Category: Conscious cruelty

Sarah Newton lied to parliament and the public about the DWP’s standardised letter to GPs following ‘fit for work’ assessment

newton

Sarah Newton, former minister of state for disabled people. However, it’s very evident that neither she nor her party actually support disabled people. They prefer oppressing them.

Last month and previously, I reported about the controversial issues raised by the Department for Work and Pensions’ standard ESA65B GP’s letter template, which was only relatively recently placed on the government site, following a series of probing Parliamentary Written Questions instigated by Emma Dent Coad, addressed to the minister of state for disabled people. Her responses to the questions were repetitive, vague, unevidenced and did not address the questions raised. 

Campaigners and MPs have called for the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) amended letter to GPs to be scrapped after it emerged that ill and disabled people appealing against unfair work capability assessment (WCA) decisions were left in near destitution after their GPs refused to provide further ‘fit notes’, because they were instructed that they did not need to by DWP officials.

It emerged that ministers ordered changes to the standard-issue letter to remove references that made it clear to GPs they may have to issue a medical statement if their patient wished to appeal against a WCA decision. The DWP claims this was not intended to dissuade GPs from issuing fit notes. 

However, it’s highly unlikely that government ministers ordered the amendment to the letter for another purpose, as there are none. This was a calculated strategy to deter people from appealing DWP decisions, by leaving them in severe financial hardship.

The mandatory review was also introduced for similar reasons, since people are left without any income while the DWP reviews its decision, a process which can take longer than six weeks.  

Those people who challenge WCA decisions are entitled to continue to receive employment and support allowance (ESA) at basic rate, worth £73.10 a week while they await their appeal hearing, but to do so they must obtain fit notes from their GPs to provide evidence that they are too ill to work.

They must also first await the outcome of a mandatory review before submitting their appeal. Before a claimant may lodge an appeal, they must first ask the DWP to ‘reconsider’ their original decision. There is no limit on how long the DWP may take to reconsider the original decision about their award. 

The DWP has a stated target of upholding 80% of their original decisions, so the majority of people then have to appeal following the review outcome, since the . The law says that the claimant may claim basic rate ESA following mandatory review if they wish to proceed with an appeal.

So the misleading change to the template letter routinely sent from the DWP to GPs has led to people who have lodged an appeal against an unfair decision being stopped from claiming basic rate ESA while awaiting the appeal hearing. This prevents many low-income disabled people from accessing any financial support while they wait for months on end to go to tribunal. Furthermore, we know that catastrophically inaccurate decisions following the assessments within the DWP are pretty much the norm. Nationally, 72% of people who appeal against their work capability assessment decision are successful.

Entitlement to ESA pending appeal is enshrined in the ESA Regulations to cover the whole of the period leading up the hearing. It is also possible to have the payment backdated to cover the Mandatory Review waiting period too – it can take over six weeks for the DWP to review their original decision, over which time people are left without welfare support.

ESA pending appeal is not paid automatically – people usually have to ask for it, and must provide fit notes from their GP, presenting these along with their appeal acknowledgment letter from the Tribunal Courts to their local Job Centre. The Job Centre should report back to the DWP who will arrange for ESA pending appeal to be paid.

From last year, then minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, responded to one of several Written Questions from Emma Dent Coad, saying: “The ESA65B letter is issued to GPs in every case where an Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimant has been found ‘fit for work’. This process was built into the IT system as part of the introduction of ESA in October 2008.

That is partly untrue, since the original wording has been amended. 

Newton went on to say: “Following a Ministerial requirement by the Cabinet Secretary, which was endorsed by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the content of the ESA65B letter has been improved in order to explain to GPs the type of support customers can expect to receive from their local Jobcentre, and to ask GPs to encourage customers in their efforts to return to work.” [My emphasis]. 

The decision to change the letter template was made without any scrutiny from or consultation with parliament or the public.

The standard template letter, titled Help us support your patient to return to or start work says: “We assessed [Title] [First name] [Surname] on and decided that [select] is capable of doing some work, but this might not be the same type of work [select] may have done before.

“We know most people are better off in work, so we are encouraging [Title] [First name] [Surname] to find out what type of work [select] may be able to do with [select] health condition or disability through focused support at [select] local Jobcentre Plus.

“In the course of any further consultations with [Title] [First name] [Surname] we hope you will also encourage [select] in [select] efforts to return to, or start, work

“Please do not give [Title] [First name] [Surname] any more fit notes relating to [select] disability/health condition for ESA purposes.

Newton responded to one of several Written Questions from Emma Dent Coad, saying: “The ESA65B letter is issued to GPs in every case where an ESA claimant has been found ‘fit for work’. This process was built into the IT system as part of the introduction of ESA in October 2008. 

