Tuesday 22 December 2015

Good news in theory, but will it translate into practice?

You may remember, three years ago when the Coalition were devising PIP, they kept banging on and on about how they had to do it because under DLA it was possible for people with incurable conditions to get DLA for an indefinite period. The concept of "incurable" might sound simple to normal people, but politicians believe in miracles and they couldn't accept that things like cerebral palsy, Down's Syndrome, osteogenesis imperfecta, spinal cord injuries, autism, and amputations are conditions for life.

So their plan for PIP was to waste taxpayers' money on continually reassessing us incurables every three years (and the related appeals when they wrongly refused us the support) just to make sure we hadn't had a successful trip to Lourdes.

But it seems like, somehow, some common sense has been snuck into the delivery of PIP. Very, very, quietly. There's been no big press releases declaring that, in this austere time, they've decided to bung a few less pounds to Atos/Capita for pointless continual assessments of people who'll never get any better. I read about it quite by chance.

The Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow has got a copy of the Decision Maker’s Reasoning Template User Guide. That guide is what the case managers/decision makers at the DWP use to, well, help them make decisions on a case.

If you scroll down to page 9 of the document you'll see the decision makers now have the option of offering an indefinite PIP award by typing "indef" into their box:

Image of some text saying 'You can enter 'Indef' or a number of years/ months, as appropriate. The 'Review
period' generates the 'Award end date' which will be indefinite or one year beyond the 'Review date'.'

And at the start of page 10:

Text with a blue header saying 'Review Period' and then the body of the text says 'The reasons for the review period selected will be generated automatically. For an indefinite award or an award of at least 11 years this will be: 'All awards must be reviewed, as your condition is unlikely to change I have selected the maximum possible review period.'

I double and triple checked the source of this a dozen times. It'd be so easy for hoaxers to knock up a falsified decision maker's guide and put it out there. But WhatDoTheyKnow is a reputable source. And I've Googled and Googled looking for any other info about indefinite PIP awards presuming there had to be a DWP press release out there somewhere. But if you Google "indefinite PIP awards" you'll just find pages and pages about the move of indefinite DLA claimants over to PIP.

Talking about this new piece of info with my Facebook friends: One of them pointed out that just because decision makers have the option of issuing an indefinite award, doesn't mean they actually will. And he's right; PIP was not designed with common sense in mind.

And just because our conditions will be lifelong and incurable, it doesn't mean that being eligible for PIP now means you'll still be eligible for PIP in a few years time given the government keep moving the goalposts. Right now they're running a consultation looking at removing PIP from people who use the money to pay for "aids and appliances" rather than human assistance. Because apparently in the tiny minds at the DWP; aids and appliances are totally free to buy, free to maintain, and free to replace when they wear out. (I would urge you all to complete the consultation by the deadline of 29 January 2016.)

The introduction of indefinite awards could be great news for disabled people with incurable conditions and great news for the taxpayer who'd otherwise be paying for pointless reassessments and appeals. But if the government at going to redraw the PIP qualifying criteria every 3 years in order to cut a bit more; they'll probably not bother issuing awards for longer than 3 years anyway.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

The DWP at your GP

This article about a pilot scheme to place JobCentre advisers in GP surgeries is actually 2 months old, but somehow I hadn't read it until last week.

It is fucking terrifying.

Your GP surgery is supposed to be a place of safety.

I recently had some issues with panic attacks. Basically I spent an entire weekend in a state of absolute terror - I called The Samaritans at one point because I was just so panicked, alone, and afraid - and then on Monday morning when my doctors' surgery opened I phoned and wept at the receptionist. I got given an appointment for 3 hours later; when I wept at a doctor.

I was scared and upset and in absolutely no state for a JobCentre staffer to start harassing me with "have you ever thought about being less ill and getting a job?"

But it's not just about mental illness. When talking about alopecia am I going to have someone from the work program suggesting I buy a loom and start making and selling jumpers using the obscene amount of hair I shed? While having invasive gynaecological examinations, am I going to have to maintain eye contact with someone telling me that if I put my mind to it I could get a job as a stripper seeing as strangers have seen me naked from the waist-down anyway?

The recent academic research that attributed 590 suicides to the work capability assessment also found that the assessment process caused 279,000 additional cases of mental health problems, and required doctors to prescribe to assessment victims an additional 725,000 antidepressant items. Can you just imagine: You've been made so ill by the WCA process that you need to go and beg for antidepressants. And when you get to the doctor you find yourself face-to-face with someone saying "hey! We might have just given you an extra mental illness on top of whatever condition you already had. But how about we send you on a workfare placement? That'll perk you up. Or kill you. But either way, you won't be a useless scrounger any longer."

Here's a quote from that article justifying the scheme:

Dr Josephine Sauvage from the NHS Islington CCG explained that the employment drive aims to redress isolation and confidence issues, which are often associated with long-term health problems.

She said: ‘When we become ill we often stop doing those things that get us out and about and bring fulfilment to our lives. As a local GP I see and hear this every day and I’m very keen to do more to support my patients’ well-being.

‘Prescribing free and confidential employment coaching, delivered in a caring and familiar environment, could be really beneficial to a patient’s confidence and self-esteem, as well as their long-term recovery.”

Yes, being ill has meant I am no longer able to do things that get me out and about. Last Thursday I was supposed to go to some swanky party; but instead I was home alone - ill - and sitting around the flat my pyjamas. Someone from the JobCentre telling me to get a job every time I visit my GP isn't going to prevent me from being too ill to do stuff a hell of a lot of the time.

