The welfare system has taken another hit today via a ‘benefits crackdown’ in Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement. Since the ‘welfare reform’ of 2007, disabled people have been on the receiving end of these dehumanising and punishing policies that make people out as ‘undeserving’, prioritise work over people, and make life unlivable.
But we now have evidence the Department for Work and Pensions (DPW) knows its policies kill people. It has been repeatedly warned of this fact and has even confirmed it in its own research.
It took years of campaigning by disabled people to uncover this evidence, which largely comes in the form of DWP reviews into deaths of claimants.
Now it has been brought together as part of the Deaths by Welfare project at Healing Justice London. Since 2021, journalist John Pring and I have been creating a timeline – co-produced with disabled people – showing the links between welfare policy and disabled people’s deaths.
It also shows that not only is there often a delay between the introduction of a policy and the brutal impact it has on people’s lives, but that delay tactics are central to DWP’s weaponisation of time as a strategy to avoid accountability.
To make matters worse, most families of those who have died do not even know if a review has been carried out into their loved one’s death because the DWP has always argued this is private information – an argument found by an Information Rights Tribunal to be an error in law – and can’t be shared, not even with families.
The first family to see an IPR was Philippa Day’s. Philippa, known as Pip, took her own life in 2019 after her disability benefits were stopped.
In January 2021, the coroner at the inquest into Philippa’s death found 28 separate “problems” with the administration of the Personal Independent Payment (PIP) system contributed to her death – concluding these were not individual errors by DWP and its private sector contractor Capita but systemic flaws.
Pip’s sister Imogen told us, in an interview for the Deaths by Welfare podcast, that seeing the IPR “silenced my night-time questions, right before I was going to sleep… It made it incredibly clear that we as a family had done everything that we could have done, and that it was a governmental system that had let her down”.
“I really feel for families that still don’t have answers,” she said.
And Pip is not alone. It would later come to light, after a sustained (and continuing) Freedom of Information battle, that between 2014 and 2022, the DWP carried out approximately 220 of these reviews – formerly called peer reviews, now internal process reviews (IPRs).
After finally obtaining redacted versions of some of these, we found evidence of persistent and systemic issues across welfare policy, and evidence that welfare policy is life-threatening. The reviews also contained hundreds of recommendations, which the DWP has admitted having no system for tracking.
What makes DWP reviews into what it calls the ‘death of a customer’ important is that they are (supposedly) tools through which the DWP investigates the harms of its own policies. And yet, they are designed and carried out in a way that systemically hides any state accountability. And delays in releasing the reviews is another way the department can avoid being held accountable.
What we have discovered has been learnt slowly, largely through a mixture of FOIs, parliamentary questions, queries to the DWP press office and documents released through court cases or inquests. Many of the FOIs have been submitted by Disability News Service over the last nine years.
An investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) on the information the DWP holds on benefit claimants who ended their lives by suicide, found the DWP does not identify patterns between people’s deaths, meaning that “systemic issues which might be brought to light through these reviews could be missed”.
The NAO also found access to the reports is restricted to the team handling them and the recommendations are not tracked or monitored, meaning the DWP “does not know whether the suggested improvements are implemented”.
These recommendations include repeated warnings that policies to assess people for out-of-work disability benefits were putting the lives of “vulnerable” claimants (likely to be mostly people with mental health conditions or learning difficulties) at risk.
Yes, the DWP’s own investigations were identifying policies as potentially life-threatening. The IPRs also showed a recurring pattern of staff failure to follow DWP’s suicide guidance, which was introduced in 2009.
Tactics used to delay the release of information include claims by the DWP that the time required to collect data, due to lack of centralised record-keeping, was too costly and not in the public interest.
This was used under Thérèse Coffey to block requests about how many inquests relating to benefits claimants who died by suicide her department had submitted evidence to, as well as requests to find out how many inquests had ruled DWP policies were partly responsible for the deceased person’s state of mind. In both of these cases, the information wasn’t shared due to “disproportionate cost”.
These reviews should be publicly available by default, and the DWP should be held publicly accountable to making the changes required.
Yet it may be that the IPR process is by design unable to apprehend government accountability in people’s deaths. IPR findings and recommendations come from within the system that kills people, and therefore may never be enough for full accountability or justice. While some ascribe people’s deaths to flaws in a system that needs reform, others see them as endemic to a system that needs dismantling and creating anew, with disabled people, and the analysis developed through lived experience, at the core.
Tory Chancellor Jeremy Hunt uses Autumn budget to back bosses and attack the most vulnerable
TAX cuts for business while squeezing the most vulnerable are at the heart of the Tory re-election strategy, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement revealed today.
