Fury over MPs’ refusal to quiz minister on ‘staggering’ WCA suicide figures

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“Furious” disabled campaigners have attacked MPs on a Commons committee for refusing to ask the minister for disabled people about figures showing attempted suicides among people claiming out-of-work disability benefits doubled between 2007 and 2014.

The new figures, showing how suicide attempts rocketed after the introduction of the work capability assessment (WCA), emerged last week and were passed to the Commons select committee on work and pensions, as well as at least one member of the committee, Labour’s Neil Coyle, in advance of yesterday’s evidence session with Sarah Newton.

The session was part of the committee’s inquiry into the government’s assessments for personal independence payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA).

Activists yesterday expressed their anger at the committee’s failure to ask Newton about the figures.

One said it was “disgraceful”, another said she was “furious”, while a third prominent campaigner said she was “stunned”.

A leading mental health campaigner said the failure was “a dereliction of duty by the whole committee”.

The new analysis of NHS statistics, prepared by the independent social research institute NatCen and published by Disability News Service (DNS) for the first time last week, shows that in 2007 – a year before the introduction of the much-criticised WCA – 21 per cent of incapacity benefit (IB) claimants told researchers they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

The following year, IB began to be replaced by ESA, with eligibility tested by the WCA, under the New Labour government.

But by 2014, following six years of the WCA – and four years of social security reforms under the new coalition government, and austerity-related cuts to disability benefits and services – more than 43 per cent of claimants were saying they had attempted suicide.

Over the same period, the proportion of adults questioned for the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) who were not claiming IB (in 2007) or ESA (in 2014) and had attempted to take their own lives remained statistically stable (6.0 per cent in 2007 against 6.7 per cent in 2014).

The figures strongly suggest that government cuts and reforms, and particularly the introduction of the WCA, have had a serious, detrimental – and sometimes fatal – effect on the mental health of a generation of claimants of out-of-work disability benefits.

After learning that the minister would be questioned this week, DNS and at least one other campaigner had passed on this research to the committee, which is chaired by Labour MP Frank Field.

After DNS drew Coyle’s attention to the figures, five days before the hearing, he said: “I’m sure it will be raised.”

A committee spokeswoman also agreed, the same day, to forward the information to “the specialists developing the briefing for the session”.

Yesterday, the committee spokeswoman refused to comment on the failure to ask the minister about the figures.

Coyle had also failed by noon today (Thursday) to respond to messages left with him and his office.

Denise McKenna, co-founder of the Mental Health Resistance Network, said: “Any MP who remains silent about this rise in self-harm and suicidal ideation should be held to account.

“The failure of the committee to mention these figures constitutes a dereliction of duty by the whole committee.

“These figures should have been the first item on their agenda and we can barely believe that they weren’t even mentioned.”    

She added: “We are only too well aware of why Tory committee members would want to suppress these figures, but it seems extraordinary that Labour MPs are repeatedly missing opportunities to flag up the appalling effects of welfare reform, and this begs the question of why they are choosing to do so.

“It may be that they feel implicated in the carnage that is currently being visited upon disabled people, since it was Labour who introduced the WCA, or it may be that some in the Parliamentary Labour Party actually agree with the brutality of the benefits system.

“We had been hoping that under the present Labour leadership our best interests would be promoted but this doesn’t seem to be what is happening.

“If disabled people are to support Labour wholeheartedly, they need to improve their support for us.

“While we can berate the Labour party for helping to suppress these appalling figures, we don’t want to forget the cruelty of Tory MPs who are pressing forward with reforms that they know are driving people to suicide.”

Linda Burnip, a co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “It is disgraceful that members of the work and pensions committee have failed to ask the minister about the horrendous increase in attempted suicides when they had such a good opportunity to do so.

“They have totally failed disabled people by this blatant omission and it is clear to see that Heidi Allen’s tears [the Tory committee member was reported to have cried in the Commons chamber after Field described the impact of universal credit on his constituents] didn’t last long and that Neil Coyle’s concerns are very limited.”

John McArdle, co-founder of the Black Triangle campaign, said: “We are all bitterly disappointed that the NHS NatCen suicide figures were not raised in parliament today by the work and pensions committee.

“The abject failure to speak out on the issue of the shocking increase in the rate of suicide and self-harm among our disabled community leads us to one conclusion: that there exists a conspiracy of silence between the Labour and Conservative parties on this, the gravest and most scandalous of issues. 

“Disabled people and the families and friends of those who have either died or attempted to take their own lives by their own hand as a direct consequence of being put through the WCA disability assessment regime will today be asking themselves why the committee are not holding the government to account.”

Mo Stewart, who spent years researching the “totally bogus” WCA for her book Cash Not Care: The Planned Demolition Of The UK Welfare State, said: “I was stunned to learn that the disturbing evidence of the reported 43 per cent of attempted suicides of ESA claimants was not raised at committee.

“This detailed detrimental impact of the ESA claims process on public mental health makes the minister’s evidence to the committee even more suspect, as she attempted to insist that the assessors were professional and empathetic to the claimants; a claim that was challenged by members of the committee.”

Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist and member of the campaigning Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, who first brought the 2014 figures to the attention of DNS, said: “One wonders about the committee’s purpose if not to call the government to account, and listen to such clear, robust and indisputable evidence.

“I am furious, frankly, that this question remained unasked, leaving claimants in desperate straits over Christmas, no doubt reading articles that claim this is the year the country began to take mental health seriously.

She added: “How is it possible that the minister for disabled people was not asked about the doubling of attempted suicide rates so clearly linked to the policies of her department?

“How was she not asked to justify government policies in the wake of the thousands who have died as a result of the brutality of the ESA system?

“What greater priority could there be than immediate reform to stop the misery, despair and impoverishment which is leading so many disabled people to die by suicide?”

Last week, Watts said the figures showed “the greatest increase in suicide rates for any population that I can recall in the literature”, and pointed out that they were taken from “the largest, most reliable data set on the mental health of the nation out there”.