Saturday, March 24, 2012

Scottish GPs Vote To Scrap Work Capability Assessment

In yet another blow for the Government’s welfare policies, GPs in Scotland have voted in favour of a motion  calling for the end of the work capability assessment (WCA).  These brutal and demeaning tests have been used to strip sickness and health related benefits from as many people as possible.  The annual Scottish GP conference yesterday voted that:

“i. the inadequate computer-based assessments that are used have little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long term sick and disabled persons

ii. the WCA should end with immediate effect and be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause avoidable harm to some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society “

GPs own opinions on their patient’s ability to work have been repeatedly ignored in favour of a short computer test carried out by French IT Company Atos.  Today’s vote shows that doctors are starting to wake up to the implications of a system that violates the fundamental medical principle of ‘first do no harm’.

Tragically several people have killed themselves after learning of decisions made by Atos and the DWP.  Thosands more have had conditions worsened and been forced into the endless round of appeals and retesting that has become the norm for people on sickness benefits.  Doctors and nurses have been employed to carry out these tests in an effort to give them a modicum of medical respectability.  What the implications of the passing of this motion are for Atos’ recruitment strategy are so far unclear, however this may yet be seen as the beginning of the end of this inhumane policy.    Already insiders have claimed moral is at rock bottom at the company and they are finding it harder to recruit and retain medical staff.  Doctors and nurses should not be used as political cover to dismantle the Welfare State.

This vote has come about in many ways through the lobbying of grass roots, claimant led groups such as most notably the Black Triangle Anti-Defamation Campaign who deserve a fucking medal.  The BMA, who faced protests outside their recruitment fair last year due to the presence of Atos, should now consider their medical ethics across the rest of the UK.  A letter signed by countless organisations last year demanded that the British Medical Journal cease all business relationships with the company.

The Work Capability Assessment is failing.  It is time all medical staff rejected their role in the torment it has caused for hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people.  Atos and the WCA kills.  It is time both were condemned to history.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

British people are committing suicide to escape poverty. Is this what the State wants?

By Sonia Poulton

In the last few months of his life, Craig Monk attempted several overdoses and was described as 'vulnerable' by his family.

An accident a few years before had resulted in the partial amputation of his leg and he had suffered unnecessary, and anxiety-inducing, obstructions in receiving state assistance - even though his disability was clear for all see.

Over time he slipped further into poverty, the ends could no longer meet.

Tragic: Mark and Helen Mullins could not face another freezing winter on the poverty line, according to neighbours
Like Craig Monk, Helen and Mark Mullins ended their lives through suicide because they could not face the prospect of living in dire poverty.

Finally, the fear of there not being a light at the end of his personal tunnel overwhelmed him and Mr. Monk, a 43-year-old from Burnley, was found hanging in his home in October last year.

I would love to say this is an anomaly, a one-off. That here was someone who was psychologically unhinged and motivated by his own selfish considerations. I cannot. For there is far more to it than that.

As I write there have been almost 150 deaths related to sick and disabled citizens who fear being plunged further into poverty as our benefit system - designed to protect the vulnerable - increasingly cuts people adrift leaving them to fend for themselves.

For some people the solution is clear and irreversible - as it appeared to be for Mr. Monk.
And, for that matter, Helen and Mark Mullins.

The Mullins had physical and mental disabilities to contend with and had spent months fighting the notoriously complex disability process at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Starved, literally, of sufficient financial assistance, the couple's weekly food intake was bolstered by the vegetables they received from a soup kitchen in Coventry, a 12-mile round trip that they made weekly on foot.

The Mullins couldn't afford a fridge and so kept food in the garden shed. Eventually they could no longer stretch their non-existent budget to heating their home and they spent their remaining months living in one room.

Captured on camera by a roving reporter shortly before their death, Mr Mullins, criticised the system:

“They have no problems suspending benefits," he said, "They just put a tick in a box and they alter your life.”

Run-down: The property that Mark and Helen Mullins shared as they lived on £57.50 per week
Run-down: The property that Mark and Helen Mullins shared as they lived on £57.50 per week

So it was that the Mullins' life was altered irreparably and, dreading another cold and hungry winter, they were found side by side, in an apparent suicide pact in November 2011.

Just another statistic, really. Barely worthy of a footnote - or so it would appear.
Even the most conservative estimate claims that 24,000 people worldwide die from hunger each day. Of course you may say, as people do, that such a thing would never happen in the UK.

That, due to our 'bloated' benefits system - the one the red-top tabloids claim to know so much about but actually know less than could be reasonably written on a matchbox - no one in our land will have to die from cold or starvation.

I wonder if you can help me out here, then. What is the difference between people dying from starvation and people killing themselves before they have to face that certain misery?

Not that the people dying are only suicidal. Some have been pushed to the brink by the Coalition’s continued use of the much criticised ATOS system, designed to tell how ‘fit for work‘ someone is.

This French company and model - (any reason why we can’t design and run our own?) - is cushioned with a whopping 100 million tax-payer funded pounds per year to move claimants from benefits to work.

The company was heavily attacked in the Harrington Report because its medical reports frequently failed accurately to reflect the assessment process or the circumstances in which they were conducted.

Standing by his plans: Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has insisted no-one will lose out as a result of his benefits reforms
Standing by his plans: Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has insisted no-one will lose out as a result of his benefits reforms

ATOS nightmare stories are legendary. People have suffered all manner of attacks - from anxiety to heart - during the process and the testing has proven unreliable according to the latest figures from HM Courts and Tribunals service.

Following a Freedom of Information request, the mental health charity Mind have released appeal figures for the period April to October 2011. They make for alarming reading.

They reveal that over the six months, almost half of the people who appealed against their ruling won their cases. That's 37,100 who had previously, quite wrongly, been found fit for work.

This success rate increased to 67 per cent when people were represented by, say, a lawyer or a benefits adviser.
Consider that. Sixty-seven per cent of assessments were found to be wrong. That's a huge failure rate by anyone's standards, and an expensive one too. Amounting, as it does, to some 50 million pounds to administer appeals each year.
And that's only the financial cost. What about the human cost of it? Where already vulnerable people are systematically broken down. Some never to recover.

