submitted FOI requests for the same information and all were refused.
This is not an accountable, transparent or democratic Government. Let’s not forget the political fabrication of case studies of people “helped” by having their lifeline benefits stopped, presumably because they couldn’t find any real people who would attest to such absurd, ideologically driven, class contingent political acts of targeted cruelty. What real person would ever claim that starvation, being cold and facing destitution “helped” them in any way?
After suppressing information for years, the Department of Work and Pensions finally released data about the deaths of sick and disabled people, but the release was partial, and was not responsive to the detailed request made for detailed and specific information. In fact the data was presented in such an intentionally contextless and incomplete way that there wasn’t even scope for analytical cross comparisons to be made. The release was deliberately limited and impenetrable, as the department of Work and Pensions acknowledged when the report was published with this proviso:
“Any causal effect between benefits and mortality cannot be assumed from these statistics. Additionally, these isolated figures provide limited scope for analysis and nothing can be gained from this publication that would allow the reader to form any judgement as to the effects or impacts of the Work Capability Assessment.”
(From the Department of Work and Pensions report Mortality Statistics, 2015.)
I will leave you to draw your own inferences regarding the startling disparity and incoherence apparent in the two distinct government responses to suicides and deaths in two separate and differentially valued social groups – one that is politically marginalised, one that is not – and the government suppression of information regarding the impact of their targeted, draconian austerity policies.
All lives have equal worth. But I think it’s safe to say that we’re not “all in it together” as Cameron claimed. He believes that some lives are more important and some suicides are more worthy of investigation than others. It is very clear that this government does not care about the lives and welfare of sick and disabled people.
Call me cynical but I wonder which social group are more likely to vote Conservative?
Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone