Tag: NAO

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

SUICIDE_PREVENTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is atrocious gaslighting. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, an inquiry is long overdue.

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

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

And continually denies that this is happening?

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

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

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


 

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

Image result for DWP controversy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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Esther McVey keeps telling lies because no one but the Tories supports universal credit roll out

Image result for esther mcvey

On Monday, the  work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, announced some changes to the plans to manage the transfer of 3 million people on to universal credit following stark warnings from its own expert advisers that ithe government was not doing enough to stop thousands of vulnerable claimants being put at risk of hardship. 

McVey’s announcement followed a report by the government’s social security advisory committee (SSAC) that warned of “significant concerns” that the universal credit plans were rushed, too complex and placed too much risk on claimants. MPs will debate the ‘migration’ regulations over the next few weeks.

The government’s original plans have been widely criticised by front-line charities and others, with predictions that vulnerable people could be plunged deeper into poverty and that some people entitled to benefits could be left with no income whatsoever. The rules have been subject to a review by the SSAC, who presented their report to Department for Work and Pensions earlier in the autumn. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has now said it will look again at 11 of the report’s 12 recommendations for change. McVey told the Commons on Monday: “We will take a measured approach to delivering managed migration, taking our time to get it right and working with claimants to co-design it.”

It’s rather late in the day for a democratic consultation with claimants, and it’s not as if the Conservatives have ever included ordinary citizens in the design of their policies, they tend to reserve that level of inclusion only for the very wealthy. 

The DWP has announced a number of measures as part of £1bn package announced in the budget to help claimants’ ‘transition’ to universal credit, including providing two weeks’ additional benefit to unemployed claimants to help them manage the five-week wait for a first UC payment. That isn’t enough. Leaving people – including families with children, and disabled people – without any money to meet their basic needs for at least 3 weeks is completely unacceptable. 

The SSAC report followed a consultation in which it received a record 455 responses, including more than 300 from individual claimants or their carers. It noted that it had been “particularly struck by the degree of anxiety” about managed migration expressed by this group.

Sir Ian Diamond, the SSAC chair, said he was pleased that the government had largely accepted the committee’s advice, but said much detail still had to be worked out. He said he was disappointed that the DWP had rejected a key recommendation to abandon plans to force all existing benefit claimants to make a claim for universal credit before they could be migrated to it. 

The DWP said making a new claim was essential to ensure all data was up to date. If that were the only reason, then why make people wait 5 weeks before their first payment? A government reform should not result in people – disabled people, lone parents, families – having no income for any length of time, let alone 3 weeks.

Frank Field, who chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee, said: ”[McVey] could not ignore the swell of expert voices warning that the government’s approach to moving vulnerable people to universal credit could end in disaster and destitution. The department deserves credit for listening, but its response fails to provide in full the necessary safeguards for claimants.”

Shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood called on the government to pause the rollout of universal credit.

She said: “The Budget last week did little to address the very long wait for payments which is causing significant hardship.”  

“Despite this the government is now planning to start the next phase of introduction of universal credit which it calls managed migration which will involve the transfer of £2.87m onto it.

“Universal credit is failing, the opposition has consistently called on the government to stop the rollout but this government is pressing ahead despite the terrible hardship it is causing.”

Mental health charity, Mind spokeswoman Vicky Nash said: “These regulations have confirmed what we have long feared and argued against – that in the move over to Universal Credit (UC) three million people, including hundreds of thousands of people with mental health problems, will be forced to make a new claim.

This risks many being left without income and pushed into poverty.”

Yesterday, Mind called out the Conservative Party Work and Pensions Secretary , accusing her of lying about them in Parliament. McVey implied in Parliament that the charity supports the government’s new regulations for Universal Credit. In her statement to the Commons, McVey said:

“Other charities have been saying this Department now is listening to what claimants are saying, charities are saying and MPs are saying. 

“Trussell Trust has said that. Gingerbread have said that. Mind have said that.”

Mind released a statement on Twitter as they felt “it was important to set the record straight.” 

Gingerbread have also denounced McVey’s claims:

McVey has been caught out ‘misleading’ Parliament before. In June she was criticised by Sir Amyas Morse, of the National Audit Office (NAO), after she made false claims to parliament following a highly critical report by the government watchdog.

