The mother of a disabled man who starved to death after he was found “fit for work” and lost his out-of-work disability benefits has called for ministers to face criminal charges.
Jill Gant says work and pensions ministers should be tried for misconduct in public office for failing to take action that could have saved the life of her son, Mark Wood.
She spoke out after signing a letter, drawn up by the Green Party and backed by Disabled People Against Cuts, that calls on work and pensions secretary Damian Green to order an independent inquiry into the links between his department’s procedures and the deaths of benefit claimants.
The party has produced a dossier of 50 cases in which the deaths of benefit claimants have been linked to decisions taken by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Mark Wood (pictured) starved to death in 2013 after being found ineligible for employment and support allowance (ESA), even though he had never been able to cope with the demands of a job and his GP had said he was completely incapable of working.
The decision to find him fit for work caused him extreme anxiety and distress and exaggerated his eating disorder.
He died in the summer of 2013, apparently from natural causes and as a result of becoming dangerously underweight, four months after his incapacity benefit was stopped.
Because of his complex mental health condition and other impairments, including the eating disorder, Asperger’s syndrome and multple chemical sensitivity, he had not provided the evidence needed in his ESA application, or at a face-to-face work capability assessment (WCA).
But he had stated in the ESA form that he had problems with anxiety and depression, while the assessment was carried out at the cottage where he lived alone, rather than at an Atos assessment centre in Oxford, because of the severity of his panic attacks.
Because of his complex mental health issues, he was unable to cope with either support workers or help from his family, and his mother says he was unaware of the purpose of the WCA.
She said that neither the Atos assessor nor the DWP decision-maker made any attempt to secure further medical evidence about his mental health from his GP, who would have told them that he was unable to work.
His GP told his inquest in February 2014 that he had handed Mark a note, explaining that he was extremely unwell and completely unfit to work, but the note does not appear to have reached his local jobcentre.
The GP also told the inquest: “Something pushed him or affected him in the time before he died and the only thing I can put my finger on is the pressure he felt he was under when his benefits were removed.”
His death came three years after ministers had been warned by a coroner – following the death of Stephen Carré in January 2010 – that they needed to review their policy not to seek further medical evidence from the GPs and psychiatrists of ESA claimants with mental health conditions.
And a year after Mark Wood died, another letter was sent to DWP by a coroner, raising the same concerns and making almost identical recommendations, this time following the death of a disabled man from north London.
But nearly seven years after the Stephen Carré inquest, these safety concerns have still not been addressed, despite many other deaths, and a DWP promise to a tribunal that it would test ways to collect further medical evidence through a pilot project, although a DWP spokesman said today (Thursday) that the pilot project had now been completed.
Former DWP ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling have been heavily criticised for failing to act on the coroner’s advice in 2010, for covering-up that report, and failing to pass it to Professor Malcolm Harrington – the expert they had commissioned to review the WCA – as well as failing to show Harrington secret DWP reports linking the WCA with the deaths of benefit claimants.
Attempts by the user-led grassroots group Black Triangle (BT) to secure a prosecution of Duncan Smith and Grayling in Scotland – over the deaths of three Scottish benefit claimants – have so far failed because of resistance from the Scottish criminal justice system, although BT is seeking legal representation to help push for a case to be taken in the Scottish courts.
Mark Wood’s mother, Jill Gant, said she would like to see ministers held accountable by the criminal justice system for their failure to act on the Stephen Carré coroner’s report, which she believes led to her son’s death.
The retired education social worker, now 78, and from Abingdon, Oxfordshire, said: “Quite honestly, I think they have failed in their duty. They doggedly refused to consider and act on this very clear, simple suggestion.”
She said it would be “stunning” if a case could be brought against ministers, and added: “They certainly need to be called to account.”
She secured a meeting with the minister for disabled people, Mark Harper, in March 2015, but said that he had “a heart of stone” and had made no effort to be “friendly or understanding”, and when she asked him about the need to secure further medical evidence “he refused to answer the question directly”.
She said it was “shocking” that Harper now chaired the all-party parliamentary group on learning disability.
Her search for answers following her son’s death had quickly focused on the single issue of why further medical evidence had not been sought.
Confronted by the refusal of Conservative ministers, including Harper and employment minister Priti Patel*, to answer her questions, she has now told her Tory MP, Nicola Blackwood, that the refusal to act was “not fair and in my view it is not moral or legal”.
The final letter from Patel was sent to her last July and said that DWP was still working with Maximus – the discredited US outsourcing giant now carrying out WCAs – to “expand the current guidance” on securing further medical evidence and “ensure that evidence is gathered in more circumstances than at present, especially for those claimants with a mental health condition”.
She said: “They must have no conscience at all. Each of these stories, each of them, is a massive tragedy and a painful time for these poor people.
“In the end I [told my MP] that I looked forward to having a government where there was compassion and understanding and which would seek to protect the most vulnerable.”
A DWP spokesman said this morning (Thursday): “The department will respond to the [Green Party] letter once it has been received.
“The pilot has been completed, and the outcomes of that will help to inform training and staff guidance.”
It is not yet clear what action DWP will take following the pilot project.
*Both of them have now left the department