Category: Department for Work and Pensions

Meet the new disability minister, same as the old disability minister

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Justin Tomlinson MP (pictured above) has been appointed as the new disabilities minister following the resignation of Sarah Newton MP last month over Brexit. 

Tomlinson is the Conservative MP for North Swindon and is a former member of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, a cross-party group of MPs charged with scrutinising government welfare policy.

He was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Disabled People following the 2015 general election victory of the Conservative Party, serving until Theresa May reshuffled the government in 2016.

In May 2015, it was reported by The Huffington Post that his appointment as Minister for Disabled People was controversial as he had previously voted against protecting the benefits of disabled children and those undergoing cancer treatment.

He was a minister that defended George Osborne’s budget cuts to disabled people’s support, which was aimed at saving £1.3bn and contributing to an economic surplus. 

However, there was no political, economic or moral justification for the Conservative’s decision to cut support for disabled citizens while controversially increasing tax benefits for the wealthiest. This simply indicates just how unfair Conservative policies are, and how such policies cannot fail to engineer socioeconomic inequality. 

At the time, lifelong Conservative voter, Graeme Ellis, said he had quit the party over the cuts – and made his views known on the official website of the Conservative Disability Group, on whose executive he has served.

“This website is temporarily closed owing to Disability Cuts,” a message on the site read after Osborne confirmed the cuts to Personal Independent Payments (PIP).

“The owner of the hosting package, Graeme Ellis, has resigned over disability cuts from the group and will no longer develop or host this site.

Tory disability home page

HTTP://CONSERVATIVEDISABILITYGROUP.ORG.UK/

The message was later amended to emphasise that no other member of the group was involved in the action and they had not known about it in advance.

Ellis, a former NHS worker who has diabetes and uses a wheelchair, said Osborne was “destroying lives”.

“I’ve been a Conservative voter since I could vote. But as a lifelong Conservative I could no longer agree with what the Government’s doing,” he said.

A Conservative Party spokesman said at the time: “The Conservative Disability Group has not deactivated its website.

“The owner of the domain, who is no longer a member of the group, has deactivated it without any instruction to do so.” 

Tomlinson caused a furious backlash after he suggested taking in a lodger may help families cope with the benefit cap. He was branded “ignorant” and “out of touch” after raising the idea as one way people have dealt with the £20,000-a-year limit per household on welfare payments. David Smith, policy director at the Residential Landlords Association, suggested Tomlinson did not understand basic rules in tenancy agreements. At the time, Tomlinson was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary (junior government minister) for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance within the Department for Work and Pensions.

He said most private landlords ban tenants from taking in lodgers – either because of restrictions in mortgages or extra legal burdens for the landlord.

Frank Field, chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, told the Mirror after the hearing: “What it shows is ministers find defending the benefit cap difficult.

“Many people would be breaking they tenancy agreement to follow the minister’s advice.”

People who live in council housing or housing association property would be breaking the rules of their tenancy by taking in a lodger and subsequently may be evicted.

Such an out of touch, ignorant and uncaring statement shows a woeful lack of understanding and empathy for people who are often in financial dire straits directly because of government policy.

Tomlinson was suspended from the House of Commons in 2016 for leaking a draft committee report. He shared the findings of an inquiry into regulating consumer credit with a Wonga employee in 2013. MPs backed the finding by the Commons Committee of Privileges that he had “committed a contempt” in disclosing the report. The incident happened when Tomlinson was a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in May 2013.

He gave a confidential draft report on regulating consumer credit to an employee of payday lender Wonga, who replied with comments and suggested amendments to the report. Apparently, Tomlinson presented the amendments, word for word to the Committee as if they were his own. 

Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Hudson noted that Tomlinson’s actions “provided Wonga with an additional opportunity, not available to or known to anyone else, to influence the recommendations of the committee”.

Justin Tomlinson’s dismal voting record

Tomlinson has:

  • Generally voted against laws to promote equality and human rights.
  • Almost always voted for reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms.
  • Consistently voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices.
  • Consistently voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability.
  • Consistently voted for making local councils responsible for helping those in financial need afford their council tax and reducing the amount spent on such support.
  • Consistently voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits.
  • Consistently voted against spending public money to create guaranteed jobs for young people who have spent a long time unemployed.

Source: theyworkforyou.com

 


 

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Former DWP boss tells how Tory policies pushed her to quit her job

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Mhairi Doyle with her grandson Isaac supporting junior doctors at Southport Hospital. Picture courtesy of the Liverpool Echo.

A Merseyside councillor has spoken out about why she retired from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) after 25 years. She says it’s because she “refused to be complicit in how the Tories treat vulnerable people.”

