Tag: Patrick Butler

Former Universal Credit staff reveal call targets and ‘deflection scripts’

Image result for universal credit logo

Joanne Huggins worked on the universal credit helpline in the Grimsby service centre for nearly two years before quitting in April. She had worked in social housing and understood the social security system but was still surprised by what she found. I did not expect it to be so fundamentally flawed,” she told Patrick Butler, in a Guardian interview back in July.

She had hoped she would be able to help resolve the problems reported by claimants, some of whom would call in upset after payments were late, or were unexpectedly reduced, but soon found the system resistant to offering quick or easy assistance.

“It felt like these were not people that you serve, not customers, not important, but people who get in the way of what you are are trying to do, which was to hit call targets,” she said.

She said it was “heartbreaking” having to block or deflect vulnerable claimants, telling them that they would not be paid, or would have to submit a new claim, or have a claim closed for missing a jobcentre appointment, or be sanctioned – a penalty fine for breaching benefit conditions – or go to the food bank.

She added that the system felt crude rather than intuitive, and her role often felt adversarial. Huggins said: “It was more about getting the person off the phone, not helping.”

Bayard Tarpley also worked in the Grimsby centre. He said the system was not only avoidably complex but failed to anticipate that claimants may find it difficult. Tarpley gives countless examples of how his experience showed that the system is designed irrationally, or clumsily, or in a way that confuses staff as well as claimants and leads directly to people not receiving the lifeline financial support they need and are entitled to.

Tarpley said:

“Universal credit is like one of those old Disney cartoons with a leaky boat. The holes spring up, and Bugs Bunny or whoever sticks a finger in, but then a new hole appears, and they end up sprawled across the boat trying to block all the leaks. The holes aren’t the problem, though, it’s the boat” 

Staff often get confused by the welter of system updates, guidance and memos.

“This results in a massive variation in understanding between agents, teams and especially service centres, meaning that claimants can call three times in a row and get three different answers to a query.”

He added:

“This piled excessive responsibilities on to call centre staff. When people call up with very specific questions about how their terminal illness affects their benefit, it’s me that answers that question. It’s me that has to judge whether it’s appropriate to ask a claimant if her third child is the result of sexual assault because it may affect her benefit entitlement.

“The decisions I make on a daily basis have an impact on how quickly someone is able to pay their landlord, turn the heating back on, get their children to school. I have made decisions that have resulted in people being evicted, and decisions I have made have led people to tell me that it is the reason they are self-harming.

“I would argue that I am scarcely qualified for any of those things, never mind all of them.”

Now, the former Universal Credit service centre advisor, Bayard Tarpley, has revealed details of a ‘deflection script’ that staff are given to get claimants off the phone. Speaking to Sky News, ahead of a major report on Universal Credit that is due to be released by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) today, Tarpley echoed earlier concerns raised by Huggins. about call targets. 

He said:  I think certainly from a frontline position I wasn’t particularly confident that Universal Credit was meeting that goal of helping people work and making them better off based on their circumstances.”

He added:

“We were encouraged to end the call sooner so that we could quickly get through things.

“There didn’t seem to be a lot of changes that were specifically there to support claimants.

“So there was there is something called the deflection script. It was a piece of paper that explains what to do when someone calls in.

“Even if a problem could be solved then and there on the phone we were encouraged to do everything in our power to get them to hang up the phone and do that online.”

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) released a statement that denies the existence of such a deflection script but added that “staff may use aides to effectively deal with claimants.”

A spokesperson added: “We take the training of our call handling staff extremely seriously to ensure they are prepared to handle a range of enquiries, regardless of how long they might take – there is no policy to get callers off the phones.

“Since 2010, one million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty, with on average 1,000 more people going into work each and every day since 2010.”

Whistleblower Tarpley concludes:

The DWP’s ‘culture of denial’

With the chancellor under intense pressure to act in his budget next Monday to cushion the impact of the the universal credit system, the public accounts committee has warned that the government has ignored the concerns of those at the sharp end. The committee took evidence from charities and local authorities, which told MPs they had seen sharp increases in rent arrears and food bank usage among new recipients of universal credit, not least because of the five-week wait for the first payment.

The DWP’s own survey found that 40% of people were experiencing financial difficulties eight or nine months into their claim, and work and pensions secretary Esther McVey recently admitted the rollout would leave “some people worse off”.

The committee has said McVey’s department has repeatedly been unresponsive to on-the-ground evidence about the practical problems with universal credit, and what it called the “unacceptable hardship” faced by many.

“The department’s systemic culture of denial and defensiveness in the face of any adverse evidence presented by others is a significant risk to the programme,” the MPs said, citing the DWP’s response to an earlier critical report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

McVey was forced to apologise to parliament earlier this year, when the NAO’s head, Sir Amyas Morse, complained that she had misrepresented the report as positive, when it had called for a “pause” in the rollout of universal credit.

Several of the organisations that gave evidence told the committee they had a positive relationship with local jobcentres, but found it impossible to influence the DWP nationally.

Meg Hillier, the public accounts committee’s chair, said: “This report provides further damning evidence of a culture of indifference at DWP – a department disturbingly adrift from the real-world problems of the people it is there to support.”

The committee said the help available to people moving over to universal credit, known as “universal support”, which is funded by the DWP but commissioned by councils, is patchy, and “not fit for purpose” – because it does not include debt advice, for example

By June this year, 980,000 people were already in receipt of universal credit, with another 7.5 million due to move over to the new system. So far, only new claimants, or those whose circumstances have changed, have been moved on to universal credit.

The government recently delayed so-called “managed migration”, which will allow existing claimants to be moved across, from January 2019 to later in the year, apparently because it feared being defeated by backbench rebels in parliament if it tabled the necessary regulations.

The committee criticised the DWP’s claim that switching to universal credit will save taxpayers up to £8bn, by coaxing more people back into the workforce. They said that the department cannot say how it will measure whether the targets have been hit – or how many of those moving into work would have done so under the old system anyway.

A DWP spokesperson said: “We will carefully consider the findings in the report – a number of which we are already working on. For example, we have recently begun a new partnership with Citizens Advice to deliver better support to the most vulnerable, and are working with stakeholders to ensure the Managed Migration process for people moving onto Universal Credit works smoothly. 

“So far this year we have already announced several improvements to Universal Credit, such as plans to reinstate housing benefit for vulnerable 18-21 year olds, making direct payments to landlords, offering 100% advances and providing an additional 2 weeks of housing benefit for claimants.”

The so-called improvements are very clearly not enough. Legacy benefits were calculated to meet very basic living costs. Because universal credit leaves many people worse off, it means that they are facing unacceptable levels of extreme hardship and situations of absolute poverty – where people can’t meet their fundamental survival needs such as food, fuel and shelter. In this respect, Universal Credit is now not just failing our contemporary standards of addressing poverty but those of William Beveridge in the 1940s.

Until that issue is addressed, universal credit will continue fail the people it was allegedly designed to support. 


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Our social security has been redesigned. It’s now a welfare deterrent

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Hunger and desperation used quite ruthlessly by a “health care professional” to controversially justify refusing a disability support claim. Access to food banks can only happen if you are referred by a professional, such as a doctor or social worker. Furthermore, you can generally have a maximum of only 3 referrals per year. The ESA and PIP eassessment guidance says that a person must be able to walk the distance specified “reliably, consistently, safely and in a timely manner.”

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Iain Duncan-Smith struggled financially once, but then he got off his backside and was given a Tudor mansion by his father-in-law, the fifth Baron Cottesloe, which proves rewards come to those prepared to make an effort.  Reuters.

“Universal Credit doesn’t go far enough – work won’t pay until people are running naked through stinging nettles to get their benefits.

As Universal Credit develops, it can encourage other skills, so if your electricity has been cut off, you have to screw your application form into a ball and dribble it through a line of cones before kicking it into a bucket. That way you can soon come off benefits and earn £5m a year as a winger for Manchester City.” Mark Steel, writing for the Independent

The Conservative notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor is a false dichotomy. No-one deserves to be poor

“Deserving” is a politically divergent word if there ever was one. The Conservatives have used it to apparently wage an all out class war, using austerity as a smokescreen. They certainly don’t take the side of the proverbial underdog. In fact the more need you have, the less this government considers you “deserving” of support and sympathy.

Policies aimed at people with what are politically regarded as “additional needs” are largely about ensuring your compliance, conformity and commitment to “behavioural change”, on the assumption that people somehow erroneously “choose” to need financial support. Claiming any form of state support has come to entail a deeply hostile and extremely challenging process that is causing psychological distress and often, physical harm, to our most vulnerable citizens. There are plently of examples of cases where this has happened documented on this site alone.

