Two opposition parties are writing urgent letters to work and pensions secretary Esther McVey – while a third is demanding an investigation – about a possible cover-up over documents linking the “fitness for work” test with the deaths of benefit claimants.
Senior figures from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats said this week that they were writing urgently to McVey to ask whether the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had shown the documents to the independent expert the government commissioned to review the work capability assessment (WCA) in 2013 and 2014.
The Green party’s co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, said the failure to be clear about what happened with the documents had “all the hallmarks of a deliberate cover-up”. He has called for an independent investigation.
The SNP also said it would be seeking answers from DWP.
Dr Paul Litchfield (pictured) was commissioned by DWP to carry out the fourth and fifth reviews of the WCA but has so far refused to say if he was shown letters written by two coroners and a number of secret DWP internal “peer reviews” into deaths linked to the WCA regime.
Litchfield, who was recognised by the prime minister with a CBE in last month’s birthday honours, published the two reviews in December 2013 and November 2014, but neither of them mentioned the documents, all of which link the WCA with the deaths of claimants.
A spokesman for Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said she would be writing to McVey “as a matter of urgency”.
Stephen Lloyd, the Liberal Democrat shadow work and pensions spokesman, said: “I will be writing directly to the secretary of state, Esther McVey, to seek clarification whether or not her department, the DWP, ever showed [Litchfield] the documents linking the WCA to the deaths of benefit claimants.
“The public has a right to know, particularly now he’s been awarded a gong.”
Neil Gray, the SNP’s social justice spokesman at Westminster, added: “This issue has thrown up a number of questions for the DWP and we need a clear and definitive statement on what people knew and when. We will be seeking those answers.”
Even though DWP possessed all the coroner’s letters and peer reviews, it has claimed in a freedom of information response that 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 grown that DWP and its ministers deliberately covered-up evidence of the fatal impact of the assessment on sick and disabled people.
The coroner’s 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 these 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.
Litchfield has so far refused to comment about the documents.
But 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.
Bartley said this week: “If the Department for Work and Pensions failed to show Dr Litchfield vital documents linking the work capability assessment with the deaths of benefit claimants, DWP are clearly implicated in a cover-up.
“If he was shown them but didn’t mention them in his reports, then so was he.
“This has all the hallmarks of a deliberate cover-up over the fatal impact of the assessment on sick and disabled people.
“There is no justification for secrecy, it is clearly in the public interest for the truth to be told and there should be an independent investigation of what happened.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “As we’ve previously said, this was an independent review, and DWP provided information alongside other stakeholders – on request.
“Any evidence used was referenced in the review.”
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