Guidance issued by the DWP last week on the new Fit for Work scheme makes it clear that referrals can only be made to the scheme with the consent of the employee. It also makes it clear that most health assessments will be carried out over the telephone.
Fit for Work is the new DWP scheme intended to cut sickness absence and ESA claims by getting sick employees back to work more quickly. In England and Wales the scheme has been outsourced to a branch of Maximus, the company also taking over the work capability assessment contract from Atos later this year. In Scotland fit for work is being delivered by the Scottish government.
GPs and employers can refer employees for an occupational health assessment via the Fit for Work service once they have been off sick for a month, provided that there is a reasonable prospect of the employee retuning to work. The employee must consent before a referral can be made.
Fit for work will carry out a ‘biopsychosocial holistic assessment’ of the employee over the telephone and draw up a return to work plan on the basis of that call. In a small number of cases a face-to-face assessment will be carried out.
For GPs, the attraction of a referral is that once a return to work plan has been drawn up by Fit for Work the GP will no longer be responsible for providing sick notes.
Employers receive a tax exemption of up to £500 per year, per employee on medical treatments recommended by Fit for Work to help their employees return to work.
Source – Benefits & Work, 06 Jan 2015
This article was written by Karen McVeigh, for The Guardian on Sunday 14th December 2014
The Department for Work and Pensions has been urged by mental health and disability charities to publish its secret investigations into suicides that may have some link to benefit changes, following revelations that it has carried out internal reviews into 60 such cases.
A Freedom of Information request by the Disability News Service has revealed that the DWP has carried out “60 peer reviews following the death of a customer” since February 2012. A peer review is triggered when suicide or alleged suicide is “associated with a DWP activity”, according to its internal guidance.
Despite growing concern over the way benefits are administered in relation to vulnerable individuals, and amid a number of reports of related deaths, the department told the Guardian it had no plans to publish the reviews.
Disabled People Against the Cuts said that, because of the way the reviews were carried out, the DWP figure was likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”.
Tom Pollard, the policy and campaigns manager at Mind, told the Guardian the figures were a concern. He stressed that suicide was a complex problem but added:
“It would be helpful for organisations to see what things could be going wrong in the benefit system that could lead to these tragic situations.”
Sue Bott, director of policy and services at Disability Rights UK, said DWP reviews should be transparent.
“There have been allegations and anecdotal evidence for a while that the benefits regime has tipped people over the edge. It should be looked into in a transparent way,”
“This is not just about the nature of the decision taken as to whether it was right or wrong. It’s also about the process and there is a lot of concern about the way benefits are administered.”
The DWP’s latest figures show that sanctions to punish disabled ESA claimants had risen by 470% in 18 months, from 1,096 in December 2012 to 5,132 in June 2014.
According to DWP figures released as the result of an FoI request, 62% of adverse ESA sanction decisions in the first three months of 2014 were made against people with mental or behavioural problems (9,851 out of 15,955).
The calls for transparency from the DWP come after a number of reports of the deaths and suicides of vulnerable individuals after adverse benefit decisions.
David Clapson, 59, a former soldier and type-1 diabetic, died in July after his benefit was cut. Clapson had no food in his stomach, £3.44 in the bank and no money on his electricity card, leaving him unable to operate his fridge where he kept insulin.
MPs are to look into his death after a petition written by Gill Thompson, his sister, gathered more than 200,000 signatures.
Thompson, told the Guardian:
“All I’ve ever asked for is lessons to be learned. I can’t bring him back but we should know what is going on. There are certain people who shouldn’t be sanctioned. People with terminal cancer, waiting for heart operations, people with diabetes. Before they sanctioned my brother, they knew his disability. He was waiting to hear from a job, he had been on work placement. He was claiming the bare minimum.”
Christine Norman, a nurse whose disabled sister, Jacqueline Harris, took her own life in November 2013 after her benefits were cut, said:
“It’s too late for my sister. Everything is stacked against you. If you’ve got a great education, if you have great health, you’re OK. But if you haven’t, you have to fight against the odds. The government want you to work. The ones they pick are the ones that are vulnerable and ill.”
An inquest found last month that Harris, 53, of Bristol, who was partially sighted, took her own life after months of constant pain and following a “fit for work” ruling that replaced her incapacity benefit with jobseeker’s allowance. Staff at a jobcentre Harris was told to attend had to call an ambulance after she blacked out in pain.
