The Church of the Nazarene Lunch Club was one of the projects I helped fund through my constituency fund – they applied for and received £500 for a fridge and freezer to help them run the event. So I paid them a visit on Wednesday to have lunch with some of their attendees, and speak to the organisers of this great community effort.
The lunch club helps bring together older people for a meal and a chance to make friends. The club offers a chance to get out of the house and is of real social value for people in the Heeley area. If you're involved in a local good cause and think you might benefit from my Constituency Fund, please find out more here.
The Government have just closed a consultation on Work Capability Assessments. WCAs have affected a significant number of my constituents, many of whom have found the experience difficult, stressful and that it has made their situations and their disability harder to manage.
After consulting with many of them I have submitted a response to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Damian Green. You can read the full response below.
Dear Secretary of State,
I am writing in response to the Government’s Work, Health and Disability Green Paper – and would like this submission to be considered as part of the formal consultation.
I think everyone can agree that if people can work, they should—that is not a contentious statement—and that work is beneficial for many people suffering from illness, be it physical or mental. However, while I also understand that the Government had hoped that less than 10% of those claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) would go into the Support Group, a figure which is in reality much closer to 50%, I do not consider that it is acceptable to demand of individuals more than their disability allows, purely to be seen to be lowering this figure.
Further, while I appreciate the laudable intention to ensure that individuals receive a personalised employment and health support service, I am concerned that the current assessment process is far from an adequate basis on which it is possible to provide tailored support.
I have heard from constituents who have shared with me their experiences that their completed assessment report bears absolutely no relation to the assessment that they experienced with Maximus or Atos. The latest available DWP data shows that 57% of appeals against initial ESA fit for work decisions found in favour of the claimant in September 2016 – a rise from 41% in 2008. I have heard from constituents of their being made to feel like liars at assessment interviews and of being disbelieved on every score and subsequently awarded 0 points. One constituent, who had requested a copy of her report, commented to me: “My integrity was questioned in this report too, which I really object to”.
Evidence of Mr X: - a gentleman with learning difficulties whose case was highlighted to me attended his Work Capability Assessment, but during the assessment his support worker was shocked at the lack of care and attention given to him. When the assessment came through, there were some glaring factual errors, but nonetheless his ESA was stopped.
I have been similarly concerned about the lack of sufficient knowledge of progressive conditions such as muscular dystrophy, fluctuating conditions such as Parkinson’s and the lack of sufficient awareness and training in areas such as learning disabilities. It is my experience that contractors have a huge gap in their understanding, particularly of mental health issues. Having heard from many constituents who have explained to me that the assessor they saw knew nothing of their condition, particularly how it impacted on their everyday life, I am deeply concerned about the scope of such assessments to provide an accurate picture of what personalised support an individual might benefit from. This consideration of fluctuating conditions is particularly important given the seeming attitude of assessors not to take into account evidence provided from health and social care professionals – particularly the individual’s GP.
Therefore, although I understand that the Government has recognised in the Green Paper that stakeholders have repeatedly highlighted concernsabout the effectiveness of the Work Capability Assessment, it is not sufficient to focus on what happens post-interview. Whether the assessment for financial support and employment support are separate, for example, relies wholly on there being accurate assessments on which to make such decisions.
Reforming the assessment process
It is clear that the assessment process is in desperate need of reform, and this Green Paper is timely. I understand that the average cost of each individual assessment is now almost £200, for a 15-minute assessment. Further, individuals have to wait for almost half a year for a decision to be made on their benefits and there is no deadline for those decisions, or indeed for appears to be heard. There has been a huge rise in that timescale—almost a trebling—in recent years. For each person, that can and almost always does mean hardship. It is felt by many that the Government are forcing away from ESA people who need and rely on it, and the failing contractors are being overwhelmed. Indeed, the Office for Budget Responsibility has identified ESA and PIP as a major risk to planned public spending targets, given the uncertainty of the estimates. The NAO has gone so far as to say that PIP and disability living allowance performance issues have been the main contributing factor in the Department’s inability to save any money in the spending review period up to 2015.
