A scandal that puts thousands of sickness benefit claimants at risk of suicide is being allowed to continue by the DWP, according to campaigning site Benefits and Work.
Remember Michael O’Sullivan? He took his own life in September 2013 after suffering anxiety and depression for several years.
After the inquest into his death, which took place in January 2014, coroner Mary Hassall issued a ‘Regulation 28’ report. This form is designed to alert the authorities to the possibility of further deaths in similar circumstances, so they can bring in preventative measures.
She made clear in the report that:
“I found that the trigger for Mr O ’Sullivan’s suicide was his recent assessment by a DWP doctor as being fit for work… In my opinion, there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.“
In its response, the DWP admitted that the health professional who carried out Mr O’Sullivan’s assessment had failed to follow guidance on dealing with claimants who were contemplating suicide, adding that it would:
“issue a reminder to staff about the guidance related to suicidal ideation that has been described in this report.”
Benefits and Work decided to follow this up, making a Freedom of Information request for Benefits and Work made a Freedom of Information request asking for copies of the reminders that were issued, any documents showing the date on which the reminders were issued, and any documents showing the agencies and/or types of staff who received the reminders.
Yes, the DWP did everything possible to hide the facts. First, Benefits and Work was directed to the latest edition of the Work Capability Assessment handbook, which does not provide the information requested – twice.
Then, when the Information Commissioner was about to issue an information notice to the DWP, legally obliging the Department to respond, after Benefits and Work had contacted the ICO and the DWP had ignored a deadline for a response, this was issued:
“Under our records management policy internal memos must be retained for one year and so, due to the passage of time, we do not hold the information requested. However, to be helpful I can confirm that a reminder was sent out on 2 October 2015 which stated the following:
“The current filework guidelines are available in the knowledge library. Current version is 10 and it states: “Where there is evidence of a previous suicide attempt, suicidal ideation or self-harm expressed in the ESA50/ESA50A, the HCP must request FME.”
Obviously a memo sent out in October 2015 has nothing to do with a promise given to the coroner which should have been sent by March 11, 2014 – more than 18 months previously.
As Benefits and Work point out:
The DWP are trying to hide behind their records management policy.
But, the reality is that if a memo was sent there would be a document trail. After the undertaking was given to the coroner someone must have ordered the issuing of a memo, decided who to send it to and what it should contain.
The DWP have made no effort to identify any of the documents [in the second and third parts] of our request.
In addition, it seems highly improbable that an index of memos and their contents does still exist within the DWP even if, as they claim, they have deleted the actual documents.
We will continue with our challenge to the Information Commissioner in order to try to get to the truth.
This is extremely charitable to the Department for Work and Pensions.
It seems far more likely that the DWP never honoured its promise to the coroner. In fact, without any evidence showing otherwise, the DWP cannot argue that it ever did. Now, why would that happen, do you think?
The DWP has recently changed its attitude to benefit-related suicide – from denying any responsibility at all to denying that it is “solely” responsible. The lack of any evidence of preventative measures must weigh strongly against the DWP, should any cases of, say, corporate manslaughter go to court.
All it will take is one test case, and the Conservative Government could be in very, very deep trouble.
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