Stephen Hill, 53, needed heart bypass surgery but was told he was fit to work and would be withdrawn from Incapacity Benefit in November 2011. This despite him winning a previous appeal against an assessment.

One month later, Boxing Day to be precise, and Stephen was dead from a heart attack.
His brother Anthony said: “The worry put so much pressure on him.”

It is certain to get worse, for despite the ATOS assessments being repeatedly proven to be wrong, ministers are preparing to restrict legal aid for those seeking to overturn unjust decisions.

So what we have is a system that is recognised as faulty, and we intend to remove the legal means by which to challenge its numerous errors. This comes in addition to the intended removal of benefits during the period of the appeal.

The message from Cameron and Clegg's Coalition to disabled and sick people is clear. Accept what we say, or we will make life a (barely) living hell. And for some people that has proven too dire a prospect to contemplate.

Only a few weeks ago, during the voting of the Welfare Reform Bill, media commentators accused disability campaigners of 'being paranoid' and of 'making a song and dance about nothing'.

They said that this Coalition, despite appearances to the contrary, would protect our sick and disabled. Oh yes, really?

Protesting: Remploy workers pictured demonstrating against factory closures in front of Manchester Town Hall
Protesting: Remploy workers pictured demonstrating against factory closures in front of Manchester Town Hall

Just one week after the morally-bankrupt Welfare Reform Bill was granted royal assent, the Coalition announced widespread closure of Remploy, nationwide factories that employ disabled people.

Thirty-six of its 54 factories were picked for the chop with potential compulsory redundancies of more than 1,700 disabled workers.

"So much for helping disabled people back into work," said Steven Preece from the pressure group Social Welfare Advocacy.

The result is an untenable situation for disabled people. The possibility for earning a living has been seriously reduced - and this trend will continue as Disability Living Allowance is cut and will no longer enable some disabled people to work.

At the same time, the State will reduce the hard cash available to the claimant and will also pile on pressure to be assessed for millions of invisible jobs in a market place with almost three million unemployed. 

The current 'new thing' for our disabled and sick to endure is the anxious wait for 'the brown envelope' from the DWP. So far a thousand or so disabled people have received instructions about getting back into work even though some have been given fewer than six months to live.

Anxious wait: Thousands of sick and disabled people are waiting to hear whether the DWP considers them fit to work - even though some have been given mere months to live (posed by model)
Anxious wait: Thousands of sick and disabled people are waiting to hear whether the DWP considers them fit to work - even though some have been given mere months to live (posed by model)

Extremely sick - some terminally so - and disabled people will be poked and prodded by physical assessors and blocked and humiliated by the clerical ones. Turn this way, turn that way. Walk, but not too fast. That may classify you as 'not disabled enough' or 'too disabled' - both state of affairs come with sanctions. Cattle truck, anyone?

It has to stop. Now. Our Coalition have pushed disabled people further into a type of poverty that we assume only exists in dictator-led countries. And we're not one of those, are we?

How can Iain Duncan Smith have the temerity, the sheer barefaced cheek, to say that 'no one will lose out' in these reforms?

Why doesn't he ask the mother whose Down's syndrome child will likely end up almost £700 a year worse off, as a result of changes to their Tax Credits. Or the 50-something man recovering from a stroke who will lose hundreds from his yearly allowance? Well that's the heating off for next winter, then.

The people our Government has lashed out at do not have gold-plated pensions from any number of companies that they may sit on the board of - as many Lords and MP's do - and they live a hand-to-mouth existence.

What a world of mixed-up values and reprehensible morals. Where our Members of Parliament kick 12 bells out of vulnerable people but allow the extraordinarily wealthy to leap through tax loopholes designed to protect their already huge stash.

I have no objection to people acquiring material wealth through hard work - good for them I say. I do, though, draw the line at one rule for the rich and one for the poor.

According to the Land Registry, the UK is currently losing more than £1bn in tax as the rich and famous register some 94,760 properties - from townhouses and castles to country estates - into offshore companies.

Such tax dodgers include, among numerous others, Sirs Bob Geldof and Mick Jagger.
The problem for the Con-Dems is their protection of the rich over the naked dismissal of the poor, is increasingly transparent.

Due, in no small part, to this newpaper's continued exposure of inequities such as 'Sweetheart Deals' where companies including Goldman Sachs and Vodaphone are routinely allowed to skip away with a tax bill substanially lighter - to the tune of billions - than it should be. Hey! billion pound deficit, we know how to fill you.

Cameron and Co's actions are not only unjust but politically suicidal. The electorate, being essentially fair, will reject this Coalition at the election. They will be hoist by their own petard.

MP's could do much worse than to look at the court of public opinion when it comes to their handling of the disability crisis. According to charity Papworth Trust, almost nine out of 10 respondents felt that disabled people are treated badly. Unfortunately too, for MP's, a whopping  82 per cent said that politicians were unfair with disabled people.

The Coalition do not want to continue ignoring polls. Take, for example, a specially commissioned YouGov survey, designed to test the national pulse towards benefits.

The message that came back was clear and unequivocal. People hold great suspicion and dislike for the current benefit system but did not support the cuts aimed at disabled people. A miniscule 11 per cent, only, supported cuts to disability.

Of course that hasn't stopped the Government from continuing to try and whip the country into a benefit hysteria. Take, for example, the DWP's own figures last week which were widely circulated in the media and stated that some 37 per cent of people claiming disability were actually fit for work.

This amount, it should be pointed out, clashed with the reality of the situation - which found that the figures in the pilot schemes were only 22 per cent and the result of the appeals had yet to come in.

A DWP press officer was thus forced to admit that yes, this would result in a significant drop in numbers from that released to the press. See how rumours get started?
"It also doesn't acknowledge the fact that the assessments are so inaccurate and many will not have the strength to appeal despite being wrongly classified as "Fit for Work"." Says Sue Marsh, co-author of 'Reponsible Reform - The Spartacus Report'.

"They will then have only Job Seekers Allowance to rely on and face exactly the sanctions a non-disabled person would. On less money than before."