As in the case of Mr X, there seems to be an alarming trend of cases being rejected based on factual errors or even falsification. A constituent reported to me that their “report was very unprofessional, very badly written the English was appalling and it was incomprehensible at times. Secondly the report is inaccurate, deliberately falsified, key points twisted and others omitted. I feel that this is done deliberately so as not to gain points despite me meeting the descriptors”.
I have personally seen blatant examples of where a report has no match whatsoever of the claimant’s recollection of the interview. One or two cases could be dismissed as an honest mistake, but the situation appears to reveal a disconcerting pattern of behaviour that indicates that the trade-off between cost cutting and profit maximisation is being felt by very vulnerable people.
Response to specific questions of the consultation:
6.2 - How can we ensure that each claimant is matched to a personal and tailored employment related support offer?
As above, in order to ensure that any support offer meets the individual’s needs, and accepts their limitations, in the very first place assessments must be accurate, carried out by trained medical professionals and take the individual’s medical history and advice from other medical professionals into account. Constituents have repeatedly raised particular concerns with me about the role of nurse assessors in conducting the assessments – and of their own experience in a nurse failing what they believe to be their duty of care. One constituent has expressed concern that when their sister relayed her conditions and answered questions asked by the nurse assessor, the nurse should have the ability to link these conditions and understand the clinical impact – thus potentially limiting the need to probe further with, often embarrassing, questions. Further, I was extremely concerned to hear that when her sister was asked to read a sentence to measure her reading score, the nurse laughed at her when she made mistakes. Further, I understand, from the experiences of my constituents, that they have had particular difficulties with assessors who do not understand their mental health and the impact it has upon their lives – although individuals with a mental health condition make up some 50% of ESA claimants in the Support Group.
Evidence of Mr G – a constituent suffering panic attacks, agoraphobia, epilepsy, stress and with serious mobility issues, required to attend a WCA and placed in the Work-Related Activity Group.
Difficulties with assessments is not only an issue for those with fluctuating conditions, as detailed above, but appears also to have a very real and negative impact on those with conditions which are never likely to change. Although I understand the Government’s stated intention to have contact with individuals who had perhaps considered themselves unable to work ever – there must be safeguards and systems in place to ensure that this kind of interference does not extend to those for whom it would be wholly inappropriate.
Evidence of Mr H – Contacted by the mother of Mr H, she explained to me that her son has Down’s Syndrome, autism and developmental delay. He was awarded Employment and Support Allowance some three years ago but received forms that he was to be reassessed. Mr H’s mother clearly finds this process extremely stressful, and feels that the time spent filling in forms would be better spent in providing the near-constant care that her son requires. Mrs H has questioned why individuals with conditions like her son’s, which clearly do not fluctuate and will not improve, have to go through the process again and again.
Both Mrs H and myself understand that the condition can of course affect individuals differently, but once an assessment has been made I share her position that claimants should not be persistently contacted – or contacted at all – with a clear responsibility on them that if their situation should change then they must make the DWP aware.
In addition to accurate assessments at centres, there is surely a requirement also for genuine access to at-home appointments, and clearer guidance for individuals who require such.
Evidence of Mr R - Mr R explained to me that he suffers from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E), functional disorder, disassociate disorder and anxiety. Mr R was required to attend an assessment centre, though he requested a home visit on his assessment form. I am advised that his M.E leaves him exhausted and confused and that his anxiety leads to dissociative episodes – both of which were exacerbated by the trip to the assessment centre.
Furthermore, it should be the case and made clear to claimants that if they wish to submit a Mandatory Reconsideration of a decision that they have been found as Fit For Work they are entitled to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance while the MR is being considered. There must be no lengthy transition period in which an individual is receiving no monies and likely to suffer extreme financial hardship. Further, advisors handling Jobseeker’s Allowance claims should be lenient, if a MR is pending, about the commitments expected of a claimant – and not sanction those who may be too poorly to meet the usual Claimant Commitments of JSA. It is clear that there needs to be a fixed deadline in which an MR is considered.
Evidence of Mr X – Gentleman with learning difficulties. On making his request for Mandatory reconsideration, he was appalled to find out that he would be ineligible for ESA, which was his lifeline, until the reconsideration decision was made, and due to his illness he was in all conscience unable to meet the conditions placed on him for jobseeker’s Allowance. He advised me that he now faces months of waiting until his Tribunal, and that he has concerns about a potentially annual battle if assessors continue to lack understanding of his learning difficulty.