McVey was forced to present a humiliating apology following the rebuke by the NAO for falsely claiming the government spending watchdog had asked for an ‘accelerated’ rollout of universal credit. 

Furthermore, McVey’s assurance, in response to the NAO report, that Universal Credit was working was also “not proven”, Morse said. 

The NAO report concluded that the new system – being gradually introduced to replace a number of benefits – was “not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven”.

The report also accused the government of not showing sufficient sensitivity towards some claimants and failing to monitor how many are having problems with the programme, or have suffered hardship.

In its report, released in June, the NAO highlighted the hardship caused to claimants by delays in receiving payments under universal credit.

Paragraph 1.3c of the Ministerial code says: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”

Telling lies about other people is particularly despicable, especially from a position of power. But that is how Conservatives have traditionally justified their exceptionally draconian policies.

 


 

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

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The budget will not alleviate inequality, poverty and hardship that government policies have created

Watch Jeremy Corbyn’s excellent response to the budget, while facing the braying, sneering, smirking government. 

Hammond is economical with copies of the Budget 

The Labour party have accused the chancellor Philip Hammond of breaking the ministerial code after opposition parties were not given a copy of the budget in advance. The code states that when a minister makes a statement to MPs in the Commons “a copy of the text of an oral statement should usually be shown to the opposition shortly before it is made”. The rules are that 15 copies and associated documents should be sent to the chief whip’s office at least 45 minutes before a statement. The government have frequently flouted these rules, prefering to follow the rampant authoritarianism protocol of avoiding scrutiny, transparency and above all, democratic accountability

However, a Treasury source claims that there was ‘no official rule’ that other parties should get an early look at budget measures. “We did not do anything differently from what we have been doing for the past 20 years,” the source said. I half expected him to add that the Ministerial Code isn’t really a code, but more a kind of ‘loose guideline’. 

The opposition is said to be considering a formal complaint. 

Austerity has not ended

Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of a U-turn on Theresa May’s party conference pledge that austerity was over. Hammond told MPs that austerity was “coming to an end”. The Labour leader replied: “The prime minister pledged austerity is over. This is a broken promises budget. What we’ve heard today are half measures and quick fixes while austerity grinds on.”

The Labour party also criticised income tax cuts, which it said would favour the better off and said there were no guarantees that government departments would not face further cuts. The Resolution Foundation have also concluded the same. 

Government rattles the Office for Budget Responsibility

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), whose role, unsuprisingly, is to scrutinise the budget are also disgruntled because the government only handed over the final Budget policy measures on 25 October, a day late. This means the OBR hasn’t been able to check that the government’s sums actually add up.

The precise changes to universal credit came too late for the OBR to assess them properly, too. The budget red book says that the roll-out of universal credit is now scheduled to end in December 2023. It says:

In response to feedback on universal credit, the implementation schedule has been updated: it will begin in July 2019, as planned, but will end in December 2023.

But until recently, as this House of Commons library briefing (pdf) reveals, the roll-out was due to end in March 2023.

Officially the government says that, if the UK had to leave the EU with no deal, it could manage. But the OBR doesn’t share this view:

A disorderly one [Brexit] could have severe short-term implications for the economy, the exchange rate, asset prices and the public finances. The scale would be very hard to predict, given the lack of precedent.

The Press Association (PA) reports that the Labour leader said eight years of austerity has “damaged our economy” and delayed the recovery, adding the government has not abandoned the policy despite the chancellor’s latest spending pledges. The PA says:

Leading the response to the budget, Corbyn also said the proposals announced will “not undo the damage done” by the squeeze on spending.

He told the Commons: “The prime minister pledged austerity was over – this is a broken promise budget.

“What we’ve heard today are half measures and quick fixes while austerity grinds on.

“And far from people’s hard work and sacrifices having paid off, as the chancellor claims, this government has frittered it away in ideological tax cuts to the richest in our society.”

Corbyn added: “The government claims austerity has worked so now they can end it.

“That is absolutely the opposite of the truth – austerity needs to end because it has failed.”

Corbyn later said the “precious” NHS is a “thermometer of the wellbeing of our society”, adding: “But the illness is austerity – cuts to social care, failure to invest in housing and slashing of real social security.

“It has one inevitable consequence – people’s health has got worse and demands on the National Health Service have increased.”