Disabled People Against Cuts said that, because the DWP’s reviews only relate to suicides or alleged suicides and were triggered by regional managers within the benefit system, the number of deaths was likely to be far higher than the 60 cases that reached review.
Anita Bellows, of Disabled People Against Cuts, said:
“The triage for advising whether a peer review is to be carried out is done by regional managers at seven regional centres, who may not have an interest in putting them forward. Also, the guidance for peer review is focused on suicide, which does not cover people like David Clapson.”
She called on the DWP to open a proper investigation into the deaths, and include evidence from medical experts.
“These should be public documents” she said. “They are also only focused on the process. There are no medical experts on it.”
The DWP said it was unable to disclose the names of individuals under review because of provisions of the Social Security Administration Act.
However, the Mental Welfare Commission of Scotland, a Scottish government-funded watchdog, published its comprehensive review of the suicide of a claimant known only as Ms DE this year. The MWCS concluded that the WCA process and the subsequent denial of ESA was at least a “major factor in her decision to take her own life”. It concluded that the work capability assessment process was flawed and needed to be more sensitive to mental health issues.
Colin McKay, chief executive of the Mental Welfare Commission of Scotland, said he was disappointed with the DWP response to the report on Ms DE, who died on 31 December 2011.
“Certainly, nothing in what they said gave us confidence that if another Ms DE was claiming benefit, the outcome would be any different,” he said. “If the number of deaths are 60, that’s a lot. You would expect any organisation experiencing deaths as the potential consequences of their actions would be seriously considering whether they needed to do anything differently.”
This year a whistleblower tasked with getting claimants out of the ESA sickness benefit told the Guardian that some of her clients were homeless, many had extreme mental health problems – including paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism – and some were “starving” and extremely depressed after having benefits stopped. “Almost every day one of my clients mentioned feelings of suicide to me” she said.
Mind released research on Thursday that found that people with mental illness were having their benefit cut more than those with other illnesses. It also found 83% of those with mental health problems surveyed said their self-esteem had worsened, and 76% said they felt less able to work as a result of DWP back-to-work schemes.
The DWP said: “We take these matters extremely seriously, which is why we carry out peer reviews in certain cases to establish whether anything should have been done differently. However, a peer review in itself does not automatically mean the department was at fault.
“Since its introduction in 2008 there have been four independent reviews of the work capability assessment and we have made significant improvements to make it better, fairer and more accurate.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 14 Dec 201
> DWP are apparently more important than national governments now…
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of breaking the “letter and spirit” of the Smith Commission, after it emerged that lucrative Work Programme contracts are to be extended.
The Smith Commission, set up in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, recommended that control over the Work Programme should be devolved to Holyrood “on expiry of the current commercial arrangements”.
However, it has now emerged the DWP has taken the decision to extend the contracts without the consent of the Scottish Government, despite cross-party agreement powers over the back-to-scheme scheme would be devolved.
Commercial contracts are due to expire in 2016 and this is when the Scottish Government expected powers to be devolved, until they learned yesterday that the contracts are to be extended for a further year.
The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) said it is “utterly appalled” and “completely dismayed” by the decision, highlighting figures showing only 18% of job seekers find work through the scheme.
The SNP said the decision could leave unemployed Scots stuck with a Work Programme, dubbed ‘workfare’ by opponents, that “simply isn’t working for Scotland” until as late as 2019.
> It simply isn’t working for anyone, anywhere… except the companies with the lucrative contracts, of course.
SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, a member of the Devolution Committee, said: “Westminster’s Work Programme simply isn’t working for Scotland – and the sooner it is devolved, the sooner we can get on with putting this right.
“Tory plans to stand in the way of progress break the letter and spirit of the cross-party Smith Commission agreement. As SCVO make clear, there is ‘no justification’ for this.”
“The Smith Commission could not have been clearer – devolution of the work programme should happen as soon as the current contracts expire; but instead Westminster is extending the existing contracts.
“The UK Government sought Scotland’s agreement while the Smith process was underway and the Scottish Government is clear it does not agree with the extension.
“Quite why the UK Government thinks it is acceptable to completely ignore the Smith Commission proposals and press ahead with its failed scheme is baffling.
“The UK Government should apologise and immediately reverse this decision”.
