Tag: Debbie Abrahams

Iain Duncan Smith abandoned his own sinking ship

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Analysis of George Osborne’s budget from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Stephen Crabb has been appointed as the new work and pensions secretary, after Iain Duncan Smith resigned in a flurry of controversy on Friday.

Mr Duncan Smith has said the latest planned cuts to disability benefits were “not defensible” in a Budget that benefited higher-earning taxpayers.

David Cameron said he was “puzzled and disappointed” that Mr Duncan Smith had decided to go when they had agreed to have a rethink about the policies

Iain Duncan’s Smith’s letter of resignation must be a BIG embarrassment to the  Government. It was certainly designed to inflict maximum damage particularly on Chancellor George Osborne. I’ve previously noted that the Chancellor has a tendency to regard the Department for Work and Pensions as little more than an annex to the Treasury, and the welfare budget as the Treasury’s disposable income, but I never anticipated that Duncan Smith would come to say that he sees it that way, too. This is, after all, a minister that has invented statistics and told some pretty far-fetched fibs to prop up justifications of his policies that entail some pretty draconian measures, such as sanctions and work fare, after all.

Yet surprisingly, Duncan Smith has also quite willingly and very publicly provided the government’s opponents with ammunition. He has effectively denounced not only Osborne’s budget, but also, his targeted austerity measures, yet curiously, Duncan Smith has until now been one of the most ideologically devout Thatcherite Conservatives, which is reflected in every policy he has formulated.

He has basically said what many of us have been saying for a long time: that the cuts are political and not because of economic necessity, nor will they help the economy. He also as good as said he doesn’t think we are “all in it together”. It turns out that Osborne blamed Duncan Smith for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) cuts. But Duncan Smith has been a very quiet man recently, often conspicuous by his absence during parliamentary debates, with Priti Patel left defending the ESA cuts in particular in the Commons.

However, the Department for Work and Pensions did a review of PIP last year, and that’s where the “justification” for the cuts came from – a sample of just 150 people, which was hardly a representative sample. It’s difficult to imagine that IDS didn’t order that review. But it was Osborne who announced the cuts to PIP, not Iain Duncan Smith. Just who carries the original responsibility for the proposed PIP cuts is probably never going to be fully untangled from the crossfire of accusations and counter accusations. But surely Cameron is ultimately responsible for Conservative policies?

In his resignation letter, Iain Duncan Smith says:

“I have for some time and rather reluctantly come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled, and the context in which they’ve been made are, a compromise too far. While they are defensible in narrow terms, given the continuing deficit, they are not defensible in the way they were placed within a budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers. They should have instead been part of a wider process to engage others in finding the best way to better focus resources on those most in need.

I am unable to watch passively while certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.

Too often my team and I have been pressured in the immediate run up to a budget or fiscal event to deliver yet more reductions to the working age benefit bill. There has been too much emphasis on money saving exercises and not enough awareness from the Treasury, in particular, that the government’s vision of a new welfare-to-work system could not be repeatedly salami-sliced.

It is therefore with enormous regret that I have decided to resign. You should be very proud of what this government has done on deficit reduction, corporate competitiveness, education reforms and devolution of power.

I hope as the government goes forward you can look again, however, at the balance of the cuts you have insisted upon and wonder if enough has been done to ensure ‘we are all in this together’ “

You can read the letter in full here

You can see Cameron’s response in full here

Many Conservatives have suggested that Duncan Smith – a supporter of Brexit – had been looking over several weeks for an opportunity to resign, and claimed that he wanted to find a moment when he could inflict maximum damage on the campaign led by Cameron and Osborne to keep Britain in the European Union. But writing in the Observer, Bernard Jenkin, a Tory MP and chair of the Commons public administration select committee, says that Duncan Smith was not prepared to tolerate another raid on the disability budget.

Referring to the prime minister’s letter to Duncan Smith, in which Cameron said he was “puzzled” by the resignation, Jenkin says: “What that letter does not make clear is that the £4bn savings in the budget from welfare still stands and, once again, Iain was being told to find similar cuts from other benefits for working-age people – including for the disabled – again undermining the positive incentives that make it worthwhile for them to take work. That is what he finds morally indefensible.”

However, Debbie Abrahams, the shadow minister for disabled people, who has faced Duncan Smith many times during Commons debates and Work and Pensions Committee inquiries, says she does not accept the reasons Iain Duncan Smith has given for resigning, and believes he chose to resign so he could “embarrass the government as much as he can”.

She adds that planned cuts to disability benefit payments in the Budget were “grossly unfair” and would hit “the most vulnerable in society at the same time the highest earners are getting tax cuts”. 

She says she is grateful that many Conservative MPs are critical of the proposals, but adds: 

“We must make sure that this last cut that has been announced around Personal Independence Payments is stopped and does not carry on.”

The resignation is particularly surprising given that, just hours earlier, the Treasury shelved the proposed cuts to PIP – following threats of a Tory backbench rebellion. Three Tory MPs – including mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith – have  also been asked to resign as patrons of disability charities over their support for the recent welfare cuts. The complete failure of the austerity project is finally unravelling the Conservatives, and at a time when the Brexit faction of the party is already causing considerable disarray.