Mhairi Doyle, Labour councillor for Norwood ward in Southport, was also the social inclusion manager for Merseyside in the Department of Work and Pensions until 2012. She moved to Southport in 1988, having been born and raised in Edinburgh.

Doyle received an MBE for her work with disadvantaged people, especially her work with Street Sex Workers in Liverpool, and has worked at local, regional and national levels developing policy to help change lives.

She said: “I was working with heroin users, sufferers of domestic violence, people who were in and out of prison, homeless people… with some funding we managed to create networks to support people and help them out of horrendous situations.

“We were getting about 80% of people back into work.

“It took time and energy but we had a really good thing going. And then the coalition government came in and everything was cut, gone in an instant.

“Everyone was shocked when I said I was retiring; they used to joke that I’d have to be carried out, I loved my job so much. But I could not be complicit in the way the Tories think it’s acceptable to treat vulnerable people.”

Doyle said that there have been abrupt changes in the ethos of job centres since 2012. She said: “We used to be there to help and advise, but it’s gone from being a service about people to a service about numbers.

“The benefit regime is so harsh. They say people don’t have targets on benefit sanctions but it’s all semantics – there is an expectation on staff to cut benefits.

“I’m not having a go at anybody who works at job centres. It’s a difficult job and it’s not well-paid, it’s the system. Workers are expected to get people out the door quickly and get them to do it online, but not everyone is computer literate or has internet access.”

She added: “The bulk of my caseload is people struggling to get the benefits they need to live on, and a lot of these people work.”

She continued: “When I moved here I was told, as many of us were, that a vote for Labour was a wasted vote. So, to keep the Tories out I voted Lib Dem until 2010, when I voted Lib Dem and still got the Tories.

“Even worse, they took part in and enabled all the devastating cuts still affecting us today.

“I don’t think it is fair that our NHS is being sold off piece by piece or that my grandson when he gets out of university, will leave with over £50,000 of debt.

“And I don’t think it is fair that the Tories and Lib Dems have starved our local council of money, forcing them into such difficult decisions over services and amenities and then stand back and blithely criticise when they are the very reason it is happening.”

In a completely meaningless response, a DWP spokesman reading from the DWP crib sheet, said: “Finding work is the best route towards prosperity and Universal Credit is a force for good, providing tailored support for over 1.6 million people as they find jobs faster and stay working longer.

“Extra digital help and budgeting support are also available.”

The comment doesn’t address the issues raised by Doyle at all, nor do the political platitudes mitigate the hostile environment that has been engineered by successive Conservative-led governments, which is having dire consequences for many people, both in and out of work.

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Mhairi Doyle, pictured here alongside Bootle MP Peter Dowd and Southport Labour members, won her seat in 2018.  Picture courtesy of the Liverpool Echo.

 


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‘Disability confident’ DWP acted ‘perversely’ in sacking of disabled woman, court says

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The government’s meaningless Disability Confident campaign.

The Guardian reports that a disabled woman was discriminated against when she was unfairly sacked by the Department for Work and Pensions, which behaved in a “perverse” and “blinkered” manner, a judge has found. 

Isabella Valentine was employed by the DWP on a programme designed to get vulnerable, long-term unemployed people back into work by nurturing and training apprentices over a 12-month period, bringing them to a point where they could apply for jobs in the usual way. Instead, “inexplicable and strange” disciplinary measures were taken by the DWP after just four days’ sickness that led to Valentine’s dismissal. 

“I suffer regular migraines that are so severe and unpredictable that I am officially classed as disabled. Because of that and a lack of qualifications, I haven’t been able to find decent employment,” said Valentine.

“When I was handpicked for this programme, I was so happy. I hoped that I had finally found employers who would let me do a good job while being understanding of the time off I sometimes have to take because of my migraines. 

“Instead, I was made to feel small and so stressed that my migraines got even worse. Not only were no reasonable adjustments made for my disability as legally required but I was subject to the same strict and unbending rules that permanent employees had to work by.” 

She added: “My manager started harassing me on the first day I took off sick because of a migraine. By the fourth day, the department had started disciplinary proceedings and decided to dismiss me. Which it then did.” 

In his judgment, the employment judge, Robin Postle, said: “[Valentine’s treatment] does beg the question, why, given the nature of why the claimant was put on the course, to try and get her back into the workplace, the [DWP] did not make reasonable adjustments [under the Equality Act 2010], in disregarding migraine absences, or indeed, simply taking no further action. The claimant has suffered unfavourable treatment and she had a disability.” 

The DWP has been taken to the employment tribunal by staff almost 60 times over claims of disability discrimination in a 20-month period. The DWP, which has about 75,000 staff, has the worst record on disability discrimination of any large government department with 57 cases, compared with 20 cases against the Home Office (which has about 30,000 staff), 32 against the Ministry of Justice (about 70,000 staff) and 29 against HM Revenue and Customs (about 60,000 staff). 

