Quote: "George Orwell raised a very important point when he wrote his analysis of communism in the book, Animal Farm. Everybody is equal he mused but some are more equal than others..."
Recently, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Minister for Disabled People Sarah Newton, hit the media headlines attacking disability campaigners for "deliberately misusing data" to argue Government welfare reforms were driving disabled people to an early grave. Speaking in the House of Commons, Minster Newton argued that it is "shameful" and "unsubstantiated" to claim that Government benefit cuts had caused a growing number of suicides. Ms Newton claimed even if such suicide rates were high, there was no evidence to say that they were caused directly by welfare cuts.
Well, technically she may be right that we cannot prove 100% conclusively that people are taking their lives DIRECTLY because of Government reforms. After all, those concerned are vulnerable people, everybody is different and everybody's circumstances are different. We will certainly never know for sure if somebody with mental health problems or suffering from severe stress of some kind would have still taken their life without the heavy-handed DWP interventions (including the proliferation of benefit sanctions) that we have witnessed over the past few years. Then again, we cannot prove conclusively that they wouldn't have.
There is a mass of anecdotal evidence out there that indicate vulnerable people are being put under intense economic and psychological pressure by the actions of the DWP and their 'Job-Centre' foot soldiers. And why do we need to 'prove' an association between welfare claimant suicides and welfare changes to an absolute high degree of certainty before it is even taken seriously by our glorious leaders? After all, Disability Organisations, Researchers and Campaigners have all highlighted the higher numbers of vulnerable welfare claimants committing suicide, something that correlates or coincides with a tightening up of the benefit system from 2010 onwards. Concerns that have also consistently been raised by the Medical Profession, State-Coroners, by the House of Lords and by MP's themselves.
In 2016, a House of Lords report even identified a series of Government failures concerning disabled people that brought to public attention how Government was actually failing in its duty of care towards disabled people. From inaction on long-standing provisions of the Equality Act, to repeals of legislation that reduced disabled peoples employment rights, as well as the impact of welfare spending cuts themselves. However, it should not come as a complete surprise that Government continually dismisses such concerns as bogus, while painting campaigners out to be simply a bunch of troublesome, political anarchists. Government make no secret of wanting to roll back state welfare provision as much as possible. Therefore, it is more than a little bit inconvenient to have people drawing attention to the folly of those policies, especially when all Government wants to do is continue implementing welfare cuts regardless of the 'collateral' damage they may be causing. As the saying goes, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and who really cares if those 'eggs' are actually the unemployed, people with disabilities or people with mental illness? People still primarily portrayed within politics and within the media as spongers, scroungers and layabouts. So, deliberately blowing smoke in order to cover up the deaths of those caught up an ideological war upon Britain's unemployed, certainly helps to deflect attention away from the actions of Government itself.
Arguably, all politicians have to take decisions without having a cast-iron degree of absolute certainty. Decisions based upon the best available evidence at the time and sometimes on evidence that is either incomplete or found to be inaccurate at some future date. Similarly, Scientists and Social Scientists look for correlations and relationships between variables, but even if they are found, can never say for certain that something is actually proven to be true - 100%. For example, an inbuilt error rate of 1%, 5% or 10% exists within all the statistical evidence that we often regard as concrete 'proof' of a scientific relationship between a factor and an outcome. A cancer is considered 'cured' if it doesn't reoccur within 5 years of treatment, but that doesn't mean to say that it won't unfortunately strike again after that 5 year period. In a court of law, a Judge may accept a non-unanimous verdict from a Jury in order to convict somebody of a crime, send them to jail on behalf of the state, yet convicted by a jury where a number of its members still remain unconvinced of any guilt.