Tax breaks: The London offices of Goldman Sachs, one of the companies subject to a 'sweetheart deal' which allowed it to shave billions off its tax liabilities
Tax breaks: The London offices of Goldman Sachs, one of the companies subject to a 'sweetheart deal' which allowed it to shave billions off its tax liabilities

How have we allowed such worldly extremes where some are wealthy beyond measure - and others are pushed to the outer edges of society and forced to live a type of twilight existence?

Where some are so materially rich that if they lived to be hundreds of years old - and never did another days work in their lives - it would not dent their coffers and others die for want of a warm bed and a regular meal. Such disparities are obscene.

However there is hope for campaigners. It may be that much of the Welfare Reform Bill will prove to be illegal as it appears to clash with a number of human rights and could certainly face legal challenges.

This issue is not about so-called 'scroungers', who - aside from it being a vile, dehumanising term that should be beneath us - are few and far between. Let us not forget that the fraud disability rate is less than one per cent. No, the issue is the basic human needs that this Government is failing to take care of.

But hey, what’s the death of one or two, here and there? We have so much more to think about, right?

You know the things that preoccupy most of our time. Like, for example, the reality show judge trending on Twitter because a 'sex tape' purporting to feature her has been leaked onto the internet. Now that's news. Apparently. She's glamorous, you see, and wealthy too.

The same, sadly, cannot be said about those who consider themselves a burden to society and are too poor to carry on living. 

Read more

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sickness benefit: 'They try their damnedest to avoid paying'

A computer questionnaire now helps determine who is fit for work and who is eligible for benefits. But it is causing misery, with thousands of unwell people locked in a chaotic system of appeals

Peter: 'If I was a bit more shy and retiring, I might have been intimidated into not complaining' Photograph: David Levene
How sick or disabled do you need to be to qualify for state support? Is it enough to be blind or do you also need to be deaf? Is it enough to have been so seriously injured in a car accident that you can no longer walk without extreme pain, or do you have to be bed-bound?

These are the sort of questions that a new, computer-led system for determining eligibility for sickness benefit has been trying to resolve for the past year. Judging by the mounting pressure on appeal tribunals, where hundreds of thousands of people have flooded to contest the decisions, the system is not working smoothly.

There was a 56% rise during 2010/11 in the number of people appealing rulings that they are fit for work and the tribunals system has become overloaded. Since the system was trialled at the end of 2009, at least 390,000 people have gone to appeal; tribunal courts have been forced to open on Saturdays and to increase staff by 30% since January 2010, to deal with the backlog; the cost of these appeals is expected to reach £50m a year by the end of this month. The scale of the problem is startling; the tribunals service has radically increased its capacity in order to cope with a possible half a million new cases over the next 12 months.

During the past year these tribunals have become the frontline in a nationwide battle against this new system designed to assess the nature of disability and illness, variously described by MPs and campaigners as "chaotic" and "not fit for purpose".

Peter, a computer analyst (who prefers not to give his real name because he is still appealing against his ruling), was forced to give up his job in October 2008 when he could no longer see the screen well enough to work. He was formally registered blind in 2009, after 20 years of gradually deteriorating eye-sight. Because he was no longer able to do his job, he applied for the new incapacity benefit, employment and support allowance.

Despite his blindness, he was refused the benefit, and told he was fit to work. In order to qualify for the benefit, you need to be awarded 15 points in the new test, the work capability assessment. He scored nine points, which means he was denied both the benefit and also the chance of getting targeted extra support to help him find appropriate work. Had he been deaf, as well as blind, he would have secured the extra points, he was told.

Sickness benefit: lost in the ESA appeal system Link to video: Sickness benefit: lost in the ESA appeal system
He appealed against the decision, and a panel overturned it in March 2011, concluding that he should not be expected to find work. Then in October 2011, he was invited for another test, and a few weeks later was again told he didn't qualify for the benefit. He has launched a second appeal process, and is enraged at the time and money wasted on repeatedly sending him through the system.

His experience of winning an appeal, only to find that he has been invited to have his capacity to work retested, is a common one. Because so many people have lodged appeals, his case will not be heard until September.

"They have changed the system to catch out more people. I think they try their damnedest to avoid paying," Peter, 59, says. "They knew my condition was permanent and degenerative, so if it's true in 2009 that it's permanent and degenerative, then it has to be true in 2011. The consultant ophthalmologist has written to tell them that."

Unsettled by being unemployed, and missing his work in IT, he went to the volunteering centre in Windsor, to offer his services for free, but he was told that he wouldn't be suitable for any of the positions on offer because of his vision problems. So he remains stuck – officially classified fit to work, but in practice unable to find even an unpaid role. He feels that he has been classified as "one of George Osborne's scroungers".

"These absurd and inaccurate decisions, leading to time-consuming and expensive eventual correction, leave the applicant feeling both demeaned by the process and depressed by the heartlessness, if not nastiness, of the government," he argues. "It's an extremely complicated process to go through. I am not a shy person and I do stand up for myself. If I was a bit more shy and retiring I might have been intimidated into not complaining."

Many people caught up in the chaos agree that it is sensible to check whether claimants are really eligible for the incapacity benefit (which is about £99 a week, about £30 a week more than jobseeker's allowance) but feel angry at the flawed process, which can lead to decisions being made and overturned repeatedly. A select committee report into the system's failings stated that it inspired "fear and anxiety among vulnerable people".

In Cambuslang, on the outskirts of Glasgow, Marie, 31, (who also asks that her real name should not be printed because of the ongoing appeal), is still struggling to recover from a car accident four years ago that damaged a disc at the base of her spine. She had to give up her job as a dispensing chemist because the injury made her unable to stand for prolonged periods, and prone to falling. She relies on her husband to help her get up and to wash, and she says she has "bad days and really crappy days". The pain, and the effect the injury has had on her life, has triggered depression.

At her medical assessment in 2010, she was given zero points, and was told to go to the jobcentre and start applying for jobs. "The guy in the jobcentre could see how difficult it was for me to walk. He said I shouldn't be there, and told me there was no way he was going to send me out for interviews," she says.

On appeal, in March 2011, the initial decision was overturned and she was granted 15 points, enough to qualify for the benefit, in recognition of the profound difficulty she was having walking. But last December, she was asked to return for another assessment of her capacity to work and was refused the benefit a second time. "The test was the same, very tick-boxy," she says.