Yes, I'm extremely isolated; I wrote about that on my own blog just a few weeks ago. But DWP harassment every time I need a GP to diagnose a weird rash isn't going to make people want to spend any time with me.

But you know what's going to make my confidence and self-esteem even lower? Reminding me that I'm a useless benefit scrounger every time I enter the building to submit a repeat prescription request form. Don't you think I feel enough shame about my status in a society that's obsessed with one's occupation? Without just rubbing it in every time I turn up to a building that's supposed to be safe.

What's worrying is that a GP - an actual practising doctor - seems to be in denial about the fact that some of her patients are actually too ill to fucking work. Perhaps, if she's really concerned about the social and emotional well-being of people like me who are ill and excluded from society, she might like to promote social cohesion schemes that allow us to participate in the local community as and when we're able. Because bringing the JobCentre into the surgery and telling sick people to "take up thy bed, and walk... Into McDonald's for a minimum wage job you're far too ill to hold down," isn't going to help anyone.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Appeal of PIP Consultation Judicial Review Not Successful

This morning we received the final judgment in our appeal of the judicial review of the consultation for PIP. The appeal was not successful.

The full text of the judgment is linked below but I will quote here the key paragraphs that my solicitor pointed out.
  1. Once it was accepted, as it had to be on the evidence, that the Respondent approached the 2013 consultation with an open mind, it seems to me that the challenge to the process as a whole must fail. It is explained in the evidence that all options were open as to the “Moving around criteria”, even if that meant changing the criteria for “Planning and following journeys” or looking for funding elsewhere. The reality was that consultees such as Mr Sumpter had every opportunity to present to the Respondent the difficulties that the move from a 50 metre benchmark to a 20 metre one would cause to them. It is clear that such opportunity was taken. In reality, it would have gone nowhere to contend in the consultation that the physically disabled should continue to be favoured at the expense of those who suffered other disabilities. No doubt none would have wished to present such an unattractive argument. Given the Respondent’s overall policy to make PIP available to a wider category of the disabled, new beneficiaries obviously had to come into the equation and there would have been no point in contending that they should be excluded.
  1. …As I understand the law, consultation has to be fair; it does not have to be perfect. With the benefit of hindsight, it will no doubt often be possible to show that a consultation could have been carried out rather better, but that will not necessarily mean that it was unfair. That is what the judge said at paragraph 123 of his judgment and I agree with him.
I note that the judge did draw attention to the choice that the government made to frame continuing to help physically disabled people as unfairly withholding help from people with mental and cognitive difficulties. He did not, however, find it relevant that the consultation failed to admit the government decision to give new help at the expense of help previously available. The judge implied that people responding to the consultation only needed to talk about the difficulties we would face, not about the decision to take money away for use elsewhere.

It should be noted that the government had previously said while defending this case that they know they are removing DLA from “individuals with genuine health conditions and disabilities and genuine need” and “removing or reducing that benefit may affect their daily lives.” (This is a direct quote of words used by the government and quoted in the judgment in 2014 at paragraph 80.)

[PDF] Final judgment PIP judicial review appeal

For further information please contact solicitors for this case, Irwin Mitchell.

Previously on this subject:

PIP 20 metre rule consultation back in court

PIP judicial review: Court rules against us but vindicates our case

Two weeks until PIP Judicial Review – 20 metre limit in the dock

Replacement of disability living allowance headline news for hours

Why I am suing the government

“Lots of folk can’t afford a car”

Monday 12 October 2015

Tory Party Conference: Is Any Disability Benefit Safe?

The “We Hate Anyone Who Needs a Bit Of Help” party had their annual gathering in Manchester last week. And terrifyingly they’ve got a majority government for the first time since the 90s so they can really pull out all the stops.

Lisa, Naomi, the Goldfish, Philippa and David thought we’d take a look at some of the dreadful things they’ve been saying.

Lisa: Does anyone even know how the disability component of WTC will be affected? It’s got to be, surely, even if disabled people only see the basic rate of the credit cut but the disability premium on top stays the same.

David: It’s entirely possible they haven’t even thought of that yet. I was in touch with the Cabinet Office (responsible for all e-gov activities) a month before Universal Credit was due to go live (back when it was just a potential fiasco rather than an utter fiasco), with the original concept of all access being online still firmly government policy, and was told they were just about to start looking into the minor issue that most disabled people aren’t actually online. Competence and government policy don’t necessarily go together.

Though the cut goes so far that even Boris Johnson and David Davis are opposed to the cut.

Lisa: I guess this is Osborne and Johnson laying out their claim for party leadership. Johnson’s trying to portray himself as being the fairer man who might steal some votes from the left; while Osborne is trying to show himself to be the most ruthless to appeal to the most Daily Mail readers.

Before Iain Duncan Smith’s speech he gave an interview to The Guardian in which he vomited out a sentiment he’s been saying a lot lately: That ESA is too binary in either deeming you fit for work or unfit for work.

Lisa: He’s in charge of the whole benefits system and he’s never heard of the Permitted Work scheme? And, I mean, it’s not like he’s one man expected to know everything. He’s got a whole team of advisors and the whole DWP at his beck and call, and still no-one’s pointed out Permitted Work to him? More realistically I think he’s pretending Permitted Work doesn’t exist to the public to try and justify more cuts.

