How the DWP fought to withhold evidence its policies kill disabled people

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Image of cash and pre-payment meter key

Original article by China Mills republished from Open Democracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence

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.

Before she died, she told her sister that she knew the assessment system was going to kill her: “She felt that they were pressuring her to kill herself, she felt that she didn’t matter because she was disabled”.

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.

This battle has revealed that policy is seen to be outside the scope of such reviews and that findings are ‘not be shared outside of the department’.

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.

Original article by China Mills republished from Open Democracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence

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Politics news allsorts

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Commentary and analysis of recent UK politics events

Image of GCHQ donught building

Edward Snowden voted Guardian person of the year 2013 for his whistleblowing on worldwide surveillance activities.

Online gamers are targeted by NSA and GCHQ

Online gaming is big business, attracting tens of millions of users worldwide who inhabit their digital worlds as make-believe characters, living and competing with the avatars of other players. What the intelligence agencies feared, however, was that among these clans of elves and goblins, terrorists were lurking.

The NSA document, written in 2008 and titled Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments, stressed the risk of leaving games communities under-monitored, describing them as a “target-rich communications network” where intelligence targets could “hide in plain sight”.

Games, the analyst wrote, “are an opportunity!”. According to the briefing notes, so many different US intelligence agents were conducting operations inside games that a “deconfliction” group was required to ensure they weren’t spying on, or interfering with, each other.

But the documents contain no indication that the surveillance ever foiled any terrorist plots, nor is there any clear evidence that terror groups were using the virtual communities to communicate as the intelligence agencies predicted.

Image of Iain Duncan SmithIain Duncan Smith blames everyone else at the work and pensions select committee

After months of trying, MPs on the work and pensions select committee finally had a chance to question Iain Duncan Smith on the DWP’s abuse of statistics and the chaos surrounding Universal Credit today. On the former, Duncan Smith bullishly pointed out that the department had published “over 500” statistical releases and had received just two critical letters from the UK Statistics Authority. He again declared that he “believed” thousands of people had moved into work as a result of the introduction of the benefit cap, despite the UKSA warning that this was “unsupported by the official statistics”.

But when he was questioned on the false statement by Conservative chairman Grant Shapps that “nearly a million people” (878,300) on incapacity benefit dropped their claims, rather than face a new medical assessment for the employment and support allowance (which resulted in another reprimand from the Statistics Authority to Duncan Smith and Shapps), he took a strikingly different line. Rather than defending the claim, he replied that it was “nothing to do with the department” and blamed CCHQ for the inaccurate “conflation of data”. Speaking from what appeared to most to be a glass house, he added: “I’ve tried to get my colleagues at Central Office to check first before they put anything out about the areas that the DWP covers because it’s complex”. One was left with the image of Duncan Smith pleading with Shapps and other Tory apparatchiks not to twist statistics for the purposes of political propaganda but his own record meant he received little sympathy from the committee.

After being challenged on the DWP’s demonisation of benefit claimants through its references to “a something for nothing culture”, Duncan Smith similarly sought to shift the blame, noting that it was “a minister” from the last government (Liam Byrne) who first referred to “shirkers” and “workers”, to which the only appropriate reply is ‘two wrongs don’t make a right”.

… (continues much the same)

Related: Universal credit failed IT system write-off increased by £6m

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Politics news allsorts

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Links today – reach your own conclusions. I spared you from a photo of Alastair Campbell.

Secret memo shows key role for Blairites in Labour’s election team (Alan Milburn started the privatization of the NHS under Blair)

conflicts with David and Ed Miliband turn leadership race into verdict on New Labour

Iain Duncan Smith’s catalogue of waste and poverty

Mandela: never forget how the free world’s leaders learned to change their tune

MPs’ salaries to rise to £74,000 a year despite opposition

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ATOS DWP appeal :: The appeal hearing

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This is the third and final article in the ATOS DWP appeal series. Earlier articles were ATOS DWP appeal :: How it works and ATOS DWP appeal :: How to appeal.

My client was successful at appeal and was awarded 15 points and a recommendation to DWP that she is not reassessed for 2 years. This appeal hearing may well be very different to others since it was clear beyond any doubt that my client has serious mobility and other issues. In any case where it was marginal or where there was a need to argue the case I would be looking at case law for application of the descriptors.

The appeal tribunal was composed of a judge and a doctor. I was told by the clerk that there is hardly ever a presenting officer present.

The appeal panel had absolutely no interest in either the ATOS WCA medical report or the Decision Maker’s submission. I was also surprised that they were also not that concerned about the descriptors and their precise definition. They were interested in whether my client was sufficiently disabled to merit ESA looking at the whole picture. Once they had established that, they awarded points so that she would get the ESA award.

My client was questioned at a very fast pace by both panel members. They seemed to follow my client’s appeal request so this and further submitted evidence are important. There were ‘opaque’ questions. I suspect that it’s likely that the opaque questions derive from the appeal tribunals: the Decision Maker and the Work Capabilities Assesment’s HCP will follow the appeal tribunal’s lead.

Driving a manual car is about being fit enough to walk. Going to the supermarket is about being fit enough to walk, reach for and carry quite heavy packages if you do it without assistance. Keeping a cat is about reaching low for feeding and watering. Wearing a t-shirt is about reaching over your head. One that I really haven’t understood and that they’re really keen on is watching television. It suggests that you can stay still for a while but it’s only a suggestion. That you have time to watch television because the rest of your life is settled? I think that watching television is about wasting time but how is it interpreted?

[03/08/13 (UK notation)

Watching television is a vast subject that the tribunal panel would want to investigate in depth.