Of course it is impossible to prove 'conclusively' that somebody committed suicide directly over any negative experiences they may have had with Britain's benefit system. But it is argued that Government intervention has certainly exasperated an already complex problem regarding the mental health of vulnerable people receiving welfare benefits. Something that may indeed contribute to their eventual decision to kill themselves. So much so, in 2015, MP's called for an independent review over benefit sanctions being applied to people with mental health issues. In 2016, a series of secret DWP inquiries into the deaths of welfare claimants revealed that Ministers were repeatedly warned of serious shortcomings in the treatment of vulnerable claimants. And only last year the UN accused the UK Government of creating a "human catastrophe" for disabled people via its welfare reforms. We are therefore not only talking about a failure in the way vulnerable people are being cared for by the state, but a systemic, wilful and deliberate act of persistent neglect. Who needs a gun to kill masses of people when you can achieve the same simply with the action of a pen?
Disability campaign groups such as the Black Triangle Campaign have spent many years amassing dozens of individual reports of benefit claimants' suicides since the Conservatives came into power in 2010. There is enough anecdotal information contained within those reports to suggest that the negative treatment some welfare claimants received from the state before their death, may have indeed played a contributory role in their subsequent suicide. For many vulnerable welfare claimants, the application of welfare sanctions and the stress involved in dealing with the repercussions of those sanctions arguably became the straw that eventually broke the Camel's back.
Unsubstantiated claims? I'm not so sure about that. It is clear that some claimants are clearly struggling after receiving negative contact with the DWP - but are not living long enough to tell the tale. One way or another. Take the case of Lawrence Bond for instance, somebody with Asperger's syndrome who also suffered from a heart condition, shortness of breath and struggled with mobility. His GP had reportedly also made referrals for mental health services. But, despite all that, the 56-year-old was declared completely 'fit to work' by a work capability assessment and his benefits cut. He launched an appeal against the decision, yet collapsed and died of a heart attack before it was heard. Ironically, just minutes after leaving his local Jobcentre.
Mr Bond's family are on record describing both the financial hardship and the mental hardship the DWP's decision of 'fit-to-work' had caused. For example, speaking to the Disability News Service, his sister Iris Green revealed that "He was worried about work, about money. They weren't going to give him [disability benefits]. He didn't know how he was going to live." In addition, she recalled how Mr Bond had been required to attend a meeting at the job centre on the day of his death, arriving there in a state of clear "physical distress". Mr Bond wasn't a 'layabout', he was somebody who wanted to work but had lost his previous job because his employer was worried over how unwell he was, and worried that the work he was doing would cause him to have a heart attack. However, after being assessed by Maximus, he was found fit for work. Not the first time the same department had classified a vulnerable person as being fit-to-work, only to see them die not long afterwards, this time by taking their own life.
Unsubstantiated? Mere coincidence? Bad luck? The only thing for we know for certain is these are not isolated incidents. In 2016, DWP figures indicated that 52% of disabled people had their 'fit to work' classifications overturned after going to a tribunal. Now, 52% is a whopping error-rate by anybody's standards. Especially when an error-rate of more than 5% would cause most scientific research to be thrown in the dustbin. What we are talking about here is not only people who are quite clearly unfit for work being incorrectly assessed and having their benefits reduced or completely removed, but also dragged through a system that arguably also pressurises them into looking for employment, without much consideration of the possible consequences.
So, how can disabled people have any real confidence in a system that is so blatantly flawed, and any real confidence in a Minster of Disability who dismisses any criticism of the system as simply being "shameful" and "unsubstantiated"? One can only assume that Government WANT a system that actually isn't very accurate. And one can only assume that they are also willing to lie through their teeth in order to silence any criticism they receive over it. Despite the hype of an over-generous welfare system existing within the UK, being unemployed for any reason not only brings economic pressures, but mental health pressures too. Whether we like it or not, 'work' defines us all and we often judge other people on the jobs they do. Become unemployed within the UK and your pride, your self-esteem and your self-confidence become quickly eroded. People are not robots and the loss of a job is not merely the loss of a steady income, but the loss of a routine, of security within the world, and of a connection to other people.