Corbyn also condemned the “horrific and vile antisemitic and racist attack” in Pittsburgh, noting: “We stand together with those under threat from the far-right, wherever it may be, anywhere on this planet.”

The Labour leader criticised pay levels for public sector workers, adding: “Every public sector worker deserves a decent pay rise, but 60% of teachers are not getting it – neither are the police nor the Government’s own civil service workers.”

The economy is also being damaged by a “shambolic Brexit”, Corbyn added.”

Elements of the budget have revealed a Conservative party in ideological retreat. One of Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest achievements as leader of the opposition is the undermining of the neoliberal hegemony and his presentation of an alternative narrative and economic strategy. Personally I am glad that neocon neoliberal Francis Fukuyama didn’t get the last word after all. 

Over the last couple of years, the government have imported policy ideas and adopted rhetoric from the Labour party to use as strategic window dressing. Hammond announced an end to the government signing off on much-loathed private finance initiative contracts – something Corbyn had already promised. As a former Treasury advisor noted:

Originally introduced by John Major, and continued under New Labour, PFIs are essentially a way for the state to finance and then look after new infrastructure. The traditional way for the government to build a new piece of infrastructure, such as a hospital, a school, or a new road bypass, was to raise the money in taxes, or borrow it from the bond markets, and then pay builders to deliver the project. After that, the public sector would own the asset. 

The theoretical justification for Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) is that the private sector is more efficient at delivering and managing infrastructure projects than civil servants. PFI also supposedly transfers the financial risk of a construction project over-running from the public to the private sector. However earlier this year, the National Audit Office (NAO), released a new report which highlighted a lack of evidence that PFIs offer value for money for taxpayers.

The report followed the collapse of the construction and services firm Carillion which has shone a bright spotlight on the flawed process of  state contracting and outsourcing.

According to the Treasury data there are 716  PFI projects (of which 686 are operational) with a capital value of just under £60bn. Of this total the Department of Health was responsible for £13bn, the Ministry of Defence £9.5bn and the Department of Education £8.6bn.

Hammond pledged a tax crackdown with a UK “digital services tax”, aimed only at multimillion companies rather than startup businesses. On universal credit, the government attempted to neutralise the toxic issues with an extra £1bn to ‘ease issues with its rollout.’

But Hammond’s generous tax cuts to the very wealthiest households indicate that this is still very much a government for the few, not the many. 

Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, commented:

The work allowance increase is unequivocally good news for families receiving universal credit but a bigger salvage operation is still needed for the benefit. And bringing forward higher tax allowances – which will cost much more than the universal credit change – will mainly benefit the richest half of the population. We look forward to hearing more detail on how the secretary of state will use the extra £1bn to ease the migration of people on existing benefits to universal credit.

This is crunch time for universal credit. We hope the chancellor’s positive announcements on work allowances will be followed by a pause in the roll-out to allow for a fundamental review of its design and, crucially, for a commitment to restoring all the money that’s been taken out of universal credit.

Final comment:

 


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Research confirms the government is creating a hostile environment for people claiming disability benefit

A protest by disabled people against benefits cuts

A recent research report launched last month by anti-poverty charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) reveals the devastating impacts that the government’s welfare reforms are having on the lives of people who are disabled or severely unwell. 

Those benefits that were supposed to provide support for disabled people – Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – are leaving hundreds of thousands of disabled and unwell people wrongly assessed and denied the vital Social Security benefit they are entitled to. Without this essential income, many people are pushed into debt, face rent arrears and eviction and have to rely on food banks to survive.

Poor design and implementation of the assessments means PIP and ESA are failing, forcing ill and disabled people to go through arduous and distressing reviews and appeals processes just to access the payments they are entitled to. The numbers of people who are wrongly assessed and let down by the system are likely to be much higher than official appeal figures suggest.

The report, Access Denied: Barriers to Justice in the Disability Benefits System, shows some of the hardship, harm and distress this causes – and the long and difficult process people have to go through to finally get the support they deserve.

“For the past two years I’ve been surviving on foodbanks, borrowing money and well-wishers helping me. Even now I’ve got over £8,000 debts to pay people.” Kalifa, ESA claimant

“I went to see my doctor and I said ‘I can’t stand this anymore.’ I would wake up in the middle of the night worrying about this.” Darren, PIP claimant

After being wrongly turned down at assessment, claimants must first go through Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), which can take anything from a few days to several months. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) argues that claims are fully reviewed at this stage, but the fact that 69 per cent of claimants win their appeal after having gone through MR proves that the MR itself is failing to correct the assessment’s flaws.