“Following a Ministerial requirement by the Cabinet Secretary, which was endorsed by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the content of the ESA65B letter has been improved in order to explain to GPs the type of support customers can expect to receive from their local Jobcentre, and to ask GPs to encourage customers in their efforts to return to work.” [My emphasis]. 

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), said the lack of clarity over when GPs should issue fit notes could put patients’ finances and health at risk. “No GP wants that, and it only serves to threaten the long-standing trust that patients have in their family doctor.”

Until 2017 the standard letter advised GPs that if their patient appealed against the WCA decision they must continue to provide fit notes.

However, on (undisclosed) ministerial orders, the letter now states that GPs “do not need to provide any more fit notes for ESA purposes”. It does not mention the possibility that the patient may appeal, or that a fit note is needed for the patient to obtain ESA payments until the appeal is heard.

Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, also raised the issue with Newton back in January. Newton replied that the wording was amended “to make the letter simpler and clearer”, adding that DWP communications were intended to be “clear, understandable and fit for purpose”.

The purpose appears to be to deter people from appealing unfair DWP decisions concerning the loss of their social security disability award.

Field replied that the wording was “not having the desired effect”, and urged her to revise it to make clear ESA claimants on appeal were entitled to fit notes. “This simple step could greatly ease the stress and worry that people who are awaiting an appeal experience.”

Newton told Field: “We are committed to ensuring our communication is clear, which is why the wording of this letter was cleared by both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP). However, we will of course consider feedback when revising the letter.”  Newton tends to stick to a script in her responses, though. She told Emma Coad Dent exactly the same thing, almost word for word last year, in her response to a Written Question.

As I commented in a previous article, it was extremely unclear on what basis the RCGP agreed to the new wording as the change was agreed at a DWP stakeholder meeting for which, according to Newton, there are no formal minutes.

Newton confirmed this in the correspondence between herself and Field, as well as in her responses to Emma Coad Dent’s long series of Written Questions on this issue.

Firstly, on 16 May, last year, Newton says: “The Cabinet Secretary first issued the requirement to revise the ESA65B letter in November 2014.

“The wording of the ESA65B was changed to emphasise the benefits of work and to ask GPs to encourage their patients in their efforts to return to some form of work.”

Then, according to Newton: “The British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners agreed to the revised wording of the ESA65B on 4 August 2016.” 

However, in June last year, she also said, in response to a Written Question from Emma Dent Coad: “DWP’s Legal Service cleared the revised wording on 29 July 2016 and the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions subsequently authorised the changes.”

Yet when asked in November last year what written evidence her Department holds on the British Medical Association and Royal College of General Practitioners agreement to the revised wording of the ESA65B letters sent to claimants’ GPs when they fail the work capability assessment, she replied: “There is no written evidence relating to the agreement obtained from the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners on the revised wording of the ESA65B letter.

“In accordance with the Answer of 30 May 2018 to Question 146987, agreement on the final wording of the ESA65B was obtained via the regular meetings DWP holds with both organisations.” 

She was being conservative with the truth. In other words, she was telling lies.

Following a series of distressing reports about people dying as they await the result of the Personal Independent Payment (PIP) and ESA assessments, the Work and Pensions select Committee has published the Royal College of GPs’ (RCGP) and the British Medical Association’s (BMA) views on DWPs controversial advice to doctors on “Fit Notes” for people awaiting the outcome of an ESA appeal.

The Committee asked both  organisations (PDF PDF 163 KB)Opens in a new window  (PDF PDF 163 KB)Opens in a new window for their input, following DWP’s repeated claims that they had approved the advice, given in a letter (form, ESA65B) to the GPs of people who have been denied ESA after assessment: PIP and ESA Assessments.

The Committee has described the assessment processes for disability/incapacity benefits as “gruelling” and “error-ridden”, potentially forcing claimants into DWP’s “arduous, protracted” reconsideration and appeals process. People who have been denied ESA at the assessment stage, but who are awaiting the results of their appeal are entitled to an “assessment rate” of ESA, in recognition of the hardship they may endure during the potentially lengthy wait for their appeal.

However, in recent months the Committee has been investigating concerns (PDF PDF 1.41 MB)Opens in a new window that the advice DWP is giving to doctors about the system and process is causing confusion, leading directly to people being left without the lifeline income they are entitled to.

I have reported previously that people have died soon after being declared ‘fit for work’ by the DWP, after the Department have contacted a patients’ doctor without notifying  them, telling the GP not to issue any more ‘fit’ notes. 