In the UK, there are still regular media stories about people abusing the benefit system. While such cases do exist, they are often more likely to be the exception and not the rule. However, such distorted media coverage arguably also increases the sense of stigmatisation that unemployed people already feel. Doubly so if you have mental health issues to begin with - or a disability. Replace the routine of 'work' with the authoritarian-fuelled benefit system that we have within the UK at the moment, one that automatically questions your motivation, scrutinises your daily job-searches and seeks to 'fine' you for the slightest misdemeanour - then that certainly won't do much to improve your self-esteem nor your mental health.
In 2015, researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland argued that 45,000 suicides a year worldwide are thought to be associated with unemployment. Of course, we cannot say for certain that unemployment causes suicide, but it is generally agreed within the medical profession and the world of social science that unemployment can lead to poor mental health or exasperate existing mental health issues. Indeed, information provided by the UK's National Health Service's Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS), last undertaken in 2014, reported that 43% of people on sickness benefit, Employment and Support Allowance had attempted suicide at some point - compared to just 7% of the general population. More than double the figure that was recorded in 2007.
All in all, it is data that should be motivating a number of loud warning sirens to be going off in the sleepy offices of the DWP - not churlish and erroneous complaints about the misuse of such data by people like myself. Therefore, while Sarah Newton complains about the unsubstantiated claims of campaigners, perhaps she needs to take one cold, hard look at herself in a mirror while asking herself why such claims are not actually seen as being substantiated. After all, these problems were highlighted to Government as soon as they became visible. Report after report has been generated by various groups up and down the country, only to be repeatedly rejected out-of-hand, without any public investigation and also without any obvious concern. On the face of things, the DWP seems to asking for a degree of certainty over evidence that can never be guaranteed nor achieved in any other walk of life - including politics itself. Talk about creating an un-level playing field.
Certainly, nobody on this side of the fence has been publically exposed as deliberately misusing data or misunderstanding data, as far as I'm aware. Which cannot be said for the DWP itself. After the election in 2010, DWP ministers arguably embarked on a deliberate campaign of increasing the application of 'benefit sanctions' and simply in order to 'motivate' more people into employment. After inheriting a level of around 500,000 sanctions a year from the previous Labour administration, they indeed managed to drive sanctions to a peak of over one million a year by 2013. While also increasing the length of such penalties. The DWP has also repeatedly been exposed as producing misleading data themselves in relation to welfare benefits and the application of those sanctions.
As far back as 2011, Dame Begg, The Chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee at the time, wrote to the DWP expressing concerns over the misrepresentation of DWP statistics within Britain's media. In 2014, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) repeated criticised the use of DWP statistics by Ministers themselves. Of particular concern was the way the DWP deliberately circumvented the watchful eye of the UKSA by pre-releasing information directly to Britain's journalists, who then disseminated that information to the public without much scrutiny of the details. I stumbled across this crafty practice quite by chance myself in 2014 after the DWP released a misleading report to journalists over an 'improvement' in public attitudes towards disability. Needless to say, the information contained in that report was completely bogus, yet still managed to be disseminated in full, by all the major news outlets within the UK, including the BBC.
Therefore, it is rather galling to be lectured by the DWP over the misuse of data, when they seem to be the leading experts in this particularly dark-art themselves. And you really couldn't make any of this stuff up. FIRSTLY, YOU DON'T NEED TO. After all, we hear Government talk all the time about incentivizing and motivating the sick, the disabled and the unemployed back into 'work'. This in itself raises questions over the methods of how this is to be achieved. But if people are being perceived to be in need of 'motivating', then that should tell us something about those who are actually doing the perceiving not only the motivating. Take a brief look at the leadership of the DWP itself.
Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), Secretary of State for Work and Pensions from 2010-2016, a man consistently documented as portraying sick people, disabled and the unemployed as "swinging the lead". In 2012, IDS argued that Britain's welfare system was "promoting destructive behaviour" by encouraging poorer families to have loads of children that subsequently deny them the incentive to get a job. While at the same time putting 1,518 disabled people out of work by closing down the 'Remploy' factories and simply because he believed its workers were 'unproductive', sitting around "drinking coffee all day".
