Tag: Frank Field

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

newton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments from RCGP and BMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The RCGP statement continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


I don’t make any money from my work. But if you like, you can contribute by making a donation which helps me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through disability  assessment and appeals. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Select committee to investigate link between ‘survival sex’ and Universal Credit

amber rudd

In February, Amber Rudd finally conceded that the increased use of food banks is partly down to problems in rolling out Universal Credit, following a long line of Conservative ministers who have persistently and loudly denied their is any link between welfare cuts and people needing food banks to make ends meet.

The work and pensions secretary said she was “absolutely clear there were challenges with the initial roll-out” of the benefit and that the difficulty in accessing money was “one of the causes” of the rise.

But she also said that the government had “made changes to help tackle food insecurity”.

Although it seemed like a “promising” acknowledgement, little has changed. Many people are still notable to meet their fundamental survival needs. Universal Credit has been plagued with multiple problems since its inception in 2010. Eight years later, and those problems remain, with a wake of often devastating consequences in those communities where this flagship failure has been rolled out. The Labour party has called for ministers to halt the roll-out “as a matter of urgency”.

Austerity has caused a surge in “survival crime” – where absolute poverty has driven people to shoplift food and to prostitution. 

Frank Field raised the issue of “survival sex” in parliament last October, telling the then work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, that some women in his Birkenhead constituency were “were taking to the red light district for the very first time” because of Universal Credit.

Relentlessly hard-faced McVey replied that job centre work coaches would be able to help the women off the streets, adding that “in the meantime” Field could “tell these ladies that now we’ve got record job vacancies – 830,000 and perhaps there are other jobs on offer”.

Now, the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee have launched an inquiry into a possible link between Universal Credit and so-called “survival sex”, after evidence has emerged that problems with the UK Government’s flagship welfare reform have resulted in some women so impoverished by universal credit or sanctions that they have turned to prostitution to pay rent, feed their families, and generally meet the costs of basic survival needs.

The Committee has opened this phase in its ongoing Universal Credit inquiry in response to reports from charities and support organisations that increasing numbers of people—overwhelmingly women—have been pushed into “survival sex” as a direct result of welfare policy ‘changes’ (cuts).

In his recent report on extreme poverty in the UK, the UN Special Rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, described meeting people who:

Depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter.

Through its work on different elements and consequences of Universal Credit over the last two years, the Work and Pensions Select Committee has identified a number of features of the policy that may contribute to those claiming social security having difficulty meeting survival needs.

  • The wait for a first Universal Credit payment, which is a minimum of five weeks but can be a lot longer;
  • The accumulation of debt: for example, as a result of third-party deductions to benefits or taking out an Advance Payment at the start of a claim;
  • Sanctions, which are applied at a higher rate under Universal Credit than under the system it replaces.

New Universal Credit claimants are made to wait at least five weeks before receiving an initial payment, although recent changes to the payment system mean people can ask for advances to help tide them over while they await their first payment. However, the advances must be repaid over time, which traps people in a cycle of debt.

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “We have heard sufficient evidence, and are sufficiently worried, to launch this inquiry to begin to establish what lies behind the shocking reports of people being forced to exchange sex to meet survival needs.

“This is an investigation, and we do not yet know what we will uncover.

“But if the evidence points to a direct link between this kind of survival sex and the administrative failures of Universal Credit, Ministers cannot fail to act.”

Niki Adams, a spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes, a self-help organisation for sex workers, said there had been an increase in prostitution in the UK as a result of rising poverty and cuts to single-parent benefits.

The devastating impact of benefit cuts and sanctions on women’s incomes began before Universal Credit, which for many women, especially lone parents, she said, had the effect of making an already precarious financial situation worse.

“If you are on benefits it is already a very low level of income. If your income is then reduced, that’s when you find women going back into prostitution, or going into it for the first time,” she added.

The Select Committee wants to hear from Universal Credit claimants who have “had to exchange sex for basic living essentials, like food or somewhere to live”.

They say: “We understand that telling your story might be difficult.

“You can ask for your evidence to be anonymous (we’ll publish your story, but not your name or any personal details about you) or confidential (we’ll read your story but we won’t publish it).”