Skills Secretary Roseanna Cunningham accused the UK Government of “breathtaking Arrogance” and has written a letter of complaint to Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
“The ink is barely dry on the Smith recommendations and already the Tories are breaking both its word and its spirit”, she said.
“Smith is explicit. Devolution of the work programme should happen as soon as the current contracts expire. Instead of honouring that, within just a couple of days of Smith, they are extending the contracts.
“That is breathtaking arrogance.”
Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael said the decision to extend the contracts was taken “long before the Smith Commission was even set up”.
Mr Carmichael said:
“This was a decision that was taken in August, so some of the breathless commentary about this being a dreadful decision that was designed to thwart the will of the Smith commission is not justified because, frankly, this decision was taken long before the Smith commission was even set up.
> If the decision was taken in August, thats a little over three months ago. I know a week is supposed to be a long time in politics, but even so…
In any case, shouldn’t they have held fire until after the Scottish referendum ?
“Although these contracts have been extended from 2016 to 17, this again is an area where the two governments should be sitting down and the Scottish government should be saying to the UK government, ‘we have done some thinking on this. This is what we want to do with our new welfare system, now how can that be represented with the contractual arrangements that you’re putting in place’.
A recent ICM poll shows 63% of Scots want to see full devolution of tax and welfare powers to Holyrood.
Source – Welfare Weekly, 04 Dec 2014
Highly controversial Zero hours contracts are forcing Scottish workers to turn to food banks and payday lenders, according to a new report from Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS).
The report, ‘Working at the Edge‘, found that the inappropriate use of zero hours contracts by unscrupulous employers is exploiting workers and leaving them with “no hours, no pay and no chance”.
Some employers are now using zero hours for the majority of their staff, the report says, with women representing over half of those workers trapped on the controversial contracts. Young people and pensioners are also greatly affected.
Workers are frequently denied equal and fair working rights routinely awarded to part-time and full-time staff. The report warns that some employers are using zero-hours as a tool to easily sack staff.
CAS also warns that the misuse of zero hours by some employers is leading to some workers facing bankruptcy and prosecution over unpaid debts.
The report includes a case study of a CAS client on zero hours who only had three days work in a month and was forced to turn to a food bank to feed themselves. The client received a court summons after they found themselves £1,000 into arrears as a direct result of not being given enough hours work to pay debts.
Another case tells the story of a waitress on zero hours who was facing possible bankruptcy, after stacking up a debt of nearly £5,000 to payday lenders, while they waited for their employer to give them more hours work.
CAS policy manager Keith Dryburgh said:
“Zero hours contracts (ZHCs) are meant to provide flexibility for employers and workers alike. They are not suitable for everyone, but they can be a useful option for some people — as long as the system is applied fairly.
“However, we see growing evidence that the system is in fact being abused by some employers, who are frankly misusing it to exploit their workers.
“It seems that the flexibility in the system often lies with the employer, not with the worker. And too often workers are left with no hours, no pay, no security and no chance.
“There are 1.4 million people on ZHCs across the UK. They tend to be aged under 25 or over 65. Over half of them are women, and the areas they work in are those like catering, tourism, food and care.
“In highlighting these cases we hope to persuade employers that they should do right by their staff, and also to open a dialogue with government about how to improve the system to make sure this kind of exploitation doesn’t occur.
“We make a number of recommendations in the report, and we want to engage with ministers, unions and others to discuss ways to ensure a fair deal for all workers.
“We also want to get the message to any worker who is on a zero hours contract. You have rights, and we can help you to stand up for them.
“If you are unhappy with your contract or unsure of your rights, contact your local CAB and we will help you with free confidential advice.
“Nobody in 2014 should be in a position where they are working but don’t have the security of an actual income.”
The Scottish Government has previously called on the UK Government to crack down on the use of inappropriate zero hours contracts, by ensuring that workers receive compensation if shifts are cancelled at short notice.
Commenting on the report from Citizens Advice Scotland, SNP MSP Linda Fabiani said:
“While the UK government is encouraging the use of zero hours contracts, the Scottish Government has been looking at options available to tackle the issue within its current limited powers.
“As employment policy is reserved to Westminster, this is yet another example of how we can do things differently, and better, with independence.
“Zero hours contracts can be beneficial for some but they are not appropriate for everyone – and are more likely to be offered to women, young people and pensioners. And the growth in the inappropriate use of these contracts is clearly cause for real concern.
