Tuesday, 30 April 2013

How I accidentally started a Universal Credit myth

So I was browsing away yesterday and I came across this rather unbelievable website.

This is the official government website for online claims for three current benefits: Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Attendence Allowance (AA) and overseas pension.

I was amazed and appalled to discover that it is almost impossible to claim online unless you have a computer from the stone age. The website states that you will not be able to use the system or will experience significant difficulties if you use:
  • Macs or other Unix-based systems 
  • Windows Vista (and seemingly Windows 7 and 8)
  • Internet Explorer 7, 8, 9 and 10, 
  • Chrome, Safari or Firefox,
  • a smartphone. 
  • Jaws or Supernova screen readers
People with any of the above systems must obtain or print out and complete a paper form.

I found this immensely worrying given that Universal Credit is being rolled out today as an online claims only, without the possibility of a paper claim. If this is the quality of IT service we can expect, there are going to be big issues. Thankfully there is no evidence that the new Universal Credit IT system has any of the above problems.

EDIT: SEPTEMBER 05: It would appear the promised working IT system simply isn't operational yet, with £34m already written off and claims having to be checked by hand. I suppose that solves the issue...

EDIT: NOVEMBER 09: It seems the IT system is mostly irrecoverable and will have to be started again from scratch with anything from between £140 million and £300 million.
I have by now long since given up updating my "Universal Credit, but we're still on track!" blog post as fiasco after fiasco has come to light.

Regardless, finding the situation farcical beyond belief, I sent out the following tweet:
You can now claim #DLA online,as long as you don't use:a smartphone,MAC,Unix,Vista,Chrome,Safari,Firefox,IE7,8,9 or10 http://www.dwp.gov.uk/eservice/need.asp …
This initially caused a lot of amusement with people commenting that maybe carrier pigeons would be useful or stone and flint.

However when I came back the next morning I discovered that, perhaps due to the coincidence of Universal Credit being rolled out today people had mixed the two stories up.

There are now many people running with the misconception that Universal Credit can only be claimed with the above  restrictions.
As far as I know this is not the case.

The myth that you need Windows XP and can't use Internet Explorer appears to be truly running now though and I'm very much afraid that it will be impossible to stop.

EDIT: The DWP have now released the following tweet:

works with Chrome, Safari, Firefox, recent versions of IE as well as smartphones and tablets.

I just hope enough people see it!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Crossing the line into organised propaganda

EDIT: May 30th
The posting of this blog led to stories in both the New Statesman and Liberal Conspiracy. The issue had been strongly followed up by Sheila Gilmore MP among others and prompted a petition by disabled activists Jayne Linney and Debbie Sayers demanding an inquiry into Iain Duncan Smith which attracted no less than 98,000 signatures.  All of this has had an astounding resolution.

  1. May 9th Iain Duncan Smith was officially rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority
  2. May 17th The Work and Pensions Select Committee announced it will conduct an inquiry into Iain Duncan Smith's use of statistics as part of its annual assessment of the DWP Annual Report and Accounts (ARA). In preparation the committee plans to hold a session with the UK Statistics Authority to see how the department should correctly be using their statistics.
  3. May 30th Grant Shapps was also officially rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority

This month saw sweeping changes to the welfare system which impacted on disabled people. In particular Disability Living Allowance was replaced by Personal Independence Payments and the Bedroom Tax came into play, which disproportionately affects households with a disabled member.
Elsewhere Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the benefit paid to those too ill or disabled to work continues to provoke controversy, with a discredited assessment (WCA) and a backlogged appeals process.

It was maybe not surprising then that, perhaps fearing a reversal of public opinion, ministers from the Department of Work and Pensions decided to act by releasing a number of press releases to support their actions.

This would not be a problem IF they were accurate. It would have still have been acceptable albeit  slightly upsetting if, as is often the case, the statistics were "spun" in their favour. However what actually happened was in my opinion unprecedented and unforgiveable. We saw a string of stories which were completely untrue and highly damaging. I put that a line was crossed into organised propaganda.

