Tag: Welfare Weekly

Independent Commission on Freedom of Information call for evidence. You have until November 20th

demcracy

The matter of Government transparency and accountability is so important to David Cameron that the Conservatives would like to end our right to ask questions via the Freedom of Information Act (FoI).

The Act gives us the right to ask for information from public bodies, rather than depending on what the government is prepared to let us see. Such information allows us to make informed decisions and to challenge the government with evidence when policies have adverse outcomes. Any attempt to curtail public access to information will have profound implications for government openess, transparency, accountability and for democracy.

Many campaigners have voiced fears that government proposals could make it more difficult, and costly, for the media and public to use the Act to access information held by public bodies.

Chris Grayling, Tory tyrant extraordinaire, along with others in his party, has a history of altering and editing laws that he regards an inconvenience. He claims that it is wrong that the Freedom of Information Act was being used as a research tool to generate stories for the media and that is not acceptable.” 

But surely research, investigation, providing evidence and sharing information and news with the public is what we ought to expect from the media, it’s precisely those criteria that establish high quality journalism.

Grayling’s outrageous remarks were condemned by Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour party, who believes the FoI Act should be strengthened, not undermined. I agree.

Watson said: “Chris Grayling’s assertion that the Freedom of Information Act is ‘misused’ to generate stories for the media betrays a greater truth about this government’s thinking. 

“What they’d really like to see is less open government. It is the job of journalists to hold the government to account on behalf of the public. The Freedom of Information Act is a vital tool in their armoury which should not and must not be removed or weakened.”

Grayling said it should be used for “those who want to understand why and how government is taking decisions”. It is, and that includes by journalists who inform the public about those decisions and the likes of bloggers such as me – a lot of my work wouldn’t be possible without the FoI Act, I use it frequently so I can share crucial information, as do many other bloggers.

Many of us submitted a FOI regarding the mortality rates of sick and disabled people undergoing the controversial work capability assessment, after the government refused to publish the information after 2011, and fellow blogger Mike Sivier from Vox Political fought in court to ensure that this important information was finally released.

And who can forget Steven Preece’s request from Welfare Weekly, that revealed the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had lied about the “success” of the punitive sanction regime, using fake characters giving fake testimonies, which the DWP published in a leaflet and were subsequently forced to retract it. Steven’s FoI, details of which were widely shared by the mainstream media, (as were the details of Mike Sivier’s FoI) highlighted that the government is not above shameful lying to get its own way.

There’s a strong element of cooperative work amongst bloggers. I submitted a subsequent request for further detailed information about sanctions recently, which has yielded a lot of information that I’m researching around, so I can also share information and analysis, too. Writers frequently draw on other people’s FoIs to analyse, cross reference and to share important information.

I was memorably refused information about the government risk register regarding the Health and Social Care Bill back in 2012, and despite being ordered by the Information Commissioner and a tribunal to release that information, we have yet to see it. The claim behind the refusal was that it isn’t “in public interests”that the information is released. I beg to differ.

We clearly have a government that doesn’t like democratic processes, dialogue and public engagement regarding its policies and impacts and any kind of critical appraisal and challenge.

The very short timescale of the public consultation regarding the future of the Freedom of Information Act also indicates an utter lack of respect for democratic process and the public’s right to access information that they feel is in their best interests to know. The call for information was published on the November 9, and the closing date for submissions is November 20. That’s scandalous.

The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information’s terms of reference require it to consider the implications for the Freedom of Information Act 2000 of the uncertainty around the Cabinet veto and the practical operation of the Act as it has developed over the last 10 years in respect of the deliberative space afforded to public authorities. The Commission is also interested in “the balance between transparency and the burden of the Act on public authorities more generally.”

The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information invites anyone to submit evidence on the questions raised in the call for evidence paper. See: Independent Commission on Freedom of Information: call for evidence

Ways to respond:

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

From the Welfare Weekly site.


Government officials have admitted that claimant’s comments used in an official benefit sanctions information leaflet were “for illustrative purposes only”.

The revelation comes in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from Welfare Weekly, in which the site authors questioned whether the comments used in the leaflet were of a genuine or fake nature.

Welfare Weekly asked the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to provide any evidence or information to prove that the comments used in the publication were from “genuine” claimants.