David: Agreed. He’s clearly attempting to mislead the public, there has been a long pattern of this from both IDS and Osborne, starting from the moment they took power. And the problem is the press doesn’t know the details of the schemes, so takes him at his word - or in the case of the right wing tabloids actively shares his intention to mislead. And then the people trust the press to tell them the truth.

Take the line in the article: “his office points out that appeals against ESA decisions fell by 81% in 2014-15 compared with 2013-14.” What his office didn’t point out, and what the non-specialist journalist didn’t know to challenge, is that they suspended a huge number of reassessments due to Atos walking away from the contract because it was destroying their company reputation, so there were fewer assessments happening to need appeals, and that they had introduced an additional hoop for people to jump through, ‘mandatory reassessment’, which can potentially last indefinitely, before they can get to the appeal stage. So we would actually expect the number of appeals to have dropped even if there was no change in how bad the process is.

The Goldfish: ESA is anything but binary and that's actually part of the problem. As someone in the Support Group, I'm not expected to work. But people in the Work Related Group exist in this weird hinterland where they have been found unfit for work, and yet are placed under pressure to move towards and into work - within a year, in the case of those with savings or a working partner - regardless of whether their health has improved.

And yes, there's Permitted Work, which is one thing ESA gets right. Even people in the Support Group are allowed to do small amounts of paid work, if something appropriate comes up.

David: Picking up on WRAG, I’m one of the people in Goldfish’s ‘weird hinterland’, and would have been time-limited from the moment it was introduced in April 2012 if I hadn’t given ESA up as a sick joke at that point. Bizarrely the Equality Impact Assessment for time-limiting insists that this is to make it ‘fairer’. Three and a half years later I’m still just as disabled, with no prospect of that changing.

And in that same interview he also proposes the terrifying prospect of merging DLA and ESA. Or at least merging the assessments.

Lisa: I don’t even know where to start with this. They’re different benefits to meet different needs. ESA is for people who are too ill to work. An ESA claimant may or may not be eligible for DLA. (Also someone should probably remind him that he abolished DLA in the last Parliament and replaced it with PIP.) DLA is available to people in work who obviously aren’t eligible for ESA. Is this merger basically designed to remove DLA from people in work? Which will, obviously, result in people needing to give up work: About 50,000 of them according to the Disability Benefits Consortium.

David: ESA is basically unemployment pay for disabled people who aren’t fit for work. It pays a slightly higher rate than JSA as disabled people have higher costs of living and are likely to be unemployed for longer. As discussed above, many of us will never be fit for work, even those of us in the WRAG (exposes have revealed the DWP targets that force WCA assessors to put people with long-term disabilities into WRAG, leading to the ludicrous situation of people with Cerebral Palsy or MS being told they’ll probably be better in six months). Yet they’re already cutting ESA WRAG back to the JSA rate as they believe we’re all lazy crips who prefer living on the pittance ESA pays while being harassed by DWP. DLA (or PIP), meanwhile, is supposed to cover the extra costs faced by disabled people in their normal life. These needs aren’t going to go away.

The cultural problems within the assessment companies such as Atos, with assessors openly referring to disabled people as scroungers and worse, have been documented in a series of whistleblowing exposes, yet IDS now wants those same disablist bigots to be assessing whether five year olds with spina bifida, CP, autism and all the rest have mobility and care needs. Does anyone see a problem here….

The Goldfish: As I understand it, assessors already take into account what other benefits you've qualified for as part of your assessment and that's seems reasonable.

I think others have covered the ridiculous idea of merging DLA/PIP and ESA. These benefits play completely different roles. It's like merging JSA and Child Benefit.

Naomi: I think the government has been trying to find a way to scrap DLA for working disabled people for a long, long time -- and that PIP is only the first step. Consultant rheumatologist Rodney Grahame, who was chair of the DLA Advisory Board from 1993 until (I believe) 2003, argued for changes in the ‘philosophy’ of DLA for many years. In 2002 he called for mobility aids and wheelchairs to be discounted in DLA applications -- for people who use them not to be seen as disabled, but as operating on the same level as people who carry out activities/mobilise without them. (The man has no concept of the Social Model, nor has he apparently ever watched someone who uses a wheelchair try to board public transport or get into a high street shop.) He has been talking for a long time about how DLA is a disincentive to work - that getting money from the government is a “secondary gain” that encourages people to stop working. (He clearly never grasped the concept of what DLA/PIP is for - which is more than a little worrying, given the position he held.) I’m only aware of his views because of the research I did into rehabilitation. There may be many, many other advisors to the government out there, providing them with similarly terrible ‘expert’ advice.

The government may have a perfect opportunity here to start saying that if disabled people are in work, they don’t need the ‘disincentive’ of DLA/PIP that could encourage them to stop work. This is an extremely nasty ideological attack, both on the universality of DLA/PIP, and on the extra costs that working disabled people have which are not faced by working non-disabled people. Cynical.

David: The ideological attack Naomi suggests here is simply an extension of one that has already begun. In the July budget Osborne justified axing the ESA WRAG component by calling it a ‘perverse incentive’, essentially suggesting that every disabled person in receipt of WRAG would rather stay on the benefit than find work. Meanwhile Dame Carol Black and her mantra that all work is good for disabled people, or Professor Mansel Aylward, architect of ESA and the WCA, are other examples of the advisors feeding profoundly damaging views of disability into government policy.

Philippa: As someone who works and receives DLA, this change concerns me. DLA exists to cover the extra costs incurred by being disabled, and those do not disappear when you start work! Merging it with ESA is a dangerous idea that could really affect working disabled people.