Such a disciplinarian mindset is now embedded in social security policy, rhetoric and administration. But we’ve been here before, back in 1832, when the Poor Law Amendment Act was aimed at categorising and managing “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Those considered “deserving” were unfortunately placed in workhouses and punished by a loss of citizens freedoms and rights, in order to “deter” people from being poor. (See also The New New Poor Law, 2013.)

I’ve yet to come across a single case of someone being punished out of their poverty. Someone ought to send every government minister a copy of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, and remind them all that our post-war social security was originally designed and calculated to ensure people could meet the costs of basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter.

It was recognised back then that people struggling with basic survival requirements were highly unlikely to fulfil other higher level psychosocial potential, such as looking for work. If we want people to find work, we must first ensure they have the necessary resources to do so. And that the work available will make a real difference to their standard of living. 

Poor people don’t create poverty, state decision-making does. The economy and labor market conditions do. The punitive approach to poverty didn’t work in the 1800s and 1900s, and it isn’t working and can’t possibly be made to work now. It’s an ideological dead horse. It died because of the brutal and unrelentless use of too much political brutality, the heavy hand of the state offering all stick and no carrots for poor people.

Being poor is itself punishing enough. Now the poor are being punished for being punished with poverty.  No-one chooses to be poor, our overarching socioeconomic organisation is founded on the very principles of competition. Neoliberalism invariably means there will be a few “winners” (1%) and a lot of “losers” (99%). It’s embedded in the very nature of such a competitive system that emphasises individualism, rather than collectivism, to create increasing inequality and poverty. 

It’s worth considering that people on low pay, or with part-time hours in work are also being sanctioned, if they claim “top up” benefits to supplement their exploitative rate of pay or poor and unstable work conditions. This fact is hardly a good advertisment for the government’s claim of “making work pay”, unless of course we refer back to the poor law reform “deterrence” of 1834. Apparently, making welfare sufficiently punitive to deter people from claiming it is how we make work pay, not by raising wages in line with the cost of living. Silly me. I mistook a propaganda soundbite at face value. It seems old ideolologies die hard, with a vengeance.

Apparently it’s an individual’s fault for not “progressing in work”. Nothing to do with increasingly precarious employment situations, executive decision-making, or a deregulated labor market, of course. 

In-work benefits have effectively subsidised employers’ wage costs. Yet low paid workers are being punished by the government for this state of affairs.

It’s not so long ago that we had a strong trade union movement that used collective bargaining as a method of improving wages and working conditions. But the free market ideologues don’t like trade unions, or welfare provision. They like a neat, tidy and very small, limited interventionist state. Or so they claim.

The paradox, of course, is that in order to reduce supportive provisions, and dismantle the welfare state in order to fulfil the terms and conditions of neoliberalism, the government has to implement strategies that ensure citizen compliance. Many of those strategies are increasingly authoritarian, rather than “non interventionist”, in nature.

It’s not the welfare state, but the state of welfare that is the pressing problem

Private companies have become more firmly embedded in the core concerns of all departments of government in designing and delivering on public and social policies, and policies have become increasingly detached from public need, and more directed at meeting private interests, largely involving making huge and private profits. The Conservatives don’t seem to consider that rogue private businesses like G4S, Atos, Maximus, A4E, and so on, are extensions of the state, fulfilling what are, after all, state-determined functions.

Of course this creates an imbalance between the role of the welfare state in aiding private capital and its role in maintaining and supporting labor, and fulfilling the basic needs of citizens. Corporate welfare underpins neoliberal economies, and it costs the public far more than reduced public provisions promises to save.

In January 2016, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its evaluation of the DWP’s health and disability assessment contracts. It said the cost of each Work Capability Assessment (WCA) had risen from £115 under Atos to £190 under Maximus. The report also states that only half of all the doctors and nurses hired by Maximus – the US outsourcing company brought in by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to carry out the assessments – had even completed their training.

The NAO report summarised:

5.5
Million assessments completed in five years up to March 2015

65%
Estimated increase in cost per Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessment based on published information after transfer of the service in 2015 (from £115 to £190)


84%
Estimated increase in healthcare professionals across contracts from 2,200 in May 2015 to 4,050 November 2016

£1.6 billion
Estimated cost of contracted-out health and disability assessments over three years, 2015 to 2018

£0.4 billion
Latest expected reduction in annual disability benefit spending

13%
Proportion of ESA and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) targets met for assessment report quality meeting contractual standard (September 2014 to August 2015).

Before 2010, cuts to disability support were unthinkable. Now the Treasury regards our provision as their pocket money for tax cuts for the very wealthy

This summary reflects staggering economic incompetence, a flagrant, politically motivated waste of tax payers money and even worse, the higher spending has not created a competent or ethical assessment framework, nor is it improving the lives of sick and disabled people. Some people are dying after being wrongly assessed as “fit for work” and having their lifeline benefits brutally withdrawn. Maximus is certainly not helping the government to serve even the most basic needs of sick and disabled people.

However, Maximus, and other private companies involved in the delivery of welfare programmes are serving the needs of a “small state” doctrinaire neoliberal government, and making a massive profit in doing so. It would cost much less to simply pay people the support they were once simply entitled to. However, the Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions. 

As well as the heavy cost of each assessment to the public purse, there is also the considerable cost of many tribunals, because of the many “wrong decisions”on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions. That’s despite the fact that the government introduced another layer of bureacracy in the form of “mandatory review” in order to deter appeals. People going through mandatory review for a decision to stop their ESA cannot claim ESA again until after mandatory review (if you need to appeal, you can claim ESA once you have the review decision), and so are forced to either try and claim Universal Credit, going 6 weeks at least without any support, or to wait out the Review outcome, which has no set time limit, but usually takes at least 6 weeks for the decision about the original decision. Which is usually the same decision as the original decision, due to outrageous targets that were revealed in the department’s response to a Freedom of Information request, that stated staff conducting mandatory reconsideration reviews were held to a “key performance indicator” that said “80 per cent of the original decisions are to be upheld”.

This is a government that claims social security is “unsustainable” and a “burden” on the public purse, yet has no problem with an extraordinary profligacy with public funds and dispossessing tax payers when it comes to implementing “cost-cutting” and draconian welfare “reforms.” Conservative anti-welfare dogma and traditional prejudices are costing the UK billions of pounds. 

The Tories are all about ideology and not facts. As two authors astutely noted recently, the government seems to be driven by an idea that creating the conditions of purgatory for those they consider “undeserving” will somehow cleanse, redeem and purify people into not being so sinfully poor.  So it’s not actually “welfare” any more, but rather, it’s a “correctional” institution, for coercing citizens into conformity, compliance and a class contingent meekness, with a liberal dash of the protestant work ethic in with the catholic inquisition flavoured ingredients in the mix. Yes, the nasty authoritarian Conservatives really do think like this.

Disability support is virtually impossible to access for many people that doctors consider severely disabled, and involves a measured and ritualised humiliation. The assessments are solely designed to look for “discrepancies” in people’s accounts of how their illness/disability impacts on your day to day living. In other words, it is aimed at looking for reasons, no matter how flimsy, to ensure that welfare support for disabled and ill people is pretty much unobtainable.

Those questions you are asked by the (inappropriately named) Health Care Professional (HCP) that seem like innocent conversation, such as “Do you watch TV? Do you like the Soaps?” translate onto a report that says “Can sit unaided for at least half an hour”. “Do you have a pet?”becomes “Can bend to feed cat/dog.” “Do you use the internet at all?” becomes “No evidence of focus or cognitive difficulties, adequate hand dexterity.”

If you wear any jewellry, that may be noted and used as evidence that you have dexterity in your hands, even if you have severe arthritis and can’t fasten your buttons or a zip,  you won’t be asked if you ever remove your locket/ring/earrings. It will be assumed that you do. It’s a kind of opportunism of neglect and assumption used by HCPs to justify refusing some elements of PIP, or all of your claim. Or it’s the difference between being placed in the ESA Support Group, being placed in the WRAG on the lower award, or simply being refused an award altogether, and told you are “fit for work”. 

If you are unfortunate enough to need a referral to a food bank, and you actually manage to get to the appointment,  because you are desperate, that may also be used as evidence that you can walk further than 200 or 500 metres, even if you can’t, and managed to get a lift there and back.