6.3 – What other alternatives could we explore to improve the system for assessing financial support?
The levels of financial support available under any future ESA package should be sufficient for people to live on and manage their disability. Further, any changes to the levels of financial support available under alternative benefits should clearly be protected, as was the case for claimants transitioning from Income Support to Employment and Support Allowance.
As with assessments themselves, assessments for financial support could draw on existing information that has been gathered by other agencies than the DWP – including the social care system, the NHS, mental health services and other benefit applications – such as PIP. Such sharing of information however must take into account the age of information and have a clear system in place in which a claimant is aware that this sharing of data will take place and have an opportunity to provide further evidence and information.
Furthermore, recognising that disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, financial support must consider the impact that an individual’s health condition has upon them and be seen as a means of enabling and empowering that individual to lead a fulfilling life – which may include work if that is appropriate and possible for the claimant concerned.
Finally, I am concerned that any assessment of disability should always be taken as a holistic approach, taking into account not only the financial support an individual requires to meet their disability needs but also mindful of their ability – or inability as the case may be – to attend the Jobcentre or return to work. It should never be solely about the money an individual receives and I am aware that other stakeholders have expressed their concerns that Jobcentre staff should not be given the ability to sanction individuals currently in the Support Group.
7.1 How might we share evidence between assessments, including between Employment Support Allowance/UC/PIP to help DWP benefit decision makers and reduce burdens on claimants? What benefits and challenges would this bring?
Constituents have frequently raised concerns that evidence provided to the DWP by other healthcare professionals including specialist consultants and their own GPs who they have known for a considerable period, is often discounted by the current assessment process. I understand that claimants often provide extensive amounts of information, detailing their current health, the medication they are taking, tests they are waiting for etc. but am told that these are frequently not taken into consideration.
Further, one of the challenges felt to be most avoidable by the individuals who have shared their experiences with me is the frequent requirement to repeatedly provide the same information to the same department – DWP – on a regular basis, usually due to one assessment being for ESA and another for Personal Independence Payments (PIP). It would seem logical therefore that there could be a greater sharing of information across Government departments and with related services including the NHS, mental health services and social care of, at the very least, basic information. I received contact from one individual who had been called to a Work Capability Assessment while serving a short prison sentence.
It must be clear to claimants what their responsibilities are in updating information and to whom. It would be unfortunate if assessments were made on outdated information, leading to unnecessary appeals and stress on the individual concerned. There would need to be a clear outline from the DWP as to what information was being concerned for any assessment, and an opportunity for individuals to make additions and to provide further evidence – not only to ensure that their condition is fully understood but also to avoid any possible overpayment burden.
Clarification is required of the intention to share evidence between assessments, does this mean that the DWP intend to make reviews between assessments without prior notification to the claimant? And, if so, will there be an opportunity for the individual concerned to make further submissions, or to correct information, before any decision is made in their case? Further, what consideration has been given to the impact on outside agencies, many of whom report to be over-stretched, to update records and share information with the DWP?
Finally, helping people to get into work is a necessary objective of any Government, but some things are not compatible with helping people with physical illness, disabilities or mental health problems to get into appropriate work. I am of course referring to targets, profit-driven motives and a focus above all on cutting expenditure. When one side is trying to cut costs and another is employed to maximise profit, something has to give, and unforgivably that has been the sick, the disabled and anyone who comes into contact with this failing and occasionally brutal system. This is about providing not just a good-quality service for clients, but best value for money for the taxpayer.
Any separation of the financial support element and a ‘work coach’ focused on assisting an individual into work must not work against one another. I accept that in principal separating the element of financial support and that which is required for an individual to prepare for work may be beneficial to claimants and could have the potential to reduce stress on the individual concerned, thereby making them more likely to feel fit for some type of work in future. I would strongly object however to any system of arbitrary sanctioning, the likes of which we have seen with Jobseekers Allowance, which might punish an individual for an inability to engage with work-related support. Further, while I acknowledge that the one-size-fits-all model does not have the flexibility to consider the nuances of individual’s conditions, there must be clear guidelines and structures in place which prevent a situation in which the outcome of any assessment is down to the personal judgement of an individual assessor or work coach.
