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.