Challenging such ridiculous assumptions wears you down. It creates distress when someone acting as a gatekeeper to the support you need dismisses your medical reports and account with such disdain, just stopping short of calling you a liar. Challenging the reasons provided for the DWP refusing you a PIP or ESA award is tedious, very stressful and time consuming and tiring. I’m sure that if you manage to do so successfully, even the fact that you managed to collate evidence, ask you doctor for supportive evidence and so forth may be used as evidence that you can function too well to warrant any support. If you demonstrate any ingenuity in coping with your condition, you’ve basically had it.

Once upon a time, support for disabled people was designed to help us remain independent, and to enable us to participate in society. PIP is non means-tested and people can claim it (allegedly) whilst in work.

However, I worked for social services until I became too ill to work. I loved my job, and my salary was very good, too. It was a terribly dehumanising experience to have to face the fact I was no longer well enough and fit for my post. 7 years later, at my PIP assessment, it was decided that my previous job “proved” that I don’t currently have “any cognitive problems.”

That’s despite the assessor acknowledging  in the report I now even need an aid to remember to take my treatments and medications, and that during the appointment, I had to be reminded several times what I’d been asked, as I kept forgetting what I was supposed to be answering. I have systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and cognitive dysfunction is very commonly experienced  symptom of this illness

People have even been refused PIP at appeal because they “spend too much time on Facebook.” Too much for what, exactly? Last time I checked, there were no laws in place that meant sick and disabled citizens were prohibited from using social media. Since when did it become acceptable for government officials to endorse and promote the social exclusion of disabled people online? 

But apparently, contradictions and paradoxes are allowed if you happen to be the assessing HCP. The report said that I was “thin” abut “adequately nourished”. She didn’t check my vitamin and mineral levels at all. Nor did she ask me about what I ate and how often. She just said that the aids I have were “adequate” (a perch stool, easy to use tin opener and specially designed easy to use cutlery, which are not especially designed for disabled people, but are easier for me to use because of the handle design and the steak knives instead of standard ones.)

What’s the point of welfare “support” if so few people are able to access it, despite their obvious need?

The United Nations (UN) inquiry into the allegations many of us made regarding the systematic abuse of the human rights of disabled people in the UK has exposed the multiple injustices of targeted cuts and the disproportionate burden of austerity heaped on sick and disabled people, their carers and their families, evidencing and detailing the effects of a range of policy measures affecting them that have been introduced since 2010. These include the bedroom tax and cuts to disability benefits, funds to support independence and social care.

The report concludes that the overall effect of what is now an essentially punitive welfare regime, which has been based almost entirely on unevidenced political claims and assumptions, has had an extremely detrimental and regressive effect on the rights of disabled people, to live independently, to meet their basic needs, to seek and stay in work,  and to be able to live an ordinary life as citizens.

The UN report documented multiple violations of disabled people’s rights, including the way that they are politically portrayed as being lazy and a “burden on taxpayers”, the harm to health caused by unfair assessments, the cuts to legal aid and curtailed access to justice, the imposition of the bedroom tax and the ending of the Independent Living Fund.

I wrote a lengthy article about the unsurprising but nonetheless disquieting report findings and recommendations, as I read throughit at the time, here.

The government have of course indignantly refused to accept the findings of the UN, or accept the accounts of individuals and campaigners like me, disability groups and charities, and other organisations. That’s because the government prefer to cling relentlessly to free market dogma and their traditional prejudices rather than face empirical evidence, facts and truths.

The days of genuine support, to ensure disabled people can maintain dignity and independence, and to be socially, economically, politically and culturally included, are gone. PIP and ESA focus exclusively on what you can’t do: on “functionality”. If you walk your dog or take a holiday, this is taken to somehow indicate that you are not ill or disabled enough to need support. In fact the media turns you into some kind of nasty folk devil and state parasite for trying to live as normal life as possible. If the government and media had their way, we would be trapped indoors in abject misery, or institutionalised.

How dare we try to live an ordinary life.

The government have formulated draconian policies aimed particularly at disabled people. And unemployed people, low paid people, and young people. And migrants. And old people who, like many disabled people, have paid in contributions towards a welfare system, should they need it, but now they also have to work until they drop.

Hey, and you thought governments are elected to meet public needs and spend our money wisely? No, apparently we’re here to serve government needs, to behave exactly as the Conservatives think we should. 

Welfare as a deterrent to… well, welfare.

 

Image result for poverty welfare punishment

And social security has been redesigned to punish those citizens who have the misfortune to find themselves in poverty.

 


 

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Government backs new law to prevent people made homeless through government laws from becoming homeless

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Theresa May’s ritualistic Tory chanting: “getting people’s lives back on track”

Earlier this month, Theresa May surprisingly unveiled a £40 million package designed to prevent homelessness by intervening to help individuals and families before they end up on the streets. It was claimed that the “shift” in government policy will move the focus away from dealing with the consequences of homelessness and place prevention “at the heart” of the Prime Minister’s approach. 

Writing in the Big Issue magazine – sold by homeless people – May said: “We know there is no single cause of homelessness and those at risk can often suffer from complex issues such as domestic abuse, addiction, mental health issues or redundancy.”

“So I believe it’s time we changed our approach. We can no longer focus on tackling the symptoms and immediate consequences of homelessness. We need to put prevention at the heart of a new approach.

“As a first step towards this change, I’m announcing a new £40 million package to both prevent and tackle the causes of homelessness. This will include £20 million for local authorities to pilot innovative initiatives to tackle the causes of homelessness – helping to find solutions for families and individuals before they reach crisis point.”

Earlier this year it was revealed that under David Cameron’s administration homelessness in England had risen by 54 per cent since 2010

This reflected the sixth consecutive annual rise, with households becoming homeless in London increasing to 17,530 (9 per cent) in the last year alone and 58,000 households across the whole of England.

That’s during six consecutive years of the Conservatives in Office, and six years of savage austerity measures that target the poorest citizens disproportionately, by coincidence.

Or by correlation.

There are a few causes that the prime minister seems to have overlooked, amidst the Conservative ritualistic chanting which reflects assumptions and prejudices about the “causal” factors of social problems and a narrative of individualism. It’s a curious fact that wealthy people also experience “complex issues” such as addiction, mental health problems and domestic abuse, but they don’t tend to experience homelessness and poverty as a result. 

The deregulated private sector and increasingly precarious tenancies

“This Government is therefore, very pleased to support Bob Blackman MP’s Private Members Bill, with its ambitious measures to help reduce homelessness.”

Blackman, the Conservative MP for Harrow East, said he welcomed the Government’s decision. He added: “Throughout my 24 years in local government prior to becoming an MP, I saw the devastation that can be caused by homelessness first hand, with too many people simply slipping through the net under the current arrangements.

“By backing this bill, the Government is demonstrating its commitment to an agenda of social justice and also shows that it is willing to listen. I look forward to working with Ministers going forward in order to bring about this important change in legislation.”

Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, welcomed the Government’s commitment but warned that unless “MPs [need to] offer their support at the bill’s second reading on Friday, this historic opportunity could easily be lost”.

Jon Sparkes, the charity’s chief executive, added: “This is a credible and much-needed piece of legislation which now has the backing of the Government, the opposition and the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. The cross-party consensus is there, and we hope that MPs from across the political spectrum will come together on October 28 to vote on the bill.

“Helping people to stay off the streets and rebuild their lives is about basic social justice – it’s the right thing to do – but it also makes good economic sense. New research from Crisis has revealed how preventing 40,000 people from becoming homelessness could save the public purse up to £370m a year, or just over £9,000 per year for every person helped. The logic is clear: preventing homelessness saves lives, but also reduces public costs.

“For 40 years we’ve had a system that fails too many homeless people and turns them away at their time of need. The Homelessness Reduction Bill could help put an end to that injustice once and for all. It is a major opportunity to improve the rights of people currently shut out of the system, whist continuing to protect families with children.”

Lord Porter, the chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents councils and had opposed an earlier draft of the Bill, said granting councils the ability to build homes would be a more effective step towards ending homelessness and the housing crisis in general.

“Councils want to end homelessness and are already doing everything they can within existing resources to prevent and tackle it. However, there is no silver bullet, and councils alone cannot tackle rising homelessness. The causes of homelessness are many and varied and range from financial to social,” he said.

“After having worked closely with Bob Blackman, we are confident that the new Bill, if it does go through Parliament, will be in a better place.

“However, it is clear that legislative change alone will not resolve homelessness. If we are all to succeed, then all new duties proposed in the Bill will need to be fully funded. Councils need powers to resume our role as a major builder of affordable homes.”