The Committee will also hear oral evidence in Parliament later in this inquiry.

 The deadline for submitting evidence is Monday 29 April 2019.

Terms of reference: Universal Credit and Survival Sex.

Evidence may be submitted through the Committee’s website.

universal-credit-forcing-women-into-prostitution

 

 


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

newton

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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DWP is not engaging with expert calls for change to Universal Credit says Select Committee

DWP-Department-for-work-and-pensions-500x320.jpg

The Work and Pensions Committee is today launching a new inquiry into what the Government calls “natural migration”: the process by which people claiming existing benefits move onto Universal Credit if they have a change in their circumstances.

Universal Credit has now been rolled out to every Jobcentre in the country. This means that if people who are already claiming benefits under the old system have a change in their circumstances (for example, if they form part of a new couple, or separate from an existing partner), they can’t make a new claim for the old benefits. Instead, they have to make a whole new claim for Universal Credit.

The Government calls this “natural migration” to Universal Credit. However, people who transfer onto Universal Credit in this way aren’t eligible for any transitional protection payments and so may see a change in their income from benefits. For many people, this may be the first time that they discover that their income will change under Universal Credit. The change usually entails a drop in income. 

The Committee has heard concerns that:

  • the Government hasn’t given clear and comprehensive information about the “triggers” for “natural migration”
  • the absence of transitional protection means people might have to cope suddenly with a drop in income.

This is the latest stage in the Committee’s ongoing work on Universal Credit – which has already resulted in the Government making significant changes to the system.

In its November report on so-called “managed migration” – the process of wholesale moving existing benefit claimants onto Universal Credit even if their circumstances haven’t changed  – the Committee called on the Government to publish an assessment of the impact of a sudden loss of income due to natural migration on different claimant groups, and then to look again at whether the triggers for natural migration are appropriate. In its official response to that report, published today alongside this new inquiry launch, the Government has refused to do that. 

The Chair, Frank Field, has written back to the Secretary of State with a series of questions about the Government’s response – that correspondence is also published today. The Committee say they are “disappointed and concerned by the Government’s failure to engage with its report and reasoning behind key recommendations, and intends to return to several of them including, now, the “triggers” for natural migration.” The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) declined, again, to set tests that it will meet before managed migration begins. “Given that we, the National Audit Office (NAO) and the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) all made this recommendation, this continued resistance is very disappointing.”

Actually, it’s very worrying, as it indicates a blatant disregard for the protocols of Government accountability and democratic dialogue.

The Government’s response also does not address the central issue of who takes the risk in the transition to Universal Credit, with the Committee arguing repeatedly that it should be Government, making the huge reform, who assume the risk, not existing benefit claimants who include the most vulnerable people in our society. The Government claims it’s simply impossible for it to move people over without requiring them to make a new claim, but “did not offer—and has not offered during the Committee’s inquiry—any evidence” why. 

The DWP also appears strangely reluctant to acknowledge the key recommendation it did accept. The Committee had said DWP should not ask MPs to vote on new UC rules until it had listened to expert views on them. And that is what happened: rather than a vote before Christmas as the Government had originally planned, revised rules were published last week. The Chair was therefore very “surprised to read that the Government ‘does not accept this recommendation’, given that by the time the response arrived the Government had not only accepted the recommendation but also implemented it.”

Read the Government response on managed migration

Read the Committee’s report on managed migration

You can send the Committee your views on ‘natural migration by February 18. (Click on the link).

 

Related

Universal Credit is an unmitigated catastrophe for ill and disabled people

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

 


 

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

Universal Credit is an unmitigated catastrophe for ill and disabled people

Image result for pictures universal credit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transitional protection for disabled people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Disability premium

You’ll get:

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

Severe disability premium

You’ll get:

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

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

Enhanced disability premium

You’ll get:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And confirming the accounts of disabled people I have supported:

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

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

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

 

Related 

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

 


 

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

Gaslighting Conservative MP says Universal Credit protest is a ‘political stunt’

A Conservative MP, Simon Clarke, has condemned a protest against Universal Credit in Guisborough, dismissing it as a “political stunt”.

