Tuesday, 2 June 2015

DWP secret reviews into benefit deaths - new details revealed

Image by Chris Beckett

New information has come to light about the DWP's secret peer reviews into the deaths of 49 benefit claimants.

A freedom of information request has revealed that almost half of the people who died were in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) meaning they had an illness or disability.

In response to my request to know which benefit the 49 people were getting at the time of death, the DWP said:

"At the time of death, eight people were claiming Job Seekers Allowance, 22 were claiming Employment and Support Allowance, one was claiming Pension Credit and five were not claiming benefit.

"In the remaining cases, from the information held in the Peer Reviews it is not clear which benefit was being claimed at the time of death."

The DWP recently admitted that one in five of the 49 people who died had had their benefits sanctioned at some stage.

While they have consistently refused to make the reviews public, even with personal details omitted, they were forced to admit that 40 of the 49 peer reviews were carried out following the suicide or apparent suicide of a benefit claimant.

In its reply the DWP said:

"The 49 peer reviews to which you refer were conducted in cases where the person had died, but not all as a result of suicide or subject to a sanction."

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Five things the Conservatives don't know about their own welfare reforms (but really should)

Image by Marc Moz

1. If there is a link between welfare reform and the boom in food bank use

Everyone else seems pretty certain with a mountain of evidence from academics, churches and charities finding the two are linked. The Tory led government however carried out no research of their own and dismissed other studies. Instead they made wild guesses about why people may be turning to food banks in ever increasing numbers. Michael Gove surmised maybe poor people are unable to manage a budget, and Lord Freud guessed maybe people just like free food?

2. What happens to people after they are sanctioned

There is no official information whatsoever to show how many people drop out of the benefits system after their money is stopped. Despite record numbers of people facing sanctions for often minor reasons such as being late for an interview, the Conservatives have no idea what happens next.

An Oxford study which found half a million people may have disappeared from the benefits system without finding work following a sanction was dismissed by the Department for Work and Pensions who said “It looks to be partially based on unreliable data." However they have no data of their own to show what is actually happening.

3. The cumulative impact of welfare reform on sick and disabled people

People with long term illness and disabilities have been hit particularly hard by austerity over the past five years. A petition organised by campaign group War on Welfare (WOW), calling for an assessment of cuts to the sick and disabled, attracted more than 100,000 signatures securing a debate in the House of Commons. But... the government ignored this and said an assessment would be 'impossible' to do. Here's WOW's opinion on that.

Even though the Tories admit they don't know what the overall impact is, they are still willing to go on cutting. There are plans for an extra £12 billion to be axed from the welfare budget if they get re-elected.

4. Exactly where those £12 billion of welfare cuts will come from

Documents leaked to the BBC revealed the £12 billion would be found by restricting carers allowance and taxing disability benefits among other changes. The Tories denied this but when asked where the £12 billion would come from said... we haven't decided yet.

5. When Universal Credit will be rolled out

Who knows when this will come in. Universal credit, the brain child of Iain Duncan Smith, has been hit by delay after delay. The new benefit which will merge six existing benefits into one will affect eight million people in the UK but so far computer glitches and poor management have been blamed for its slow progress.
It is expected to be rolled out across the country by 2017 although even Iain Duncan Smith doesn't know if this will happen.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

What does it feel like to be sanctioned? “There was nothing to live for. No food, heating, electric, hope.”

How do people cope after being sanctioned? This is the question no one seems to know the answer to.

In October 2012 the government introduced tougher rules for welfare claimants. The minimum amount of time for a job seekers allowance (JSA) sanction was lengthened so that anyone deemed to be breaking the rules (for example missing an appointment, turning down a job or arriving late for an interview) would have their money stopped for at least a month. The maximum sanction was increased from six months to three years.

At the recent work and pensions select committee, which was investigating the tougher sanctions regime, Esther McVey failed to demonstrate that the government had done any research into the impact they have on individual’s lives.

Since the new rules came in, a total of 884,479 people have been sanctioned at least once. 668,059 people have had to survive with no money for four weeks, 373,603 had to get by for three months and 2048 people were cut off for three years.

Here is one story, from the hundreds of thousands of people affected, of what it feels like to be unemployed and have your benefits suddenly withdrawn.

Jake’s story

Jake (not his real name) lives in the North of England and has been sanctioned twice for not attending appointments with his work programme provider, appointments he says he was not aware of.

The first time his money was stopped for six months, the second time was four weeks. He appealed the most recent sanction explaining he hadn't been told about the appointment and that he was on a work trial at a local factory when it was due to take place. Despite providing evidence and contacting his local MP he lost the case. “I had to get on with the sanction and grin and bear it” he says.

Jake relied on friends and family for support and went to a food bank so he could eat. Food banks provide three days of emergency food to people who have been referred to them. Jake didn’t always have enough to feed himself properly.

“I was malnourished and lost loads of weight as I wouldn’t eat for days on end."