As part of the test, the staff employed by Atos Healthcare, the French-owned company paid £100m a year to carry out the tests on behalf of the government, ask claimants sideways questions about their life, entering the data into a computer, which uses their answers to build up a picture of their capacity to hold down a job. Questions about which television programmes a claimant regularly watches might, for example, be taken as evidence of their ability to sit and concentrate for half-hour periods, and by extension their employability, while the answer to the question "do you clean your teeth regularly?" might be used to understand both someone's manual dexterity and their mental state. Marie thinks that her admission that she reads stories to her three-year-old son (born shortly after the car accident) was taken wrongly as evidence that she was able to sit for extended periods of time.

"I'm not reading him Moby Dick, just five-page-long picture stories," she says, frustrated by the apparent absurdity of the system. She cried for two days, she says, after getting the second refusal. She has launched a second appeal, backed by her doctors and her local MP.

Both the current and preceding governments were determined to cut the cost of the incapacity benefit bill, and the new test has different and tighter criteria, making it more difficult to be judged eligible for employment support allowance (ESA). Figures published last week showed that 37% of claimants of the old incapacity benefit who are reassessed are declared fit for work and have their sickness benefit removed. The government hailed these preliminary figures (which do not take appeals into account) as evidence that their policy is working; disability rights groups said the statistic simply showed that the test had become unacceptably harsh. The implication that those found capable of working must have previously have been wrongly or even fraudulently claiming benefits is repeatedly cited by claimants as one of the most distressing aspects of the policy.

"It's terrible how it makes you feel. I feel sorry for anyone who has to go through this system, I really do," Marie says. "I'd love to return to work. I could be earning a really good wage, but right now I'm not fit enough, and I could damage myself more."

The pressure on tribunals shows that these cases are far from exceptional. Of the 390,000-plus appeals that have been lodged against decisions not to grant the benefit, just under 40% have been successful. The most recent figures (April to October 2011), which emerged on monday via a Freedom of Information request lodged by the mental health charity Mind, indicate that the success rate has jumped to 46% of decisions being overturned in the claimant's favour.

At Fox Court in central London, the social security tribunal reception area feels like a doctor's waiting room. Some people breathe heavily and uneasily; others make their way uncomfortably to a seat, leaning on crutches, or helped by friends. Many look very unwell. They are here so that judges and doctors can assess definitively how unwell they are, and rule on whether they should be resting at home, or sent back out into the workplace. Essentially, this is where new definitions of what it is to be unwell and disabled are being forged.

District tribunal judge Mark Hindley sits with a doctor and spends the day painstakingly trying to work out who is too sick to be forced to find work. First he listens as a mother of three explains in Arabic, through a translator, that she is unable to work because of depression and a back problem. She brings out a plastic bag and shakes out a pile of sleeping pills, unidentified pink tablets and co-codamol, explaining, wheezing painfully as she talks, that the tablets make her so drowsy that she has to spend much of the afternoon lying on the sofa.

Hindley explains that the ruling will be made according to their judgment of how severely her medical problems prevent her from carrying on with a normal existence. "It is not what your medical problems are but what those medical problems stop you from doing," he tells her. He and the doctor are unable to come to an immediate decision and promise to let her know in writing.

Next they see an Albanian man in his 50s who has spent most of his career working as a hairdresser, but hasn't worked since he moved to this country because of a knee problem, which makes it painful to stand for long periods. "Every minute that I stand, I am in pain," he tells the tribunal, through a translator.

The doctor is curious about the clean state of the rubber fitting at the bottom of his crutch, and wonders how frequently he uses it; she also questions whether he is using it on the correct side to support his knee. They reject his appeal because, although they accept that his knee is problematic, this scores him only six of the necessary 15 points required for sickness benefit.

"We accept that it is hard to stand for any period. We don't think you have any problems with walking," he is told. Red-faced, and visibly angry, he gathers his papers and limps from the room.

Later they hear from a 47-year-old mother-of-three from north London who was forced to give up her job as a school support officer because of arthritis in her lower back and the depression that followed her increasing inability to move without pain. It becomes clear that when she went for her initial work capability assessment, she was stoical about her condition, rather than labouring the extent of her problems, and as a result, failed to score sufficient points to be granted ESA.

"In my head I feel that I can do more than I can actually do. A lot of it was pride. I think I held a lot back from my children, but the pain was always there in my lower back and groin," she says. She explains that in her family, they've always had a culture of coping. "We don't tell outsiders what is going on in our personal lives, at home. You deal with it yourself." But it becomes obvious through painstaking questioning that her arthritis impedes much of everyday life.

"If something dropped to the floor?" the doctor asks her. She shakes her head. "It would stay there." Putting clothes in the washing machine? "My daughter would do that for me. I was calling for my 12-year-old daughter to do a lot more to help me, helping me in and out of the bath, helping me in and out of bed in the morning," she says.

While the court adjourns to discuss her case, she explains how upset she was to have been found fit for work after her initial work capability assessment.

"They were telling me I was fit for work when I was screaming in pain. I was taking ibuprofen like sweets," she says. She stopped working only when the pain made it hard for her to get to work. "I loved that job. I always loved working with children."

"I know that there are people who are taking the piss, you see it on the news. But would I be sitting here going through the humiliation of being told to bend down, kneel down, if I could work? It wasn't very nice … the whole thing you have to go through."

The panel decides to overturn the original decision and award her the benefit.

The new system was devised under Labour, but campaigners blame this government for rolling it out nationwide last year, beginning the mammoth task of retesting all 1.6 million incapacity benefit claimants, at a rate of 11,000 a week, before the system was ready.

Atos has also been blamed for the high level of inaccuracies in the decisions, accused by one MP of "disastrous delivery" of the tests. Protesters have repeatedly mounted demonstrations outside their London offices, waving banners that declare "Atos doesn't give a toss" and "Atos kills!" – a reference to the small but growing number of claimants who have killed themselves after finding that their benefits have been removed. In a select committee report last year, MPs questioned whether as "a private company, you are driven by a profit motive", incentivised "to get the assessments done, but not necessarily to get the assessments right".

