Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Ban This Sick Filth

The employment minister Chris Grayling is adamant that he is opposed to an eligibility assessment for any sickness or disability benefit which is based on....real life. The government want tests to be fair, rigourous and objective, so naturally that means it's as far from real life as possible. They are committed to reducing the number of successful appeals, so have taken such steps as allowing the company that does the assessments to look at the appeal information that most people would regard as being a flagrant breach of the Data Protection Act. The DWP have also been ringing claimants who have been found 'fit for work' to persuade them not to appeal or ask for a reconsideration.

But Grayling went the extra mile, because he cares. You see the Ministry Of Justice has oversight of the appeals and have seen the ballooning costs. Their idea for reducing those costs were to give claimants as much information as possible about the appeals process so it can all be done quickly and with convenience for everyone. So they made a little video. But Chris Grayling wants to reduce costs(and embarrassment) by reducing the number of people even trying to appeal. So for our own good, he had this Ministry Of Justice video removed from their YouTube channel.

But now it has been reinstated. And now it's gone again. What a surprise. Someone else did what I should have done though and downloaded the video to mirror it, I really should have thought it obvious that ministers would not try the same thing twice. I'm embedding the new mirrored video below.

The key facts Chris Grayling wants to suppress are:

1. You are twice as likely to win if you turn up to an appeal in person.

2. You are even more likely to win if someone who knows you or Citizens Advice comes to support you.

3. The way these odds add up, alongside the huge number of ESA claimants still in the Assessment Phase means the system is rigged against claimants. It was denied by Atos and the DWP that there were any targets for finding people 'fit for work' and Malcolm Harrington dismissed the idea saying he found no evidence for it. Details of the Atos contract with the DWP have since leaked and there is an implicit target. 

Evidence continues to pile up that ministers are allergic to the truth.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Universal Discredit (Part 2)

When the Guardian a few months ago described almost three-year old allegations about shenanigans at A4e as 'fresh revelations' as if it had not already been in the public domain but completely ignored by the newspapers, I set my mind to looking out for more cases where they do precisely this. I made a point of re-iterating my previous requests for articles about current welfare matters more frequently because it simply wasn't good enough that coverage was only being given months or even years after the fact. I suspected the reason for this was the Guardian was trying to avoid litigation or bad relations with corporate clients who sponsor their events and pay for advertising space. So the risk of being sued by reporting information already in the public domain soon after it comes out is taken on entirely by bloggers without the resources to defend themselves if it ever came to that. Then when enough time has passed without those bloggers being sued, the Guardian decides to pull their fingers out and partially cover an issue.

For this, Amelia Gentleman was awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism, whilst Kaliya Franklin was nominated but missed out on the Orwell for blogging. I don't want to be nasty about Amelia Gentleman(I am about to be), but having read the Rangers Tax Case blog which won the Orwell in that category it seemed Kaliya's BenefitScroungingScum blog was beaten by the best. Amelia Gentleman's nomination articles whilst good are still below the standards I'd expect for social affairs. She gets the human interest, but this does not provide the critical balance that is lacking in the British media, which is saturated with factual falsehoods about welfare. Human interest just doesn't cut it. In time, people will be forgotten but truth and lies are immortal: facts matter. If Gentleman provided the best political writing from a journalist for the last year, then the public are being poorly served by journalists. She won not because she was brilliant but because there was no one better.

Use your head to do this if you've ever tried getting journalists to listen
If the Guardian or Amelia Gentleman finds that assessment unfair, then they could easily change it by actually covering current events in welfare more often rather than old ones. They could challenge ministers rather than passively accept their comment as providing balance. That accounts for at least half of the factual inaccuracy in welfare articles at the Guardian; unchallenged ministerial assertions. This means that issues are treated purely as matters of opinion rather than being heavily rooted in demonstrable facts. They could share some of the burden of risk in being sued. This immense pressure is part of what I attribute to the suffering endured by Karen Sherlock in her final months. I told the Comment is Free editorship on the daily You Tell Us thread that I had fingers to point and this included the Guardian and it's cowardly behaviour.