Comments from RCGP and BMA

The Department has claimed in response to the Committee (PDF PDF 219 KB)Opens in a new windowthat Agreement on the final wording of the revised ESA65B was obtained via the regular meetings DWP holds” with both the British Medical Association and Royal College of GPs”, (PDF PDF 84 KB)Opens in a new window and that the wording is the outcome of “close and extensive working between DWP, BMA and RCGP.” (PDF PDF 165 KB)Opens in a new window

Both medical professionals’ associations’ have now written to the Committee – and in the case of the RCGP, directly to the Secretary of State (PDF PDF 199 KB)Opens in a new window – expressing their concerns about both DWP’s advice to GPs and its characterisation of their approval or endorsement. The RCGPs said:

“Without a fit note from their GP, claimants who are awaiting the outcome of their appeal will not be able to receive ESA. They would therefore have to seek Universal Credit or Jobseekers Allowance, and subsequently try and meet the work-seeking requirements of those benefits, potentially endangering their health in the process. As such the College is deeply concerned about the potential impact of this on doctors and their relationships with potentially vulnerable patients.”

As the BMA describes in its response to the Committee (PDF PDF 164 KB)Opens in a new window:  

“By way of background the BMA attends meetings with the RCGP and the DWP where information is shared with the aim of improving working practices between the DWP and clinicians. While the BMA may act in an advisory capacity it does not have the authority to clear, approve or otherwise sign off any DWP correspondence or policies and would see this as being clearly outside of our remit…At a meeting with the DWP and RCGP a BMA representative was given sight of the ESA65B amended letter. The BMA considers that sight of this letter was for the purposes of information sharing and did not agree or otherwise sign off the content of the letter.”

The Royal College of GPs put the same point to the Committee (PDF PDF 197 KB)Opens in a new window:

We are aware that the Department claims that ‘The British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners agreed to the revised wording of the ESA65B on 4 August 2016’. However, there is some ambiguity about what was said in the referenced meeting with the DWP. Since the DWP did not keep any written records of what was said at this meeting [as DWP admits in its latest letter to the Committee (PDF PDF 165 KB)Opens in a new window], we are unable to provide further clarity.”

The RCGP statement continues:

“Since these changes were made, significant evidence has come to light about the negative impact that these changes have had in relation to patient care, leading to some patients being denied fit notes by their doctors. We are concerned that the current wording of ESA65B does not sufficiently clearly indicate that there are circumstances in which GPs may need to continue to issue fit notes for their patients. It is essential that communication with GPs is as clear as possible, to uphold the high levels of trust that exist between GPs and their patients. As a minimum we would want to see the wording of the ESA65B letter urgently changed to its previous wording.”  

This means that ministers have once again mislead both parliament and the public in claiming that both medical professional organisations agreed to the wording of a controversial letter which told GPs not to provide benefits officials with proof that seriously ill patients were unfit for work.

I’ve reported on this particular issue more than once, and highlighted the parliamentary dialogue between Newton, who resigned in March, and the DWP, who have said in separate statements that the document wording “was cleared by both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners”.

Both organisations have now dismissed Newton and the DWPs’ claim. In the letter, the BMA,  said that they did not “clear” the wording, they were simply been shown the letter template during a meeting at the DWP.

When the organisation wrote to Frank Field, Pensions select committee, the letter states categorically that: “The BMA considers that sight of this letter was for the purposes of information sharing and did not agree or otherwise sign off the content of the letter.” 

The RCGP has told work and Pensions secretary Amber Rudd  that the letter “does not clearly indicate that there are exceptions to this wording, including if a claimant is appealing against the decision”. 

The Royal College raised fears that vulnerable patients awaiting the outcome of appeals may further harm their health by trying to meet the requirements of other benefits such as Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s Allowance.

However, a DWP spokesperson told me: “We have regular discussions with the BMA and RCGP to ensure we deliver effective support to disabled people and those with health conditions.

“The wording of this letter was discussed as part of these meetings, as both organisations confirm, as was the release of the final letter.

“Of course we recognise the concerns of GPs which is why we are discussing a revised letter with the BMA and RCGP and have issued clear guidance for GPs in the meantime.”

So, not only did the DWP and Conservative ministers lie and get caught out, they have continued to repeat the lie following its exposure.

Meanwhile citizens who are ill and disabled are left in dangerous situations with unacceptable levels of hardship, and some have died as a consequence, yet the government continues to present and mechanically repeat crib sheeted PR and strategic comms responses to limit the political damage of justified concern and criticism of their cruel, miserly, punitive, discriminatory, robotic neoliberalism and authoritarian policies that target those with the least in any way they can to prevent them from accessing the support that their taxes and National Insurance have contributed to creating. 

