Suicides and the WCA: how much more evidence does the government want?

By Bernadette Meaden
November 17, 2015

'In total, across England as a whole, the WCA disability reassessment process during this period was associated with an additional 590 suicides.' An academic study of the impact of the Work Capability Assessment published today (17 November)  confirms what disabled people and campaigners have been saying for years. It is associated with many deaths, and has had a catastrophic impact on the mental health of disabled people.

The report, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, makes grim reading. It states: "The programme of reassessing people on disability benefits using the Work Capability Assessment was independently associated with an increase in suicides, self-reported mental health problems and antidepressant prescribing. This policy may have had serious adverse consequences for mental health in England, which could outweigh any benefits that arise from moving people off disability benefits."

And as if this wasn't enough; "The reassessment process was associated with the greatest increase in these adverse mental health outcomes in the most deprived areas of the country, widening health inequalities."

During the General Election campaign, in a live television debate, Iain Duncan Smith was challenged about the number of deaths and suicides linked to welfare reform. The Secretary of State denied any such link, and called the suggestion "scurrilous", warning the Green Party's Jonathan Bartley to "be very careful" about making such "cast off allegations." Watch the video here, starting at 13'.50".

We now know that at the time of this debate, Mr. Duncan Smith's department was in possession of at least two coroners' reports which had directly linked the suicide of a disabled person to the Work Capability Assessment. In the case of Stephen Carre, the coroner had written a rule 43 letter, a legal letter which a coroner writes if he or she believes the evidence in an inquest “gives rise to a concern that circumstances creating a risk of other deaths will occur or will continue to exist in the future”. Receiving a letter like this should sound the alarm within any responsible organisation.

And yet, in January 2014 another coroner attributed Michael O'Sullivan's suicide to a fit for work verdict. When the O'Sullivan family learned of the coroner's letter relating to Stephen Carre's death, they were devastated, saying,  “Had the DWP acted as it should have done in Mr Carre’s case, had it learned from its failings then, we firmly believe that our father’s death would have been preventable."

No doubt the DWP would like to portray these deaths as individual tragedies, isolated cases from which more general conclusions cannot be drawn. Now, thanks to this academic study, that position is untenable. Stephen and Michael's deaths appear not to be isolated cases, but the tip of a terrible iceberg. All the evidence indicates that the Work Capability Assessment, and its brutal implementation against expert advice, has been associated with hundreds of similar deaths. 

This report has grave implications for the government, but also, as the report points out, for the healthcare professionals who are recruited on very good salaries to carry out the assessments;

"Given that doctors and other health professional[s} have professional and statutory duties to protect and promote the health of patients and the public, our evidence that this process is potentially harming the recipients of these assessments raises major ethical issues for those involved."

Of course, the government has quickly moved to dismiss the report, but Professor  Thom Baguley, associate dean for research at Nottingham Trent University, said "The study provides evidence that the specific application of this policy (the way reassessment of cases was conducted) increased the suicide rate and outcomes associated with adverse mental health in those people affected. The evidence goes beyond merely establishing a correlation but falls short of establishing a causal link."

Faced with such evidence, and the coroners' reports the DWP has already received, the responsible thing to do would be to halt the assessment process immediately, and have a very serious think. What government needs absolute proof that its policies are contributing to the death of its own citizens before it will even pause to reconsider?

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 © Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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.