Tag: ESA

DWP destroyed reports linking benefit sanctions and cuts with suicide

errol

Errol Graham, who starved to death in 2018, following his social security support being cancelled by the Department for Work and Pensions. He left a heartbreaking letter which described his circumstances leading up to his death. His family found the letter after he died, weighing less than five stone.

Department for Work and pensions (DWP) officials have admitted that up to 50 reviews into deaths following harsh social security cuts and sanctions have been destroyed.

The government has been accused of a ‘cover-up’ after destroying the reports which link suicides to sanctions and peoples’ benefits being stopped. Around 50 reviews into deaths following the loss of social security payments before 2015 have been shredded, officials have blamed data protection laws. 

However, the data watchdog has said there was absolutely no requirement to destroy the reports by any particular date and that a “public interest” exemption could have been used.

The Department would have known that. 

Labour MP Stephen Timms, the chairman of the Commons work and pensions committee, agreed it was a possible cover-up, saying: “I’m very sympathetic with that”

Timms, who said his committee would demand answers about the shredded reports, pointed out a scathing National Audit Office report (NAO) had warned the DWP was unable to show it was learning lessons.

Having been “very secretive”, it was now “very reluctantly” becoming more open, he said – but “trying to keep things as hush-hush as possible – and it’s not good enough”.

“It all underlines a lack of seriousness by the department about putting things right when they go wrong.”

The NAO investigation into the information DWP collects on deaths by suicide of social security claimants found that the department has internally reviewed 69 cases in which “alleged department activity” may have been among the reasons for such death. However, it said ‘gaps in reporting’ meant the actual figure was likely to be higher. The report said  said the department did not seek to draw trends from the findings of internal reviews, meaning that “systemic issues which might be brought to light through these reviews could be missed.”

Timms added: “The law does not specify five years or six years and this kind of information should be held for longer,” in response to the DWP’s claim that data rules required the destruction of old investigations.

“In any case, the lessons learned from these reviews, there’s no reason why they should be destroyed. They should be kept and progress on implementing improvements monitored.”

A freedom of information (FoI) response to a campaigner revealed that up to 49 secret reviews carried out before 2015 were destroyed.

More than 100 have taken place over the last decade, amid growing concern over deaths linked to harsh benefit cuts and sanctions introduced by the Conservatives.

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams fought back tears in the Commons as she read out a list of 24 people who died after problems with their benefits, this week.

Regarding the 69 reviews since 2015, she told ministers: “This is just the tip of the iceberg. We do not even know the actual number of people who have taken their own life as a result of what they went through.”

In a statement, the DWP said: “We take these reviews extremely seriously and ensure cases are investigated and concluded and any lessons learned.”

However, that is clearly untrue. In fact the department and government ministers have consistently denied a ‘causal link’ between their policies and an increasing mortality rate, while also refusing to allow an independent investigation into the deaths.

The NAO criticised the DWP for lacking clear guidance on when a case should be investigated and for not having any “robust record” of contact from coroners about suicide cases, which it said meant some cases flagged up by coroners may not have resulted in an internal review being initiated.

It’s worse than disgraceful that people are dying because of  draconian policies and the actions of a system that should be supporting them. 

Many of us have called for the DWP to be held accountable through robust independent inquiry and regulation. The department has shown a consistent lack of transparency when reporting on systematic problems that have put people at risk, and has refused to open itself up to meaningful independent scrutiny.

Earlier this month, I reported that the DWP has been accused of altering disability assessment reports, to reduce or end peoples’ lifeline support. It was alleged that officials within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have edited or entirely removed thousands of work capability assessment reports submitted by privately contracted ‘independent’ healthcare professionals. This is another indication of the complete lack of transparency around DWP decision making.

The consequences of this government’s draconian social security policies

Many people have died since the welfare ‘reforms’ were hammered through parliament, despite wide opposition. 

Relatives of a man who starved to death after his social security was cut are taking legal action against the DWP.

Errol Graham’s family said they hoped the case would overhaul the system “to better protect vulnerable claimants”.

Errol’s daughter-in-law Alison Turner has sent a pre-action protocol letter to the DWP, arguing the termination of benefits for someone in Mr Graham’s circumstances were unlawful.

She also argues secretive investigations and reviews being conducted by the DWP into benefit-related deaths are unlawful and must be reformed.

Errol Graham weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him. He had just a couple of out-of-date tins of fish left in his flat, because the DWP had wrongly stopped his ESA. He starved to death, and his rent support had been stopped as a consequence of his ESA claim being ended. The DWP failed to follow safeguarding rules in their haste to end his claim. He was also denied PIP, which left him without any income whatsoever. 

DWP civil servants had failed to seek further medical evidence from his GP, just as in many other tragic cases that have sparked repeated calls for an independent inquiry into links between the deaths of claimants and the actions and failings of the DWP. The government have consistently refused to acknowledge a correlation between their actions and the death of disabled people, so have no intention of investigating the evidence. 

Assistant coroner Dr Elizabeth Didcock, who heard the inquest, was told that the DWP stopped Graham’s ESA entitlement – and backdated that decision to the previous month – after making two unsuccessful visits to his home to ask why he had not attended a face-to-face work capability assessment (WCA) on 31 August 2017. The inquest heard that it was standard DWP procedure to go ahead with stopping the benefits of a claimant marked on the system as vulnerable after two failed safeguarding visits.

However, the DWP (somehow) managed to stop an ESA payment that had been due to be credited to his bank account on 17 October, the same day officials made the second unsuccessful safeguarding visit.

DWP’s own rules state that it should make both safeguarding visits before stopping the benefits of a vulnerable claimant.

Because Errol lost his ESA entitlement, his housing benefit was also stopped. His family says he had also been found ineligible for PIP. Deprived of all financial support, experiencing significant mental distress and unable or unwilling to seek help, he slowly starved to death. He was 57. His body was discovered on 20 June 2018 when bailiffs arrived at his Nottingham council flat to evict him for non-payment of rent. 

His benefits had been stopped even though he had been receiving incapacity benefit, and then ESA, for many years as a result of enduring mental illness and distress that had led to him being sectioned. Errol was clearly extremely vulnerable.

He had also told the DWP on an ESA form three years earlier that he could not cope with “unexpected changes”, adding: “Upsets my life completely. Feel under threat and upset…”

He added: “Cannot deal with social situations. Keep myself to myself. Do not engage with strangers. Have no social life. Feel anxiety and panic in new situations.”