Clarke said the protest will ‘disrupt local businesses’ on one of the busiest days in the run up to Christmas.

Local Labour MPs and unions are holding a march in the town on Saturday. They join thousands of other people, accusing the government of a “callous approach”.

They said the so-called flagship reform – which replaces six existing benefits, and has been introduced across Teesside in recent months – was “causing real poverty and hardship in our communities”.

Redcar and Cleveland Council has written to the Government three times to delay the roll-out until after Christmas, saying that claimants’ waiting five weeks for their first payment would leave families penniless over the Christmas period.

However Clarke, whose Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland is the only Conservative seat on Teesside, claims he has not had a single constituent flag any problems with the system.

Clarke claims: “At the heart of Universal Credit is the principle that work should always pay and those who need support should receive it.” 

“That is what it delivers – bringing an end to the broken culture we inherited from Labour, where the number of households where nobody had ever worked doubled between 1997 and 2010.”

Clarke continued with his myth making: “I have liaised really closely with the brilliant team at Loftus Job Centre in recent weeks. The team there could not have been clearer: they think Universal Credit will help people, they are well trained to deliver it and they are fed up of being demonised by politicians who only want to frighten their clients unnecessarily.”

However, it is very problematic to accept the narratives of administrators and to completely discount the negative experiences and citizen accounts of those Universal Credit is being imposed on. The system is so riddled with design flaws and process faults that it is practically guaranteed to generate mistakes and delays that would push vulnerable benefit claimants into hardship, according to administrative whistleblowers. 

Service centre workers have told the Guardian that glitches and errors in the “cobbled-together” system have commonly led to peoples’ benefit payments being delayed for weeks or wrongly reduced by hundreds of pounds. Mistakes and delays can add on average an extra three weeks to the formal 35-day wait for an initial benefit payment, pushing claimants into debt, rent arrears, and reliance on food banks.

Campaigners warn that the problems may get worse next year when more than 3 million claimants start to be “migrated” to the new system.

One employee said: “The IT system on which Universal Credit is built is so fundamentally broken and poorly designed that it guarantees severe problems with claims.”

He said the system was “overcomplex and prone to errors that affected payments and often proved slow to correct.”

“In practical terms, it is not working the way it was intended and it is having an actively harmful effect on a huge number of claimants.”

Bayard Tarpley, who left the Grimsby service centre after two years as a telephony agent, told the Guardian that he had been dealing with distressed claimants every day. “My hope is that by speaking out I can help explain why these processes have such a significant, harmful impact on claimants.”

He gave several examples of where poor system design and practice caused delays and payment errors, including:

  • Staff are not notified when claimants leave messages on their online journal; for example, if they wish to challenge payment errors. As a result, messages sent to officials can go unanswered for days or weeks unless claimants pursue the inquiry by phone.
  • Claimants are discouraged by staff from phoning in to resolve problems or to book a home visit and instead are actively persuaded to go online, using a technique called “deflection”, even when callers insist they are unable to access or use the internet.
  • Callers have often been given wrong or contradictory advice about their entitlements by DWP officials. These include telling severely disabled claimants who are moving on to universal credit from existing benefits that they must undergo a new “fit for work” test to receive full payment.
  • Although the system is equipped to receive scanned documents, claimants instead are told to present paper evidence used to verify their claim, such as medical reports, either at the local job centre or through the post, further slowing down the payment process.
  • Small delays or fluctuations in the timing of employers’ reporting of working claimants’ monthly wages via the real time information system can lead to them being left hundreds of pounds out of pocket through no fault of their own.

Food banks are regarded as a formal backstop for when the system fails, he said. Officials are told to advise those claimants who are in hardship and who do not qualify for cash advances to contact charities or their council for help. However, many councils have closed local welfare provision as a result of central government cuts to funding.

These disclosures add to the mounting concerns over Universal Credit, and provides evidence that the system is not supporting people with even their most basic living costs. Universal Credit roll out is six years behind schedule but will eventually handle £63bn of welfare support going to 8 million people.

Campaigners and researchers say their concerns have been met with a “defensive and insular” approach to managing welfare reform by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). 