While those who reach the appeal do eventually receive a fair hearing, the arduous process means many never make it to this stage. Drastic cuts to legal aid mean countless ill and disabled people cannot get the legal support and representation required – and which significantly improves chances of success: 88 per cent of the clients Z2K itself supports win their appeal. The Government’s cuts to legal aid and reduced local funding for advice charities means many disabled people are losing out purely because they cannot afford private legal advice.

Raji Hunjan, CEO of Z2K, said “The whole appeal process – and the months of financial and emotional hardship people have to go through to get there – could be avoided if DWP got assessments right in the first place.

“Instead of creating such a hostile environment for those who are disabled, and assuming everyone is trying to cheat the system, ministers urgently need to recognise the reality of people’s disabilities and illnesses and give them the support they deserve.

“That means fixing the assessments, fundamentally improving MR and reinstating legal aid for disability appeals.”

The report recommends clear changes to the assessment, MR and appeal stages, in order to ensure that disabled and unwell people no longer have to suffer to get the payments they are entitled to.

  • DWP and its contracted assessors must start recording all ESA and PIP assessments to ensure an improvement in their accuracy;
  • DWP should introduce a new quality management framework for its contracted assessors and meaningful penalties to hold those companies to account for the quality of their work;
  • If DWP will not commit to reforms to the Mandatory Reconsideration (MR) stage to ensure it corrects inaccurate assessments, MR should be scrapped and claimants should be allowed to go straight to an appeal hearing at the Tribunal;
  • The Government should reinstate legal aid for disability benefits appeals.

Access Denied: Barriers to Justice in the Disability Benefits System illustrates the many barriers to justice that disabled people face, and highlights the potential solutions. It is based on in-depth research with Z2K’s clients, whose claims for ESA and PIP have been rejected – despite them having severe illnesses and disabilities.  Their stories reveal not only the serious flaws in the assessments, but also the personal impacts and enormous obstacles people face in challenging the assessment decision.

You can read the press release here.

The research findings come in the wake of the recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO), which says the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has underpaid benefits to the tune of £1.7bn over the last year, while official errors have also seen a significant rise in over-payments.

Underpayments now account for £1.7 billion of government welfare expenditure, while over-payments have soared to a record £3.7 billion.

The report exposes the shocking extent of departmental errors and layers of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with the chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee describing the current welfare system as “a pinball machine”.

Frank Field, told the Press Association: “It’s like a pinball machine, the payments system – you might get an overpayment, you might get an underpayment.

“Lots of people are not being paid Universal Credit when they should be, causing hardship, and the same department is overpaying others – what is going on?”

But the data shows that while Universal Credit has the highest level of over-payments, at 7.2%,  has the greatest amount of underpayments at 3.7%. That figure does not include those denied PIP and who are forced to ask for Mandatory Review and then appeal.

The research also comes as Sarah Newton belligerently denied in parliament that disabled people claiming support face a politically designed hostile environment, and the Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, faces mounting calls to resign, after falsely claiming that an NAO report suggested that the roll-out of Universal Credit should be “accelerated.” 

The UK government’s treatment of disabled people has been extremely controversial for many years, with the United Nations accusing ministers of “grave and systematic” violations of disabled people’s human rights following their extensive inquiry.

But despite the many concerns, challenges, presented empirical evidence and official rebukes of the government’s prejudiced and discriminatory welfare policies, the cruel treatment of sick and disabled people in the UK continues, with ministers dogmatically denying their punitive policies cause any harm and distress, indicating that the government has no intention of making positive changes any time soon.

 

Related

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

A disabled man with an inoperable brain tumour has been left without social security support

Esther Mcvey forced to apologise for being conservative with the truth

I’m a disabled person and Sarah Newton is an outrageous, gaslighting liar

 


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. I co-run a group that supports disabled and ill people going through ESA and PIP claims, assessments and appeals.

Any donation is very much appreciated – thank you.