Finally, in order for there to be tailored, personalised support available to individuals – we need to retain our Jobcentre Plus offices within their communities – and not, as the proposals for Eastern Avenue in Sheffield, close them without even conducting an impact assessment.
Louise Haigh MP
I’ve had chance to look through the State of Sheffield 2017 report, and I’d like to thank the Sheffield City Partnership and everyone involved for a thorough and well-produced document.
The report tells us a lot about our city’s successes, but also about some of the challenges we face. I was particularly pleased to see the high rate of apprenticeship takeup – 50% higher than the national average – and the strength of our voluntary sector, with over 3,300 voluntary and community groups contributing £800m to the local economy and doing good for people around the city.
I am also pleased that the digital and technology sector is making a home in Sheffield, and that we have an innovative population, with the second highest number of patents per person of any of the Core Cities.
But there are areas of concern. Particularly worrying is the increased demand for food banks, demonstrating significant levels of need and vulnerability in our society.
I’ve met volunteers at food banks, and they do wonderful work helping those who can’t afford to eat. But they are a response to structural inequality and disadvantage that should not be needed in our country.
28% of claims for three days’ emergency food are because of benefits delays, and a further 13.5% are due to benefits changes – showing a social security system not fit for purpose under this Government.
A child poverty rate of 24.7% is also shocking – although in some areas of the city, the rate is even higher. It is fundamentally wrong to have one in four of our children growing up without enough money. It is also harmful for our society – we know that children living in poverty are less likely to achieve well at school, and are more at risk of chronic ill health.
These are statistics which have obviously been worsened by massive cuts to Sheffield’s budget, and the Government must do more to ensure rates of child poverty fall and services can be maintained.
I will continue to fight for a more humane welfare system and to tackle child poverty but also to shout about Sheffield's brilliant successes and the fact it is a wonderful city to come to live and do business in.
If you'd like to read the full State of Sheffield report, you can download a digital copy here.
I was invited to a meeting at Heeley City Farm with people who care for those with Frontotemporal Dementia, or FTD. This is a rarer form of dementia which tends to be more common among those who develop dementia early (before the age of 65). It affects speech, behaviour and thought processes and can progress rapidly from the first symptoms.
Caring for those with this condition can be difficult work and the lack of profile for the illness means those in that position need all the support they can get.
We spoke about some of their issues, including understanding FTD and its impact, the support services available, the skills and knowledge of carers, and how those can be better voiced. If you or someone you know is affected by FTD, the Alzheimer’s Society has an overview here.
Today is Safer Internet Day, dedicated to helping young people be safe and aware when online. 80% of young people have felt inspired to take positive action by something they've seen online. But over 1 in 5 young people have been bullied online, so efforts like this are vital for awareness. This year's theme is around the power of images. Over 12% of young people surveyed shared a selfie in the last hour, and 25% used Snapchat. As Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy we need to encourage connections and innovations in this space but we must ensure people are kept safe, which is why I've already called for compulsory online education in schools. You can find out more as well as find some activities and videos on the Safer Internet Day website.
I was happy to see all the great Time to Talk events taking place around Sheffield last week. Below is the statement I sent to the event at the Winter Gardens on Saturday, February 4th.
I’d like to thank the organisers for putting together this fantastic event today. We’re lucky to have people in this city dedicated to advancing the cause of mental health and wellbeing.
The Young People’s Mental Health Champions give us a unique opportunity to hold discussions out in the open, and help defeat the stigma that too often surrounds mental health.
The new Champions will also help develop new ways to take action, and through their own experiences come up with creative and effective ways to engage young people across Sheffield.
One in four people will suffer a mental health problem at some point in their lives – it’s for all of us to make sure they have the support and encouragement they need to speak out and help others do the same.
The crisis in mental health will take a long time and a lot of work to solve – but with people turning out to events like this and supporting causes like Time to Talk, it’s a fight that can be won.