The department came under withering fire from a cross-party group of MPs who accused it of a “culture of indifference” after it had repeatedly ignored warnings of basic process errors that led to 70,000 disabled benefit claimants being underpaid an estimated £500m over six years.

The then work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, sought to limit the damage in a speech in which she admitted there were problems with Universal Credit, and promised to listen to campaigners, claimants and frontline staff to find ways to change and improve the system.

If Universal Credit is so ‘helpful’ for citizens, wouldn’t you think that the United Nations would have recognised that this was the case during the recent inquiry? As it is, Philip Alston said that Universal Credit is “entrenching people in poverty” and inflicting “unnecessary misery” on citizens, because of the government’s “radical social re-engineering programe”. 

Alston concluded: “In the fifth richest country in the world, this is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.” 

He also warned that the motivation behind the controversial benefit reform was to slash spending, despite finding little evidence that there had been any savings, and that the message to claimants is, “You are alone” and that state assistance is the “last resort”.

Yet Clarke says: “Since roll-out began here last month, not a single constituent has come forward with a problem for me to help with. My staff have all received training if anyone does. No amount of staff training, however, can ensure that people have enough money to meet their basic living costs within a punitive framework that is purposely designed to create a hostile environment to deter people from claiming social security support. 

“But I think people in Guisborough will rightly be unimpressed that their town is being disrupted on one of the busiest shopping days before Christmas by what is frankly a political stunt,” said Clarke, using what is frankly a deplorable gaslighting technique.

I can’t imagine that many people experiencing problems with their Universal Credit claim would find Clarke particularly approachable. He seems to be surrounded by an impervious wall of denial.

Redcar MP Anna Turley has also called for the roll out of Universal Credit to be stopped until flaws in the system are put right. She said that low income families and vulnerable people would be left reliant on food banks and forced into personal debt.

A similar protest, organised by Unite the Union, was held in Redcar last weekend.

Cllr Sue Jeffrey, leader of Redcar and Cleveland Council, said: “I am dismayed at the callous approach being taken by this Government.

“We know that there is likely to be difficulties for many people who are forced to move onto Universal Credit in the month before Christmas.”

The TUC said that the Conservatives “are in denial about the hardship Universal Credit will cause in our area”.

Accusing the accuser: Conservative techniques of neutralisation and perception management

However, it’s an intentional, evidence-vaulting sort of deliberated response – a habitualised, patterned, crib sheet, ‘strategic communication’ (communication tactically aligned with the government’s overall strategy and ideological aims, to enhance its strategic positioning) kind of denial:

Another MP who called for an end to “scaremongering” about Universal Credit last year is Wendy Morton. Speaking in a Commons debate about Universal Credit, she said: “It is this government who are helping people, which is why I am disappointed to have sat through a lot of this debate and heard scaremongering stories from Opposition Members.”

She responded with the sloganised, detached and meaningless comment: Universal Credit “makes work pay and helps people into work” and staff at job centres, who administer the benefit, were “working hard to get it right.” 

In October, during a parliamentary debate, St Austell and Newquay’s MP, Steve Double, claimed that jobcentre staff “love it, and claimants like it” and that “one of the problems is all the scaremongering, primarily from the Labour party.”

The evidence from a wide variety of sources, however, strongly suggests otherwise. 

As Labour MP Liz McInnes said at the time: “If these claims are in fact true, who could possibly object to impact assessments being released? They will no doubt reflect the happiness and joy being spread to Universal Credit claimants in beautiful Cornwall. One would think that the Government would be shouting this marvellous news from the rooftops – if it were true.”

Esther McVey memorably refused to agree to meet with the women so bady affected by Universal Credit that they were forced into sex work to avoid destitution. She coldly asked former Labour minister Frank Field, who raised his concerns, to remind them “there are now record job opportunities” in the UK.

During that particular debate, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood called on the government to stop the  roll-out, adding: “There’s a real danger that hundreds of thousands of people could fall out of the social security system altogether and be pushed into poverty and left at risk of destitution.”

McVey dismissed those concerns as “scaremongering”. And again in March, McVey accused Labour of “scaremongering and misinformation”, saying an extra 50,000 children would benefit under the Universal Credit system, when MPs raised concerns of growing childhood poverty.