It seems others may agree. The former chief economist of the DWP finally spoke out talking of "a consistent pattern of ministers trying to manipulate statistics to their own political ends". MPs have also called for an official inquiry into the manipulation of official statistics by the Committee of Work and Pensions.

In Order these are the Stories.

Over the Easter Weekend on March 30th, two damaging stories came out, one surrounding DLA and the other ESA.
This was proved to be totally misleading.  This is the sum total of people who had abandoned their claim over a 4 year period since the beginning of ESA and is simply the usual amount of those people with shorter term conditions who rapidly move on and off the benefit. This is confirmed by the government's OWN analysis which says

“Current data does not allow anything conclusive to be said about the destinations of closed and in progress cases, nor to infer what would have been or would be the outcome of assessment."

“An important reason why ESA claims in this sample were withdrawn or closed before they were fully assessed was because the person recovered and either returned to work, or claimed a benefit more appropriate to their situation” 

Unfortunately truth is irrelevant. The 900,000 figure has now entered benefit folklore and is brought up by the general public whenever disability benefits are mentioned as proof that many people are abusing the system and will abandon their claims if challenged.

Please see my previous blog post for more details.

  • 2)  Esther McVey, Minister for the Disabled appeared in an article for the Daily Mail. In this she gave a strong impression that many were claiming unnecessarily and even fraudulently. She also said there had been a rush on claims in the run up to PIP to avoid assessment.
It was reported that she would "go after bogus disabled... some of them DO get better!"
She "says many who get DLA and are officially assessed "disabled" are no such thing: Only three per cent of people are born with a disability, the rest acquire it through accident or illness, but people come out of it. Thanks to medical advances, bodies heal."

This was just short of accusing DLA claimants of fraud and/or mindbogglingly ignorant. People who acquire disabilities later in life are just as disabled as those who are disabled from birth. Many such illnesses and disabilities are incurable and life long despite current medical science: for instance Parkinsons, MS, lupus, amputations, paralysis, blindness, schizophrenia, autism but to mention a few off the top of my head.
Furthermore she is being deliberately misleading as under the current system those who have more short term conditions will be given shorter DLA awards of 1 or 3 years.

She then went on to say:
The decision to introduce new tests has produced an extraordinary ‘closing-down sale’ effect, with rocketing claims as people rush to get their hands on unchecked ‘welfare for life’ before McVey’s axe falls on April 8.
Again, this has turned out to be untrue. While the total number of DLA claims has indeed increased, the number of DLA claims among working age people (ie those affected by the changeover to PIP) FELL. So this is in fact the direct opposite behaviour to that claimed by the minister.

Making one untrue statement using misleading figures to back it up is bad. Doing it twice having had it pointed out is completely unforgivable.
  • 4)  On April 24th, Iain Duncan Smith gave a press release claiming that "one million who are fit to work have lived on benefits for 3 of the past 4 years".
This is the front page of the Telegraph and news in the Daily Mail and the Express.

Once again the headlines are untrue. The claimants are not "fit for work" nor even "capable of trying to find a job". Upon reading the articles it becomes clear that the figures include people who are in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA. 
By the DWP own figures on ESA "fit for work" decisions, these people have been found unfit for work. Unlike people in the support group though, it is felt that they will eventually recover at some time in the future. Right now though, they cannot work. 
When the WRAG was first conceived of, it was felt that it would take 2-5 years for people placed in it to return to work. It is therefore perfectly feasible that WRAG claimants have been claiming ESA for 3 of the past 4 years without being "stuck" or fraudulent.
Once again figures are being used to stigmatise disability benefit claimants.

In 4 weeks, 4 misleading news articles.

In 2011 the Work and Pensions Select Committee severely criticised  the way the government was releasing official statistics. It reported this was leading to negative views of long term disability benefit claimants not only in the tabloid press but the mainstream press as well. It noted that many newspapers had subsequently had to publish corrections.

At the time the minister replied "the government could not control the editorial approach of tabloids" and was often "bemused" by the stories which ran.
I would put that this excuse no longer washes.

