The government has secretly made major changes to guidance given to “fitness for work” benefits assessors that has put the lives of thousands of disabled claimants at risk… and then “lied” about what it had done.
The changes appear to show ministers made a calculation last year that it was worth risking the loss of some lives in order to cut benefits spending and force more disabled people into their discredited back-to-work programmes.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) could now face legal action over its decision to bring in the changes without seeking approval from parliament.
The changes were exposed after DWP released figures last month showing the proportion of claimants placed in the support group of employment and support allowance (ESA) – and therefore not forced to take part in work-related activity – plummeted by 42 per cent between November 2015 and February 2016.
DWP has claimed the drop was due to a falling backlog in dealing with new ESA claims through the work capability assessment (WCA) system.
But an archived copy of the version of DWP’s Work Capability Assessment Handbook that was published in February 2015 – which DWP now appears to have removed from its website – proves that key guidance has been significantly altered at some point in the last 18 months.
These changes mean that assessors are far less likely to place a claimant with a mental health condition in the ESA support group because of the risk to their health if forced into work-related activity.
In February 2015, the handbook included six indicators of “substantial risk”, which were marked “D” for “definitive” – including someone who was currently sectioned, who had active thoughts of suicide, or had had a documented episode of self-harm requiring medical attention in the last 12 months – to show that that person should be placed in the support group.
But the latest edition of the guidance says only that such indicators “might” give rise to a substantial risk in “exceptional circumstances”.
Although the latest version of the handbook was only produced in draft form in February this year, and its final version published in July, a former assessor has confirmed to Disability News Service (DNS) that assessors receive regular updates to guidance from DWP, so the new guidance on “substantial risk” could have been sent out at any time from early 2015 onwards.
The latest edition of the handbook also tells assessors that they should consider factors that might “mitigate” the chance that someone could harm themselves or others, including “the benefits of employment weighed against any potential risk”.
Because the changes were carried out through updated guidance – rather than changes to legislation or regulations – DWP did not seek the approval of parliament for the alterations.
The guidance in the WCA handbook explains to assessors how they should translate ESA regulations 29 and 35, which concern whether decisions to find someone fit for work or able to carry out work-related activity would cause a substantial risk of harm.
In April, DNS obtained a DWP document through a freedom of information request which suggested amending or removing regulations 29 and 35, and said that such a move would provide substantial savings.
But the memo – drawn up before the 2015 election, and to be used if the Conservatives triumphed at the polls – warned that previous attempts to remove the regulations had been defeated in the courts, and that any changes in this area “carry a significant handling and delivery risk” because they would be “perceived as restricting application of the safeguards and may be considered discriminatory”.
DWP’s press office said in April that these “speculative policy formulations” were drafted by staff before the last election and “have not been raised, do not represent government policy and have never been sent to ministers”.
But comparing the latest handbook with the version issued before the 2015 election shows the regulations have been amended, although by changing the guidance rather than the rules themselves.
John McArdle, co-founder of the grassroots campaign network Black Triangle, which has played a significant role in raising awareness of regulations 29 and 35 in order to protect thousands of disabled people whose lives would otherwise be at risk, said: “We are currently consulting with lawyers to look at the legality of the guidance.
“It would appear to us that the guidance they have issued is in breach of the legislation.”
He said DWP’s actions showed its “blatant dishonesty” and that it “lied” when it said it had not amended regulations 29 and 35.
Rick Burgess, of Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts, said the changes made to the guidance would “mean more suicides being completed by disabled people placed under unendurable stress by the assessment regime”.
He said: “The message to us from the DWP is, ‘We want you dead. If you say you are suicidal we will only believe you once you have killed yourself.’
“This is democide (the deliberate causing of harm or death to citizens by their government).
“Iain Duncan Smith was an extreme persecutor of disabled people. If Damian Green [the current work and pensions secretary] continues these measures, he will inherit that title.”
He added: “[Disabled actor and activist] Liz Carr was right to invoke Nazi comparisons recently.
“This is now the most concerted attack on disabled people in western Europe since Germany’s Chancellor Hitler signed the executive order Aktion T4 in 1939 to murder disabled people the state judged ‘unworthy of life’.”
A DWP spokeswoman said the new guidance had been developed in conjunction with Maximus, the discredited US outsourcing giant that took over provision of WCAs in March 2015.
She refused to confirm that the guidance had now made it harder for claimants to be placed in the ESA support group, but said: “The guidance has consistently made clear that if there is a substantial risk to a claimant’s mental health by being placed in the work-related activity group, they should be placed in the support group.”
Asked if the changes to guidance were made to put into effect the policy proposal laid out in the document released through the freedom of information request, she said: “The freedom of information response showed speculative policy formulations [that] were drafted by staff before the last election in case they were requested by a new government.
“They have not been raised, do not represent government policy and have never been sent to ministers.”
Asked if DWP believed that the changes to the guidance would mean more claimants would suffer harm, including death, and if DWP believed this was a price worth paying for finding more people fit for work and fewer people eligible to be placed in the ESA support group, she said: “No.”
Asked how DWP justified the changes, she said: “The department keeps its guidance to both healthcare professionals and departmental decision-makers under regular review.
“We introduced new guidance for healthcare professionals on the use of regulation 35 which explains the support the department gives to claimants placed in the work-related activity group.”
And asked how DWP justified asking assessors to decide if there were factors that would “mitigate the risk” of someone taking their own life if they were found fit for work, including “the benefits of employment weighed against any potential risks”, she said: “Healthcare professionals who carry out the WCA are trained in all aspects of their role including the application of risk.
“They are also issued with written guidance on all aspects of the WCA including the application of risk.”