Tagged: Freedom of Information Act

60,000 Sign Petition Calling On The Government To Publish Benefit Death Statistics

More than 60,000 people have signed a petition calling on the government to publish statistics into the number of benefit claimants who have died after benefits were removed.

The number of signatories is growing fast and could force the government to come clean about the impact of welfare reforms on vulnerable people.

A number of attempts by journalists and campaigners, using the Freedom of Information Act, to force the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to publish the statistics have been rebuffed.

The government argues that drawing a direct link between the deaths of seriously ill people and the removal of benefits would be irresponsible.

Welfare Weekly reported last month that the DWP had been ordered by the Information Commissioner to disclose details into deaths related to welfare reforms, following a complaint by political blogger Mike Sivier. It is our understanding that this is currently being appealed by the DWP.

The petition, on the change.org website, claims that this appeal is a direct attempt by the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to block publication of benefit-related death statistics.

Full story:  http://northstar.boards.net/thread/88/calling-government-publish-benefit-deaths

Cleveland Police seize 4000+ private communications

Cleveland Police has approved more requests to seize private communications than nearly any other force in the UK.

The force has made 4,276 requests to access the public’s communications data over the past three years under controversial anti-terror powers.

According to statistics released under the Freedom of Information Act, of these requests, only 14 were turned down.

This means that in 99.7% of cases, Cleveland Police has been able to access private information. Only two other forces had a higher success rate for their requests.

The force today defended its use of communications data as “a vital asset in the prevention and detection of crime”.

Full story : http://northstar.boards.net/thread/68/cleveland-police-seize-private-communications

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DWP Ordered To Reveal Benefit-Related Deaths

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been ordered to disclose details into deaths related to coalition welfare reforms, it has been revealed.

DWP officials have been told that they must disclose the number of Incapacity Benefit and ESA claimants who have died between November 2011 and May 2014.

The ruling was made by the information commissioner following a formal complaint from blogger Mike Sivier, who runs and operates the website Vox Political.

So far, the DWP has refused to publish details into at least 49 benefit related deaths it has admitted to have investigated.

In his ruling, the Commissioner states:

“It appears … that the DWP has had reasonable time to prepare for publishing [the] information and that disclosure was not so novel or unusual given the previous requests and disclosures made.

“DWP have not supplied any detailed or convincing evidence about the time needed and what preparation would need to be undertaken during this time or what the specific impact of disclosure would be… The DWP has previously published similar information.”

The decision notice continued:

“It is not reasonable for the DWP, having had enough time to extract the information and prepare internally for publication, to seek further time to provide the information requested.

“The Commissioner also finds that delaying publication is not reasonable in light of the requests DWP have received from the public and the fact that the previous statistics published were around two years old at the time of the request.”

Mr Sivier said he had first asked for information on benefit-related deaths in the summer of 2013:

“It was almost a year after the DWP had published an ‘ad hoc’ report entitled Incapacity Benefits (Deaths of Claimants).

“That document stated that 10,600 people had died between January and November 2011, while claiming benefits that should have helped them survive with a reasonable quality of life.

“Some of those people may have died because of their conditions, but evidence that has become available since suggests that many died due to the stress of constant reassessment by an unsympathetic government department that was determined to clear as many people off its books as possible, no matter what the health risks might be.”

He added:

“I knew that other FOI requests had been made in November 2012 – a year after the last date covered in the ‘ad hoc’ report – but they had been refused.

“When I made my request in June 2013, I publicised it via my website, Vox Political, and asked for others to submit a similar request in the hope that weight of numbers might sway the DWP. This was a mistake as the department was able to use FOI rules to dismiss my request as being ‘vexatious’.

“I made a new request last May, and the DWP illegally delayed its response by several months. When ministers finally denied me the information, claiming they would be publishing it at an unspecified date in the future, I checked the rules and found that they were wrong. That is why I appealed to the Information Commissioner – and I am delighted that the Commissioner has upheld my appeal.”

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the DWP may appeal to the Information Rights Tribunal, but Mr Sivier said he doubted any such appeal would succeed:

“I took my first request to a tribunal and, although the decision was upheld, the judges stated that they were extremely sympathetic to my cause”, he said.

Source – Welfare Weekly, 02 May 2015

http://www.welfareweekly.com/dwp-ordered-to-reveal-benefit-related-deaths/

100,000 Children Affected By Benefit Sanctions In 2013/14

A new report from a coalition of major UK Churches has revealed that around 100,000 children were affected by benefit sanctions in 2013/14.

It also shows that in the same period a total of nearly 7 million weeks of sanctions were handed out to benefit claimants.