The number of allegations made by disabled staff is surprising because the DWP is responsible for the much-criticised Disability Confident scheme, which aims to help employers recruit and retain disabled employees. DWP claims to be a Disability Confident leader”, the highest of the scheme’s three levels. 

Valentine’s manager was told she would require extra support and leeway to enable her to complete the course. The Suffolk Law Centre solicitor Carol Ward fought the case as part of the National Lottery Reaching Communities-funded project Tackling Discrimination in the East, said: “The behaviour of the DWP was particularly inexplicable and strange because the whole point of the course was to help the apprentices who struggled to cope in the workplace. 

“The claimant had been personally chosen by a DWP work coach. The scheme specifically said apprentices would need nurturing and support, and that they weren’t expected to contribute to the business in the same way as those recruited in the usual way. But as soon as she hit the four-day absence trigger, disciplinary procedures were started.” 

The behaviour of Valentine’s managers was, the judge found, “frankly perverse”. Meetings with Valentine were frequently misrepresented in “clearly incorrect” letters sent by her direct manager. 

Instead of exercising the discretion available to her, the same manager “slavishly followed the policy in a blinkered manner”, while a second manager “had a closed mind”. A third manager who conducted Valentine’s appeal failed to do basic checks on the considerable leeway that had been granted to many other apprentices on the same course.

The consequence was a “predetermined decision” to dismiss Valentine before she had even returned from her second period of sick leave. 

“This was particularly surprising given the fact that [one of the managers said] it became clear very quickly that this was a group of people who needed a lot of support as they were not used to the working environment and needed support to help them cope,” said the judge. 

The DWP said: “We accept this decision. Our general approach is a supportive one – we provide employees with free access to counselling, health advice, physiotherapy and workplace adjustments to manage absences, and we do not dismiss staff without proper consideration and taking professional advice.”

The evidence strongly suggests otherwise. 

 


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Government says unpaid carers will be asked to repay up to £50,000 in benefit overpayments

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A senior MP has condemned ministers’ ‘ineptitude’ after the revelation that people have wrongly received tens of thousands of pounds in error. The huge size of some of the overpayments was exposed by Frank Field, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee. Field has demanded an urgent investigation by the National Audit Office. It is believed that £700m of overpayments have been made in the last five years.

In 2018, tens of thousands of people who receive Carer’s Allowance were overpaid  by amounts ranging from £67 to £48,560, and ministers plan to make many of them repay the money.  

Those among the 6.5 million unpaid carers who earn less than £120 a week after tax and expenses are entitled to receive £64.80 a week in Carer’s Allowance.

However, many had not realised that they completely lose their right to payments if their incomes rise even slightly above the threshold, which meant that many continued to be paid money they are not entitled to. 

That mistake is entirely is down to the government’s complex, opaque rules and incompetence in ensuring that people are actually aware of those rules and importantly, that their own employees are, too.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said 69,609 people could be asked to repay money through deductions from their welfare support. 

Reports also suggest that 1,000 of them may actually be prosecuted, while up to 10,000 could be forced to pay fines of up to £5,000.

However, it’s difficult to see how a prosecution can proceed when the mistake was down to the incompetence of ministers and staff, and not the result of any intended wrong doing on the part of carers. 

The size of some of the overpayments was revealed in a letter to Field from Peter Schofield, permanent secretary at the DWP. He said that the biggest overpayment in 2017-18 was £41,937, while the year before  at least one carer received £47,761 by mistake.

However, Schofield insisted that the DWP would take into account people’s personal circumstances when trying to reclaim the money, so some people would not be asked to repay anything. 

That anyone at all should face the likely hardship of having to rectify the DWP’s error is grossly unfair. Carers often find it difficult to access jobs with the right number of hours so that they are able to fit work around their caring responsibilities, often turning down extra hours or promotion because of their responsibilities and because they face losing essential support from Carer’s Allowance if they earn anything at all above the earnings limit.

Carers receiving Working Tax Credit because of low earnings are often hit the hardest. If they cut their working hours in order to stay under the Carer’s Allowance earnings limit, they would instead lose thousands of pounds in social security support. The threshold for stopping payments is very small. 

Carers whose earnings rise over the earnings threshold by just a matter of one pence are forced to choose between giving up work, reducing their hours or losing 100% of their lifeline support. While Carer’s Allowance is the lowest benefit of its kind, it can help offset the extra costs of caring and the huge loss of earnings that many carers face. It is hardly fair that just an additional penny in earnings means the loss of £64.80 carers’ support per week. 