When David Cameron said the Conservative party was going to address the ‘culture of entitlement’, and ‘change the relationship between citizens and the state’ this is precisely the kind of underhand, targeted discrimination he had in mind. The ‘low tax, low welfare society’ is one where the wealthiest pay very little tax and the poorest citizens – in work and out – simply go without the means of meeting their most fundamental needs. 

The wider political aim is to systematically dismantle every single welfare and public service and to normalise the brutality of this process by almost inscrutable degrees, by telling lies that attempt to neutralise the serious concerns raised by campaigners, opposition MPs, academics, charities and medical professionals. This method of political gaslighting is much worse than lying, because it is a calculated, deliberate method of psychological manipulation and abuse.

 

 


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Universal Credit is an unmitigated catastrophe for ill and disabled people

Image result for pictures universal credit

I co-run an online advice and support group for people going through Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claims, assessments, mandatory reviews and appeals. Recently there has been a spike in people being reassessed for their awards of both kinds of support much earlier than expected. Furthermore, many are seeing their longstanding awards being taken from them by the Department for Work and Pensions following the reassessment, when this is clearly unjustifiable.

Failing a work capability assessment usually triggers migration onto Universal Credit.

For example, a significant proportion of this group have chronic or degenerative illnesses that are not going to improve. If someone with such a condition is deemed unfit for work, or in need of extra support to meet their needs and maintain independence, given that it’s highly improbable that their condition will improve,  it’s more than unreasonably cruel that following review, these people have lost their awards, most often based on highly inaccurate reports from assessors and the Department’s decision makers.

One person received a letter notifying her of an early ESA review – it wasn’t due until next year – just days after she had seen her PIP award removed, following a review that was not due until 2021. 

Those people claiming Universal Credit (UC) and needing a work capability assessment because they have not previously received ESA are experiencing long delays (often around six months) before the assessment appointments are finally arranged. This is true even when there is clear evidence of ill health and/or disability, and it means people miss out on additional payments. Some are being subjected to conditionality and sanctions because they are being given inappropriate requirements to look for work while they wait for their assessment. 

A recurring problem with UC is the failure of DWP staff to include a limited capability for work (LCW) or limited capability for work related activity (LCWRA) element in a claim for Universal Credit for people moving from ESA, who had already been assessed as entitled to the equivalent element in ESA. These components are supposed to be automatically included in UC but people are reporting that it this is not happening.

Two people who had been claiming ESA for two or more years, both placed in the support group following their assessments, triggered ‘natural migration’ when they claimed Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) because of hardship. One person’s local council had wrongly made ‘non dependent’ deductions for her adult son, pushing her into hardship and rent arrears. As she was awarded PIP at the daily living rate, non dependent deductions should not have been made, as the standard daily living award exempts people from those deductions in this group of PIP  claimants.   

She later reported that non dependent deductions were wrongly taken from her UC housing element, also. She said that the problem arose because PIP awards are not logged on the system, which means that once the underpayments were eventually rectified, she still had to remind her advisor that she was exempt from non dependent deductions being made to her housing costs. The problem keeps arising, however, with some of the deductions still being made some months. She also told me that her mandatory review request was completely ignored.

The DHP application from both people in the support group triggered a move from existing benefits on to UC. When migrated from ESA on to UC, people in the ESA support group should be automatically awarded the extra element of UC (the ‘limited capability for work-related activity element’) and should not be required to undertake any work related activity. However this did not happen and both were refused this element. Another person was told, wrongly, that she would need to undergo another work capability assessment and another was asked to undertake inappropriate work related activities which he were unable to carry out because of his illness.  

Several others have also reported that they have submitted requests for mandatory review and not had any response. One person was told that they had to ring to request the review, rather than requesting it in writing. She was then told that because more than one month had passed since the decision she was challenging, she could not request a mandatory review. 

Special rules exist for terminally ill people who are expected to live less than six months, to fast-track their claims for support and to allow certain health-related payments to be paid at the highest rate without needing further assessment. One person applied for UC and was incorrectly told that there was no special rules provision under UC. She was asked to provide evidence that she could not carry out work related activities before she could receive the payments due to her and have her work related conditionality lifted, despite the fact she had submitted a DS 1500 report from her consultant.

Another person who is terminally ill told me that his advisor said there was no evidence that he had submitted a DS 1500 report. By this time, he had already waited seven weeks for his UC claim to be processed. He was still waiting for a PIP assessment date. 

Another problem arising for disabled people is that some are experiencing difficulty making new-style ESA claims (which are based on National Insurance contributions, rather than being income related) in ‘full service’ jobcentre areas, and are being wrongly advised to claim UC in circumstances where that is not required. 