Within days of submitting their request to the DWP, the original information leaflet suddenly disappeared from the government’s website without explanation.

However, Welfare Weekly had already downloaded a copy of the leaflet (pdf) in anticipation of the response to our FOI request.

That leaflet included comments from two sickness benefit claimants who had supposedly been affected by benefit sanctions, Zac and Sarah.

Source: DWP
Source: DWP

According to the leaflet, Zac had said:

“I let my work coach know in advance that I couldn’t go to our meeting because I had a hospital appointment.

I had a good reason for not going to the meeting and proof of the appointment. My benefit payment hasn’t changed and we booked another meeting I could get to.”

While Susan had allegedly said:

“I didn’t think a CV would help me but my work coach told me that all employers need one. I didn’t have a good reason for not doing it and I was told I’d lose some of my payment. I decided to complete the CV and told my work coach.

I got a letter to say my benefit would go down for two weeks. I was told it was longer than a week because I missed a meeting with my work coach back in March.

My benefit is back to normal now and I’m really pleased with how my CV looks. It’s going to help me when I’m ready to go back to work.”

However, Welfare Weekly have revealed that neither of these comments came from genuine Employment and Support Allowance claimants.

Both comment’s were completely made up and included to “help people understand when sanctions can be applied and how they can avoid them by taking certain actions”, according to the DWP.

The response to Welfare Weekly’s Freedom of Information request reads:

“The photos used are stock photos and along with the names do not belong to real claimants.

The stories are for illustrative purposes only.

We want to help people understand when sanctions can be applied and how they can avoid them by taking certain actions. Using practical examples can help us achieve this.

We have temporarily changed the pictures to silhouettes and added a note to make it more clear that these are illustrative examples only.

We will test both versions of the factsheet with claimants and external stakeholders to further improve it in the future. This will include working with external organisations.”

___

The DWP have used comments and accounts that are untrue in a blatant attempt to justify the use of cruel and punitive welfare sanctions, and to invalidate the experiences of genuine claimants in distress and material hardship because of sanctions. The revelation is particularly controversial because the sanctions system is causing extreme hardship,  sometimes, death, and is being operated in an unfair and arbitrary way.

 Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS union, said:

“It’s disgraceful and sinister that the DWP has been trying to trick people into believing claimants are happy to have their benefits stopped or threatened. Sanctions are unnecessarily punitive and counterproductive, and should be scrapped.”

The institute that is responsible for regulating the behaviour of organisations producing public relations material – the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) – has launched an investigation into whether any of its members were involved in producing the document of lies.

CIPR president Sarah Pinch said:

“Falsely creating the impression of independent, popular support is a naive and opaque technique which blatantly disregards the CIPR’s standards of ethical conduct. It is deeply disappointing if public relations professionals allowed it to be published.”

I’ve written at length about the adverse consequences of increased benefit conditionality and sanctioning elsewhere on this site. See Despotic paternalism and punishing the poor. Can this really be England?  This is a blatant attempt to normalise an exceptionally punitive political approach to “supporting people into work” using social norming techniques, amongst others.

I’ve also written about the fact that we have a government formulating policy that does not address economic, structural and political causes of poverty, instead the aim is to bring about “behavioural changes” within the population – particularly amongst the poorest and the most vulnerable social groups – to suit the anti-welfare ideology of New Right Conservatism, ministers seem to have forgotten that democratically elected governments are meant to address the needs of a population, rather than the converse being true. This despicable tactic was aimed at hiding the truth: sanctions have a devastating impact on people’s lives, as the benefit being removed is calculated at a rate to meet only basic needs, such as food, fuel and shelter in the first place.

In a democratic, rights-based society, we ought to expect that the public are not stigmatised and “acted upon,” using techniques of persuasion ordinarily reserved for the advertising and marketing industry, and by the deployment of propaganda and outright lies by the government, in order to fulfil purely ideological directives. Governments serve the public, in first-world Liberal democracies.

We call a political system where the public are expected and directed to accommodate the government’s needs “totalitarianism.”

___

Are you willing to share your experience of benefit sanctions? 38 Degrees are asking people to share their sanction stories, if you would be happy for it to be used publicly. 38 degrees will ensure all contributions are published using first names only.  Please click here to participate in the Speak Out survey and campaign.

1002589_521987671204099_896277269_n (1)
Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for the image.