Those people who can only work because DLA / PIP pays their taxis, or pays for someone to help them in the shower in the morning? They’ll end up back on full benefits.

In his speech he described ESA as being “Labour’s something for nothing culture”…

Lisa: Someone needs to explain to him how National Insurance contributions and contributory benefits work. Not to mention that someone needs to give the robot a mode where it can pretend to acknowledge that people who are too ill to work are still human beings.

David: I paid NI for 22 years while I was working, yet my personal situation means ESA time-limited me after a year. There’s definitely someone getting something for nothing here, it’s just not me. Looking at  you, Mr Duncan Smith…

The Goldfish: Quite apart from NI, the state pays for all kinds of things regardless of people’s previous contributions - education is a maybe a disingenuous example, but everyone gets a state pension and so they should. We’re not, thankfully, asked about what taxes we’ve paid before we get medical treatment or police assistance.

ESA is a benefit which sustains people who are not currently able to work because of their ill health. This is hardly a tremendous privilege that ought to be earned.

Lisa: He’s just found another way of wording the sentiment “arbeit macht frei,” hasn’t he? After all these years he still really believes that there are no actually disabled people out there, and we’re all just lazy. If I wasn’t so tired I’d be furious. Of course; he’s not alone. Before him the Labour government thought we were all just lazy which was why they brought in ESA in 2008 to weed out the fakers. Before that the Tories in 1995 brought in Incapacity Benefit because they thought everyone on Invalidity Benefit was a lazy faker. It’s a decades old thing that spans all political parties.

David: IDS basically stood up in front of the entire Tory Party conference, called disabled people lazy scroungers, and was applauded for it. We can pretty much guarantee that the next thing that will happen will be a series of articles in the Tory press about people faking disability and how we’re all idle frauds. The demonisation from the ConDem’s scrounger rhetoric during the last parliament left many disabled people scared to leave their house after being attacked in the street as fakes and scroungers, and IDS seems intent on kicking off a new round.

Picking up on Lisa’s point about ESA and Incapacity Benefit, each of these reforms was brought in with the aim of ‘proving’ there are a huge number of people faking disability, and in each case that has proved not to be the case. No matter how harshly you treat them in the assessment, not matter how much pressure Atos and the like put on doctors and nurses to screw their results, people still turn out to really be disabled. And the only way they can cut the numbers claiming are by changing the rules. I use a wheelchair outside the house, yet I’m not considered to have a severe mobility impairment under the new system because I can walk more than 20m with crutches if I have to.

The Goldfish: It's heartbreaking that ending poverty in our own wealthy country is no longer a national aspiration. Nobody should be in poverty, regardless - unemployed non-disabled people shouldn't be in poverty just because they're not in work right now, let alone those who have no prospect of finding or performing work.

Meanwhile, poverty is incredibly expensive, both for individuals and state. Living in poverty makes it harder for healthy people to seek and stay in work, when they're strugglng to pay for transport, appropriate clothing, childcare and so on. For sick people, poverty is a killer. And all that costs the state, in the cost of folks' deteriorating health and all the myriad social problems that follow on from people living in desperate situations.

Naomi: This is just incredible to read. We know about the glass floor that helpfully stops over-privileged people like the Tories from falling into poverty. We know that social mobility is getting slower and slower. Social evidence suggests that it is now near-impossible to work your way out of poverty, even if you’re not disabled. And disabled people are already up to twice as likely to be living in poverty as non-disabled people. Only the Tories could make that horrendous social inequality personal -- only they could suggest that higher rates of poverty are our own fault. In a society so unequal that we can’t find work because there’s no workable legislation to prevent employers from discriminating against us, and where we can’t find accessible housing so have to live in terrible conditions and pay extra for the privilege, and where we can’t board public transport or find decent NHS care for our conditions, of course we’re living in higher rates of poverty. Yes, the statistics on disability poverty are shameful -- but it’s not disabled people who should be ashamed. This should be a source of shame to our incredibly rich society that can’t find ways to reduce these horrendous inequalities.

Lisa: Great. Now I don’t just have to worry about myself not being able to put food on the table; I have to worry about my dad too. It’s bad enough that I can’t sleep at night worrying about how much his local council are going to cut his care package now the Independent Living Fund has closed. Although; if they did cut pensioner benefits the Tories would be out at the next election because they’d lose the grey vote.

David: And here we see the Taxpayers Alliance working in their true role as the Militant Wing of the Tory Party, and their utter contempt for actual taxpayers, with their Research Director saying they could get away with the cuts because the pensioners affected (who are taxpayers, remember) would either be dead by the next election, or too senile to remember. The cynicism, and disablism, is breathtaking.

The Goldfish: I really hope they shot themselves in the foot with this one. Pensioners vote and while we don't always look over our old folk that well, people generally care about their parents and grandparents. Folks who might be dead or forgetful in five years time will have friends and families who won't forget or forgive. This makes me optimistic that it simply won't happen.

The Winter Fuel Allowance is an excellent way of tackling preventable illness and death. Yes, folk living longer means more disabled people in the world, but having to treat pneumonia, hypothermia, chilblains and other cold-related conditions is surely less cost-effective than the yearly payment to everyone over 65.

(It's a common misconception that all disabled people get a winter fuel allowance. We don't.)

