Friday, June 22, 2012

'I'm being punished because of my health' [Guardian video]

Human cost of welfare reform: 'I'm being punished because of my health'

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Jobcentre bosses warn of suicide risk among benefit claimants

An internal email sent by senior managers warns that ill-handling of benefit changes could have 'profound results' for vulnerable claimants

Senior jobcentre executives have warned staff of the risk of benefit claimants attempting suicide as controversial changes to sickness benefits are being pushed through.

The warning, contained in an internal email sent to staff by three senior managers of the government-run jobcentres, warns staff that ill-handling of benefit changes for vulnerable claimants could have "profound results" and highlights the case of one suicide attempt this year.

It emphasises the need for the "utmost care and sensitivity" when dealing with customers, as a result of "difficult changes which some of our more vulnerable customers may take some time to accept and adjust to".

The email, adds: "Very sadly, only last week a customer of DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] attempted suicide" – which it adds is "said to be the result of receiving a letter" informing him that his sickness benefit would be cut off.

The memo will crystallise concerns among charities, campaigners and medical professionals over the impact of welfare reforms on the mental health of some of Britain's most vulnerable people.

Disability campaigners privately warned ministers last year that flaws in the work capability assessment, would lead to some mentally ill people taking their own lives. But they said they were accused by ministers of scaremongering.

Neil Coyle of the charity Disability Rights UK, said: "The government is cutting direct support for thousands of disabled people and using a process to do so which is unfit for purpose. The assessment process for out of work benefits needs urgent improvement to ensure genuine needs are identified properly and to avoid further tragic consequences.

"We and our members warned the government – and DWP especially – of the impact of cuts in support but the problem has been swept under the carpet in the rush to deliver cuts in welfare expenditure. Numbers on a balance sheet have been considered more important than the lived reality of disabled people sadly."

The memo was sent in late April, days before the controversial change of time-limiting contributions-based employment and support allowance was introduced, which will see thousands of sickness benefit claimants with a working partner or some savings lose up to £91 a week in support.

The email sent to jobcentre staff emphasises the importance of being "empathetic" with vulnerable clients, "taking the time to properly understand their circumstances … and talking through their options or signposting them to other sources of support/advice". It adds: "The consequences of getting this wrong can have profound results."

The Rutherglen and Hamilton West Labour MP Tom Greatrex said: "The DWP should take seriously the potential impact its decisions can have on people's lives.

"The 'one size fits all' nature of the work capability assessment is at the root of the problem. A crude computer test of fitness to work leaves little room for a consideration of the affect on mental health.

"It's not just those with pre-existing mental health problems who are at risk. People suffering from conditions such as Parkinson's and cancer find themselves in distressing situations, with added anxiety caused by these tests. At a time when they need help, too often they feel they are being hounded."

A DWP spokesperson said: "It remains rare to find incidents of self-harm where the benefits system is said to have been a factor, but we are not complacent when it comes to ensuring that our staff can provide the right support and help to those affected.

"We ensure our staff are highly trained and ready to help people, however vulnerable they may be and whatever pressures they face.

"We have worked hard – and continue to do so – to improve the way the work capability assessment works for those with mental health issues, but it is right to reform the welfare system. The old incapacity benefits system let down too many people by simply writing them off to a life on benefits, which did nothing for their wellbeing."

But the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, which represents Jobcentre Plus staff, says that they feel ill-equipped to deal with the volume of work, vulnerable claimants and cutbacks.

One jobcentre telephone adviser told the Guardian that the change had been handled "abysmally" and that they feel ill-equipped and "helpless" when talking to distraught customers on the phone, who are phoning up to ask about other options.

"A lot of them are very distressed. They are asking us what to do … how are they supposed to live. And there's nowhere else we can signpost them to, there's literally nowhere for them to go."

Several coroners' reports into suicides have mentioned benefits decisions as a contributory factor, but ministers have always been careful to avoid acknowledging a link.

The Guardian has spoken to dozens of benefits workers and recipients as part of an investigation into the problems faced by Britons living on the breadline and identified three separate cases of attempted suicide among people where changes to their benefits appeared to have been a factor. Several others claimed to have felt suicidal.

Speaking in the Commons recently, the employment minister, Chris Grayling, said: "We will always look very, very carefully indeed where something like that happens. So far my experience is that the story is much more complicated. But that does not mean we are not doing the right thing.