The assistant coroner said: “There simply is not sufficient evidence as to how he was functioning, however, it is likely that his mental health was poor at this time – he does not appear to be having contact with other people, and he did not seek help from his GP or support agencies as he had done previously.”

She concluded in the narrative verdict, delivered last June, that the “safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it”.

Those ‘holes’ are a consequence of deliberate, ideologically driven anti-welfare policies. They have intended consequences. The government assumes that people treated unfairly will appeal wrong decisions. Firstly, many people are far too ill to cope with the stress of that process. Secondly, it should never be primarily the role of courts to allocate social security fairly. That is the official role and purpose of the DWP.  However, the government department is clearly failing to fulfil its role. This is because the neoliberal ideology that drives austerity policies is incompatible with the central principles of social security. 

She continued: “He needed the DWP to obtain more evidence [from his GP] at the time his ESA was stopped, to make a more informed decision about him, particularly following the failed safeguarding visits.”

She said that a consultant psychiatrist had told the inquest “that Errol was vulnerable to life stressors” and that it was “likely that this loss of income, and housing, were the final and devastating stressors, that had a significant effect on his mental health”.

But she decided not to write a regulation 28 report demanding changes to DWP’s safeguarding procedures to “prevent future deaths” because the department insisted that it was already completing a review of its safeguarding, which was supposed to finish last autumn.

The DWP had promised her it would “listen to clients and to those representing them, and… ensure that the DWP was focused on support and safety for vulnerable people”.

Dr Didcock insisted that this commitment “must be converted into robust policy and guidance for DWP staff” and that the DWP must ensure that “all evidence that can reasonably be gathered is put together about a client, before a benefit is ceased”.

Disability News Service also highlights that the death of Errol Graham closely mirrors other tragedies caused by the DWP’s repeated refusal to make significant improvements to its safeguarding policies and practices.

Denise McKenna, co-founder of the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), said the network was “absolutely devastated and saddened beyond words to hear of the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Graham”.

She said: “We are enraged that the DWP continues to treat the lives of people who live with mental distress as disposable.

“This level of cruelty is outside of anything that would happen in a civilised society.

“The fact that Mr Graham had not responded to attempts to contact him following his failure to attend the work capability assessment (WCA) should have raised alarm bells over his safety, but instead the DWP took the opportunity to stop his social security entitlements.”

And there’s the truth: the government have created a hostile environment for disabled people that is heavily weighted towards preventing successful claims, taking its lessons from rogue multinational insurance companies such as Unum, who have systematically employed strategies to pay out insurance only as the last resort, rather than on the basis of need. 

Furthermore, the DWP and Conservative ministers have consistently demonstrated a refusal to acknowledge the widespread distress, harm and death that their policies are causing, despite many challenges to their narrative of denial. Nor is it likely the government will address the complete lack of honesty, transparency and accountability operating at the centre of the DWP, of their own volition.

The government’s indifference and lack of remorse related to the clear correlation between policy and increased mortality is extremely worrying.

That is why we must continue to campaign, raise awareness and stand up for ill, disabled and vulnerable citizens in the UK. 

Errol's letter

Errol Graham’s letter, which was released through his daughter-in-law’s lawyers, Leigh Day , is a moving window into the world of someone with severe mental illness trying to cope with the hostile environment imposed on vulnerable citizens because of government policies. (Picture from the Mirror).

 


 

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DWP accused of altering disability assessment reports to cut or end successful claims

gail

Pictured: Gail Ward, who was told that she did not qualify for Personal Independence Payment, despite living with a rare and potentially life-threatening heart condition – Prinzmetal’s angina – attacks can occur even when she is resting. She also had other health problems. Remarkably, Gail was told by the DWP that she doesn’t qualify for PIP. She won her appeal after waiting 15 months for her case to be heard at a social security tribunal.

It has been claimed that officials within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have edited or removed thousands of work capability assessment reports submitted by privately contracted healthcare professionals.

It’s alleged that officials reduced qualifying points awarded during face-to-face assessments, delivered by ‘independent’ private firms, and in some cases disposed of the reports entirely.  

The Daily Record reports that during the last year paperwork was altered or amended in around 1,840 cases, while a further 460 applications were branded ‘unacceptable’ and simply binned.

In 2018, I raised concerns that the DWP were quietly editing people’s assessment reports for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), to reduce or end claims for disability support. I reported that a man with multiple sclerosis and mental ill health lost his PIP award after his original assessment report was dishonestly edited during a DWP ‘audit.’

Officials had clearly 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 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.

The original assessment document said the man, has “regular specialist input”. The ‘audited’ version says he does not. The 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. In every section of the report where the man scored points towards his PIP award, the ‘auditor’ had reduced his score to zero, without contacting him to ask for information. This tampering with the original report was done without informing the claimant, and therefore without giving him an opportunity to clarify the original report or challenge the altered version of his account. 

He was accidentally sent ‘before and after’ audit copies of his assessment, highlighting the DWP editing designed to trivialise the impact of his medical conditions on his day to day living circumstances, and to remove points for his award eligibility. 

The Daily Record reports than an estimated 11,760 assessment reports were secretly graded by DWP officials as acceptable, unacceptable, or amended.

DWP officials graded around 980 health assessments per month, with up to 200 of these being amended every month, while 20 to 50 were deemed “unacceptable” and rejected outright.

However, the number of amended reports is likely to be much higher because the DWP only publishes data from Independent Assessment Service forms (formerly known as Atos).

The Daily Record also says that 33,670 assessments in total were audited from two private companies contracted by the DWP to carry of disability assessments for PIP. 

SNP MP Marion Fellows commented: “It is concerning that thousands of health reports are being tampered with each year by people who weren’t even present for the assessment.

“There must be a complete halt to audits and an inquiry into the UK Government’s rigged health assessments.

“DWP auditors, who aren’t present during assessments, should not be able to mandate changes which could bear heavily on peoples’ lives.

“Changes should not be made by so-called health professionals who didn’t even carry out the original assessment. This is a clear injustice that must be corrected.

“People have spoken to me about how they feel they are degraded in their assessments.

“For the whole process to be a sham and for the assessment to be undermined by auditors is infuriating.”

The DWP said: “We are absolutely committed to ensuring people receive the support they are entitled to.

“That is why assessments are carried out by qualified health professionals and we continue to work with them to ensure quality is continuously improving.

“Sometimes assessment reports are returned to providers to ensure we have as much information as possible to reach an accurate decision.”

That’s clearly untrue. Information is most often actually removed at ‘audit’ by the DWP.  And inaccurate decisions are unacceptably high. The high success rate of claimant appeals indicates that clearly, something is seriously wrong with the system.

Last year, around two thirds of cases heard at tribunal in Great Britain found in favour of the claimant. In Northern Ireland, the figure was around 54% in 2018-19. The rise in the percentage of successful appeals came despite a drop in the overall number of cases being heard at court.

This raises concerns about the overall quality of decision-making in the DWP – both on PIP and ESA, in the apparent push to remove support unlawfully from as many disabled people as possible in the name of austerity.

The hostile environment

The introduction of mandatory reconsiderations in 2013 and cuts to legal aid have deterred many people from appealing. Mandatory Reconsideration don’t seem to function as a genuine check to ensure the original decision is fair and accurate, instead it is an administrative hurdle for claimants to clear, leaving them without any support while the DWP review the original decision. Furthermore, there were targets in place for DWP decision-makers to uphold around 80% of the original DWP decisions.

The DWP have claimed that the largest single reason for the high success rate of those claimants appealing DWP disability benefit adverse decisions. However, the Department has failed to explain why it takes until the appeal stage for evidence to come to light. In almost half of cases the “new evidence” presented was oral (not medical) evidence from claimants, which arose most often during the appeal process. It is difficult to understand why this information was not, or could not have been elicited and reported by the assessor.

The DWP’s attempt at explanation does not absolve the Department of responsibility. It certainly fails to address or explain how a target for upholding original decisions is compatible with ensuring that questionable reports are thoroughly investigated, and clearly flawed, inaccurate decisions identified and corrected.

Government guidelines for assessments are aimed at invalidating disabled peoples’  accounts of their experiences of illness and disability

The government produced guidelines that says assessors must look for ‘inconsistencies’ in disabled people’s accounts. Assessors are told: “All evidence must be interpreted and evaluated using medical reasoning, considering the circumstances of the case and the expected impact on the claimant’s daily living and/or mobility. When weighing up the evidence, it is important to highlight any contradictions and any evidence that does not sufficiently reflect the claimant’s health condition or impairment or the effect on their daily life.”.

This means that rather than focusing on written medical evidence and verbal evidence provided by the claimant, the assessor is looking for any evidence that may be used to discredit the claimant’s account of their disability from the start. 

Disabled peoples’ benefits assessments are carried out on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions by the private contractors Capita, the Independent Assessment Services (formerly called Atos) and Maximus. However, it is the DWP that makes the decisions regarding a person’s eligibility for social security support.

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. 

Over the last few years, evidence has mounted that disability benefits are being reduced or removed from people on fabricated grounds. Disability News Service (DNS) has  carried out an investigation into claims of widespread dishonesty in the disability benefit system. The research found more than 250 PIP claimants who have alleged 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 their circumstances, an event or comment that never happened.

For example, one person with a serious spinal injury who is wheelchair-bound was baffled by the comment on her assessment report which said she could bend to feed her dog and could take it out for a walk. She said she doesn’t have a dog, and has never had one. 

The government produced guidelines that says assessors must look for ‘inconsistencies’ in disabled people’s accounts. For example, if a person says they lack dexterity in their hands, but they are wearing jewellery, it will simply be assumed that they can open and close the clasp. They won’t be offered an opportunity to clarify that this is the case. 

In my own PIP assessment report in 2017, it said 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 any ‘cognitive difficulties’ because I have a degree (from 1996), and worked as a professional – social work (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. The reasons provided were not justified, since the assessor referred to events and periods of my life when I was not ill and disabled.

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”.

Consequences of the DWP’s hostile environment

The Conservative’s welfare reforms have led to “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights, a United Nations (UN) inquiry has concludedChanges to social security “disproportionately affected” disabled people, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Disabled Persons (CRPD) found.

The UK was the first country to be investigated under a UN convention it has been signed up to since 2007.

However, the government said it “strongly refuted” the committee’s findings and its “offensive” view of disability. Many disabled people, charities and campaigners submitted evidence to the United Nations for the inquiry. The government’s response was offensive.

The committee launched an investigation in 2012 after receiving evidence from individuals (I submitted evidence) and disability organisations about an the adverse impact and harm of government reforms on disabled people. The government have refused to act upon the findings and recommendations of the UN report.

Last year, the DWP disclosed that over 21,000 ill and disabled people died waiting for their PIP assessment to be completed, between April 2013 and 30 April 2018.

Sarah Newton, then Minister of State for Disabled People, published the figures on 11 January following a question raised in parliament by Labour MP Madeleine Moon in December: “How many people have died while waiting for their personal independence payment assessment to be completed; and what were the conditions those people died from?”

Newton responded: “All benefit claims can be made under the special rules for people who are terminally ill which will mean that they are fast tracked. These are currently being cleared within 6 working days for new claimants to PIP. The Department would encourage all claimants with a terminal illness to let the department know and to apply using the special rules.

The cause of death of PIP claimants is not collated centrally by the Department.”

Over 3.6 million applications to PIP were made between April 2013 and 30th April 2018. Of these:

  • 4,760 claimants died between their case being referred to, and returned from, an assessment provider;
  • 73,800 claimants died within 6 months of their claim being registered; and
  • 17,070 claimants died after registering but prior to the DWP making a decision on their claim. Details of the claimant’s primary medical condition, where recorded, are in the accompanying spreadsheet.”

The total number of PIP claimants who died was 95,000. But Newton’s response does not indicate at what stage of their claim the 73,800 people, who died within six months of it being registered, were at. Nor does it indicate what those people who did not have terminal or degenerative illnesses died of – including those with mental illness. For example, 270 of those mortalities are listed as having had anxiety and/or depressive disorders as their primary disorder.

Of those who did have terminal illnesses, we need to ask why these people were  cruelly left waiting so long for their assessment, if, as Newton claims, they are ‘fast tracked’ through the claim and assessment process.

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 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 remotely “fair”, as the government claims. 

We also need to ask how and why McVey had those figures in advance of the assessments taking place.

It’s become very evident since that ‘those in the greatest need’ are not being served by social security.  Disabled people are suffering distress, harm and some are dying as a consequence of government policy. The DWP end disabled people’s support any way they can, it seems. And when they can’t find a reason, they edit the evidence to attempt to justify their brutal and incoherent decision making.

