Sick and disabled claimant death figures released

By Savi Hensman
August 27, 2015

Between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,650 people died shortly after losing incapacity benefits when judged fit for work and 1,360 died just after completing appeals.

Another 7,200 people died who were regarded as well enough to undertake activities such as work placements or training to prepare them for work. The figures cast further doubt on the workings of a harsh and much-criticised benefit system.

The Department for Work and Pensions, under the secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith, had earlier refused to make the figures public. However under Freedom of Information laws, campaigners forced it to publish statistics on the deaths of sick and disabled people claiming benefits.

The 'work capability assessment', which has often resulted in someone being declared fit for work when this is evidently untrue, has been widely condemned. There have been some changes. But the government continues to insist that many people unable to hold a job because of sickness and disability really can if they try.

Of course many people who are disabled or with serious long-term health problems are employed, despite widespread discrimination. Others are looking for work. But some have been forced on to jobseekers allowance when they and their doctors believe they are not fit for the workplace.

The frequent use of sanctions against people who are unemployed, or too sick or disabled to work but may possibly be able to in the future, has caused further concern. Some or all of the money which people rely on for basics can be taken away, sometimes for long periods, if they are supposedly not trying hard enough.

This can be damaging to health, even fatal, as in the case of David Clapson in 2013. He had diabetes and, with no food left, he died from diabetic ketoacidosis. There have also been suicides linked with the assessment process. Against this background, campaigner Mike Sivier requested information on claimant deaths. When this was refused, over 200,000 people signed a petition and the Information Commissioner became involved.

The statistics, finally published in late August 2015, are not always easy to interpret. In part this is because mortality causes and patterns can be complex. Also during the period covered, incapacity benefit (IB) and severe disablement allowance (SDA) were being replaced by employment and support allowance (ESA). This includes a 'work related activity group', and a 'support group' not at constant risk of sanctions.

It is likely that analysts will be examining the data for some time and that campaigners will seek further information, for instance on causes of death. But, from a quick look at the figures, several key points emerge.

Firstly unwaged people are on average far less healthy. The age-standardised mortality rate among all not-in-work claimants of working age, though this has fallen alongside that of the population as a whole from 2003-13, is still three times as high.

This may not seem surprising. But it does show that the widespread belief that people not in paid jobs are largely ‘skivers’, who could work if they were less lazy, is untrue. Politicians and sections of the media have promoted this prejudice. Those who work long hours may resent their unwaged neighbours who seems to do little all day. In reality they are likely to be on the breadline or below, may often be in pain or exhausted and have three times the risk of dying early.

Secondly the age-standardised mortality rate among all who are unwaged, and those on incapacity benefits (ESA, IB and SDA), appears to have been rising from 2011-13. If this trend has continued, despite ongoing advances in medicine, it is alarming.

It is not clear to what extent this is due to worsening levels of poverty and stress among claimants. But senior epidemiologists have been warning about the deadly effects of austerity.

Thirdly many people who receive a 'work capability assessment', and are thought to be (or expected to become) capable of work, have life-threatening health problems. In some cases the assessment process itself may be dangerous, even fatal, though it is impossible to be sure of the number from these figures.

Of course anyone can experience sudden ill health which could not be predicted. But people seeking ESA or equivalent benefits tend to do so because they are unwell, or are disabled and at above-average risk of health problems, especially if they are not in a safe, accessible and supportive environment.

From December 2011 to February 2014, 50,580 stopped receiving ESA whose deaths were recorded around the same time (within two weeks); 2,380 had been found 'fit for work' and 1,340 had completed an appeal against such a decision. Similarly 30,560 who had been receiving IB/SDA died, of whom 270 had been found 'fit for work' and 20 had completed an appeal (six weeks or less before dying; numbers are rounded to the nearest 10.)

The figures do not cover people turned down for ESA and placed on jobseeker’s allowance or who dropped out of the system altogether, or who were sanctioned, and who died some time afterwards. And statistics do not adequately convey the human cost of a system that is not fit for purpose.

However the latest information, especially when combined with what is already known, gives rise to serious concern for those who care about justice and mercy.

* Mortality statistics: out-of-work benefit claimants, March 2003 to February 2014 are available on https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/mortality-statistics-out-of-wor... Mortality statistics: ESA, IB and SDA claimants on https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/mortality-statistics-esa-ib-and....

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.