In 2015, IDS referred to people without a disability as being "normal". The same year it was discovered that his department were steadfastly producing leaflets about benefits that contained fake quotes from fictitious claimants. That's not to mention how he once boasted how he fiddled the benefit system himself when he was younger or how he could easily live off welfare benefits of £53 a week if he had to. And all from a man who order's breakfast paid for by the British taxpayer at £39 a throw, while also managing to get his official parliamentary credit card suspended after running up more than £1,000 in expenses debts. And oh yes, he is also on record for saying that disabled people should work their way out of poverty - because 'work actually frees people'. Something not a million miles away from the phrase "Arbeit macht frei", a German phrase meaning "work sets you free". A slogan that is also known for appearing on the entrance of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. As I said, you couldn't really make this stuff up.
Or what about Stephen Crabb, who had a brief spell as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions directly after IDS? Stephen's voting record over disability in the House of Commons left a lot to be desired to begin with, even before he stepped into his new role. Voting in favour of the bedroom tax, universal credits and the Personal Independence Payment, or voting not to increase welfare benefits in line with inflation and against prolonging the benefit payment of those unable to work because of disability or illness. Fortunately, he quickly resigned from the post before creating too much damage, following allegations that he had sent suggestive messages to a young woman.
Or Damian Green, another who had a brief shot, less than a year, at IDS's job. In a brief flurry of activity he managed to cut further Billions of pounds from the disability welfare budget, while also introducing tougher welfare rules. He faced down accusations from MP's that he had deliberate misled them over disability reforms and refused to apologise or acknowledge the distress and harm they had caused disabled people. It is reported that he also considered forcing all sick and disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits to take part in mandatory 'work' activity. So, what became of him? Well, first off he got promoted to deputy Prime Minster. Then came some unfortunate public allegations, that during a police investigation in 2008 (in which he was arrested) pornography was found on Green's Parliamentary computer. During the 2017 Westminster sexual scandals revelations, a Cabinet Office inquiry was also started into allegations Green sent suggestive text messages and had inappropriately touched a young Conservative activist.
And finally, the lovely Ester McVey. Business woman, TV presenter and former Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions from 2013-15 - before infamously losing her seat at the 2015 general election to the Labour Party. A rejuvenated, re-elected McVey was recently appointed as the new IDS, this year - Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. And what can we say about her? Let's just say that the news of her appointment was not met with a great deal of cheering and flag waving from disabled people. As deputy to Iain Duncan-Smith, she stirred up anger over the hated 'bedroom tax', while also managing to cut disability allowance for around 300,000 disabled people. But any juicy scandal? Well, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell once called her a 'stain on humanity', live on TV in 2014, suggesting also that she should be 'lynched'. Apart from that she seems a rather good egg and one who undoubtedly knows from past experience how to make a very good DWP omelette - albeit one that may leave a very bitter taste in the mouth.
And these my friends are just some the people who have been calling the shots down at the offices of the good ole DWP. People with a political track record that would make Jack the Ripper and Pol Pot look kind, sensitive and caring. And it's a steady stream of deep-rooted institutionalised disablism that carries on regardless, where the faces in charge may change but behaviours don't.
But what about the unashamed Sarah Newton herself? Last year, the Minister for Disabled people fended off a particularly hot grilling from the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee over the way benefit claimants are being assessed by the state over their capability to work. The hearing revealed how claimants with mental health issues were being asked questions such as "why haven't you killed yourself?" Now, I'm not often lost for words but even I struggled to get my head around a question that could easily come across to people with low self-esteem and low confidence as really meaning - "You're useless. So WHY don't you kill yourself?"
