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Welfare reform suicides must not be overlooked

A website seeking to collate stories of suicides linked to the coalition's welfare reforms is a valuable resource.

Job seekers queue outside a Jobcentre Plus branch in London Bridge
Job seekers queue outside a Jobcentre Plus branch in London Bridge. Photograph: Getty Images

Last week, it was reported that a jobseeker in Selly Oak tied himself to railings outside a jobcentre and set fire to himself. It is alleged that he was driven to such desperate actions because of the non-payment of a benefit - as Deborah Padfield has outlined here, many people struggle when they fall into the gap between being refused for Employment Support Allowance and starting to receive Jobseekers’ Allowance. For those living on the very edge, a delay of days can be enough to leave them with nothing. Waiting weeks while computers process applications can be too long.

A document was distributed to jobcentre employees last April that contained a “six-point plan” to help them deal with claimants who threaten suicide. It states:

Some customers may say they intend to self-harm or kill themselves as a threat or a tactic to 'persuade', others will mean it. It is very hard to distinguish between the two … For this reason, all declarations must be taken seriously.

The source of this leaked document - a long-term DWP employee - explained that they had not seen guidance like this before, leading them to draw the conclusion that “it has been put together ahead of the incapacity benefit and disability living allowance cuts”.

A website called “Calum’s List” is seeking to collate the stories of those who have committed suicide as a result of hardship caused by the coalition’s welfare reforms. The fully-referenced list currently comprises 21 cases where either a suicide note or the testimony of family or health professionals cites an aspect of the welfare reforms as the main cause for the suicide.

It includes cases such as that of Martin Rust from Norwich, a schizophrenic who had been found fit to work by a DWP assessment, and committed suicide two months later. The Coroner cited the “distress” caused by the DWP’s decision as a contributory factor in his decision to end his life. And that of Elaine Christian, who was found dead in Holderness Drain after self-harming and taking an overdose. The inquest heard that she had had to stop work because of poor health and was worried about a medical appointment to assess her eligibility for disability benefits she was due to attend the next day. Vicky Harrison, a 21-year-old who took an overdose after being rejected by what her family estimated to be around 200 jobs in two years. Her case is one of the few on the list to have been reported by the national press.

A secondary register, named “Peter’s List”, has also been started to record deaths “where the primary cause of death or hospitalisation cannot exclusively be laid at the door of the current welfare reforms, but where there is no doubt that welfare reform has, or had, some culpability”, the site’s owner states.

Suicide is never a simple matter of a single cause, so of course all of these cases must be kept in the context of the myriad pressures each individual faced, rather than isolated to fit into a particular narrative. This list exists for a transparent campaigning purpose - the site includes resources to submit Freedom of Information requests to the DWP and for a letter-writing campaign to Iain Duncan Smith.

But it also provides a rare and more comprehensive glimpse of what is happening across the country. Many of these stories are reported by local press but few filter up to national media organisations and as such, parallels and comparisons are lacking. As the coalition’s welfare reforms cause benefits to be withdrawn or changed and claimants are reassessed, individuals are struggling and suffering. They must not be forgotten. Without a body of evidence, making the case for a different approach to welfare is that much more difficult.