A physiotherapist took just 35 minutes to carry out a face-to-face assessment that led to a man with complex mental health problems being found “fit for work”, a decision that appears to have triggered his suicide.
Last week, the parents of David Barr (pictured), from Glenrothes, Fife, called for former work and pensions ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling to be prosecuted over their failure to address serious safety concerns about the work capability assessment (WCA), which they believe led to their son’s death in August 2013.
This week, Disability News Service (DNS) has examined documents relating to their son’s claim for employment and support allowance (ESA), and they show that he was assessed by a physiotherapist employed by the government contractor Atos, who took just 35 minutes to carry out an assessment and then just another 18 minutes to complete the report.
Barr, who lived in Glenrothes, Fife, told the assessor in May 2013 that he had anxiety, depression and psychosis – including hearing voices – had attempted to take his own life just six weeks previously, and went on to say that he had “[tried to take his own life] before but he cannot remember when”.
He also told the assessor that he “gets paranoid that people are watching him and people are listening to him”, while the assessor noted that Barr “stood with his back to the wall and had difficulty coping with the interview”, and was “irritable” and “impatient”.
Despite this, the assessor – employed by the government contractor Atos – concluded that he was “not at substantial risk” if he was found fit for work, and recommended that he should be found ineligible for ESA.
Neither the assessor, nor the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decision-maker who rubber-stamped that decision, made any attempt to secure further medical evidence from Barr’s GP, his psychiatric nurse or his psychiatrist, according to the paperwork.
If they had done so, they would have been told of further attempts to take his own life and episodes of self-harming.
The decision-maker repeatedly stated in her report that she had “weighed the evidence” and had decided that the assessor’s evidence from the face-to-face assessment “carries more weight” than Barr’s claim that he was not fit for work.
Five days before he died, his bank statement showed he had just 36p left in his bank account.
The previous month, he had been found by police at a notorious suicide spot – the same location where he would eventually end his life – just 10 days after he had lodged an appeal against the decision to find him fit for work.
The paperwork also shows that Barr was awaiting a court hearing over a charge relating to a fire he started in his back garden, which burned down a shed after he left it unattended and fell asleep on his sofa.
Less than two weeks after he died, DWP admitted to his parents that it had made a mistake in finding him fit for work, and that he should have been entitled to ESA under regulation 29, which states that a claimant should not be found fit for work if such a decision would pose “a substantial risk” to their mental or physical health.
As a result, they agreed to pay the family more than £2,700 in benefits that he should have been receiving over the previous two years.
In December 2014, the Procurator Fiscal – which investigates sudden deaths in Scotland – decided not to order a Fatal Accident Inquiry into David Barr’s death after being reassured by DWP that the WCA “remains the subject of continuous review and refinement” and that an inquiry would therefore “not assist in monitoring and reviewing this process which is already underway”.
The Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit concluded that it would be difficult to prove the “necessary link between the decision of the DWP and David’s decision to take his life”.
David Barr’s death is one of three contained in a dossier submitted to Police Scotland by disabled activist John McArdle, from the user-led campaign network Black Triangle, in an attempt to persuade the force to open an investigation into Duncan Smith and Grayling.
McArdle wants Police Scotland to investigate the two former ministers for the Scottish criminal offence of wilful neglect of duty by a public official, because they failed to take steps to improve the WCA in 2010 after being warned by coroner Tom Osborne that the test’s flaws risked causing future deaths of people with mental health conditions.
Osborne had carried out an inquest into the death of Stephen Carré in January 2010, a case with marked similarities to that of David Barr.
Osborne had ruled that the trigger for Carré’s suicide had been DWP’s rejection of his appeal against being found “fit for work”, and he called in what was known as a Rule 43 letter for a review of the policy not to seek medical evidence from a GP or psychiatrist if an ESA claimant has a mental health condition.
Neither the Atos assessor who assessed Carré, nor the DWP decision-maker who subsequently decided that he was fit for work and therefore ineligible for ESA, had sought information from his GP, his community psychiatric nurse or his psychiatrist, just as the Ats assessor and DWP decision-maker had failed to do in David Barr’s case.
The second case in the dossier is that of Ms DE, a long-term incapacity benefit claimant who took her own life in December 2011 after being told she was not eligible for ESA, a death later linked by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland to similar WCA failings to those that led to Stephen Carré’s death, and that would later lead to David Barr’s suicide.
Colin McKay, chief executive of the commission, declined to comment on the David Barr case this week, but he said: “The Mental Welfare Commission investigated the suicide of Ms DE in December 2011, following a determination that she was not entitled to ESA.
“The investigation raised serious concerns about the work capability assessment system, including the process of obtaining medical evidence and the process for deciding if a claimant is vulnerable.
“The commission has called for substantial improvements to be made.”
The third case presented by McArdle to Police Scotland 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.
Police Scotland is currently awaiting further information about the three cases before deciding what action to take.
Asked if DWP accepted – in the light of the information contained in the documents seen by DNS – that ministers should have acted on the coroner’s report in 2010, and that this would have prevented many future deaths of people with mental health conditions, including David Barr’s, a DWP spokeswoman said: “Suicide is a complex issue and we take these matters very seriously.
“Since 2010 the work capability assessment process has been independently reviewed five times and we have considerably improved the process.
“Decisions are taken following an independent assessment and after consideration of all the available evidence.
“Guidelines on seeking additional information rightly form an essential part of this process.”