Local authorities in England are refusing to use their own suicide prevention plans to highlight “shocking” figures that show claimants of out-of-work disability benefits are at a hugely-increased risk of attempting to take their own lives.
The figures, published in September 2016 by NHS Digital, show that more than 43 per cent of claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) had said (when asked in 2014) that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.
The Department of Health has already refused to explain why it fails to mention these figures or to highlight ESA claimants as a high-risk group in the latest version of its suicide prevention strategy for England.
In that publication, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said he wanted to strengthen the national strategy through “better targeting of suicide prevention and help seeking in high risk groups” and by “improving data at national and local level and how this data is used to help take action and target efforts more accurately”.
This week, Disability News Service (DNS) has tried to discover if the department – renamed the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) as part of this week’s ministerial reshuffle – has alerted local agencies to the figures.
It has found no evidence yet that DHSC has made any attempt to highlight the information with local areas or to advise them to include ESA claimants as a high-risk group in their suicide prevention plans.
DNS has contacted six English local authorities to ask them if they were aware that ESA claimants were at such high risk of attempting suicide; if so, whether DHSC had told them about the figures; and whether they believed the information should be highlighted in their own plans, if it was not already.
Only one of the six local suicide prevention plans* – for Brighton and Hove – currently even mentions the ESA figures.
The other five – covering the London boroughs of Camden and Islington; Southampton; Shropshire; Gateshead; and Kent – make no mention of the figures and fail to warn that ESA claimants are at such high risk of attempting to take their own lives.
Only one of these five, Gateshead City Council, has promised to look again at its suicide prevention plan and consider amending it to include the information about ESA claimants, after being contacted by DNS this week.
Tory-run Kent County Council said it was “not aware of any national or local figures specifically around ESA claimants” and confirmed that the information had not been passed to the local authority by DHSC.
A spokeswoman for the council said: “If more data becomes available on ESA claimants in Kent then we will certainly review it.”
But she refused to confirm that this meant that – because they are national statistics – it would not highlight the NHS Digital figures when its suicide prevention steering group reviews its plan.
Labour-run Southampton City Council refused to answer questions about the statistics, with a spokesman claiming that council officers “do not have the ESA figures on hand”, even though they were emailed to him by DNS.
Conservative-run Shropshire Council said it was “not aware of any additional information being provided by [DHSC]”, although it said the NHS Digital report was “publicly available information”.
A spokeswoman refused to say if the council was aware that ESA claimants were at such high risk of attempted suicide and said only that it was “aware that those at higher risk of self-harm and suicide include those who are vulnerable due to economic circumstance and those with chronic illness”.
Asked if it would now include the ESA information in its suicide prevention plan, the spokeswoman said the council “will include any additional information should it become available”.
She said the strategy would be updated so that it is “explicit about what is meant by ‘vulnerable groups’ so that it is clear that includes people claiming ESA”.
But she refused to say if the council would ensure that its strategy would make it clear that ESA claimants are at particularly high risk.
A spokeswoman for Labour-run Gateshead council said that relevant documents – including the NHS Digital report – “are published nationally with the expectation that local authorities become aware of them through their information networks”.
Gateshead’s strategy was last reviewed in August 2016, a month before the DHSC figures were first published.
The council spokeswoman said Gateshead’s plan was “due for review” and the information from the NHS Digital report would now “be reviewed as part of this process and the partnership will decide whether more specific preventative activity would be both suitable and effective for this group”.
Labour-led Brighton and Hove City Council has so far refused to answer questions about ESA claimants, although a spokeswoman said: “Deprivation in all its forms – unemployment, insecure housing, debt, etc – are all identifiable risks in our local reviews of coroner’s records and we specifically target more deprived areas in our commissioning and action plans.”
Labour-run Islington council had failed to comment by noon today (Thursday).
*The plans are prepared by partnerships of local agencies, including local authorities
Pictured: The Department of Health’s Whitehall offices