The sister of a man driven to suicide by the “fitness for work” system tried to take her own life after being “treated like a criminal” by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over her benefit claims.
Eleanor Donnachie believes her brother Paul (pictured) was a victim of DWP’s failure to ensure the safety of people with mental health conditions in vulnerable situations who apply for employment and support allowance (ESA) through the work capability assessment (WCA) system.
She told Scottish journalists earlier this year how DWP had ignored her brother’s need for support and instead punished him for missing appointments for a face-to-face assessment by sanctioning his benefits.
Now Eleanor, from Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, has spoken for the first time about her own struggles with DWP and how fighting for ESA and personal independence payment (PIP) drove her to attempt to take her own life earlier this year.
She told Disability News Service (DNS) that she feels she has been treated “like a criminal” by DWP, just as her brother was.
And she has joined the family of another victim of the UK government’s social security policies in backing calls for former Tory DWP ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling to face a criminal investigation by Police Scotland for their failure to make the WCA safe.
It came as the disabled president of the Liberal Democrats, Baroness [Sal] Brinton, also backed calls for an inquiry – and possibly a criminal investigation – into the failings of Duncan Smith and Grayling.
Paul’s body was discovered in January at his home in Glasgow, but he is believed to have taken his own life in November after losing his ESA.
His sister believes DWP had failed to contact Paul’s GP to ask for detailed information about his mental health, and ignored its own guidance by failing to send someone to his flat to talk to him face-to-face about his support needs.
He had previously claimed jobseeker’s allowance and filed a complaint because of the way he had been treated by his local jobcentre. He was sanctioned several times and fell deeper and deeper into debt.
She says DWP knew that Paul attended mental health support groups and counselling sessions, and that he was taking anti-depressants.
But the department removed his ESA when he failed to attend a WCA on 30 June last year – the second or third assessment he had missed. His benefits were stopped and the withdrawal of his payments was backdated by four weeks.
DWP also contacted Glasgow City Council, so his housing benefit and council tax benefit were both stopped.
Eleanor believes that by this stage Paul was so ground down by fighting DWP that he stopped opening his post.
The council wrote to him on 19 November to say there had been a mistake and that his housing benefit was being reinstated, but the letter arrived too late. He never opened it, and may have already been dead when it arrived.
In a final indignity, Eleanor’s much-loved younger brother was sent a summons for a £3,000 council tax debt by Glasgow City Council in January, after his body had already been discovered.
Eleanor believes DWP should have treated him as someone in a “vulnerable” situation.
She said: “They didn’t do anything to help him. They should have arranged a home visit, but the only time that happened was when the council sent the bailiffs round to kick his door down. And that’s when they found him.
“They hounded him to death. They have taken my brother’s life.
“They are driving people to suicide. I have told DWP that I hold them totally responsible for my brother’s death.”
Extracts from secret DWP reviews, published earlier this month by DNS, have revealed that its staff have repeatedly failed to follow strict guidelines on how to support benefit claimants who express thoughts of self-harm or threaten to take their own lives.
Eleanor said she was fully behind attempts by the Scottish grassroots group Black Triangle to persuade Police Scotland to launch a criminal investigation into the refusal of Duncan Smith and Grayling to act on a letter written by a coroner weeks before the 2010 general election that warned ministers that the WCA process risked causing further deaths of people with mental health conditions.
The family of another victim of the WCA, David Barr, have also backed calls for a criminal investigation into the failure to ensure that further medical evidence is obtained before an ESA decision is reached in such cases.
The cases of Paul Donnachie, David Barr and a third ESA claimant, Ms D E, who also died as a result of a failure to secure further medical evidence, have been submitted to Police Scotland in a dossier put together by Black Triangle.
Eleanor told DNS: “They should be prosecuted. Also the workers that work for them, they should be prosecuted as well.”
Baroness Brinton said the failure of the two ministers to act on the coroner’s letter, which then led to further deaths, would be more serious than deaths that happened because a minister had made a particular policy decision.
She said: “There should be an inquiry. I am not proficient in saying if it should be a criminal inquiry…
“Absolutely, if the coroner said this needed to be looked at and it wasn’t looked at, at the very least the department was negligent in not carrying that forward.”
As well as fighting for justice for her brother, Eleanor is also fighting DWP, just as Paul did.
Her own WCA took place on 14 January, the day before police officers told her that her brother’s body had been found.
She has now spent months fighting DWP for both ESA and personal independence payment (PIP), and although she has finally been found eligible for ESA, she has been turned down for PIP.
Eleanor has a number of complex health conditions, including fibromyalgia, vertigo, high blood pressure and depression.
After many years working in social care, she passed college courses that saw her accepted by Glasgow University onto a sociology and history degree, but had to leave the course last year when her health worsened and was causing her concentration and memory problems.
Despite those serious health problems, she was found fit for work, and after she applied a second time for ESA – after being diagnosed with vertigo in January – and was again found fit for work, she told her local jobcentre that she was going to take her own life, “the same as they had forced my brother to do”. Police officers were sent to her house to check on her welfare.
Despite her high support needs, she was given zero points in both her WCAs.
She was only finally placed in the ESA support group days after telling DWP that she was going to tell the media how she had been treated.
Despite the ESA award, her PIP has been turned down, a result confirmed during the mandatory reconsideration stage and at tribunal, even though DWP was told she had attempted suicide.
The tribunal refused to accept a letter written by her doctor, supporting her PIP claim, because it was not written on headed paper.
The letter describes her “complex conditions which limit her ability with tasks such as sitting, standing and going on journeys unaided”, problems with co-ordination, concentration and short-term memory, and vertigo.
The impact of her impairments means that she often forgets she has left pans cooking on the stove, while her chronic fatigue frequently leaves her too tired to get out of bed and dress herself.
She has told DWP that she has twice attempted suicide since becoming ill. She says her latest attempt was the result of her treatment at the hands of DWP, and that she believes the department is doing to her what it did to her brother.
She said: “I couldn’t take it anymore. It was terrible. They treat you as if you are a criminal.
“When I tried to do it, I just felt it was the final straw. I still have suicidal thoughts but I just tell myself, ‘Don’t let them win.’
“I am a fighter, I have always been a fighter. Now I’m fighting for Paul.”
When approached about Eleanor Donnachie’s ordeal, and that of her brother, DWP said PIP was awarded on the basis of how someone’s condition affects them day-to-day rather than just on the condition itself.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “The decision on whether someone is eligible for PIP is taken after consideration of all the supporting evidence from the claimant’s GP or medical expert.
“If someone disagrees with a decision they can challenge it, including appealing to an independent tribunal.”
She said that fitness for work decisions were taken following “a thorough independent assessment, and after consideration of all the supporting evidence from the claimant’s GP or medical specialist”.
And she said that if a claimant’s circumstances change, then their eligibility for benefits can change too.
She added: “Suicide is a tragic and complex issue, so to link a death to someone’s benefit claim is misleading.
“We are fully committed to ensuring that people who are too sick to work get the support they need.”