One very vulnerable young person told me that he was flatly refused when he asked to claim the disability element of UC. His GP had told him he was unfit for work. His work coach said that he was “not allowed” to claim disability benefit under UC rules. He was sanctioned because he could not carry out  work related activities, which also had an impact on his partner. He needed support with a mandatory review request and his doctor submitted a report from the young man’s consultant. His sanction was overturned after seven weeks. That is seven weeks of hunger, fuel poverty and threats of eviction because of mounting rent arrears. 

Transitional protection for disabled people

The government recently announced transitional protections, include paying the Limited Capability for Work element in Universal Credit if someone has been continuously entitled to ESA and entitled to the Work-Related Activity Component in ESA prior to 3rd April 2017 and are migrated to Universal Credit. This means people with ESA awards after that date, or those making a new claim for UC will not get the disability income guarantee which is only provisionally available to others.

The government have recently postponed the migration of people who have a PIP award onto UC, because there is no transitional protection in place, which means people will lose their disability premium. Transitional protection of disabled peoples’ disability income guarantee is not due to come into effect until later this year (July). 

However, when people have a change in circumstances, they are automatically migrated onto UC. The change may include moving house, or a change in the amount of support you get, or someone joining or leaving your household. It’s been reported that changes to housing benefit awards – such as an increase, or a DHP award – have also triggered ‘natural migration’ onto UC. 

People who already claim Working Tax Credit and become ill are being asked to claim UC. Those who claim income-based jobseeker’s allowance and need to attend court or Jury Service, or are remanded in custody, are also being asked to claim UC.  If someone starts work that would normally entitle them to working tax credits, or if they work, but their hours drop below 16 hours a week, they will be asked to claim UC. If someone already claims Child Tax Credits and income based legacy benefits and starts work with enough hours to satisfy Working Tax Credit conditions, they will also be asked to claim UC.

A high court judgement last year said that the loss of disability premiums (the disability income guarantee) under UC is discriminatory and contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. 

The government conceded after some reluctance that they would ensure transitional protection is in place for people who receive the severe disability premium via their legacy benefits. However, there are three types of disability premium, and the government have so far only mentioned protecting one of them, though it is implied that the other premiums will be included. 

Many of us have said previously that the government’s ‘flagship’ failure, UC, is about implementing further cuts to social security support by stealth. However, the loss of income to disabled people through hidden cuts was under-reported. Last year I wrote about how the disability income guarantee that legacy benefits ensured had been removed from UC – Disability Income Guarantee abolished under Universal Credit rules – a sly and cruel cut.

The draft regulations setting out the managed migration process, including details of transitional protection, were consulted on by the Social Security Advisory Committee  (SSAC) in July 2018. The SSAC report and the Government’s response were published in November 2018. Some changes were made to the Regulations as a result of SSAC’s report. The draft regulations were also published on November 2018 and were expected to be debated in Parliament this month (January 2019.)

However, in the draft regulations, only one of the three disability rates is mentioned in the planned transitional provisions – the Severe Disability Premium (SDP). 

On the government site, it says there a three rates under ESA and/or PIP:

“Disability premium

You’ll get:

  • £33.55 a week for a single person
  • £47.80 a week for a couple

Severe disability premium

You’ll get:

  • £64.30 a week for a single person
  • £128.60 a week for a couple if you’re both eligible

Some couples will be eligible for the lower amount of £64.30 a week instead.

Enhanced disability premium

You’ll get:

  • £16.40 a week for a single person
  • £23.55 a week for a couple if at least one of you is eligible

You can get the disability premium on its own. You might get the severe or enhanced disability premium as well if you’re eligible for them. There are (complex) rules of eligibility which are outlined on the same site. For example, if you have a ‘non dependent’ child living with you, that makes you ineligible for the severe disability premium, but you may be entitled to one or both of the others.

If you get income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) you cannot get the disability premium, but you may still qualify for the severe and enhanced premiums.”

The draft regulations did not clarify whether all of the disability income guarantee rates will be included in the transitional protections arrangements. 

In a letter to the Social Security Advisory Committee, the government says of the new draft regulations: “They also introduce transitional protection payments and additional provisions to support existing and former Severe Disability Premium recipients.”

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions also says in the letter: “In designing Universal Credit, one of the key aims was to simplify the existing system. For people with health conditions and disabilities, a conscious choice was made not to replicate every aspect of disability provision in the current system, which contains 7 different disability payments. Instead, the right levels of support can be provided through 2 rates of payments, reflecting the current Employment and Support Allowance components.” [My emphasis]

The choice was originally to cut all disability premiums for those with a ‘change in circumstances’ and new claims. The hardships that this decision has caused were intentional. 

A House of Commons briefing paper entitled Universal Credit and the claimant count outlines why “Universal Credit is increasing the number of people claiming unemployment benefits, by requiring a broader group of claimants to look for work than was the case under Jobseeker’s Allowance.” 