The shortage of housing and the impact of the Government’s welfare “reforms”

The 2013 annual State of the Nation report by the charities Crisis and Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) revealed that the number sleeping rough had risen by six per cent in England this year, and by 13 per cent in London. There has been a 10 per cent increase in those housed temporarily, including a 14 per cent rise in the use of bed and breakfast accommodation.

Writing just a year after the highly controversial Welfare Reform Act was ushered through the legislative process on the back of Cameron’s claim to the “financial privilege” of the Commons , the report authors explicitly blamed the Government’s welfare cuts for compounding the problems caused by the high cost and shortage of housing as demand outstripped supply. The researchers found found that the cap on housing benefit made it more difficult to rent from a private landlord, especially in London, and claimed the controversial “bedroom tax” has caused a sharp rise in arrears for people in public housing, particularly in the Midlands and North.

A separate survey by Inside Housing magazine showed that councils and housing associations are increasingly resorting to the threat of eviction, as the loss of an adequate social security safety net is causing increasing hardship for social housing tenants. The reduction of council tax benefit for people who were previously exempt from paying council tax has also contributed significantly to experiences of material hardship, too. 

Ministers have emphatically denied that their reforms have contributed to the return of homelessness. However, homelessness has now risen in each of the five years since the Coalition was formed – after falling sharply in the previous six years, and has continued to rise throughout 2016.

The government’s welfare policies have emerged as the biggest single trigger for homelessness now the economy has allegedly recovered, and are likely to increase pressure on households for the next few years, with the new benefit cap increasing the strain, according to the independent research findings in the Homelessness Monitor 2015, the annual independent audit, published by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The housing minister, Kris Hopkins, said the study’s claims were “misleading”. Local authorities had “a wide range of government-backed options available to help prevent homelessness and keep people off the streets,” he said.

“This government has increased spending to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping, making over £500m available to local authorities and the voluntary sector,” he added.

It hasn’t worked. This is because, despite Theresa May’s claims, the government tends to simply address the effects and not the real causes of homelessness. Unless the government actually address the growing inequality, poverty and profound insecurity that their own policies have created, then homelessness and absolute poverty will continue to increase.

Hopkins added that the government had provided Crisis with nearly £14m in funding to help about 10,000 single homeless people find and sustain a home in the private rented sector.

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “Homelessness can be catastrophic for those of us who experience it. If we are to prevent a deepening crisis, we must look to secure alternatives to home ownership for those who cannot afford to buy: longer-term, secure accommodation at prices that those on the lowest incomes can afford.”

The Homelessness Monitor study 2015 found:

  • Housing benefit caps and shortages of social housing has led to homeless families increasingly being placed in accommodation outside their local area, particularly in London. Out-of-area placements rose by 26% in 2013-14, and account for one in five of all placements.
  • Welfare reforms such as the bedroom tax contributed to an 18% rise in repossession actions by social landlords in 2013-14, a trend expected to rise as arrears increase and temporary financial support shrink
  • Housing benefit cuts played a large part in the third of all cases of homelessness last year caused by landlords ending a private rental tenancy, and made it harder for those who lost their home to be rehoused.

The study says millions of people are experiencing “hidden homelessness”, including families forced by financial circumstances to live with other families in the same house, and people categorised as “sofa surfers” who sleep on friends’ floors or sofas because they have nowhere to live.

Official estimates of  the numbers of people sleeping rough in England in 2013 were 2,414 – up 37% since 2010. But the study’s estimates based on local data suggest that the true figure could be at least four times that.

The Department for Work and Pensions also announced last month that it was cutting funding for homeless hostels and supported housing for disabled people by reducing supported housing benefit rent payments for three years. The homelessness reduction bill in the current policy context is yet another example of how Conservatives don’t seem to manage coherent, joined up thinking. 

“The Government’s proposals will compromise the right for people with a learning disability to live independently, and must be reconsidered urgently,” Dan Scorer, head of policy at the learning disabilities charity Mencap, warned after the announcement.

Meanwhile Howard Sinclair, the chief executive of the homelessness charity St Mungo’s, said the cut would leave the homeless charity with £3 million a year less to spend on services. 

“The rent reduction will threaten the financial viability of some of our hostels and other supported housing schemes and offers no direct benefit to vulnerable tenants who mostly rely on housing benefit to cover their housing costs,” he said.

It’s just not good enough that the Government simply attempts to colonise progressive rhetoric, claiming they stand for social justice, when they very clearly don’t walk the talk.

Conservative neoliberal “small state” anti-welfare policies are increasing homelessness. The bedroom tax, council tax benefit reductions, housing benefit reductions, welfare caps, sanctions, the deregulation of private sector, the selling off and privatising of social housing stock have all contributed to the current crisis of homelessness.

It was particularly remarkable that May claimed the government are “doing the right thing for social justice” yet the Conservative policy framework is, by its very design, inevitably adding to the precariousness of the situations those people with the least financial security are in.

Someone should explain to the prime minister that “social justice” doesn’t generally entail formulating predatory policies that ensure the wealthy accumulate more wealth by dispossessing the poorest citizens of their public assets, civilised institutions and civilising practices gained through the post-war settlement.

Devolving responsibility for the housing crisis and lack of adequate social security provision to local authorities that are already strapped for cash because of government cuts, and with an ever-dwindling housing stock, won’t help to address growing inequality, or alleviate poverty and destitution.

letter-to-a-homeless-person

Related

From homes fit for heroes to the end of secure, lifelong social housing tenancies

Update

Let’s Pressurise MP’s To Attend the Vote On the ‘Once In a Lifetime Homelessness Bill’ – template letter to MPs, courtesy of the Dorset Eye


 

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The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

“This is a round up.”

The song is about a world where citizens are deeply suspicious of one another, where fear of the Other is politically instigated and nurtured, social conformity, discrimination, exclusion and prejudice reign supreme. It’s about a society blindly climbing Allport’s ladder.

 

“Of the forehead, when the forehead is perfectly perpendicular, from the hair to the eyebrows, it denotes an utter deficiency of understanding.” Johann Kaspar Lavater, phrenologist (1741–1801).

 

Back in the nineteenth century, phrenology was the preferred “science” of personality and character divination. The growth in popularity of “scientific” lectures as entertainment also helped spread phrenology to the masses. It was very popular among the middle and working classes, not least because of its simplified principles and wide range of social applications that were supportive of the liberal laissez faire individualism inherent in the dominant Victorian world view. It justified the status quo. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited the charlatan George Combe to feel the bumps and “read” the heads of their children.

During the early 20th century, there was a revival of interest in phrenology, partly because of studies of evolution, criminology and anthropology (pursued by Cesare Lombroso). Some people with political causes used phrenology as a justification narrative for European superiority over other “lesser” races. By comparing skulls of different ethnic groups it supposedly allowed for ranking of races from least to most evolved.

It’s now largely regarded as an obsolete and curious amalgamation of primitive neuroanatomy, colonialist supremicism with a dash of moral philosophy. However, during the 1930s Belgian colonial authorities in Rwanda used phrenology to explain the so-called superiority of Tutsis over Hutus. More recently in 2007, the US State of Michigan included phrenology (and palm reading) in a list of personal services subject to sales tax. 

Any system of belief that rests on the classification of physical characteristics is almost always used to justify prejudices, social stratifying and the ranking of human worth. It highlights what we are at the expense of the more important who we are. It profoundly dehumanises and alienates us.

Though the saying “you need your bumps feeling” has lived on, may the pseudoscience of phrenology rest in pieces. 

CrIY-YQWEAQyIeg

Phrenology is dead: long live the new moralising pseudoscience

The Conservatives have simplified the art of personality and character divination. They have set up a new economic department of the mind called the Behavioural Insights Unit. This fits with the age old Conservative motif of a “broken Britain”and their obsessive fear of social “decay and disorder.” Apparently, we are always on the point of moral collapse, as a society. And apparently, it isn’t the government’s decision-making that is problematic: poor people are entirely responsible for the poor state of our country. Those who have the very least are to blame. That’s why they need such targeted austerity policies, to ensure they have even less. We can’t have the poor being rewarded with not being poor, that’s just bad for big business.

Under every Conservative government, we suddenly see the proliferation of bad sorts; cognitively biased and morally incompetent people making the wrong choices everywhere and generally being inept, non-resilient and deficient characters. The way to diagnose these problems of character, according to the government, is to establish whether or not someone is “hard working”. This is usually determined by the casting of chicken bones, and a quick look at someone’s bank balance. If it lies offshore, you are generally considered a jolly good sort.

