All I want is the Government to say how many people on benefits have died under their watch – why does Iain Duncan Smith think I'm 'disgraceful'?

You can't help think that the Government is trying to hide something

Mike Sivier
Thursday 25 June 2015 16:10
Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith
Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith

David Groves was 56 when he died of a heart attack the night before taking his work capability assessment. His widow claimed that it was the stress that killed him. Terry McGarvey, 48, who suffered from polycytheamia, asked for an ambulance to be called during his Work Capability Assessment. He knew that he wasn’t well enough to attend his WCA but feared that his benefits would be stopped if he did not. He died the following day.

When the sick and disabled have to fight the Government for their lives it's a sad indictment against our nation. Why is it so hard for our Tory Government to tell us how many people on benefits have died under their watch? And why has the campaign for the numbers to be released been called "disgraceful" by Iain Duncan Smith?

As a political blogger specialising in welfare issues, I have been aware of the horror stories facing benefit claimants for years. It all began with claims in a 2012 Panorama documentary that the "work capability assessment" medical examination on claimants of Employment and Support Allowance was causing extreme, occasionally life-threatening stress.

This assessment comes in the form of a tick-box questionnaire, adapted from one previously used by an American insurance company to find ways of refusing payment to customers. Severely disabled people were found "fit for work" if they were able to do nothing more than press a button repeatedly. How many jobs fit that description?

I was shocked to discover late last year, again from a Panorama documentary, that people who admitted suicidal thoughts were routinely asked why they had not killed themselves – and some of them then did.

Other stories told how people who had lost their benefit went through a lengthy and appallingly stressful appeal process – and won – only to receive a letter informing them that they were to be reassessed, on arriving home from the tribunal.

I wanted to obtain more information about the mortality statistics, and the DWP clammed up. I became unhappy with simply reporting developments and started submitting Freedom of Information requests for updated death figures.

The DWP refused to honour them. Ministers claimed they did not have to provide the information because they were preparing to publish new statistics, but no publication date was set and time was ticking on. These figures are time-sensitive, you see. It is important they are published regularly in order to modify harmful – or indeed fatal – policies. So I appealed against the decision and won. But now the DWP is taking the matter to a tribunal because it insists on withholding the information.

The Government is now planning to publish the death details as "Age-Standardised Mortality Rates" (ASMRs). These will be as a ratio compared with the population as a whole. It's a fudge – a bid to put off investigators by putting the information in a way that cannot be compared with previous releases.

You can't help but think: what does the Government have to hide? Why is it necessary to waste years putting the information into a form that nobody wants, when all the numbers are available and could be published tomorrow? And why did supporters of my campaign have to eventually launch a petition, which currently has almost a quarter of a million signatures, to convince the Government of the public's concern?

I have an email from the DWP, dated October 21, 2013, stating that the Department has most of the requested information and could publish it within cost limits. So why hasn't it been published? And why did the Prime Minister say that the Government would release the figures, when the DWP was planning to fob us off with ratios, not hard numbers? Are he and Duncan Smith terrified that the death toll, if published, would cause an outcry? In my view, this seems likely.

The DWP's appeal against me states that the statistics are likely to be misinterpreted: “Incorrect conclusions were likely to be drawn as to causal links between assessment outcomes and mortality.” But FOI requests are motive-blind; it doesn't matter how the DWP thinks the figures will be used. All that matters is whether the DWP has the information and can publish it within cost limits.

It does, and it can.

So let's have it.

To sign the petition asking Iain Duncan Smith to release the statistics, you can go here:

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