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Esther Mcvey forced to apologise for being conservative with the truth

euphemisms

In my previous article, I discussed the outrageous responses that the Department for Work and Pensions minister and petty tyrant, Sarah Newton presented to Shadow Disabilities Minister Marsha De Cordova, who had once again raised the fact that the United Nations (UN) had found “grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights” in the UK.

The Labour MP also said yesterday in parliament: “This government’s policies have created a hostile environment causing grave violations on disabled people.”

Newton responded to these serious and valid concerns by an act of scandalised denial, outrage, vindictiveness, blaming the messengers, telling lies and by using gaslighting tactics.

Gaslighting is an intentional, malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to manipulate others, creating self-doubt and insecurity. Its aim is to redesign and edit people’s experiences and accounts of reality, replacing them with someone’s own preferred and more convenient version, by persistently altering the perceptions of others, to confuse and disorientate them. Like all abuse, it’s based on the need for power, control, and very often, concealment. It’s far more damaging than simply lying, because it is intended to control, hurt and silence others. It’s a strategy very commonly used by psychopaths, bullies, despots and the Conservatives to ensure they get their own way. 

The government often use doublespeak – language shifts entailing words such as “reform”, “fair”, “support” and “help”- to disguise the horrible impacts of their extraordinarily draconian welfare policies and austerity programme, and to divert public attention. People who object to the harms that Conservative policies cause are told they are “scaremongering”. This is a form of gaslighting. It indicates that the government have no intention of changing their punitive policy approach or remedying the harms and distress they have caused.

The Conservatives have shown very strong tendencies towards socially illiberal and authoritarian attitudes over the past seven years. Furthermore, they aren’t exactly a party that designs policies to bring delight to the majority of ordinary citizens. Ministers regularly use a form of Orwellian Torysplaining and scapegoating to attempt to discredit and invalidate citizens’ experiences of increasing economic hardships and vulnerability  – particularly those of marginalised groups – caused directly by punitive Conservative policies. This is certainly an abuse of political power.

The Conservatives have a long track record of determined authoritarianism and telling lies. See for example A list of official rebukes for Tory lies and Dishonest ways of being dishonest: an exploration of Conservative euphemisms.

Today, cabinet minister and creature of habit, Esther McVey was rebuked for telling lies ‘misrepresenting’ the National Audit Office’s (NAO) very critical report on the roll-out of Universal Credit with a series of ‘inaccurate’ claims to MPs. The NAO is the government’s spending watchdog.

The NAO took the highly unusual step after the work and pensions secretary dismissed the catalogue of failings outlined by auditors last month in their report into the government’s flagship welfare programme.

In his open letter to McVey, which is likely to raise questions about her future as a cabinet minister, the Auditor General, Sir Amyas Morse, said that elements of her statement to Parliament on the report were lies “incorrect and unproven.”

He said it was “odd” that McVey told MPs that the NAO did not take into account recent changes in the administration of universal credit, when the report had in fact been “fully agreed” with senior officials at the Department for Work and Pensions only days earlier. 

Sir Amyas added that McVey’s claim that the NAO was concerned that Universal Credit was rolling out too slowly was “not correct”. 

The NAO report concluded that the new system – being gradually introduced to replace a number of benefits – was “not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven”.  

The authors of the report also accused the government of not showing sufficient sensitivity towards some claimants and failing to monitor how many are having problems with the programme, or have suffered hardship.

In his letter, Sir Amyas told McVey: “Our report was fully agreed with senior officials in your Department. It is based on the most accurate and up-to-date information from your Department. Your Department confirmed this to me in writing on Wednesday June 6 and we then reached final agreement on the report on Friday June 8.

“Her assurance, in response to the report, that Universal Credit was working was also “not proven.” 

He continued: “It is odd that by Friday June 15 you felt able to say that the NAO ‘did not take into account the impact of our recent changes’.  

You reiterated these statements on July 2 but we have seen no evidence of such impacts nor fresh information.”

Sir Amyas added: “Your statement on July 2 that the NAO was concerned Universal Credit is currently ‘rolling out too slowly’ and needs to ‘continue at a faster rate’ is also not correct.”

And he told McVey: “Your statement in response to my report, claiming that Universal Credit is working, has not been proven. 

“The Department has not measured how many Universal Credit claimants are having difficulties and hardship. What we do know from the Department’s surveys is that although 83% of claimants responding said they were satisfied with the Department’s customer service, 40% of them said they were experiencing financial difficulties and 25% said they couldn’t make an online claim.