Carers make a huge contribution to our society and many are forced to reduce their working hours or leave work altogether to care around the clock for older, disabled or seriously ill loved ones. For carers who are able to combine caring with a few hours of low paid work, the earnings limit has caused them serious problems. 

Yet in 2015, research by Carers UK and Sheffield University found that unpaid carers save the UK £132 billion a year in care costs. The study report, Valuing Carers 2015 – the rising value of carers’ support, was the third in a series of studies looking at the value of carers’ support to the UK economy.

In light of the fact that carers already struggle balancing earning with caring responsibilities and accessing support, and given their enormous contribution to our society and the economy, it seems particularly vindictive of government ministers to threaten them with prosecution and debt recovery because of a mistake their own department has made.

Frank Field said: “It is unfathomable that the DWP could allow someone to accrue close to £50,000 in overpaid Carer’s Allowance. 

“No carer should have to suffer as result of such shocking ineptitude and I believe those overpayments that are the fault of the government’s own incompetence should be written off with the greatest urgency.

“I am referring this gross failure of the DWP, to run properly this aspect of its duties, to the National Audit Office to investigate.”

Field has written to the head of the National Audit Office, Sir Amyas Morse, calling for an urgent investigation into the “truly shocking” matter.

He wrote: “It is deeply concerning that the department has allowed claimants to accrue such eye-wateringly large overpayments – nearly £50,000 at the top of the range. More than just oversight, these figures suggest that systematic failings or gross incompetence – or a combination of the two – are at play.

“It is carers who will bear the brunt of these failings, as the department seeks to claw back money from people who can ill afford to lose it.”

The Work and Pensions Committee has launched an inquiry and an online survey to gather the experience of claimants’ who have been contacted by the DWP about overpayments.

The Committee conducted an inquiry into support for carers including Carer’s Allowance, earlier this year and was deeply disappointed by the Government’s “non-response” received in July – Committee Chair rejects Government “non-response” on support for carers – which the Chair said “has barely paid lip service to an issue that is central to the lives of millions of people. I am sure it can do better for this country’s heroic and undervalued carers as well as their families. So we have taken the unusual step of inviting Government to go away and try again.”

It is now publishing the further response from DWP, as well as follow up on some of the greater remaining concerns, such as the benefit’s in-built “cliff edge”. The Committee is pursuing the possibility of introducing a “taper” such as that which operates for other benefits like Universal Credit, whereby the benefit is reduced rather than ended as earnings increase.

A DWP spokesperson said: “We work extremely hard to make claimants aware of their responsibility to provide correct information when making a benefit claim and to report any change in their circumstances. This includes informing customers of the consequences of incorrect or late reporting of information, including prosecution, financial penalty and debt implications.

“We are also introducing new technology to make it easier to identify and prevent overpayments and improve debt recovery.

“But it is right that we take the appropriate action – we have a duty to the taxpayer to recover outstanding money in all cases of fraud or error.”

Perhaps the DWP need reminding again that carers are also taxpayers, and that there is a fundamental difference between someone setting out to defraud money – which is not what happened here – and a government department behaving recklessly and being too incompetent to trust with our public funds. 

 


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A man with multiple sclerosis lost his PIP award after assessment report was dishonestly edited during ‘audit’

 

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A man with multiple sclerosis and mental health problems had his personal independence payment (PIP) stopped after officials tampered with the assessor’s original report.  The man only discovered the ‘audited’ version of his health assessment report when he asked for copies to make an appeal.

He said that no one spoke to him or the nurse who carried out the assessment before the report was altered and his PIP was stopped.

The man had been in receipt of the basic level of support for two years when he was summoned to be re-assessed for PIP, which is non-means tested and designed to help with the extra cost of living with debilitating conditions.

Private companies Atos and Capita carry out the tests across the UK, but Atos contractor Salus do much of the work in Scotland.

His local SNP MP, Marion Fellows, said: “The tampering of a health assessment report by someone who wasn’t even in the room is utterly disgraceful and deceitful.

“It shows that, for many people, the system is rigged against them and the outcome is a foregone conclusion.”

An approved nurse at Salus Glasgow carried out the assessment in September last year. The Daily Record has seen the original and ‘audited’ versions of the man’s report.

The original document said the man, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) last year, has “regular specialist input”. The ‘audited’ version says he does not.

The original report outlines the patient’s MS, depression and anxiety and tells of his difficulties with tasks including cooking, dressing and washing. The nurse noted his clothes were dirty and his top inside-out. The ‘auditor’ had removed the second point.

The ‘auditor’ changed a part which said the man needed supervision or prompting to wash or bathe, and a section on preparing food. The original said he “needs prompting” but the ‘audited’ version said he could prepare and cook a simple meal himself.

