Iain Duncan Smith’s latest effort to prevent the publication of documents warning of the dangers of universal credit has been dismissed by a judge.
You can see the desperation quite clearly now. IDS’ team are throwing any old legal argument at the wall to see if it will stick. The judge’s casual dismissal of the arguments seems to show a flicker of resentment at having to hear them at all.
Quick recap: The information commissioner ruled the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) should release documents about the progress of universal credit, an assessment of independent reviews and a record of problems with it. He ruled against the release of a risk register – a department document listing possible problems with the scheme – but a tribunal overruled him and said it too should be published.
Basically, this is IDS’ worst nightmare: documentary evidence of the problems his department imagined universal credit could have, the scale of the problems which eventually transpired, and proof of whether they deliberately misled the public about the progress of the programme.
The DWP insisted publication would have a “chilling effect” on the working of the department – a standard defence against disclosure last used by Andrew Lansley to prevent publication of the risk register into his disastrous NHS reforms. The information tribunal ruled there was no evidence of that but that there was “strong public interest” in publication.
IDS appealed, as the government always does in these things. The DWP’s first argument was that the tribunal misunderstood the nature of the chilling effect and the evidence needed to support that argument.
Judge Wikeley gave it short shrift.
“[The chilling effect] is a well known concept, and I can see no support for the argument that the tribunal misunderstood its meaning. The opening sentence of paragraph 62 might perhaps have been better phrased, but it seems to me still some way from suggesting an arguable error of law. The tribunal was surely saying that whilst it heard Ms Cox’s [Sarah Cox, director of Universal Credit programme coordination, witness for the DWP] claim that disclosure would have a chilling effect, neither she nor the department provided any persuasive evidence to that effect.”
“In my view the tribunal here has done exactly what it is meant to do when weighing up the competing considerations in the application of the public interest test. It is plain from its comprehensive and cogent reasons that it has considered the evidence… applied its expertise and reached a decision that the chilling effect argument was unpersuasive.”
The DWP’s second argument – and this is where they get really desperate – is for ‘perversity. This states that the tribunal reached a decision which no reasonable tribunal, on a proper appreciation of the evidence and the law, would have reached. It’s obviously a very high threshold which they did little to reach.
Judge Wikeley found:
“This challenge, in my assessment, does not get near clearing this high hurdle. The tribunal identified the relevant issues, analysed the material evidence, made its findings and in that context reached its conclusions, explaining why it had done so. It seems to me its approach was entirely sustainable. The perversity ground is not arguable.”
Finally they tried to argue, weirdly, that the tribunal had not given due weight to the expertise of the DWP’s witness, Ms Cox. This was irrelevant, Judge Wikeley found. He said:
“An appeal to the upper tribunal is confined to a point of law. Upper tribunal judges cannot substitute their own view of the facts for that taken by the tribunal – not least as the tribunal is an expert tribunal in this specialist field. In my view this proposed ground of appeal, as with the second, adds nothing to the first ground of appeal on the chilling effect. I conclude it is not arguable.”
So there you have it. God knows how much taxpayer money dedicated to making these frivolous legal appeals – all in a bid to save the work and pension’s secretary’s blushes.
When we ask the Home Office, they refuse to answer. I’ll fire off a Freedom of Information request to the DWP on their legal costs later today, but I doubt the answer will be any different. The government is very good at not recording data it wishes to remain secret.
When there are disability benefits which need cutting, every pound counts. When it’s the secretary of state who needs saving, the government’s wallet bursts at the seams.
Today Iain Duncan Smith is being questioned by the Commons work and pensions committee on universal credit, after finally admitting last week that the scheme’s targets had been “reset”. Last week, the petition calling for a cumulative impact assessment of the way welfare reform affects sick and disabled people, known as the WOW petition, passed 100,000 signatures, triggering its consideration for debate by the backbench business committee. To add to Duncan Smith’s woes, the well-respected Centre for Welfare Reform has released details of its report, How Norms Become Targets, which exposes the myth that Atos, the private company responsible for assessing the needs of people unable to work, does not do so on the basis of targets.
Today also sees the publication of the stunning People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment (pdf). It has been compiled by the anonymous organisation, We Are Spartacus, whose activism in this area has been hugely empowering. The report is a collection of statistics surrounding welfare reform and reactions of MPs, charities and professional groups to the way in which it has been administered. An almanac of condemnation, if you will. Most importantly, the report compiles statements from sick and disabled people actually going through the system.
These are most encouraging developments and point to a sea-change in the way our democracy works in this internet age. There is no doubt that without extensive use of the internet and social media, the compilation of such a detailed report would have been impossible and its publication unnoticed. For too long, this group of most vulnerable people, many of them with serious health and mobility problems, have been too easy a target for cost-cutting governments of all hues to demonise, recalibrate and victimise. This is no longer the case. Vulnerable people have grabbed the issue by the scruff of the neck and are taking the fight to the government. It is inspirational and points the way to a level of democratisation hitherto unseen.
