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During the Iraq War US General Tommy Franks said, "We don’t do body counts."
What he meant was that whilst US forces kept a record of their troops that were killed, they did not count dead civilians. Either they did not care enough to count them, or perhaps wished to avoid being held responsible for them.
Now, the Department for Work and Pensions has decided that it will not publish updated figures for the numbers of people on disability benefits who die each year. The most recent figures available are for 2011.
As Sunny Hundal has written: "It is thought the numbers of deaths has sharply increased since the Coalition government’s severe cuts to social security benefits. But to ensure that deaths aren’t cited as evidence of failure of the changes, the DWP won’t be collecting and updating its statistics."
There is certainly much anecdotal evidence of suicides and premature deaths due to the changes. The enormous stress caused by the bedroom tax, and the shambolic system of Work Capability Assessments have been cited by Coroners. For instance, when 51 year old Nicholas Barker, unable to work after a brain haemorrhage, had his benefits stopped he shot himself. The Coroner at his inquest noted: “It is evident that the matter was concerning him greatly.”
For a fit and healthy person it may be difficult to understand how changes to the welfare system could result in significant numbers of deaths, but what the government has done is to select arguably the most vulnerable section of the population, the sick and disabled, and subject them to enormous stress.
An ex-Atos nurse recently described how she and her colleagues were forced to plough through an excessive workload, with a predetermined number of people to be placed in the three groups: fit to work, work related activity group, and support group.
This is little better than entering every sick and disabled person into an ongoing lottery, with the unlucky ones being sent to the Jobcentre to try and find work, no matter how ill or disabled. Even if a person is ‘lucky’ at their first application, there is always the knowledge that they can be reassessed in future and lose their vital support. Security and peace of mind is destroyed.
Richard Stein, a leading human rights lawyer, has said "Many people are suffering great mental and physical torment through the imposition of these welfare reforms". For people whose health is fragile, it is surely inevitable that this will sometimes have fatal consequences.
Of course it is difficult to prove that this stress is a contributory factor to a death or a deterioration in health, but one woman is about to try.
Annemarie Campbell was seriously ill in hospital receiving a blood transfusion in an attempt to save her one working kidney, but that did not deter the DWP from contacting her to find out when she would return to work.
She says, “I was on the phone being upset all the time, constantly trying to explain myself. They were pushing me to go back to work, constantly phoning me and writing to me.” Eventually her kidney failed, and Annemarie blames the DWP: “In the end, because of the harassment and the stress they put me under, I lost my kidney. I was harassed and harassed and harassed and now they have broken me.” She is now awaiting a kidney transplant. Annemarie’s solicitors have made a claim for damages against the DWP, and many people will be watching the case with interest.
Campaigners have responded to the DWP’s decision not to update statistics in various ways. Samuel Miller, a disability writer and campaigner began writing to Iain Duncan Smith on the matter last November, and in June wrote:
"…while I have been very patient and reasonable regarding this matter over a period of many months, I am succumbing to the belief that your department is resorting to petty obstructionism — even a full-fledged cover-up — because the mortality of the sick and disabled has become too politicised for the Tories to cope with — and I suspect that there has been a staggering increase in the number of benefit claimant deaths since November 2011.
"I intend to file a complaint with the Information Commissioner's Office unless the transparency of your department improves."
Journalist and carer Mike Sivier has also submitted a Freedom of Information request for the 2012 figures. His blog on this issue is remarkable, as are the heartbreaking comments left by readers like Fiona Goffe, who writes:
"The impact psychologically on sick and disabled people is hard to convey, the utter desperation, terror and the feeling of betrayal and abandonment gets inside you and makes you feel you would be better off dead. I have succumbed to that feeling a couple of times but so far bounced back but it is getting harder and harder. We feel so hopeless and shocked that what is happening has been ‘condoned’ by the majority who fail to support us."
Whilst the struggle to have the dead officially counted and acknowledged goes on, others are determined that their deaths will not go unmarked. Michelle Kent is organising ‘We Shall Overcome’ a memorial event on Saturday 3rd August. Michelle says:
‘We will remember ALL these people and other losses by placing flowers and cards at the Gates of Buckingham Palace, as well as regional supporting areas to be decided. We may also decide to tie ribbons on trees. Our first goal is to lay 106 bunches of flowers, with RIP cards, each representing 100 people who have died. Statistics suggest over 10,600 have died since Welfare Reform was brought in……
This is NOT a protest or a demonstration. It is an expression of grief. There are other protests happening which we support but this particular event is so that we can express our grief openly, and hopefully with large numbers participating.’
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeadenTweet