An MP who confronted the prime minister with a suicide note written by a disabled man who killed himself after being found “fit for work” has warned that other such tragedies are likely.
Ian Lavery, the Labour MP for Wansbeck in Northumberland, told David Cameron during prime minister’s questions this week that the note had been written by a constituent who killed himself after his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) was turned down.
Lavery then joined those who have called on the government to conduct an assessment of the combined impact on disabled people of all of its cuts and welfare reforms.
Cameron said he would “look very carefully at the very tragic case” but then claimed that “the actual money that we are putting into disability benefits over the coming years is going up not down”.
He said: “I think that everybody knows and accepts that we need to have a review of disability benefits.
“Some people have been stuck on these benefits and not been reviewed for year after year after year. That is the view of the disability charities and it is the view of the government as well.”
The case adds further weight to the arguments of campaigners who have been trying to alert politicians to the deaths of disabled people they say have taken their own lives as a result of the harshness and unfairness of the ESA system, and other welfare cuts.
Lavery told Disability News Service (DNS) that he agreed with disabled activists that his constituent’s suicide was probably not a one-off.
He said: “We will never ever get the data of how many people have committed suicide because of [cuts to] benefits.”
He said he feared people like his constituent “cannot see a future” and are “having things stripped from them and having to go through a test every year and be humiliated in front of people who are not even qualified. It is just a desperate situation.”
He said that the note – which he was handed at his constituency surgery on Friday – was written by a 54-year-old man who had been tested for his eligibility for ESA through the notorious work capability assessment (WCA).
He had killed himself after receiving a letter saying that he had scored zero points in the assessment and so would not be entitled to ESA.
Lavery was not able to discuss the man’s case in detail – although the man’s family gave him permission to raise it in parliament – but he told DNS: “Disabled people are being led to believe that they are scroungers and being led to believe by the government that they should not have benefits. It is an absolute disgrace.
“I had a gentleman claiming ESA and he said he wasn’t even going to appeal [against having his ESA removed] because he was too embarrassed.”
He warned that many disabled people were now too embarrassed to claim disability benefits because they felt “stigmatised”.
He added: “We are seeing more people [in the surgery] on a weekly basis who have got mental health problems, and it is frightening – a lot of these people are on benefits and a lot of them are going to be losing their benefits, and goodness knows how they are going [to cope].”
And he warned that most benefit claimants were still not aware of the impact of the further cuts and reforms that will be implemented in April 2013.
Lavery said he wanted to think during the Christmas period about how he could campaign in parliament on behalf of disabled people facing cuts to their benefits and services.
He added: “I just think we have got to do something.”
Karon Cook, chair and founder of Wansbeck Disability Forum, who herself faces a WCA in 2013, said there were disabled people who now “have to decide whether they have the money to keep their homes warm or they get cold and have something to eat”.
She praised Lavery for the support he had given the forum, and said: “It’s heart-breaking. I have been campaigning with other organisations to raise awareness.
“We try to be so confident in talking to people and try to show them a little light [at the end of the tunnel] but it is getting harder and harder and people don’t know who to turn to.
“When April comes next year, I can see a lot more suicides, I really can, and a lot more homelessness.”
20 December 2012