Even some of the most loyal Tories were finding it difficult to defend taking money away from sick and  disabled people – particularly since many of those who receive PIP are in work, and in fact some rely on it to stay in work. The cuts to ESA and PIP take place in the context of a Tory manifesto that included a pledge not to cut disability benefits. In fact in March last year, the Prime Minister signalled that the Conservatives will protect disabled claimants from welfare cuts in the next parliament (this one). Cameron said the Conservatives would not “undermine” PIP, which was introduced under the Coalition to save money by “targeting those most in need.” Now it seems those most in need are not the ones originally defined as such.

Controversially, the cuts to disability benefits were planned to fund tax cuts for the most affluent – the top 7% of earners. The Chancellor raised the threshold at which people start paying the 40p tax, in a move that will  see many wealthier people pulled out of the higher rate of income tax, in the coming budget. Mr Osborne said that he wants to “accelerate progress” towards the Conservative’s manifesto pledge of raising the threshold for the 40p rate to £50,000 in 2020. The average annual income in the UK is around £27,000.

The Labour Party have urged Stephen Crabb to appear before MPs on Monday to announce formally that the cuts to disability benefits had been dropped. Owen Smith, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “His very first act as secretary of state must be to come to parliament on Monday to announce the full reversal of cruel Tory cuts that will see 370,000 disabled people lose £3,500 a year.”

He also urged Crabb to “stand up to a Treasury that is intent on cutting support for those most in need to pay for tax breaks for those who least need them”.

The main retaliation from the Conservative frontbench has been that Duncan Smith knew about the disability cuts (which he did) and that this is an act of mischief and sabotage designed and timed to destablise Cameron regarding Europe. It may well be. But the divisions had already caused wobbles, Duncan Smith just delivered a swift and hefty kick to the “in” crowd.

However, it’s also clear there has been a rising tension between the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions for some time. Duncan Smith felt that the benefits system could be scaled back only so far. Osborne and Cameron would prefer to see the welfare state completely dismantled.

Nonetheless, we have witnessed Duncan Smith’s long term disconnection from the impacts of his policies. He has persistently refused to engage with critics raising serious concerns about the consequences of the welfare “reforms”. He has refused to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of his policies and absolutely refused to monitor the impacts, most of which have been dire for sick and disabled people, and when the specifics of negative consequences were pointed out to him, he has typically reacted with denial, anger and accusations of “scaremongering.”

Duncan Smith used the mantra “there’s no proof of causality” to dismiss those who recognised a correlation between his welfare “reforms” and an increase in premature mortality rates and suicide. He has consistently and quite unforgivably shown that he is more concerned about hiding evidence and stifling criticism than he is about conscienciously investigating the harmful and sometimes devastating consequences that his policies have had on many people.

On the day he resigned, Duncan Smith’s department lost a four year legal battle to keep the many potentially humiliating problems with Universal Credit from the public.

Whatever the reasons may be for Duncan Smith’s resignation, he has certainly highlighted very well that Conservative budget decisions are partisan, taken for  party political interest rather than with consideration for the national interest. But in more than one way.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that it is Iain Duncan Smith’s “reforms” that have prompted a United Nations inquiry into grave and systematic violations of the human rights of disabled people. It’s highly unlikely that Duncan Smith’s reputation will be enhanced in the long-term regarding his legislative legacy, particularly regarding disabled people. He has collaborated with other ministers in designing and extending techniques of neutralisation to attempt justify what are extremely prejudiced, discriminatory and punitive policies aimed at the poorest citizens.

This is a man who has removed people from a structural socioeconomic context and then intentionally blamed them for their individual socioeconomic circumstances, most of which have been created by this government’s actions since 2010. Every single Conservative budget has taken money from the poorest and gifted it to the wealthiest. It’s inconceivable that Tory ministers don’t understand such policies will invariably extend and perpetuate inequality and poverty.

Duncan Smith has damned himself, but nonetheless, a Conservative minister resigning and stating that it is because of a Conservative budget, publicly citing reasons that correlate with the opposition’s objections regarding the government’s ideologically driven and targeted austerity, is a particularly damning turn of events for the Conservative Party as a whole, that’s for sure.

Now that Duncan Smith has publicly denounced the Conservative austerity project, I wonder if he will also recognise and embrace the rational expertise and economic competence of a real party of social justice, which rescued this country from the consequences of a global recession by the last quarter of 2009, whilst Osborne had us back in recession by 2011, and lost us our triple A Fitch and Moody credit ratings after promising not to. I wonder if Duncan Smith now supports the fair party with a track record of verifiable economic expertise – that would be the Labour Party.

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Picture courtesy of Robert Livingstone

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Government plans further brutal cuts to disability support

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Disabled people are already carrying a disproportionately high burden of the austerity cuts, despite government claims of economic recovery.

Government ministers are planning to cut a key element of the Personal Independent Payment (PIP). Last year a consultation indicated that the Conservatives were considering ways of reducing eligibility criteria for the daily living component of PIP, by narrowing definitions of aids and appliances.