I encourage you to read the report. It is packed with striking statistics and heartrending stories, in the words of people being put through this inhuman and degrading assessment. It contains the stories of those who can no longer speak, having taken their own lives or succumbed to their illness, while being hounded by the very department which is meant to protect them, people like Peter whose leg fused as a result of injury and, having suffered a stroke which meant he couldn’t grip with one hand, received a text telling him to attend the Jobcentre. He sent his partner a text which read “I give up”. He was found hanging at his home.
It contains incredibly powerful quotes which show that dissatisfaction with Atos is spread across MPs of all parties. Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP, said of the assessment procedure: “Not surprisingly, it adds to their [claimants] sense of worthlessness – already stoked by a longstanding political narrative from both sides of the political divide that they are ‘shirkers, not workers’ or a drain on Britain’s ‘hardworking people’. They are neither.”
It contains tragic and often simultaneously humorous stories of ridiculous assessment reports, like the one on a 59-year-old woman who had had a hysterectomy following cervical cancer, which observed: “There is no evidence that the client is currently pregnant.” Or the one which concluded that someone who took an overdose of medication the previous night had “no current thoughts of self harm”.
This programme of welfare reform was always doomed to fail for a very simple reason. The purpose of welfare is to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable; its reform must have their interests at heart, rather than cost-cutting targets. Proper reform costs money. Duncan Smith himself recognised this simple fact before he came into power. In 2009, explaining his proposed reforms, he recognised that they would lead to a rise in the welfare bill in the short-term.
Iain Duncan Smith’s fall from grace, because of a botched IT system which has already caused £140m to be written off, is properly a cause of both frustration and comedy – like Al Capone being arrested for tax evasion. But I must ask, we all must ask: how many of the vulnerable people mentioned in the Spartacus report would still be alive today if that money has been properly spent?
On 28th September, disabled activists and supporters came to Parliament Square for ‘10,000 Cuts & Counting’, a ceremony of remembrance and solidarity for over 10,000 who died shortly after the degrading Work Capability Assessments run for the government by Atos.
The ceremony, in the square bounded by the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court and the Treasury was organised by the 10,000 Cuts & Counting Campaign including disability activists, Occupy activists and the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral for those who have had their lives devastated by the austerity programme.
A large area of Parliament Square was covered by white flowers to represent the more than 10,000 people who have died shortly after undergoing the Atos Work Capability Assessment, the degrading test used by the government to assess the needs of people receiving benefits related to disability and ill health.
The event included a number of moving testimonies by disabled people and a mother of three disabled children, and these including many damning indictments of the failures of Atos and the Department of Work and Pensions, with a failure to understand the needs of the disabled or to treat them with dignity and humanity, of deliberately discriminatory policies, arbitrary decisions and bureaucratic incompetence.
The government appears to have taken a highly cynical approach, mistakenly seeing the disabled as and easy touch for cuts, thinking they would be unable to defend themselves. But nothing has proved further from the truth, with disabled activists at the vanguard of protests against benefit cuts and in particular the bedroom tax. These have put a totally unfair burden on disabled people, and they have responded with fury and some purpose. Many of those who spoke or sat listening in wheelchairs were those who I have got to know blocking roads, picketing Atos, occupying the DWP and more.
As well as the many testimonies, there was a 2 minutes of silent remembrance for those who have suffered and died and then four prayers facing the four sides of the square: towards Westminster Abbey for the families of those who have suffered and disabled people still suffering or despairing; facing the Supreme Court calling for justice and compassion for those without resources and power and for an end to discrimination and violence against the disabled; towards the Treasury calling on those in national and local government who decide on the use of resources to take into account the effect on people of what they do; and finally towards Parliament, calling for a new deal for disabled people and to put right the evident wrongs in the current system.
The event was led by David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, together with well-known Sunni Muslim Mohammed Ansar. Michael Meacher MP made a powerful speech, and when I left both John McDonnell MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP were waiting to speak, along with a number of disabled activists.
Citizens Advice warns that a lack of planning and clear direction from ministers about Universal Credit is causing anxiety and making the implementation of the Government’s flagship programme harder.
Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:
“Even as Universal Credit is being rolled-out, we still do not know what support will be put in place to help people to move onto the new system.
“The NAO is right to highlight a lack of planning by Government. Ministers have been frustratingly unclear about what support will be made available to ensure there is a strong safety net to help people make the transition to Universal Credit. Clearer direction from Government would ensure taxpayers get value for money and give people facing hard times the support they need.
