Government ministers failed to show secret reports into the deaths of benefit claimants to the independent expert they commissioned to review their much-criticised “fitness for work” assessment, new evidence suggests.
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) response to a Disability News Service (DNS) freedom of information request shows that seven of its secret “peer reviews” should have been shown to Professor Malcolm Harrington as he was preparing his final report into the work capability assessment (WCA).
Peer reviews have to be carried out whenever “suicide is associated with DWP activity”, as well as in some other cases involving deaths of disabled or “vulnerable” claimants.
DWP only started collating the peer reviews centrally from February 2012 and Professor Harrington published his final report on the WCA in late November of the same year.
DWP admits in its freedom of information response that “there were seven peer reviews, from February 2012 until Professor Harrington’s report of that year, in which the terms ‘WCA’ or ‘Work Capability Assessment’ were mentioned”.
The DWP response adds: “The Department does not hold any information to confirm or deny whether these Peer Reviews were shared with Professor Harrington.”
Redacted versions of 49 peer reviews were finally released in May this year – dating from 2012 to 2014 – following another DNS freedom of information request and a ruling from the information rights tribunal.
But these peer reviews were not dated, and so it is impossible to work out which of them are the seven from 2012.
When shown the latest DWP freedom of information response, Professor Harrington, who carried out the first three reviews of the WCA – in 2010, 2011 and 2012 – told DNS that he was convinced that he would remember being shown “such damning indictments of the system”.
He said: “I have NO recollection of seeing any of the reviews you mention.
“Maybe my brain is failing, but such damning indictments of the system – if seen – should have triggered a response from me. It didn’t.”
Professor Harrington has already told DNS – last year – that he believes he was not shown a letter by DWP that was written by a coroner to ministers following the suicide of Stephen Carré in January 2010.
When they were appointed in May 2010, Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling assumed responsibility for responding to the letter, written by coroner Tom Osborne, who carried out the inquest into Carré’s death and raised serious concerns about the safety of the WCA.
Osborne had asked the Labour work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper – who never saw the letter, as the general election was called just days after it arrived – to review the policy not to seek medical evidence from a GP or psychiatrist if someone applying for out-of-work disability benefits had a mental health condition.
But Duncan Smith, Cooper’s successor, and Grayling, his employment minister, appear to have dismissed the letter, and failed to show it to Professor Harrington, while deciding to roll out the test to hundreds of thousands of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit, many of whom had mental health conditions.
Professor Harrington told DNS last year: “I cannot recall the report. Nobody brought it to my attention that I can remember.
“If I had known about that coroner’s report, I would have said that this was something else we need to look at.
“I am a doctor, I know about coroner’s reports. Coroner’s reports are something that you don’t ignore.”
Taken together, the evidence suggests strongly that DWP deliberately withheld vital evidence from Professor Harrington about serious flaws with the WCA that were causing the deaths of people with mental health conditions.
This information would almost certainly have persuaded him to take action that would have made it harder for DWP to fulfil its aim of finding more people with mental health conditions “fit for work” and allowing it to cut its spending on out-of-work disability benefits.
The new evidence is likely to strengthen calls for Duncan Smith and Grayling to face a criminal investigation for misconduct in public office.
It came just as Scottish criminal justice agencies were rejecting a request to investigate the failure of the two ministers to improve the safety of the WCA, despite evidence that their neglect caused the deaths of at least three Scottish benefit claimants with mental health conditions*.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Sadly, little shocks me nowadays about the callous and inhuman behaviour of the previous Condem and current Tory government, but a failure to pass on vital information to the expert they employed to review their failing policy is more than just total incompetence and is nothing short of criminal.”
A DWP spokeswoman said the current work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, did not believe there should be an independent inquiry into the apparent failure of Duncan Smith and Grayling, and senior civil servants, to pass on vital information to Professor Harrington about the safety of the WCA.
She said he also did not believe that a criminal investigation was now necessary into the actions of Duncan Smith and Grayling.
Asked why DWP did not have a record of which documents were shared with Professor Harrington, she said: “As the FoI stated, the department does not hold information on this matter.
“We are constantly reviewing our processes and procedures and have made significant improvements to the work capability assessment, such as introducing mental health champions, and ensuring that claimants who are likely to be found fit for work receive a telephone call to explain the decision and check whether all the evidence has been considered.
“It is important we make sure that people are receiving the right support, and they are not simply written off to a life on benefits.
“The work capability assessment has been improved dramatically since 2008 following a number of reviews, including five independent ones.”
*See separate story