In August 2013, Mark Wood starved to death at his home in Oxfordshire after his ESA was stopped.

David Barr, from Glenrothes, Fife, also died that month, having taken his own life following an assessment that deemed him “fit for work”, resulting in the withdrawal of his ESA. He had a long history of serious mental health problems. 

On 23 September 2013, a father-of-two, Michael O’Sullivan, took his own life at his flat in north London. He had a long history of significant mental ill-health.

In November 2015, Paul Donnachie killed himself at his home in Glasgow. His ESA was stopped in error, but the letter informing him of the DWP’s mistake arrived too late. His body was found when the council came to evict him.

All of these people had significant mental health problems, and there are countless others, many whose names are never likely to be known, other than by grieving family and friends. These deaths are inextricably linked to decisions and actions taken by Conservative ministers and senior civil servants from the early days of the 2010 coalition government.

Every one of their deaths could and should have been avoided.

The Disability News Service (DNS) reported more recently that Errol Graham weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him. He had just a couple of out-of-date tins of fish left in his flat, because the DWP had wrongly stopped his ESA. He starved to death, and his rent support had been stopped as a consequence of his ESA claim being ended. The DWP failed to follow safeguarding rules in their haste to end his claim. He was also denied PIP, which left him without any income whatsoever. 

DWP civil servants had failed to seek further medical evidence from his GP, just as in many other tragic cases that have sparked repeated calls for an independent inquiry into links between the deaths of claimants and the actions and failings of the DWP. The government have consistently refused to acknowledge a correlation between their actions and the death of disabled people, so have no intention of investigating the evidence. 

Assistant coroner Dr Elizabeth Didcock, who heard the inquest, was told that the DWP stopped Graham’s ESA entitlement – and backdated that decision to the previous month – after making two unsuccessful visits to his home to ask why he had not attended a face-to-face work capability assessment (WCA) on 31 August 2017. The inquest heard that it was standard DWP procedure to go ahead with stopping the benefits of a claimant marked on the system as vulnerable after two failed safeguarding visits.

However, the DWP (somehow) managed to stop an ESA payment that had been due to be credited to his bank account on 17 October, the same day officials made the second unsuccessful safeguarding visit.

DWP’s own rules state that it should make both safeguarding visits before stopping the benefits of a vulnerable claimant.

Because Errol lost his ESA entitlement, his housing benefit was also stopped. His family says he had also been found ineligible for PIP. Deprived of all financial support, experiencing significant mental distress and unable or unwilling to seek help, he slowly starved to death. He was 57. His body was discovered on 20 June 2018 when bailiffs arrived at his Nottingham council flat to evict him for non-payment of rent. 

His benefits had been stopped even though he had been receiving incapacity benefit, and then ESA, for many years as a result of enduring mental illness and distress that had led to him being sectioned. Errol was clearly extremely vulnerable.

He had also told the DWP on an ESA form three years earlier that he could not cope with “unexpected changes”, adding: “Upsets my life completely. Feel under threat and upset…”

He added: “Cannot deal with social situations. Keep myself to myself. Do not engage with strangers. Have no social life. Feel anxiety and panic in new situations.”

The assistant coroner said: “There simply is not sufficient evidence as to how he was functioning, however, it is likely that his mental health was poor at this time – he does not appear to be having contact with other people, and he did not seek help from his GP or support agencies as he had done previously.”

She concluded in the narrative verdict, delivered last June, that the “safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it”.

Those ‘holes’ are a consequence of deliberate, ideologically driven anti-welfare policies. They have intended consequences. The government assumes that people treated unfairly will appeal wrong decisions. Firstly, many people are far too ill to cope with the stress of that process. Secondly, it should never be primarily the role of courts to allocate social security fairly. That is the official role and purpose of the DWP.  However, the government department is clearly failing to fulfil its role. This is because the neoliberal ideology that drives austerity policies is incompatible with the central principles of social security. 

She continued: “He needed the DWP to obtain more evidence [from his GP] at the time his ESA was stopped, to make a more informed decision about him, particularly following the failed safeguarding visits.”

She said that a consultant psychiatrist had told the inquest “that Errol was vulnerable to life stressors” and that it was “likely that this loss of income, and housing, were the final and devastating stressors, that had a significant effect on his mental health”.

But she decided not to write a regulation 28 report demanding changes to DWP’s safeguarding procedures to “prevent future deaths” because the department insisted that it was already completing a review of its safeguarding, which was supposed to finish last autumn.

The DWP had promised her it would “listen to clients and to those representing them, and… ensure that the DWP was focused on support and safety for vulnerable people”.

Dr Didcock insisted that this commitment “must be converted into robust policy and guidance for DWP staff” and that the DWP must ensure that “all evidence that can reasonably be gathered is put together about a client, before a benefit is ceased”.

Disability News Service also highlights that the death of Errol Graham closely mirrors other tragedies caused by the DWP’s repeated refusal to make significant improvements to its safeguarding policies and practices.

Denise McKenna, co-founder of the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), said the network was “absolutely devastated and saddened beyond words to hear of the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Graham”.

She said: “We are enraged that the DWP continues to treat the lives of people who live with mental distress as disposable.

“This level of cruelty is outside of anything that would happen in a civilised society.

“The fact that Mr Graham had not responded to attempts to contact him following his failure to attend the work capability assessment (WCA) should have raised alarm bells over his safety, but instead the DWP took the opportunity to stop his social security entitlements.”

And there’s the truth: the government have created a hostile environment for disabled people that is heavily weighted towards preventing successful claims, taking its lessons from rogue multinational insurance companies such as Unum, who have systematically employed strategies to pay out insurance only as the last resort, rather than on the basis of need. 

And if the evidence doesn’t suit the politically desired outcome – as outlined by the likes of Esther McVey –  it can always be edited or disposed of by the DWP.

Hostile environment McDonnell

 


More people, like you, are reading and supporting independent, investigative and in particular, public interest journalism, than ever before.

I don’t make any money from my research and writing, and want to ensure my work remains accessible to all.

I have engaged with the most critical issues of our time – from the often devastating impact of almost a decade of Conservative policies and growing, widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. At a time when factual information is a necessity, I believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity and the norms of democracy at its heart.