“Even though only a tiny number of people have so far moved onto Universal Credit, many people across the country are already going to our bureaux because they don’t know what’s happening. Constant uncertainty adds to the anxiety people are feeling about the new system. More than 23,000 people went to our website for advice on Universal Credit between April and July this year.
“A staggering nine out of ten Citizens Advice Bureaux clients told us they will need some support with budgeting or getting online as they move onto the new system.
“Government must allow people to choose whether they get monthly or fortnightly payments for the first twelve months to help them budget, and banks must make basic accounts available to ensure claimants can actually get their money.
“Implementing Universal Credit has the potential to make or break millions of families. The new benefit must be introduced slowly and correctly, not quickly and badly.”
Via http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk via Matthew
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s department was told to act because of deep concerns about Atos at No10
Ministers have been ordered to revamp their “appalling” benefits testing system after they found 41% of claimants may have been wrongly passed fit to work.
The Government admitted many tests carried out by private firm Atos between October 2012 and March 2013 were “C grade”.
The French company said that did not mean its reports were wrong but it has been told to create an action plan.
Employment Minister Mark Hoban said new firms will also help carry out work capability assessments – the controversial tests which decide if someone on incapacity benefit is fit to work.
Meanwhile in a further blow for the DWP, the Coalition’s youth contract scheme has helped 4,600 18 to 24-year-olds in the past year – missing its target by more than 90%.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s department was told to act because of deep concerns about Atos at No10.
And Labour’s Liam Byrne said Mr Duncan Smith needed to “get a grip”.
He said: “This is a direct consequence of three years appalling contract management by Iain Duncan Smith.
“He has quite simply let Atos spin out of control and the taxpayer and vulnerable people are picking up the pieces.
“There are now profound questions about Atos’ role going forward. We will study this statement in detail, but it is now vital the Government rebuilds a system that’s fit for purpose.
In a statement Atos Healthcare said: “We continue to provide Work Capability Assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions and continue to support the need to increase the number of health professionals on the ground to minimise waiting times and improve the system for those going through it.
“We are sorry when we do not meet our own high standards but can reassure that a ‘C’ grade report does not mean the assessment was wrong and there are checks and balances throughout the system so that the correct decision on benefit is made by the Department.”
In a further blow to Mr Duncan Smith, figures showed the Government’s flagship youth contract scheme had helped just 4,600 18-24-year-olds between June 2012 and May 2013.
The scheme offers firms a subsidy of up to £2,275 for taking on someone who has been out of work for at least six months and was supposed to have helped 160,000 young people.
But DWP figures showed it had missed its target by more than 90%.
Mr Byrne added: “The Youth Contract has utterly failed to get our young people back to work. This flagship scheme is on course to miss its target by more than 92% – no wonder there are still almost a million young people out of work.
“The welfare revolution we were promised has fallen apart. The Work Programme doesn’t work, Universal Credit is disappearing into the sunset, and now we know that the Youth Contract has been a disaster.”
#RT via Welfare News Service via www.mirror.co.uk
Just one in 10 households are set to gain anything from the Con-Dem universal credit scheme, with half actually losing out.
Trade unionists and child poverty campaigners called on Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith yesterday to take note as they released a damning report on the economic effect of his benefits changes.
The scheme combines a range of benefits – from jobseeker’s allowance to housing benefit and income support for those on low wages – into a single lump sum paid in arrears each month.
The millionaire minister hailed a pilot scheme launched in Manchester earlier this month as starting a “fundamental cultural shift,” moving people off benefits and into work.
But critics have already warned the scheme carries heavy sanctions for those already in work but too poorly paid to support themselves.
Claimants on minimum-wage jobs of less than 35 hours a week risk losing their benefits unless they trawl classifieds, attend job interviews with 48 hours’ notice or even quit the job they already have.
Ninety-four per cent of two earner couples with children will receive less in benefits by the end of 2015 than they would under the existing regime, while 76 per cent of working-lone parents will also miss out.
But the biggest losers would be working people with disabilities, as the government’s decision to scrap the severe disability premium – an allowance for people without an adult carer – would cost some £3,000 a year.
The coalition’s cull of working tax credits for workers with disabilities would also mean an additional drop in annual incomes of at least £2,800 each year.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said ministers had ignored the policy’s pitfalls in the current economic crisis with under-employment rife and official jobseeker figures five times greater than the number of existing vacancies.
“Ministers must not turn a blind eye to these problems or universal credit will fail to help those very people it has been designed to support.”
The report was a “useful blueprint” for a government wanting to make a real difference, she said.
And Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Alison Garnham added the high costs of housing and childcare to the mix.
“Many of universal credit’s shortcomings can be fixed but if the government wants to reduce poverty, it needs to take a long, hard look at its broader policies rather than expect universal credit to save the day.”
#RT via http://welfarenewsservice.com