If you do nothing except watch television, I think that the panel will have little sympathy for you and even suspect illnesses to be self inflicted i.e. idleness, laziness and no exercise or interaction cause illnesses. Although superficially the tribunal panel and the whole concept of the Work Capabilities Assessment shouldn’t be concerned with causes, it will be.

Following a soap opera suggests that you’re able to keep appointments and function mentally fairly well at that low standard needed for soaps i.e. you’re able to understand, remember and follow a simple narrative.

Owning but not watching a television supports a claim of depression i.e. having no interest in anything through depressed emotional state. I suppose that only watching serious news-type programmes would also support a claim to depression.

The panel will be interested in the times that television is watched. If it’s late in the evening and early morning they may conclude laziness and idleness.

etc … ]

Although I was representing my client I said very little during the hearing. At the end of the hearing I tried to make some points. The panel were totally uninterested in my input to the point of being rude and shouting me down. This made me aware of the pressure that my client had been under: the pressure to conform.

The panel may have had no interest in anything I had to say because they had already decided and had time constraints. It’s a quick process that took us about an hour in total.

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ATOS DWP appeal :: How to Appeal

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The sequel to an earlier article ATOS DWP appeal :: How it works, this article suggests ways of appealing against ATOS and DWP decisions that disabled people do not have limited capability for work. A final article describes the appeal hearing.

Citizens Advice Bureaus, Welfare Rights Officers, Legal Advice Centres are all overwhelmed by the demand for their services. It is very unlikely that anybody is able to help you. You have to do it yourself with the help of a few friends, family or colleagues. This is where being a member of some group helps.

There are now many resources on the web e.g. this one. If you’re not able to use the web yourself, ask somebody who can. For previous decisions just enter the reference into a search engine.

Once you’re told that you’ve been found to have failed the Work Capabilities Assessment you have a month to appeal. The article linked above gives good advice on a general request for appeal. Also ask for reasons for the decision if they have not been sent with the decision.

When the bundle (the Decision Maker’s response) arrives you need to go through it carefully. It’s detective work piecing together the arguments employed.

I personally find that missing documents are very revealing – it’s worth being suspicious of the Decision Maker instead of assuming that they’re absent accidentally. In my friend’s bundle two documents are missing: the notification of the decision with reasons attached and a simple sick note by my clients GP that accompanied her request for appeal.

There are many errors in the missing notification letter e.g. stating that you need to score 15 points and therefore providing misleading legal advice on the issue of exceptional circumstances. However, I think that the real issue is that there is a list of descriptors – admittedly with inaccurate, summarised descriptors – which is both helpful to the claimant and highlights quite clearly one descriptor which should have but has not even been considered.

The missing simple sick note is missing because it’s medical evidence from a qualified, experienced GP that is familiar with my client’s condition that has a named medical diagnosis. The Decision Maker is supposed to consider all evidence. To include this document would highlight the fact that the Decision Maker has totally disregarded my client’s GP’s medical evidence without providing any justification or reasoning.

My client has been awarded 6 points for having to raise from being seated because of significant discomfort or fatigue after 15 minutes. The Decision Maker agrees with Atos Health Care Professional that my client can sit for between 30 and 60 minutes without having to move because of significant discomfort or fatigue despite having to move after 15 minutes! This is what you’re up against.

That should be 9 points not 6.

Looking at the HCP’s descriptions of my clients abilities we notice that she should have been – but has not been – awarded 6 points for failing to raise either arm above head height.

Then there’s 9 points for failing to climb two steps with the help of a handrail. Hold on, it says my client can climb two steps where there are two handrails. How many steps or stairs do you see with two handrails? The descriptor’s definition is a handrail, that’s one handrail not two. They have these definitions to be precise.

The score so far looks like 9 + 6 + 9 = 24. That’s 9 more than the 15 needed and this is on Atos’s medical report as it stands. I wonder why the Decision Maker didn’t notice this – he is trained, professional and experienced after all. Perhaps he just didn’t notice by accident again?

What really pisses my client off is that she’s been awarded nothing for mobility (moving with or without a manual wheelchair or other aid on a level surface). The Decision Maker has decided that she can repeatedly walk 200 metres without stopping because of significant discomfort or fatigue). The distances vary: less than 50 metres, 50 to a 100 metres and 100 to 200 metres. Over 200 metres repeatedly is nothing. This is the same descriptor as the steps so the 9 for the steps would go if she was awarded 9 or above.

My client’s problem is that she completed the ESA50 very poorly with many “It varies” and incomplete lengthy answers to questions. For the walking she’s said it varies but then failed to say why she had to stop to rest. The Decision Maker should have asked for clarification but for some unknown reason decided instead that she had absolutely no problem repeatedly walking over 200 metres. The reasons for this? She drives a manual car and shops at a supermarket!

So at the appeal we have to point out that my client’s right hand side is her weak side, the side that she really has trouble with and manual cars have clutches and gearboxes on their left hand sides. We will also be pointing out that it’s a very small supermarket involving about 100 metres walking accompanied by a friend who does the reaching and emptying of the shopping trolley at the checkout, the packing of bags, loading and unloading of car, etc and that it doesn’t really indicate that you can walk 200 metres without stopping because of significant discomfort or fatigue because when you go shopping you are continually stopping. This is not rocket science is it?

As I mentioned earlier the Decision Maker has not considered my client’s GP’s evidence preferring BS like this instead. I also said that my client had answered the ESA50 badly with many “it varies”. Look at what my client’s GP says: “VERY VARIABLE SYMPTOMS, SOMETIMES COMPLETELY IMMOBILIZED” and “SEVERE BACK PAIN ON BAD DAYS IMMOBILISED”. There is more but I don’t expect any real problems at appeal.



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