Staff at Atos say they believe it is "unfair" to blame their organisation for broader problems that have dogged the system. In a briefing last week, the company's communication team said they did not feel responsible for the chaos unfolding in the tribunals, pointing out that they were only responsible for the medical test, and that the decisions were made (based on the information they supply) by jobcentre staff.

"We strive to make sure our assessments are absolutely accurate," the official from Atos, who asked not to be named, says. (It took 18 months to organise an interview with Atos. The meeting was finally arranged on the agreement that the official would not be named.)

Was the number of people going to tribunal the result of a failing of the test? "To be honest, I don't think we know," he adds, unexpectedly open about the absence of communication between the different sections of the state carrying out this policy. "We would love to get more feedback [from the tribunals] so we could understand if there are systemic issues, but we just don't get that feedback."

Responding to all the criticism, the government has appointed Professor Malcolm Harrington to conduct a review of the system's failings, and has already implemented some improvements, but the welfare rights organisations say the complaints from claimants have not ended. Harrington is still working on new improvements, but has previously told the Guardian that he was "staggered and shocked" at the growing cost of tribunal appeals against decisions.

MPs from all over the country say constituents are still alerting them to problems. Jessica Morden, Labour MP for Newport East, told colleagues in a recent debate that her constituents were getting "caught in a cycle, in that they get zero points when they go for the work capability assessment, they wait seven months for an appeal, the decision is overturned and they immediately receive another letter asking them to take part in another round of assessments". The "stress and anxiety being placed on people with very serious conditions is unacceptable," she said.

There is some unease with a sense that indirect questions are put, in order deliberately to catch people out, and the way that "evidence is unofficially gathered". Labour's Pamela Nash said: "One of my constituents is deaf, but he was told that he could not possibly be deaf because he heard his name being called in the waiting room. Clearly, while he was waiting he was looking at the door in order to lip-read."

Tom Greatrex, who has campaigned consistently on this issue, voiced frustration that constituents with incurable progressive conditions were being called back for repeated assessments. "Common sense must be applied. If an individual is never going to get better, why should we reassess them? It is a waste of taxpayers' funds."

The delays in the tribunal hearings are causing unexpected knock-on problems. At the Agnes Smith Advice Centre, on the Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford, advice workers have become increasingly concerned about the number of people who come to them penniless because they have failed to attend their medical and have consequently been denied any state support. People have usually failed to turn up for legitimate reasons and have sometimes tried to warn the medical examiners that they would be unable to attend. While they are waiting for an appeal against the decision, they are not entitled to any benefit because of their apparent "non-compliance".

"One lady had suffered a stillbirth around the time the questionnaire was due back. One lady phoned Atos to say she could not attend the medical examination on its due date, and was told that a new appointment would be arranged, but received a letter the next day stating that her benefit had been stopped. Other people are simply too sick, mentally or physically, to deal with the questionnaire or attend the appointment," advice worker Cathy Wells explains.

"It is the most sick and vulnerable claimants who are likely to end up in this position. One of my clients is suffering from malnutrition, and is under the care of the mental health crisis team, who sometimes arrange for him to spend time as an inpatient on a psychiatric ward so that he can get some food and warmth."

The government remains attached to the policy, frequently pointing out that incapacity benefit has cost £135bn over the past decade; even with the cost of appeals and repeat assessments, the government will save large sums by removing benefits from a third of claimants. A spokeswoman adds: "We are committed to helping thousands of people move from benefits and back into work. Those found too sick or disabled to work won't be expected to and will continue to receive the help and support they need."

But Neil Coyle, of Disability Rights UK, said the government's attempt to redefine the very nature of disability was alarming. "The government's rhetoric seems to imply that many thousands of disabled people who will lose their benefits simply aren't disabled enough."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Suicide training in Job Centres? Cancer patients scrubbing floors? Welcome to Cameron’s Brave New World

By Sonia Poulton

So, the Welfare Reform Bill - the part that refers to sick and disabled people - limped bruised and bloodied over the finishing line in Parliament last week. The various acts of treachery and betrayal it contained making its final journey into law once it has been granted the Queen's royal assent.


It was inevitable, really, and disability campaigners who, for the past two years, have fought feverishly, and quite literally at times from their sickbeds, to oppose it, resigned themselves to the fact that nothing short of a Biblical-type miracle would reverse their fate.


However, it is only now that the full implications of what these reforms - or brutal acts of savagery as I prefer to call them - will actually mean to millions of seriously vulnerable people in our country. And it is an ugly realisation.


This is how I see it. In the life of most every politician there is one, or several, events that mark out their ‘D’Oh moment. This is not based on severity but on a feeling it should not have happened at all.

David and Samantha Cameron themselves claimed Disability Living Allowance for their child
Brave New World? David and Samantha Cameron themselves claimed Disability Living Allowance for their child

For examples: Nixon - Watergate. Kennedy - Marilyn. Major - Edwina Currie. Tony Blair - Iraq. You get my point?


Well here’s my ‘D’oh moment prediction for David Cameron. He will be remembered as the Prime Minister - without a mandate, remember - who attacked the sick and disabled of our country with a vehemence beyond human comprehension. And when you think that he had a disabled son who tragically passed two years ago, well, then, it beggars belief even more so.
So, to bring the story up to speed.


Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair’s Governments set the blueprint of the welfare reforms that David Cameron has just forced through Parliament. And when I say forced I mean the type that requires extraordinary levels of subterfuge and manipulation to shoehorn into place.


He ignored panels and focus groups, charities and campaigners and he overturned the Lords' by invoking an archaic law of “financial privilege”, which allows the Commons the last say on money matters.

Such was his unstoppable zeal to push through reforms - contrary to all advice, personal and professional - that you had to wonder if it was a psychological issue driving him on.

Talk to any disabled or sick person right now and there is a word that crops up more than any other, a running thread central to what they are feeling. It is this: fear
Talk to any disabled or sick person right now and there is a word that crops up more than any other, a running thread central to what they are feeling. It is this: fear

Perhaps denied grief at the death of his disabled son. Bereavement affects us on an individual basis and there is no guarantee that it will manifest in logical ways.


So these cuts will now become law and, as a nation weeps, the details are sorrowful when applied to reality.


