DWP’s ‘fitness for work’ reviewer handed CBE after refusing to speak out on benefit deaths evidence

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An occupational health expert has been recognised with a high-ranking honour just weeks after refusing to say if he was shown vital documents linking the government’s “fitness for work” test with the deaths of benefit claimants.

Dr Paul Litchfield was asked in early April if the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had shown him the documents when he was reviewing the work capability assessment (WCA) in 2013 and 2014.

But Litchfield (pictured), who has just retired as BT’s chief medical officer, refused to say if he was shown letters written by two coroners and a number of secret DWP internal reviews into deaths linked to the WCA regime.

Just two months later, he was recognised with a CBE in the “Prime Minister’s list” of this month’s birthday honours, receiving the award for “services to wellbeing in the workplace”.

He published the final two independent reviews of the WCA in December 2013 and November 2014, but neither of his reviews mentioned the key documents that linked the WCA and the deaths of claimants.

Even though DWP possessed all the documents, it claims it holds no information in its records on whether they were shown to Litchfield while he was reviewing the WCA.

Since Disability News Service (DNS) revealed the existence of the documents in the years after Litchfield’s final report was published, concerns have continued to 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.

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 through the WCA process 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.

Bob Ellard, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “For disabled people who are subject to the cruel assessment system that the Litchfield reviews were supposed to improve, awarding him a CBE for his work will seem utterly inappropriate. 

“Disabled people and those with loved ones who have died as a result of this harmful assessment system will find it hard not to believe that the CBE is an establishment payoff for toning down his review reports.

“This is especially compounded following his refusal to state if he knew about the coroners’ letters and the DWP peer reviews before doing his review of the work capability assessment.”

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, also questioned the decision to reward Litchfield with a CBE.

He said: “Litchfield’s silence, in our opinion, raises serious questions about his commitment to revealing the truth about the deaths of sick and/or disabled people put through the ‘fit to work’ regime.”

A DWP spokeswoman refused to say if the decision to award the CBE was connected with Litchfield’s refusal to comment on whether he was shown the peer reviews and coroners’ letters, and she referred DNS to the Cabinet Office.

The Cabinet Office refused to comment.

A BT spokesman said Litchfield would not be commenting.