“The fact that anyone is forced to rely on food banks in a wealthy country like Scotland is nothing less than a scandal – but that people in employment are now struggling to afford the basics like food is simply unbelievable.
“After a Yes vote we can use the powers of independence to make sure that more people feel the benefits of Scotland’s wealth.
“The establishment of a Fair Work Commission and a commitment to raise the minimum wage at least in line with inflation will help us take action on low pay.”
Source – Welfare News Service, 23 July 2014
The Welfare Reform Committee in Holyrood has accused the UK Government of being “in denial” over the link between welfare reforms and increasing demand on food banks.
Committee members visited a number of food banks across Scotland and took written evidence from providers including Trussell Trust, Oxfam Scotland and the British Red Cross, as part of an inquiry into the supposed link between benefit changes and food bank usage.
The committee also commissioned research from the Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh.
The committee raised concerned that the increased use of benefit sanctions against some of the poorest sections of society is behind the startling rise in food bank usage.
In the year leading up to September 2013, official Government figures show that nearly 900,000 Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants had their benefit payments cut or stopped completely – the highest figure since JSA was introduced.
22,840 sick and disabled people in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) were also sanctioned during this period.
This, in part, has led to MSPs arguing that it is “insulting to suggest” that there is “no robust evidence linking food bank usage to welfare reform”, as suggested by Tory employment minister Esther McVey in a letter to the Scottish Government.
McVey recently postponed a meeting with the committee to discuss the impact of welfare reform in Scotland. This resulted in Labour MSP Ken Macintosh accusing the UK Government of deliberately trying to “avoid answering questions” about the “significant and negative impact the welfare changes have had on some of our most vulnerable”.
Scottish Labour MSP and convener of the committee, Michael McMahon said:
“The UK Government can no longer ignore the evidence that their welfare reforms are having a real impact on people’s ability to feed themselves.
“There can be no place for this in a modern, prosperous nation, just as there should be no need for food banks.
“Our evidence showed some low paid workers need to access food banks.
“This makes it even more insulting for them to insist that people using food banks are anything other than in desperate need of help. Help the welfare system should be providing, not charities.
“Allowing this Dickensian model of welfare to take root is simply unacceptable. Ignoring the problem cannot be part of the solution.”
The committee’s Deputy convener and SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn, said:
“All our committee members visited food banks across Scotland.
“We were impressed by the professional and respectful way that the volunteers dealt with people who came to them, often in their hour of greatest need.”
Hepburn said that the UK Government needed to “own up to the role it is playing in causing the increase in demand and stop pretending this is simply all about people looking for something for nothing”, and that any such suggestion “insults the vulnerable members of our society using food banks and the volunteers that run them”.
Hepburn slammed the government’s welfare changes for “pushing people to the brink – and often beyond”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) dismissed the report as not being “based on solid evidence, but on the opinions of those interviewed”, adding:
“The truth is that employment is going up, benefits are being paid to claimants more quickly and independent experts tell us that there are fewer people struggling with their food bills compared with a few years ago.
“The Trussell Trust and other foodbanks agree that increased awareness has helped to explain their recent growth.
“We spend £94bn a year on working age benefits and the welfare system provides a safety net that supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed.
“Our reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities by promoting work and helping people to lift themselves out of poverty.”
> Said the DWP spokesperson, as their nose grew another metre…
Source – Welfare News Service, 02 June 2014
Department For Work And Pensions Director, Neil Couling, has claimed that there is no relationship between the increased used of benefit sanctions against unemployed jobseeker’s and the rising number of people turning to food banks.
According to the Scottish National Party (SNP), the claim was made during a Scottish Welfare Reform Committee session, where Mr Couling was standing in for the conservative Employment Minister, Esther McVey MP.
The SNP also claim that Mr Couling ‘took issue’ with existing evidence showing there has been a 209 per cent increase in the number of sanctions handed out against benefit claimants in Scotland since 2006, and Mr Couling joked that sanctioned benefit claimants were bringing ‘Thank You’ cards to his office.
Figures suggest that the number of instances where a benefit claimants has had their benefits cut or stopped completely, as a result of having their benefits sanctioned, more than tripled between 2006 – 2013, from 25,953 to 80,305.
Under the new system benefit claimants who fail to adhere to tough new requirements could find their payments being docked for four weeks, increasing to up to three years for repeat offenders.