Like much of the world, I spent the weekend after Holocaust Memorial Day looking on with shock and outrage as Donald Trump’s administration locked out tens of millions of people from the USA at a stroke. This announcement banning people from the United States through no other cause than the location of their birth sends a terrible message to the hundreds of my constituents born in the seven affected countries.
To see the Prime Minister walking hand in hand with Donald Trump just hours before this announcement, and then responding slowly and tepidly when its implications became clear, raises serious questions about her leadership. This policy is not compatible with our values, and by barring the entry of some of our democratic representatives and national heroes, harms our national interest. Being seen to condemn it in anything less than the strongest terms damages our country’s reputation in the world.
This has been seen and understood by over a million people in Britain, who’ve signed a petition calling for Donald Trump’s state visit to be cancelled. The Government should listen to their voices.
Trump’s policy is wrong on a basic moral level. A nation built by people from around the world should not now declare some of them unwelcome. On the day of President Trump’s inauguration I spoke at a vigil in Sheffield’s Tudor Square, celebrating what we hold in common and opposing hatred and division. You can read my full remarks here.
I campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union; I did this because I wanted to safeguard jobs, rights and our influential position inside the European Union. But, 17.4m people voted for Brexit and they voted because of deep discontent with the current system.
No one voted on June 23rd with the expectation that a group of politicians would overturn that result, that would send a very dangerous signal about our democracy. The challenge now is to hold the Government to account on the terms of exit and our relationship with our European partners.
I will not be voting to frustrate Brexit but that does not mean that we will give the Government a blank check to tear up our rights, jobs, funding and the reciprocal access which businesses small and large rely on with our largest market, far from it. Labour want to see a plan in writing from the Government so we can hold them to account as the negotiations are ongoing and then we want to see a meaningful vote on the negotiated agreement. Otherwise the Government could utterly botch the negotiations and be given a completely free hand to press ahead regardless. That would be wrong.
That will enable us to hold the Government to account on what their plan means for jobs, protections, rights and to safeguard the interests of working people.
For small businesses, for UK citizens abroad and for many millions of other people, the uncertainty is causing considerable concern. I do not doubt that it is forcing businesses to put off investment decisions. The business confidence index, which is at a four year low, indicates that businesses in Britain see economic uncertainty as the greatest threat.
That's why we will hold the Government to account in the difficult months and years ahead and I do not believe anybody – whether they voted leave or remain – would accept a weakening of the UK’s position after Brexit. That means:
· The rights for working people which were enshrined in EU law should be guaranteed and beefed up once we leave;
· The funding which came to areas like Sheffield through the European Union funds to curb poverty and unemployment should be provided by the United Kingdom Government.
· The EU research funding which came to our city and made our two universities world leaders are guaranteed.
· And more than this, the Leave campaigners made a number of specific promises in the referendum. Chief among those was the claim that when we leave the European Union £350m a week will be made available for the NHS; many people voted for Leave with this at the forefront of their mind and it would be a betrayal if the NHS does not see that £350m after Brexit.
· Access to the skilled workers that our public sector and leading industries rely on
· Regulatory and legal certainty
I am determined to see that the voice of workers and Sheffield businesses are heard. That's why I have criticised the government for presiding over a Brexit that seems determined to be decided in Whitehall and the boardroom of City firms. There is just one non-London civil servant at the leading Brexit departments and there can be little doubt that certain sectors will have a far more influential say over the future trading relationships if things continue as they are.
So I've called for a Brexit hub to be established in the North of England and for a negotiating committee comprising of businesses small and large, leading politicians and trade unions so we can make our voice heard. Workers and small businesses make our country and the government should be doing their utmost to put them at the heart of their plan.
The Government are refusing to be honest about the scale of the challenge we face for fear of receiving the ire of the tabloid press. If their perspective becomes increasingly closed then they will end up making errors which businesses will have to live with for many decades to come. Each option is difficult and presents its own trade-offs but I am concerned if they push for a customs union deal, for instance, then they may only pursue tariff free access for big businesses and certain industries without considering the impact on other businesses.
That's why they need an open discussion.
There is no more important issue facing Britain than the terms of our departure from the EU, and it is vital that there is scrutiny and accountability on the terms of our exit.
