Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sick and disabled being pushed off benefits at any costs

As Panorama showed, the pressure on medical assessors to declare sickness benefits claimants fit for work is immense

Chris Grayling
Employment minister Chris Grayling told the BBC 'there are no targets anywhere in the system'.

Viewers of last night's Panorama programme, Disabled or Faking it?, may have been shocked by the story of Stephen Hill, the man who died of a heart attack 39 days after he was declared fit to work by a government contractor and subsequently denied sickness benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). But for those of us who have been voicing serious concerns about the government's changes to employment support allowance (ESA), the story was met with both exasperation and frustrating familiarity.

A parliamentary question found that 31 people have died in the three years to last October while appealing against decisions that they were able to work. Panorama also revealed that between January and August last year, on average 32 people died every week who the government had declared could be helped back into work in the medium term.

To receive ESA, the new incapacity benefit, the vast majority of claimants have to pass a working capability assessment (WCA) – a short medical test carried out by government contractor Atos Healthcare. The WCA is so consistently failing to recognise those who are in dire need of support that it is hard to understand why society is not in uproar. The cost to the government alone is staggering. Appeals against incorrect WCA decisions are costing £50m a year, with tribunals having to sit on Saturdays and increase staff by 30% to deal with the backlog. Appeals find in favour of the claimant in at least 30% of cases, according to the government's own statistics – although Neil Bateman, a welfare adviser featured on Panorama, believes this rises to a staggering 80-90% if the appellant seeks the help of an experienced adviser.

With such high costs to the taxpayer to manage the assessment and appeal process plus the health implications to those British citizens left abandoned by the government when they are most in need of help, the coalition must find a commonsense approach to the ESA.

Firstly, it needs to be open about the allegation that the government and/or Atos have been set targets to minimise the number of people that can be found incapable of work. The DWP and Atos Healthcare both gave firm rebuttals to this allegation by both Panorama and Dispatches, which also aired a programme last night looking into the same issue of sickness benefit. The employment minister, Chris Grayling, told the BBC that "there are no targets anywhere in the system", although the government refused to allow the broadcaster to see the full contract it holds with Atos.

But both programmes uncovered a system in which assessors would be put on "targeted audit" if they were found to put too many people into the "support group" of ESA, with Dispatches uncovering that only about 12-13% of people should be found unable to do any work at all. Steve Bick, the doctor working undercover in Atos for Dispatches, said that of the eight cases he dealt with before resigning, he was asked by Atos hierarchy to review his decision on four of them. As one assessor put it in Panorama, such a system "creates a feeling there are indeed targets". If we are to believe the government's statement that targets are not set, then something is clearly going wrong between the instructions given to Atos by the DWP and the spirit with which they are implemented by assessors on the ground.

Moreover, with Atos's government contract valued at £100m a year, it is reasonable to expect it to have some financial accountability for the high rate of successful appeals. However, Dispatches revealed this isn't the case. As one Atos trainer states: "The thing for us is, even if you made the wrong decision … you never go to the tribunal. So, sort of, you won't be blamed."

The medical test in its current form isn't fit for purpose, and the government's contract with Atos Healthcare isn't providing the value for money that taxpayers deserve. It is reasonable that the government suspends its relentless reassessment of 11,000 sickness benefits claimants every week until practical changes can be made to the medical test that protect the genuinely sick and disabled.

Yet, in a worrying development, professor Malcolm Harrington, shown criticising the WCA in last night's Panorama programme, was removed from his post yesterday as an independent adviser to the government on the WCA. He insists he hasn't been sacked, but the move will add to concerns by leading charities and 44,000 GPs that the government has little interest in listening to critics of the WCA. Perhaps the greatest concern raised by the two programmes is how committed the government is to making changes to a system that Grayling believes is providing "tough love". In research released last week by the Institute for Employment Studies, carried out on behalf of the DWP, 25% of ESA claimants that had been found fit to work are neither back in employment nor receiving benefits – a statistic the DWP seems unconcerned by.

It is this government's laissez faire attitude to whether those thrown off sickness benefits are able to move into the workplace that makes campaigners believe that underlying the harshness of this medical test is a desire to reduce the welfare bill at any cost. No wonder sick and disabled people throughout the country live in real fear of when the next brown envelope from the DWP will drop through their door.


Record numbers of anti-depressants prescribed in 2011. Politicians to blame

Record numbers of anti-depressants (46,000,000) were prescribed in 2011. Politicians are to blame.

