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Friday, 26 September 2014
DWP’s confession: ‘We ignore benefit-related deaths’
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted making no effort to collect – or learn the lessons from – reports of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to the withdrawal or non-payment of disability benefits.
The admission came in a response to a Freedom of Information Act (FoI) request from Disability News Service (DNS).
DNS had asked DWP what records it keeps of deaths that have been found to be “connected to, or linked to, or partially caused by, the withdrawal or non-payment of disability benefits … from the person who has died”.
The request highlighted benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA), incapacity benefit (IB), disability living allowance and personal independence payment.
It also asked DWP to say how it collects reports of such deaths, and how many there have been for each of the years from 2004 to 2013.
But in its response to the FoI request, DWP’s “freedom of information team” said: “The specific information requested is not held by the Department.”
DWP says it does plan to publish statistics on the number of benefit recipients who have died “in due course”, but these will not give any indication of the cause of death or whether those deaths might have been caused or partly caused by the withdrawal of benefits or a decision not to award benefits to a disabled person.
Statistics on the number of benefit recipients who have died have been the source of intense controversy in recent years.
If and when they are published, they should show whether the number of ESA claimants dying every year has risen or fallen at a time when ministers claim they have been improving the much-criticised work capability assessment, which tests ESA eligibility.
But these figures would not show whether benefit claimants had died because of the harshness of the WCA, or as a result of being found fit for work or placed in the ESA work-related activity group.
There have been numerous reports of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to the ESA process, or the refusal of benefits.
The Scottish-based grassroots campaigning organisation Black Triangle was founded in memory of the writer Paul Reekie, after he killed himself in 2010.
Although Reekie did not leave a suicide note, he laid out two letters on a table near his body, one telling him his housing benefit had been stopped, and the other that his IB had been stopped.
In the following months and years, a string of similar deaths have been reported, including those of Nick Barker, Jacqueline Harris, Ms DE, and Brian McArdle.
One disabled activist suggested that DWP’s failure to make any attempt to keep track of such deaths could amount to criminal negligence.
Rick Burgess, co-founder of the new campaigning organisation New Approach, which is dedicated to scrapping the WCA and developing a replacement, said he was “extremely sceptical” about DWP claims that it does not collect such information.
He said: “If however they have ceased to collect that data, it is wilful negligence and perhaps criminal.”
Ian Jones, one of the founders of the WOWcampaign, said he and colleagues were concerned that the coalition’s welfare reforms were “having a significant and negative effect on the mental health and well-being of people this [government] has a duty of care to protect”.
He said: “Whilst our government insists that it is unable to update and clarify statistics [on deaths] already released in 2012, the information commissioner concluded earlier in 2014 that the requested information was held and that it could be located and released without exceeding the relatively modest resource limits of an FoI request.
“In view of numerous coroners’ reports and newspaper articles where the effects of the ConDems’ ideological welfare reforms are identified as a causal factor in some premature deaths, WOWcampaign believes any compassionate government would seek to address the suspicions held by many and properly investigate and report back on its findings.
“The fact this government refuses to do so, in our opinion, speaks volumes.”
So far, DWP has refused to comment on its FoI response.
We Need An £8 Minimum Wage NOW – Not Later, Say Unite
A major new independent report to be submitted to the Low Pay Commission today (Friday 26 September) has shown that a national increase of £1.50 per hour in the national minimum wage in 2015 would benefit 4.6 million workers by an average of £1,400 per year while at the same time adding an extra £2.1 billion to the public finances and potentially generating at least 30,000 new jobs.
The independent report, which forms the central plank of Unite’s submission to the Low Pay Commission, the body charged with considering the annual increase in the national minimum wage, shows that a £1.50 an hour increase in the minimum wage is affordable now and would bring a much-needed stimulus to the economy.
Written by eminent economist Howard Reed, formally of the influential think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and commissioned by the trade union Unite, among the key findings of the report are:
A £1.50 per hour increase would help 4.6 million low paid workers, 60 per cent (or 2.8 million) of whom are women
The average net gain from a £1.50 per hour would be £1,400 per year gross (£813 net)
The increase would help the poorest families the most, with the biggest gainers in the bottom 60 per cent of income distribution
A £1.50 per hour increase in the minimum wage would be a boost for employment with a potential increase of 30,000 new jobs as a direct result of the increase.
When the increase is analysed by employment sector the biggest winners are workers in the retail sector where it is estimated over 900,000 will see a significant increase in their wage packets. The next biggest winners are those employed in the hospitality industry where three quarters of a million workers (750,000) will benefit while 190,000 cleaners will see a boost to their incomes.