Of course, the Minister argued that it was "really important" to ask vulnerable benefit claimants such questions in order to determine if they are indeed suicidal - for "safeguarding" reasons. Before admitting that the practice was in fact "totally unacceptable." And there we have it, straight from the horse's mouth so to speak, and something that highlights perfectly Government's woolly-minded thinking concerning welfare reform - "It's unacceptable, but it's important". It's arguably also a sign of an ongoing moral battle between political ambition and personal conscience. Government desperately want an outcome where more sick and disabled people are 'in work', or more accurately, pushed away from the welfare system and with the responsibility for care passed back to the individual, their families or the voluntary sector. But it doesn't have much of a clue how to actually achieve this except pulling the plug completely over welfare benefits, while bullying and harassing people into jobs that are not suitable nor sustainable. Ms Newton seems to acknowledge the duty of care her department actually has for 'safeguarding' vulnerable welfare claimants, yet the overall vibe still comes across as one that is little more than a box-ticking exercise - just in case something goes wrong at a further date. And then, no doubt the question asked will be one of, "Did you follow all the procedures?" When arguably the real question should be, "Why are our procedures so crap?"
George Orwell raised a very important point when he wrote his analysis of communism in the book, Animal Farm. Everybody is equal he mused but some are more equal than others. And that is what also comes through in droves when we analyse current UK welfare reforms, and also the words and actions of those within DWP. Everybody is equal but some are more equal than others. In a country that sweats economic liberalism through its grubby paws and struggles to eradicate its deep-rooted, socio-economic class snobbery, why should we be shocked when some people are perceived as not only being economically 'inactive' when supported by the State, but also designated as second or even third class citizens? In short, who really cares if such people end up killing themselves or suffer a heart-attack on their way home from the job-centre?
When I studied for my first social science degree in the 1990's, it was the pensioners who were deemed to be the second class citizens in that neck of the DWP woods. People no longer generating 'wealth' for the state coffers, but perceived to be living off the backs of others via the state pension. Arguably, with an aging population and the increased power of the 'grey vote', political parties have to (reluctantly) court the little old pensioner a lot more these days. While of course, plotting behind their backs on how best to nick the state pension off them in the future. And anybody who doubts that this will be the case, only needs to analyse where the majority of UK welfare spending currently goes and what our glorious politicians are saying about that level of spending.
However, I've argued for many years now that welfare reform is much less about saving money and much more about ideology. It has been known for some time that welfare reforms cost much more than they actually save. In 2016, The National Audit Office (NAO), the independent watchdog of state spending, even issued a damning report of the Government's welfare crackdown. Arguing that the increased application of benefit sanctions were not only causing greater hardship to vulnerable people, but costing the Government almost twice what it saved. So, if something is costing more than it will save, why bother?
Unfortunately, The British Conservative Party has always been traditionally obsessed with reducing the role of Government, particularly over the provision of welfare. And when the welfare state was expanded after the end of WWII, the party has single-handedly been on a mission to destroy it. No matter what. As I said, this is all about ideology, not about money. But destroying the expensive and burdensome 'nanny' state also comes at a huge financial cost to the taxpayer - not just in terms of the damage it does to those dependent upon it for survival.
Ms Newton's recent grilling also raised this question, with the committee directly accusing Government of "mugging the taxpayer to destroy people's lives" - by spending more than £700 million a year on the private companies that manage those sickness and disability benefits. Of course, Ms Newton vigorously defended the process where more money is handed over to private enterprise than is saved, not only promising to "improve" it, but adding, "I don't recognise what you say about mugging the taxpayer." No, I bet you don't. Perhaps the committee was communicating in Swahili?
It may indeed be completely unacceptable to politicians like Sarah Newton when campaigners carry on making such a nuisance of themselves, by continually asking those awkward, pesky questions about claimant suicides and the DWP's own damning data. After all, she is only doing her job, if not simply only obeying orders. Indeed, it may be UNACCEPTABLE to Sarah for people to keep shamefully harping on about the unsubstantiated deaths of vulnerable people that are arguably still occurring right under her very nose. Yet, it may also turn out to be highly IMPORTANT to keep on doing so. I don't know? I'll let you decide.
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