Naomi: It’s interesting that the government is willing to risk this one. About ten years ago I had a long debate (via letter and surgery visits) with my MP, a nice left-wing Labour chap, who argued that it would be too expensive to extend Winter Fuel Allowance to disabled people. What about means-testing it for older people and using the saving to give it to disabled people? I asked. “Oooh,” he replied, “we can’t do that. It would cost more than it would save, and it would be a terribly unpopular move.” Of course, it saves a lot more money if you just cut it, for everyone. Still, you’re left with an uncomfortable situation. This will indeed be a terribly unpopular move, and the older people’s lobby will remember. As they should.

Lisa: Most people think of independence as meaning “being able to do things for yourself like wipe your own arse.” But being raised by 2 disabled parents I learned that independence is really about being in control of your life and making choices, like choosing who you employ to wipe your arse for you. So I can get DLA which allows me the choice of getting an Ocado delivery at a time that suits me. Or I could have social services inflict an agency carer upon me to help me go shopping at a time that suits them and I get absolutely no say in the matter. The DLA option allows me independence, and is better value for the state too.

As for dignity and self-respect: I used to have some of those things, until the Tories and the right-wing press told me and the rest of the world that I’m just a useless eater.

David: Absolutely. At its core, independence is about making the decisions in your life, not about who implements those decisions for you. The closure of the Independent Living Fund has seen a horrendous definition of independence being increasingly used by those forced to justify the Tory cuts, with disabled people who are not incontinent, but who need care assistance to get to the toilet, being told they should use nappies instead, as that would ‘increase their independence’. This is the kind of doublespeak disabled people have to deal with from IDS and everyone who implements his policies, where being forced to crap yourself is touted as an improved quality of life.

The Goldfish: When I think about times my independence, self-respect or dignity has been under threat, that's all about finding myself with inadequate resources - having to rely on the generosity of friends and family for essential needs - or being spoken about as if I am nothing. Anyone who thinks I necessarily lack independence, self-respect and dignity because of the condition of my health is carrying an awful burden of prejudice.

An ineffective welfare system - an effective state - maximises the opportunities for all its people to attain and maintain independence, self-respect and dignity, regardless of the hand they are dealt. If folks lack these things because of their life circumstances as opposed to their own bad choices, then something has gone seriously wrong. And, alas, I’m afraid it has.

Naomi: Like the Goldfish, I feel that my dignity, independence and self-respect are very much under threat at the moment. I lost my PA support a year ago, thanks to care charges that I could no longer afford to pay. I used to have a fair bit of dignity and a lot of independence. I don’t anymore. I rely on my partner to a ridiculous effect, something that could easily have negatively affected my marriage -- that’s undignified. I have very little flexibility to do what I want anymore -- that’s a lack of independence. And I live on a conveyor belt of disdain and abuse, moving from one microaggression to the next, constantly dealing with a society that believes Tory rhetoric about how much of a waste of space and resources I am -- that leads to a lack of self-respect. I’m starting to think you’re right, Mr Hunt. I just wish you understood what that meant.

Philippa: The benefit system does its best to remove dignity and self-respect from people who are claiming benefits. This is getting worse by the day, it seems. There should be no indignity in claiming what people are entitled to, but along with certain portions of the press, it’s becoming something to be ashamed of rather than a right.

The five years of the ConDem government saw disability benefits and care cut to the bone. We know that those cuts resulted in at least 49 deaths where even DWP acknowledged it was likely at fault, with an additional 90 people a month dying after being declared fit for work, a figure whose release DWP spent years fighting against. Rather than share any normal person’s horror at what they have wrought, the Tories, unshackled now from the deadweight of their LibDem enablers, seem determined to take those cuts to the next level. The question is no longer whether we will have an adequate level of disability benefits at the end of this Parliament, it’s whether we will have any disability benefits left at all.

Saturday 29 August 2015

Don't look there, look here!

The Thick of It was set in a fictional government department: Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, or DoSAC. But when I think about our real government, there's no other department I can imagine that would be quite as sitcom-worthy as the DWP.

There are certainly some very clever people in the department. Yesterday's death data was confusing to all who read it. Even very clever professional number crunchers couldn't really get to the bottom of it because the data was so badly presented. This was almost certainly deliberate: The DWP didn't answer what was asked of them, and dumped a load of data that would confuse people who tried to use the data to answer the simple question "how many people are dying after being found fit for work?"

Anyone can release some data while withholding the answer to a question, but the press and public will generally look at the data and find the answer for themselves. To release a bunch of data that's on-topic, but still means that very clever people can't get the answers they're looking for takes Bond-villain levels of evil genius. You have to wonder why someone who can so cleverly pretend to be transparent by releasing opaque data is working in a public sector job, and not using their evil genius skills to make themselves a billionaire.

But then there's the spokespeople who are so bad at sleight of hand that they remind you of a 4 year old trying to do a magic trick by saying "now, if you'll just look out of the window for a moment while I sort this.... OK, you can look back now."

The DWP spokesperson told the BBC for an article:

"The mortality rate for people who have died while claiming an out-of-work benefit has fallen over a 10-year period. This is in line with the mortality rate for the general working-age population.

"The government continues to support millions of people on benefits with an £80bn working-age welfare safety net in place."

None of the three sentences have anything to do with the question asked.

It was either a pathetic attempt at a misdirect ("never mind the terminally ill people we found fit for work. Look! Less people are dying whilst claiming benefits!") or they genuinely didn't understand the question and are akin to a GCSE English student rambling about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when the exam question asked them about Romeo and Juliet.