My work is absolutely free from commercial and political interference and not influenced one iota by billionaire media barons.  I have worked hard to give a voice to those less heard, I have explored where others turn away, and always rigorously challenge those in power, holding them to account. 

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Call for research evidence: would UBI mitigate the social & economic disadvantages experienced by disabled people?

download (3)

Jane Mathieson is conducting research for her dissertation, which aims at reflecting on current experiences of those of us with invisible disabilities claiming disability benefits. She is exploring how Universal Basic Income (UBI) may improve our quality of life, potentially addressing social and political prejudice, removing barriers from disabled peoples’ socioeconomic inclusion and participation. 

Universal Basic Income is a regular payment made to every individual, which is not means tested, non-withdrawable and is paid without work conditions.

It would:

  • Guarantee everyone a secure base  
  • Replace the draconian, complex benefits system with a scheme fit for the 21st century 
  • Provide us all, including people who need extra income related to illness, disability and housing, with the freedom to develop our potential, to be included in society, to contribute our talents and to have the dignity we all deserve.

UBI would greatly reduce the ghastly punitive bureaucracy of the welfare system and give people more choice about which kind of work they take. It would also promote the idea of universality more generally, since it is an unconditional form of income. In non-universal welfare states, the state is primarily concerned with directing resources to “the people most in need”.

This requires a tight bureaucratic control in order to politically determine who is eligible for support and who is not. Furthermore, “those most in need” is a somewhat vague category of people, and as we have observed over the past decade, it comes with a bureaucracy that constantly re-defines ‘need’ and perpetually shifts the goal posts to suit the neoliberal austerity agenda.

People have been refused Employment and Support Allowance, on the grounds they are “fit for work”, for example, and therefore, not among those in the greatest need of support. However, many have died within weeks of being deemed fit for work by the state, indicating clearly they were not capable of working, and that they were in fact among those most in need of support. 

Beverage’s idea of the welfare state was universal and comprehensive one. He saw the role of the state as one of protection, which promotes the economic and social well-being of citizens, based upon the principles of  democracy, equal opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for citizens unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for an adequate standard of living. Social insurance is a system where people pay towards their own social security, should they need it. The vast majority of ill and disabled people have worked and therefore contributed to their own support. However, that support provision has become increasingly conditional and precarious.

I’m distributing this questionnaire to support Jane’s work.

It’s useful to explore in particular how UBI may work for those who need more support, such as those with caring responsibilities, as well as disabled people.

Here is an introduction to Jane’s research. You can click on the hyperlink highlighted in blue at the bottom of the page to participate in the survey: 

Taken for Granted: the implications of Universal Basic Income on those with Invisible Disability and a cost-benefit analysis for the State

You have been invited to be part of research to consider the experiences of those with invisible disabilities claiming benefits under the current system and how the implementation of Universal Basic Income may affect them. 

Please read this information sheet to find out more about the research and why I am doing it. 

My name is Jane Mathieson and I am currently in my final year of a BSc (Hons) Degree in Applied Social Science. One aspect of the course involves conducting academic research for which I have chosen to focus on Universal Basic Income and how its implementation may affect those with invisible disability in terms of well-being, social inclusion and work-related activities. 

The concept of true Universal Basic Income is that it is a benefit given to a large proportion of the population, regardless of household or family structure, age, employment status or disability. It is defined as a financial support which is sufficient enough to meet a family’s basic needs without earnings or additional sources of income. It would be seen to replace all income related benefits in their entirety, but not additional financial support such as Personal Independence Payment which is paid to compensate for the additional costs of being disabled. 

An online questionnaire will be distributed among members of Disability and Welfare Rights organisations through their online forums and social media. Hard copies will be made available on request. Participants may be invited to volunteer to take part in semi-structured interviews via Skype or another face-to-face communication platform. Please note there is an open comments box at the end of the questionnaire for you to share any additional comments or personal experiences. 

Confidentiality and anonymity: If you are happy to take part, please complete the consent form. I may write about what I find out in reports, conference papers, journals and books. I will also share any findings with other people who arrange similar activities, as well as other researchers.

It will not be possible to know who said what in anything made public. You can ask for feedback about our findings if you would like. If you choose to proceed, please complete the following questionnaire. On submission all data will be anonymised. All data collected will be stored on a password protected, private laptop, hard copies will be stored in a locked filing cabinet. 

Right to withdraw: You have the right to stop taking part in the research at any time during the questionnaire up to the point of submission when your details will be automatically be anonymised. Should there be a face-to-face interview, you also have a right not to answer specific questions or to ask for any audio and video ­recording to stop. 

Thank you in advance for your time and participation. Should you have any further questions regarding this research please contact me by email at jm158340@truro-penwith.ac.uk 

You can access the information sheet and questionnaire here.

Related

 


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More people, like you, are reading and supporting independent, investigative and in particular, public interest journalism, than ever before.

I don’t make any money from my research and writing, and want to ensure my work remains accessible to all.

I have engaged with the most critical issues of our time – from the often devastating impact of almost a decade of Conservative policies and growing, widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. At a time when factual information is a necessity, I believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity and the norms of democracy at its heart.

My work is absolutely free from commercial and political interference and not influenced one iota by billionaire media barons.  I have worked hard to give a voice to those less heard, I have explored where others turn away, and always rigorously challenge those in power, holding them to account. 

I hope you will consider supporting me today, or whenever you can. As independent writers, we will all need your support to keep delivering quality research and journalism that’s open and independent.

Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable and helps keep me going.  Thanks.


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National Audit Office to investigate DWP suicide monitoring of social security claimants

SUICIDE_PREVENTION

The National Audit Office is to demand information from Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on a ‘serious and important’ issue after ministers refuse to provide figures on how many people claiming social security have taken their own lives. The watchdog is to investigate the government’s monitoring of suicides among welfare claimants amid longstanding concerns about links between welfare reforms and declining mental health.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said it would call on the DWP to reveal what information it held on the suicides, after ministers refused to provide an MP with figures on the number of people in the welfare system who had taken their own lives.

In a letter seen by The Independent, the watchdog said it was “clearly a very important and serious” topic and that it would consider trying to collate the information itself if the government could not provide it. 

It comes as charities raise concerns about links between welfare reforms and declining mental health among claimants, with an increasing number of self-inflicted deaths being associated with financial difficulties stemming from cuts to support. 

A number of studies have established links specifically between universal credit and an increased risk of suicide, with experts blaming the “complicated, dysfunctional and punitive” nature of the new benefit and the frequency at which it pushes people into hardship, debt and rent arrears.

