Mike Penning, the Disabilities Minister, seems to be in the wrong job. In a debate in Parliament on the mess around work capability assessments, Penning apologised. Doesn't he know that he's not supposed to do that? True, he was confronted with the story of Sheila Holt, the woman who was pursued by Seetec and Atos even though she was in a coma. The sorry tale was originally told by the Mirror on 12 February. Penning, perhaps, had no option but to apologise; but he's rather letting the side down by doing so. His boss, Iain Duncan Smith, and his colleague Esther McVey would, I'm sure, simply have brushed the story aside. He has probably been told that he must not see this as a precedent. Ministers at the DWP have a motto; never apologise, never explain.
So there hasn't been a peep out of them about another horror story, this time from David Cameron's constituency. It was covered in the Oxford Mail and headlined: "Man starved after benefits were cut". Mark Wood, aged 44, had multiple problems which made him very vulnerable; but Atos declared him fit for work. All his benefits were stopped except his disability allowance. He couldn't pay his bills and apparently starved to death. As well as being appalled, we should note a contradiction which emerges from the story. Wood's GP "said he had not been contacted by either Atos or DWP about Mr Wood’s medical history, and revealed that if they had asked for his professional opinion he would have said Mr Wood was unfit for work." But the obligatory arrogant comment from the DWP spokesperson says: “A decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough assessment and after consideration of all the supporting medical evidence from the claimant’s GP or medical specialist.” Someone is making it up, and I don't think it's the GP. (For the first time this mysterious spokesperson is named; it's Ann Rimell, who is Senior Press Officer at the DWP.)
As if it wasn't enough that one contract was in a shambles, a report came out from the National Audit Office showing that a newer one, the PIP assessments done by Atos and Capita, was heading the same way. A piece in the Guardian reports that a backlog of 92,000 cases has built up, three times the expected number, and only 16% of cases have received a decision. Neither company is anywhere near meeting its contractual requirements. But the DWP spokesman said, in effect, "No problem".
As well as leaving it to others to deal with the Atos affair, IDS has also been ignoring the growing unrest about sanctions. West Dunbartonshire CAB produced a scathing report which makes all the points many have been making for quite a while. But the DWP's response was to confirm to Inside Housing that under Universal Credit housing benefit could be subject to sanctions. This is because people who get working tax credits or HB but not JSA or ESA can only be punished by hitting that benefit. Then on Friday the Herald newspaper in Scotland published a report of a piece of analysis done by an academic which brings up to date some of the stats on sanctions. We knew that from October 2012 to September 2013 the success rate for appeals against sanctions was 58%. But Dr Webster says that this has risen dramatically in the most recent quarter, to 87%. However, only 2.44% of those who were penalised actually appealed in the last 3 months. IDS would claim, of course, that this means that the vast majority of sanctions are justified; but Dr Webster maintains that the low appeal rate is down to the difficulty so many claimants have with the appeal process. And he makes an interesting point: "To date, Work Programme contractors have been responsible for twice as many sanctions on the people referred to them as they have produced 'job outcomes' ."
Duncan Smith had a project which he's been forced to drop by his own colleagues. He wanted to redefine poverty. At the moment poverty is defined as having an income less than 60% of the country's average income. So it's relative, but it's based firmly on the idea that poverty is about not having enough money. IDS wanted to include other factors, like "worklessness" and addiction. This was a terrible idea, for several reasons, admirably expressed by Bernadette Meaden on the Ekklesia website and by Andreas Whittam Smith of the Independent.
Duncan Smith's recent appearance before the Work & Pensions Select Committee astonished many people, because his attitude was so disgraceful. One of the Labour members of that committee, Teresa Pearce, has described her feelings about it on the International Business Times website. She calls him "downright rude and quite abusive".
And finally - I've lost the link to this, but it's memorable. In the debate on the bedroom tax Labour brought up the evidence to show that IDS's estimate of the numbers wrongly penalised was a wild stab in the dark and completely inaccurate. Now Smith doesn't like to be contradicted. But I detect something else in what happened next; panic at the very idea of maths. Having accused Chris Bryant of mathematical incompetence he said that one in twenty of something-or-other .... "One in twenty - that's a fifth ..." Er, no. (If your maths is as bad as his, one in twenty is 5%. A fifth is 20%.)