You can just imagine a Malcolm Tucker type figure in the DWP yesterday, can't you? "We're fucking fucked. The fucking Information Commissioner's Office have fucking ordered us to release this fucking data. I'll tell you what; we'll make it as confusing as fuck and then we'll distract the fucking press with the press release. What parts of the data look good? Less scroungers are dying than a decade ago? Well fucking put that in the fucking press release. It doesn't fucking matter that it's got fuck all to do with the sick cunts dropping dead after we've stopped their benefits. And throw in a fucking brag about how many billions we waste on the scroungers at the end of it."

Either that or their spokesperson is as lacking in smarts as Terri Coverley which is why they were recruited because they would just innocently talk about something completely off topic because they understood the data even less than the press and public.

Poverty Porn is all the rage right now. Not just Benefits Street on C4. Just this week on five they had a "benefits night" with such classy shows as Big Benefits Wedding and 12 years old and on Benefits. Pointing and laughing at poor people is the hot TV trend. But I wanna see inside the DWP. I want to see inside the department that comes out with such ridiculously off-topic press statements. I want to gawp with wonder at the thinking behind sending a spokesperson out to insult the public's intelligence by hoping we won't notice that what they've said is unrelated to the subject at hand. In The Thick of It DoSAC tried to obfuscate around their role in the death of the fictional Phil Tickell. Unfortunately the DWP are trying to downplay their role in potentially thousands of real human beings dying penniless. If it wasn't such a tragic situation, I could very much enjoy an evening watching a fly-on-the-wall show set in the DWP press office as they scramble to say to the press "don't look at that, look at this!"

Friday 28 August 2015

Fit For Death

The government have finally released the figures relating to the thousands of people who've died after being found 'fit for work'. This, of course, is in the same week that Iain Duncan Smith said that he wants to kick even more disabled people off ESA. (Not enough people dying penniless?)

As for very ill people being found fit for work, I couldn't help but notice that the government were kind-of telling the story through their (now withdrawn) case study leaflets.

Welfare Weekly unearthed the tale of a fictional ESA claimant called Zac.

On the left side is an image of a young-ish Asian man. Across the top in pink text it says 'Zac’s story. I kept in contact when I couldn’t get to a meeting' Beneath that in black it says '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.

Photo credit: DWP via Welfare Weekly

We get it. He's on ESA and he's ill enough to require hospital care.

Later in the week The Guardian found the same stock photo man in a different leaflet; this one promoting JSA sanctions.

This photo contains 2 case studies. At the top is a photo of a young white man with a speech bubble in which he says 'I let my work coach know well in advance that I couldn’t go to our meeting because I had a hospital appointment. Because I gave good reason I still received my benefit payment and my work coach can use that time to help other people. We’ve arranged another appointment at a time I can attend.' Then below him is the same stock photo of Zac. His speech bubble says 'I didn’t take part in the Mandatory Work Activity scheme. Then my work coach found me a job that suited my skills but I didn’t apply for it, so my JSA has been stopped for six months. If I don’t apply for jobs my work coach asks me to apply for I could end up losing my benefit for three years.

Photo credit: DWP via Guardian

So I guess the story the DWP is trying to tell is that Zac originally claimed ESA, but then he was found fit for work and turfed onto JSA? Presumably his illness was why he didn't participate in Mandatory Work Activity or apply for a job.

Given the extremely high number of people who've died after being found fit for work - and the fact that the DWP like to make case study leaflets for "illustrative purposes only" - I'm guessing that somewhere in the DWP office there's another leaflet featuring Zac to explain what happens to ill people when they're found fit for work. And I'm assuming it looks a lot like this:

On the left side is the same photo of Zac. Across the top in pink text it says 'Zac’s story. I tried job hunting, but it's really hard when you're terminally ill.' Beneath that in black it says 'After I was found fit for work my ESA was stopped. I was put on JobSeekers' Allowance but I didn't take part in Mandatory Work Activity or apply for a job my work coach told me to, because I was too ill to do either of those things. My JSA was stopped for six months. I was too ill to get to the food bank, and with no food and no money, my health got worse rapidly. I died of my illness 4 weeks after my sanction. My doctor thought I had 6 months left.

Photo credit: Template and Zac's photo by DWP, text by me

Of course; they don't need the fictional Zac to tell the story of what happens when they could hand out leaflets telling the real story of people who died fit for work. Like Moira Drury or Linda Wootton.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Purposefully Illustrating What? #fakeDWPstories

Yesterday every major news outlet picked up Welfare Weekly's scoop that the DWP made up "case studies" about people that were happy with the sanctions system.

But one aspect that most outlets didn't report on, was that the leaflet in question - which Welfare Weekly had archived - specifically pertained to ESA sanctions. This leaflet was solely about selling the perks of sanctioning people who are too ill to work.

All sanctioning is cruel and should be stopped. But there is something especially sinister about sanctioning people who are too ill to work for not trying hard enough to get a job that they're not well enough to do anyway.

For those not in the know; Employment and Support Allowance is split into two groups: The Support Group for people who are not expected to ever be well enough to return to work, and the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) for people who are unable to work right now, but might be well enough to work at some point in the future.

So the WRAG is comprised of people with cancer who are expected to make a full recovery eventually, but for now they're undergoing treatment. There'll be people who've had life-changing accidents who are still in rehabilitation. People who are waiting for surgery, such as a hip replacement, before they can return to work.

