A whistleblower has spoken of her horror after learning how a disabled woman took her own life following pressure from the universal credit system, a few weeks after she warned such tragedies could happen.
Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how Rebecca*, a disabled woman left traumatised by the daily demands of universal credit, took her own life just four days after being told she would need to attend a face-to-face meeting with a work coach.
But Rebecca’s death, in April, took place just a few weeks after a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) whistleblower had warned that harsh new policies that were forcing more disabled people to attend weekly face-to-face jobcentre meetings could lead to claimants taking their own lives.
The whistleblower, Jane*, described how she and her colleagues were being “bullied and harassed” into forcing claimants with significant mental distress into attending work-related meetings.
Many of them had been waiting months for a work capability assessment – just like Rebecca – and would eventually be found not fit for work and placed in universal credit’s limited capability for work-related activity group.
Jane said in March that she was “very concerned” that DWP’s new, even stricter, approach “might lead to more people taking their own lives”.
Just a few weeks later, Rebecca took her own life.
Now, after hearing of Rebecca’s suicide, Jane has told DNS that she feels “sick to the stomach”, although not surprised, and she warned that there would likely be more such deaths.
She said: “I knew it was an accident waiting to happen. I am surprised it’s not more.”
She said DWP was still making disabled customers come to the jobcentre for appointments with their work coach, even if – just like Rebecca – they were not well enough to do so, and would eventually be found not fit for work.
A DWP spokesperson referred DNS to the statement it issued last week, and the statement it issued in March.
In March, it said: “Not all claimants need to come into the jobcentre and work coaches can take a flexible approach for those with long-term health conditions to best meet the individual’s need.
“This includes considering their circumstances when agreeing achievable work-related activity and whether appointments should be carried out in person or via phone or their online journal.”
Last week, DWP refused to answer a series of questions about the safety concerns around universal credit.
It refused to say if it needed to make changes to ensure the safety of universal credit, whether it believed claimants were being hounded through their online journals, and if it would collect figures showing how many people on universal credit were taking their own lives.
Instead, a DWP spokesperson claimed in a statement that an “emphasis is placed on protecting vulnerable claimants”.
She added: “Universal credit offers a vital safety net to millions of people, enabling them to support themselves and their families while building towards financial independence through work.”
The Labour party had not responded to the concerns about universal credit by noon today (Thursday).
Meanwhile, Labour has clarified its position on calls for a public inquiry into deaths linked to DWP’s actions.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, attended a meeting last week with the party’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Jon Ashworth, relatives of three disabled people who took their own lives following DWP failings, and the charity Rethink Mental Illness.
Foxcroft said this week: “We need a benefits system that works for everyone and does not result in people losing their lives or being treated without dignity.
“When we met with the families who have lost loved ones, it was heart-breaking to hear their stories.
“We deeply empathise with their desire for a public inquiry, but when we get into power, we are keen to start reforming the system straight away.
“The shadow DWP team is concerned that if we were to wait for the outcome of an inquiry, our ability to effect immediate change would be restricted.”
She later clarified that statement and said that Labour would continue to engage on the call for an inquiry with the families and with Rethink.
She told DNS: “The shadow DWP team committed to investigating the inquiry option further.
“The shadow ministers made clear the system needs urgent reform, so these tragic deaths don’t happen again.”
She added: “We need a Labour government that supports disabled people, gives those who want to work the ability to seek work without threat of sanctions and ensures those that can’t don’t live in fear of the DWP.
“A future Labour government will ensure that transparency is at the heart of how we govern.”
*Not her real name
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