The Chancellor focused on placating angry Conservative activists but offered little to millions struggling with the cost-of-living crisis in slow-growth Britain.
He took particularly aim at benefit claimants suffering sickness or disability with draconian measures designed to force them off welfare if they do not accept jobs that may be either unsuitable or non-existent.
Mr Hunt said that if, after seeking a job for 18 months, a claimant has still not found work they will have to take part in a compulsory work placement and if they “choose not to engage with the work search process for six months, we will close their case and stop their benefits.”
Clearly showing the class nature of his calculations, Mr Hunt boasted that he was ordering “the biggest business tax cut in modern British history” by making permanent a 25 per cent tax deduction for companies that invest in plant and equipment.
In other business-ordered moves, he extended tax relief on firms in special freeports or investment zones, which are themselves to be increased in number.
Desperate to revive the Tories’ bleak electoral prospects, the Chancellor surprised MPs by ordering a 2 per cent cut in employee National Insurance payments, to 10 per cent, which will save the average employee around £450 a year.
Nevertheless, the overall tax take in the British economy is still heading towards a post-war high of 37.7 per cent of GDP, according to the Office for Budget responsibility (OBR).
This blog has featured articles by Morning Star often. Morning Star is imposing a paywall system in an apparently inconsistent manner so that it is uncertain whether this blog will continue featuring it’s articles. 24/11/23 No further Morning Star articles will be featured unless they are accessible without charge. Paywalls are avoided for myself and this blog’s audience.
Millions of people in the UK are unable to meet their most basic physical needs: to stay warm, dry, clean and fed. This is known as destitution.
Recent analysis from charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) estimates that around 3.8 million people in the UK experienced destitution at some point during 2022. This is a 61% increase since 2019 – and a 148% increase since 2017.
Living in destitution means severe material hardship. The JRF’s 2022 survey of crisis service users in the UK found that 61% reported going without food in the month before the survey. They often put other needs, such as accommodation or feeding their children, over feeding themselves.
About half of the people surveyed were not able to afford adequate clothing and basic necessities, such as toiletries. Many talked of living in insecure and low quality housing.
One particularly alarming aspect of these most recent statistics is the steep increase in the number of children living in destitution. In 2022, around 1 million children lived in households who experienced destitution. This is an increase of 88% since the charity’s corresponding 2019 study, and a 186% increase since the 2017 study.
Impact on children
Destitution causes immediate suffering. But for these children, this experience of hardship at a young age will have consequences that last throughout their lives. There is little doubt that both money and environment (housing quality, parental mental health and nutrition, for example) contribute to inequalities in child development. Both of these factors are affected by living in destitution.
When children reach the age of three, stark differences are already evident between those who live in poverty and those who do not. Children from more well-off families have better developed skills in both cognitive tasks, such as understanding basic concepts like colours, letters, numbers and shapes, as well as socio-emotional skills, such as self-control and resilience.
Other factors that are important in shaping children’s skills include housing quality and parental mental health.
Inequalities so early in life can compound and widen over time. These differences between the disadvantaged and the better off can be seen in educational achievement, health and criminal activity.
These types of inequalities were also exacerbated by the pandemic. While pupils everywhere missed out on education, these learning losses were not equally distributed: young people from lower socio-economic background fell further behind.
Despite large increases in funding for the early-year sectors, socio-economic inequalities in child development have not generally narrowed, particularly in recent years.
And now, the sharp increase in the share of children living in destitution does not paint a optimistic picture for the future.
Making a difference
However, many of these issues can be changed by government policy. For example, we know that being hungry at school makes it difficult to concentrate and learn. Measures that address hunger, then, can make a difference. Analysis of a trial of breakfast clubs in English schools, which offered free breakfast to disadvantaged children aged six and seven, found that the free breakfast lead to the equivalent of two months’ extra progress in reading, writing and maths across the course of one year.
Research has shown that many early interventions – such as high quality childcare and education programmes for at-risk children – can have long-lasting positive effects. From an economic perspective, acting early to lift children out of poverty and improve their home and learning environments can be a cost-effective way of helping in the long run, both for individuals as well as wider society.
Another option would be reform of the benefits system to make sure families have enough money to live. In the 2022 Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey of people who used crisis centres, 72% did receive social security benefits – but were still destitute.
This rise in children living in household experiencing destitution must be given serious attention. Successive governmentsclaim to hold upward social mobility as a important goal – that is, the ability of people to move up the economic and social ladder, regardless of their own upbringing and social background. Reducing destitution would not only benefit children right now, but would help them throughout life.