It's not surprising they couldn't get any genuine quotes, is it? "I was so busy going to radiotherapy every day that I didn't have time to write a CV. Getting sanctioned for a week made me realise the importance of having my CV up-to-date whereas before I'd been solely focussed on kicking cancer."

Or "My brain injury from my car accident has made me forgetful and I forgot I was supposed to be going to the JobCentre. Sanctioning saved me from worrying about whether I'd remember to go shopping because I didn't have any money to buy food anyway."

Given that the press found such a massive story about ESA and sanctions, it's a shame they didn't devote a paragraph in each article about how evil it is to be sanctioning people who are too ill to work. The DWP claimed the made up case studies were for “for illustrative purposes only”. It would have been nice to use the story to purposefully illustrate the barbaric treatment of WRAG claimants, while most journos just conflated WW's story with JobSeekers' Allowance.

Friday 1 May 2015

"A life on benefits is frankly no life at all" - Why David Cameron is wrong

"Starting a life on benefits is, frankly, no life at all."
- David Cameron, BBC Question Time 30/04/2015

In that one sentence last night David Cameron dismissed my life as nothing. My family were poor. We received benefits when my dad worked, and we received benefits after work made him disabled. I went to university in spite of this background, and received a student grant. While I was studying I became sick with what I would later find out was a mitochondrial disease. I still worked when I could, albeit intermittently and claiming incapacity benefit at times. Later I started a computer repair business but became too sick to work after a year of that. Now I live on benefits - I am in the Support Group on ESA, which is for people that even Atos and the DWP admit are unlikely to be able to work in the foreseeable future. I also receive DLA, Housing Benefit and various others.

What none of this has done is make my life worthless. I do not have "no life at all." I am a person, with experiences, who has contributed to society just by being myself. I enjoy things, I create things, I learn things, I say things. I talk to friends and make new friends. And all of this despite starting my life on benefits and continuing it now on benefits. All of this despite the fact that I may never be able to undertake paid employment again.

David Cameron, though, disagrees. Asked to stop talking about the economic reasons for his policies and talk about the moral issues, he said:

"helping people into work is the most moral thing"
- David Cameron, BBC Question Time 30/04/2015

Except it's not, though, is it. Helping people to find paid employment is not the most moral thing, even if that was what the Tories had been doing rather than yanking away support and telling people to sort themselves out. What is actually the most moral thing is making sure that all people have food and shelter, and the ability to live a life that they find value in. Paid employment is only one path to that. Paid employment (or attempting to start your own business, for that matter) is an option that is for many not available - whether that is from lack of available jobs, lack of training, sickness and disability, caring responsibilities, or some other reason.

We as a society are able to provide for everyone. Less labour is required to feed and clothe us with every new day. We do have jobs that need doing, such as in care and healthcare, but private employers aren't going to pay for those. If we want more people to be employed then others are going to have to work less. But employers want to extract maximum profit from the minimum amount of pay so that isn't going to happen any time soon.

One thing is certain: People like David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have no idea what the lives of people on benefits are like but they judge us anyway. They decide we have miserable meaningless lives but then make everything so much worse by snatching away support and telling us to get jobs that aren't there or that we are unable to do.

First posted on A Latent Existence

Manifestly Abusive

(It's Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015, #BADD2015, so I thought I would look at what's going on during the UK General Election)

It's General Election Season in the UK, which means all the parties have to put out actual policies of their own, rather than just shout about how terrible the other parties' supposed policies are. Unfortunately in at least two cases, arguably three, we're seeing disablism forming either part of the manifesto, or a prominent part of campaigning. And of course it's the usual suspects, UKIP and the Tories, with the Lib-Dems tagging along behind.

UKIP's manifesto is actually slightly less scary than last time, when they talked about putting learning disabled people into 'congregate communities' (that may well have been code for camps of a rather different kind - when they later sacked a candidate for openly calling for disabled babies to be killed, there were scores of UKIPers protesting he had done nothing wrong). What we get this time is a bunch of crowd pleasing policies that are worded loosely enough they could go either way - so GPs will replace the hated Work Capability Assessment in judging if people should be entitled to disability benefits, but will also be required to issue 'Fit Notes' to the DWP to say that people are now fit to work. They say they support the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (or at least Article 19 of it), but simultaneously want us out of the European Court system that enforces it, and so on. Other Welfare policies are more openly disturbing, promising a lower cap on benefits, Child Benefit only for the first two children, and 'cracking down on benefit fraud' (that would be the benefit fraud that's already smaller than DWP's internal error rate, and a fraction of the size of the tax evasion at the other end of the wealth scale).

But then party leader Nigel Farage opens his mouth and the bile just flows out. During the first televised leaders' debate he alleged there was a substantial issue with non-Britons coming to the UK to obtain treatment for HIV. He's said it before, last October for one, and it's a very clever, very calculated statement designed to appeal to the worst kind of human instincts. 'Health tourism' is a 'threat' UKIP have been pushing, even though actual evidence shows it isn't a major issue, but it lets them play the 'darn furriners coming here and stealing our hospitals' card (doubly valuable as UKIP's leadership is known to be ideologically opposed to the NHS, whereas the public love it). Specifically focussing in on HIV lets UKIP do two things: associate 'health tourism' with homosexuality in order to appeal to the homophobic elements in their core vote (they announced this week they would bring forward a bill to allow 'Christians' to discriminate against gays), and associate 'health tourism' with a disease still primarily associated with sexual transmission and therefore almost universally regarded in society as somehow 'dirty'. That they're doing this by stigmatising people with a serious and life-threatening illness clearly matters not one jot to them. It really is a quite spectacularly amoral piece of political calculation. And in last night's Question Time  he said it again, this time alleging foreign HIV patients mean UK HIV patients are not being cared for.

