The Ministry of Justice is refusing to investigate why the Department for Work and Pensions failed to fulfil its legal duty to respond to a coroner’s report that linked a disabled man’s suicide to its “fitness for work” test.
The coroner’s report was written in late March 2010 following an inquest into the death of 41-year-old Stephen Carre (pictured), from Eaton Bray, Bedfordshire, who had taken his own life in January 2010*.
Disability News Service (DNS) has seen a series of letters that show that the coroner gave the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) all the information it needed to carry out an urgent review of the safety of key aspects of the work capability assessment (WCA) in 2010.
But that review – ordered by coroner Tom Osborne through a process known as a Rule 43 letter – appears never to have been carried out.
Legislation updated in 2008 makes it clear that a copy of the DWP response to Osborne’s report should have been sent to the Lord Chancellor [whose relevant duties are now covered by the justice secretary].
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) appeared unaware this week that the work and pensions secretary – Iain Duncan Smith** – had a legal duty under the relevant legislation to produce a response to that Rule 43 report and send a copy of it to the Lord Chancellor.
MoJ has so far refused to say whether the Lord Chancellor received a response to the coroner’s report from DWP in 2010.
Instead, an MoJ spokesman insisted that any questions about the report were a matter for DWP.
He said: “It’s for DWP to answer. They will respond to you; they have told me they will respond to you.”
When asked whether he was aware that legislation stated clearly that the Lord Chancellor should have been sent the DWP response, he said: “I really think you need to ring the Department for Work and Pensions press office.”
DNS submitted a series of questions about the Osborne report under the Freedom of Information Act last month, but DWP has now missed its statutory deadline for responding.
When DNS contacted DWP’s press office yesterday (27 January), a spokeswoman refused to answer any questions about the case until her department had responded to the freedom of information (FoI) request.
She said she would “look into where your FoI request is”, although she said the inquest was “obviously something that happened more than five years ago”.
She added later: “Your FoI request is in train and we will respond as soon as possible.”
DWP’s failure to respond to the coroner’s report is important because at the time, in the summer of 2010, ministers were finalising plans to roll out the WCA to hundreds of thousands of existing claimants of incapacity benefit (IB), many of them with mental health conditions.
That summer, employment minister Chris Grayling appointed Professor Malcolm Harrington to carry out an independent review of the “fairness and effectiveness” of the WCA, and later told him he wanted to push ahead with plans to roll out the assessment, despite Harrington suggesting this should be delayed by a year.
Harrington has told DNS that he believes he was never shown the coroner’s Rule 43 letter.
More than three years later, another coroner wrote an almost identical letter warning of similar concerns about the safety of the WCA, this time after the death of a north London man, Michael O’Sullivan, who also took his own life after being found fit for work after a WCA.
Stephen Carre’s father, Peter, has told DNS that he believes the lives of other people with mental health conditions like his son could have been saved if DWP had acted on the coroner’s Rule 43 letter in 2010.
In November, new research concluded that the programme to reassess people claiming IB using the WCA could have caused 590 suicides in just three years.
And a former government adviser told DNS last month how ministers and civil servants had been “ruthless” and “reckless” in forcing through their new “fitness for work” test, and refusing to abandon it even after they were told of the harm it was causing.
*Osborne ruled that the trigger for Stephen Carre’s suicide had been DWP’s rejection of his appeal against being found “fit for work”, and he called in his Rule 43 letter for a review of the policy not to seek medical evidence from a GP or psychiatrist if the claimant has a mental health condition.
Neither the Atos assessor who assessed Carre, nor the DWP decision-maker who subsequently decided that he was fit for work and therefore ineligible for the new employment and support allowance, had sought information from his GP, his community psychiatric nurse or his psychiatrist.
**Duncan Smith took over the post just over a month after DWP received the coroner’s report