Almost a week ago the Guardian made a fuss over how striking workers were going to be docked Universal Credit when it comes in. They printed this article as if this was some sudden surprise and I was reminded about their 'fresh revelations' from the A4e news-storm. But this isn't new. Campaigners against the Coalition's Welfare Reform Bill spotted in the text of the legislation that Universal Credit would behave in this way, but for everyone not just strikers. If you lose income which causes your UC claim to rise, there are conditions under which it will in fact be docked- you will be held responsible for not only this though but any lack of an increase in income. Claimants will be expected to keep increasing their income until they no longer claim at all, with JSA-type conditionality and sanctions for this if their income drops or just doesn't rise at a speed to be determined by the Secretary of State in either regulations or issued guidelines. Yes; the part about the conditionality is in the primary legislation, but the actual time scale and specific criteria are free for ministers to decide. That's how 'simplifying' the system leads to more regulations and guidelines, even after it is basically those which are used to argue how 'complicated' the benefits system is.

This does not reduce complex regulations and guidelines
The relevant parts of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 are Section 14 concerning the Claimant Commitment:
(1) A claimant commitment is a record of a claimant’s responsibilities in relation to an award of universal credit.
(2) A claimant commitment is to be prepared by the Secretary of State and may be reviewed and updated as the Secretary of State thinks fit.
(3) A claimant commitment is to be in such form as the Secretary of State thinks fit.
(4) A claimant commitment is to include—
(a) a record of the requirements that the claimant must comply with under this Part (or such of them as the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to include),
(b) any prescribed information, and
(c) any other information the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to include.
(5) For the purposes of this Part a claimant accepts a claimant commitment if, and only if, the claimant accepts the most up-to-date version of it in such manner as may be prescribed.
Sections 15-18 then detail the 'requirement groups' which include requirements to attend work-focused interviews, work preparation, work search and work availability. There are then other groups detailed in Sections 19-22 which are those with no requirements, those required to only do interviews, those required only to do interviews and preparation then those who are required to do all of them. For our purposes the one to focus on is who is not required to do any of these; Section 19. To fall into this category the primary legislation says:
A claimant falls within this section if—
(a) the claimant has limited capability for work and work-related activity,
(b) the claimant has regular and substantial caring responsibilities for a severely disabled person,
(c)t he claimant is the responsible carer for a child under the age of 1, or
(d) the claimant is of a prescribed description.
Everyone must agree to a Claimant Commitment. Anyone not in the four categories above in Section 19 is subject to the requirements stated in Section 14. For (d) where the claimant is of a prescribed description, the government has given themselves wriggle room in case it hits the fan. In Section 19 Subsection 3 it expands the general criteria which will go into regulations:
Regulations under subsection (2)(d) may in particular make provision by reference to one or more of the following—
(a) hours worked;
(b) earnings or income;
(c) the amount of universal credit payable.
The regulations are a statutory instrument that allows the government to change the law without having to pass a new Act of Parliament. This is however a large downgrade to the status of all the benefits that will be merged into Universal Credit: as it is now, they are all statutory entitlements where the Acts of Parliament that made them are binding, they are part of the law of the land. They are the reason why the government can be taken to tribunal or court if they refuse to pay benefits to someone who is rightly entitled to them. Universal Credit will be the first non-statutory social security payment for a very long time, I've not been able to find any other. This is why low-paid workers who strike are able to be docked from their Universal Credit claim. The Guardian think that is a big story, but the reasons behind it is something much bigger and broader.

Whilst the payment of benefit is no longer a strict statutory requirement, each of the Sections 15-18 contain this specific phrase in important places and it is a statutory requirement:
for the purpose of obtaining paid work (or more paid work or better-paid work)
That is not a condition applied to people out of work, the bit in brackets make it clear that if you aren't working enough or earning enough according to how the Secretary of State decides, you can be found in breach of both your Claimant Commitment and the statutory criteria for eligibility, where that statutory line has already been polarity-reversed. Where it appears it is also in language that gives over the greatest power to the Secretary of State. It's no longer what the law says you are entitled to, but the opinion of who ever is sitting in the seat currently occupied by Iain Duncan Smith and they're able to delegate that ability to an officer of the DWP.

Claimants of Jobseekers Allowance are the only group at the moment subjected to the legally-binding mechanism of having to sign a document like a Jobseekers Agreement, but even they are given the protection of statutory status in their basic eligibility. With Universal Credit, not only is that taken away for those who already have the most restrictive and severe conditionality; it gets applied to virtually everyone. It's no longer about being jobless, it's about being poor.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Universal Discredit (Part 1)