The report adds weight to the growing calls for a substantial increase in pay for the poorest in the labour force. Last week, leading business figures from some of the UK’s leading employers, including Kingfisher, Findus and Stobart’s, all expressed concerns that the minimum wage had fallen in value, with a detrimental impact to the economy.
Commenting on the report Howard Reed director of Landman Economics said: “These findings show that a £1.50 per hour increase can only be a good thing for the economy. An increase would lift millions of low paid people out of poverty while at the same time it would increase income for the Treasury, which has seen tax receipts from employment drop, fuelling an increase in government borrowing. It would also create new jobs making it a case that is difficult to argue against.”
Earlier this year, chancellor George Osborne held out hope that the minimum wage could rise to £7 per hour this year, only for the increase to come this October to fall far short of that. The hourly rate will rise from £6.31 to £6.50, substantially below what economists agree is a living wage of £7.65 per hour (£8.80 in London).
Len McCluskey general secretary of Unite added: “We have long-argued for an immediate uplift in the minimum wage of £1.50 to get people out of poverty and get some real growth into our economy, not this phoney one fuelled by a housing bubble. This report shows that this is both affordable for employers, would in fact create not cost jobs, and is a great deal for the national finances. It need not be put off any longer.
“Millions of working people have seen their income reduce by an average of £1,600 during the life of this government as they work harder but get poorer. They deserve a better deal from our country and only a lack of political will is preventing them from getting one.”
Unite will be making its submission to the Low Pay Commission, the body responsible for recommending the annual level of the minimum wage, on the final day of the consultation period, Friday 26 September 2014.
Universal credit 'undeliverable' says former head of the civil service
Sir Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, has said that the timetable for the government’s controversial universal credit benefits scheme was “too tight” and that a “culture of good news” in the Department for Work and Pensions prevented this being recognised.
Making his valedictory speech on 25 September to an audience of senior civil servants and politicians at the Institute for Government, Kerslake, who stepped down in July as head of the civil service but stays on until the end of February 2015 as permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, said universal credit was “undeliverable” in the timetable originally set out by the DWP, but that this was not recognised in time by the department, because of a prevailing culture of deference within the civil service.
In 2013, the plan to introduce universal credit, which has been described as involving “fiendishly complicated calculations” had to be “reset to zero”, after more than £600m had been spent.
Kerslake, the former chief executive of Sheffield city council, said leaders needed to be prepared to hear bad news and that those in local government, closer to people directly using services, were more likely to do so.
Reflecting on an often-turbulent two years as head of the civil service, Kerslake reiterated that his greatest regret was the delay in producing a plan on improving civil service diversity. “The story on diversity is still too variable across departments,” he said. “We need in particular to tackle the macho culture that too many women experience and increase the number of BME staff at senior level, which has flat lined in recent years.”
Kerslake said he was proud of the civil service reform plan, published in June 2012, but he regretted trying to push through changes to civil servants’ terms and conditions at the same time as the plan. He also said that there would be at least five more years of austerity in public spending, whoever wins the next general election, and that the next five years of spending cuts would be tougher because the “easier savings” have already been made.
He also said there should be greater devolution of power from Whitehall to local government, even if that meant accepting that, as in the Rotherham child sexual abuse scandal, sometimes “things go wrong”. Kerslake said devolution could not be evenly spread around the country. Some places such as Birmingham, he said, are less far forward in working as combined authorities, but they would be spurred towards action if they saw other regions getting greater powers.
Kerslake refused to comment on the new arrangements following his resignation, including the appointment of a new chief executive. Whoever takes that job will report in to the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, who has taken on Kerslake’s former role as head of the civil service. He said he and Heywood had a “positive working relationship”, but added that “noises off” – briefings against civil servants – had been the most damaging thing to civil service morale.
This summer, Kerslake had a major back operation. His tweet at the time – “A pretty big knife in the back!” – showed only, he said, that even permanent secretaries “are allowed a sense of humour”.
Thursday, 25 September 2014
Helping disabled people to go on holiday is both a social responsibility and business opportunity says tourism minister
Making it easier for disabled people to holiday is not only a social responsibility but a major opportunity for businesses, the tourism minister has said.
Fergus Ewing said fewer than a fifth of people with disabilities in the UK were able to enjoy an annual holiday, with many of them unable to do so because of a lack of suitable places to stay.
