The shocking news that in two years up to February last year some 2,380 disabled claimants died within two weeks of being assessed as fit for work as part of the governments Work Capability Assessment Programme (WCAP), is finally beginning to make the mainstream. I am a regular listener to LBC Radio and the issue is now a regular feature of many phone in shows. How long it will take before it makes peak time BBC television news bulletins is another matter, but at least the topic is making some inroads which has to be encouraging.
Such is the sheer brutality and callousness of Iain Duncan Smith, that the U.N now proposes to act in circumstances where the government resists. At the very least, the potential setting up of a U.N inquiry into Tory welfare reforms on the back of the deaths in the manner of, for example, Goldstone, could theoretically, in the longer term, result in the man responsible for causing untold misery and suffering being brought to justice.
But even if the U.N ultimately proves to be toothless as it was in terms of the misnamed Israel-Gaza conflict, the negative publicity they will generate for the government will be invaluable. Secondly, and even more importantly, the WCAP must be stopped in its tracks irrespective of the U.Ns findings. But short of electing an effective opposition into power worthy of the name, how can this be achieved in the short term?
Currently, as Michael Meacher acknowledged, parliament has no power to instigate an immediate emergency debate, Neither has it the power to force an inquiry into the workings of WCAP. So leaving aside the proposed U.N intervention, the options appear to be extremely limited. Questions have been raised in the House regarding the deaths but these were sidestepped. In any case, it’s telling that the questions were only asked in the first place because of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
The figures only came to light (conveniently) during the recent bank holiday, clearly in the expectation that they would be forgotten about. But it took nearly four months for them to be released and only then after pressure was applied as a result of a ruling by the Information Commissioner. The DWP had appealed against the Information Commissioner’s ruling and only gave up when campaigning blogger Mike Sivier submitted an application for the appeal to be struck out as an abuse of process. As Mike says, the DWP’s response to his FoI request shows three things very clearly
Firstly, that the DWP is very bad at responding to FoI requests – in terms of both timing and content. The response is deliberately written to make it as opaque as possible, and does not include all the information I requested, and this reflects poorly on both the department and its ministers. Therefore I shall be writing to the First-tier Tribunal (information rights), asking that a hearing scheduled for November 10 should still take place because the DWP has not answered my request.
Secondly, that despite the poor quality of the report, it is clear that the work capability assessment is not fit for purpose and the misallocation of people with long term illnesses – either into the work-related activity group or into the jobs market, classified ‘fit for work’ – has certainly led to needless deaths. Iain Duncan Smith said as much last week but it should not save him. Evidence that this was the case has been available since December 2011, when the number of deaths of people on ESA tripled – yes, tripled – in comparison with the average for the previous 11 months. The DWP and its ministers have been hiding this information from us for nearly four years. In the eyes of the law, that is criminal negligence – corporate manslaughter.
Thirdly, that the principles on which Employment and Support Allowance was designed are causing deaths. When Mrs Mike’s Contributory ESA ran out (she used to be in the work-related activity group), her benefit was cut off with no notification or advice about what to do next. How many others have received the same treatment? Many, it seems, according to the DWP’s statistics which show that the number of ‘unknown’ cases (into which these people are thrown as their NI credits are still paid) has dropped while the proportion of deaths in that group has increased hugely, year on year.
The fact that the issues relating to the WCAP are only now beginning to enter the wider public consciousness and, moreover, almost certainly reveal the tip of a much larger ice berg will, in years to come, be regarded as one of the greatest domestic political scandals of recent times.
The fact that the deaths have been brought into the open should be sufficient justification for the scrapping of the WCAP with immediate effect with a view to bringing a prosecution forward for all those responsible for hiding the facts from us for so long. I wonder if Blair and Duncan Smith like the same prison food?