Jake is angry. During the first sanction he says he was given wrong advice and was not made aware he had to continue attending the job centre to keep his claim live even though he was not receiving any money.

“It was a simple case of you are sanctioned and goodbye” he says. He doesn’t feel he was supported or listened to.

“I was given no help, advice, support whatsoever. No pointing in the direction of food banks, citizens advice, nothing at all.”

The situation he found himself in took a serious toll on his mental health.

“I was on anti-depressants and also considered suicide on a number of occasions. There was nothing to live for. No food, heating, electric, hope.

 “I pleaded with them, I said I will not be able to eat or live. I told them about my mental state and how I was on anti-depressants and that the sanction wasn’t helping me.”

The DWP emphasize that people can apply for hardship payments if they can prove they won’t have enough money to live on during a sanction. These payments are a reduced amount, usually 60% of Job seekers allowance. People have to wait two weeks before they can apply and many people are unaware of them.

Jake didn’t receive hardship payments. He applied but by the time he could sort it out the sanction period was over.

Over a year later Jake is still feeling the effects. He’d like to move but can’t due to rent arrears and says he will be paying back debts for the next decade.

“I am currently £3000 in debt as a result with rent arrears, council tax arrears and court costs from fighting the sanction.

“I’m going to be in debt for the whole of my thirties. Ten years in total to pay the debts off. All due to these draconian sanctions.”

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Dehumanising the unemployed: The tiny numbers behind the governments latest welfare reform plans

David Cameron has announced two plans for cracking down on welfare claimants in the past few days.

Yesterday was the turn of job seekers aged 18 - 21 who, he claimed, would be 'helped' by having to work for their unemployment benefits.

Young people will have to clean up graffiti or make meals for the elderly for 30 hours a week to receive £57.35 unemployment benefit. They will effectively be working for £1.91 an hour.

"That well-worn path - from the school gate, down to the jobcentre, and on to a life on benefits - has got to be rubbed away," Mr Cameron said.

But there are far fewer people on that 'well-worn path' to a life on benefits than you may imagine, and as David Cameron surely knows. A freedom of information request from 2013 showed there were only 1070 people who had been claiming JSA for more than ten years across the UK - just 0.07% of the total number of job seekers.

Likewise, all those obese people David Cameron was targeting over the weekend - latest government statistics reveal there are only 1780 people on disability benefits due to obesity.

With such small numbers involved these plans seem more about hardening public perceptions of welfare claimants than targeting entrenched social problems.

They do exactly what the Church of England warned against in their letter published today, they “stir up resentment against some identifiable ‘other’" and dehumanise the unemployed.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Those who don’t count aren't counted

I recently witnessed an unemployed woman at a jobcentre shouting that she would never ever set foot in there again. The woman, who had just been told her benefits would be cut off for thirteen weeks, stormed past two security guards who turned to each other and joked “that’s another one off the books."

As she left the jobcentre and walked out of sight, she dropped off the claimant count, vanished from official statistics and possibly became one of more than a million invisible unemployed people in the UK. Or she may have found a job. We will never know.

Trying to find out the fate of jobseekers after they are sanctioned is almost impossible. The DWP only count how many people stop claiming benefits. Nobody in government seems to have wondered what happens after someone is cut off from all their money, so there are no figures showing how many sanctioned people continue to sign on, how many get jobs, how many simply disappear.

At this month’s Logan conference, data journalist Jean-Marc Manach talked about a similar experience of trying to find out how many people died while immigrating to Europe. When he began looking for answers he discovered that no EU member state held any data on migrants’ death. Why? In the words of one public official, dead migrants “aren't migrating anymore, so why care?” 

His award winning project The Migrant Files filled in the gap.

What counts? What's counted?

If you want to know what those in power do care about, a good place to start is to find out what data they collect.

In the case of migrants, European governments tend to want to keep the number low so they record the people who arrive and ignore the others who never quite made it.

With unemployed people, the DWP currently measure how many people leave the benefits system, not how many get jobs or start training, simply how many people stop claiming – this goal, their key target for jobcentres, is called ‘off-flow'.

In other words, data is collected which shows progress towards the outcome they want. Anything (or anyone) which falls outside of this tends to be ignored.


The trouble with these narrow targets is that they can produce nasty consequences.

It would hardly be surprising if the DWP’s sole target of ‘off-flow’ caused jobcentre staff to start applying a few more sanctions here and there, knocking more people off benefits and improving their performance statistics.

In response to four hour waiting time goals a few years ago, A&E staff began moving people around the hospital as the time limit approached, risking the patient's health as they tried to manage the figures.

And it’s not just pressurised employees who may change the way they do things. Those in power can do appalling things with one eye on the statistics. This year the British government decided it would stop saving drowning migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, claiming search and rescue operations acted as a ‘pull factor’ attracting more people to Europe. 