However, UC also requires other groups of people who were previously exempt from conditionality to look for work, or to increase their hours and pay, if they already work.

This means that the increased application of conditionality and sanctions regime will affect families and couples, where one person – not necessarily the person who has made the claim – has been sanctioned. For the first time, UC will mean families who are in work but on low pay will also be subject to sanctioning if they don’t make efforts to increase their hours or pay. It’s not clear what provision is in place to safeguard children and vulnerable family members form the impact of severe hardship when a family member is sanctioned.

Furthermore, last year the government’s own research, together with a mass of other studies, have clearly demonstrated that sanctions do not work as the Conservatives claim they were intended to. Frank Field, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, accused ministers of trying to bury the findings of a secret DWP report, rather than give parliament the chance to debate how to better help low-paid workers. 

Field said if UC were to be built into a “line of defence against poverty, rather than an agent in its creation”, a more careful application of sanctions would require “urgent attention”.

He added: “Likewise, any new service to help the low-paid should be built around the provision by a dedicated caseworker of information, advice and guidance, as part of a clear and agreed contract which is aimed at helping them to earn more money and, crucially, overcoming the barriers that currently prevent them from being able to do so.” 

The government’s report came after a major report from the UK’s biggest food bank network found the rollout of UC would trigger an explosion in food bank use, with data showing that moving onto the new welfare support was the fastest growing cause of food bank referrals. The Trussell Trust said urgent changes to the new welfare system were needed to protect vulnerable claimants from falling into hardship or dropping out of the benefit system altogether. 

Garry Lemon, director of policy at the Trussell Trust, said: “We owe it to ourselves to have a benefits system that gives us support when we need it most, and ensures everyone has enough money to afford the absolute essentials. 

“Yet our research shows that the more people are sanctioned, the more they need foodbanks. On top of this, government’s own research shows that sanctioning under universal credit has no effect in encouraging people to progress in work. 

“With the next stage of universal credit about to rollout to three million people, it is vital that we learn from evidence on the ground and avoid the mistakes of the past.” 

Margaret Greenwood, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said it was “shocking” that the government was sanctioning working people who are “just trying to do the right thing”.

She said: “This report shows that there is no evidence that sanctioning helps people increase their earnings. Meanwhile, wages are still below 2008 levels and millions of people are stuck in insecure work. 

“Universal credit is clearly failing in its current form. Labour is committed to a root-and-branch review of the social security system to ensure it tackles poverty and provides support when people need it.” 

In a damning report in 2016, the National Audit Office castigated the DWP for failing to monitor people whose benefits had been docked and suggested the system cost more money than it saved. 

Yet a DWP spokesperson said: “The ‘in work progression trials’ helped encourage claimants to increase their hours, seek out progression opportunities and take part in job-related training.

“The trials delivered positive results for many of the lowest paid people who claim universal credit and we are now considering the findings.” 

This is political gaslighting, which reveals a government’s intentions to continue implementing a draconian welfare policy, regardless of the significant and mounting empirical evidence – including from their own research – demonstrating this punitive does nothing to ‘support’ people into work, or into better paid jobs. In fact it prevents people from doing anything other than struggling to survive.

The briefing – Universal Credit and the claimant count  – says “In Full Service areas existing legacy benefit claimants may move onto Universal Credit if they experience a change of circumstances such that they would have had to make a new claim for a different legacy benefit. As new claims for legacy benefits are no longer possible, only Universal Credit can be claimed.  The DWP refers to this as “natural migration.”

“Existing legacy benefit claimants whose circumstances do not change will remain on their existing benefits until they are invited to make a claim for Universal Credit at the final “managed migration” stage. This is expected to begin in late 2020 and be completed by December 2023, but will be preceded by a managed migration pilot involving 10,000 households starting in July 2019.”

The briefing provides an outline of why the claimant count has risen in areas where UC has been rolled out:

“Universal Credit requires a broader span of people to look for work than was the case for legacy benefits.

“The introduction of Universal Credit means that more claimants are required to look for work as a condition of receiving the benefit. This is referred to as “conditionality”.

“For example, someone out of work who previously claimed Child Tax Credit or Housing Benefit but not Jobseeker’s Allowance was not required to look for work. Under Universal Credit they are required to look for work, subject to certain exceptions.

“Similarly, under Universal Credit, the partners of claimants are now required to seek work. Previously, if someone was in employment and claiming tax credits or housing benefits but their partner was not in work (and not claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance), there was no requirement for their partner to look for work. This is no longer the case, subject to an earnings threshold and certain exceptions.

“The OBR has estimated that conditionality will be extended to around 300,000 additional claimants.