An ATOS assessment form which Marion Fellows MP claims was altered by officials (Image: Daily Record)

While the original report said that the man had “regular specialist input” and took regular medication for mental health, the altered report stated that he “has no regular specialist input”.

The man, who is from Motherwell, said: “They didn’t ask me any more questions, they just decided to go back and change the document. I’d say this can’t be a one-off situation.

“It’s disgusting. It’s picking on the weak.”

Fellows, MP for Motherwell and Wishaw, wrote to Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in August about the ‘audit’.

Atos, who now call themselves Independent Assessment Services, told her they did not choose which reports were audited. They wrote in an email: “This happens on a random basis. However, independent DWP audits are a DWP process.”

The DWP wrote in their reply to the MP: “If a health professional’s advice is of poor quality which could result in an incorrect decision, the case will fail the audit activity.”

Fellows said that in every section of the report where the man scored points towards his  PIP award, the ‘auditor’ had reduced his score to zero.

She added: “It is outrageous.

“It isn’t even clear who carried out the audit, as Atos say it was the DWP and the DWP say it was someone independent from them.

My constituent is now going to tribunal.

“This sums up the Tories’ austerity-driven welfare regime, which attacks the most vulnerable.

“There needs to be a complete halt to these audits, and an inquiry so that whoever is responsible is held to account.”

The government guidance document for PIP assessments (section 3.4 onwards) says that “audit processes are in place for auditing the quality of assessments through:
• DWP Lot-wide audit (random sample); and
• The provider – Approval-related audit (for trainees).

And: “Audit has a central role in ensuring that decisions on benefit entitlement, taken by DWP, are correct. It supports this by confirming that independent Health Professional advice complies with the required standards and that it is clear and medically reasonable. It also provides assurance that any approach to assessment and opinion given is consistent so that, irrespective of where or by whom the assessment is carried out, claimants with conditions that have the same functional effect will ultimately receive the same benefit outcome.”

It goes on to say: “The DWP Independent Audit Team carries out lot-wide audit, which is an audit of a controlled random sample from across each contract Lot, feeding in to routine performance reporting for DWP.”

Where a report is deemed ‘unacceptable’: “Any changes made to forms should be justified, signed and dated. It should be made clear that any changes are made as a result of audit activity. Where necessary a new report form should be completed.”

The government guidelines also say that: “Any challenge to the reason DWP has returned a case to the Provider for rework must be made via the nominated rework Single Point of Contact (SPOC).”

In the event of a dispute regarding a request for an assessment report to be changed, “the final decision on whether the case requires rework rests with DWP and not the assessor.” 

So ultimately, an official at the DWP who was not present when a person was assessed, may decide that the assessment report is ‘reworked’, and use non-transparent criteria to change the facts established and recorded during the assessment.

This means that the person making the claim has no opportunity to challenge the changes made to ‘reworked’ reports before the decision is made regarding the claim. 

There is increasing evidence that disability benefits are being removed on flimsy and fabricated grounds. Disability News Service (DNS) has been carrying out an investigation into claims of widespread dishonesty in the disability benefit system, with more than 250 PIP claimants alleging assessors repeatedly lied, ignored written evidence and dishonestly reported the results of physical examinations. It’s a regular occurrence for disabled readers to read the reports of their benefit assessment, and find a statement, of an event or comment that never in fact happened.

The government produced guidelines that says assessors must look for ‘inconsistencies’ in disabled people’s accounts. For example, if a person says that they cannot bend because of spinal problems, but they have a pet, such as a cat or dog, a decision will be made that the person making the claim can bend to feed the pet. I

In my own PIP assessment report last year, it says that the HP had to prompt me several times because of my lack of concentration. She also acknowledged that I needed aids to remember to take my medication. Yet the report is riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. It was concluded that there is no evidence that I have ‘cognitive difficulties’ because I have a degree (from 1996), and worked as a social worker (before I became too ill to work in 2010.) It was also mentioned that I had a driving licence as further justification for removing a point, but the report failed to mention I have not been able to drive since 2005 because of flicker-induced seizures, even though I made that clear. I therefore lost one point – which meant I was not awarded the enhanced rate.

As well as widespread allegations of fabricated reports, secret filming has produced claims of a culture of targets, in which assessors are allegedly monitored to ensure they don’t find excessive numbers of disabled people eligible for benefits, and mounting evidence of toxic punitive measures. As one former jobcentre adviser put it when describing her role with benefit claimants, there were “brownie points for cruelty.

Last year, figures released by the government indicated that neither Atos nor Capita – the private companies contracted by the government – paid more than £500m to assess people for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) – are actually meeting the target of 97% of assessments conforming to standards. 

The government released the data to the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, which was due to take evidence from Atos and Capita regarding the assessments.