In March, at a meeting ,the Conservative Mansfield MP and Hucknall councillor Ben Bradley said, ludicrously, that Labour were “weaponising poor people” and “scaremongering rubbish”.

The government are weaponising social security.

And Labour councillor Michael Payne, who represents Arnold North, quoted parts of a disgraceful blog written by Bradley in which he said people on benefits should have vasectomies

There are many on the Opposition Benches who have expressed legitimate concerns about the catastrophic Universal Credit roll out on behalf of their constituents only to have them passed off as “scaremongering.”

However, the government should not ignore the concerns shared by affected citizens, many outside the House, by the charities and organisations at the forefront of supporting people through such difficult and distressing periods when they don’t have the means to meet even their basic living needs, leaving them extremely vulnerable. 

Last week I wrote about Dan Carden’s letter to Amber Rudd, also asking her to postpone the roll out of Universal Credit in his Liverpool Walton constituency. 

He said: “We have families experiencing poverty on an unprecedented scale and now facing further avoidable hardship in the run up to Christmas. 

“I have now been informed that job centres across Liverpool are advancing payments to my constituents to obtain provisional driving licences for the purposes of identification and then deducting the cost from their benefits.

“Constituents are also having to pay for postal orders, passport photographs and postage, just to obtain provisional licences.”

He explained that the DVLA says there is a five-week wait for provisional licences, and highlighted the delays before the first payments are made when someone is transferred on to Universal Credit.

Carden added: “Continuing with this roll-out will leave many of the most vulnerable families in Liverpool Walton destitute by Christmas and I am therefore asking you to intervene as a matter of urgency.”

The secretary of state for work and pensions, responded despicably and oppressively, as follows:

However, it seems Rudd failed to bother checking her own government’s web site for advice and evidence.

When people apply for Universal Credit, they are asked to verify their identity online via the GOV.Verify service. 

To do so, you need either;

  • A valid UK driving license
  • A valid UK passport.

Of course this creates problems for those without the documents. Their Universal Credit claim cannot go ‘live’ without conforming to the ID verification framework. People generally can’t get an advance because their claim isn’t live. Once they’ve received their new ID document, (takes around 6-8 weeks usually), it’s then a further 5 weeks (at least) until their first Universal Credit payment.

According to the government web site, you can only apply for an advance on your first payment if you have already verified your identity.

You can apply for an advance payment in your online account or through your Jobcentre Plus work coach.

You’ll need to:

  • explain why you need an advance
  • verify your identity (you do this online when you submit your Universal Credit claim or at your first Jobcentre Plus interview)
  • provide bank account details for the advance (talk to your work coach if you cannot open an account.)

It seems that the “terrific” job coaches are not applying rules consistently, leading to a post code lottery concerning the verification requirements for claims. 

The Verify framework:

 

The response from Rudd and other ministers has become a deplorable, standardised and authoritarian tactic of repressing legitimate criticism for the Conservatives, however. Other ministers who have habitually used the term ‘scaremonger’ as a gaslighting technique include Sarah Newton and David Gauke among others. 

Traditional Conservative prejudices about poverty: blame the victims

Gordon Henderson the Conservative MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey in Kent, has tried to argue that the move to Universal Credit was not responsible for a significant rise in the use of foodbanks.

He said that he had secured information from a local foodbank about claimants who had faced difficulties with Universal Credit, and he claimed he had ‘discovered’ that many of them were “living in a local hostel that provides temporary accommodation for homeless adults” conflating cause with effects as a matter of prejudice, ideological preference and despicable politcal expediency.

He went on that it “soon became obvious that some of them suffered from underlying problems that affected their ability to manage the transition to Universal Credit, and that forced them into using the food bank”, such as “drug addiction, alcoholism, mental health problems, an inability to manage money, or plain fecklessness”.

It’s not possible to ‘manage’ no money, or amounts that are insufficient to meet basic survival needs. 

He added, disgracefully, that making Universal Credit perfect overnight would not “solve their mental health problems” and issues with drugs and alcohol and “would not make them less feckless” and that “they would still have the same problems, whatever benefits system was put in place”. 