“We also know that 20% of claimants are not paid in full on time and that the Department cannot measure the exact number of additional people in employment as a result of Universal Credit.”

The Auditor General said that he had written to McVey on June 27 asking for a meeting to discuss her comments, and was publishing his open letter “reluctantly” because he had not yet been able to see her. McVey has a history of showing disdain for democractic norms and the protocols and mechanisms of transparency and accountability.

Now the Work and Pensions Secretary is facing calls to resign, after admitting that she had told lies “inadvertently misled” parliament. 

You can hear her full statement here. She doesn’t look appropriately humble, sincere or ashamed, however: 

Related

I’m a disabled person and Sarah Newton is an outrageous, gaslighting liar

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Government quietly scraps plans to introduce softer approach to benefit sanctions

Image result for welfare sanctions

Last October, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) agreed to trial a less aggressive approach to sanctions, which included the issuing of warnings instead of immediate benefit sanctions when a claimant breaches the conditions imposed on them for the first time. Iain Duncan Smith had proposed the idea in response to sustained criticism that sanctions are often applied unfairly, that they ultimately cause severe hardship, they are a barrier to employment rather than providing an incentive for work, and are costing more to administer than they actually save. 

Last year, David Gauke admitted at the Conservative’s annual conference that the system of benefit sanctions often fails to work and can cause harm. He said he would to try to find a way to make the sanctions system less damaging to people, particularly those with mental health conditions. The announcement of the trial soon afterwards seemed to demonstrate the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) commitment to learning from feedback and using evidence to make positive changes. 

However, the Department’s commitment to the trial is now being called into question, following Esther McVey’s appointment as Gauke’s successor.

Some of the widely criticised sanction decisions include people being sanctioned for missing jobcentre appointments because they are ill, or had to attend a job interview, or people sanctioned for not looking for work because they had already secured a job due to start in a week’s time. In one case, a man with heart problems was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a disability benefits assessment and so failed to complete the assessment.

Welfare was originally designed to safeguard people experiencing hardship from absolute poverty. Now the Government uses sanctions to create hardship as a punishment for non-compliance with rigid conditionality criteria that doesn’t permit mitigation for someone experiencing a heart attack, or for someone being late for a meeting with a job coach.

Last March, the Work and Pensions Committee called for an independent inquiry into the way that sanctions operated, for the second time in a year. The committee report at the time had warned that the sanctions regime appeared to be “purely punitive”.

In August 2015, the DWP was caught making up quotes from supposed “benefit claimants” saying that sanctions had actually helped them. The Department later admitted the quotes were fabricated and withdrew the leaflet, claiming they were for “illustrative purposes only”.

This deceit came to light because of a response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Welfare Weekly which led the DWP to withdraw the leaflet featuring fictional case studies. It’s particularly damning that the Department can present no real cases studies that support the use of sanctions and their claims that they are effective and necessary. 

Sanctioning a claimant who is single and without dependants can often have implications for other family members, causing hardship for others – for example younger siblings of JSA claimants who are living in their parental home. It is under-acknowledged that when a claimant is sanctioned, the loss of benefits may affect low-income families rather than individuals alone. 

It was hoped that the change proposed by Duncan Smith and Gauke would soften some of the severe hardship caused by sanctions. Although Conservative ministers have claimed that sanctions ensure that people are compliant in their commitment to look for work, in practice a very high proportion of benefit sanctions challenged at independent appeal are overturned, because they have been unfairly or unreasonably applied. In 2014 the DWP released figures which showed that 58 per cent of people seeking to overturn sanctions were successful – up from 20 per cent before 2010.

The introduction of less aggressive sanctions – which involves a system of warnings and a period of dialogue between claimant and the DWP to ascertain reasons for possible breaches to the claimant commitment, exploring possible mitigating circumstances – was also one of five recommendations made in last February’s report by the public accounts committee (PAC) on benefits sanctions, all of which have been accepted by ministers, according to a document sent by the Treasury to the committee earlier this month.