In December 2017, for example, concern was also raised when an analysis of NHS data showed that attempted suicides among out-of-work disability support had more than doubled since the introduction of work capability assessments in 2008.

The survey revealed that 43 per cent of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants – and as high as 47 per cent of female ESA claimants – had attempted suicide in their lifetimes, compared with 7 per cent of the general population.

In response to the figures, Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist and member of the campaigning Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said at the time: “These results are staggering. It is difficult to overemphasise how large a jump in rates of attempted suicide this is. I cannot think of a greater jump in rates in any population. 

“If the Government has any real interest in suicide prevention, benefits reform must be the immediate priority. The UN has condemned the government’s treatment of disabled people as contrary to their human rights.

“The shame, guilt, anxiety and paranoia the current system provokes is a national scandal, that should be headline news. Making the workless feel worthless, and under-serving of support, has provoked a mental health emergency.”

A study by leading academics of claimants and support staff in Gateshead and Newcastle found the new benefit to be a “complicated, dysfunctional and punitive” system that forces people into debt and rent arrears and “simply doesn’t work” s claimed by the government.

The research, among the first to focus on the experiences of claimants in a universal credit full service area, also said it was making people increasingly anxious and depressed and worsening existing health problems. Catherine Donovan, deputy leader of Gateshead Council, said: “This report confirms the significant hardship we have seen people and families in Gateshead endure for some time now.

“Austerity is not over. The roll out of universal credit means people are having to choose between eating and heating. It is appalling that people in this study talked about feeling so low, they had considered suicide.

“They talked about the shame and stigma of using food banks. With Christmas coming, the impact on communities and families will be extremely hard. I’m calling on government to scrap universal credit as a matter of urgency.”

At the time the research was published, a DWP spokesperson said: “This survey of 33 claimants doesn’t match the broader experience of more than 9,000 people receiving universal credit in Gateshead, who are taking advantage of its flexibility and personalised support to find work.”

That is atrocious gaslighting. 

There are also serious concerns and individual case of premature mortality, within a short time of someone being deemed ‘fit for work’, as well as the increase in numbers of people having suicidal thoughts and taking their own life, raised by many disability campaigners since the implementation of welfare ‘reforms’.

The United Nations concluded in a formal inquiry that the welfare ‘reforms’ have ‘systematically and gravely’ violated the human rights of ill and disabled people. 

Government ministers, however, simply denied that this is so, and have accused us of “scaremongering” denying any “causal link” between their punitive policies and distress and harm of citizens. Yet studies have established a clear correlation. Without further investigation, the government have no grounds to dismiss the possibility of a causal link. 

Campaigners have said that it was “unacceptable” that the DWP does not appear to record suicides among people claiming social security support and that it was “vital” for it to start doing so in order to assess the impact of changes to the welfare system.

Kamran Mallick, from Disability Rights UK, said: “This is a crucial issue which demands a thorough review. The welfare benefits system is confusing and challenging to navigate at the best of times.

“The causes of suicide are complex and multi-layered. But there’s no doubt that few disabled people find the benefits system welcoming and supportive, and for some it induces high levels of mental and emotional distress.”

Deborah Coles, director of charity Inquest, said: “That people have been so desperate to take their own lives as a result of the punitive and cruel benefits system is a serious concern that requires much greater scrutiny.”

Frank Field MP, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, who requested the data from ministers in a written question, said in his subsequent letter to the NAO: “I struggle to believe that, given the time it must take to put together evidence for inquests, attend court hearings, and internally review the decisions, that there is no record of such. 

“It shocks me even more that the DWP is apparently unconcerned with the most drastic efforts of its policies and conducts no internal monitoring of the tragedies in which it is complicit.”

Field told The Independent he was “pleased” to hear that the NAO was now looking into the issue, adding: “This for the first time will give us some concrete facts on the link between the current welfare system and suicide rates among claimants.”

In one suicide case, published in April in Derbyshire Live, a man who took his own life after running out of money for his electricity meter reportedly left a suicide note sarcastically “thanking” universal credit bosses.

In another, an inquest ruled last month that the mental health of a disabled man who took his life after his benefits were cut was “severely and adversely” affected after the DWP declared him fit for work, as reported by the newspaper.

Ayaz Manji, senior policy and campaigns officer at Mind, said: “Suicides are not inevitable, they can be prevented, and the DWP is responsible for making make sure its processes and policies are safe for those of us at our most unwell, and not causing serious harm.

“We still hear every week from people with mental health problems who have struggled to cope with the impact of sanctions, repeated and unnecessary fit-for-work assessments, and other changes to their benefits. 

“It’s important that the DWP is held to account when independent investigations cite problems with benefits as a factor in someone taking their life. We cannot continue to wait until someone else takes their own lives before change happens.

Sara Willcocks, head of communications at charity Turn2us, said: “It is disappointing that the DWP does not already know how many of its claimants have committed suicide. We believe it is vital that the department records this data so it can draw correlations between changes to the welfare benefits system and increases or decreases in suicide.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “The death of a claimant is always a tragedy and whilst this is not an inquiry, we will engage with the NAO on this important topic.”

However, an inquiry is long overdue.

How many people with chronic illness and disability have simply died because they can’t meet their most fundamental survival needs in light of austerity cuts?

What kind of government shows no concern or remorse that its policies are destroying some citizens’ lives?

And continually denies that this is happening?

This prompts another question;  the risk of suicide among support-dependent disabled people is now foreseeable. Does the government intentionally disregard us as economically “surplus to requirements” and ultimately disposable? When the evidence points so clearly to the relationship between austerity cuts, which have disproportionately been targeted at the poorest and most fragile citizens, and suicide, it’s hard to reason otherwise. Especially when the government shows nothing but supreme indifference to those of us raising these serious concerns.

The link between social security cuts and suicide cannot and must not be denied or ignored any longer.

welfare ref

 

 

If you’re feeling suicidal, you can contact your GP, call 999, go to A&E, call the Samaritans on 116 123, or email them at jo@samaritans.org


 

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The government are challenging independent disability assessment appeal decisions

newton

In 2017, the then minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, said that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was “recruiting, training and deploying” approximately 150 presenting officers (POs) to attend Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) tribunals “in order to present the Secretary of State’s case and support the first tier tribunal in arriving at the right decision”.

The question is the ‘right decision’ for whom? It’s certainly not disabled people.

