The prime minister has been questioned in the House of Commons for the second consecutive week about the death of a disabled man who took his own life after being wrongly found “fit for work”.
Angus Robertson, the MP who leads the SNP group in Westminster, asked David Cameron in prime minister’s questions about the “tragic circumstances” of the Michael O’Sullivan case, and the government’s refusal to publish secret reports into his and other deaths.
The existence of the internal “peer reviews”, and of a report by a coroner who concluded that O’Sullivan’s death was triggered by the decision to find him fit for work, were both revealed by Disability News Service (DNS).
Almost exactly an hour earlier (watch from 11.15am), Labour MP Karen Buck had raised the case with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith as he gave evidence to the work and pensions select committee.
She said the death of Michael O’Sullivan (pictured) was “not an isolated case”, and pointed to the more than 2,600 people who had died shortly after being found fit for work through a work capability assessment (WCA), between December 2011 and February 2014.
She said: “Does that tell you that you need to be looking again at the accuracy and rigour of the work capability assessment?”
Duncan Smith did not comment on the case of Michael O’Sullivan, but he said the WCA system “inherited” from Labour in 2010 had been “staggeringly harsh”.
He said there had been five reviews of the WCA, and ministers had accepted nearly every recommendation they had made.
He claimed DWP had made major changes “early on” in the coalition government to how people with mental health conditions were treated under the WCA system, and had ensured it was “much improved”.
And Duncan Smith said it was “quite wrong to extrapolate any cause and effect” from the mortality statistics.
He said: “This is not an easy area, it is never going to be… we are constantly in a position of looking again at the system and any recommendations but also internally to see if there are ways we can improve the process.”
He repeated previous claims that there was “a fundamental problem at the heart” of the system, because a claimant has to be found either able to work or too sick to work at all.
The death of Michael O’Sullivan was also raised in the Scottish parliament this week, by the SNP’s Christina McKelvie, during a debate she secured on the UK government’s welfare reforms.
She mentioned O’Sullivan and told fellow MSPs: “We must keep sight of the fact that welfare reform is costing lives and bringing misery and debt to families, and all in the name of putting the United Kingdom into surplus.”
In prime minister’s questions, Cameron again avoided talking about the death of Michael O’Sullivan, but his response to Robertson’s question suggested that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) did carry out a peer review into the circumstances surrounding his death, something the department has so far failed to confirm, even to the family.
Cameron said: “I will write to him about this but my memory from looking into his question [last week] is there are very good reasons why we can’t publish the specific report that he talks about, because it has personal and medical data in it which would not be appropriate for publication.”
DWP has previously told DNS that it would be unlawful to publish any of the reviews.
Freedom of information requests have revealed that DWP has carried out at least 49 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.
Of those 49 reviews, 33 contained recommendations for improvements in DWP procedures at either national or local level, and 40 were carried out following the suicide or apparent suicide of a benefit claimant.
In a letter sent to Robertson this week, Cameron said: “It is right that DWP carries out these reviews in order to identify whether any lessons can be learned where there has been any suggestion that their processes might have contributed to a claimant’s death.
“As you may be aware, the Information Commissioner has upheld DWP’s position that it would be unlawful to publish these individual reviews because they contain large amounts of personal information.”
DNS is appealing the Information Commissioner’s ruling, with a hearing expected early in 2016.
Picture: Copyright, members of Michael O’Sullivan’s family