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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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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