If you need to claim social security, be it in-work or out-of-work support, then you are most definitely a “wrong sort”; a faulty person and therefore in need of some state treatment to put you right, just to ensure that your behaviours are optimal and aligned with politically defined neoliberal outcomes. Apparently, poor people are the new “criminal types.” The only cure, according to the government, is to make poor people even poorer, by a variety of methods, including a thorough, coercive nudging: a “remedial” income sanctioning and increased conditionality to eligibility for support; benefit cuts; increasing welfare caps and a systematic dismantling of the welfare state more generally,

Oh, and regular shaming, outgrouping, stigmatising and scapegoating in the meanstream media and political rhetoric, designed to create folk devils and moral panic.

The new benefit cap: a policy designed by the neoliberal rune casters

The regressive benefit cap will save a paltry amount of money in the short term. In the long term it will cost our health and social services many millions. It’s misleading of the government to claim that it will save the “tax payers” money, since most people needing to claim social security have worked and paid taxes too. VAT is also a tax, and last time I checked, people needing support because they lost their job or became sick or injured are not exempt from paying taxes. In fact the poorest families pay the highest proportion of their income in tax

We forget that people in poverty pay taxes because we forget how many different ways we are taxed:

  • VAT
  • Duties
  • Income tax
  • National Insurance
  • Council tax
  • Licences
  • Social care charges, and many others taxes
  • Bedroom tax

Of course there’s a stark contrast in the way the state coerces the poorest citizens into behaving “responsibly”, carrying the full burden of austerity, while there is an abject failure to rein in executive pay, or to tax the Conservative party paymasters, and recover the billions lost in revenue to the Treasury through tax havens.

Poor people get the bargain basement package of behavioural incentives – which is all stick and no carrots – whereas the wealthy get the deluxe kit, with no stick and plenty of financial rewards. 

Nearly a quarter of a million children from poor families will be hit by the extended household benefit cap due to be introduced this autumn, according to the government’s latest analysis of the impact of the policy. It will see an average of £60 a week taken out of the incomes of affected households that are already poor, pushing them even deeper into poverty. About 61% of those affected will be female lone parents.

The cap will damage the life chances of hundreds of thousands of children, and force already poor families to drastically cut back on the amount they spend on essential items to meet basic needs, such as food, fuel and clothing. Originally benefit rates were calculated to meet basic survival needs – covering the costs of food, fuel and shelter only. 

The new cap unjustifiably restricts the total amount an individual household can receive in benefits to £23,000 a year in London (£442 a week) and £20,000 in the rest of the UK (£385 a week). It replaces the existing cap level of £26,000. All of this support is dependent on whether or not you comply with the very complex conditionality criteria. The support can be withdrawn suddenly, in the form of a sanction, for any number of reasons, and quite often, because your benefit advisor simply has targets to reach in order to let you know that nothing at all may be taken for granted: eating, feeding your children, sleeping indoors and keeping warm in particular.  

The government claims the cap incentivises people to search for work, and says that 23,000 affected households have taken a job since the introduction of the first cap in 2013. However, the government uses “off flow” as a measurement of employment, which is unreliable, as studies have indicated many claimants simply vanish from record.

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

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

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

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman said: “The benefit cap restored fairness to the system by ending the days of limitless benefit claims and provides a clear incentive to move into work.”

However, firstly, social security is based on a national insurance contribution principle, and was already fair. Most people have worked and contributed to their own provision. Secondly, people in work are also poor. Those on low pay who need to claim additional support are also being sanctioned for “non-compliance”. In fact  much of our welfare spending goes towards supporting those people in work on low wages. We spend most on pensions, a large amount on in-work benefits and relatively little provision is for those out of work. The DWP don’t half chat some rubbish. A fair system would entail the government ensuring that employers pay adequate wages that cover rising living costs, instead of permitting employers to profit from our welfare state.

In a deregulated labour market, poorly paid workers are now held individually and entirely responsible for how much they earn, how many hours they work, and generally “progressing in work”. If they don’t “progress”, then what used to be an issue for trade unions and collective bargaining is now an issue addressed by punitive social security law, authoritarian welfare “advisors” and financial penalties.  

You can see where the incremental increases in the benefit cap are leading the public. The justifications and line of reasoning presented by the Conservatives are leading us down a cul-de-sac of rationale, where the welfare state is completely dismantled, and the reason given will be that this ensures “everyone works”, regardless of labour market conditions and the availability of reasonable quality and secure jobs that pay enough to support people, meeting their basic needs sufficiently to lift them out of poverty.

If these measures are intended to force people into work, this government’s self-defeating, never-ending austerity policy is hardly the ideal economic climate for job creation and growth, and where are the affordable social homes for the growing ranks of low paid workers in precarious financial situations because of increasing job insecurity and zero hour contracts? The gig economy is a political fig leaf.

An official evaluation of the cap by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2014 found the “large majority” of capped claimants did not respond by moving into work, and a DWP-backed study in Oxford published in June found that cutting benefit entitlements made it less likely that unemployed people would get a job. Not that we didn’t already know this. If people cannot meet their basic needs, then they simply struggle to survive and cannot be “incentivised” to meet higher level psychosocial needs. The government need to read about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the Minnesota starvation experiment. (See Welfare sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work .)

Joanna Kennedy, chief executive of the charity Z2K, said: “Our experience helping those affected by the original cap shows that many of those families will have to reduce even further the amount they spend on feeding and clothing their children, and heating their home to avoid falling into rent arrears and facing eviction and homelessness.”

As Patrick Butler points out in the Guardian, the government have already been ordered to exempt carers from the cap after a judge ruled last year that it unlawfully discriminated against disabled people by capping benefits for relatives who cared for them full time. Ministers had argued that carers who looked after family members for upwards of 35 hours a week should be treated as unemployed.

A previous court ruling found that the benefit cap breached the UK’s obligations on international children’s rights because the draconian cuts to household income it produced left families unable to meet their basic needs. This is the fifth wealthiest nation in the world, and supposedly a first world liberal democracy.

The deputy president of the supreme court, Lady Hale, said in her judgment: “Claimants affected by the cap will, by definition, not receive the sums of money which the state deems necessary for them adequately to house, feed, clothe and warm themselves and their children.

As Stephen Preece from Welfare Weekly pointed out yesterday, the word vulnerable suggests that people are weak, when in fact they are only made vulnerable through the actions or inaction of those around them, including (and especially) the government. I agree. To label people as vulnerable displaces responsibility from government and diverts us from the reality and nature of the punitive policies aimed at poor citizens – this is political oppression. 

Ideological justification narratives and pseudoscience

I waded through the government document Welfare Reform and Work Act: Impact Assessment for the benefit cap. Basically the government use inane nudge language and their central aim is to “incentivise behavioural change” throughout the assessment. But they then claim that they can’t predict or accurately measure that. It is very difficult to measure psychobabble accurately though, it has to be said.

There are a lot of techniques of neutralisation and euphemisms peppered throughout the document. For example, taking money away from the poorest citizens is variously described as: “achieving fairness for taxpayers” (as previously stated, people claiming benefits have usually worked: they have and continue to pay taxes); “ensures there is a reasonable safety net of support for the most vulnerable” (by cutting it away further).and “strengthening work incentives”. 

For those alleged free riders claiming support because they fell on hard times, “doing the right thing” and “moving into work” is deemed to be the ultimate aim of the cap, regardless of whether or not the work is secure, appropriate, with adequate levels of pay to lift people out of poverty. Work, in other words, will set us free.

I also took the time and trouble to read the studies that the government cited as “evidence” to support their pseudoscientific claims. The government misquoted and misapplied the research they used, too. They made claims that were NOT substantiated by the scant research referenced. And there are many more studies that completely refute the outrageous and ideologically premised government claims made in this document. 

For example, Freud makes the claims that: “Children in households where neither parent is in work are much more likely to have challenging behaviour at age 5 than children in households where both parents are in paid employment. Growing up in a workless household is associated with poorer academic attainment and a higher risk of being not in education, employment and training (NEET) in late adolescence.”

The study cited was Barnes, M. et al. (2012) Intergenerational Transmission of Worklessness: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study and Longitudinal Study of Young People in England. Department for Education research report 234. It says:

“Though it must be stated that much of the association between parental worklessness and these outcomes was attributable to these other risk factors facing workless families. Parental worklessness had no independent effect on a number of other outcomes, such as children’s wellbeing (not being happy at school, being bullied and bullying other children), feelings of lack of control, becoming a teen parent, and risky behaviour. This evidence provides limited support for a policy agenda targeted only at getting parents back into work. ”

It is poverty, not “worklessness” that creates poor social outcomes. That is why around half of the people queuing at food banks are those in work. The biggest proportion of welfare support paid out is in-work benefits.