The new data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, will feature in this evening’s episode of Channel 4’s Dispatches, entitled ‘Britain’s Benefits Crackdown’.

The report, entitled Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions, is published today by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Church Action on Poverty, the Church in Wales, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church. It contains new data on the severity and length of sanctions under Welfare Reform, and on how sanctions affect vulnerable groups such as children and those with mental health problems.

It features the stories of people like James (not his real name) who have had their benefits sanctioned:

“During the first three weeks of my sanction I continued to look for work as I was required to. By the fourth week however I was exhausted, unwell and no longer had it in me. I was not eating as I had no food and was losing a lot of weight. I told the Jobcentre I was unwell through not eating but was sanctioned for another three months for not looking for work properly.

Those who already have the most difficult lives are those most likely to be sanctioned,” said Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church and one of the authors of the report.

“Sanctions impact disproportionately on young people, care leavers, homeless people, single parents, the mentally ill and those with long term illness. This system causes problems for the very people that most need help.

“But sanctions don’t just have a financial impact. The people we’ve spoken to have told us of the shame, demoralisation and loss of self-worth caused by this system.

“As Christians we believe that everyone is loved, valued and made in the image of God, and we have a responsibility to challenge any structure or system that undermines that dignity.”

The Churches are calling for a full and independent review of the regime and for urgent reform of the hardship payments system to avoid the deliberate imposition of hunger.

In the meantime, they are urging the Government to suspend all sanctions against families with children and those suffering from mental health problems. Most importantly, they say, there needs to be a change of culture, from one of enforcement and punishment to one of assistance and support.

If you commit a crime, no criminal court in the UK is allowed to make you go hungry as a punishment,” added Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty.

“But if you’re late for an appointment at the Jobcentre, they can remove all your income and leave you unable to feed you or your family for weeks at a time.

“Most people in this country would be shocked if they knew that far from providing a safety net, the benefit sanctions policy is currently making thousands of people destitute.

“This policy must be reviewed urgently.”

The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, said:

“The findings of this report are disturbing.

“It exposes a system that is harsh in the extreme, penalising the most vulnerable of claimants by the withdrawal of benefits for weeks at a time.

“Most worryingly, it appears from DWP guidance, quoted in the report, that deprivation and hunger are knowingly being used as a punishment for quite trivial breaches of benefit conditions.

“Employers would not be allowed to stop someone’s wages for a month the first time they were 10 minutes late for an appointment, but this is the kind of sanction that is being imposed on some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including those with mental and physical health problems.

“We are concerned that the problem may be even worse in Wales, recognising the higher levels of poverty in this country. No Welsh data, however, is included in the report because despite submitting a Freedom of Information request to the DWP three months ago, we are still waiting for a reply.

“There is supposed to be a 20-day turnaround period for Freedom of Information requests. We are pursuing this.”

Source – Welfare Weekly, 02 Mar 2015

http://www.welfareweekly.com/100000-children-affected-by-benefit-sanctions-in-201314/

Record Number Of Sanctions Imposed On Jobseekers

The number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) being subjected to benefit sanctions is creeping up, with nearly one in five being penalised last year.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that 3,097,630 JSA claims were made in 2013-14 and 568,430 individuals were subject to a sanction, a total of 18%. In 2012-13, 16% of claims were subjected to sanctions and 15% in 2010-11. They are imposed on people who fail to keep appointments, reject jobs or walk out of jobs without good reason.

 In 2008-09, only 286,694 sanctions were applied on the 2,935,930 JSA claims, representing 10%.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said:

“The huge rise in sanctions since 2010 shows the government’s system is in chaos. The number has doubled since 2009 to a level where one in five of all JSA claimants receive a sanction. This will lead to further concerns that unofficial targets imposed on jobcentres by the Department for Work and Pensions are forcing up the number of people who have their benefits withdrawn.

“Under a Labour government, there will be no targets for sanctions and the system will focused on helping people into work, not simply finding reasons to kick jobseekers off benefits.”

> So under a Labour government there will be no targets for sanctions. That’s not quite the same as saying there will not  be a vicious sanctions regime…there always were people in the system who’d impose sanctions just because they could.  They will presumably keep right on doing so.

The figures also show that 372,461 claimants were subject to one adverse decision, 99,621 to two and 35,170 to three between 1 July 2013 and 30 June 2014.

The DWP stressed the figures were derived from unpublished information that had not been quality assured to Official Statistics publication standards, and should therefore be treated with caution.

David Webster, an honorary senior research fellow at Glasgow University, said:

“The DWP is still regularly claiming that it is only a ‘tiny minority’ of claimants who are sanctioned – most recently by Esther McVey last week – but this suggests it is not a tiny minority.