While private companies carry out the assessments, it is the DWP that makes the final decision on whether to award people financial support. However, those decisions are informed by the contents of reports that privately contracted ‘health professionals’ write during the assessment process.

One of the current performance measure – which sees an independent team pick cases at random – was launched in March 2016. Under the previous method, the private providers audited assessments themselves. 

The NAO found last year that the number of completed ESA assessments were below target, despite an expected doubling of the cost to the taxpayer of the contracts for disability benefit assessments, to £579m a year in 2016/17compared with 2014/15.

The NAO said that nearly 1 in 10 of the reports on disabled people claiming support were rejected as below standard by the government. This compares with around one in 25 before Atos left its contract. The provider was not on track to complete the number of assessments expected last year and has also missed assessment report quality targets.

The proportion of Capita PIP tests deemed ‘unacceptable’ reached a peak of 56% in the three months to April 2015.

For Atos, the peak was 29.1% for one lot in June 2014. 

More than 2.7million people have had a DWP decision regarding PIP since the benefit launched in 2013 – this suggests that tens of thousands went through an ‘unacceptable’ assessment.

However, it’s difficult to acertain what ‘unacceptable’ actually means, in light of the fact that the DWP orders some reports are ‘reworked’. This editing may – and undoubtedly has – result in grossly inaccurate final reports which in turn inform a fatally flawed and unjust decision-making process, aimed at declining disabled people’s claims for lifeline support.

Related

Government guidelines for PIP assessment: a political redefinition of the word ‘objective’

Thousands of disability assessments deemed ‘unacceptable’ under the government’s own quality control scheme

 


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Charities not allowed to criticise authoritarian government ministers

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Charities and groups contracted to deliver the government’s new Work and Health Programme have been told they must not be critical of the work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey.

A clause in the contract for those delivering the programme stipulates that signed-up charities must “pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of McVey and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). However, such contracts that prevent charities from speaking out do not align with government claims of  “transparency”. 

Turning Point, the RNIB, the Royal Association for Deaf People, and the Shaw Trust are among charities that have agreed to act as providers of services under the programme – which focuses on supporting disabled people and other disadvantaged groups into work in England and Wales. It does not operate in Scotland.

There are currently at least 22 organisations – covering contracts worth £1.8 billion – that have been required to sign the clauses as part of their involvement with Department for Work and Pensions programmes.

The existence of an extraordinary clause was revealed through a freedom of information (FoI) request by campaigning website the Disability News Service (DNS)You can read the report on the disclosure in full here.

DNS says the clause states that the contractor “shall pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of DWP and ensure it does nothing to bring it “into disrepute, damages the reputation of the Contracting Body or harms the confidence of the public in the Contracting Body”.

The contract defines the “Contracting Body” as the work and pensions secretary – Esther McVey, who was criticised and heckled last week in the Scottish Parliament as she attempted to make a defence for Universal Credit and the hated rape clause.

All of the disability charities contacted by DNS have insisted that the clause – which DWP has been using since 2015 – will have no impact on their willingness to criticise McVey or the Department.

Shaw Trust said the “publicity, media and official enquiries” clause had been present “in previous DWP contracts” and “does not and has not impinged on our independence as a charity”.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The department did not introduce this clause specifically for the Work and Health Programme contract.

“It has been used in DWP employment category contracts since 2015.

The contract is the framework which governs the relationship with DWP and its contractors so that both parties understand how to interact with each other.

“The clause is intended to protect the best interests of both the department and the stakeholders we work with, and it does not stop individuals working for any of our contractors from acting as whistle-blowers under the provisions of the Public Interest “Disclosure Act 1998, nor does it prevent contractors from raising any concerns directly with the department.”

So how do charities raise concerns about the impact of draconian Conservative policies, without being “critical of the work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey,” or get around the problem of “paying the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of the DWP, exactly? 

The UK government has “systematically and gravely” violated the human rights of disabled persons, a fact that was verified by the United Nations (UN) investigation, the findings of which were published in 2016. The UN report documented multiple violations of disabled people’s rights, including the way that they are politically portrayed as being lazy and a “burden on taxpayers”, the harm to health caused by unfair assessments, the cuts to legal aid and curtailed access to justice, the imposition of the bedroom tax and the ending of the Independent Living Fund, in addition to the cuts made to the welfare safety net.

The government have dismissed these findings in their entirety. Yet a truly democratic, accountable and transparent government would have monitored and assessed the impact of their punitive policies, and launched an inquiry to explore the correlation between their policies and practices and the distress, harm, premature deaths and suicides that have been well documented and evidenced over the past few years. 

This authoritarian gagging clause emphasises a toxic oppressive culture, and an intention of the government to silence its critics. However, it is unenforceable insofar as it purports to preclude a worker or group from making a protected disclosure, under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. Whistleblowing legislation has been amended since the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 and the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015.

