The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claims it has no record of whether it showed vital documents linking its “fitness for work” test with the deaths of benefit claimants to the expert it hired to review the assessment.
Even though DWP possesses the documents, it is claiming it holds no information in its records on whether they were passed to Dr Paul Litchfield.
Litchfield (pictured) published the final two independent reviews of the work capability assessment (WCA) in December 2013 and November 2014, but neither of his reviews mentioned the documents linking the WCA and the deaths of claimants.
The documents include at least seven internal “peer reviews” – reports written by civil servants following the deaths of benefit claimants – that mention the WCA, and two “prevention of future deaths reports” written by coroners.
The existence of the documents was only revealed by Disability News Service (DNS) in the years after Litchfield’s final report was published.
If they were not shown to Litchfield, the suspicion will mount that DWP and its ministers took deliberate steps to cover up evidence of the fatal impact of the assessment on sick and disabled people.
Last month, DNS submitted a freedom of information request to DWP, asking whether it provided Litchfield with copies of the peer reviews and the two prevention of future deaths reports.
In its response, DWP says only: “This information is not held”.
The coroners’ letters followed the deaths of two men with mental health conditions in 2010 and 2013 and each warned of further such deaths if changes were not made to the WCA.
The call for evidence for Litchfield’s second review was issued on 10 June 2014, five months after coroner Mary Hassell had written to DWP following an inquest into the death of Michael O’Sullivan, who had had significant, long-term mental health problems.
Hassell had told DWP that the trigger for O’Sullivan’s suicide had been the conclusion by civil servants that he was fit for work, but she said that neither DWP nor the Atos doctor who had assessed him had asked his GP, psychologist or psychiatrist for information about his mental health.
Hassell told DWP that it needed to take action “to prevent further deaths” like Michael O’Sullivan’s.
But despite that urgent call, Litchfield’s second review failed to mention Hassell’s letter or a similar letter sent to DWP by another coroner in 2010 following the suicide of Stephen Carré.
Litchfield’s two reviews also failed to mention the peer reviews.
Peer reviews – now known as internal process reviews – must be carried out by civil servants into every death “where suicide is associated with DWP activity”.
One of the aims of the reviews is to “determine whether local and national standards have been followed or need to be revised/improved”, so DWP would find it hard to explain why they would not have been shown to Litchfield, whose job it was to review how the WCA was working.
DWP has admitted that at least seven peer reviews written in 2012 mentioned the WCA, and there are almost certainly more that were written by the time Litchfield wrote his final report in late 2014.
Professor Malcolm Harrington, the independent expert who carried out the first three reviews of the WCA in 2010, 2011 and 2012, has already told DNS that he believes he was shown neither the first coroner’s letter (the second letter had not yet been written by the time he completed his third review) nor any WCA-related peer reviews.
When Litchfield was asked last month whether DWP had shown him the peer reviews and prevention of future deaths reports, he declined to comment.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “This is further evidence of the brutal lack of concern for disabled people’s lives that has come to characterise the DWP since 2010.
“It was obviously extremely important and relevant to the independent review of the WCA that information linking it to avoidable deaths of disabled people be considered.
“Whether the DWP didn’t bother to record if that information was shown to Litchfield or they are now trying to cover up the truth, it still amounts to a disdain for our lives.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said it was “scandalous” that DWP could not say if it showed the documents to Litchfield.
And he said it would be reasonable to assume DWP withheld the documents.
He said: “In view of the historical mendacity and lack of transparency of DWP, it would be reasonable to assume – especially in the light of Professor Harrington’s comments – that DWP again withheld this vital evidence from the independent reviewer Dr Litchfield.
“What is vital now is a change in the law to address the issues that we believe would have been highlighted had this information come to light.”
He added: “The government has shown itself to be entirely dishonest and reckless in discharging its duty of care to sick and/or disabled people.
“It’s time that parliament stepped into the breach to right the wrongs of this lethal assessment regime.”
Black Triangle wants new measures to ensure that further medical evidence is obtained from health professionals who know the claimant well at the start of the assessment regimes for both employment and support allowance and personal independence payment (PIP) in all cases where there is a substantial risk of harm if they are denied eligibility.
It also wants a “safety protocol” put in place for GPs to report to the government all incidents of harm that have been linked to the WCA and the PIP assessment.