The mother of a woman who killed herself after her disability benefits were sanctioned has praised a disabled activist who confronted work and pensions secretary Esther McVey about her daughter’s death as she gave evidence to Scottish MSPs this week.
The activist, David*, had told Joy Dove of his plans to question McVey about her daughter’s suicide as the minister was giving evidence to the Scottish parliament’s social security committee on Monday.
Jodey Whiting, a seriously-ill mother-of-nine, from Stockton, took her own life last year after having her employment and support allowance (ESA) sanctioned.
She had her ESA stopped after missing a work capability assessment because she was in hospital being treated for a brain cyst, and never opened the letter telling her about the appointment.
David, from the campaign group Class War Scotland, who was sitting in public seats behind McVey, called out (listen from 52 minutes) as she was replying to a question from an MSP about her government’s policies on social security reform and whether she should apologise to the people of Scotland.
David called out: “What about Jodey Whiting, mother of nine, who committed suicide after her ESA was stopped?
“It was stopped because she missed an appointment.”
The committee meeting was suspended and David left the hearing.
When the hearing restarted, McVey (pictured giving evidence) responded to the request from SNP MSP Ben Macpherson for her to apologise for the “suffering and distress” caused by her government’s social security reforms**.
But instead of apologising, McVey said: “I am not oblivious to people who are incredibly vulnerable or who are in need, and obviously the gentleman felt he needed to have his points said about something that was very important to him about someone who was very vulnerable but what we aim to do with the money we spend from DWP, which is nearly £200 billion per year… [is] make sure that we reach out to the most vulnerable.
“If anybody does not get that support, it is not through lack of trying because that is what people are employed to do, to reach out and support people.”
She said it was important to have “as best oversight as we possibly can, learning from it all the time as best as we possibly can”.
After the meeting, David told Disability News Service (DNS) how Joy Dove had approved his plan to raise her daughter’s case with McVey.
He said: “She wants justice for Jodey.
“She is looking for answers and a reason why her 42-year-old daughter is now dead because of a Tory system that is purposely designed to hurt and damage people.”
David said he had wanted to ask McVey key questions about Jodey Whiting’s case but had become frustrated with the “stage managed” evidence session and the failure of MSPs to challenge or confront the minister about her government’s failings.
Joy Dove told DNS (see separate story) last night (Wednesday) that she had been delighted to hear how David had confronted McVey, which she saw as the latest step in her campaign for justice for her daughter, which includes a Justice for Jodey petition that demands a change in the law and an inquiry.
When she heard the recording of David mentioning her daughter’s name she said she “just felt great”.
She said: “I am so grateful to him. I am really pleased he did it.”
McVey’s appearance in front of the committee had to be suspended a second time after she was asked about the so-called “rape clause”, where women must prove non-consensual conception to qualify for tax credits and universal credit for a third child.
McVey argued that DWP’s decision to ask third-party groups to take that evidence from women who had been raped was “providing extra help and support” to them and was “an opportunity to talk about something that they never had before” and was therefore “potentially double support”.
Politicians and campaigners later called on her to apologise for her comments.
During the evidence session, McVey repeatedly resisted attempts by committee members to ask her to confirm that many people would be worse-off under universal credit.
Green MSP Alison Johnstone reminded McVey that Paul Gray, who chairs her own department’s social security advisory body, had said that universal credit would produce “more losers than gainers”.
But McVey said the committee needed to “look at the system in the totale” and consider also “the extra support for childcare costs, the increase we are seeing in the national living wage, the increase we are seeing in personal tax allowance” and “200,000 more people into work” in Scotland since 2010.
McVey’s reluctance may be partly because, in less than two weeks, the high court is due to hear a judicial review of the financial impact of the introduction of universal credit on disabled people with high support needs.
George Adam, an SNP MSP, told McVey that one of his constituents had been sanctioned because he had had a heart attack and was receiving treatment in the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley.
He said: “You’re saying it’s fit for purpose but these things keep happening, these things keep going on all the time, nothing seems to be changing for people in my constituency or across Scotland.”
McVey said that “vulnerable” people were receiving support from DWP and “people in that situation” would have “full mitigation and they would not have any sanctions” and that “for the vast, vast majority of people it is working”.
She asked for his constituent’s name and address so DWP could support him and “make sure all is now going well” and “find out what went wrong” and “learn from that” and other such cases.
Another disabled activist who attended the committee meeting was Marion Nisbet, of Glasgow Disabled People Against Cuts.
She also confronted McVey at the end of the session about the many deaths of disabled people who had been found fit for work through the work capability assessment, and her comments about the rape clause.
She said: “She didn’t turn around. She just totally ignored everything.”
After the evidence session, Macpherson and Adam spoke to activists holding a small demonstration outside the Scottish parliament, which the user-led grassroots network Black Triangle helped to organise.
A spokesman for Black Triangle said the protest had been organised to show McVey that disabled people had been “stripped of the support they require to survive by this brutal system”.
And he said that McVey and her government had shown themselves to be “steadfastly unmoved” by the comments of the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which concluded last August that their cuts to social security and other support for disabled people had caused a “human catastrophe”.
The spokesman said: “It’s been eight years since Paul Reekie took his own life following a DWP-Atos work capability assessment (WCA).
“Sadly, the system has not changed for the better – it has become even more draconian.
“They are forced into semi-starvation, destitution and many – like Jodey Whiting – are driven to the ultimate tragedy, suicide.
“The entire, lethal disability assessment system – both the WCA and personal independence payment – must be scrapped in their entirety, along with universal credit, which must be seen as the final phase of their ‘welfare reform’ programme.”
*He has asked for his full name not to be used
**In November 2016, McVey’s predecessor, Damian Green, refused three times to apologise or even acknowledge the distress and harm caused by cuts and reforms, “particularly [through] the work capability assessment, sanctions and cuts and the wider austerity agenda”, when he appeared in front of the same committee.