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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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“Grooming rings are the biggest recruiter for the far right”: Rochdale and Telford prosecutor

Senior lawyer Nazir Afzal warns the government, and communities implicated in street grooming, to do more – or the situation will get worse.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford, and oversaw similar street grooming cases in Rochdale, tells Anoosh Chakelian why these crimes go under the radar, and how to tackle them.

How widespread are these street grooming cases?

My involvement started with Operation Span, which is the Rochdale prosecution, in 2011. And prior to that, when I was in London as chief prosecutor, I was aware it was an issue bubbling but wasn’t getting any attention.

Obviously we’ve now got Telford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol. If anybody watched the BBC’s film Three Girls, at the very end, they list I think 16 towns and cities where prosecution had taken place.

We know that it is extraordinarily widespread. Wherever you look, if you turn over the stone, you’ll find this kind of behaviour. 

What do each of these cases have in common?

What we discovered, ten years ago nearly, were groups of men working invariably in the night-time economy, either in taxi services or takeaways or that kind of business, hiding amongst whom were these predators. They’re not gangs in the way organised crime gangs are. They’re very loose networks.

There are vulnerable young girls in so many parts of this country, who nobody else seems to care about. And what these victims need is warmth, transport, mind-numbing substances, food. And where are they going to find that? You’re invariably going to find that in the night-time economy.

I used to describe them as easy prey for evil men. They’re easy to identify, and what tends to happen is that once they’ve identified one victim, through her networks very often they’ll find others.

These men are just taking advantage of the dysfunctional nature of children’s services and young people’s services that have existed now for some time. If anything, it’s got worse, because while there is tremendous learning, the resources have been reduced.

So really good practices – like one council would have a van that would go round fast food premises in the evening to identify young girls at risk and talk to them – are cancelled because they don’t have the money to do it anymore.

People work in silence. Information was available and wasn’t shared. That style of working is part of the problem. So time and again, people are just keeping things to themselves. It’s a lack of competence on their part. It’s competence, it’s not conspiracy. Easier to blame a conspiracy than say “you were rubbish at your job”. And that is constantly something that I have come across.

The victims don’t even see themselves as victims very often. Because of the poverty of relationship education and sex education in schools, these men make them believe that they love them. I remember in the Rochdale case, one of the girls kept calling one of the defendants throughout the trial her “boyfriend”. She doesn’t know any different; nobody has taught her what’s a good relationship, what’s a bad relationship.

Time and time again, survivors have the answers. What the authorities should be doing is listening to their local survivors, and building their response and their interventions on what the survivors tell them: “This is a journey I took, this is where you could’ve intervened. This is where you could’ve prevented my abuse or somebody else’s abuse.”

There are some very, very courageous, extraordinarily strong women now more than willing to share their experiences. And we do so little of that [talking to them].

How can the situation be improved for victims and potential victims?

A lot of these victims have criminal records as a result of behaviours they were made to do – we should be erasing those criminal records. That’s the way we can rehabilitate them. I think victims need compensation for what they’ve been through. And they also need lifelong support, and that’s not being produced.

Taxi drivers in Coventry are trained in local signs of abuse; it’s part of their licensing arrangement and I work with them actually on delivering that. Why is that not happening everywhere else in the country? Why are we not licensing and training takeaway establishments in the same way?

I discovered recently that in Newcastle, they’re delivering this kind of training. Sadly, it’s voluntary. The people you need to engage with are not coming. So unless you have mandatory training for people working in the night-time economy, it’s not going to happen.

Additionally in the hotel trade, one or two large chains are doing some good work in identifying young people at risk, and sharing intelligence. Why is that not everywhere? We know that predators use cheap hotels and places like that for the abuse they carry out.

The intelligence is there, it’s just not being used. And we’re not using community intelligence either. The vast majority of victims in this type of sex offending are white girls. There are Asian girl victims too.

When I prosecuted the Rochdale gang, immediately afterwards, I prosecuted the ringleader again for his abuse of a girl of the same ethnicity as him. That didn’t get any publicity and he got 21 years for that. So there are victims from the Asian community but because of issues such as honour, shame, and the fact that very often they’re told by their families that it’s “your fault”, they’re not coming forward.

So we need to understand that there are victims out there who are even less likely to report their concerns because of familial and community pressures.

We are scratching the surface, and it really irks me that each and every time it gets in the news, it’s two things.

Number one is that it’s the biggest recruiter for the far right in this country. If you go on any far right website, they use the grooming gangs more so than Isis or terror attacks as the means by which they recruit far right activists.

So we should be tackling this, and by “we” I mean everybody, including the communities most impacted, and most implicated.

Number two is we need to intervene much earlier, but we also need to do some perpetrator programmes. There are perpetrators involved who are still in denial about their activities. There are still people out there who think “well, it’s fair game”.

How can it be prevented from happening in future?

Much more work has to happen in terms of the perpetrators and perpetrators of the future – and that, of course, involves early education.

Too often, we wait until high school to start talking about gender equality and relationship education. We should be starting to talk to them about these types of behaviours and what they should be looking out for when they’re five, six and seven. We’re just building up a problem for the future by not doing any of this.

We should have mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. If you see someone being abused, or you perceive to be being abused, then it should be your duty to report. What the government has said recently is that social workers have come out against it. And my response would be: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”

NGOs are doing phenomenal work in its field, so there are lots of charities and groups up and down the country trying to identify victims and potential perpetrators. They don’t get enough funding. They’re working on a shoestring.

What do you say to those suggesting ethnicity plays a part?

The vast majority of children and young people are abused within the family. We must not lose sight of that. The second largest group of victims are online. Today, you can pay pennies to watch a child being abused in real-time, somewhere in the world. The third largest group is institutional; we know about places of worship – churches, mosques – we also know about the FA and football and judo and sporting clubs, and the BBC.

Street grooming is the smallest – significant nonetheless, we’re still talking about thousands of victims. It’s smallest comparatively to the other three areas.

More than 80 per cent of child sexual offenders are British white men.

When I’ve prosecuted Stuart Hall or Max Clifford, or whatever, people never said “oh, his religion, his ethnicity”, as if that was important. It wasn’t in their cases, and they remain the vast majority of offenders.

I’ve always said the ethnicity of street groomers is an issue. We can’t pretend that’s not what’s happening.

The night-time economy is one issue. But it’s not the issue.The issue is the availability and vulnerability of young girls. The issue is the fact that they are unwanted and unloved. They get no support: the NGOs that support them aren’t properly funded, neither are children’s services. That is the issue.

But ethnicity is an issue, and I don’t think the community is doing enough. I was really pleased to see, some months ago, I was invited to the launch of the Greater Manchester Muslim community organisation, and one of their four priorities is tackling grooming. And that is rare. Most communities would rather not talk about the subject, would beat me up [verbally] quite regularly for mentioning it, and unless we tackle it, bigots don’t need an excuse to hate you, so why do we give them an excuse? Why are we not tackling an issue that can be tackled?

You can’t just generalise about what it is that might be driving these men. We need to do a great deal more research into background, why perpetrators become perpetrators, in the same way we’re trying to identify why victims become victims.

Authorities are often accused of being scared to act because of political correctness. How do you feel about that?

I’ve not come across anybody who’s scared. I get bored of this going unchallenged. These are difficult cases to prosecute. Very often, the victim treats the prosecutor or the investigator as the bad guy for trying to destroy their “relationships”. Competence was the issue – people not understanding how to bring these cases. They had to leave their tick-boxes and their normal pro formas aside.

Some people, no doubt, may not want to offend a certain community, but I would imagine they’re in the minority. The large majority fail to engage because it’s really difficult.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.