From January 2017, the cut is likely to hit people experiencing incontinence, who struggle to dress themselves, and those facing other fundamental barriers to health and essential basic care. The cut, it is estimated, will affect at least 640,000 disabled people by 2020.

Controversially, it is alleged that the cuts to disability benefit will fund tax cuts for the most affluent – the top 7% of earners. The Chancellor is set to raise the threshold at which people start paying 40p tax, in a move that will probably see  many wealthier people pulled out of the higher rate of income tax, in the coming budget. Mr Osborne says he wants to “accelerate progress” towards the Conservative’s manifesto pledge of raising the threshold for the 40p rate to £50,000 in 2020, it is understood.

Meanwhile, under the plans announced on Friday, sick and disabled people will be much less likely to receive essential disabled benefits if they use aids such as a handrail or a walking stick to get dressed or use the toilet.

The Department for Work and Pensions reviewed a sample of 105 cases of people who had scored all, or the majority, of their points for PIP due to aids and appliances, in order to assess the extent to which the award may reflect extra costs.

The review led the government to conclude that PIP “doesn’t currently fulfil the original policy intent”, which was to cut costs and “target” the benefit to “those with the greatest need.” That originally meant a narrowing of eligibility criteria for people formerly claiming Disability Living Allowance, increasing the number of  reassessments required, and limiting the number of successful claims.

Prior to the introduction of PIP, Esther McVey stated that of the initial 560,000 claimants to be reassessed by October 2015, 330,000 of these are targeted to either lose their benefit altogether or see their payments reduced. Of course the ever-shrinking category of “those with the greatest need” simply reflects a government that has simply made a partisan political decision to cut disabled people’s essential income to fund a financial gift to the wealthiest citizens. There is no justification for this decision, nor is it “fair.”

The government now  claim that the proportion of people awarded the daily living component of PIP, who scored all of their points because they need aids and appliances, has more that tripled, from 11 per cent in April 2014 to 35 per cent in 2015.

The PIP assessment currently examines an individual’s ability to complete ten daily living activities and two mobility activities. Regular reviews were also introduced by the last government to ensure that claimants continue to receive the “right level of support.”

The increase has largely been driven by a significant and sustained rise in relation to activities one, four, five and six: preparing food, washing and bathing, dressing and undressing, and managing incontinence and toileting. Around three-quarters of those who score all of their points through aids and appliances score the minimum number of daily living points needed to qualify for the standard rate of the daily living component.

The government ridiculously claim that the “evidence” presented to the review suggested that in some instances points were being awarded “… because claimants chose to use aids and appliances, rather than needed them.”  And noted that in many cases “ these were non-specialised items of very low cost.”

However, it’s very difficult to justify cutting support for people who require aids to meet fundamental needs such as preparing food, dressing, basic and essential personal care and managing incontinence.

Ministers have now announced their intention to cut PIP for people who currently receive it to help them afford specially-adapted appliances and equipment. Examples of qualifying equipment currently includes adapted cutlery for people who find it difficult to hold things for long periods of time and specially-designed household items for people less able to stand.

Justin Tomlinson, the disabilities minister, said that the cuts to funding for aids and appliances for the disabled could save about £1bn a year and was announced the week before the budget. Charities warned that the cuts to personal independence payments (PIP) would be devastating after the move was confirmed by Tomlinson on Friday.

Tomlinson, said: “The introduction of Personal Independence Payment to replace the outdated Disability Living Allowance for working age claimants has been a hugely positive reform.

But it is clear that the assessment criteria for aids and appliances are not working as planned. Many people are eligible for a weekly award despite having minimal to no extra costs and judicial decisions have expanded the criteria for aids and appliances to include items we would expect people to have in their homes already.

We consulted widely to find the best approach. And this new change will ensure that PIP is fairer and targets support at those who need it most.”

Only a Conservative minister would claim that taking money from sick and disabled people is somehow “fair,” and they frequently do. The cuts of £120 a month to the disability benefit employment support allowance (ESA) are also claimed to be “fair.” and “supportive.” Though I have yet to hear an explanation of how this can possibly be the case. Ministers claimed that people subjected to the ESA Work Related Activity Group cuts could claim PIP if they required support with extra living costs, but now we are told that PIP is to be cut, too.

Bearing in mind the Department for Work and Pensions “review” was based on a sample of just 105 people, it’s very difficult to see how further inhumane cuts to the lifeline income for this group of amongst the most disabled citizens can possibly be justified. How did ministers “plan” the assessment criteria for aids and appliances to work, exactly?  People qualifying for PIP need extra support in meeting their living costs.

A coalition of 25 disability charities has written to the Government to warn against plans that would strip some disabled people of a key payments meant to help them live more independent lives.

The Disability Benefits Consortium wrote to Justin Tomlinson, to argue that proposed changes to Personal Independence Payment – or PIP – assessments would have a “severe impact” on people’s security and make it harder for them to find work.

Debbie Abrahams, the shadow disabilities minister, said: “Removing support for people who need help to use the toilet or dress is an attack on dignity.”

“These further cuts would represent another huge blow, making life even more difficult for many people who already facing huge barriers.”