The employment minister, Esther McVey, said:

“All the international evidence suggests that sanctions do have a positive impact on people getting into work, and there are two parts of that: as a deterrent, it has a positive impact on moving people into work and there is further research that, should somebody have been sanctioned, it helps them into work afterwards.”

> Actually, all it seems to prove is that sanctions reduce the unemployment figures – their real aim.  And that’s very much not the same as people vanishing from the figures because they’ve found work.

The DWP pointed to OECD research on northern member states which suggested that having a credible benefit reduction leads to increased work searches and a subsequent increase of flow into employment of up to 50%.

Source – The Guardian,  13 Feb 2015

Darlington Council criticised over use of hundreds of zero-hours contracts

A council has defended its position after being criticised for employing almost 400 people on controversial zero-hour contracts.

Figures revealed following a request under the Freedom of Information Act show that Darlington Borough Council has 393 people on zero-hour contracts.

Zero-hour, or casual, contracts allow employers to hire staff with no guarantee of work and often without sick pay or pension benefits.

Labour has pledged to crackdown on their use and improve rights for workers.

Elizabeth Davison, assistant director for finance and human resources at Darlington Borough Council, defended the authority’s use of the contracts.

She said: “We only use zero-hour contracts for casual employees where the individual has the choice of whether to work when the work is offered, this gives both sides some flexibility.

“We use casual workers as an additional resource to our permanent staff to cover sickness or holidays or to cope with particularly busy periods.

“If any casual work becomes regular, an individual is paid the benefits that are associated with the role.”

Source –  Northern Echo,  12 Dec 2014

Benefit Sanctions Hit Over 900,000 Claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance

This article  was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for The Guardian on Monday 8th December 2014

More than 900,000 jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) claimants have been subject to a benefit sanction decision in the last year, the Department of Work and Pensions said on Monday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The figures cover April 2013 and March 2014, the latest date for which statistics are available. The figures show that 918,600 JSA claimants have been subject to penalties in response to a failure to comply with DWP rules.

In a separate development, a cross-party report on food banks published on Monday found benefit sanctions to be the single biggest reason for use of food banks and made a range of recommendations for the reform of the way the sanctions are administered. These included the use of yellow cards so that claimants had more warning that they were in danger of losing benefit.

A spokesperson for No 10 said the government was willing to look at speeding up the payment of benefits, but saw no need to undertake further reform of sanction decisions. He said it had already undertaken one review of the communication and administration of sanctions. He pointed out that 93% of benefits were now paid on time – an increase of 7% since 2010.

The DWP found that 516,472 JSA claimants aged under 30 had experienced a sanction in the year. The DWP stressed the figures were for internal management purposes and should not be regarded as official statistics.

> What does that mean ? Either people have been sanctioned or they haven’t.  That almost sounds like an admission that the DWP official figures and the true figures are different. Who’d have guessed ?

In its response to the request for the data, the DWP wrote:

“Claimants should do everything they can to find work if they are able in return for benefits, and more than 70% say they are more likely to follow the rules if they know they risk having their benefits stopped if they do not. Benefit sanctions are only used as a last resort and the overwhelming majority of claimants do not receive a sanction.”

> So 900,000 people have received sanctions, but the overwhelming majority of claimants do not receive a sanction.

If 900,000 is such a small minority, how many people are on benefits altogether ? Do they include pensioners in this (who aren’t going to get sanctioned anyway) ? But the article cites 900,000 of JSA claimants.  As ever, nothing adds up…

Source –  Welfare Weekly,  08 Dec 2014

http://www.welfareweekly.com/benefit-sanctions-hit-900000-claiming-jobseekers-allowance/

Teesside hospital trust pays agency worker £900 – for a single shift !

More than £900 for a single shift?

That’s what a Teesside hospital trust paid to one of its agency workers for a single day’s work this year.

The North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust paid out £907 to a staffing agency for one person to do one 11.5 hour shift some time after December 2013.

That works out at £78.87 an hour.

The NHS spends hundreds of millions of pounds a year on temporary staff and is increasingly being forced to find cover at the last minute as government cuts stretch staffing resources.

Although the figure for the North Tees trust, which operates the University Hospital of North Tees, in Stockton, seems high, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that hourly rates for agency staff can go up to as much as £540.

This massive figure was paid out by the North Bristol NHS Trust in 2011 to an agency for a temporary worker to cover a 10.25 hour shift – meaning their total bill for one day’s work from one person was £5,554.

Chief executive Alan Foster for North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust said:

There are always going to be occasions where we need to provide cover for shifts at short notice and we have measures in place to keep our agency spend down to an absolute minimum.