The 2013 Act, among other things, introduced a public interest test. In order to benefit from whistleblower protection a disclosure must “in the reasonable belief of the worker making the disclosure” be “made in the public interest”. 

The 2015 Act created a power for the Secretary of State to impose reporting requirements on prescribed persons (bodies to which whistleblowers may disclose information).  It is claimed that these requirements would cover matters such as the number of whistleblowing disclosures received and investigated. 

In an era of  outsourcing and public sector commissioning, most contracts issued by NHS trusts, local authorities and central government departments, or by their prime providers, now include such restrictions on providers speaking freely or releasing any information without permission.

The Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector included in its 2014 report a specific request to the government that such clauses be outlawed. Nick Hurd, then the Minister for Civil Society, said in a priceless Orwellian response that it was the government’s ambition for the UK to be “the most transparent and accountable government in the world”; but he said it had a duty “to ensure all publicly released information is accurate and validated, and contracts with providers are designed to reflect this”. 

That’s a government denial clause, by the way. 

Asheem Singh, director of public policy at the charity chief executives body Acevo, said in 2014 that gagging clauses are unacceptable and charities and social enterprises should challenge them.

“There is no doubt that many confidentiality clauses in government contracts are designed to protect not the public but the department or the ministers concerned,” he says. “We need an open, transparent system where data is freely shared. We have reams of data protection legislation that is designed to protect the vulnerable. Contractual confidentiality clauses that aim to prevent ‘bringing a department into disrepute’, as one example puts it, merely protect officialdom.”

Exactly.

However, the right to whistleblow if individuals believe there has been serious wrongdoing remains. If it’s in the public interest, there is a right to disclose and be protected from any consequences, and that is the law.

You can read about the laws and protections regarding whistleblowing and gagging clauses here.

Image result for gagging clause UK

Update 9 October 2018

The media has finally decided this issue is newsworthy.

At least 22 organisations – covering contracts worth £1.8 billion – have been required to sign the clauses as part of their involvement with programmes getting the unemployed into work, The Times  has reported.  

Officials at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) denied they were “gagging clauses” intended to prevent criticism of ministers or their policies, insisting they were just “standard procedure”. However a spokesman confirmed that the contracts did include references to ensure both parties “understand how to interact with each other and protect their best interests”. The signatories to contracts must undertake to “pay the utmost regard to the standing and reputation” of the Work and Pensions Secretary, the newspaper reported, adding that they must “not do anything which may attract adverse publicity” to her, damage her reputation, or harm the public’s confidence in her. 

The disclosure comes after McVey confirmed that some people would be worse off as a result of the introduction of Universal Credit, saying the Government had taken some “tough decisions”. However, this was contradicted by Downing Street

Former prime minister John Major called for a rethink of the planned roll-out of UC to more than two million claimants of existing benefits, warning the Government risked a poll tax-style backlash if the policy was seen as unfair.

The Department for Work and Pensions has announced that from April 2019 Citizens Advice (CA) and Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) will receive a total of £51 million to help people with universal credit claims. This move in itself shows how unfit for purpose the Universal Credit (UC) process is, as people need support in simply claiming it. 

CA and CAS  have been given a role in supporting  claimants through every step of making a UC claim and ‘managing their money when it arrives.’ The main focus will be on budgeting advice and digital support. 

£12 million is being provided to CA and CAS to set up the service by April 2019, with a further £39 million being paid from April onwards.

The government funding has understandably raised concerns about the freddom that CA and CAS will have to campaign in relation to the failings of UC.

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Esther McVey said:

“This brand new partnership with Citizens Advice will ensure everyone, and in particular the most vulnerable claimants, get the best possible support with their claim that is consistently administered throughout the country.

“Citizens Advice are an independent and trusted organisation, who will support people as we continue the successful rollout of Universal Credit.”

Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

We offer independent and confidential advice to millions of people every year, and have already helped nearly 150,000 people with Universal Credit. We’ve seen first-hand what can happen when people struggle to make a claim and their payments are delayed.

“We welcome the opportunity to provide even more people with the help they need with Universal Credit, and deliver a consistent service through the Citizens Advice network across England and Wales.

“Delivering this service will give us even greater insight into the Universal Credit system. We’ll continue to share our evidence with the government to help make sure Universal Credit works for everyone.”

The problem is that’s what he thinks.

Related 

Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper

 


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Frank Field’s letter regarding the DWP’s non-existent/existent data: a Schrödinger kind of paradox

cat schro

The data is only real when someone looks for it

Following on from the article yesterday, (DWP spent £100m on disability benefit appeals over 2 year period), I have copied Frank Field’s letter to Esther McVey below, which highlights the discrepancy between what McVey informed the Work and Pensions Committee when they asked her to provide evidence regarding the costs of disability benefit appeals and mandatory reconsiderations in an inquiry into disability benefits, and the details provided, following a timely Freedom of Information request. 

