Ministers and senior civil servants are refusing to say if they approved documents drawn up following the suicides of two disabled men that were connected to flaws in the government’s “fitness for work” test.
Last week, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claimed it had unearthed a “draft” report that was written in response to questions raised by the death of Stephen Carré in January 2010.
DWP claimed the report was drafted in the autumn of 2010, following concerns raised by coroner Tom Osborne, but could not confirm if the document was seen by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith or employment minister Chris Grayling.
It has now confirmed that the file on Stephen Carré only contains the department’s draft response to the coroner’s report – known as a Rule 43 letter – with no indication of which officials or ministers saw it in 2010.
The department has refused to put questions directly to ministers about the report, to ask them whether they saw the coroner’s Rule 43 letter or the draft response.
DWP also replied this week to a freedom of information request about a second coroner’s report, written in January 2014 following an inquest into the death of Michael O’Sullivan, from north London, who took his own life in September 2013 after being found fit for work.
This second report, by coroner Mary Hassell, called for DWP action after pointing out that both the doctor who carried out the work capability assessment and the DWP decision-maker who turned down Michael O’Sullivan’s claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) failed to take account of any evidence from his GP, psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.
In its response, sent to Hassell in April 2014, DWP ignored the call for further medical evidence to be considered in all such cases, saying only that it was “committed to keeping our processes for collecting further evidence under constant review and to improving these processes where possible”.
It also said that it was “important to retain a balance between the added value of further evidence in any claim for ESA and time demands on GPs and other healthcare professionals”.
In its freedom of information request, Disability News Service had asked which senior civil servants were consulted when drawing up this response, which of them signed off the response, and which ministers saw it.
But in response to all three questions, DWP said: “No information [is]held in the department’s central records.”
The question of whether ministers saw the Stephen Carré report is important because Duncan Smith and Grayling made key decisions in the summer of 2010 about the work capability assessment (WCA) process that Osborne had linked to his death.
Among those decisions was to roll out the WCA to hundreds of thousands of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB) the following year.
They also failed to show the Rule 43 letter to Professor Malcolm Harrington, even though they had commissioned him to carry out an independent review of the “fairness and effectiveness” of the WCA.
The following year, in December 2011, a Scottish woman, Ms D E, took her own life after being told she was fit for work, a death linked by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland to WCA flaws that were similar to those that led to Stephen Carré’s death.
In 2014, Hassell wrote her letter to DWP, again warning of concerns about the safety of the WCA, following the death of Michael O’Sullivan, although by this time Grayling was no longer employment minister.
And last November, government-funded research concluded that the programme to reassess people claiming IB using the WCA could have caused 590 suicides in just three years.
Campaigners believe it is also important to know whether Duncan Smith and other ministers saw or helped draw up the DWP response to the Michel O’Sullivan report, because it is almost inevitable that other deaths have resulted from DWP’s continuing failure to ensure that further medical evidence is sought in all WCAs involving people with mental health conditions.