Phil Reynold, policy and campaigns adviser at Parkinson’s UK, said: “If someone needs aids and appliances to carry out the most basic tasks that most people take for granted then they clearly need ongoing support to live independently, which is often expensive. They should not be penalised by making personal independence payments even more difficult to claim.”

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of the MS Society, said: “This decision could have a devastating impact on the lives of people with MS. In the worst cases, they could lose up to £150 a week.

PIP is an essential benefit which goes towards the extra cost of being disabled. The new plans will fail some of the most vulnerable people in society and we have serious concerns about the future health and welfare of those affected.”

The government is currently being investigated by the United Nations because of  serious allegations that many of us have made regarding the welfare “reforms”, which have extended gross and systematic abuse of the human rights of disabled people. The UK is the first country to be subject to an investigation regarding the government’s failure to meet legal obligations to uphold disabled people’s human rights. In the 6th wealthiest nation of the world, and a so-called liberal democracy, this treatment of an already marginalised and protected social group is utterly shameful.

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A black day for disabled people – disability benefit cuts enforced by government despite widespread opposition

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“The fact is that Ministers are looking for large savings at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable. That was not made clear in the general election campaign; then, the Prime Minister said that disabled people would be protected.” – [Official Report, Commons, 2/3/16; cols. 1052-58.]

A coalition of 60 national disability charities have condemned the government’s cuts to benefits as a “step backwards” for sick and disabled people and their families. The Disability Benefits Consortium say that the cuts, which will see people lose up to £1,500 a year, will leave disabled people feeling betrayed by the government and will have a damaging effect on their health, finances and ability to find work.

Research by the Consortium suggests the low level of benefit is already failing to meet disabled people’s needs. 

A survey of 500 people in the affected group found that 28 per cent of people had been unable to afford to eat while in receipt of the benefit. Around 38 per cent of respondents said they had been unable to heat their homes and 52 per cent struggled to stay healthy.

The Government was twice defeated in the Lords over proposals to cut Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for sick and disabled people in the work-related activity group (WRAG) from £103 to £73.

However the £30 a week cut is set to go ahead after bitterly disappointed and angry peers were left powerless to continue to oppose the Commons, which has overturned both defeats. The government has hammered through the cuts of £120 a month to the lifeline income of ill and disabled people by citing the “financial privilege” of the Commons, and after Priti Patel informing the Lords that they have “overstepped their mark” in opposing the cuts twice.

The Strathclyde review, commissioned by a rancorous and retaliatory David Cameron, following the delay and subsequently effective defeat of government tax credit legislation in the House of Lords, recommends curtailing the powers of Upper House. Strathclyde concludes in his report that the House of Lords should be permitted to ask the Commons to “think again” when a disagreement on proposed legislation exists, but should not be allowed to veto. MPs would ultimately make a decision on whether a measure is passed into law. The review focuses in particular on the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, in relation to the former’s primacy on financial matters and secondary legislation, and serves to highlight the government’s very worrying increasing tendency towards authoritarianism.

The cuts to ESA and proposed and probable cuts to Personal Independent Payments (PIP), take place in the context of a Tory manifesto that included a pledge not to cut disability benefits.

Yesterday in the House of Lords, independent crossbencher Lord Low of Dalston warned: “This is a black day for disabled people.”

Contrary to what is being reported, it won’t be only new claimants affected by the cuts to ESA. Firstly, it may potentially affect anyone who has a break in their ESA claim (and that could happen because of a reassessment with a decision that means needing to ask for a mandatory review), and secondly, those migrated onto Universal Credit will be affected. The benefit cap will also cut sick and disabled people’s income if they are in the ESA WRAG.

Paralympic gold medallist Baroness Grey-Thompson said she was bitterly disappointed that this “dreadful and punitive” part of the Bill was going ahead.

Parliamentary procedure had prevented her putting down another amendment opposing the move, which will have a harsh, negative impact on thousands of people’s lives.

Already facing a UN inquiry into grave and systematic abuses of the human rights of disabled people, Cameron remains completely unabashed by his government’s blatant attack on a protected social group, and the Conservatives continue to target disabled people for a disproportionately large burden of austerity cuts.

The Government have been accused of failing to fulfil their public sector equality duty. Under the Equality Act 2010, the Government must properly consider the impact of their policies on the elimination of discrimination, the advancement of equality of opportunity and the fostering of good relations. This is shameful, in a very wealthy first-world democracy.

The “justification” the Tories offer for the cut of almost £120 a month to the lifeline support of people judged to be unfit for work by their own doctors AND the state, is that it will “help people into work”. I’ve never heard of taking money from people who already have very little described as “help” before. Only the Conservatives  would contemplate cutting money from sick and disabled people, whilst gifting the millionaires with £107, 000 each per year in the form of a tax “break”.

Reducing disabled people’s incomes won’t “incentivise” anyone to find a job. It will just make life much more difficult. The government have made the decision to cut disability benefits because of an extremely prejudiced ideological preference for a “small state” and their antiwelfare agenda. There are alternative political choices that entail far more humane treatment of sick and disabled people. The fact that ministers have persistently refused to carry out a policy impact assessment indicates clearly that this measure has got nothing to do with any good will towards disabled people, nor is it about “helping” people into work.

