Ruth Hunt talks to NICK DILWORTH about the statistical chicanery denying work assessment victims open justice
AFTER a long wait, the much anticipated benefit claimant death figures were finally released by Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) this summer after being blocked for months. So, what have we learnt and why haven’t the figures made more of an impact in the media?
Welfare rights specialist Nick Dilworth thinks it’s because “the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) attempted to blind those who’d requested information with science. You’d need a degree in mathematics to properly understand the explanation surrounding the age-standardised mortality rates” (ASMR).
Dilworth paints a picture of the confusion, describing how “the statistical big guns were within hours reaching for their calculators, each coming to a different figure — 2,380 dead, 2,500 dead, 4,000 dead?
“Subsequently the media were misled over the right figures with the DWP issuing a wholly inadequate explanation. Most settled on 2,600 dead, which is a great disappointment to the real victims. They would be entitled to assume the number could be far higher given the scope for many simply not appearing because the DWP failed to provide a comprehensive and all-inclusive explanation.”
It’s important to remember those who’ve had a family member die and who wanted to hear the wider picture. Yet as Dilworth says, “bloggers were also reaching different findings, some making out there was no story while others implied it was a national outrage. Obfuscating the proof was what IDS wanted to achieve, with distraction being a key part of his strategy.”
Dilworth, unlike many commentators, refused to be drawn into this game, instead taking a step back to consider in depth what the figures revealed. He came to six key conclusions:
- The DWP data only related to claimants whose incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance ended because they died. A total of 81,140 people on either benefit died between December 2011 and February 2014.
- The data lacked clarity over whether the correct total for those who died with a “fit for work” finding on their claim was 2,650 or 4,010. As a result, mainstream media issued press articles and headlines which deflected the serious issue raised regarding the fact people had died while deemed “fit for work.”
- Readers of the statistics were thrown a red herring by the DWP’s poorly worded explanation. As a result it was wrongly reported that people had died within two and six weeks of being found “fit for work.” The reference to between two and six weeks related only to aligning the date of death with the closure of the deceased person’s claim.
- Figures of between 2,650 and 4,010 only relate to people who had appealed. In 1,360 “completed appeal cases” this can only mean people who had successfully contested a “fit for work” finding, and then subsequently died thereafter. In the case of those who’d not had their appeal heard, the inevitable conclusion can only be they were still within the appeal system at the time of their death.
- The figures omitted those who’d been found “fit for work” and then either came off benefits or were claiming an entirely different benefit. This left a considerable question mark over the usefulness of the statistics for those who were owed real answers. These were not provided by the generalised issue or age-standardised mortality figures — which excluded large numbers of claimants who made more than one claim for the same benefit (repeat claims were specifically excluded).
- It can reasonably be assumed that a large number of those found fit for work would have gone on to claim jobseekers allowance (JSA). What is known from separate Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures is that between December 2011 and February 2014, 7,645,130 people came off JSA — of which only 3,241,885 found work. An incredible 2,402,755 are recorded as “failed to sign on.” It leaves considerable scope for anyone dying not to be included in the figures at all because the jobcentre won’t have any reason as to why their claim ended.
Dilworth says: “One such person who won’t be included in the DWP’s ‘fit for work’ death statistics is Michael O’Sullivan (aged 60.) He died after having to claim JSA after being refused employment support allowance. Tragically Mr O’Sullivan took his own life after being found ‘fit for work’ twice by the DWP’s heartless back-to-work regime.
“A coroner has confirmed the suicide verdict is to be directly linked to the work capability assessment process. It is astonishing so many of the media articles associated with deaths and these tests cite suicide, stress or some other strong indicator that the deceased was seriously affected by the decision on their claim.
“Invariably these show all too often people are attempting to navigate the DWP’s bureaucratic appeal process and so it is tragic that in some of these cases the unfairness of the ‘fit for work’ decision is only corrected at a posthumous appeal, by which time it’s sadly too late.”
He continues: “Other death cases which can in some way be related to fit for work findings include those of Jacqueline Harris, 53; Ms DE, in her late 50s, who was the subject of a very detailed study by the Scottish Mental Health Commission; David Barr, 28; Colin Traynor, 29; Graham Shawcross, 63; Shaun Pilkington, 58; Edward Jacques, 47; Tim Salter, 53; and David O’Mar, 58.
“These 10 deaths are striking in that they almost all relate to people who have not only been found fit for work but have also had to battle with the DWP to reverse a decision which they thought was unfair.
“IDS, when speaking with the Press Association, declared his overriding objective in these reforms was all about ‘saving lives.’ Clearly that’s not happening: it beggars belief that a duff set of statistics is enough to answer the deep probing questions demanded of these perilous reforms. He owes everyone a decent explanation, particularly those who have lost someone dear, and still have no answer as to what it was that went wrong.”
A suicide in a family or a death triggered by intense pressure and stress can permanently scar loved ones. These are the people who deserve to hear the truth, not simply data within such tight parameters as to be virtually meaningless.
“It’s very much IDS’s modus operandi for the DWP,” Dilworth says, “to respond to a potential outrage by throwing people off the scent, ensuring the media divert attention from the blatant, systemic failure in IDS’s department. However, now we know how much data has been withheld, we must demand the full figures are released.”
- Anyone affected by the issues in this article can contact Samaritans on 116 123 (UK and ROI) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Nick Dilworth is a welfare rights specialist, consultant and co-founder with New Approach (www.newapproachuk.org). - -
- Ruth F Hunt is author of The Single Feather (Pilrig Press).