Freud also states that: “A lower cap recognises that many hard working families earn less than median earnings – a lower cap provides a strong work incentive.”

Actually, raising wages in line with the cost of living would be a far better incentive, instead of punishing unemployed people for the failings of a Conservative government that always oversees an increasingly desperate reserve army of labour, and ever-falling wages. 

Perhaps one of the most outrageous claims made in the document is that the cap is consistent with “UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” Those sick and disabled people in the ESA work-related activity group are not protected from the cap. The government is currently being investigated by the UN for “gross and systematic” abuses of the human rights of disabled people, because of the previous welfare “reforms” (a euphemism for cuts).

This is an authoritarian government that is coercing people into any low paid and insecure work, regardless of how suitable it is. It’s about dismantling the welfare state, bit by bit. It is about ensuring people are desperate so that people’s right to turn down jobs that are unsuitable, thus reducing any kind of scope for collective bargaining to improve working conditions and pay, is removed. It’s also about bullying people into doing what the government wants then to do, removing autonomy and choices. That isn’t “incentivising”, it’s plain and brutal state coercion. All bullies and tyrants are behaviourists. 

It’s impossible not to feel at least a degree of concern and outrage reading such incoherent, flimsy and glib rubbish from an ideologically-driven government waging a full on class war on the poorest citizens, and then claiming that is somehow “fair” to the “taxpayer”. And it’s noteworthy that there is a harking back to the discredited and prejudiced theories of Keith Joseph – “intergenerational worklessness” – which were debunked by the theorists’ OWN research back in the Thatcher era. It is being paraded as irrefutable fact once again. 

I’m expecting a government phrenology unit to be established soon.

And an announcement that the Department for Work and Pensions is to be renamed the Malleus Maleficarum.

220px-1895-Dictionary-Phrenolog


 

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Secret ‘internal reviews’ show clear link between Tory welfare ‘reforms’ and suicides

tory cuts


I’ve written more than one lengthy critique of Tory notions of what passes for “research” methods, and often criticised Conservative refusals to accept the research findings of academics regarding, for example, established links between the Work Capability Assessment, increased suicide and mortality, the link between sanctions and increased mortality. The Tory plea for the universal and unqualified dismissal of whatever they deem to be criticism of their policies is often based on the claim that “no causal link has been established.”

As I have pointed out previously, whilst correlation certainly isn’t quite the same thing as cause and effect, it quite often strongly hints at a causal link, and as such, warrants further investigation.

It is inaccurate to say that correlation doesn’t imply causation. It quite often does. Correlation means that an association has been established. The tobacco industry, for example, has historically relied on exactly the same dismissal of correlational evidence to reject the established link between tobacco and lung cancer.

The standard process of research doesn’t entail, at any point, a flat political denial that there is any relationship of significance to concern ourselves with, nor does it involve a systematic and deliberate withholding of relevant data, attempts at censoring democratic dialogue, and a point blank refusal to investigate further. Furthermore, the government claims that there is “no evidence of a causal link ” is unverified. There is no evidence to support government claims that there isn’t such a link, either. In fact empirical evidence strongly refutes the Conservative’s persistent claims of no association between the welfare cuts and an increase in suicide and mortality.

I’ve observed more than once that when it comes to government claims, the same methodological rigour that they advocate for others isn’t applied. Indeed, many policies have clearly been directed by ideology and traditional Tory prejudices, rather than being founded on valid research and empirical evidence. The fact that no cumulative impact assessment has been carried out with regard to the welfare “reforms” indicates a government that is not interested in accountability, and examining the potential negative outcomes of policy-making. Policies are supposed to be about meeting public needs and not about inflicting Conservative dogma and old prejudices in the form of financial punishment on previously protected social groups.

We need to ask why the government has so persistently refused to undertake cumulative impact assessments and conduct open, publicly accessible research into their austerity policies, the impact they are having and the associated deaths and suicides.

Without such research, it isn’t appropriate or legitimate to deny a causal link between what are, after all, extremely punitive, targeted, class-contingent policies and an increase in premature mortality rates.

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. Political denial of responsibility is repressive, it sidesteps democratic accountability and stifles essential debate and obscures evidence. Denial of causality does not reduce the probability of it, especially in cases where a correlation has been well-established and evidenced. Nor does attempting to hide the evidence.

Being civilised, holding values of decency and having legitimate concerns about the welfare and wellbeing of sick and disabled citizens have all been depreciated as mere matters of “subjective interpretation” and not as worthy subjects of political, rational or objective discussion. This isn’t a government prepared to engage in a democratic dialogue with citizens, it is one intent on imposing authoritarianism.

 —

The following article titled “Suicides of benefit claimants reveal DWP flaws, says inquiry” was written by Patrick Butler and John Pring, for The Guardian on Friday 13th May 2016 22.59 UTC

A series of secret internal inquiries into the deaths of people claiming social security reveal that ministers were repeatedly warned of shortcomings in the treatment of vulnerable claimants facing potentially traumatic cuts to their benefits entitlements.

The conclusions are contained in 49 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) inquiry reports finally released to campaigners on Friday after a two-year Freedom of Information (FOI) battle. Some 40 of the reports followed a suicide. In 10 cases, the claimant had had their benefits sanctioned.

Although the heavily redacted reports do not draw a direct link between the death of a claimant and problems caused by their dealings with the benefits system, they highlight widespread flaws in the handling by DWP officials of claims by people with mental illness or learning difficulty.

The reports, called “peer reviews,” appear to challenge blanket claims by ministers that there is no connection between government welfare reform policies and the deaths of vulnerable claimants.

Several suggest that claimants who died may not have received adequate support from DWP staff handling their benefit claims. At least five of the reports call for major reviews or substantial changes to procedures on identifying and supporting vulnerable claimants.

Many of them centre on the much-criticised Work Capability Assessment (WCA), the test used to assess whether claimants are fit for work. Campaigners argue the tests are flawed and linked to health relapses, depression, self-harm, and suicides.

Activists have linked the WCA to a string of tragic deaths – including poet Paul Reekie, former sheep farmer Nick Barker and ex-security guard Brian McArdle – all of whom died after being found “fit for work” and told by the DWP that they would lose their out-of-work disability benefits.

Peer reviews are triggered when a claimant death is “associated with a DWP activity”. The reports released on Friday were drawn up between February 2012 and August 2014, when an FOI request was originally submitted.

One report warns that vulnerable claimants risked being overlooked by DWP officials, with potentially harmful consequences, because staff resources were stretched by a ministerial decision to push ahead with the speedy re-assessment of hundreds of thousands of incapacity benefit claimants.

It says: “The risk associated with disregarding the possibility that some of these claimants need more support or a different form of engagement is that we fail to recognise more cases like [name redacted] with consequent potential impact on the claimant.”

The report adds: “We need to ask whether or not in the context of a fast-moving environment of high [claimant re-assessment] volumes and anticipated levels of performance, the current process requires, encourages and supports … colleagues to independently and systematically consider claimant vulnerability.”

Another report suggests that while official written policy demanded vulnerable claimants to be treated appropriately this was not implemented in practice. It says: “This case may highlight a dislocation between policy intent and what actually happens to claimants who are vulnerable.”

Ministers initially denied back in 2014 that they held any records on people whose deaths may have been linked to benefits system. Although they subsequently admitted that so-called “peer-review” investigations had been carried out since 2012, they argued social security laws prevented them from publishing them.

A DWP spokesman said it would be wrong to link benefit claims with deaths. “Any suicide is a tragedy and the reasons for them are complex, however it would be inaccurate and misleading to link it solely to a person’s benefit claim.”

They added that guidance was provided to staff on how best to support vulnerable claimants. Ministers were not routinely shown the reviews, which were undertaken internally help staff to deal with complex and challenging benefit cases.

However, they were unable to say whether ministers or senior officials had acted on any of the recommendations contained in the 49 reviews.

Disability News Service, a specialist press agency which submitted the original FOI request to obtain the reports, asked the Office of the Information Commissioner to review the DWP decision. The ICO ruled in favour of the DWP in July 2014, but a subsequent appeal was upheld in March and ministers ordered to publish the reports.

Officials have removed from the reports any references to the specific events that triggered an investigation, as well as dates, names of claimants or staff and locations. Several of the inquiry reports have been stripped of almost all data.