The cut simply expresses the Conservative’s contempt for social groups that are economically inactive, regardless of the reasons. Sick and disabled people claiming ESA have already been deemed unfit for work by their doctors, and by the state via the work capability assessment. Simply refusing to accept this, and hounding a group of people who are ill, and who have until recently been considered reasonably exempt from working, is an indictment of this increasingly despotic government.

I can’t help wondering how long it will be before we hear about government proposals to cut the financial support further for those in the ESA support group. There does seem to be a recognisable pattern of political scapegoating, public moral boundaries being pushed, and cruel, highly unethical cuts being announced. Social security provision is being dismantled incrementally, whilst the Conservative justification narrative becomes less and less coherent. Despite the arrogant moralising approach of Tory ministers, and the Orwellian rhetoric of “helping” and “supporting” people who are too ill to work into any job, or face the threat of starvation and destitution, none of this will ever justify the unforgivable, steady withdrawal of lifeline support for sick and disabled people.

Baroness Meacher warned that for the most vulnerable the cut was “terrifying” and bound to lead to increased debt.

Condemning the “truly terrible” actions of the Treasury, she urged ministers to monitor the number of suicides in the year after the change comes in, adding: “I am certain there will be people who cannot face the debt and the loss of their home, who will take their lives.” Not only have the government failed to carry out an impact assessment regarding the cuts, Lord Freud said that the impact, potential increase in deaths and suicides won’t be monitored, apart from “privately” because individual details can’t be shared and because that isn’t a “useful approach”.

He went on to say “We have recently produced a large analysis on this, which I will send to the noble Baroness. That analysis makes it absolutely clear that you cannot make these causal links between the likelihood of dying—however you die—and the fact that someone is claiming benefit.”

Actually, a political refusal to investigate an established correlation between the welfare “reforms” and an increase in the mortality statistics of those hit the hardest by the cuts – sick and disabled people – is not the same thing as there being no causal link. Often, correlation implies causality and therefore such established links require further investigation. It is not possible to disprove a causal link without further investigation, either.

Whilst the government continue to deny there is a causal link between their welfare policies, austerity measures and an increase in premature deaths and suicides, they cannot deny there is a clear correlation, which warrants further research – an independent inquiry at the VERY least. But the government are hiding behind this distinction to deny any association at all between policy and policy impacts. That’s just plain wrong.

Insisting that there isn’t a “causal link” established, whilst withholding crucial evidence in parliament and from the public domain is what can at best be considered the actions and behaviours of tyrants.

 

Related reading

House of Lords debate: ESA – Monday 07 March 2016 (From 3.06pm)

Thatcher’s policies condemned for causing “unjust premature death”

MP attacks cuts hitting disabled people – Debbie Abrahams

Leading the debate against the Welfare Reform and Work Bill – 3rd reading – Debbie Abrahams

My speech at the Changes to Funding of Support for Disabled People Westminster Hall Debate – Debbie Abrahams

The government need to learn about the link between correlation and causality. Denial of culpability is not good enough.

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

A Critique of Conservative notions of “Social Research”

The DWP mortality statistics: facts, values and Conservative concept control

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

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Maximus ‘has falsified results of fitness for work tests’, says MP – John Pring

By John Pring

The discredited US outsourcing giant contracted to carry out “fitness for work” tests on behalf of the government has been accused by an MP of “falsifying” the results of assessments.

Labour MP Louise Haigh attacked the track record, ethics and even criminal behaviour of Maximus in delivering public contracts in the US, during a debate on the work capability assessment (WCA).

But she also highlighted what she described as a “disconcerting pattern of behaviour” by Maximus in the UK since taking over the WCA contract from Atos last year.

She said: “There seems to be an alarming trend of cases being rejected based on factual errors or even – I hesitate to say this – falsification.”

Haigh (pictured speaking in the debate), a shadow Cabinet Office minister, also raised concerns that there was no way for the public to check whether targets set for Maximus by the government – such as the number of serious complaints and the payment of travel expenses within nine working days – were being met.

 

You can read the rest of this excellent article here

Related

Doctors bribed with 70-90k salaries to join Maximus and “endorse a political agenda regardless of how it affects patients.”

Audit finds whereabouts and circumstances of 1.5 million people leaving welfare records each year “a mystery”

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Labour MP Frank Field has called on the government to conduct a survey into the circumstances of those hundreds of thousands of citizens whose benefit income is withdrawn each year under the current harsh sanctioning regime.

Mr Field, who also chairs the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, carried out a forensic audit of the government’s welfare reform programme – Fixing Broken Britain? An audit of working-age welfare reform since 2010, which is to be published today (18 January 2016) by Civitas and co-authored by Andrew Forsey.

Worryingly, the research found that the whereabouts of 1.5 million people leaving the welfare records each year is “a mystery.” The authors also raise concern that the wellbeing of at least a third of those who have been sanctioned “is anybody’s guess.” It’s not the first time these concerns have been raised.

It emerged in 2014, during an inquiry which was instigated by the parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee, that research conducted by Professor David Stuckler shows more than 500,000 Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants have disappeared from unemployment statistics, without finding work, since the sanctions regime was toughened in October, 2012.