Here's an example. Any disabled or sick person who has been given more than six months to live - and is unable to financially support themselves - will be sent out to work. If they refuse, or back out of a scheme, then they will be subject to benefit sanctions.


This, it must be noted, is extraordinarily punishing towards disabled people when we consider how DWP boss, Chris Grayling, treats others involved in 'Workfare' type arrangements.


Consider, if you will, how he was forced to back-track last week following pressure from campaigners and businesses.  After a summit designed to get more businesses on board the Workfare bus, he announced that he would remove the threat of benefit sanctions for unemployed young people on job seeker allowance who drop out of the scheme.


Wow. In what world can young, fit people be given protection that we deny our most vulnerable? That's more suited to an Aldous Huxley script than real life.
Next up in the reforms will be an increase in multiple testing of patients, including those with Alzheimer's and Multiple Sclerosis, to see if they are fit for work. They will be tested repeatedly. It will cost a great deal of money to administer and it will wear already sick people to a pulp.
And as for children who dare to be born disabled, well that assistance previously available to them has been wiped out in Cameron's Armageddon on the poor. 


Sue Marsh, one of the co-authors of 'Responsible Reform - The Spartacus Report' - which launched a worthy counter-attack to the Coalition's WRB measures said: "We begged for £11 Million to protect profoundly disabled children into adulthood, but nuh-huh."


And yet we, as a nation, manage to find millions of pounds to pay Cameron's army of advisers and assessors including the allegedly fraudulent activities of back-to-work company A4E which was set up by the Coalition's 'families czar' Emma Harrison.


Could we consider this? If this is really a cost-cutting exercise to fill the billion pound deficit, when is the Coalition going to start from within? The DWP spend over 25 thousand pounds per month on travel, hotels and stationery - surely there is something that could be curbed there rather than taking 20% from disability which, according to their own figures, only has 0.5% of fraud.


I'm writing this and I'm struggling to believe it at the same time, which is quite a conflict.


With all this insistence of paid employment for the terminally ill (despite the fact that we have almost 3million unemployed) it is no wonder that job centres, up and down the land, have been issued with details on how to handle suicides in their establishments. Something, apparently, they are anticipating rather more of since the WRB was voted in.


I think the expression ‘you couldn’t make this up’ is appropriate here.


Perhaps the aim is to finish off the sick and disabled sooner rather than later. Well that way, at least, you get to save on the medical bills of our increasingly privatised National Health Service.


After all, what use are such people to our society?

There is a notion, false obviously, that disabled and sick people make no contribution and only ‘drain’ the system. What short-sightedness. Such a statement assumes that only paid work has social value.

Legacy: Will Cameron be remembered as the PM who attacked the sick and disabled of our country with a vehemence?
Legacy: Will Cameron be remembered as the PM who attacked the sick and disabled of our country with a vehemence?

What about other contributions including volunteer work - from charity shops to hospitals and schools? These roles are frequently staffed by disabled people, too.


Ironically, a number of disabled people will now be removed from such vital community roles and placed in a Workfare scheme - free labour to private businesses - so that they may mop floors, wash dishes or clean toilets. Ain't life grand?


Disabled people, like the majority of people, want to work but they also have to take account of how their illness or disability will affect their working life. Unlike the able-bodied and healthy, they do not know which turn their well-being will take when they wake in the morning. Whether they will be able to physically climb out of bed much less make it to the factory floor.


People on disability benefit are not living it up. If only. According to the group Family Action, some families survive on less than two pounds per day. Quite a contrast when you compare it to the Peers in the Lords who receive 300 a day just to show up and then get to enjoy smoked salmon in the tax-payer subsidised cafeteria (cost to the taxpayer is a mere 1.44million a year. bargain). Oh how the other half live.


So where will disabled and sick have to turn to now in their greatest hour of need? Well they can forget the Social Fund because that was viciously axed in these reforms, too.


For millions of people, a Social Fund loan - yes it was repayable, it wasn't a gift - was the difference between sleeping on a bed or a floor. The MP's who voted to banish this have no understanding of such destitution and poverty. Not while they are able to subsidise the purchase of their country mansions with their parliamentary expenses.


Defending himself: Ricky, seen here in a photo he posted onto his Twitter page, said he never meant to use the word 'mong' to mean Down Syndrome
There are those who openly mock the disabled: Ricky Gervais's 'mong' comment says more about him than anything else

People are already impoverished and it is certain to get worse. I read one online disability forum where a woman with breast cancer and liver disease didn't know where she was going to get the ten pound needed for travel to hospital for an appointment.


Unlike David and Samantha Cameron, who claimed Disability Living Allowance for their child - and absolutely did not need to - many disabled now must adjust to seriously reduced circumstances since Cameron attacked DLA in the reforms and will replace with the patently detrimental Personal Independence Payment (PIP).


The transfer from DLA to PIP will remove help from 25% of those in receipt of the benefit now, despite the fact that this is a benefit that helps some disabled people to stay in work.
And therein lies much of the problem with these reforms. They lack joined-up thinking. They don't appear to have been thought through to a satisfactory end.


Take for example the perception within the Coalition, the DWP and the care services that everyone has a spouse and family to fall back on but that is not the reality for many people.
As a consequence of these cuts, more disabled people will find themselves in bedsits, or hostels or on the streets. There is a significant proportion of people with mental health issues and learning difficulties who find themselves in this situation already and it is certain to increase.


Well then perhaps it's time to resurrect another part of our history - seeing as David Cameron is clearly following a Dickensian blueprint for our poor - the workhouse.  Yes, that testament to our proud, class-conscious society.


Talk to any disabled or sick person right now and there is a word that crops up more than any other, a running thread central to what they are feeling. It is this: fear.


Fear of losing their homes when they no longer have DLA to top up their Housing Benefit shortfall where, thanks to the previous Conservative Government, private rents are uncapped and extortionate. Fear of losing their carer because there will be no allowance for them. Fear of being bed-ridden for the lack of anyone to lend support. Fear of losing ramps and assistance to get in and out of the house. Cold fear that this feeling of being unwanted and excluded from society is how it is going to be for the rest of their days.

