The shadow minister for disabled people has implicated New Labour in an apparent cover-up of the government’s failure to respond to a coroner’s report on the suicide of a disabled man found “fit for work”.
Debbie Abrahams has repeatedly refused to criticise – or even comment on – the failure of Iain Duncan Smith to respond to the report into the death of Stephen Carré despite being shown clear evidence that the Tory work and pensions secretary failed to do so.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been trying since last November to secure a comment from Abrahams on Duncan Smith’s failure to respond to the report, and take measures that would almost certainly have saved many other lives.
But apart from expressing sympathy with “Stephen Carré’s family and friends” and calling for improvements to the work capability assessment (WCA), Abrahams has refused to say anything about Duncan Smith’s role in the scandal, despite DNS showing her team clear evidence that ministers failed to respond to the report.
She briefly mentioned the concerns about the missing Stephen Carré report in a parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on Wednesday (9 February), but even then appeared to mislead fellow MPs by claiming that she was only provided with information about the case “just before I came to the debate”.
In the same debate, Natalie McGarry – an independent MP who has withdrawn from the SNP party whip while she attempts to clear her name over allegations of financial misconduct – said the government “had failed disabled people and have abjectly failed to learn the lessons from their mistakes”.
McGarry said: “The consequences of that are potentially disastrous. How many people could we tally who have lost their lives subsequent to those cases in which professionals such as coroners gave early warnings?”
DNS has been trying to persuade Abrahams to take up the Stephen Carré case since November 2015, and sent the evidence to her team – after they finally agreed to look at it – six days before the debate.
Last week, DNS showed how two government departments – and the judiciary – appeared to be conspiring to prevent the release of information that would show how ministers ignored an opportunity to deal with clear flaws in the WCA system, and save the lives of other disabled claimants.
Questions submitted under the Freedom of Information Act were due to be answered by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) by 20 January, but the department’s response is now three weeks overdue.
Both the Ministry of Justice and the Judicial Office have produced misleading responses to DNS questions, while DWP’s press officers have so far refused to answer questions until their departmental colleagues respond to the freedom of information request.
The report by coroner Tom Osborne was written in late March 2010 following an inquest into the death of 41-year-old Stephen Carré, from Eaton Bray, Bedfordshire, who had taken his own life in January 2010*.
There are concerns that Abrahams is trying to protect New Labour figures within her own party, who devised the WCA and were in power at the time Stephen Carré died.
The user-led grassroots campaign group Black Triangle said it was “profoundly disappointed and somewhat confounded” that Abrahams had failed to demand answers from ministers.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said: “When Jeremy Corbyn was elected to lead the Labour party we believed that Labour had turned the corner and we could now look forward to seeing the party truly fight back for us.”
But he said Labour “seems to have reverted to type and business as usual”, and was “offering nothing more than road trips to solicit disabled people’s views yet again while issuing hand-wringing platitudes about how awful the Tories are”.
He said: “Debbie Abrahams and Labour now have all the evidence they need to string IDS and the DWP up over the scandal of the WCA and the deaths and suffering it continues to cause.
“If they, inexplicably, continue to refuse to act upon this information we can only be led to one conclusion: that this opposition is no opposition and that they are indeed complicit in the catastrophic harm being meted out to us on a daily basis.”
Debbie Jolly, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Government departments and ministers have an interest in trying to cover this up due to their own complicity. But they will not succeed.
“Labour, and in particular Debbie Abrahams and [shadow work and pensions secretary] Owen Smith, must act immediately on this issue.
“At the very least there must be a call for immediate changes based on the evidence presented, and a public inquiry into these (and other) needless deaths.
“Iain Duncan Smith’s inaction must be publically challenged.”
Rick Burgess, co-founder of the New Approach campaign, which wants the WCA abolished and replaced with a fair system, said the opposition had “a moral, legal and constitutional duty to hold the UK government to account, not just for Mr Carré’s death but the thousands of other deaths the WCA is implicated in”.
“Anything less will make the opposition appear an accessory to the massive scale of these human rights abuses.
“This is their chance to apologise for their historic role in introducing the WCA and to now oppose it and unambiguously call for the immediate halt of assessments, the abolition of the WCA and its replacement with a safe system of social security.
“Debbie Abrahams must also ask for a judge-led public inquiry into the actions of Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP, with a view to prosecutions.”
Osborne’s report was addressed to Labour’s work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper, but arrived in her office just a few days before the general election was called for May 2010.
The responsibility for responding to the report shifted to Iain Duncan Smith, who was appointed as the new work and pensions secretary after the coalition government was formed.
DNS has seen a series of letters – which have been shown to Abrahams’ team – that demonstrate how Osborne gave Duncan Smith’s new department all the information it needed to carry out an urgent review of the safety of key aspects of the WCA. But that review was never carried out.
Just weeks after Osborne’s letter arrived, ministers moved to roll out the WCA to hundreds of thousands of existing claimants of incapacity benefit (IB), many of them with long-term mental health conditions.
One of those ministers, 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 to IB claimants, despite Harrington suggesting this should be delayed by a year.
Despite his crucial role, Harrington was never shown the coroner’s letter by Grayling.
The following year, in December 2011, a long-term IB claimant – Ms D E – took her own life after being told she was not eligible for ESA.
Her case was linked by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland to similar failings within the WCA process to those that led to the death of Stephen Carré.
And in 2014, another coroner wrote an almost identical letter to Osborne’s, again warning of concerns about the safety of the WCA, after the death of a north London man, Michael O’Sullivan, who also took his own life after being found fit for work.
Last November, government-funded research concluded that the programme to reassess people claiming IB using the WCA could have caused 590 suicides in just three years.
*Osborne ruled that the trigger for Stephen Carré’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 Stephen Carré, 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.