This means that in August 2014, the claimant count – which is used to gauge unemployment – is likely to be very much higher than the 970,000 figure that the government is claiming, if those who have been sanctioned are included.

The research finding confirms what many of us already knew.

Professor Stuckler, who has analysed data from 375 local authorities, said:

“The data clearly show that many people are not leaving Job Seekers Allowance for work but appear to be being pushed off in unprecedented numbers in association with sanctions.”

The Work and Pensions Committee decided to conduct a further in depth inquiry into benefit sanctions policy at the time, following the findings of the research. This inquiry considered aspects of sanctions policy which were outside the remit of the Oakley Review. (You can see the terms of reference for the inquiry, and submissions were invited, all details of which are here – Committee launch inquiry into benefit sanctions.)

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams said:

“Sanctions are being applied unfairly to job-seekers, as well as the sick and disabled.

The reason the Government is doing this is that it gets them off the JSA claimant figures, so it looks like there are fewer people unemployed.”

Mrs Abraham added:

“Hundreds of thousands of people have had their benefits stopped for a minimum of four weeks and then approximately a quarter of these people, from the research that I’ve seen, are disappearing.

They are leaving and we don’t know where they are going. That’s an absolute indictment of this policy and it’s a little bit worrying if we’re trying to tout this internationally as a real success story.”

The MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, and shadow disability minister memorably added:

“People have died after being sanctioned, Minister.”

The Government claims that sanctioned claimants who leave the benefit system are going into work – they also claim that their punitive sanctions regime “works”. But the Oxford study found this is untrue in a “majority” of cases. At the time, the government were accused of massaging unemployment figures via benefit sanctions.

Frank Field and Andrew Forsey write:

“The number of sanctions was halved in the year leading up to the 2015 election, but it still remained at half a million. Sanctions are therefore being applied at a scale unknown since the Second World War, and the operation of sanctions on this scale makes for a most significant change in the social security system as it has existed in the post-war period.

A number of people – we know not how large a number – are being totally disconnected from both work and welfare, and risk being exposed to destitution.

Justice calls for a major survey of what happens to the hundreds of thousands of people thrown off the welfare rolls each year through the sanctioning process. It is unacceptable, not only for this government but for its predecessor and those who will follow, to take away benefit from a mass of people each year and not trouble themselves with how this army of people survive. For that is what is happening under the government’s sanctions policy. The ability to track the wellbeing of the whole population is now a part of being a grown up government, let alone a ‘One Nation’ government.”

In the report, Field and Forsey call for four safeguarding reforms, “to restore greater fairness and transparency to the sanctions regime.” They:

  • Propose that the government must forthwith begin a survey so that they can answer the simple but crucial question of what happens to those citizens expelled from the welfare rolls who appear not to find work.
  • Welcome the government’s decision to trial a Yellow Card early warning system, but suggest that should it fail to prevent injustices from occurring, the government should supplement this policy with the option for Jobcentre Plus staff of issuing a non-financial sanction for a claimant’s first failure to meet the terms of their Claimant Commitment. 
  • Recommend that the Department for Work and Pensions trials a ‘grace period’ for vulnerable claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance, during which the requirements placed upon them are eased at times of transition or acute difficulty.
  • Request information from the government showing how much expenditure is withdrawn through its policy of sanctioning claimants.

Last year year, the Work and Pensions Select Committee heard independent estimates that since late 2012 sanctions had resulted in at least £275m being withheld from benefit claimants (the comparable figure for 2010 was £50m). Committee member Debbie Abrahams MP said that the Department for Work and Pensions will not give or does not have actual figures.

However, it’s truly remarkable that the government somehow manage to pull numbers out of their secret Thunderball when they believe it’s in their own interests to do so. The latest “employment” figures, for example. How likely is it that those numbers are remotely accurate when we have a government that happily presides over the disappearance of many thousands of sanctioned people every year from their accounts?

This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.

Specialist Disability Employment Advisors in Jobcentres cut by over 60 per cent

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Full-time specialist disability employment advisors who are posted in jobcentres have been radically reduced since 2011. The full-time advisors are employed to help disabled people navigate the support system and find employment. Over the last four years, the number of specialist advisors fell by over 60 per cent, from 226 to just 90.

The government says that the advisors will be replaced by unqualified  non-specialist “work coaches” as part of its Universal Credit programme, which also extends welfare conditionality, entailing sanctions, to people in part-time and low paid work.

We reported last week that the work coach scheme is to extend from jobcentres to GP practices, to prevent sick and disabled people from “leaving the job market” and “claiming Employment Support Allowance” (ESA), with pilots already underway.

The latest figures on jobcentre advisors were released by ministers in response to a Parliamentary question by Labour MP Emily Thornberry.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pension said the fall in advisor numbers was consistent with Government policy.

“With the introduction of Universal Credit disabled people looking for work now have access to Work Coaches who are trained to provide tailored support specific to their individual needs. As we continue to make our mainstream services more accessible to disabled jobseekers it is expected that the number of Disability Employment Advisors will continue to decline.”