The Labour Party as the main opposition has an especially important responsibility to ensure that the government seeks opinions from across society in the difficult decisions ahead. That’s why I responded on behalf of Labour on the frontbench in the House of Commons lastyear on this precise issue (watch here). I was clear that Parliament needs to have a say and a vote over the UK’s negotiating strategy. This was an enormously divisive referendum and people were being asked to vote for issues on half-truths.
In my view, we must seek continued access to the single market on the best possible terms. I also strongly believe that the Government should immediately guarantee the status of EU nationals who are currently living and working in the UK and contributing so much to our society.
I hope the Government will refrain from the divisive and hostile tones on these discussions that we have seen and i will continue to do my part to hold the Government to account on this vital issue.
On Friday I was proud to speak at the Vigil for Unity in Tudor Square, celebrating the things we hold in common and speaking about the importance of uniting to fight hatred wherever we find it. You can watch my speech here or read my full remarks below.
This isn't the first time i've spoken in the heart of our city about the importance of unity.
When the EDL came to Sheffield, we showed support for those they were targeting.
When we called for donations to take to Calais, my office was overwhelmed by the response from people all over Sheffield.
We were one of the first cities in the UK to take in refugees fleeing from scenes we cannot even imagine.
That is why I love this city. That’s why all of us here love this city and why it is so important we gather tonight.
And when I think about the aftermath of the referendum. No doubt we had our problems, but it is surely a source of pride for all of us that Sheffield that compared to elsewhere Sheffield stayed calm and open and friendly. Because that’s who we are.
We should be proud of that.
The first City of Sanctuary which ever existed is proving itself not just in good times, but in times like these when there are dark clouds all around us.
It's been less than 2 years since I was elected and it is almost with grief as I watch events tear people apart once again. But I would say it is not an accident that we feel more divided than ever before - in the face of deliberate attempts to pit the old against the young, the deserving against the undeserving poor, Britons against immigrants. In seeking to blame others we allow ourselves to be distracted and we misdirect our anger and our energy.
So, our response must be what you have all demonstrated with your very presence today. It must be to call out prejudice wherever we see it, to refuse to concede to the hatred and lies that are spread about our fellow citizens, citizens of the world.
Today we say goodbye to the USA's first black president. An achievement that those who fought in the civil rights movement did not think they would see in their lifetime. He gives us hope that a better future is possible, just as all of you here today give me hope that together we can build a better world for our children, that we are stronger when we stand together.
The theme of today's event is that we have more in common with each other than that which divides us. In memory of my Jo Cox, who we lost last year in a brutal assault on the very fabric of our democracy. Her legacy is one of love, of hope and not of tolerance but of a celebration of our differences and common humanity.
If we commit to living up to her example then she will not have died in vain. So today i call on each of you to conduct your lives and your politics in love, in solidarity, not division, with respect and tolerance not hate.
But it was the greatest President the US never had who said it better than I ever could. He said, in a climate of race riots and tension which eclipses even today:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
That is the role of our city in the years ahead, as it always has been in the past. Let us show leadership to the regressive forces that seek to tear us apart and in doing so we will ensure that love trumps hate.
I’ve been shocked to read the report by the National Audit Office on HMRC’s handling of the Concentrix contract, which shows HMRC not only took no interest in the failings of Concentrix, but actively encouraged them by hiking their commission rate from 3.9% to 11%.
Not only were they given more government money while thousands of complaints rolled in, but many other damning facts have come to light.
People who had their tax credits unfairly stopped had to go an average of 6-8 weeks without that income before they were reinstated – including many single parents and families who desperately need this money.
Of the cases sent over by HMRC, only 12% were corrected, showing a massive overestimation of fraud and errors on the part of the government.
Concentrix’s target for answering phone calls within five minutes in July 2015 was 90%, but they managed only a dreadful 5% rate.
In response to that dismal record, HMRC not only increased their payments of public money, but lowered their performance targets rather than demanding better service.
It may have been Concentrix which failed to deliver – and rightly lost their contract – but it was HMRC who failed in their public duty. It’s time they, and their ministers, were held to account.
If you were affected by Concentrix’s mishandling of the Tax Credits contract, please feel free to get in touch to discuss it further.