The current economic model we live under does not work. Insolvencies have grown by nearly 600% since the first day Tony Blair entered Number 10 Downing Street. More than 600,000 are set to bankrupt under the Tories, and that by no means excuses the million who went bankrupt under New Labour. In addition, the majority of jobs created since 1979 were part-time hours. This economic model provides low wages, short hours and unsustainable consumer debt levels. For those in full time hours, they work too long. Instead of switching to family friendly weeks of 35 hours for those who wish to avail of them, we in the UK have the third longest working week in Europe at more than 42 hours per full-time worker. On top of that we have an ailing transport network that means many parents spend as much time commuting to work as they actually do in it. All of this puts pressure on healthy eating, healthy family life and healthy finances. It causes stress and depression. 

That is why the graph above, I am very sad to say, comes as no surprise to me whatsoever. In England, doctors prescribed more than 46,000,000 courses of anti-depressants last year. This is a 50%+ increase in just 5 years on the levels of anti-depressants prescribed in 2006. This record number of anti-depressants prescribed should signal a warning to all of our political leaders that the work life balance needs to be tackled and that we need a more sustainable economic model.  Some may also argue, correctly in my view, that it highlights the urgency of investing, not cutting, more money in alternative treatments. In Olympics week if politicians are serious about creating a genuine Olympics Legacy (they are not), they should consider free gym membership for any person diagnosed with mental health problems. Exercise is no panacea but many with mental health problems will testify that  it helped them achieve greater control over their mental health difficulties. A sad day, that requires us all of reflect upon the type of society we wish to live in.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Double suicide after ATOS ‘​fit for work’​ test

The death of a young woman who killed herself after being found “fit for work” is the latest proof of the catastrophic consequences of the government’s cuts to disability benefits and services, say campaigners.

The mother of the young woman – from London – also killed herself, just 24 hours after hearing of her daughter’s death earlier this month.

Paula, a disabled activist from south London and a friend of the young woman, took part in a protest and lobby of parliament this week that had been organised by the grassroots campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Birmingham dad dies after being ruled ‘fit for work’

Article by -Anuji Varma, Birmingham Mail

A BIRMINGHAM dad died from a serious heart condition – weeks after Government  assessors stopped his benefits and ruled he was fit for work.

Paul  Turner, 52, from Erdington, was ordered to find a job in February following a  medical review with doctors.

But he died on April 2 from ischaemic heart  disease – caused, his family claim, by the stress of losing his  benefits.

The dad-of-one was medically retired from his job as a stores manager for  West Midlands Travel in 2000 after he suffered a heart attack. He later had to  undergo a double bypass because of the condition.

Mr Turner, who also had angina, was claiming around £400 per month incapacity  benefit until he was called in for a review at the Midlands Disability Benefits  Centre in Five Ways in January.

Three weeks later he received a letter stating he was not entitled to the new  Employment and Support Allowance, the controversial new payment that has  replaced Incapacity Benefit.

On April 2 Mr Turner flew to France for a short family holiday with his wife  and teenage son. Later that evening he suffered heart failure and died.

His death certificate recorded the cause as ischaemic heart disease, a  condition which also cost the lives of his father and grandfather.

Mr Turner’s widow was too upset to speak about the case, but she is  continuing his appeal to prove he was unfit for work.

But his devastated mum Sheila, 76, said: “We believe the claim he was fit to  work brought on his death. He was very upset and worried that he would fail any  medical given to him by a potential employer.

“He also thought the officials believed he was a fraud who should not have  been claiming this benefit in the first place.

“But Paul was a very proud man. He was entitled to claim more through the  system, but he didn’t.”

During the medical assessment Mr Turner’s family claim he did not undergo any  physical tests, which could have picked up problems with his heart.

Mum-of-three Sheila added: “The observations of the healthcare professional  were based on dialogue as the only two tests performed involved Paul either  sitting in a chair or kneeling on a chair.

“They just asked questions about how long he could sit for, and looked at his  back and hips.

“When Paul was told of the decision he was distraught. He didn’t know how he  would explain the 12-year gap of not working to any employers. And he was  worried about what people would think.”

Last night, a Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “Our sympathy  goes out to Mr Turner’s family during what is obviously a very difficult  time.

‘‘The work capability assessment is just that – an assessment of what, if  any, work a person could undertake.

‘‘Jobcentre Plus decision makers look at all available information, including  any medical evidence, to support their claim.”


Cruel welfare system is steadily crushing lives – where is the anger?

This cruel welfare system is steadily crushing lives – where is the anger?