Current ministers are releasing untrue statistics and making false statements. The proposed investigation must go ahead at the earliest opportunity and the practise stopped. A whole section of the population is being demonised for political gain. It must not continue.

Your help

A petition has been started by disability campaigners Jayne Linney and Debbie Sayers to the Work and Pensions Committee asking them to commit to hold Iain Duncan Smith to account for his (mis)use of statistics.
It has had a huge response with 38,000 signatures at the last count.
You can read an article about it's success in the Guardian here (when it still only had 16,000 signatures).
To add your signature please go here. Thank you.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Grant Shapps owes me an apology

EDIT: May 30th
Grant Shapps was officially rebuked by by the UK Statistics Authority for misrepresenting the benefit figures I highlighted in this post.
Furthermore, after work from Sheila Gilmore MP and a petition by disabled activists Jayne Linney and Debbie Sayers demanding an inquiry into Iain Duncan Smith which attracted no less than 98,000 signatures, the Work and Pensions Select Committee announced it will conduct an inquiry into his department's use of statistics as part of its annual assessment of the DWP Annual Report and Accounts (ARA). In preparation the committee plans to hold a session with the UK Statistics Authority to see how the department should correctly be using their statistics.

A few weeks ago Grant Shapps announced to great fanfare that nearly 900,000 people had  abandoned their ESA claims RATHER than take the assessment.
The papers ran with it and comments were thick with people condemning those terrible fraudsters who had been taking advantage of the system and had run rather than been found out.
This number has now passed into benefit folklore. It doesn't really matter what benefit you're talking about, PIP, DLA, Housing Benefit or ESA, this 900,000 figure pops up and angry people start saying that reform is necessary because of these scroungers who were robbing genuine people and "the taxpayer".

There is just one problem.
I am one of the 900,000.
And I am angry.
In fact I have rarely felt so sick and personally insulted.
I felt badly enough about it that once I felt well enough I wrote to my MP and told her my story and asked her to pass it on to Grant Shapps.
Because I felt upset when he made these comments. And I now feel upset every time someone raises it again... and again... and again... and again...

Here is what I wrote to my MP.

I would like Mr Grant Shapps to know about people like me.

I have a serious and progressive illness which I have had since the age of 17. I was told I would never be able to work. Despite this and against medical advice I went to university and did a degree followed by a funded PhD. I then worked as an international standard researcher for 5 years before the illness finally reached a point where I could no longer continue. 

During that 5 year period I had a 9 month long patch where the illness worsened for a while. I ran out of SSP and was forced to claim ESA. During this time I was receiving aggressive medical treatment and I eventually recovered to a point where I felt I could return to work and so did so (even though I was still very ill and on aggressive drugs). Due to the time frames involved this occurred before I was called up for a medical assessment.

I am one of the 878,300 people Mr Grant Shapps thinks dropped their claim through fear of assessment. I am one of those he has without shame accused of fraudulently claiming ESA.

It would appear that I am not alone and that in fact according to DWP research I am fairly typical of those who abandon their claim. Their statistical analysis of ESA dated January 2013 says of those who drop their claim before assessment:

“Current data does not allow anything conclusive to be said about the destinations of closed and in progress cases, nor to infer what would have been or would be the outcome of assessment. However, the DWP has published research that investigated why some cases closed before assessment. It found that:

“An important reason why ESA claims in this sample were withdrawn or closed before they were fully assessed was because the person recovered and either returned to work, or claimed a benefit more appropriate to their situation”

In other words the majority of claimants dropped their claim not because they were fraudulently claiming the benefit and were about to be found out but because they did the right thing and went back to work at the earliest opportunity. Mr Grant Shapps' statement that the claimants dropped their claims through fear of assessment is totally unsubstantiated.

Ever since Mr Grant Shapps made that announcement I continually see this figure bandied around and people talking about the shirksters or fraudsters who dropped their claim. Quite frankly it hurts every time I see it. I did my best. I did the right thing. I worked for as long as able. I worked while very unwell. I do not appreciate the way the government has just treated me. I feel that I and the others like me deserve both an apology and a retraction to combat this now widespread belief.

