Iain Duncan Smith has denied responsibility for the deaths of people with mental health conditions who took their own lives after being unfairly found fit for work by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Duncan Smith was speaking to Disability News Service (DNS) at the Tory party annual conference in Birmingham about his failure to act on a coroner’s written warning in 2010 on the need to address particular safety concerns with the work capability assessment (WCA).
In the unplanned interview, which took place in a busy foyer in Birmingham’s International Conference Centre, the former work and pensions secretary claimed repeatedly that five independent reviews of the WCA commissioned by DWP under his leadership had led to a “much improved system”.
But DNS asked Duncan Smith about a report written by coroner Tom Osborne, who had ruled that the trigger for the suicide of Stephen Carré in January 2010 had been DWP’s rejection of his appeal against being found “fit for work”.
Osborne had called in what was known as a Rule 43 letter for a review of DWP policy – which has still not changed six years on – that means it does not always ensure that it obtains further medical evidence from a GP or psychiatrist if an employment and support allowance (ESA) claimant has a mental health condition.
Neither the Atos assessor who assessed Stephen Carré, nor the DWP decision-maker who subsequently decided that he was fit for work and therefore ineligible for ESA, had sought information from his GP, his community psychiatric nurse or his psychiatrist.
Osborne’s letter was believed to be in Duncan Smith’s in-tray when he was appointed secretary of state for work and pensions in May 2010, but it was not answered until February 2016, following questions raised by DNS.
Duncan Smith and Grayling also failed to pass the letter to Professor Malcolm Harrington, who carried out the first three reviews of the WCA, and they decided to roll out the assessment to hundreds of thousands of long-term incapacity benefit claimants with mental health conditions in the spring of 2011, without correcting the deadly safety flaw.
Duncan Smith (pictured shortly after the interview) repeatedly attempted to avoid answering questions on the coroner’s letter, but eventually admitted that he remembered the Stephen Carré case.
He said: “I remember the case and I remember the work we did and we had five reviews so I’m not going to be accused by you of anything.”
He also said that he remembered what he referred to as “the early cases”, but that he could not “remember every single letter from a coroner”.
And when asked if he remembered one particularly case of a man with a mental health condition who took his own life after being found fit for work – again without further medical evidence being sought, and more than three-and-a-half years after the death of Stephen Carré – he said: “Go and ask the department about where they are now with all of that.
“Honestly, because I am not there at the moment.”
He claimed that his former department had done much to “soften” the WCA for people with mental health conditions and to take more account of the fluctuating nature of their impairments.
But he appeared to accept that he had failed to commission a pilot project to test new ways to collect further medical evidence for people with mental health conditions – aimed at correcting the failing that led to Stephen Carre’s death – despite promising the courts that he would do so.
Ministers told a tribunal in March 2015 – following a lengthy judicial review – that they would test ways to make the WCA safer by collecting medical evidence about each claimant from their doctor and psychiatrist, but by the time Duncan Smith quit his position 12 months later – nearly six years after he saw Osborne’s letter – the promised pilot project had still not been launched.
When asked if this was the case, he said: “Yes. I don’t know where the situation is now, because I left back in March.”
When DNS said that people were still dying because of this failure, he said: “The whole idea was to make the changes; we made a lot of changes early on and we have a white paper set in to reform the whole of the sickness benefit, which doesn’t work properly.”
He also appeared to try to shift blame onto his former colleague, Chris Grayling, who as employment minister in 2010 was in charge of the WCA, saying: “Back in 2010-11, Chris Grayling was in charge of it, he changed the nature of what we looked at.
“What we inherited from Labour at the time was quite a harsh system and we had, if you remember, about four or five reviews and each one of them recommended changes to soften it.”
As Duncan Smith tried to end the interview – after becoming increasingly irritated with the questions – DNS asked him what he thought of Police Scotland now considering whether it would launch a criminal investigation into his WCA failings.
But he said he was “not going to get involved in the detailed questioning from you”, before turning his back on DNS editor John Pring.
Disabled activists have called for Duncan Smith and Grayling to face a criminal investigation for the Scottish offence of wilful neglect of duty by a public official.
This call has been backed by the families of both David Barr and Paul Donnachie, two people with mental health conditions who took their own lives after being found fit for work.
Police Scotland is currently considering a dossier of information submitted by Black Triangle – including information on the deaths of Paul Donnachie and David Barr, as well as a third case, that of a woman known as Ms DE – before deciding whether to launch a criminal investigation.
The interview comes in a week where Duncan Smith’s failure to address wider concerns about the WCA was highlighted in humiliating fashion by new work and pensions secretary Damian Green, who told the party conference that it was “pointless bureaucratic nonsense” to expose many disabled people with high support needs to repeated WCAs, and promised to scrap the practice.