Disabled peer warns DWP that tighter benefit rules could cause more deaths


newslatestA disabled peer has warned her own government that tightening social security rules even further could lead to more deaths of benefit claimants, days after Disability News Service (DNS) revealed there had been 60 secret reviews into such tragedies.

Last week’s DNS story – that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had carried out 60 internal reviews “following the death of a customer” in less than three years – has been widely shared across social media.

And on Wednesday (19 November), it was raised by the disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas in a debate in the House of Lords.

She told fellow peers – during a discussion of controversial government plans to increase the time that someone has to wait before applying for out-of-work benefits from three to seven days – that she was “particularly concerned” about the impact on claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA).

Estimates suggest that, in 2015-16, about 35,000 ESA claimants and 245,000 claimants of jobseeker’s allowance would be most at risk from the proposed changes.

Baroness Thomas said: “Here I want to mention another reason the department ought to be very careful before implementing this particular policy as it applies to ESA claimants [with mental health conditions].

“It was on the news at lunchtime that there is evidence that the DWP has carried out 60 reviews into suicides linked to benefit cuts in the past three years.

“This very serious matter has been uncovered by John Pring of the Disability News Service and I think we ought to hear more about this in the coming weeks.”

The DNS story was also reported by BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme, although no mainstream newspaper appears to have covered it yet.

DNS editor John Pring told You and Yours: “I think what should be a system of support has turned into for some people persecution and has caused some people to take their own lives and has caused others to die through lack of food or heating.

“One of the things we need to know now is what were the conclusions and recommendations of these 60 reviews.”

DWP has so far refused to release the reviews because they include the personal details of deceased benefit claimants.

You and Yours also spoke to the sister of Tim Slater, from Staffordshire, who killed himself in September 2013 after he was found “fit for work” following an assessment by Atos Healthcare.

She said the Atos assessment had failed to take any account of his mental health condition, and only examined the impact of his sight impairment. His case is now being reviewed by DWP.

Slater, who had survived a previous suicide attempt, was one of the hundreds of thousands of claimants of old-style incapacity benefit who have been reassessed through the much-criticised work capability assessment process since early 2011.

A coroner concluded that a major factor in his death had been that his benefits had been “greatly reduced, leaving him almost destitute and with a threatened repossession of his home”.

Meanwhile, the disabled Canadian academic and campaigner Samuel Miller, who tweets at @Hephaestus7, has passed the DNS story to the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is believed to be conducting a high-level inquiry into “grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people by the UK government.

Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council, tweeting at @achairukdpc, said the DNS story showed there had been a “shameful cost in human life”, but DWP was “constantly in denial and never seem to [be]held to account” for the failures of its social security policy.

Another leading disabled activist, Ian Jones, @edwinmandella, one of the founders of the WOWcampaign, tweeted: “Drip, drip, drip. ConDem policies are killing disabled people and slowly the proof is emerging.”

The social affairs journalist Frances Ryan, @frances_ryan, described the DNS story as “huge”, while @hawkins_carole tweeted: “Only 60, how many hundreds are they not investigating!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

And campaigner Sue Marsh, a key member of the Spartacus online network, said on her blog: “If this story isn’t picked up by the mainstream media, they are as complicit in the outrageous cover up of this crisis as [work and pensions secretary]Iain Duncan Smith himself.”

Meanwhile, a public meeting in David Cameron’s Witney constituency in Oxfordshire will this week hear from the sisters of two disabled men who died through lack of food after having their benefits removed.

David Clapson had been “sanctioned” because he missed two DWP appointments, while Mark Wood, who was a Green party member and a constituent of the prime minister, lost his ESA and housing benefit because he had been found fit for work by Atos.

Wood’s sister Cathie and Clapson’s sister Gill Thompson will share a platform at the meeting, organised by the Green party, at 7.30pm on Thursday 27 November at Langdale Hall, Market Square, Witney.

20 November 2014