“The Government is committed to halving the disabled employment gap and the most recent disabled employment figures show that 226,000 more disabled people found work over the past year.”

Charities have responded, saying that the specialist advisors are absolutely crucial for people with disabilities who have to navigate the support system and that their reduction will undermine the Government’s own claim of “supporting people in to work.”

The government have also cut in work support for disabled people, such as the Access to Work fund, which helps people and employers cover costs of disabilities that may present a barrier to work. Under the Equality Act, employers are obliged to make “reasonable adjustments” to the workplace to support people with disabilities.

A coalition of 100 disability charities had warned that the government cuts threaten disabled people’s rights earlier this year, and last month, especially those with learning disability and mental health problems, charities also called for a halt in the government’s cuts to ESA, which will be reduced, removing the work-related activity component, so that people will receive the same amount as jobseekers with no disability, which will make it more difficult for disabled people to find work, and may have an adverse impact on people with health conditions.

The cuts to specialist employment support for people with disabilities flies in the face of  Iain Duncan Smith’s comments during the Tory conference – that sick and disabled people need to see work as their route out of poverty. It’s difficult to see how that can be achieved when the government is busy closing down the transport system, as it were.

Duncan Smith commented at the Conservative conference: “We don’t think of people not in work as victims to be sustained on government handouts. No, we want to help them live lives independent of the state.

“We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.”

We can’t help wondering what “help” actually means to Conservatives, because there is every indication that they don’t use the word in a conventional sense. Usually when Tories use the word “help” or “support”, it indicates some sort of penalty or punishment: a reference to the extended draconian benefit conditionality and  sanctions regime

Elliot Dunster, group head of policy, research and public affairs at disability charity Scope, has said that the fall in specialist assistance was concerning:

“Disability employment advisors make a huge difference in supporting disabled people into work – providing expert, personalised advice and guidance.

“We’re very concerned to see this drop in the number of job centres that have fulltime specialist advisors for disabled people. Disabled people are pushing hard to find work, but continue to face huge barriers, ranging from inaccessible workplaces to employer attitudes. 

“Disability employment advisors help tackle these barriers. The Government has set out a welcome ambition to halve the disability employment gap. To do this disabled people must have access to specialist, tailored employment support.”

Dan Scorer, head of policy at Mencap, has warned that the replacement generalist advisors would “simply not have the training” required:

“People with a learning disability find the demands placed upon them difficult while claiming Job Seekers Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance.

“Some find them impossible and we are worried that there is not the right support in Jobcentres to help them. Families tell us that a lack of learning disability training and cuts to DEAs is leading to many people with a learning disability being unfairly sanctioned and receiving insufficient support to appeal decisions, or the right support to find employment.

“Even if the reduction in DEAs in some part of the country is due to the rolling out of Universal Credit and part of a strategic move to generic advisors, we are concerned that these advisors will simply not have the training to fully support claimants with a learning disability.

“The problems with the administration of benefits and changes in the benefits system, combined with future cuts to benefits and social care, is causing fear and anxiety among the 1.4 million people with a learning disability and their families in the UK who are scared they could be isolated in their local communities.”

Mind have already warned that the transition away from specialist help under Universal Credit would make the benefits system more difficult for people with mental health issues. Policy manager, Tom Pollard told the Independent:

“We’re pretty sceptical of the ability of those jobcentre advisors to be able to understand the barriers that people with mental health issues face.” 

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams recently challenged Priti Patel, the employment minister, during work and pensions questions in the Commons recently to raise concerns about the negative impacts of social security sanctions on the mental health of claimants.

During the session the Patel had claimed: “Our staff are trained to support claimants with mental health conditions and there is no evidence to suggest that such claimants are being sanctioned more than anybody else.”

Mrs Abrahams, Shadow minister for Disabled People, responded: “The minister may have inadvertently slipped up there. There is clear evidence from last year that 58 per cent, more than half, of people with mental health conditions on the employment and support allowance work-related activity group were sanctioned.”

A recent Freedom of Information request showed that between April, 2014, and March this year there were almost 20,000 benefit sanctions received by people who were out of work because of their mental health.

However, in this same period only 6,340 of the group were successfully supported into employment during the same period by the Work Programme.

Tom Pollard said: “Figures obtained by us show that people with mental health problems are more likely to have their benefits stopped than those with other conditions.

“Last year, the Department of Work and Pensions issued more sanctions to people with mental health problems being supported by Employment and Support Allowance than they did to those with other health conditions.

“Stopping somebody’s benefits, or threatening to stop them, is completely the wrong approach to help people with mental health problems find work — it’s actually counterproductive.

“In continually refusing to listen to calls for a review of the use of sanctions, the Government is not only undermining its ambition of helping a million more disabled people into work, but is also failing its duty of care for the health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of people with mental health problems.”

The Department of Work and Pension’s own research shows that the threat of sanctions does ensure that people who need support from social security comply with benefit rules, but that doesn’t actually help them to find work. It also tends to undermine confidence, and many jobcentre advisors have expressed concern that people with mental illness are more likely to be sanctioned simply because they would have greater difficulty meeting the strict conditionality criteria and because of the greater pressure to sanction “non-compliance” from government. (page 54)

But we deeply suspect that sanctions are precisely what the government are referencing when they use the phrase “helping people into work.”

