by Robyn Banks
Over the past few months, a lot has been made of the apparently soon to be released DWP statistics on the number of people who have died after their benefits were stopped. Over 235,000 people signed a petition asking for them to be released, but the government has been accused of constant stalling in an effort to keep the real number hidden. The DWP claims they are stalling because they plan to release the statistics in a more contextual and understandable fashion, arguing that the statistics alone “. . . were likely to be misinterpreted. Specifically, incorrect conclusions were likely to be drawn as to causal links between assessment outcomes and mortality. Such misinterpretations would be contrary to the public interest, particularly given the emotive and sensitive context of mortality statistics”.
This makes sense, especially given the ability of statistics to be misinterpreted and used for one’s own ends. It might not be clear, for example, how many of those people would have died anyway from terminal illness, as benefits are stopped when a person enters hospital, or how many of those benefits were stopped for legitimate reasons. The well-known 10,600 figure which circulated earlier in the year turned out to include not only those who had their benefits stopped 6 weeks before their death, but those who had them stopped 6 weeks after. Far from having a hand in the deaths of 10,600 people, the government may have simply stopped the benefits of 10,600 people who were already dead. But to my mind, we don’t need to use an impersonal number to criticise our benefits system.
The fact is, we know people are dying. The activist group Black Triangle composed a silent film in which they name over fifty people whose lives would not have been lost were it not for the complacency of the state, from the man found starved to death next to a pile of CVs to Paul Reekie, the well-loved poet who killed himself after his benefits were stopped. Both were victims of draconian benefits sanctions which can now be doled out for minor misdemeanours such as being late for a jobcentre appointment. Whether or not it’s included in the figures, to most people the idea of stopping somebody’s benefits because they are too sick to remain at home is wrong, as in the case of Dylan Kirsopp. And there have been many questions about whether or not these sanctions are being used fairly.
Then, after more evidence emerged, the DWP was forced to admit targets had been set
Whistle blowers from jobcentres across the country have come out claiming that targets were set as to how many people’s benefits they should sanction, resulting in workers being forced to trick people in to making mistakes in order to sanction as many people as possible. The story first surfaced in 2011, and shortly afterwards Iain Duncan Smith appeared on sky news to dismiss these claims as ‘claptrap’. Then, after more evidence emerged, the DWP was forced to admit targets had been set, but blamed a ‘misinterpretation’ by individual jobcentres. In February of this year, whistle blowers claimed this was still going on.
In 2009, David Cameron wrote an article for the Guardian in which he called individualism the scourge of our age. His government seems to have taken that philosophy to it’s logical conclusion, grouping tens of millions of people in to the brackets of strivers or skivers, even going so far as to open re-education centres which treat unemployment as a psychological disorder, and to create Orwellian sounding government think tanks dedicated to influencing public behaviour. A good friend once said to me, when discussing conspiracy theories, that the problem was not whether or not the government actually did these awful things but the fact that people believe they are capable of it. I believe that the same applies here- when people circulate guides to dealing with DWP harassment and we put the onus of proof on the government to show they didn’t cause thousands of deaths, we have a problem. It was claimed that evidence heard from whistleblowers at a recent DWP select committee would leave ministers with ‘nowhere to hide’– but hiding they are, as we sit on our hands and demand statistics that may never see the light of day.
Does it matter if the number is fifty, a thousand or fifty thousand? How many dead is too many? If we want to change the system, we have to shift the focus from statistics to the lived experiences of our friends, our family and our neighbours. People who deal with the system are telling us that it’s unfair, unmanageable and cruel. Far from a society with too much respect for the individual, what we’re left with is a system with no respect or understanding of unique circumstance and human difference. A system which gladly sacrifices individuals to the cult of the public purse as the rest of us stand by, trained to conceive of ourselves as observers rather than participants of society. And it could be you next.