The story

The official data put out by local authorities or government departments frames the picture. Who's counting what is important to pick apart because the numbers create the narrative. They provide statistics for press releases, for newspaper headlines and for politicians to quote in parliament. 

“What gets measured gets managed” is how the management saying goes but often what is being managed is the public perception of an issue. The data may show a falling claimant count, shorter A&E waiting times or fewer migrants, with no mention of the havoc caused elsewhere.

It's hard to report on what cannot be seen. If drowned migrants and destitute unemployed people are invisible in official statistics they can begin to fade away in the public imagination.

Filling in the gaps

But the human cost of these policies usually appears somewhere. Research into the impact of sanctions in Brighton showed the knock on effect they were having on local mental health services, probation services and emergency food providers.

The angry, upset woman who left the jobcentre after being sanctioned may well have shown up at her local food bank, or A&E department within the next couple of weeks.

It’s only when you begin to fill in the gaps, or join the dots, or look beyond the narrow frame provided by the authorities that a truer, fuller picture begins to emerge. It’s not just what the data shows that's important it’s also what, and who, is missing.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Unemployed and not claiming - number continues to rise

Chart by Inclusion

Unemployment statistics released this week reveal the number of unemployed people not receiving any benefits has risen by 37,000 over the past three months even while unemployment has fallen overall.

Labour Force Survey Unemployment
The Office for National Statistics latest figures showed unemployment fell by 63,000 in the three months up to November and currently stands at 1,958,000.

Claimant Count
The number of unemployed people claiming Jobseekers Allowance also fell. There are now 900,100 Jobseekers Allowance claimants - down 26,900 between October and November.

Unemployed but not claiming
But against this backdrop of falling unemployment one statistic continues to rise - the number of people who are not getting any state support.

As the graph above shows, the percentage of unemployed people who are not receiving Jobseekers Allowance is now 51.4%.

That means that of the 1,958,000 people currently looking for a job in this country, 1,005,000 of them are not receiving any benefits. Very little is known about how these people are managing.

Previous figures released by the ONS in September showed the number of people in this situation was 968,000 - so the number has risen by 37,000 people even while unemployment and the claimant count falls.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Logan Symposium - Day two

The Logan Symposium - Day two

I was lucky enough to attend The Logan Symposium  at the weekend, a conference about secrecy, surveillance and censorship which I found fascinating (and somewhat paranoia inducing at times).

Saturday was packed full of talks and presentations from investigative journalists, whistleblowers  hackers, photographers and more, with much of the day focused on protecting sources and whistleblowers in what many were calling a 'surveillance state'.

Special Guest

Famous American whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers in 1971, made a surprise appearance in the morning and talked of his admiration for Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

"Secrets are not kept so much by technical means but by people", he said, with thousands on the inside keeping them.

"Mainly by people who want to keep their jobs, careers, their children going to good schools... their identity as someone loyal and trustworthy."

These secrets only have to be kept long enough for injustice to happen.

He wrapped up his inspiring talk by advising potential whistleblowers to make sure information got out in time to make a difference.

"Don’t do what I did, do what I wish I had done. Go in a timely way... A war's worth of lives may be saved."

Protecting sources and whistleblowers

Protecting those brave enough to speak out was the topic of many of the discussions.

Investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, categorised two types of whistleblower:

1. Someone who sticks their head up, identifies themselves and speaks up.

2. A leaker – someone providing a huge public service but never identified and able to carry on with their career.

He said he'd never had a whistleblower in the first category - in his view expecting a someone to speak out publicly was condemning them to a life of trouble.

This sentiment was echoed by other speakers throughout the day and best summed up below by Bea Edwards

How to protect sources (and yourself)

We also heard lots of useful, practical information about how to protect whistleblowers and sources in today's world.

Hacker, Jacob Appelbaum, gave a talk on anonymity via video link in the afternoon and talked about the lengths journalists need to go to protect their sources.

His advice - mobile phones are compromised. Don't use Skype (he was scathing about Skype). Using the internet anonymously via Tails for investigative journalism is a minimum thing, he said. 

Another speaker, Annie Machon, a former MI5 Intelligence officer, had more guidance to offer on this subject. Her words were often chilling, especially when she referred to any spies in the audience and talked about teams of twenty people from the security services following targeted individuals around.

Her advice - first assess the risk, both to yourself and to the whistleblower. Think about where they come from. If they are coming from health they probably won't be imprisoned, she said. As a journalist, you could go to prison if you are seen to damage national security.

"You need to ask - what will happen to them? What will happen to you?"

Julian Assange

The day finished with Julian Assange who delivered a keynote speech on Fundamental Rights. The controversial figure was greeted with cheers and applause as he appeared on the huge screen above the stage via video link.

His main message was to educate people about growing surveillance in response to perceived security threats. He warned that growing surveillance on the Muslim population, or any minorities, would come back to bite us.

“If we allow seeds of injustice to grow in one part of the population soon enough it will affect the rest” he said.

You can see the speech in full here...