But a number retain entries under the heading “Lessons learned”. Collectively these show that investigators examining the links between a claimant’s death and their treatment by local DWP officials uncovered persistent problems.

They found frontline officials were often unable to identify potentially vulnerable claimants, failed to deal sensitively or appropriately with them, or anticipated problems they may have negotiating their way around the welfare bureaucracy.

Investigators found, variously, that communication between officials and vulnerable claimants was often poor, that practice guidelines were not followed, and that benefits staff often rigidly adhered to the rulebook rather than using “common sense” in their dealings with claimants.

In two instances, investigators reported that it was difficult to carry out a proper inquiry because DWP records had been purged, or not kept properly. In another instance the investigator concluded that officals precedural actions were followed correctly and could not have prevented the death of the claimant.

Other peer review findings include:

• Local DWP branch officials should be given awareness training to deal with “customers who made suicide/self harm declarations”, one report urges. It concludes: “In learning from this experience it is clear there is work to do”.

• In one local office staff failed to provide adequate support for vulnerable claimants, according to a report. It says: “It is clear that we had several opportunities to identify and address the errors made over the duration of this claim, but we neglected to do so”.

• DWP staff who decide on whether to award or disallow disability benefit claims should always consider the claimants’ full historical case files and medical history, a report concludes, to “minimise the risk of withdrawing benefit inappropriately and placing a vulnerable claimant at risk”.

It is understood nine similar DWP peer reviews have since been undertaken since August 2014 and are subject to further FOI requests.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010


Sign the petition asking the government to examine the DWP, ATOS & Maximus’s culpability for deaths of benefit claimants

“There’s been a marked increase in the number of deaths & suicides of claimants recently found “fit for work” by work capability assessments, possibly implying those benefits entitlements were removed hastily and that the DWP, ATOS & Maximus failed in its duty of care to vulnerable benefit claimants.”

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Labour Party To Refer Groundless Iain Duncan Smith Claim To Statistics Watchdog Again

Steve Bell cartoon


Iain Duncan Smith is telling fibs again. Work and pensions secretary claims that 75% of jobseekers think that benefit sanctions have helped them “focus and get on.”

The following is reported by Rowena Mason and Patrick Butler, for theguardian.com on Saturday 12th March 2016:

Labour is to challenge Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that 75% of jobseekers think benefit sanctions have helped them “focus and get on” by lodging a complaint with the official statistics watchdog.

Owen Smith, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said he would write to Duncan Smith challenging him to back up the “groundless” figure and refer the matter to the UK Statistics Authority for investigation.

The work and pensions secretary made the claim in an interview with the Camden New Journal, in which he suggested many claimants were grateful for the consequences of benefit sanctions.

“Seventy-five per cent of all those who have been sanctioned say it helped them focus and get on. Even the people in the jobcentres think it’s the right thing to do … sanctions are the reason why we now have the highest employment levels ever in the UK, and more women in work,” Duncan Smith said.

“What we say is: ‘We’ll give you all the support but at the end of the day we expect you to do something for it: go back to work, take the job, take the interviews.’ And it works, talk to any of the advisers in the jobcentres.”

While out campaigning for the Tory London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, Duncan Smith also dismissed protests about the controversial sanctions regime as “a classic buzz from the left” and claimed “these people are never going to vote for us – you have to understand, these people hate us”.

Owen Smith said: “Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that 75% of people who had been sanctioned say it ‘helped them focus and get on’ is groundless and shows he is out of touch with the real impacts of policies introduced by his department.

In reality, widespread concerns have been raised about this government’s use of sanctions, including from their own advisers, which is why the cross-party work and pensions select committee called for a full independent review into the system.

However, Iain Duncan Smith is reluctant to accept such scrutiny. Labour is calling for far greater transparency and honesty in this debate, so we can ensure greater numbers of people are actually helped into work, while being treated fairly.

That is why I will be writing to the secretary of state to inform him that we will refer his use of data to the Statistics Authority and calling for the long overdue independent review into sanctions to begin.”

Duncan Smith is believed to have been referring to DWP research that found 72% of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) claimants said awareness of sanctions made them “more likely to follow the rules.”

However, that paper also said: “There was no evidence from the survey that knowledge of JSA conditions led to actual movement into work. Respondents who said they were more likely to look for work because of their knowledge of JSA conditions were no more likely than other respondents to have moved into work when they left JSA.”

After the interview, the Department for Work and Pensions released a statement saying: “Decisions on sanctions aren’t taken lightly but are an important part of our benefits system – they are only ever used as a last resort and the number of sanctions continues to fall.”

It is not the first time the UK statistics watchdog has been asked to adjudicate on the DWP’s approach to the sanctions regime.

Last year, it asked the DWP to ensure its statements on jobseeker sanctions are “objective and impartial” following a series of complaints by experts.

At the time, the authority’s chair, Sir Andrew Dilnot, wrote to the DWP’s top statistician asking the department to publish far more data and give the public a clearer understanding of how it is imposing sanctions on jobseekers.

Sanctions are used by civil servants to penalise jobseekers when they are alleged to have broken benefit rules, with punishments becoming increasingly severe over the last parliament.

The government has faced repeated calls from Labour to rethink the system, but is resisting pressure for an independent inquiry.

The Commons work and pensions committee last year urged the government to hold a wide-ranging independent review of the regime to address widespread concerns that it is unfair, excessively punitive, and does little to help people get into work.

© Guardian News & Media Limited 2010.

Related

A List of Official Rebukes For Tory Lies

Department of Work and Pensions officials admit to using fake claimant’s comments to justify benefit sanctions

The Department of Whopping Porkies is rebuked as claimants suddenly develop mysterious superpowers after being sanctioned

A letter of complaint to Andrew Dilnot regarding Coalition lies about employment statistics

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

It’s absolute poverty, not “market competition” that has led to a drop in food sales.

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Public spending in food stores fell for the first time on record in July this year, putting the UK recovery in doubt. Such a worrying, unprecedented record fall in food sales indicates that many consumers evidently have yet to feel the benefit of the so-called recovery.

The price of food was 0.2% higher than a year ago. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) started collecting the data for food sales in 1989The volume of food sales was also down last month, by 1.5% on an annualised basis.

There was also a marked fall in petrol consumption, and the only prominent area of growth was in spending that entailed use of mail order catalogues, and at market stalls, as people use credit to buy essential items and shop around for cheap alternatives and bargains.

Food manufacturing is the UK’s single largest manufacturing sector. The food and drink supply chain is a major part of the UK economy, accounting for 7% of GDP, employing over 3.7 million people, and generating at least £80 billion per year,  according to data from the Cabinet Office. There was an increase in the food sector (excluding agriculture) from 2000-2009 in Britain; the whole UK economy increased by 47% during the same period.

The Office for National Statistics has put the recent decline down to “prolonged discounting and price wars”.

However, crucially, the quantity of food bought in food stores also decreased by 1.5 per cent year-on-year in July.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that repressed, stagnant wages and RISING living costs are going to result in reduced sale volumes. Survation’s research in March this year indicates that only four out of every ten of UK workers believe that the country’s economy is recovering. But we know that the bulk of the Tory austerity cuts were aimed at those least able to afford any cut to their income.

What we need to ask is why none of the mainstream media articles, or the ONS account, duly reporting the drop in food sales, have bothered to link this with the substantial increase in reported cases of malnutrition and related illnesses across the UK. It’s not as if this correlation is a particularly large inferential leap, after all.

It stands to reason that if people cannot afford food, they won’t be able to buy it. Furthermore, that consumers were not actually considered as a part of the ONS and media assessment is frankly strange, to say the least, with emphasis being placed solely on deterministic market competition criteria, and hardly a skim over any analysis of the social-political conditions that have undoubtedly contributed to the significant drop in food sales.

Food banks provide food aid to people in acute need, usually following referral by health or social care professionals, such as social workers, doctors, health visitors, and organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Jobcentre Plus. The Department for Work and Pensions has acknowledged that there is internal guidance to staff on signposting to food banks and a recent Freedom of Information request reported in The Guardian, revealed a “high level process” to be observed by jobcentre staff for referring claimants who say that they are suffering hardship and need food.

The role of Jobcentre Plus in referring people to food banks was described by Mark Hoban, Minister of State for Employment at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as follows in December 2012: “The DWP, through Jobcentre Plus, operates a foodbank referral service. This is a simple signposting process which builds on the Jobcentre Plus standard practice of holding, locally, the details of organisations to which we signpost claimants who tell us they are in financial difficulty. Jobcentre Plus will only signpost claimants when they can offer no more help.”