He concluded that he was “glad” that such people were “in the minority” and appeared to suggest that those with mental health problems – and seemingly people with learning difficulties – were to blame for their difficulties with Universal Credit, after adding that there were also “some people who have genuine concerns”.

In 2014, Anglican bishops and the new Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster joined the Left to claim that a national crisis had driven half a million people to use food banks.

Deplorable right wing ideologue Simon Heffer said “Government ministers knew that was nonsense. The level of benefits is, they believe, sufficient to feed those who receive them.”

Yet a huge and growing amount of evidence says otherwise.

He continued: “Though Leftists cynically exploit the existence of food banks as proof that a Tory-led government has inflicted terrible hardship on the poor, there is a widespread belief that some people use them because they have chosen to spend their money, instead, on drink, tobacco, slot machines, tattoos or pornography. This leaves little cash to buy food.” Heffer was advocating the use of prepaid cards welfare cards, to restrict what people can spend their money on, to “incentivise them out of dependency and into work”. 

Exposing Conservative mythologies

them-and-us-640x300 (1)

One of the biggest myths that the Conservatives peddle is that of ‘intergenerational dependency on welfare’. However, only 0.3% of households have two generations that have not worked, according to studies of the Labour Force Survey.  The majority of these households included children who had only come out of education within the last five years and in a third of these households, the member of the younger generation had been out of work for less than a year. The Conservative folk devils created from the “longterm undeserving benefit claimant” sponger stereotype is very much exaggerated.  

Detailed research into what ordinary people think should go into a minimum household budget showed that actual out of work benefits are no way near as generous as some politicians would have you believe – and were actually well below the minimum level before the welfare cuts were implemented.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that while pensioners did receive 100% of what people think they need, a single adult of working age received just 40% of the weekly minimum and a couple with two children received just 62% of the weekly minimum. Those amounts have been further reduced because of the welfare caps, Universal Credit, bedroom tax and reductions in Emloyment and Support Allowance (ESA), council tax support, in a context of ever-rising living costs.   

The biggest part of social security spending – 53% – actually goes to pensioners. Overall, out-of-work benefits account for under a quarter of all welfare spending. Even excluding pensioners’ benefits, nearly half of welfare spending goes on benefits such as Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment, which helps disabled people (both in and out of work) with extra costs; Child Benefit and Tax Credits or Universal Credit to working families; and Statutory Maternity Pay. The majority of children and working age adults in poverty in the UK live in working, not “workless” households. 

Cuts to the social security budget are having a huge impact, and will continue to have an even bigger impact on those in work, especially the poorest families. 

Furthermore, the idea that social security spending has increased and is currently out of control is shown to be incorrect as spending in 2011-12 accounted for 10.4% of GDP, lower than an average of 11% in the mid-1980s and 12% in the mid 1990s. 

The commonly held public perceptions of large numbers of long-term social security claimants are incorrect as less than 10% of Job Seekers Allowance claimants claimed for more than one year. Moreover the majority of people claiming social security support are in work.

An interesting Conservative council’s report on Universal Credit: off the crib sheet 

Sedgemoor in Somerset has a Conservative district council.  Last year the council produced a report about the impact of Universal Credit, which was rolled out in 2016 in Somerset. The intention behind the report was to formally present the findings to the Department for Work and Pensions. 

The authors of the report say that although they support Universal Credit, they are concerned about the way in which the system is being rolled out.  They say that Sedgemoor District Council’s experiences mirror those of both Citizens Advice and Digilink, particularly in terms of the level of support required.

However, they also raised concerns around the administration of the scheme and the additional costs to local service providers. They maintain Universal Credit Telephone Records (and a sample of these are attached as Appendix B in the report).

