A disabled man whose suicide led a coroner to deliver a ground-breaking verdict that his death was triggered by being found “fit for work” had already tried to take his own life because of government attempts to force him back to work.
The case of Michael O’Sullivan caused a national outcry last month when Disability News Service (DNS) revealed how coroner Mary Hassell had written to the government about the case, demanding action from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to prevent the deaths of other disabled people.
It is believed to be the first time a coroner has blamed the discredited work capability assessment (WCA) system for directly causing a death.
But DNS can now reveal that the circumstances surrounding Michael O’Sullivan’s death on 23 September 2013 raise even graver concerns about the government’s back-to-work policies than previously thought, and how:
- Michael O’Sullivan had tried to take his own life the previous year after being forced by DWP to attend a training course, where he was tormented and harassed by other much younger jobseekers
- His first assessment by an Atos “healthcare professional”, in August 2012, lasted just 12 minutes
- The former surgeon who carried out his second assessment, in March 2013, took 31 minutes to assess him, and just another 11 minutes to fill in the necessary paperwork
- The 60-year-old – terrified that he would lose his benefits if he failed to attend but unable to cope with the idea of being surrounded by other workers – took his own life hours before he was due to start a four-week work placement on a building-site
His devoted daughter, Anne-Marie, has spoken in depth to DNS in a bid to provide fresh impetus for campaigners who want to see the WCA scrapped and replaced with a less brutal and more supportive system.
She has revealed that her dad had been claiming incapacity benefit since 2000, due to depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia, and general anxiety disorder that had gradually worsened ever since he first moved to London from rural Ireland at the age of 19.
He was told in March 2012 that he would be reassessed for his eligibility for the new employment and support allowance (ESA), one of hundreds of thousands of IB claimants affected by the migration from the old benefit to ESA who would have to be assessed through the much-criticised WCA.
Following the letter from DWP, his family noticed that Michael’s moods became lower, that he was constantly worried, and that he even stopped watching television and listening to the radio.
They say he was frightened by the idea of having to return to work, and even more alarmed by the thought of losing his benefits and independence.
He was first assessed in August 2012 by a young physiotherapist, an assessment that lasted just 12 minutes and left him “humiliated, mortified, and feeling like a criminal”, and reduced him to tears when he described the experience to Anne-Marie.
The assessment led to him being declared fit for work, and although he asked DWP to reconsider that decision, that appeal was turned down.
Anne-Marie says her father would experience severe anxiety and panic attacks, avoided places where he might meet people he knew, and believed that people took advantage of him and tried to make him look foolish.
But he was still told to attend a two-week training course – so he could qualify for the necessary card to obtain work on a building-site – at a college in north London in November 2012.
Surrounded by 70 other students who were far younger than he was, he was constantly mocked, harassed and teased. At the end of the first week, he decided he could not face returning for the second half of the course, and tried to end his own life.
He survived, and was deemed “unfit for work” by his GP for six months, but was called for another WCA just four months later.
This time, in March 2013, the assessor, a former orthopaedic surgeon who had been working for the government contractor Atos Healthcare for 15 years, took just 31 minutes to assess him, and only a further 11 minutes to complete the paperwork.
Again, the recommendation was that Michael O’Sullivan was fit for work and ineligible for ESA, even though he had made it clear on the pre-assessment ESA50 form that he had suicidal thoughts.
The assessor wrote three times on his report form that Michael had “no ideas of self-harm”, but later admitted that he had not actually asked him if he had suicidal thoughts because “he looked OK”.
After he was found fit for work and placed on the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance, Michael applied for “countless” jobs, says his daughter, and was scrupulous in meeting the strict terms of his jobseeker’s agreement with Jobcentre Plus, but received a reply from just one employer.
He was eventually told to attend a four-week job placement as a labourer on a building site and had to buy his own safety hat, steel-capped boots, painting equipment and tools.
In the week leading up to the start of the placement, his family say he was “visibly shaky”, and was struggling to eat or sleep properly.
After washing and ironing five shirts for the week ahead, he took his own life in the early hours of Monday 23 September, just hours before he was due to start work.
Now his family, including Anne-Marie, his son Declan and his widow Eileen, who worked for 25 years as a social worker for Camden council, say they want the government to take immediate action to prevent any further deaths.
Anne-Marie told DNS that DWP’s failings had been “catastrophic” and had had a “devastating” impact on the family.
She said: “The back-to-work programme and the WCA violate and abuse disabled people’s rights.
“We want the government to take immediate action to prevent any further deaths like that of my dad.
“The assessments are draconian and archaic and are designed to instil fear in disabled people.”
She is not able to say whether she has submitted evidence to the UN’s inquiry into “grave and systematic violations” by the UK of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities because all of those who do so have to sign a confidentiality agreement.
But she added: “The DWP and Iain Duncan Smith have shown no remorse for what happened to my father, they have offered us no apology, no sympathy, and have never expressed any condolences for his death, but yet in response to the coroner’s report the DWP admitted ‘regrettable mistakes’.
“As far as we can see, they have done nothing to change the system since he died.
“We will never recover from our loss. It will haunt us for the rest of our lives because it should and could have been avoided.
“Now we just hope his life will prove not to have been lost in vain.”
In response to these concerns, a DWP spokeswoman said – repeating a statement previously sent out to media last month: “Suicide is a tragic and complex issue and we take these matters extremely seriously.
“Following reforms to the work capability assessment, which was introduced in 2008, people are getting more tailored support to return to work instead of being written off on long term sickness benefits as happened too often in the past.”
Informed of DWP’s response, Anne-Marie O’Sullivan said: “We are deeply disappointed by the DWP’s callous response to the concerns we have raised.
“It is such a contrast to the thoughtful and strong-minded actions of the coroner, who stressed the importance of the sanctity of life, and highlighted the need for action in her report.
“We are determined to secure justice for our dad and to ensure no other family endures the suffering we have.”
Atos refused to comment.