Key facts

  • Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spent £108.1 million on Personal Independent Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) reviews and appeals since October 2015
  • Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spent £103.1 million on social security and child support tribunals in 2016/17
  • Around two-thirds of PIP and ESA tribunals have been won by claimants this year
  • More than 300,000 PIP and ESA decisions have been changed at review or appeal since October 2015

Figures obtained by the Press Association through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request show that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has spent £108.1 million on direct staffing costs for ESA and PIP appeals since October 2015.  The cost covers mandatory reconsiderations, an internal DWP review, and appeals to tribunals run by HM Courts and Tribunals Service. 

This staggering amount of money is being spent on the administrative costs of a Department fighting to uphold the outcomes of its own incompetent and deeply flawed decision-making. This is unacceptably leaving thousands of ill and disabled people having to fight to receive lifeline support to which, as the high proportion of successful appeal outcomes informs us, they are legally entitled. Furthermore, when provided with a second chance to remedy incompetent decision-making at mandatory review, the Department has persistently continued to uphold the original flawed decision in many cases. 

Since October 2015, 87,500 PIP claimants had their decision changed at mandatory review, while a further 91,587 claimants went on to win their appeals at tribunal. In the first six months of 2017/18 some 66% of 42,741 PIP appeals went in the claimant’s favour, highlighting that both the original decision-making process and mandatory review are failing to effectively ensure eligibility for support is fairly and accurately assessed.

The figures for ESA since October 2015 show 47,000 people had decisions revised at mandatory reconsideration and 82,219 appeals went in the favour of those let down by the current system of assessment and DWP decsion-making.

It’s as if the system is weighted to refuse as many people as possible their lifeline support.

So far in 2017/18, 68% of 35,452 ESA appeals have gone in favour of the claimant.

Conservative peer Baroness Altmann, a former minister at the DWP, said the money could be spent on benefits for those who need them, rather than on the costs of fighting their claims.

“Disability benefits need an overhaul and, of course, we must not let people make bogus claims, but the extent of the appeals we are seeing clearly indicates that something is seriously wrong with the system,” she said.

Figures released to the select committee’s inquiry show further costs to taxpayers.

The Ministry of Justice says it spent £103.1 million on social security and child support tribunals in 2016/17, up from £92.6 million the year before and £87.4 million in 2014/15.

Around 190,000 cases were cleared with or without a hearing in 2016/17, the Ministry told the committee.

The select committee is due to publish the results of its inquiry into PIP and ESA on Wednesday.

Chair Frank Field has written to Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, in the wake of the figures to question why MPs were not given such information.

DWP gave the committee the average costs of a mandatory reconsideration and appeal for PIP and ESA.

However, Field, a Labour MP, said the committee was unable to work out the full cost of the appeals process.

This was because it was told information on PIP appeals was not available on whether they were appeals from new claimants or those being reassessed, which have different costs.

The information released to the Press Association was broken down into costs for new claims and those undergoing reassessments.

Here is Field’s letter:

letter head

From the Chair
                                                                                                                            9 February 2018
Rt Hon Esther McVey
Secretary of State
Department for Work and Pensions

PIP appeal data

During our inquiry on PIP and ESA assessments, your Department kindly provided to us estimated unit costs of MRs and Appeals. This indicated that different costs are attached to PIP appeals depending on whether they relate to new or reassessed claims. 

Seeking to understand the financial implications of appeals for the Department, Committee staff inquired on 30 January: 

Of the 170,000 PIP appeals since 2013, how many were for new claims and how many were reassessments?  

We were duly informed:

The information on the number of PIP appeals is from HMCTS published statistics and this information is not available from HMCTS for new claims and reassessments separately.    

We were therefore unable to estimate the full cost of appeals to your Department, although the Ministry of Justice informed us that in 2016/17 its appeals expenditure was £103 million. 1

It was with some surprise, therefore, that we today received data released in response to an FOI request. This provided estimated costs per month spent on PIP appeals—broken down by new and reassessed claims.

You will be aware that we are shortly due to publish our report. That this data was provided in response to an FOI request, but not for our Report, is doubly regrettable since the key theme of our report is the need to introduce much greater trust and transparency into the PIP and ESA systems.

Might you please explain how this occurred?


1 Cost of Social Security and Child Support appeals, of which the majority relate to PIP/ESA.Franks sig

 

 

 

 

 

 


Related

A critique of the government’s claimant satisfaction survey

DWP spent £100m on disability benefit appeals over 2 year period

Thousands of disability assessments deemed ‘unacceptable’ under the government’s own quality control scheme

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