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Disabled man killed himself over benefit cut, coroner rules

A coroner has concluded that a depressed man killed himself as a direct result of being ruled “fit to work” by the Department for Work and Pensions.

A Department for Work and Pensions "fit to work" assessment has been found by a coroner to be directly to blame for a person’s suicide.

Mary Hassell of St Pancras Coroners Office concludes that the 60-year-old Michael O’Sullivan, who died in 2013, killed himself because his disability-related benefits were restricted after Work Capability Assessments (WCA) found him “capable” of looking for a job.

The controversial “fit to work” assessments to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) were designed and introduced in 2008 under Labour, and the system has continued to be developed and rolled out by successive governments.

O’Sullivan, a 60-year-old father from north London, hanged himself after his disability benefits were removed. This was in spite of his GP certifying that he was unable to work, and the opinion of three doctors that he was suffering from recurrent depression.  At the time of his death, he was receiving antidepressants and talking therapy, according to the Disability News Service.

Hassell has written to the DWP warning that claimants could be in danger of a similar fate in the future.

In a Prevention of Future Deaths report, sent to the Department, Hassell writes:

“I found that the trigger for Mr O’Sullivan’s suicide was his recent assessment by a DWP doctor as being fit for work . . . During the course of the inquest, the evidence revealed matters giving rise to concern. In my opinion, there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken . . . In my opinion, action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe that you and Jobcentre Plus have the power to take such action.”

Hassell’s concern is that the DWP’s assessing doctor did not take into account the views of the doctors who had been treating O’Sullivan: “The ultimate decision maker (who is not, I understand, medically qualified) did not request and so did not see any reports or letters from Mr O’Sullivan’s general practitioner (who had assessed him as being unfit for work), his psychiatrist or his clinical psychologist.”

The chair of parliament’s Work and Pensions Select Committee, Frank Field MP, says Hassell's judgement “gives us the lie of the land”.

He tells me:

“In the First World War, they would send up flares to try and get some idea of the lie of the land. The truth is, this judgement has thrown up into the sky a flare, which gives us the lie of the land - not all of which is pleasant to behold.”

Field has written to the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith in the hope of a “better working relationship” with the Department than the last select committee had – he is still waiting for the government to respond to a report on benefit sanctions his committee filed before the election.

He and his colleague, Andrew Forsey, are currently completing a major report for Civitas on welfare reform, part of which looks into sanctions. Field reveals his key recommendation for the DWP will be to follow up on the people whose benefits are withheld.

“By all means have sanctions, but can you really call yourself a civilised society if you cast people off like this? Where there is no safety net. We've never had that before in the welfare state. Even under the Poor Law, you could be in the workhouse . . .

“[The government should start to] trace what happens to these souls. Some won't want to be traced, but others we will find I think in the most desperate circumstances. That's not to say you shouldn't do the sanctions policy, but it will raise some very difficult questions that any Secretary of State should want to answer before they continue the policy.”

The DWP says that O’Sullivan had been on Jobseeker’s Allowance for six months at the time of his death, and claims it has been working to improve the assessments, after five independent reviews into the system. A spokesperson comments:

“Suicide is a tragic and complex issue and we take these matters extremely seriously. Following reforms to the work capability assessment, which was introduced in 2008, people are getting more tailored support to return to work instead of being written off on long term sickness benefits as happened too often in the past.”

A number of disabled benefit claimants have died following “fit to work” rulings by the DWP’s outsourced assessors, with 2,380 deaths between December 2011 and February 2014 (that’s nearly 90 people a month). But O’Sullivan’s case is thought by campaigners to be the first official link of WCAs to suicide.

John McArdle, the co-founder of disability rights group Black Triangle, said, “this is the first irrefutable finding from the judiciary that the WCA regime is taking people’s lives”, and a Disabled People Against Cuts spokesperson called the ruling “a groundbreaking verdict”, where “people have previously argued that suicide has multiple causes”.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.