A growing number of politicians, charities and benefit claimants themselves are drawing attention to instances where unemployed people have had their benefits slashed for long periods inappropriately.
These include not applying for enough jobs in a single week, even though the unemployed person has evidence that they had applied for dozens of job vacancies, as well as instances where jobseeker’s have had their benefits sanctioned for failing to turn up to a jobcentre appointment, despite having informed their adviser that they were attending a hospital appointment or the funeral of a family member.
Speaking after the committee session at the Scottish Parliament, Kevin Stewart MSP said:
“Mr Couling should visit the food banks in Scotland to speak to the people who have had their welfare benefits sanctioned and now face huge difficulties feeding themselves and their families.
“Perhaps if Mr Couling listened to the expert evidence the committee heard today from the Head of Policy at Barnardo’s Scotland; Citizens Advice Scotland; the Head of Oxfam Scotland and others including Dr John Ip, GP of the British Medical Association, then he might have had a better understanding of the reality of the situation.
“Mr Couling may have been joking when he claimed that Welfare sanctions were bringing ‘Thank-you’ cards from benefits claimants to his office but there is nothing funny about people who have to line up in order to receive vital food parcels for their hungry children.
“Amidst Mr Couling’s contradictory claims he did concede that ‘the chances of having a sanction is going up’ and that is the grim reality of people unable to find work – which means they have no income and are forced to use food banks.
“As Labour MSP Ken Macintosh pointed out, the Scottish Government has indeed given a further £1million towards food banks – but as Mark Ballard from Barnardo’s highlighted, the Scottish Government hasn’t the powers to totally mitigate the harmful Westminster benefit cuts.
“Instead of people in Scotland being forced to rely upon a Westminster welfare system that is being aggressively cut and sanctioning thousands people who need support, we need a system that truly reflects Scotland’s values.
“With the powers of an independent Scotland we can build that kind of system and ensure that the priorities of people in Scotland are truly reflected in our welfare system.
“It is only a Yes vote in next year’s referendum that will secure that opportunity for Scotland and restore people’s faith that they will receive the support they need from the rest of society when they are facing difficult times.”
Source – Welfare News Service 30 April 2014
A jobs warning has been sounded as the region is told of the risk of Scottish independence.
As Chancellor George Osborne set out why the UK would not let a breakaway Scotland keep the pound, Hexham MP Guy Opperman has warned of the regional impact of a new international border on the doorsteps of Northumberland.
The Conservative MP said: “If keeping the pound would not be possible as part of a formal sterling currency union; if the SNP no longer wishes to join the euro, which one can see; and if there is no prospect of an independent country with border control—my constituents are somewhat concerned that there might be a rerun of Hadrian’s wall—where are we?”
He said the situation in Scotland was clearly of concern to the North East, adding: “I am speaking as an MP whose area has a border that divides Scotland and England—my local businesses, the North East chamber of commerce and the local authorities have all indicated that there would be a negative impact on jobs, growth and the development of our respective economies in Scotland and England were the referendum to go ahead.”
> Would that be the same jobs, growth and development (or lack of) that makes the North East the area with the highest unemployment ?
He told MPs: “I speak as a Brit, a mongrel Englishman, a lover of Scotland and an MP whose constituency borders Scotland. Were there to be Scottish independence, I have no doubt that tourism and trade would continue, but it would be naive not to accept that trade on a cross-border basis would unquestionably be affected.
“That is not some Conservative Member of Parliamentspeaking; that is the opinion of the chambers of commerce, local authorities and business groups I have spoken to on both sides of the border.”
> All organizations with the welfare of the common man at heart…
In Edinburgh yesterday the Chancellor ruled out a currency union with an independent Scotland after “strong” advice from the Treasury’s leading official, which was published.
Sir Nicholas Macpherson said that unions are “fraught with difficulty” and raised serious concerns about the Scottish Government’s commitment to making it work. Scotland’s banking sector is too big in relation to national income, the UK could end up bailing the country out.
> Perhaps the North East (and Cumbria, for that matter) should apply to become part of an independent Scotland. Until relatively recently the border was pretty fluid, the old kingdom of Northumbria took in chunks of both, and Hadrian’s Wall is nowadays a long way from the current border (although, of course, neither England or Scotland existed when it was built).
But who do we have more in common with – Scotland or the London city state ?
Source – Newcastle Journal 14 Feb 2014