This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.

Government refuses to review the negative impact of sanctions on people with mental illness

Illustration by Jack Hudson.

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare “conditionality” in 2012. Sanctions are based on the behavioural theory called “loss aversion,” which is borrowed from economics and decision theory. Loss aversion refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards “changing their behaviours,” by using a threat of punitive loss, since the underpinning assumption is that people are unemployed because of personal behavioural deficits and making “wrong decisions,” rather than because of socio-economic conditions and political policy decisions.

However, a wealth of evidence has demonstrated that sanctioning does not help clients into work; indeed, it is more likely to make it much harder to get a job. Furthermore, sanctions are often applied in an arbitrary manner, without due regard to proportionality, rationality or for the health and wellbeing of people claiming benefits.

The Government is facing renewed calls for an independent review to examine its controversial benefit sanctions policy and to ensure vulnerable people are protected. However, Department of Work and Pensions minister, Priti Patel, has refused to examine the effect of its  sanctions regime on the mental health of people who are affected by it.

MPs used a question session in the Commons to raise concerns over the impact of benefit sanctions on the mental health of claimants.

Employment minister, Patel, said any analysis of the temporary benefit cuts’ effects would be “misleading” in isolation and that their effect should therefore not be examined.

“There are many factors affecting an individual’s mental health. To assess the effect of sanctions in isolation of all other factors would be misleading,” she told MPs at a Work and Pensions Questions session in the House of Commons.

She also claimed that there was no evidence that sanctions particularly affected people with mental health problems – a claim contrary to the results of independent research.

More than 100 people with mental health issues have their benefits sanctioned every day, according to figures released earlier this year.

The government’s refusal to engage with criticism of the sanction system’s effect on mental health comes after the highly critical study by the charity Mind.

83 per cent of Work Programme participants with mental health issues surveyed by Mind said the scheme’s “support” had made their mental health problems worse of much worse.

Jobseekers are to be given 14 days’ notice before facing benefit sanctions under a new scheme being trialled next year by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

But the government were questioned why they are waiting until next year to trial this idea.

Eilidh Whiteford, the SNP’s social justice and welfare spokeswoman, told Ms Patel: “The so-called yellow pilot scheme is actually an admission by the Government that the sanctions regime isn’t working at the present time, and it’s particularly badly failing people with serious mental illnesses.

“Why is the Government waiting until next year to bring in this pilot scheme, and in the meantime will they please just stop sanctioning people who are seriously ill?”

Ms Patel said she would “respectfully disagree” with Ms Whiteford, adding: “Claimants are only asked to meet reasonable requirements taking into account their circumstances and I think, as you will find with the pilots as they are under way, that again this is about how we can integrate support for claimants and importantly provide them with the support and the guidance to help them get back to work.”

Ms Whiteford insisted the reality is people with mental health problems are being “disproportionately sanctioned”, adding that has been clear for “some time”.

Ms Patel replied: “For a start, the Government has been listening and we have responded to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, hence the reason we will be trialling and piloting the new scheme.”

She reiterated staff in jobcentres are trained to support claimants with mental health conditions, adding: “There is no evidence to suggest mental health claimants are being sanctioned more than anybody else.”

Shadow work and pensions minister Debbie Abrahams told Ms Patel: “You may have inadvertently slipped up there.

“There is clear evidence from last year that 58% of people with mental health conditions on the Employment Support Allowance work-related activity group were sanctioned.

“Obviously that’s over half and that’s the equivalent to 105,000 people – 83% in a Mind survey say that their health condition was made worse as a result of this.”

Data released by the mental health charity Mind recently revealed the scale of sanctions imposed on people with mental health problems being supported by out-of-work disability benefits.

Obtained by the charity under the Freedom of Information Act, the figures show that there were up to three times more benefit sanctions issued by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to people with mental health problems last year than there were people “supported” into work.

There were almost 20,000 benefits sanctions received by people who were out of work because of their mental health last year, while only 6340 of this group were successfully supported into a job during the same period.

Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, President of the British Psychological Society, said:

“Today’s news, from a Freedom of Information request made by the mental health charity Mind, shows that three times as many people are subject to benefit sanctions as those who have been supported back into work.”

“We in the British Psychological Society have become increasingly concerned about benefit sanctions and a number of other issues concerning the psychological welfare of those on benefits.

“We have repeatedly sought a meeting with the Secretary of State and his team and now repeat that request so that his Department may become aware of the most up-to-date psychological research and opinion on these issues.

“There are approximately 250,000 people receiving the benefit Employment and Support Allowance who need this support primarily because of their mental health. People can be sanctioned – have their benefits cut – if they fail to participate in work-related activity, including missing appointments or being late for meetings or CV writing workshops.

“However, many people with mental health problems find it difficult to participate in these activities due to the nature of their health problem and the types of activities they’re asked to do, which are often inappropriate.”

The government has a duty to monitor the impact of its policies, and to make the results public. Sanctions are founded on theory and experimental behavioural science, which adds a further dimension of legitimacy to calls for a review into the impacts of sanctions on people.

This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.

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