I'm really rather stupid. I have difficulty with the concept of...difficulty. I can either do something, or I can't. 'Effort' is not something I can attribute to difficulty because everything I do, even the simplest, smallest thing; it takes effort. I need to check my phone in case anyone has tried to contact me and I can definitely see that this is not something as objectionable as actually talking to a complete stranger on the phone (alarming, confusing and upsetting for very complicated and awkward reasons). But the difference is because real-time contact with someone demands expectations of me which are beyond what I can do. It's not that they are 'hard', I just can't do them even if others find them to be straightforward. This does not mean simply checking messages is 'easier', it just means that rather than going through a checklist of what I can't do, there are things I both can as well as can't. For each item there is an 'effort' regardless of whether I can do it or not and just because I can do something doesn't mean it's less of an effort than what I can't do. Sometimes I can 'effortlessly' achieve something otherwise impossible simply because I fluked it. If I write down a list of things to say in case someone rings, I have fluked my way through the conversation because I simply won't be able to tolerate the sound from the earpiece and will be listening at a distance for certain keywords. That's 'easy', doesn't mean I can actually do it because it was just dumb luck.

Dumb luck
If I were smart, the very most hardest things I could do would be epic and everything below my average achievements or easy would be simple, effortless. The only explanation for why my perspective on difficulty is binary 'can or can not' rather than a measure by degrees is that I am viewing everything from close to the bottom. It is easier to judge the size of tall buildings when you are high up, but from the ground the vanishing point just makes them all look the same and that is the perspective from which I am observing degrees of difficulty.

This sets up this post for two issues I want to talk about. I'll start with the quick one: I am sick to death of hearing how 'complicated' the benefits system is. To be clear, when I confronted Maria Miller last year shortly after starting this blog, I learned in a very short space of time, mere seconds, that her knowledge about social security and it's history in Britain was only about the same as mine if not slightly(very slightly) better. At least at that time. This is despite Miller having a few months of a head-start on me and staff that do all the hard work for her and supply her with briefing material. Miller is the most-informed out of the Cabinet, she is the best they can do, so what do I have that she doesn't? Autism? Or that I don't have political baggage interfering with my learning about the subject? Miller must interpret things through a lens that abides by the ideology, prejudices and interests of the political base below her that grant a safe seat(Basingstoke, I think is safe) in the House of Commons and those above her that graced her with office, including their doners and supporting newspapers. Whilst I'd consider myself of the Left; I don't ideologically support the welfare state(neither did socialists when it was first created, nor do many of them now) because I think there are more ideologically palatable alternatives. I like it for what it is, despair at it's failures and think it can be improved but no so much as a complete alternative would do better. That's for another time and another place, I never wanted the blog to be specifically political but the crux is this: any sufficiently interested person can in a rather short space of time learn as much about it as those who are entrusted to make critical policy decisions about it. It is not that complicated.

There is a vast amount of information, it would take a decade to learn it all and each year more is added. But this information is basically just thousands of facts which are similar. Once you know the difference between a total and a net on/off-flow and their relationship, or a descriptor and a regulation or a guideline; the rest is straightforward, you're simply memorising numbers and priority-orders. Thousands of similar facts. So why do politicians and journalists insist on claiming(with no supporting evidence) that it is complicated? What they usually do is point to the list of benefits and say "look at that", but just because a benefit is still on the statute books does not mean there is anyone left claiming it. Most of these things like 'Industrial Injuries Benefit' have little or no claimants left, there's certainly no on-flows so including benefits like these as 'complexity' which DWP decision makers are dealing with now is blatant deception.

Some point to the DWP decision makers handbook, the guidelines they are set with for awarding certain benefits. There are two big problems with this; first that decision makers are not going to be making decisions about lots of different benefits. Some will make decisions about ESA, others about JSA and others about Income Support(the basis I'm using for this is that these all have different processing times when an initial claim goes in, meaning they are separate caseloads for decision makers). They only need to know what the guidelines are for those benefits they directly dealing with. These are not primary or secondary legislation or even set regulations but the policy decisions made by ministers and civil servants within the bounds of the statutory framework. What's so complicated about "they can set any guidelines they want as long as it's legal"? When politicians talk about 'simplifying the system' and the masses of guidelines are cited as evidence that their reforms are necessary; they don't target the guidelines but the law that restricts what the regulations can be which restrict what the guidelines can be so we end up with more, not less guidelines.

Such is the case with the next issue I want to talk about: the conditionality for Universal Credit.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

We Who Are Left

There is nothing wrong with me. I'm 'disabled', because despite what I can do which makes me 'able-bodied' and 'able-minded' I also carry with me a specific list attached to my identity which defines certain things I can not do. Everyone has a list of things they can't do(and if you haven't written it yet, write that down that you haven't probably because you can't, so at least no one can accuse you of not trying), but I am disabled because my list has certain things written on it and these are things which almost everyone else can not only do but do so with little discomfort or preparation.