“We have a mix of our own staff who sign up to work additional shifts through our nurse bank and people from outside the organisation, including other NHS organisations, who have a zero hours contract with us which allows us to call on them when we need to.

“It is good to have this flexibility so we can respond quickly.”

South Tees Hopsitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough, failed to provide a response to the Freedom of Information request.

Source –  Middlesbrough Evening Gazette,  19 Sept 2014

Unemployment Figures Include Sanctioned Jobseekers, Say ONS – But Not Universal Credit Claimants

Welfare News Service asked the Office for National Statistics (ONS):

Could you please verify as to whether ‘sanctioned’ Jobseekers in receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance (both income and contributory based) are included in official government statistics/datasets submitted to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in relation to UK unemployment. Could you also further clarify as to whether this remains the case in relation to Universal Credit?

 Furthermore, could you also inform me as to whether sick and disabled UK residents in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) are included in official government unemployment data/statistics submitted to the ONS, and whether this data is included in published ONS figures.

Does this extend to ‘sanctioned’ ESA WRAG recipients?

 

ONS response:

Thank you for your recent request under the Freedom of Information Act regarding the effect of sanctions on UK unemployment statistics.

Unemployment in the UK is measured using the Labour Force Survey (LFS), consistent with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) definition. The LFS is a sample survey of people living in private households. The survey asks a series of questions about respondents’ personal circumstances and their activity in the labour market.

Through these questions every respondent is classified as in employment, unemployed or economically inactive, consistent with ILO definitions. The LFS and ILO defines an individual as unemployed if they are without work, available for work and seeking work. The UK applies this as ‘anybody who is not in employment and has actively sought work in the last 4 weeks and is available to start work in the next 2 weeks, or has found a job and is waiting to start in the next 2 weeks’, is considered to be unemployed.

As this data is gathered from a survey, the LFS, it is independent of whether or not the individual is claiming benefits, and therefore is not affected by sanctions.

If an individual who is in the Work Related Activity Group of Employment and Support Allowance is meeting the above criteria they would also be counted as unemployed irrespective of whether they are being sanctioned or not. The same would also be true of any claimants of Universal Credit who meet this criteria.

ONS also publishes the Claimant Count, which is the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). People who are sanctioned are those who have an underlying entitlement to JSA, but have not followed the rules of the benefit scheme. People who are sanctioned do not automatically have their claim closed by DWP, but will not receive payment of JSA during the period of the sanction. Any live sanctioned claim, where the individual continues to sign on, would continue to be included within the Claimant Count. However, if they choose not to sign-on during their sanction period, their claim will be closed, as would be the case generally if a claimant fails to sign on – and as such would not be included in the Claimant Count.

Currently the Claimant Count estimates do not include any claimants of Universal Credit. ONS will include jobseeker Universal Credit claims in the Claimant Count statistics as soon as possible. The absence of Universal Credit claimants currently has a small effect on the Claimant Count for the UK.

 

You can find our FOI request and the ONS response here

We’re still waiting for the DWP to respond to our FOI.

Source – Welfare News Service, 09 Sept 2014

http://welfarenewsservice.com/unemployment-figures-include-sanctioned-jobseekers-say-ons-universal-credit-claimants/

Councils Sit On £67m In Emergency Help For Poor

This article was written by Patrick Butler, George Arnett, Sarah Marsh and Samir Jeraj, for The Guardian on Sunday 20th April 2014

A fledgling scheme to provide emergency help to the poorest in the country is in chaos, with £67m left unspent and record numbers of families being turned away.

Figures released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests indicate that by the end of January councils in England were sitting on £67m of the £136m that had been allocated to local welfare schemes. Half of local authorities had spent less than 40% of their funds.

An analysis by the Guardian shows that under the new local welfare assistance schemes, four in 10 applications for emergency funds are turned down, despite evidence that many applicants have been made penniless by benefits sanctions and delays in processing benefit claims. Under the previous system – the social fund – just two in 10 were. In some parts of the country, as few as one in 10 applicants obtain crisis help.

The schemes were designed to help low-income families in crisis, such as those in danger of becoming homeless or subjected to domestic violence. Charities and MPs have warned that those denied help are turning to food banks and loan sharks.

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, which offers debt and legal advice, said the emergency financial support system was in chaos. “When the safety net fails, people are left with no way of putting food on the table, paying the rent or keeping the lights on. Confusion over what help is available and who to approach means that people who need support are left high and dry.

“People are in danger of being pushed into the arms of payday lenders and loan sharks by the chaotic emergency support system. Citizens Advice bureaux see people in desperate need of support who have nowhere else to turn when jobcentres and the local council don’t give out support.”

