Damning new evidence suggests that senior figures in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) covered up a coroner’s warning about the grave dangers posed by a new disability assessment.
Disability News Service (DNS) has seen a series of letters that suggest the department was given all the information it needed to carry out an urgent review of the safety of 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.
Osborne wrote to the department on 30 March 2010 – originally addressing his concerns to Labour work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper – just a few days before the start of the general election campaign.
His letter followed an inquest he had carried out into the death of 41-year-old Stephen Carre (pictured), from Eaton Bray, Bedfordshire, who had taken his own life in January 2010*.
On 4 May, Osborne received an initial response from the DWP’s most senior civil servant, its permanent secretary, Sir Leigh Lewis.
When DNS first revealed the existence of the Rule 43 letter last month, DWP claimed in a statement that it had responded to the coroner on 4 May 2010.
But DNS has now seen the 4 May letter, and it merely outlines departmental procedures on the WCA, provides brief details from Stephen Carre’s assessment, and asks the coroner for medical information about the case.
Sir Leigh promises that this further information will allow him to “complete our investigation and review our existing procedures, as you have asked, to determine the need for any changes to our current medical evidence gathering process”.
Three further letters written by the coroner show that he provided the information requested by Sir Leigh, but never received a response from DWP to his Rule 43 report.
On 12 May 2010, Osborne advised Sir Leigh that DWP did not need to investigate the circumstances surrounding Stephen Carre’s death, as that had already taken place at the inquest.
He said DWP needed instead to look at the “use of medical evidence when determining entitlement of benefit of those patients who are suffering from a psychiatric illness”, but he still offered to send Sir Leigh a transcript of the inquest evidence.
On 3 August, Osborne sent him the inquest transcript, apparently in response to a request from the department.
Two months later, on 6 October 2010, Osborne wrote to Peter Carre, Stephen’s father, to tell him that he had yet to receive a “substantive response” to his Rule 43 letter, and promising to contact him if he did.
Peter Carre did not hear from the coroner again until after he was contacted by DNS last month, more than five years after Osborne’s last letter.
Carre told DNS that he believed 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.
He said Osborne told him in 2010 that DWP should have replied to the Rule 43 letter, but there was nothing he could do if they failed to do so.
Carre said: “It was an opportunity to do something, and it was missed. They should be held accountable for their action, or lack of it.
“That would be the one thing I would say: that the people who were there and are still there should still be accountable for their lack of action.”
The letters are important because at the time they were being exchanged, the newly-appointed Conservative work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and his employment minister Chris Grayling, were finalising plans to roll out the WCA the following year to hundreds of thousands of existing claimants of incapacity benefit (IB), many of them with mental health conditions.
And in the summer of 2010, Grayling appointed Professor Malcolm Harrington to carry out an independent review of the “fairness and effectiveness” of the WCA, and later told him that he wanted to go ahead with plans to roll out the assessment, despite Harrington suggesting that 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.
Last month, new research concluded that the programme to reassess people claiming IB using the WCA could have caused 590 suicides in just three years.
And last week, a former government adviser told DNS how ministers and civil servants were “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.
Even before the emergence of the latest letters, disabled activists had called for Duncan Smith and Grayling to face a criminal investigation over the alleged cover-up.
This week, more than five weeks after the existence of the Rule 43 letter was first brought to DWP’s attention, a spokeswoman for the department said in response to a series of questions from DNS that “because this issue happened more than five years ago we simply don’t have access to the information you’re seeking”.
She added: “Therefore, I think the best route for your line of inquiry is an FOI [request under the Freedom of Information Act]. And we’ll be happy to provide a formal statement once that FOI process is complete.”
*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.