When government policies put people at risk

By Bernadette Meaden
January 8, 2017

The Prime Minister, we are told, is going to talk about a shared society. It would be good if she could make it a safe society for those at the sharp end of government policy.

We have reached the point where we are debating whether the NHS is facing simply a crisis, or a humanitarian crisis. Either way, people who are ill, frail and frightened are suffering additional discomfort and indignity, and in some cases dying in dire circumstances.

The Health Secretary is nowhere to be seen, the Department of Health has dismissed the situation as "an operational matter" beyond political accountability, and the Prime Minister has said, rather disingenuously, that funding is, "now at record levels for the NHS". Well, of course it is. With an ageing population and the rising costs of drugs, treatments and technology, the NHS budget has to grow every year simply to stand still. Being at record levels is no indication that the budget is adequate.

We’re frequently told, often by politicians who wish to justify expenditure on items like Trident, that the first duty of any government is to keep its people safe. Theresa May has used this argument to justify arms sales and close ties to Saudi Arabia. But given this duty, why has the government ignored numerous warnings about the NHS, including this one reported last December with the headline, ‘Fall in hospital beds contributing to patient deaths’?

The story went on to explain, “A decline in the number of hospital beds is putting the NHS in England under increasing pressure and has become an important contributory factor in the number of patient deaths, according to one of the country's leading health statisticians.”

Thirty years ago, there were almost 300,000 beds in NHS hospitals. There are now only 130, 000, with plans to close more. And with this drastically reduced number of beds, the NHS is expected to cope with double the number of admissions. This is asking the impossible and has brought the system to breaking point, putting people at risk.

Over at the Department for Work and Pensions, Ministers have long denied any connection between the deaths of vulnerable claimants and policies such as benefit sanctions or the Work Capability Assessment (WCA).  But far from simply being in denial about a potential link, it now appears ( thanks to the admirable investigative journalism of John Pring at the Disability News Service), that Ministers may have withheld important evidence, including a coroner’s letter, from the expert employed to review the WCA, Professor Malcolm Harrington.

When told that such a letter existed regarding the suicide of a claimant, in which the coroner expressed serious concerns about the WCA, Professor Harrington was shocked, saying,  “If I had known about that coroner’s report, I would have said that this was something else we need to look at. I am a doctor, I know about coroner’s reports. Coroner’s reports are something that you don’t ignore.”

The implications for the DWP are now so serious that leading figures from three opposition parties have united to call for an independent inquiry. Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party said, “There should be an independent inquiry covering all deaths of people receiving benefits, as well as the actions of Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith…Such an inquiry should be tasked with examining the DWP’s assessment measures, and determining whether its procedures have contributed to claimants’ deaths.”

His call is backed by the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams, who says, “It is shocking to think that information may have been kept from Professor Harrington …we would fully support further investigation into this matter as part of a wider independent review into the deaths of people receiving social security under this callous government.”

Also supporting the call for an inquiry is Baroness Thomas, a disabled peer who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on disability matters. She said, “The information being uncovered is extremely worrying and it is clear that we need some real answers from the government.”

A decade ago, we could never have imagined that foodbanks and hunger would become a normalised, potentially permanent feature of UK society. Now, we are debating whether the NHS faces a humanitarian crisis and how many deaths are linked to social security policy. Far from keeping us safe, current government policies appear in many cases to be placing us at risk.

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© 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: @BernaMeaden

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