But there is nothing wrong with me. I can list lots of reasons why. I can debate them. I can repeat myself and I can disingenuously say that I have never lost an argument on this subject with someone who disagreed. It doesn't mean that my most powerful detractor is weak or can't blow my reasoning skills out of the water and make me doubt my position. That's because the detractor in question is reality itself. This week, on Monday morning my detractor did it again.

There were at least a dozen contributors to the Responsible Reform 'Spartacus' Report, most were not credited on the front cover as I was(for quite a small part in contrast to the huge amount of work done by others). I only recognised three other names: Sue Marsh, Kaliya Franklin and Declan Gaffney. I have over a hundred Twitter followers; no idea who most of them are. Again with the 25 blogger followers listed at the bottom; I knew few more than those already mentioned but that's it. I have two real-life friends, I see one of them every fortnight. The only regular direct social experience I have is a structured social support group on Thursday afternoon for three hours with two staff and usually about two other members turn up out of five. I do not feel lonely; I'm overwhelmed with social pressure by just ten people a week including family. This makes even contact with others over the internet something that has to be carefully managed. Having lots of friends and acquaintances isn't important to me.

But having the right ones is. This week one slipped away forever. I never knew Karen Sherlock and now I never will.

Kaliya Franklin has been collecting writing by Karen and posting it on her(Orwell-nominated) blog and I have been reading through it. At this time Karen is believed to have died from a heart attack, possibly as a complication of her maladies which include diseased failing kidneys, stage 4("there is no stage 5") renal disease and type 1 diabetes. I do not know if Karen would be alive today if not for the stupidity of ambitious and callous politicians; but from her writing it seems Karen suffered unnecessarily from 2008 onward with the introduction of ESA at the same time she had to leave work, dismissed because Atos told her employers she was unfit for work. Atos then declared her fit for work when it came to her Work Capability Assessment to measure her eligibility for ESA. Karen suffered for four years and it got worse- she spent her final months rationally terrified. This was the kind of terror which campaigners were saying the government was causing. The government responded by accusing *us* of 'fear-mongering'. That certainly would not have been helpful to Karen's health; it was certainly destructive to many of us. I'm lucky that my investigative, campaign and writing activity does not in itself affect my health like it does the others(rather it's the opposite extreme), but I've seen repeatedly that it does affect them and the harder it is made for them the bigger the toll on their health and that must have included Karen. This sacrifice is made as to avert a catastrophe that could harm millions into the future and whilst Karen worked to save herself she also did the added campaign work, knowing what we were up against and what it could cost her.

It took four years for Karen to finally be put in the ESA Support Group where she belonged, at the end of May. Days later, she was dead. She gave her life that others might live.

Like Sue and Kaliya she talked about the problems she had vividly, the kind of thing I just can't do. When I wrote about it last time I speculated as to why they are able to do this when I can't and it was very cheesy. Now I've had another idea because Karen's death brought something into focus. There is nothing wrong with me- until something goes wrong, then I very much need to explain what is wrong with me. I have a very odd phobia, not as such a fear of death but a fear of other people dying. Call it an attachment disorder, but it can be triggered even when someone leaves the room. At the support group I joke that if anyone is fifteen minutes late, they must be dead and we must begin mourning immediately. That's what I do when I'm trying to distract myself from very real dread I can feel twisting my gut.
Years after this drawing was first printed in memory of the voice actor Mel Blanc, I saw it for the first time and it triggered 'an attack'. I find it difficult to watch the original cartoons voiced by Blanc now

On Monday morning this phobia crashed into my social isolation; I'm not just in danger of losing the people I know but people I could and should have known if not for my low social tolerance. I do not have the right to feel loss the way Karen's friends and family do, it's downright inappropriate and if I saw a gatecrasher at the funeral of someone I knew and they were bawling their eyes out, I'd find that really creepy. But it's that position I feel myself in: the gatecrasher. In my mind I haunt the dead and ridicule myself as to not act on it.

I'm glad I can write it, because otherwise I'd be a weirdo that actually does that without any other outlet. So maybe that is why the others can talk about their icky stuff: the alternative is going crazy and waving soiled adult nappies around in public. Reality is our detractor, we can not reason with it- it can only be beaten by being made into a joke. Something tragic can instead be made into something to smile about. I hope that in the last week after she got her proper ESA entitlement, Karen looked back on the previous months and found lots of things funny, a cathartic last laugh. May she rest in peace.

They will not grow old as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them.