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”.