With all this insistence of paid employment for the terminally ill it is no wonder that job centers, up and down the land, have been issued with details on how to handle suicides in their establishmentsv

With all this insistence of paid employment for the terminally ill it is no wonder that job centers, up and down the land, have been issued with details on how to handle suicides in their establishments.

In internet circles, where many disabled campaigners congregate, names are bandied around of those who have committed suicide through fear of going cold and hungry and feeling that they are increasingly a burden to society.


At the last count there were some 103 names linked to such suicides and I have actually heard people say that they would consider suicide as a way out of this constant state of anxiety and despair.


What alarms me is how this dispassion towards people with disabilities appears to be spreading from the Coalition down.


There are commentators who openly deride disabled people (Rod Liddle's ill-informed and hate-inciting rhetoric - a type of drunk-sick on paper - in a tabloid was one, but he's not alone). There are also comedians who mock disability. Ricky Gervais' 'mong' impersonation surely says more about him than it does about anyone else (although to be fair, Ricky has since claimed this to be naivety and that he was unaware that the term was still used to describe disability).


There is also, according to recent figures, a 40 per cent increase in disabled attacks in the past year alone.  Hardly wonder when the general public are constantly being goaded with the idea that we are 'mugs for supporting scroungers'. Talk like that tends to breed resentment.
And then there's this. An occurrence that should serve to alarm us all.


The British Medical Journal published a paper from Oxford University don Francesca Minerva, a philosopher and medical ethicist, who argued that doctors should have the right to kill newborn babies including those born with disabilities because, according to Minerva, a young baby is not a real person and so killing it in the first days after birth is little different to aborting it in the womb.

But here's what gives me hope. Ever since last week's rubber stamping of the Welfare Reform Bill, disability campaigners have begun a serious fightback and are preparing, like an army, to overcome this wickedness that has been wrought on them.  Information is being compiled and exchanged, despite ill-health and disability I have never witnessed such a bank of people determined to overcome the odds piled on them.


Let us not forget, and despite the mainstream media's best efforts to convince us otherwise, this is not about the neighbor with the apparent bad back who plays golf at weekends (who can also be genuinely disabled but even disabilities allow for better days when activity can increase), but about some of the most horrendous acts against truly vulnerable people.


This may not affect you. Perhaps your parents, or yourself even, have a sufficient financial cushion not to worry about that. What an enviable position to be in.


But what about those less fortunate?


I believe - and I’ve 47 years of a colourful life to base this judgement on - that the UK is comprised of essentially decent people. Citizens who care enough to see beyond their own selfish existence.


The people I know don’t want to be - and neither are they - the type of people who turn their backs when the going gets tough. They actually seek a more compassionate life on earth where we are prepared to support and contribute to each others lives.


In is unconscionable that these disability reforms have been allowed to happen. To be fair, we all knew it was a Conservative agenda, but a Liberal one as well? Goodness how Nick Clegg can ever recover from this I do not know. My imagination is not that good.


So the Welfare Reform Bill, after decades in the making, has finally come to pass. Oh, how proud are we as a nation? We did it. Gave those sick and crippled unfortunates a good old kicking. Let’s give ourselves a collective pat on the back for allowing this to proceed. Makes you proud to be British, doesn't it?

More from Sonia Poulton...

Sonia Poulton

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Workfare: Privacy? What Right to Privacy? [reblogged]

One of the comments on my piece on Workfare, the DWP and Duty of Care raised a further alarming prospect, that DWP believe their right to impose Workfare takes precedence over a disabled person's legal right to privacy regarding their medical records.

The comment pointed out that a FOI request at the 'What do they Know' site contains the following statement by DWP:

Section 3 of the Social Security Act 1998 allows DWP to reuse personal information relating to social security and employment and training for another social security function. This includes reuse by persons providing services to DWP, such as Work Programme providers, where acting as the DWP's data processor.

In addition,
in order to carry out their functions under the Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme, the Work Programme provider may need additional personal information from the claimant. If the claimant does not wish to provide this information it may be the case that, with the provider, they can investigate ways in which they can still participate in the Scheme,  without the additional information being provided.

However, there may
come a point when the Work Programme provider becomes concerned that the claimant’s withholding of information potentially amounts to non-participation in the Scheme. If this is the case, they will refer the matter to a decision maker who will consider all the facts of the case, including any good cause issues the claimant wishes to raise, and determine whether the claimant has failed to participate. If the decision maker considers that the claimant has failed to participate, their benefit will be sanctioned.

Now the first paragraph is disturbing enough, but clearly falls within the legal powers granted to DWP, however the second and third paragraphs are particularly troubling, both in general and specifically for disabled people, as they seem to show the DWP taking the position that they can insist that any information they feel relevant is provided under threat of sanction, even where that insistence is counter to a disabled person's rights under the Equality and Data Protection Acts..

A disabled person when considering an employment position is forced into the iniquitous position of having to decide whether or not to reveal their disability. Declare your disability and you have the protection of the Equality Act when requesting a reasonable adjustment, but declaring your disability also opens you to the threat of discrimination. Equally there may be considerable privacy issues wrapped up in information that could be relevant to Duty of Care issues, as examples mental health issues, continence and epilepsy all draw considerable negative opinions, if not outright discrimination, in contemporary society.

When we face a new job, disabled people face a whole additional set of decisions over and above non-disabled people: do we declare, if we do declare, then how much of the extent of our disability do we declare, and how widely do we allow that knowledge to be spread. The Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act before it provide specific protections for disabled people, we cannot be penalised for not declaring (though we have to declare to make the reasonable adjustment provisions enforceable) and we can insist that the details of our disability are not spread to people other than those we declare to. So for instance, I could declare my disability to HR, but insist that my line managers are told nothing more than that I am disabled and can legally request reasonable adjustments. If those provisions are breached. particularly in instances where that data is passed to other organisations entirely, then I can bring legal action against my employer for violations of both the Equality Act and the Data Protection Act.