Jobcentre Plus have been “signposting” people to food banks nationally since September 2011. Circumstances where a Jobcentre might make a referral to a food bank include:

  •  where a Crisis Loan or Short Term Benefit Advance had been refused;
  •  where a change in circumstances had affected a person’s entitlement to benefit, or reduced the amount they receive;
  •  where payment of benefit had been delayed (e.g. because a claim was still being
    assessed, or DWP was awaiting information to enable a decision on a claim).

The original version of the Jobcentre Plus referral form included boxes to tick to indicate the reason for the referral. However, the report in the Guardian on 6 September 2013 highlighted that the DWP had suddenly “unilaterally redesigned the food bank vouchers it issues to clients” – the three boxes on the previous form which had enabled JobCentre Plus “to indicate why they referred the person: because of benefit delay, benefit change, or refusal of crisis loan … have been removed from the new version of the form. The vouchers no longer tell the [Trussell] trust why the person has been referred”.

As Patrick Butler astutely observed, this has the effect of removing data that helps highlight why impoverishment caused by welfare “reform” has become one of the biggest single drivers of people turning to food banks. The Government needs political cover for lying ministers such as Freud and McVey, who like to pretend food banks have nothing to do with austerity and welfare reform; but the DWP sends its impoverished customers in droves to them anyway.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others indicates quite clearly that:

  • Some of the increase in the number of people using food banks is
    caused by unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment,
    low and falling income, and rising food and fuel prices. The
    National Minimum Wage and benefits levels need to rise in line
    with inflation, in order to ensure that families retain the ability to
    live with dignity and can afford to feed and clothe themselves and
    stay warm.
  • More alarmingly, up to half of all people turning to food banks
    are doing so as a direct result of having benefit payments delayed,
    reduced, or withdrawn altogether. Figures gathered by the Trussell
    Trust show that changes to the benefit system are the most common reasons for people using food banks;these include changes to crisis loan eligibility rules, delays in payments, Jobseeker’s Allowance ,sanctions and sickness benefit
    reassessments.
  • There is very clear evidence that the benefit sanctions regime is leading to destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale.

Furthermore, in November last year, in a letter to the British Medical Journal, a group of doctors and senior academics from the Medical Research Council and two leading universities said that the effect of Government austerity policies on vulnerable people’s ability to afford food needed to be “urgently” monitored.

There was a significant surge in the number of people requiring emergency food aid, a decrease in the amount of calories consumed by British families, and a doubling of the number of malnutrition cases seen at English hospitals, which represents “all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventative action,” they wrote.

Despite mounting evidence for a growing food poverty crisis in the UK, Tory ministers continue to maintain the lie that there is “no robust evidence” of a link between their sweeping welfare “reforms” and a rise in the use of food banks. However, publication of research into the phenomenon, commissioned by the Government itself, was delayed, amid speculation that the findings may prove embarrassing for the Government.

“Because the Government delayed the publication of research it commissioned into the rise of emergency food aid in the UK, we can only speculate that the cause is related to the rising cost of living and increasingly austere welfare reforms,” the public health experts wrote. It is very evident that the welfare state is “failing to provide a robust last line of defence against hunger.”

The authors of the letter, who include Dr David Taylor-Robinson and Professor Margaret Whitehead of Liverpool University’s Department of Public Health, say that malnutrition can have a devastating, long-lasting impact on health, particularly amongst children.

Chris Mould, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, the largest national food bank provider, said that one in three of the 350,000 people who required food bank  support at the Trussell Trust centres alone this year were children. It is estimated that by 2013, at least 500,000 people were reliant on food aid.

Access to adequate food is the most basic of human needs and rights. The right to food is protected under international human rights and humanitarian law and the correlative state obligations are equally well-established under international law. This right is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25) as part of the right to an adequate standard of living, and is enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11).

Olivier De Schutter (a United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) recently pointed to increases in the number of food banks in developed countries  such as the UK as an indicator that Governments are “in danger of failing in their duty to protect citizens under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” (IESCR), which states that all citizens should have access to adequate diet without having to compromise other basic needs.

Whilst the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claims that the benefits system provides a “safety net for essentials such as food”, the evidence increasingly does not support this claim. In fact, there is substantial and ever-mounting evidence that the inadequacies of the welfare safety net are now directly driving the growth of hunger and reliance on charitable food handouts.

The BBC reported the “‘Shocking increase’ in Employment Support Allowance (ESA) sickness benefit sanctions” on August 13th, within the first three months of 2014, there were 15,955 sanctions on ESA claimants, compared with 3,574 in the same period last year. I reported about the impact of sanctions in February, 2014, and I reported the substantial increase in ESA sanctions May 2014, along with the Benefits and Work site, amongst other “non-mainstream” writers. It’s incredible that the BBC, with relatively vast resources to hand hasn’t bothered researching and reporting this issue until now.

Perhaps this explains the BBC’s endorsement of the Government welfare “reforms” and their complicity with the persecution of sick and disabled people: James Purnell – one  of the chief architects of the current government’s “reforms”  (Gordon Brown had previously rebuffed Purnell’s proposals, and Purnell resigned as a consequence), is the BBC’s Director of Strategy & Digital which “brings together Communications, Future Media, Marketing, Policy, Research and Development and Strategy”. So, Mr Purnell is on the Executive Board, which, I am sure, contributes to the BBC’s current degree of “impartiality”, especially evident in attempts to defer delivery of politically damning news, or in their other quest to purposefully deliver politically motivated factual detours.

There is currently no established government measure of food poverty. A recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research defined households who have to spend more than 10% of their annual income on food as being in food poverty.

The Food Ethics Council states that food poverty means that an individual or household isn’t able to obtain healthy, nutritious food – they have to eat what they can afford or find, not what they choose to.

If people can’t meet basic survival needs, then that is defined as absolute poverty. We haven’t seen absolute poverty in the UK since before the inception of the welfare state. Until  now.

“Food banks open across the country, teachers report children coming to school hungry; advice services and local authorities prepare for the risks attached to welfare reform. There is evidence of a rising number of people sleeping rough, and destitution is reported with increasing frequency.” Julia Unwin, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2013.

“In households which cannot afford an adequate diet for their children, 93% have at least one adult who “skimps” on their own food to try to protect the children. Half a million children are not adequately fed in the UK today, not as a result of negligence but due to a lack of money.” Poverty and Social Exclusion UK. 2013.

We know that the imposed limitations on welfare processes and procedures have been found to be impacting on the growing demand for food banks. Decision-making around sanctions has been found to be particularly problematic from the perspective of food banks, where decisions were seen as unfair and/or arbitrary. Similarly, errors made in declaring people on Employment Support Allowance fit for work were also highlighted, by research undertaken by the Sheffield University Political Economy Research Institute.

More generally, “ineffective administration” of lifeline welfare payments is also seen to be an important driver of need, where people’s payments are delayed or stopped and they are left with no or heavily reduced income. Tory policy changes to the length of time sanctions run for (from 2 weeks to 3 years) is “significantly problematic”, given the  enormous implications for financial insecurity. And resultant absolute poverty.

Basic incomes are being reduced, making it much more difficult for people to make ends meet. In addition, “reforms” – which is the Orwellian Tory word for severe cuts – impacting on food poverty include the cap to benefit payments, the Bedroom Tax, and the loss of full Council Tax exemption for many benefit claimants.

No-one should be hungry, without food in this Country. That there are people living in a politically imposed state of absolute poverty is unacceptable in the UK, the world’s sixth largest economy (and the third largest in Europe). This was once a civilised first-world country that cared for and supported vulnerable citizens. After all, we have paid for our own welfare provision, and we did so in the recognition that absolutely anyone can lose their job, become ill or have an accident that results in disability. This is a Government that very clearly does not reflect the needs of the majority of citizens.

It is also unacceptable in a so-called liberal democracy that we have a Government that has persistently denied the terrible consequences of their own policies, despite  overwhelming evidence that the welfare “reforms” are causing people, harm, distress and sometimes, death. Furthermore, this is a Government that has systematically employed methods to effectively hide the evidence of the harm caused to others as a consequence of their devastating, draconian “reforms” from the public. This clearly demonstrates an intention to deceive, and an intention to continue causing people harm.

In English criminal law, intention is one of the types of mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind”) that, when accompanied by an actus reus (“guilty act”), constitutes a crime. It’s difficult to envisage that anyone in the UK would fail to understand that any act that prevents people from accessing food, and the means of meeting other basic survival needs, such as shelter, will cause them harm.

This is a Government that knows exactly what it is doing.

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Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for his excellent artwork