Under the new system, emergency funds are no longer ringfenced, meaning that councils can divert unspent cash to other budgets. Local welfare assistance schemes were created a year ago in 150 English authorities, alongside national schemes in Wales and Scotland, following the abolition of the social fund.

Most schemes do not offer cash or loans, but support in kind, such as food parcels and supermarket vouchers. The social fund provided loans repayable against future benefit payments – typically about £50 – and larger capital grants to destitute families who needed help to furnish flats or replace broken domestic appliances.

Despite charities reporting that demand for help has rocketed as a result of economic hardship and welfare cuts, some councils spent more money setting up and administering their welfare schemes than they gave to needy applicants.

Councils told the Guardian they had provided less in emergency funding than in the past because there was a lack of public awareness of the new system. Some had failed to advertise their schemes, while others set such tight eligibility criteria that many applicants – typically including low-paid working families, benefit claimants and those deemed to have not lived in their local area for long enough – were turned away.

Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, who has repeatedly raised the issue of local welfare in parliament, said his constituents frequently reported struggles to get crisis help. Constituents he has helped include:

• A low-wage family with three children, including an 11-month-old baby, who applied for £35 to pay for gas, electricity and baby food to help them until payday. The council scheme initially referred the family to a food bank. After lobbying by Danczuk, they were given £20 for energy costs, but were refused money for baby food.

• A pregnant mother and her partner, who after benefit changes were left with £7 a week for food after rent and council tax. They were told that they could not apply as the scheme was for “genuine emergencies” such as fires and flood.

In each case Danczuk believes the families would have qualified for emergency support under the social fund. “Central and local government are pushing people into the hands of payday loan companies and food banks. They have in effect privatised the lender of last resort,” he said.

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions, which funds local welfare schemes run by 150 local authorities across England, said: “In contrast to a centralised grant system that was poorly targeted, councils can now choose how best to support those most in need. It is for local councils to decide how they spend their budgets.”

But a Conservative council leader has called on the government to reinstate local welfare assistance funding, calling it a “cut too far”. Louise Goldsmith, leader of West Sussex county council, said the proposed cut would leave many low income families without vital support when they were going through a “tough patch in their lives”.

A briefing note prepared by the council found that 43% of 5,582 individuals and families helped by the local welfare fund to the end of February had applied because they had been left penniless by benefit sanctions and delays.

The Local Government Association has called upon the ministers to reverse the cut, and it is understood a number of councils and welfare charities are preparing to seek a judicial review of the government’s decision to cut local welfare assistance funding in April 2015.

Many councils are using part of their welfare assistance allocation to provide financial support for local food banks, which provide penniless applicants with charity food parcels.

Lady Stowell, a local government minister, told the House of Lords in January that local authorities were “doing a good job of supporting people in times of crisis and are doing it without using all the funding that has been provided so far from DWP”.

But Centrepoint, the homelessness charity said that local welfare assistance underspending meant many homeless youngsters could not get vital support when they moved from hostels into independent living. “Councils need to start using these funds to address urgent need now and ensure that young people have access to it,” said Seyi Obakin, Centrepoint’s chief executive.

Two local authorities – Labour-run Nottinghamshire county council and Tory-run Oxfordshire – have scrapped local welfare assistance altogether and plan to divert the money into social care services..

Conservative-run Herefordshire  county council had spent less than £5,000 of its annual £377,000 allocation by the end of December last year, equivalent to 1% of its local welfare budget.It said its spending reflected low demand for crisis help, a claim disputed by Hereford Citizens Advice and Hereford food bank, which said they had been inundated with requests.

Labour-run Islington council had spent 80% of its emergency funds budget by the end of December last year and had spent all its emergency funds by April. It said it had encouraged its frontline staff to refer individuals to its local welfare scheme to ensure they got crisis help and assistance with any underlying problems, such as debt.

Local authorities are anticipating further problems over local welfare in 2015 when the DWP scraps funding for the schemes. Councils, charities and MPs have called on the government to restore and ringfence the crisis support allocation.

Councils say that in some cases they have refused emergency help because benefit claimants have been wrongly referred to local authority welfare schemes by jobcentres. Some councils have refused to accept applications from those who ought to have been offered a short-term benefit advance from their local jobcentre.

Scotland and Wales have their own welfare assistance schemes and these have higher applicant success rates than in England. In Northern Ireland, which still has the social fund, 70% of applicants received help.

Source – Welfare News Service  20 April 2014

http://welfarenewsservice.com/councils-sit-on-67m-in-emergency-help-for-poor/