The DWP statement above appears to attempt to subvert those rights, by stating that they can insist that information is provided to the Workfare provider, no matter that the Equality Act gives disabled people a right in law to insist that it is not, no matter that the Workfare provider is not an employer in any normal sense. Given the overwhelming disablism in recruitment decisions that disabled people face, forcing people to reveal details of their disabilities is actually going to undermine any chance of them getting a job out of the mandated assignment, the overwhelming advice from recruitment consultants is not to reveal disability until you have the written offer of a full time job in your hand. So DWP are actually shooting the whole point of the exercise in the foot by forcing declaration of disability. Worse than this, however, is the way it tramples over the right of disabled people to maintain privacy around the details of their disability. If I am being forced against my will into some utterly inappropriate position,  with an utterly inappropriate company, a company whose data protection measures I have no confidence in and with whom I have no hope of a job at the end of it (and we've seen plenty of those reportedly involved with Workfare), then there is no way that I am willing to provide them with the full details of my disability, and I will be far from the only disabled person to feel that way. It will particularly be a problem for people with Mental Health issues, who are likely to be particularly frightened of being forced to declare details of their disability, and where there is already considerable evidence of them being deliberately targeted as 'an easy mark' for sanctions by JCP staff.

Workfare alone is bad enough, but to combine it with an contempt for the right to privacy of the people with most to lose from privacy and data protection violations, and to do so in apparent contempt for the protections granted by the Equality Act and the Data Protection Act, suggests that this is just one more piece of evidence that DWP consider themselves above such menial issues as the law, particularly laws relating to equality and discrimination.


List of Work Programme subcontractors February 2011

Corporate Network for Corporate slaves

Below we have a full listing of work programme subcontractors as of February 2011 which we have put together, which includes the Citizens Advice Bureau which will advise everyone who comes for advice in the realm of the work programmes to do as they are told its the law, to do anything other would be to act against its own interests. We also find a plethora of colleges[1] 89 in number, and councils[2] which of course will support the work programme dogma to its pupils and for the council, against the taxpayers who they aim to move in a manner which funds there network of slavery.

Click  below images to enlarge, from left to right :


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Workfare Duty of Care: DWP Don't Care.... [reblogged]

A recent Freedom of Information request seems to raise huge concerns over whether the Department of Work and Pensions accept that they have a legal Duty of Care with respect to benefit claimants forced onto mandatory Workfare placements. With DWP intent on implementing new policies which will see disabled people in the ESA WRAG being forced onto indefinite mandatory Workfare placements under threat of sanctions, never mind all of the complexity, risk and privacy concerns that disability adds to the existing Workfare farrago, this is obviously hugely concerning.

The DWP have apparently stated "If however, a work placement is considered appropriate then the responsibilities of the individual, the provider and the organisation accepting the placement must be discussed and made clear (including liability)." and pointed their respondent at the generic guidelines for workfare, which state "All participants involved in any way with DWP Provision are entitled to train and work in a healthy and safe environment with due regard to their welfare. Under Health and Safety Law they are regarded as your employees, whether they are paid by you or not. You must, therefore, comply with your Duty of Care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Act’s associated regulations in the same way as you would do for any other member of your workforce"

This may seem quite responsible on the surface, however the implications are anything but. The Workfare situation is an unusual one, in which people are being forced to work by (or is it 'for'?) a government agency, the DWP, at a private contractors, while the DWP pay them benefits - which of course amounts to people being forced, under threat of having their benefits stopped entirely for anything up to three years, to work for less than the national minimum wage. Under normal circumstances the person paying your wages would be considered your employer, no matter where you were working. So if I work for Company A, but they send me to work at Company B, then both Company A and Company B would have a Duty of Care towards me, Company A because I am their employee and they have a legal responsibility to ensure that I am not exposed to unnecessary risk wherever I am, and Company B because they have a similar responsibility towards anyone on their premises. Yet DWP seem to be denying that they have the Duty of Care towards me that would normally descend from me being their employee. They also seem to be insisting on a process which would require the disabled person to fully reveal details of their disability to a company they are being forced to work for, in order to allow a risk assessment, no matter the privacy concerns of forcing someone to reveal full details of disability to an organisation for whom they not an employee.

This would be worrying enough for anyone in any circumstances, but for a disabled person dealing with the DWP it is a recipe ripe for disaster. The Workfare process involves someone, either from Job Centre Plus or one of their providers, such as the much castigated A4e (facing two more probes for fraud just this week), deciding that the benefit claimant would be helped by a work placement - or at least that is the spin on it, there is a considerable body of evidence pointing at JCP and contractors like A4e being very heavily target-driven, with JCP employees under massive pressure from management to hit targets such as number of people sanctioned per week, which whistleblowers have revealed means they are driven to target people with intellectual and mental disabilities as 'easy marks'. Now extend that pattern of behaviour to Workfare, and we will undoubtedly see large numbers of disabled people being forced onto Workfare not because it is in their interest, or appropriate for their disability, but because the JCP employee will be bawled out by their manager if she doesn't mandate another dozen crips before the end of the week, or because the training agency employee will miss a bonus if their figures aren't better than the rest of the office's...

I've dealt with JCP Disability Employment Advisors and training agency employees from the benefit claimant's position, a more clueless bunch of people about disability employment it would be difficult to imagine. The JCP staff persistently pushed the boundaries of what my disability allowed me to do, if I could do something for 10 minutes, they would write down 30, and then persistently try to undermine that at every other meeting. The training agency people (once I'd climbed the rickety outside staircase to their office - god help me if I'd arrived with a wheelchair not crutches....) knew so little about privacy and data protection that they saw nothing wrong in asking me to discuss the intimitate details of my disability while the gentleman sat immediately behind me was discussing his drug problem. Do either of these sound like organisations likely to give the necessary weight to the complexities of disability, or to their Duty of Care - especially if they seem to believe that Duty of Care doesn't apply in the first place?

When I was working I regularly ended up curled up in pain on the office floor because of my inability to sit for extended periods, Duty of Care can potentially be something as basic as recognising that someone cannot even sit at a desk, but how much recognition and understanding are we going to see when showing those may mean a bollocking in the manager's office, or a missed bonus? And if basic physical constraints are so readily targetted for undermining, what chance does someone with complex mental health issues have.

I thought this was scary when it was just the prospect of DEAs or A4e employees mandating disabled people onto indefinite Workfare assignments under threat of sanction, but if they don't even think they have a Duty of Care towards us....