If there’s one thing we can learn from the release of statistics examining the deaths of sickness benefit claimants it’s that most journalists writing about social security haven’t got a fucking clue what they are talking about. Both The Guardian and The Daily Mail* reported this week that 2,380 people died within two weeks of being found Fit For Work by the DWP when in truth these people could have died anytime up to two years after their assessments.
The reason for this blunder – and that seems the wrong word given the subject matter, negligence might be better – is simply because they misunderstood the DWP’s garbled explanantion of how they collect data for statistical purposes.
Two statistical reports were reluctantly released by the government yesterday and both are equally confusing – and no doubt deliberately so. The first is a report on the death rates of people on all out of work benefits and the second a response to the long-standing FOI by fellow blogger Mike Sivier asking about the deaths of claimants on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), the main out of work sickness and disability benefit. Sadly neither of these documents tells us very much about the impact of the despised Work Capability Assessment, the crude benefit eligibility test which was introduced by the last Labour government, not Iain Duncan Smith.
The ESA statistics show the total number of people who have died whilst claiming the benefit, and of those how many had previously been found Fit For Work. The key questions which are left unanswered are whether those judged ‘Fit For Work’ were more likely to die than the general population, and exactly what is meant by claimants who the report says were found Fit For Work but were also still on ESA at the time of their death.
According to the department, 2,380 people who had previously been found Fit For Work ended their claim for ESA because they had died. Now this doesn’t seem to make any sense because they shouldn’t have had an ESA claim to end if they had been found Fit For Work. However, as the DWP allude to in the report, those who appeal a Fit For Work decision may have their ESA claim re-instated whilst awaiting the outcome of that appeal – or at least they would have until Mandatory Reconsiderations were introduced in late 2013 but let’s ignore that because it only muddies the waters even more.
What this suggests is that those 2,380 deaths do not represent the total number of people who have died after being found Fit For Work , but only those who went on to appeal that decision and died before the appeal was heard. Some people who didn’t appeal will have died as well, which means that the number of people who died after being found Fit For Work may be significantly higher than reported yesterday. But without a clarification from the DWP on exactly who they are talking about we cannot be sure.
The statistics also report that there were 1,340 deaths amongst people who had completed an appeal against a Fit For Work decision. The DWP do not tell us what the outcome of these appeals were, but given they were on ESA at the time of their death it seems reasonably certain they were successful. This means that 1,340 people were found Fit For Work, subsequently appealed, won the appeal, got their benefits back, and then died.
These numbers sound shocking, but they still don’t tell us much. As Ben Goldacre pointed out yesterday, without knowing the rate of deaths compared to the rest of the population – as in are people found Fit For Work at a benefit assessment more likely to die than a non-claimant – then we don’t really know much at all. It is worth remembering that a large number of people claiming ESA are nearing pensionable age. There are many deaths amongst non-claimants in this age group as well.
Where Goldacre is wrong, despite his snide remarks about confused bloggers, is in assuming that we could establish the rate of deaths amongst those found Fit For Work by tracking them through other benefits they may be claiming. DWP research shows that over half of those who lose ESA due to a Fit For Work decision disappear from the benefits system completely (pdf). The DWP simply does not know what happens to them after that, including whether they are alive or not.
There are two interesting facts that can be gleaned from yesterday’s statistics however, one being that people in the Work Related Activity Group are over twice as likely to die as non-claimants. These are those assessed as fit for some work, or being able to work at some point in the future, but who keep sickness benefits and cannot be forced to take a job. The government has just announced that this group will soon be abolished with benefits slashed to the same rate as Jobseeker’s Allowance (the dole). There is now clear statistical evidence that people in this group are significantly more likely to die than the general population.
The other surprising news is that people on Jobseekers Allowance are less likely to die than those not on benefits. This is a consistent trend that is recorded as far back as 2003. Care should be taken on how to interpret this, but it surely demands further research. Sadly with the government, charities, think-tanks and the health establishment all currently obsessed with the flawed notion that work is good for your health, we are unlikely to see any.
Iain Duncan Smith is a fetid piece of shit but he didn’t invent death. And we shouldn’t attempt to conjure up thousands of deaths to show why current social security policies are causing horrifying suffering. The massive growth in the use of foodbanks, soaring malnutrition cases in hospitals, rocketing homelessness – these all tell their own story about what is going on in the lives of the poorest. As do the ever-growing number of coronors reports and anguished stories from relatives about deaths that we know for sure are linked to failures of the benefits system. There should be no assumption that just because tens of thousands of people have not been killed by Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms then that makes everything okay. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have had their lives turned into a miserable and daily battle for survival and that is an atrocity. The Work Capability Assessment needs to be brought to an immediate end, one death was far too many.
UPDATE 29/08/15 Both The Guardian and The Daily Mail have added an amendment to these stories, with the Mail seeming to clarify that the Fit For Work deaths were people going through the appeals process.
For the sad list of those we know have died due to failures of the benefits system visit: http://blacktrianglecampaign.org/2014/10/21/uk-welfare-reform-deaths-updated-list-october-21st-2014/
Above pic from here
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