Nine MPs on a Commons committee are refusing to explain why they failed to ask the minister for disabled people about shocking figures that suggest attempted suicides among people claiming out-of-work disability benefits doubled between 2007 and 2014.
The work and pensions select committee was passed the figures by Disability News Service (DNS) a few days before Sarah Newton gave evidence last month.
But despite being promised that the figures had “informed the briefing” prepared for the MPs on the committee ahead of the minister’s evidence session – and Labour MP Neil Coyle telling DNS that he was “sure it will be raised” – no effort was made to ask Newton about them.
And this week, none of the nine committee members who attended the session – Labour’s Frank Field, who chairs the committee, Coyle (pictured), Ruth George and Stephen McCabe, Tory MPs Heidi Allen, Andrew Bowie, Alex Burghart and Chris Green, and SNP’s Chris Stephens – would explain why they failed to ask the minister about the figures.
Instead, they hid behind the committee’s media officer, who accused DNS of trying to “circumvent” her by asking the MPs individually why they failed to raise the issue with Newton.
Last month, the media officer had told DNS that the figures had “informed the briefing” handed to the MPs before the evidence session, but that the committee “does not discuss those decisions outside the committee”.
She insisted this week that, because she had already told DNS that Field would not comment on the refusal to raise the figures with the minister, this meant that she had “fully answered” questions on the figures.
When DNS pointed out that it was a fundamental democratic principle to be able to hold MPs to account for their work, she said that all the MPs “have been advised to refer you to me but this is, again, the final response”.
She later said in a statement: “Committees deliberate in private. Revealing the committee’s private deliberations has been considered a contempt of parliament.”
DNS has pointed out that it has been asking MPs to explain their failure to ask questions in an open, public session, and not to release their “private deliberations”.
The committee’s media officer had failed by noon today (Thursday) to provide any examples of where revealing a committee’s private deliberations has been considered a contempt of parliament.
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 month, showed that in 2007 – a year before the introduction of the much-criticised work capability assessment (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 employment and support allowance (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 at some point in their lives.
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).
Although the figures do not prove that the rate of attempted suicides doubled in that period – for example, the group of IB claimants could have had less severe impairments than those on ESA – and there is no proof that the introduction of the WCA caused the increase, they have alarmed many disabled activists and researchers.
Sally McManus, who leads research on the survey for NatCen, on behalf of NHS Digital, has also shown that the proportion of IB/ESA claimants who have ever deliberately self-harmed also rose sharply from 2007 to 2014, as did the proportion of claimants who had had suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives.
In 2007, the proportion of IB claimants who said they had self-harmed was 14 per cent, and this rose to 34 per cent of ESA claimants in 2014.
And in 2007, the proportion of IB claimants who said they had had suicidal thoughts was 39 per cent, which rose to 66 per cent of ESA claimants in 2014.