The long-delayed release of government figures on the deaths of benefit claimants has added fuel to years of concerns about the impact of aggressive welfare reform on sick and disabled people.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) released two sets of data today (Thursday), one showing mortality statistics for out-of-work disability benefit claimants, and another showing death rates for all out-of-work benefit claimants.
Activists had been calling on DWP to publish updated statistics since November 2012, in an effort to prove that the work capability assessment (WCA), the eligibility test for employment and support allowance (ESA), was so damaging that it was causing deaths.
The information commissioner finally ordered DWP to release the figures after an appeal by Mike Sivier, a freelance journalist and carer who runs the Vox Political blog.
But many activists and commentators warned that the figures released by DWP today “do not tell the whole story”, and would require detailed analysis before any conclusions could be reached.
The figures reveal that, of the two million people who had gone through a work capability assessment and had received an ESA decision between 1 May 2010 and 28 Feb 2013, nearly 41,000 had died within a year of that decision.
The reports also show that, between December 2011 and February 2014, 81,140 people died while claiming ESA or incapacity benefit (IB).
And 2,650 ESA and IB claimants died soon after being found “fit for work” as a result of an assessment.
Another 7,200 died after being placed in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG), for claimants the government had decided were well enough to move back towards work.
Other figures show age-standardised mortality rates (ASMRs), which allow for comparisons between the proportion of those dying while in different ESA groups and the general population.
These figures show that, in 2012, those placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of ESA were more than twice as likely to die (481.1 of every 100,000 people) as the general population (238.5 of every 100,000 people).
The following year, in 2013, the figures were 532.4 per 100,000 people for the WRAG and 240.4 for the general population.
DWP insisted that it was not possible to assume any “causal effect between benefits and mortality” from the “isolated figures” it had published, which “provide limited scope for analysis”.
It insisted that “nothing can be gained from this publication that would allow the reader to form any judgement as to the effects or impacts of the WCA”.
Despite this, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith had announced – just three days before the figures were published – that he wanted to scrap the WCA, and said there was a “fundamental flaw” at the heart of the ESA system.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said the figures showed the WCA was “not fit for purpose”, although it would take time to analyse them properly.
DPAC’s statement said the figures “do not tell the whole story”, as they ignore those disabled people found fit for work but unable to claim jobseeker’s allowance because of its strict conditionality.
DPAC said the figures also ignore the thousands of disabled people sanctioned every month; those disabled people “portrayed as scroungers by the media”; and the “suffering and the humiliation of disabled people who have to prove their impairment/long-term health issues over and over again to DWP staff who don’t believe them”.
The disabled social affairs journalist Frances Ryan wrote in the Guardian that death had become part of Britain’s benefits system.
She said: “That is not hyperbole but the reality that the stress caused by austerity has led us to.
“Shredding the safety net – a mix of sanctions, defective ‘fit for work’ tests, and outright cuts to multiple services – has meant that benefit claimants are dying; through suicide, starvation and even being crushed by a refuse lorry when a 17-week benefit sanction forced a man to scavenge in a bin for food.”
Philip Connolly, policy and development manager of Disability Rights UK, said: “It is not just the charities but the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing who have deplored this medical test for fitness for work.
“Now the evidence of the cruelty and stress involved in this test can be seen by everyone else too and not simply by the families of the dead. We need a completely new approach.
“This time it must be one that starts by supporting those who want to work to exercise their right to work – with encouragement and evidence-based support, not threats of poverty and inadequate programmes.
“And it must be one that disabled people, our representative organisations and health, social care and vocational rehabilitation professionals view as acceptable.
“It must be evidence-based. It must link assessment of needs to support. It must be fair.”
Frank Field, the Labour MP and the new chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said the figures were “distressing”, but added: “The key factor is whether the number of deaths are above what would normally be expected from claimants not deemed fit for work.”
He said he had written to Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, to ask if he would answer this and other questions, and “take this analysis further”.
The grassroots campaign group New Approach, which is dedicated to replacing the “toxic” WCA with a fairer system, said it was too early to conclude what the figures really showed, and added: “We will go through today’s figures in detail over the coming weeks and respond to them by issuing a further statement when our findings are complete.”
Among others warning not to read too much into the figures was Ben Goldacre, a doctor, academic, campaigner and writer, whose work focuses on uses and misuses of science and statistics.
He said: “Fit for work assessments may well harm people. These DWP figures do not give us the answer.
“Journalists and politicians claiming they can see any information one way or another in these figures are displaying their ignorance and wishful thinking.”
He said that the figures which could answer this question would be ASMRs for people on IB or severe disablement allowance who had been reassessed through a WCA and found fit for work.
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said ministers had been trying to suppress the figures for more than three years.
She said: “The delay and the lack of transparency in publishing this information is a disgrace and has caused huge distress to the families and friends of those affected.
“These figures should be a wake-up call for the government. Ministers need to focus on sorting out the assessment process so that everyone can have confidence in it, and providing support for disabled people who can work in order to help them do so.”
Picture: A Westminster protest into deaths caused by the WCA