At least the Tories aren't focussing on HIV, but they're completely up for a piece of fat-shaming as public policy, and with a truly chilling sting in the tail. Page 28 of their Manifesto states: “We will review how best to support those suffering from long term yet treatable conditions, such as drug or alcohol addiction or obesity, back into work. People who might benefit from treatment should get the medical help they need so they can return to work. if they refuse a recommended treatment, we will review whether their benefits should be reduced.” Health blogger Dr. Margaret McCartney pointed out how carefully chosen their targets are. Not, for example, people who don't take their blood pressure medication, or who don't exercise regularly, but drug addicts, alcoholics, and fat people, all of whom already face considerable stigma. Now this isn't the first time the Tories have done this, snide attacks on people with addictions or obesity issues started cropping up fairly early in their government, from Cameron on down, but this is the first time it has become official party policy. And there seems to be a deliberate decision to link obesity and addictive behaviours in order to further worsen the social acceptability of obesity. Worse, they then decided to compound all that with the threat of compelled treatment. Compelled treatment is an absolute medical no-no, doctors are ethically mandated to provide their patients with the information allowing them to give informed consent to their treatment, but, as soon as you introduce compulsion, consent goes out the window.

To further compound the potential harm, the compulsion will be implemented by the notoriously disablist Department of Work and Pensions, the puppet masters behind Atos and now Maximus and the WCA, with their secret targets and league tables for sanctions against disabled benefit claimants. When you acknowledge (which much of society unfortunately does not) that much obesity is a secondary consequence of clearly identifiable medical causes, for instance drug side effects, mobility restrictions, metabolic disorders and so on, while drug abuse, alcoholism and other cases of obesity spring from complex familial, social and medical backgrounds, it becomes clear that this policy is deliberately designed to target disabled people in a way that makes non-disabled people positively happy to see it happening. And once this aspect of compulsion in treatment is established, who is to say where it will stop.

In fact the next phase may already be underway, and it comes not from the Tories but from the theoretically cuddlier Lib-Dems. Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg has himself been heading a pilot programme to introduce mental health treatment on-site at Job Centre Plus (the high-street arm of the DWP). It would be hard to think of a worse combination for medical abuse. JCP are already cutting their numbers of specialist Disability Employment Advisors, from a starting point of having far fewer advisors per disabled job seeker than non-disabled, and have been implementing a massive increase in utterly inappropriate sanctions against disabled people, such as the learning disabled man sanctioned for being four minutes late for an interview, never mind that he was unable to tell the time. (When this incident was raised in a Westminster debate, a Tory MP claimed it was evidence of failing schools, apparently having no understanding whatsoever of what a learning disability is). Compound that disablist bias at JCP with the massive stigma around Mental Health issues and you have a real potential for inappropriate compulsion and people with MH issues being driven out of the Benefit system (which may of course be absolutely fine with many of the backers of this initiative).

Moving down into constituency level disablism, a group of London-based Tories decided it would be funny to compare Labour Leader Ed Miliband to a stroke victim on Facebook , by drawing on an existing piece of stroke awareness public service broadcasting, but associating it with images of Miliband deliberately picked to make him look as grotesque as possible while mocking the way he speaks. The pages disappeared as soon as people caught onto them, but the unpleasant stench of disablism lingers. Clearly these Tories thought that having a disability makes you somehow less, while marking you as unfit to partake in government, and isn't that a revealing insight into the way they think about us.

Equally revealing was the suggestion from Chamali Fernando, the Conservative candidate in Cambridge, at a hustings event, that people who are neurodiverse or have mental health issues could wear wristbands to identify them to police and other 'professional persons' (she's a lawyer, so presumably meant 'people like me'). That people who are neurodiverse or have MH issues already face even worse stigma than other forms of disability, and that she was proposing marking them out for the abusers in society apparently passed her completely by, as did the historical context of another political party having once implemented a policy of physically marking disabled people, and emulating the policies of the Nazi Party generally being considered politically a bad idea. There seems to be an acceptance that she was being utterly naive rather than malicious, but when sitting Lib-Dem MP Julian Huppert, alongside her at the event, criticised her for what she said, she sued him for defamation, which doesn't really suggest she's actually learnt anything from the incident.

And just to cap everything, David Cameron suggested last night during Question Time that a life on benefits is frankly no kind of life at all, which, given he had a profoundly disabled child who would have faced precisely that if he had survived, seems a remarkably inappropriate attitude.

So there we have the ways disability is being portrayed by three of the major parties in the election: by UKIP as somehow 'dirty' and 'gay' and 'stealing our NHS'; by the Tories as a form of benefit scrounging by drug addicts and their associates, who need the stern hand of government to set them on track, as a negative that would make someone unfit to act in government, as needing to be labelled for our own protection and as 'no kind of life'; and by the Lib-Dems as needing to be pushed towards work by intervention in possibly the most threatening environment imaginable. In the end it all comes down to providing yet one more way for the intolerant parts of society to punish people for being in need.  It's a sad state of affairs when bullying people in need is applauded as the socially responsible thing to do, and considered fit to grace the manifestos of not one, but three of our major political parties.