MP provides prime minister with proof of the fatal impact of welfare cuts

An MP who confronted the prime minister with a suicide note written by a disabled man who killed himself after being found “fit for work” has warned that other such tragedies are likely.

Ian Lavery, the Labour MP for Wansbeck in Northumberland, told David Cameron during prime minister’s questions this week that the note had been written by a constituent who killed himself after his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) was turned down.

Lavery then joined those who have called on the government to conduct an assessment of the combined impact on disabled people of all of its cuts and welfare reforms.

Cameron said he would “look very carefully at the very tragic case” but then claimed that “the actual money that we are putting into disability benefits over the coming years is going up, not down”.

He said: “I think that everybody knows and accepts that we need to have a review of disability benefits.

“Some people have been stuck on these benefits and not been reviewed for year after year after year. That is the view of the disability charities and it is the view of the government as well.”

The case adds further weight to the arguments of campaigners who have been trying to alert politicians to the deaths of disabled people they say have taken their own lives as a result of the harshness and unfairness of the ESA system, and other welfare cuts.

Lavery told Disability News Service (DNS) that he agreed with disabled activists that his constituent’s suicide was probably not a one-off.

He said: “We will never ever get the data of how many people have committed suicide because of [cuts to] benefits.”

He said he feared people like his constituent “cannot see a future” and are “having things stripped from them and having to go through a test every year and be humiliated in front of people who are not even qualified. It is just a desperate situation.”

He said that the note – which he was handed at his constituency surgery on Friday – was written by a 54-year-old man who had been tested for his eligibility for ESA through the notorious work capability assessment (WCA).

He had killed himself after receiving a letter saying that he had scored zero points in the assessment and so would not be entitled to ESA.

Lavery was not able to discuss the man’s case in detail – although the man’s family gave him permission to raise it in parliament – but he told DNS: “Disabled people are being led to believe that they are scroungers and being led to believe by the government that they should not have benefits. It is an absolute disgrace.

“I had a gentleman claiming ESA and he said he wasn’t even going to appeal [against having his ESA removed] because he was too embarrassed.”

He warned that many disabled people were now too embarrassed to claim disability benefits because they felt “stigmatised”.

He added: “We are seeing more people [in the surgery] on a weekly basis who have got mental health problems, and it is frightening – a lot of these people are on benefits and a lot of them are going to be losing their benefits, and goodness knows how they are going [to cope].”

And he warned that most benefit claimants were still not aware of the impact of the further cuts and reforms that will be implemented in April 2013.

Lavery said he wanted to think during the Christmas period about how he could campaign in parliament on behalf of disabled people facing cuts to their benefits and services.

He added: “I just think we have got to do something.”

Karon Cook, chair and founder of Wansbeck Disability Forum, who herself faces a WCA in 2013, said there were disabled people who now “have to decide whether they have the money to keep their homes warm or they get cold and have something to eat”.

She praised Lavery for the support he had given the forum, and said: “It’s heart-breaking. I have been campaigning with other organisations to raise awareness.

“We try to be so confident in talking to people and try to show them a little light [at the end of the tunnel] but it is getting harder and harder and people don’t know who to turn to.

“When April comes next year, I can see a lot more suicides, I really can, and a lot more homelessness.”

News provided by John Pring at http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Benefit reforms ‘will cost disabled people £9 billion’

Government benefit reforms are set to cost disabled people more than £9 billion over the next five years and push them “further into poverty and closer to the fringes of society”, according to a respected think-tank.

The Destination Unknown report, by Demos, says the welfare reforms are set to hit 3.5 million disabled people by 2015.

The losses are partly caused by a planned change to the way benefits are increased – or uprated – annually, from the use of the retail price index to the lower consumer price index (CPI).

Many disabled people are also set to lose out through the reassessment of disability living allowance (DLA) claimants, as the government moves to cut DLA costs by 20 per cent.

And many will be affected by the reassessment of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB), through the controversial work capability assessment (WCA), with the first pilots beginning in Aberdeen and Burnley this week and national retesting starting next spring.

The report says that a typical disabled man and his wife, who is his carer and is also disabled, would lose £3,143 over the next five years through the uprating change.

A disabled man on employment and support allowance – the replacement for IB – would be nearly £1,300 worse off by 2015, with the possibility of further losses if his DLA was reduced or stopped.

And a disabled person moved from IB to jobseeker’s allowance because he was found “fit for work” after a reassessment would lose nearly £9,000 by 2015.

Among its recommendations, the report calls on the government to reform the WCA, and allow disabled people to take a lump sum from their future housing benefit entitlement to buy their own homes.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said they “don’t recognise” the figures in the report and could not “pre-judge” the results of next week’s government spending review.

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, which funded the report with the Barrow Cadbury Trust, said: “Benefits are not optional extras – they are vital lifelines to help disabled people participate in our society. 

“Without them, hundreds of thousands of disabled people will be forced into a cycle of long-term unemployment, poverty and social exclusion.”

The report’s publication came as Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, told MPs that 900,000 people had been claiming IB for more than 10 years, while the government had spent a “staggering” £133 billion on incapacity benefits in the past 10 years.

Ed Miliband, the new Labour leader, told the prime minister in the Commons this week that his party backed the government’s reforms to IB and DLA.

He said he would “work with him” on the reforms “because they are important reforms and they need to be done”.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Government to use credit firms in latest benefit fraud crackdown

The government is set to use private companies to trawl through disabled people’s credit histories as part of its latest campaign to cut benefit fraud.

The prime minister, David Cameron, announced this week on a visit to Manchester that the government would unveil an “uncompromising” crackdown on benefit fraud this autumn, which could include tougher penalties and more prosecutions for fraud.

He said the government wanted to use credit ratings agencies to “go after those who are claiming illegally”.

The government wants to pay these companies according to how many fraudulent claims they detect. It was widely reported in the mainstream media that government sources had described these fees as “bounty payments”.

Experian, one of the companies that already works on fraud detection with the government, claims it could use “simple data matching techniques to identify lifestyles incompatible with people genuinely incapable of work” and save £300 million in incapacity benefit (IB) fraud and error.

This is a far higher sum than the government’s latest estimates of £210 million lost every year to IB fraud and error, of which just £30 million is fraud.

Experian would use techniques such as checking that information given to the DWP in a benefit claim matches information given by the claimant to other organisations, and analysing whether their income levels suggest they have a job.

But disabled activist Adam Lotun, director of Workplace Disability Adjustments, said he was very concerned about “consultants coming in who…do not understand the needs and requirements of disabled people”.

He said: “I am worried that a lot of [innocent disabled] people are going to get caught up and accused of fraud.”

The Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform (SCoWR) said the DWP’s figures showed total benefit fraud was less than one per cent of all claims, with errors caused by underpayments, overpayments, poor administration and bureaucracy far more of a problem.

Maggie Kelly, of the Scottish Poverty Alliance, said it was “about time that David Cameron started to focus on the huge amount of money lost through DWP mistakes and the £40bn a year lost in high level tax avoidance and evasion. The amount lost through benefit fraud is tiny in comparison.”

It also emerged that the government is considering forcing claimants of the new employment and support allowance (ESA) to take their work assessment test earlier than the current 14 weeks.

Chris Grayling, the employment minister, suggested that many of the people who abandon their ESA claims before taking the test have been claiming the benefit fraudulently.

He said: “You can wait 13 weeks on ESA before you have a medical check – 30 or 40 per cent of claims stop before that 13 weeks is up. That is something we should give some thought to.”

A DWP spokeswoman said they were “looking at options” for having the work capability assessment take place earlier in the assessment process for ESA, although no decisions had yet been made.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com