Here is a list of some of the concerns expressed in the report, which contradict the Conservatives’ official line:

Inadequate support for most vulnerable in Society;
 Lack of understanding of the nature and often severity of some customers’ personal circumstances (see case study 6 on the report);
 Delay in receiving first payment and the need to budget carefully (case study 7);
 Rent element of UC not paid in the first instance and clients using the personal element on housing to stay in their homes until the ‘top-up’ is received;
 Additional work with tenants to prevent them going into arrears (and the additional cost of this to service providers);
 Some concerns that the administration of the virtual call centres around the country are failing, for example through providing inadequate answers and explanation, and these cases are being picked up by Citizens Advice and others;
 The policy of the scheme is set centrally and the delivery of the scheme is controlled  nationally, yet solutions on a local level are needed; 
 Specific issues with some customers unable to make an online application due to no computer/internet access or the skills to do so;
 Inadequate funding to support the scheme, e.g. the £6,000 for Digilink sessions;
 Lack of understanding and explanation of the scheme and the frustration this causes (case studies 8 and 9).

Other concerns raised were that the “DWP’s approach encourages all applicants to take responsibility for their own claim, which means that service providers cannot interact with the DWP without the client being present. Unfortunately, this does not take into account that many of the most vulnerable residents are not in a position to fully manage their own claim, for example, if they do not have the technological skills.”

Despite some Conservatives disgracefully attempting to link food bank use with individuals’ “fecklessness”, in the council’s report it says that the Trussell Trust, which runs foodbanks in Somerset, has reported nationally that benefit delays/changes remain the biggest cause of foodbank use, accounting for 42% of all referrals, up from about a third the previous year. Around 10,000 emergency food parcels were distributed in Somerset in 2015/16. Bridgwater has seen an increase in referrals in the last year.

The government claim that the social security system is designed to target and provide for those who need support. Yet the report above raises concerns that those most in need are not getting the support they need.

However, it is clear that Conservatives generally believe that many people needing support don’t ‘deserve’ it because of traditionally held Conservative prejudices about poor people. These prejudices are plainly evident in their narratives that justify punitive ‘behavioural change’ policies and the creation of a hostile environment to deter members of the public from accessing a public service that most of them have paid for via taxes and national insurance contributions. 


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Government faces second judicial review of universal credit

Judge orders action to be fast tracked over claims removal of certain disability benefits had placed the most vulnerable under dire financial strain

The UK government’s highly controversial universal credit programme is to undergo another legal challenge at the High Court in London, as evidence mounts that the new benefits system will leave thousands of people already on low incomes significantly worse off. 

Four women are taking the government to court because of this reason.

This is the second judicial review of universal credit following the High Court’s finding in June that the system was unlawfully discriminating against severely disabled people. It comes amid mounting concern over universal credit, which academics have described as a “complicated, dysfunctional and punitive” system pushing people into debt and rent arrears. 

Last week it emerged that more than half of people denied universal credit were found to be entitled to it when their cases were investigated, prompting fresh demands for the national rollout of the new system to be halted. It’s something of an irony, given universal credit was introduced in 2013 with the intention of bringing “fairness and simplicity” to Britain’s social security system.

Now, four plaintiffs say the flaw, which relates to the way universal credit monthly payments are calculated, disproportionately affects working parents with children and leaves claimants with a “dramatically fluctuating income” and unable to budget from month to month.

In one case uncovered by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) reported by The Guardian, a family’s monthly payment swung from £1,185 to zero, making budgeting impossible.

One of the women, Danielle Johnson, has claimed that as well as being irrational, the payment system is also discriminatory as it disproportionately affects single parents, who are predominantly female.

Last month, MP Frank Field said the system was driving women in his constituency into sex work in a bid to avoid absolute poverty.

However, responding to claims it was fundamentally flawed, Neil Couling, from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), told the court four days ago that the system relied heavily on automation to process claims.

He added would cost “hundreds of millions of pounds” to redesign and he claimed that less than 1% of claimants lost out as a result of the problem. 

Single mother Claire Woods says she was forced to turn down a promotion and use a food bank after issues with the assessment period for the new benefit system made it “impossible to budget”. 

Woods said: “I invested £40,000 in higher education studies so that I could become an occupational therapist and it’s great that I’ve got my degree but I have had to put my career hopes on hold because of universal credit.  

“I am competent managing my own finances and am someone who wants to work for professional and personal development, but the assessment period problem meant my income fluctuated so much that it was impossible to budget.  