Given that, at the point of appeal, the Secretary of State’s case has already been presented twice –  at the first DWP decision following assessment and again during the mandatory review – it seems that the government is using an incredibly oppressive and authoritarian approach to prevent successful appeal outcomes for ill and disabled people trying to access disability-related social security alone, without legal aid and support in the majority of cases. 

Last week I spoke to someone who won her PIP appeal following a reassessment which had resulted in the loss of her PIP award. After waiting two weeks for some communication from the DWP,  she rang to see when her award would be reinstated. She was informed that the DWP had requested the full written reasons for the tribunal’s decision, and that they were considering challenging the court’s decision. If the DWP decide to proceed with their challenge, they must apply for permission to appeal.

The application must be made within one month of the date of the tribunals’ written statement of reasons. So far, the claimant has been left without her award for 13 weeks, and she is very distressed. Having gone through mandatory review and appeal, she is utterly exhausted and the stress of the process has significantly exacerbated her illness – she has multiple sclerosis. Since her assessment, she has also needed treatment for anxiety and depression.

The claim for PIP was in relation to her physical disabilities, but she has become mentally unwell as a direct consequence of her extremely distressing experiences. The DWP will be permitted to appeal the tribunal’s decision only if it is considered that the decision resulted from an error of law. Once the tribunal have received the request the chair of the tribunal will provide a written statement to the claimant and the DWP explaining why they awarded PIP.  It can take up to 12 weeks for the written statement to be sent out.  

I co-run a support group online for people going through ESA and PIP claims, assessments, mandatory review and appeals. We are seeing a rise in the number of cases where the DWP are requesting written reasons for the decision of the tribunal, but quite often, it eventually emerges that they are not proceeding with an appeal. 

This leaves people waiting many months with the fear they may lose their lifeline award, causing a lot of additional and unnecessary distress. Furthermore, the DWP are not keeping people informed of their intentions in a reasonable and timely manner, which adds significantly to the distress and uncertainty that the whole awful process has created.

There are two people who have waited over 12 months after they won their appeal, while being told by the DWP that they are still awaiting the judge’s decision as to whether the DWP can proceed with a challenge. Meanwhile, the DWP refuse to discuss the details of the matter any further when people ask for details and an idea of a timescale.

One person told me he felt that the DWP are “intentionally playing mind games to demoralise and scare people”, and that leaving people feeling precarious was “a deliberate strategy” to undermine people’s expectation of support, and 

Someone else who won their PIP appeal has been left for four months without any payments, the DWP claim he owes them money for an overpayment, and refuse to release the money he is owed. However, he told me that he does not owe any money, and has never been overpaid, as prior to his relatively recent claim for PIP and ESA, he was in work and received no social security. He ahs also been forced to appeal the DWP’s decision not to award him ESA. 

The DWP were allocated £22m of public money to hire the “presenting officers” to “support” the DWP at disability benefit tribunals. Disability campaigners warn that these 180 presenting officers, rather than helping judges to make fair decisions about whether to overturn the DWP’s rejection of someone’s claim for benefits, will inevitably argue as forcibly as possible in the government’s favour. The aim is to cut the number of successful appeal outcomes for claimants. The reality is that PO’s are sent by the DWP to try to discredit claimants’ accounts and to argue forcibly for the DWP’s interpretation of the law to be accepted. 

A freedom of information request by Disability News Service resulted in them being sent forms that have to be completed by presenting officers after each tribunal they attend.

Included in the documents are the following questions for presenting officers attending ESA and PIP tribunals, respectively:

“PO impact – Was SG [support group] award averted”

“PO impact – was enhanced PIP award averted?”

DNS quotes a DWP insider, saying that presenting officers are being given the ‘target’ of stopping enhanced PIP payments and that this was placing ‘immoral pressure’ on presenting officers. (See the full article: ‘Truly appalling’ revelations ‘show DWP is subverting justice’ at appeal tribunals.)

The DWP outline says: “The PO must be confident that the decision is accurate and prepared to lapse appeals where this is not the case. They must highlight inconsistencies and take appropriate action when new evidence comes to light, including making a critical assessment of its validity.

But surely that is the role of an independent court.

At the time, Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, described the DWP’s admission as “truly appalling”.

She said: “The idea that the ‘impact’ of DWP staff is being assessed on whether they managed to get ESA support group or enhanced PIP awards ‘averted’ is truly appalling.

“Presenting officers are supposed to be there to provide fair and balanced evidence of a claimant’s needs.

“In May last year [2017], freedom of information requests revealed that the DWP was setting targets to reject 80 per cent of social security appeals at mandatory reconsideration.

“They clearly haven’t changed their approach.”

She added: “The whole system is broken: from assessments where, for example, only eight per cent of claimants think assessors understood their mental health, through to appeals where judges are overturning over 67 per cent of initial ESA and PIP decisions.

“Labour will scrap the current PIP and ESA assessments, bringing an end to the Conservatives’ failed, privatised assessment system.

“Instead of enforcing a culture of distrust and cost-cutting, we will work with disabled people to ensure that they have personalised, holistic support to live full and independent lives.”

The assessment process, from beginning to end, is almost entirely about providing opportunities for assessors and DWP decision makers to manufacture as many far fetched ‘inconsistenciesas they can to prevent awards and deter as any higher rate awards as possible.

This means that PIP is not about meeting the needs of disabled people, it is about how little the state can get away with paying out from public funds, regardless of a person’s needs and entitlement.

It was acknowledged in my own PIP assessment report that I had cognitive difficulties because of my illness. The HCP said that I had difficulty focusing when asked questions and needed prompting. She acknowledged that I rely on a 7 day pill organiser to ensure I take my medication safely and correctly.

However, the report said that I had a degree (I graduated back in 1996), I had worked in a profession – as a social worker (until 2010, when I became too ill to work) and I had a driving licence in 2005 (I haven’t been able to drive since 2005 because of flicker-induced partial seizures). The assessment took place in 2017. I was not awarded a point for cognitive problems, and was just one point short of an enhanced PIP award. The reasoning behind not awarding the one point was unreasonable, irrational pretty thinly stretched, given that I cannot drive, I was forced to give up work in 2010, and I graduated in 1996. The decision at mandatory review was exactly the same, with the same woefully incoherent reasoning presented again.  

In November 2017, POs attended 23% of all first tier PIP tribunals, but the aim back then is to increase this to 50%.