To be fair to my MP I got an extremely fast reply but sadly not to my satisfaction. 
Firstly Grant Shapps was not contacted. I strongly feel he should be. He should KNOW what effect his words have had on the ground.
Secondly she says she is sorry if I "feel the statements reflect negatively on those who have valid reasons for being unable to complete the assessment". I don't "feel they do". They do! Full stop!
Thirdly that isn't an apology. You're sorry I feel a certain way, not sorry for what has been done, nor even acknowledging that the statements are wrong in the first place.
I then get an extract from the Harrington report which confirms what I had said in my letter, ie that the majority of ESA claimants cease ESA claims and return to work.
Then I'm told the government is spending lots on disabled people and is supportive.

I am NOT happy.

I have written back today with an illustration why.

As an example I give to you a selection of comments made under a standard benefits story about ESA this week. It was nothing to do with the story yet this made up nearly a quarter of the comments and was used as an indication that ESA needed to be tougher. These comments are now nothing out of the ordinary and are to be seen on any benefits story even if it is about DLA and PIP rather than ESA. This is why a correction needs to be made:

David Lacey:
But 800,000 have left the register rather than be tested. Why?”

Mark Williamson:
I’d completely agree that those that have left the register more than likely had something to hide, and you’d have to be really na├»ve to think that there are a lot people who are just workshy, lazy thieving toe-rags.


So why did nearly a million disappear from the register when they were about to be tested? –Because they
 knew they had been depriving the few disabled of their entitlement.

Grant Shapps’ comments and every comment made as a result are a slap in the face to what I accomplished in my years working as an extremely ill and disabled person and the perseverance I applied in order to return to work at the earliest opportunity. I repeat what I said in my previous letter. Grant Shapps needs to apologise and make it clear to the public that his statement was misleading

I know I am fighting a lost cause. It is clear that Grant Shapps' comments have done the job they were intended to do.

However I also want to make it clear that he has insulted me and every other person who did the right thing and dragged themselves back to work as soon as they were able to (and sometimes before!). We continue to be insulted with every comment someone makes as the result of his actions.

I want Grant Shapps to know this.

I am owed an apology.

The public is owed a clarification and an explanation of why he misled them.

I am not holding my breath on either account.

Note. Apologies for the delay between the story and the post. Unfortunately it has taken this long to be well enough to write about it.

Monday, 8 April 2013

An exhausted lunch

People can see how my disability and illness affects me in the obvious ways. My electric wheelchair for instance is a dead giveaway. Needing to use wrist splints to pick up my spoon to eat is another.

What can be less obvious are things like debilitating fatigue. This affects me in strange ways. One thing I find tends to happen is that I become incredibly uncoordinated, clumsy and absent minded. As I am usually on my own when I am tired, this is one aspect most people don't see.

Here is an ironic look at a real life example. One single incident is not terribly "disabling" in itself but apply it to everything you attempt to do that day and you can see that it mounts up to a bigger problem.

An exhausted lunch

I think I'm tired. Just tried to "make" lunch, which was soup in a mug, which my carer had left ready for me.

Step 1: Take cling film off mug.
Step 2: Take cling film off hand
Step 3: Take cling film off other hand
Step 4: Pick cling film off floor
Step 5: Get up off floor
Step 6: Put cling film in bin
Step 7: Detach cling film from bin lid
Step 8: Repeat Steps 2 and 3
Step 9: Repeat Step 6
Step 10: Have a rest
Step 11: Put mug in microwave
Step 12: Drop mug
Step 13: Rescue mug
Step 14 Wipe up escaped soup and check enough soup is left for lunch
Step 15: Repeat Step 11
Step 16: Pick up saucer to put on mug to avoid splashes
Step 17: Drop saucer
Step 18: Rescue saucer
Step 19: Repeat Step 16 and put saucer on mug
Step 20: Start microwave
Step 21: Realise I have somehow set microwave to defrost
Step 22: Rescue soup
Step 23: Repeat Step 20
Step 24: CAREFULLY retrieve mug and go to lounge
Step 25: Discover I am now too tired to eat