“I had to go to a food bank and I took out an advance that I am still paying back. I took two jobs – as a PA and a waitress – which I could do without the education I invested in but which had paydays which don’t clash with my assessment period. I wanted to become free of welfare through my chosen profession but universal credit is holding me back from that.” 

Although Woods had originally wanted a healthcare job, which was relevant to her degree and would move her nearer earnings that would eventually take her out of the social security system altogether, she found that the NHS and other health organisations mostly paid salaries at the end of the working month so she would face the same trap. 

She left the council and initially took two part time jobs, and she now has one part time job.

Woods’ solicitor, Carla Clarke of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), said: “Universal credit is promoted as a benefit that incentivises work but in practice its rigid assessment period system undercuts that claim. 

“Our clients have been left repeatedly without money for family essentials simply because of the date of their paydays.

“One of them, for example, did her utmost to find a workaround but ultimately had to decline a promotion in a job with good prospects when her then contract came to an end just to escape the trap.

“We say that the DWP’s refusal to alter our clients’ assessment period dates to avoid this problem discriminates against working parents – one of the two groups who are entitled to a work allowance – as well as being irrational and undermining one of the stated purposes of universal credit – to make sure that ‘work always pays’.”

CPAG argues that the DWP refusal to alter Woods’ assessment period dates to avoid the problem discriminated against working parents – one of the two groups who are entitled to a work allowance – as well as being “irrational and undermining” one of the stated purposes of universal credit: to make sure that ‘work always pays.’  

“This is a fundamental defect in universal credit and an injustice to hard-working parents and their children that must be put right for our clients and everyone else affected,” Clarke added.

Lawyers acting on behalf of Danielle Johnson from Keighley, West Yorkshire, argue that the “irrational” universal credit payment system “has left some families worse off and coping with dramatically fluctuating income from month to month because of its rigid, inflexible assessment system”.

They will also argue that the new benefits system “is discriminatory because it disproportionately affects single parents, who are mainly female”.

Johnson, who will joined at the High Court by three other women in similar situations, is a single mother who works part-time as a dinner lady and relies on universal credit to top up her low income.

She is paid by her employer on the last working day of each month. However, the universal credit assessment periods run from the last day of each month, meaning that if she is paid before the last day of the month she is assessed as having been paid twice that month.

Lawyers from the legal firm supporting  Johnson at LeighDay, say: “This has resulted in her receiving fluctuating universal credit payments throughout the year, making it very hard to budget from one month to the next.”

They add: “It has also caused her to be around £500 worse off annually due to the fact that she is entitled to ‘work allowance’ as a parent.

“The work allowance is a disregard of £198 per month of a parent’s monthly earnings so in months where she is treated as having no earned income, she loses the whole benefit of the work allowance. In months where she is treated as having double income, she does not receive any extra work allowance.”

Johnson said: “I have never been this financially unstable before, to the point of being unable to afford my rent and having to go into my overdraft when buying food. It is getting me into a vicious cycle of debt.

“Universal credit is supposed to be simpler and fairer, but my experience of it is the opposite. I’m doing my best working part-time to make ends meet so that I can look after my daughter.

“I thought the government was supposed to help and support people like me trying to get back to work but I have found it to be the opposite.”

Tessa Gregory, partner at law firm Leigh Day, added: “It is very clear through the multitude of problems reported that universal credit is a broken and ill-thought out system.

“Universal Credit is supposed to “make work pay”. It was purportedly designed to assist those in work being paid on a regular monthly basis, yet flaws in the system mean that our client, who has a regular monthly salary paid like many on the last working day of the month, is struggling to support her family.

“She has been left wondering why she ever went back to work, it is an absurd situation.

“Our client has repeatedly asked the government to address this problem, but they have refused to take action, so our client has been forced to take her case to court.

“It is important that this issue gets addressed as soon as possible as once Universal Credit rolls out fully the numbers affected will run into the tens of thousands if not more.”

Legal aid for social security appeals is almost entirely gone. People adversely affected by unfair decisions are effectively being denied justice.

The legal challenge comes amid mounting concern over universal credit, which campaigners, academics and MPs have described as a “complicated, dysfunctional and punitive” system pushing people into debt and rent arrears.

 


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