"I passionately believe that we should be helping [people], particularly those with mental health problems. I have met people who have been out of work for years and years and years with chronic depression who we are now beginning to help back into work. We have got to be very careful but we do look very carefully when those situations arise."


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How many more disabled people will die frightened that their benefits will be taken away?

Karen Sherlock faced endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms - all as she battled to survive.

Karen Sherlock's Twitter page.
Karen Sherlock's Twitter page

I’m a disability campaigner. I’m not sure I ever set out to be – indeed that anyone does – but that is what I became.

You may have read some of the reasons here. Perhaps you’ve skimmed a few articles on ESA - the Employment & Support Allowance - tutted a shocked tut at cancer patients on chemotherapy sent to the job centre to find work. Perhaps you’ve sat open mouthed at the idea of one of the richest nations on earth arguing over just how terminally ill you need to be to get the gracious sum of £96 per week to survive with at least some dignity.

Maybe you heard that this government believes that for almost all conditions, one year is now considered enough to find work. You may have heard Chris Grayling, the Work and Pensions minister, tell you that it doesn’t matter whether people are better, or if they have found work, we simply can’t afford them any more. Their benefits will be stopped if they have a partner who earns just £7,500 a year or more.

You may have heard of this blind, deaf, tube-fed, non verbal, disabled man deemed fit for work by the DWP, or Jan Morgan, unable to look after herself after a severe stroke yet also told she must seek work. You may have heard of very many others. You may even have found these stories hard to believe. I’m not sure that I would blame you. For if we believe these stories, where do they leave us? Where do they leave claims that we are “protecting the most vulnerable”?

But today, I want to tell you about Karen Sherlock, because she was my friend.

Karen was extremely unwell. Here, in Karen’s own words are her medical conditions:
I urge you all to read this post, written by Karen just two months ago. It details a process many of us who are sick or disabled know all too well. Apply for ESA, get “assessed” by Atos, the private company charged with making these life or death decisions, get turned down for ESA, found “fit for work” or put in the wrong group, appeal decision, win tribunal, get a new letter demanding you attend another assessment, repeat the entire process until you despair, ground down by the misery.
My ESA is being stopped……………
Now, I have turned over in my mind how they can do this to me. 
Where it is going to leave us money-wise and what we can do about it? The answer is;  I don’t know. 
I am not entitled to a penny more due to having a husband that works too many hours and brings in too much money. I am worried and frightened, I do not see how they can just snatch this away from me. I am chronically ill and I am never going to get better, not even with the transplant will I feel better, all my conditions cannot be magically cured.
Karen faced all of this as she battled just to survive. Endless pressure, the judgement of society, the fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant assessments and endless forms. She was one of those who’s ESA was time-limited - and what’s more, it was limited retrospectively, leaving her with just a few months to appeal for long term support.

What I want to tell you today is that she was frightened. Terrified in fact. She was terrified of the DWP, almost paralysed by a fear that if she spoke out, they would treat her even more harshly. But she spoke out regardless.

She was scared for her future, scared for her family. She had no idea how they would survive when she lost the little support they relied on. Her husband works, cares for a sick wife and they had “done the right thing”. Do you hear me Ian Duncan Smith? David Cameron? Nick Clegg? Ed Miliband? Her family had done the “right thing”, at least in your narrow world of workers and shirkers.

Despite her own terror, she tried to tell her country, her peers, her friends - even journalists - what was happening to her and thousands like her, but shocked tuts didn’t save her. Open mouths and disgust didn’t save Karen; they didn’t save my friend. Perhaps no one could have, but those who hold and abuse power could have eased her fear or reassured her that they would act.

Karen died on June 8 from a suspected heart attack. I’ll leave you with her own words, from the end of her final post on April 29:

“We need to be passionate about standing up for our rights, and if we can make enough noise, and get enough people to listen then we can overturn the inhumane changes this parasitic government have made.  If nothing else, we do still have hope and our rights on our side.”

Will we listen? Will Karen’s story be the one to convince us that enough is enough? Or will we turn a blind eye, continue to look away?

I hope not. There are dangerous historical precedents.

Sue Marsh is a writer and disability campaigner. She blogs at


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Owen Jones, author of 'Chavs - the demonization of the working class'

Dr Joe Bennett, Lecturer at the University of Birmingham's Centre for English Language Study, introduces Owen Jones, author of 'Chavs - the demonization of the working class' in an event at Waterstones, New Street, Birmingham.