Author of the Freedom of Information request into benefit deaths explains the horror of the 'Work Capability Assessment'

Atos-protest-008.jpgIt comes as a bit of a shock to realise that people are dying because of government policy. Sometimes it takes a while to sink in. I'm sure that's what happened in any country when government policy causes deaths.

The British twist on this, in 2014, was for people claiming the sickness benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to be judged "fit for work" when they were not. The so-called 'Work Capability Assessment' (WCA) medical test - in fact a tick-box computer questionnaire with added physical humiliation - was designed to find ways of refusing benefit to the sick, rather than determining the state of their health. This was first revealed to me with the broadcast of two documentaries - Britain on the sick (Dispatches, Channel 4, July 31, 2012) and Disabled, or faking it? (Panorama, BBC, July 31, 2012).


Dispatches reporter Jackie Long stated: “[We have] uncovered evidence that a tough regime of tests is secretly trying to push almost 90 per cent of these claimants off the sick, to look for work.”


Later in the show, a woman carrying out training on how to administer the WCA states: “This new benefit, Employment Support Allowance was meant to take people off the benefit.” And later: “This was specifically designed to take people off Incapacity Benefit.”


Panorama followed case-histories including that of the gentleman who was harassed by the system. Found fit for work despite being told to see a doctor by the assessor – the doctor discovered he had a critical heart condition – he won an appeal only to be contacted again, weeks later, with notification of a further assessment. At the time, he was waiting for a heart operation. Again found fit for work, he was waiting on a second appeal when he suffered a fatal heart attack. It could be argued that this man is dead because of DWP harassment.


The TV documentaries also revealed that people with mental health problems who admitted they had considered suicide were routinely asked why they had not killed themselves. While nobody delivers involuntary euthanasia in the UK today, the method is probably more insidious - plant the idea in a claimant's mind and then let them do all the work themselves.


There is no shortage of suicides on the DWP's books - recently the Department researched such deaths in order to work out whether sanctions had contributed to the deaths. After the investigation concluded, the DWP refused to release its findings.


After watching these shows, it was an easy step to the government's website, where I discovered an 'ad hoc' information release entitled 'Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of recipients'. This showed that, between January and November 2011, no less than 10,600 ESA claimants had died while claiming the benefit.


The circumstances of the deaths were not clarified but 3,500 of them happened when assessment had not been completed or among people in the "work-related activity group", in which claimants' health is supposedly improving and they are expected to go back to work within a year. Clearly something was wrong.


Incidentally, the remaining 7,100 deaths - in the support group, where claimants are more likely to die of their conditions - are also questionable. Look at the gentleman in the Panorama report. Wasn't he hounded to his death by the stress of being falsely categorised by assessors?


In 2013, I discovered a new, horrifying fact about the deaths - the DWP was no longer publishing statistics and was in fact actively refusing to provide them. The information came to me from a campaigning reader of my blog, Vox Political, who had requested an update in November 2012 - a year after the last statistics provided in the 'ad hoc' statement. The DWP responded in June the following year - seven months later. The legal maximum response time is three weeks but there is no penalty incurred. The message was that there was no intention to update the statistics.


This encouraged me to submit a series Freedom of Information requests of my own. When the latest, submitted in May 2014, was refused I appealed to the Information Commissioner, pointing out that the DWP's reasons for refusal were not valid according to the Commissioner's guidelines for FOI requests. He agreed and my appeal was granted.


The DWP retaliated by appealing against the decision, to the so-called 'Information Tribunal'. The hearing will probably take place in October. The DWP has requested that it be "on paper", rather than "in person". This is against the interests of justice. The DWP must be made to send a representative to a full hearing, to answer questions that will be put to them.


By this time, the media had become involved and when Maggie Zolobajluk, a retired CAB advisor, read the story in the Daily Mirror (it was probably Ros Wynne-Jones's 'Real Britain' column of June 3, 2015), she was moved to take action - exactly as I had been, two years before.


But Maggie didn't make a FoI request - I had already done that. She started a petition in support of my victory, demanding that the DWP should drop its appeal. That petition, on the website, has attracted nearly 240,000 signatures in a few short weeks.


In response, the government has claimed that it is working on a new information release and will be providing the figures. What David Cameron hasn't mentioned is that they will be disguised as 'Age-Standardised Mortality Rates' - ratios in comparison with the population as a whole. There is no intention to publish the number of deaths that have actually taken place.


Amazingly, cameron seems to have fooled most of the public with his claim, as the number of people signing the petition has dropped off alarmingly since he made it.


We are all - still - a long way from getting the figures we have been seeking since November 2012.


As the DWP's appeal is against the Information Commissioner's decision, I was not automatically a party involved in the case and had to apply to become one. I did so on June 18 and have received no response yet (more than two weeks later, at the time of writing).


After I won my appeal, the government decided to take action to prevent further embarrassment over Freedom of Information. New Justice Secretary Michael Gove is apparently trying to include officials' 'thinking time' in the costs of FoI requests, thereby making it harder to request information without falling foul of a £600 limit on costs. How do you quantify the value of 'thinking time'?


The Justice Select Committee agrees that this is unreasonable. In a 2012 report it stated: "Such activities are overly dependent on the individual FoI officer's abilities, introducing an element of inconsistency into the process that undermines the fundamental objective of the Act, that everyone has an equal right to access information."


And the deaths continue. A leaked DWP document recently revealed plans to eliminate the work-related activity group of ESA, cutting the amount of benefit received by those affected by £30 per week to bring it in line with Jobseekers' Allowance.


Is this because deaths in the WRA group show the true effect of the work capability assessment? These people are supposed to be getting better, so any deaths should be extremely rare - the result of accidents or other unexpected misfortunes.


Is it also a plan to push more people into the depression and despair that leads to suicide - another iteration of 'chequebook euthanasia'? Without the extra money they need for adaptations and aids that allow them to live, sick and disabled people would quickly fall into debt and could end up losing everything.


I wrote at the start of this article that it comes as a shock to realise that people are dying because of government policy. This is why such policies are kept hidden from the general public. The German people were never intentionally made aware of Aktion T4. Now the Conservative Government is trying to hide the facts about ESA and the work capability assessment from the electorate.


If people don't take a stand on this matter, it is more than likely that the Conservative Government will succeed. Who knows how many tens of thousands of people have gone quietly to their deaths - unreported and anonymous?


They're off the books now, so the Conservative Government no longer has to pay for them.


And that is all that this is about:




Doesn't that make you feel a little sick?


Mike Sivier lives in Mid Wales where he writes the Vox Political blog and cares for 'Mrs Mike', who has a long-term illness.

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