“Additional conditionality will also be applied to Universal Credit claimants who would otherwise have received Education and Support Allowance (ESA), and the OBR has estimated that around 150,000 claimants will be required to look for work as a result. Furthermore, the OBR has forecast that around 450,000 newly-eligible Universal Credit claimants will face further additional conditionality requirements (though not necessarily an obligation to look for work).”

If people are not obliged to look for work, what is the point in imposing conditionality them?

And: “New claimants who are awaiting or appealing Work Capability Assessments are being required to look for work. Some of the claimants who under the legacy system would previously have claimed ESA are initially subject to all work-related
requirements upon starting a new claim to Universal Credit, pending their Work Capability Assessment.

“New ESA claimants who can provide a ‘fit note’ are treated as having a limited capacity for work pending their Work Capability Assessment. This is not the default position under Universal Credit.

“Although a claimant must meet with a Jobcentre Plus Work Coach within seven days of applying for Universal Credit to agree the conditions attached to their receipt of benefits, the period until a Work Capability Assessment takes place is often much longer. During this period, Work Coaches set conditionality based on their understanding of the claimant’s health condition, but there are concerns that Work Coaches may struggle to identify claimant support needs accurately.

“Those claimants who are required to look for work will be included in the claimant count statistics. We might expect some to drop out of the claimant count again once the Work Capability Assessment has taken place, assuming they are judged to have limited capability for work, but they can remain on full conditionality for an extended period (and thus remain in the claimant count statistics).”

And confirming the accounts of disabled people I have supported:

“In addition, there have been reports that some claimants moving from ESA onto Universal Credit who have limited capability for work are being required to undergo a new Work Capability Assessment, and in the meantime are subject to full conditionality. Under Regulation 19 of the Universal Credit (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2014 (SI 2014/1230 as amended), these people should be treated, from the outset of their Universal Credit application, as having limited capacity for work without the need for a Work Capability Assessment. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has reported this as one of the most common problems highlighted by advisers.” 

It’s crossed my mind more than once that the sudden increase in early ESA and PIP reassessments may be linked to an aim to reduce the costs of the government’s unanticipated legal requirement to pay disabled and ill people transitional protection when they are migrated onto UC, or when they are forced to claim UC because of a change in circumstance – hence work coaches telling people in both ESA groups frequently that they have to undergo another assessment, when the rules state very clearly that they don’t.

The cases  I have highlighted here reflect only my most serious concerns about some of the consequences UC is having for ill and disabled people. It’s worrying that the problems I have outlined were not confined to just a couple of areas; the errors and problems seem to be entrenched on a systemic and national scale.

 

Related 

The rush to throw sick or disabled people off ESA and force them onto Universal Credit goes on while the DWP talks bollocks about support…

 


 

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Amber Rudd seems confused about the difference between ‘compassion’ and ‘conscious cruelty’

rudd

Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Last week, Amber Rudd made the claim that Universal Credit is “delivered with professionalism and care and compassion.”

However, it is clear – in the words of the public accounts committee, last year – that there is a very real “culture of indifference” within the Department for Work and Pensions and wider government.

Quite often, that “indifference” spills over into conscious cruelty – the term coined by  filmmaker Ken Loach for the UK social security system, during the filming of I, Daniel Blake.

In December, Amber Rudd appeared to strike a conciliatory tone, in in her first appearance before the work and pensions select committee, saying she was enthusiastic about Universal Credit but would not rush the rollout of the new system simply to meet ‘arbitrary timetables.’ Although she acknowledged concerns about the often devastating impact of the social security cuts on the most vulnerable citizens, she said her aim was to ‘restore public confidence’ in Universal Credit.

The problem is that ministers such as Amber Rudd are rather more concerned that Universal Credit has proved politically toxic for the government as a result of policy and design flaws, such as a five-week wait for an initial payment that have left thousands of people in debt, suffering from depression, and reliant on food banks, rather than the devastating impacts an chaos it is wreaking on citizens.

The government is in a weakened position, and is looking to secure support from the opposition for Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The PM has even recently phoned  union leaders to try and garner their support, which is an unprecedented move for a Conservative leader. So it’s unlikely that the ‘conciliatory’ tone is sincere or likely to last beyond the threats to power that the government currently faces. 

Rudd was responding to MPs’ concerns that up to 1 million ill and disabled claimants are at risk of destitution and isolation when they are transferred on to universal credit over the next three years, at the time.

Let’s not forget that last November, Rudd has used her first appearance in the House of Commons as work and pensions secretary to condemn an independent UN inquiry into poverty in the UK, over what she claimed was the “extraordinary political nature” of its language. Her response was about damage limitation to the government’s reputation rather than about engaging with the empirical evidence and recommendations presented in Philip Alston’s report.

The UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights said the government had inflicted poverty on people through austerity and called levels of child poverty “not just a disgrace but a social calamity and an economic disaster”. He also heavily criticised Universal Credit, which had been beset by ‘problems’ since its inception.

Asked about the tone of the UN report, May’s spokesman said: “We strongly disagree with the analysis.” However, it was a meticulously evidenced ‘analysis.’ The evidence for the report was provided by many people who have been adversely affected – and some people’s lives have been utterly devastated –  by austerity and the Conservative’s welfare ‘reforms’.

However, Rudd has nonetheless publicly promised to deliver “a fair, compassionate and efficient benefits system”, claiming that it has “good intentions” at its heart. 

What ‘good intentions are those?’

Dr Heather Wetherell, a GP, posted the following on Twitter last year:

Dear @DWP,

When a distraught mother has lost her young daughter, please can you tell me why you wont accept “grief reaction” as a sick note diagnosis? Telling a grieving mum this is not an illness is extremely insensitive. You have also wasted NHS time.

She added: “3 days after her daughter died, she got call from the DWP saying did she realise she couldn’t claim Attendance Allowance anymore & had to sign on Job Seekers. Mother panicked & found herself at a job interview the following week – at which she broke down in tears.

“She phoned me in a state on way home from the interview. I was horrified they had put her through this. I’m so upset by it all.”

Wetherell says that when her patient informed the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of her bereavement and she was told,  “that’s not an illness… You need to go to your doctor and get a proper/better diagnosis” (she can’t recall exactly which word they used, but remembers feeling totally humiliated and felt they thought she was a fraud.)

Last year, Kirsty Scott told how her 19-year-old son and husband died within 18 months of each other. However, despite suffering physical and mental health conditions with a severely disabled son to look after, she was refused Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

She said: “Getting into the workhouse would have been an easier option.

“When my letter was sent to refuse me ESA it did not reflect what had gone on in the assessment.

“The language used was disgusting – things like ‘it is a lifestyle choice not to get out of bed’ or ‘the death of two close family members did not impact on my life enough’.

“I had lost my son and my husband, I was caring for a disabled son. Half of my family gone and they thought it was ok to say these things to me?

“I can’t tell you what it felt like when I got that letter, the desperation. It was like they thought I lied.

“There was no humanity in it whatsoever. My mental health went downhill.”

Clearly, the UK’s social security system does not facilitate people’s human rights, nor does it protect their dignity. DWP staff don’t practice safeguarding or even recognise a trauma informed approach to protect vulnerable citizens. It seems that callousness and cruelty have become habituated within the administrative structure, entrenched in policy designs within an ideological framework that has normalised the intended ‘hostile environment’.

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is to be organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter.

However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified and implemented is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies.

Furthermore, Conservative policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.

Over the last 8 years, the Conservatives have coldly conceived society as a hierarchy of human value, from the pinnacle of supremicism, self-appointed authority and from behind their fact proof ideological screen. They have historically cast the poorest and the most vulnerable citizens as the putative “enemies of civilization.” Social Darwinism is written in bold throughout their policies.

There has never been a clearer contrast between the values and approach of the two main political parties: the Conservatives are authoritarian, they plainly imply that some people’s lives don’t matter – the food bank debate and the bedroom tax debate are further examples of cruelty, and of how Conservatives have reduced human subjects to objects of derision.

While Labour MPs spoke out in the debates about the terrible difficulties that vulnerable families in their constituencies are facing, we were faced with the unedifying spectacle of Tory MPs laughing, jeering and shouting their spiteful glee at the plight of those people that this government have intentionally impoverished – after all, policies are plain and legislated statements of intent.

By contrast, the Labour Party have fostered a counter-narrative that is decent, democratic, inclusive and centralises the fundamental equal worth of each human life. Labour’s policies are intentionally founded on a strong commitment to human rights – without which there can be no meaningful social justice and democracy.

The Conservatives have always been stunted in their vision for society by their own elitism and  preoccupation with the superficial characteristics and taxonomic ranking of human beings – the emphasis being on “what” we are  rather than the rather more important “who” we are. Because of this lack of social intelligence, the government has undermined our progress as a society, stifled human potential and failed to value human diversity and failed to recognise the equal worth of every citizen’s life, because of their own assembled fantasy of corrosive, elitist ideological myths.

I would like to thank Tom Pride for his article DWP tells grieving mother to find job 3 days after death of young child: “grief is not an illness”, which has informed some of this one. 


 

My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. This is a pay as you like site. If you wish you can support me by making a one-off donation or a monthly contribution. This will help me continue to research and write independent, insightful and informative articles, and to continue to provide support others who are affected by the welfare ‘reforms’. 

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