Scottish police are assessing whether to launch a criminal investigation into the failure of two government ministers to address a coroner’s concerns about the safety of the “fitness for work” test, a failure which may have caused “countless deaths”.
Disabled activist John McArdle, co-founder of the user-led campaign network Black Triangle, lodged a complaint with police in Edinburgh last month about the actions of former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith (pictured) and former employment minister Chris Grayling.
McArdle believes the two Conservative politicians are guilty of the Scottish criminal offence of wilful neglect of duty by a public official, because they failed to take steps to improve the work capability assessment (WCA) in 2010 after being warned by a coroner that its flaws risked causing future deaths.
A Police Scotland spokeswoman said: “Police in Edinburgh received a report of misconduct in public office on 23 March 2016.
“The individual who made the complaint has been spoken to and we are awaiting further information to assess this matter and establish what actions are required.”
McArdle’s MP, the SNP’s Tommy Sheppard, has written to the chief constable of Police Scotland, Phil Gormley, asking to be “kept informed of progress”.
Both Duncan Smith and Grayling have refused to comment.
The claims concern their refusal to act on concerns raised by a coroner following the suicide of Stephen Carré in January 2010.
When they were appointed in May 2010, Duncan Smith and Grayling assumed responsibility for responding to a letter written by coroner Tom Osborne, who carried out the inquest into Carré’s death, and had serious concerns about the safety of the WCA.
Osborne had asked the Labour work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper – who never saw the letter, as the general election was called just days after it arrived – to review the policy not to seek medical evidence from a GP or psychiatrist if someone applying for out-of-work disability benefits had a mental health condition.
But Duncan Smith and Grayling appear to have dismissed the letter, and failed to show it to Professor Malcolm Harrington, the independent expert they appointed to review the WCA, while also deciding to roll out the test to hundreds of thousands of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit, many of whom had mental health conditions.
Many campaigners, including Black Triangle, believe that the decision of Duncan Smith and Grayling to ignore Osborne’s letter led to countless other deaths.
McArdle has handed Police Scotland details of three people who died in the years after Osborne sent his letter to the Department for Work and Pensions, deaths he believes could have been prevented if the two ministers had acted on the coroner’s warning.
In December 2011, a long-term incapacity benefit claimant – Ms D E – killed herself after being told she was not eligible for ESA; her case was linked by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland to the failure to obtain further medical evidence.
Another alleged victim of the failure to act on Osborne’s warning was David Barr, who died in August 2012 after being found fit for work and having his ESA withdrawn.
An Atos assessor had concluded that although Barr had attempted to take his own life six weeks before his WCA, he was still “not at substantial risk”.
The third case concerns the death of Paul Donnachie, who took his own life late last year after his ESA was mistakenly stopped when he failed to attend a WCA.
The call for a criminal investigation into the actions of Duncan Smith and Grayling has been backed by many of the country’s leading disabled activists and disabled people’s organisations, including Inclusion London, Disabled People Against Cuts, Equal Lives, WOWcampaign, Professor Peter Beresford, the Mental Health Resistance Network, Pat’s Petition, and the Cross Border Alliance.
Meanwhile, a disabled constituent of Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, Debbie Abrahams, has heavily criticised her for failing to speak out about Duncan Smith’s failure to act on the coroner’s letter.
Shaun McGrath, from Oldham, wrote to Abrahams after Disability News Service (DNS) reported how she had refused to criticise – or even comment on – the failure of Duncan Smith to respond to the letter, despite being shown clear evidence that he had failed to do so.
DNS first asked Abrahams to comment on Duncan Smith’s failings last November, but apart from expressing sympathy with “Stephen Carré’s family and friends” and calling for improvements to the WCA, she refused to say anything about Duncan Smith’s role in the scandal.
Abrahams told McGrath that she had responded to DNS but that her comments were not used, but omitted to mention that she had refused to answer the question that had been put to her about Iain Duncan Smith.
When McGrath complained about her response, she told him she had “nothing further to add”, other than calling again for the WCA and other assessment to be “completely overhauled”.
McGrath said: “There was no sense of my complaint being taken seriously or that Debbie Abrahams understood and appreciated or even cared about what I was asking her to respond to.
“Her refusal to answer any of the questions I put to her has destroyed what faith I had in Debbie Abrahams as my constituency MP.
“I honestly don’t think I could ever contact her again, such is the negative impression she’s left me with.”
Abrahams has now told DNS that she will be asking DWP to investigate how the coroner’s letter “could have slipped through the department’s net”.
But she refused yet again this week to comment on Duncan Smith’s failure to act or the calls for him to face a criminal investigation.
Abrahams said: “I have concerns about the Stephen Carré case, which is why I raised the issue face to face with Priti Patel in a Westminster Hall debate, on 9 February, asking her to look into the case.
“This resulted in a response from her confirming that a draft letter to the coroner, Tom Osborne, due to be sent in September 2010, had been found but the DWP could not confirm that it had ever been sent.
“In the light of this I will be asking for an investigation into how the correspondence could have slipped through the department’s net.
“As I have done for many years now, both as a member of the work and pensions select committee and as shadow minister for disabled people, I will continue to hold the government to account for the shortcomings of the work capability assessment and PIP processes and keep campaigning for ministers to implement a new, fairer system.”