No one seems to be concerned that hugely profitable private firms are forcing thousands into borderline destitution

John Harris
, Tuesday 3 July 2012 08.30 BST 

Emma Harrison
The former chair of A4e, Emma Harrison, 'who last year paid herself a dividend of £8.6m'. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

If you want a sobering flavour of where Britain is heading, set aside banking, the Leveson inquiry, our relationship with Europe and whatever else – and consider a Guardian story by Patrick Butler that appeared last week. It was about food banks, the charitable set-ups that supply emergency parcels to people who have fallen between society's cracks. FareShare, a charity that sits at the heart of all this, says it is experiencing "ridiculous growth" in demand, and expects that trend to continue for at least five years; over the last 12 months, it claims to have sent out 8.6m meals.

Spend any time around a food bank – and I have, in Inverness and Liverpool – and it quickly becomes clear that their core constituency is based around two groups of people: refugees who have either recently arrived in the UK or opted to go underground; and people who have suddenly had their benefits stopped.

Thanks to the increasingly cruel regime that now applies to benefits – which, we now know, David Cameron wants to make yet crueller – the latter seem to be increasing in number by the week, pushed into their predicament by a system that can summarily ruin lives, but offer only the most sluggish remedies by way of appeal. By and large, they remain invisible, but their fate is starting to intrude on the news media: last week, a man set himself alight outside a Birmingham jobcentre, reportedly thanks to a "dispute over benefit payments", an episode that occurred just as the Guardian was revealing rising concerns about suicides among people faced with so-called benefits "sanctions". For an intimate picture of the misery and anxiety that lies behind all this, have a look at this film by my colleague John Domokos, partly centred on a family reduced to fretting over their last dregs of electricity, and apparently surviving on a diet founded on budget baked beans. The benefits system refuses to understand that one of them is a carer, whose obligations to his ill wife mean that he cannot always make his appointments at the jobcentre.

Which brings us to revelations that appeared over the weekend, and the latest news about the government's increasingly brutal welfare-to-work drive. Thanks to research by Corporate Watch and an article in the Observer, we know that the private companies involved in the Observer, we know that the private companies involved in the government's Work Programme have been pushing for unbelievable numbers of people to have their benefits cut, aiming at figures that even the ever-more stringent Jobcentre Plus regime has refused to sign off. Meanwhile, there's a clear sense that in the context of a flatlining economy, the Work Programme's targets – indeed, its entire logic – are proving impossible: the scheme's core presumptions were based on economic growth of over 2%, and a revived job market. Given their non-appearance, the companies involved look they're getting desperate, and in the absence of any convincing carrot, frantically reaching for the stick.

In the context of the firms' returns, all this leaves an impossibly nasty taste. The best example is the welfare-to-work outfit A4e. This year, it has been blitzed with all those allegations of fraud; I've also reported on allegations of a "champagne culture", company events held in upscale foreign locations, and the dizzying lifestyle led by its former chair and public face, Emma Harrison, who last year paid herself a dividend of £8.6m. And what apparently lies at the heart of all this opulence, and the activities of a firm that claims to be "social purpose company" with "one sole aim, to improve people's lives around the world"? Over six months, 10,000 requests were made for its "customers" to have their benefits cut, of which only 3,000 were granted by Jobcentre Plus. Similar statistics for other companies abound: Working Links referred nearly 12,000 cases for sanctions, Serco managed just over 9,000, and G4s came in at 7,780. Such is the upshot of the stock warning that appears on most of the correspondence sent to Work Programme participants: "If you do not attend this appointment, your benefits could be affected." And how.

This is yet another one of those stories that come with a head-spinning sense of how much Britain has changed, under this government and its predecessor. Rewind 15 years, and imagine the spectacle of hugely profitable private firms pushing for thousands of people to be propelled into borderline destitution: the result would have been acres of coverage, and molten anger. And now? Even backbench Lib Dems are predictably silent, and Labour restricts its criticisms of a system it invented to technocratic hand-wringing, focused not on any kind of moral outrage, but whether everything's working, and how much it all might cost ("Chaos at DWP is stalling the government's reforms … the welfare bill is going through the roof" was the response to Cameron's welfare proposals of Liam Byrne, a man for whom the adjective "blank" might have been invented). Even the trade unions are bizarrely quiet. The reality is something to which mainstream politics cannot admit, and which bumps up against a cross-party accent on welfare being the last resort of malingerers: that people are living in fear and going hungry, and a cold state machine seems to have been designed to put them there.

Now, incidentally, we hear word that that plenty of police officers are of the opinion that last year's riots could easily be repeated. One hesitates, of course, to be alarmist. But as more and more people feel the cruelties of a policy that makes no sense – that people must be kicked into work, even if jobs don't exist – has anyone considered that the two things might be connected?