Concerns expressed in the report are that benefit sanctions affect a large number of people, leading to hardship and undermining efforts to find work. Around a quarter of people on Jobseeker’s Allowance between 2010 and 2015 had at least one sanction imposed on them. Suspending people’s benefit payments can lead to rent arrears and homelessness. The consequences of sanctions on people can be serious so they should be used “very carefully”. However, sanctions are imposed for “honest mistakes”. Citizens Advice (CAB) highlighted the need for flexibility for people who are trying their best.

Other concerns stated in the report are that sanctions are imposed inconsistently on claimants by different jobcentres and providers, the Department does not understand the wider effects of sanctions and the Department’s data systems are not good enough to provide routine understanding of what effect sanctions have on claimants’ employment prospects.  In other words, it’s a policy applied without adequate justification or evidence of its efficacy. 

This echoes much of what the National Audit Office (NAO) said in their report on benefit sanctions in 2016. Their report, which has also been cited as a source by the PAC, said the DWP is not doing enough to find out how sanctions affect people on benefits, and concluded that it is likely that management focus and local work coach discretion have had a substantial influence on whether or not people are sanctioned.

The NAO report recommended that the DWP carries out a wide-ranging review of benefit sanctions, particularly as it introduces further changes to labour market support such as Universal Credit. The NAO found that the previous government increased the scope and severity of sanctions in 2012 and recognised that these changes would affect claimants’ behaviour in ways that were “difficult to predict.”

Benefits ensure that people are able to meet their basic needs. Welfare covers the costs of food, fuel and shelter. It’s a safeguard to prevent absolute poverty. That was its original purpose when it was introduced. It is difficult to imagine how removing the means that people have of meeting their basic survival needs can possibly motivate them to find work. Comprehensive historical research shows that when people cannot meet their basic biological needs, their pressing cognitive priority is simply survival. In other words, when people are hungry and facing destitution, addressing those fundamental needs becomes a significant barrier to addressing their psychosocial needs such as seeking employment.

Welfare rights advisers on the rightsnet online forum, and from Buckinghamshire Disability Service have voiced their concerns that the DWP has decided not to carry out the less aggressive sanctions warning trial after all, because of “competing priorities in the Parliamentary timetable”. This government decision was included on page 139 of the latest Treasury Minutes Progress Report, published last month, which describes progress on implementing those PAC recommendations that have been accepted by the government. There was no public announcement of the governments’ intentions.

The progress report is dated 25 January, nonetheless, a DWP spokeswoman has insisted that the decision to abandon the sanctions trial had been taken before the appointment of Esther McVey as the new work and pensions secretary on 8 January.

She said: “The decision not to undertake a trial was taken at the end of 2017 – before Esther McVey took up her position as secretary of state.

“As you have read, introducing the trial through legislative change cannot be secured within a reasonable timescale.

But we are keeping the spirit of the recommendation in mind in our thinking around future sanctions policy.

“To keep the sanctions system clear, fair and effective we keep the policies and processes under continuous review.”

The decision last October to trial handing out warnings prior to implementing sanctions was welcomed by many campaigners, disabled activists, academics and anti-austerity protesters. 

It had come only weeks after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (UNCRPD) published their inquiry report, which found that the UK government’s welfare reforms “systematically” violate the rights of disabled persons..

The UN committee recommeded that the government reviewed “the conditionality and sanction regimes” linked to employment and support allowance (ESA), the out-of-work disability benefit, and “tackle the negative consequences on the mental health and situation” of disabled people.

Gauke had previously acknowledged that sanctions cause harm, and had voiced a commitment to amend the severity of welfare sanctions. The change in direction by the Government is thought by some campaigners to be directly linked to the return of Esther McVey as a Department for Work and Pensions minister.

A PAC spokesperson said: “The committee has not yet considered its course of action.”

However, sanctions are not compatible with our human rights framework or democracy: “A legal right to a basic income necessary to live with dignity is rooted in inalienable human rights. These rights should be properly enshrined in UK constitutional laws and systems of governance. Currently the poorest 10% of families (about 6 million people) live on £40 per week after tax. It is utterly unacceptable to further reduce this tiny income to zero for any reason. As it stands [welfare] conditionality has opened the door to injustice and cruelty (Dr Simon Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform, 2010).

 

Related

Benefit Sanctions Can’t Possibly ‘Incentivise’ People To Work – And Here’s Why

Benefit Sanctions Lead To Hunger, Debt And Destitution, Report Says

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


 

I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you. 

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