It would seem likely that presenting officers are being used primarily to target claimants who are likely to be seeking enhanced rates of PIP or the support group of ESA. In which case their presence has nothing to do with improving decision making by feeding back to colleagues and everything to do with taking awards from disabled people, regardless of the high price disabled people have to pay in terms of loss of independence, loss of income to meet their basic and additional needs, placing them in unacceptable situations of severe hardship. 

A claimant who secretly recorded his personal independence payment (PIP) assessment and provided a transcript to a tribunal has won his appeal against a disability living allowance (DLA) to PIP transfer decision, the BBC has reported.

Nev Cartwright, 45, received DLA because of breathing difficulties caused by a lung tumour which led to his left lung being removed.

Last year he was told to attend a ‘medical’ to assess him for PIP instead of DLA. Because he had seen a programme the night before questioning the fairness of PIP assessments, Nev decided to secretly record the interview on his mobile phone.

As a result of the assessment Nev lost his higher rate mobility and had to return his Motability car.

When he read the PIP assessors report he realised that there was information missing and other details such as his peak flow reading, had been altered. The effect was to make Nev seem much more mobile than he actually was.

Nev had a professional company write a transcript of his assessment recording and asked to be allowed to submit it as evidence for his appeal.

The DWP tried to prevent the transcript being admitted by the tribunal, but they failed and the transcript was taken into account. As a result Nev won his case and now has his Motability vehicle again.

Given the very costly restrictions attempt to place on openly recording your PIP assessment, it is not surprising that some claimants turn to doing so covertly. Although we have had members who have used relatively inexpensive cassette recorders at their assessment.

It is not illegal to secretly record your assessment.

But if you are caught doing so and refuse to stop, the interview is likely to be ended and you will be held by the DWP to have failed to take part in the assessment with the result that you will not be awarded PIP.

This imbalance of power is most certainly subverting justice for disabled people. We often hear about the outright unfair methods the DWP uses to cut disabled people’s income when they have been held to account. But for every case we hear about where justice prevails in the end, there are many more that slip under the radar, because perhaps some of us are simply too ill, exhausted and disheartened to appeal alone, without any legal support, while the government spends hundreds of thousands of pounds of public funds to prevent us from having a fair and balanced assessment and hearing, and accessing the social security support that most of us have paid towards.

Meanwhile, Atos and Capita have come under fire for the reported mishandling of as many as a third of the PIP assessments they carried out. The firms received a raise for their efforts last year, raking in more than £250 million each for the controversial disability welfare checks, despite Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee recently suggesting vulnerable people had been “pushed to the brink of destitution” by the contractors’ handling of the scheme.

That’s because the private companies are contracted to do precisely that by the government.

pip-esa inhumane

 


My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. This is a pay as you like site. If you wish you can support me by making a one-off donation or a monthly contribution. This will help me continue to research and write independent, insightful and informative articles, and to continue to support others going through PIP and ESA assessment, mandatory review and appeal.

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

Official_portrait_of_Justin_Tomlinson_crop_2

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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Misleading DWP letter to GPs is depriving disabled people of lifeline support

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Credit: PA Images

Last month I reported about the issues raised by the Department for Work and Pensions’ ESA65B GP’s letter template, which was only recently placed on the government site, following a series of Parliamentary Written Questions.

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

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

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

They must also await the outcome of a mandatory review.  Before a claimant may lodge an appeal, the must first ask the DWP to ‘reconsider’ their original decision. However, the DWP has a stated target of upholding 80% of their original decisions, so the majority of people then have to appeal following the review outcome. The law says that the claimant may claim basic rate ESA following mandatory review if they wish to proceed with an appeal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A DWP spokesperson said: “These letters simply inform GPs when a claimant has been found fit for work and are not intended to dissuade them from issuing fit notes for ESA appeal purposes, to claim otherwise is inaccurate.”

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

It remains very unclear on what basis the RCGP agreed to the new wording as the change was agreed at a DWP stakeholder meeting for which, according to Newton, there are no formal minutes. Newton confirmed this in the correspondence between herself and Field, as well as in her responses to Emma Coad Dent’s long series of Written Questions on this issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newton had previously also said: “In accordance with the Answer of 3 July 2018 to Question 155402, the information is not available as there is no written minute of the meeting between officials from this Department and representatives from the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners on the revised wording of the ESA65B letter.” 

In June last year, Dent Coad asked Newton who attended the meetings between officials in her Department and the (a) British Medical Association and (b) Royal College of General Practitioners on the revised wording of the ESA65B; and if she would place in the Library a copy of the minutes of those meetings. Newton responded on 03 July 2018:  

“The names of the participants representing the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners who attended the meetings referred to constitute their personal data and in accordance with data protection principles, they will not be disclosed without informed consent. DWP officials did not take minutes of these meetings.”

And: “No other external stakeholders were consulted on the development of the revised ESA65B letter.”

Newton has also said in response to Written Questions: “The Department is committed to ensuring all of its communications are clear, accurate and understandable and we continuously improve our letters. We engage regularly with the welfare benefits advice sector and disability charities and take into account all of the feedback we receive.”

“We have received comments from a number of sources including MPs, stakeholder organisations and GPs on the current version of the ESA65B letter and will take all of their feedback into account when revising it.”

I should hope so. The idea of the state persuading doctors and other professionals to “sing from the same [political] hymn sheet”, by promoting work outcomes in social and health care settings is more than a little Orwellian. Co-opting professionals to police the welfare system is very dangerous. 

In linking receipt of welfare with health services and “state therapy,” with the single intended outcome explicitly expressed as employment, the government is purposefully conflating citizen’s widely varied needs with economic outcomes and diktats, isolating people from traditionally non-partisan networks of relatively unconditional support, such as the health service, social services, community services and mental health services.

Public services “speaking with one voice” as the government are urging, will invariably make accessing support conditional, and further isolate already marginalised social groups. Citizens’ safe spaces for genuine and objective support is shrinking as the state encroaches with strategies to micromanage those using public services. This encroachment will damage trust between people needing support and professionals who are meant to deliver essential public services, rather than simply extending government dogma, prejudices and discrimination.

 

Related

Jobcentre tells GP to stop issuing sick notes to patient assessed as ‘fit for work’ and he died.

GPs told to consider making fit notes conditional on patients having appointment with work coach

Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through Universal Credit, PIP and ESA assessment, mandatory review and appeal. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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