Businesses providing accommodation for this group would be helping ensure that everyone can enjoy a break away, he said, adding there was also an opportunity for tourism businesses to win new custom.
Ewing made the comments as the Scottish Parliament debated the issue of accessible tourism, telling MSPs: 'There are 11 million disabled people living in the UK, 16 per cent of the population. Only two million of them enjoy an annual holiday.
'Looking at it on the global stage there are 1.3 billion people with a disability - an emerging market the size of China.'
He said spending by the group on tourism had risen from £325million in 2009-10 to £391million last year, an increase of of £66million.
Meanwhile, more than 600 businesses have signed up for an online training programme which has been developed with £45,000 of Scottish Government cash.
The free course aims to give tourism workers the skills they need to help visitors with special requirements, such as disabled people, the elderly and families with young children, providing practical advice such as the need for hotels to provide bowls of water for guide dogs.
By understanding the needs of these travellers, companies can boost their business, Ewing said.
He told MSPs: 'Once disabled people have found accommodation that suits their needs they can be loyal customers, returning year on year.
'It is estimated around 70 per cent of disabled people are able to travel, but because of lack of accessible accommodation and basic facilities they do not.
'First of all, and most important of all, it is a matter of social responsibility to seek to enable and facilitate the enjoyment of a holiday or break for everyone, including people with a disability.
'Secondly, by doing so we create business opportunities for the whole sector.'
Labour's Jenny Marra also highlighted the 'real benefits' to the economy that could come.
'Better accessibility means higher occupancy rates for hotels and loyal customers who keep returning,' she said.
'Accessible tourism reflects true equality and long term sustainable trade.'
Nanette Milne, Conservative MSP for North East Scotland, said 'There's still a long way to go if Scotland is to become the most accessible tourist destination in Europe, but the recognition of training needs within tourism businesses and the efforts being made to ensure that the industry recognises the all-round benefits to businesses and their customers from maximising accessibility are significant steps in the right direction.'
Anxious wait for Glenrothes man in ‘bedroom tax’ case
Campaigners against the Government’s bedroom tax have an anxious wait following a tribunal appeal hearing in Edinburgh.
Glenrothes man David Nelson, who won a landmark test case ruling against the spare room subsidy reforms last year, attended the Scottish Land Court on Thursday to defend the ruling contested by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
The DWP, represented by advocate Andrew Webster, presented their appeal against QC Simon Collins’ original tribunal ruling, contesting that a room should be considered a bedroom if it can accommodate a bed.
Early in the proceedings, Mr Nelson, represented by Graeme Sutherland from Fife Law Centre, had been refused an adjournment following the late submission of Fife Council documentation. The three judge panel, headed by Justice Charles, ruled that the detail did not alter the case to be heard.
Soon after, however, the DWP’s legal representatives were granted an hour-long recess following criticism from Justice Charles over their explanation of how the size of bedrooms living space was determined and applied to the individual facing the benefit legislation.
The DWP later argued that the calculation determining what could be considered a bedroom should be based on the size of the spare room added to living room space to give a overall calculation of possible space that could be considered as a bedroom.
Mr Webster said: “The calculation represented a bedroom of sorts, able to be used by the recipient.”
Following the completion of the four and a half hour hearing, Mr Nelson told the Gazette he remained optimistic that a favourable outcome could be achieved.
“Following today’s performance by the DWP and the comments and scrutiny made by the three sitting judges regarding their appeal, I remain very hopeful that we can win this, “ he said.
“Their case is riddled with inaccuracies and at times they presented information about my circumstance that were wholly untrue of which we made our feelings known to the judges.
“We have high hopes that we will get a result in our favour, we just now have a very anxious wait of anything from four to six weeks.”
Mr Nelson is hoping to make history for a second time with the outcome of this tribunal, while local authorities across the UK will keep a watchful eye on a result that could spell chaos for the Government’s benefit reforms.
Around 75,000 Scottish households are currently affected by the legislation which has seen those with a spare bedroom receiving a 14 per cent benefit cut, while those with two or more rooms face a 25 per cent reduction in benefit.
Last year’s landmark ruling by QC Simon Collins confirmed that a room measuring less than 50 square feet could not be considered by law as a bedroom.
Furthermore a room measuring between 50 to 70 square feet could only be used by a child under 10 years of age.
The Government’s spare rooms subsidy, commonly referred to as the ‘bedroom tax’, currently affects around 75,000 households in Scotland.
Following Mr Nelson’s original test case ruling, Fife Council confirmed that it would not contest the decision and was considering exempting the estimated 2000 households in Fife also affected.
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