Welfare reform, deaths, and the reluctance to make a connection

By Bernadette Meaden
November 6, 2018

When the government said it would delay reducing the stakes on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBT), Tracey Crouch resigned from her Ministerial post, saying that during that delay people could take their own lives, “and for that reason as much as any other I believe this delay is unjustifiable.” 

This suggestion, that the government’s chosen course of action could contribute to unnecessary deaths, has not been condemned as extreme, or scaremongering, or shroud-waving. It has been widely accepted across the political spectrum

On the Conservative Home website, Adrian Crossley, Head of the Addiction Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice, (CSJ) wrote: "Earlier this year, the Guardian explored the case of Martin Paterson, who candidly spoke of the effects of FOBT causing suicidal thoughts brought about, in no small part, by the guilt he often felt for losing money desperately relied upon by his family. I’m confident that the Government will join us all in the sincere hope that no such occurrence takes place between now and October 2019.

"It is also a delay and harm that we would not accept in other areas of public policy…Yet in the case of FOBTs, the Government is prepared to accept a substantial and widely recognised risk and simply leave the baby by the fire."

Amongst all the discussion of this issue, I didn’t hear anybody question the idea that a government decision, or lack of action, could lead to terrible consequences including loss of life.

Now, it is very easy to find, in the mainstream media and on social media, people expressing suicidal thoughts, and in some cases reports of people acting upon them, due to welfare reform policies such as benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, and Universal Credit.

Mr Duncan Smith and his supporters routinely deny any links between suicide and these policies, and always say that the causes of suicide are complex and cannot be linked to any government policy.

And yet – we know that people claiming the main out-of-work disability benefit (IB/ESA) are much more likely than the general population to have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. In 2007 the figure for this group was 21 per cent, compared to 6.0 per cent for the general population.

By 2014, for the general population the figure had increased fractionally to 6.7 per cent. For the group on disability benefit this already very high figure had doubled, to 43 per cent. What happened during those years? 

One of the first decisions taken by Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling when they were appointed to the Department for Work and Pensions in 2010 concerned the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). This assessment was introduced by the previous Labour government for new claimants of a new benefit - Employment and Support Allowance.

Duncan Smith and Grayling decided to roll out this assessment to all existing claimants of Incapacity Benefit – meaning that over one and a half million claimants would be put through a WCA. They did this despite a warning in a coroner’s Rule 43 letter, sent following the inquest into Stephen Carre’s death, which concluded that his suicide was triggered by being found ‘fit for work’ after a WCA.

A coroner sends a Rule 43 letter when 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”. 

Separately (and he says he had not been shown the coroner’s letter), government adviser Professor Malcolm Harrington told Ministers that the WCA was “mechanistic and inhumane”, and that roll out to existing claimants should be delayed to allow changes to be made so that the assessment would be less traumatic. This advice was ignored and the rollout went ahead. 

In 2015  a study by academics from the University of Oxford and Liverpool concluded, “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.” They believed 590 additional suicides were associated with the WCA during these years.

Despite the evidence of high risk for this population, they were also subjected to numerous cuts and punitive policies. For some, their benefit was cut by almost £30 per week, sanctions were increased, the bedroom tax was applied, and the abolition of Disability Living Allowance meant yet more traumatic assessments.

It was not surprising then, that in 2016 the United Nations found that welfare reforms had resulted in "grave and systematic violations" of disabled people’s human rights.   

So I find it extraordinary and baffling that people can so readily accept the evidence of deaths caused by a gambling addiction, and a particular government policy related to it, but will not even countenance the idea that other government policies could also be contributing to deaths and serious harm.

I can only think that death associated with gambling addiction fits the particular view of poverty taken by Iain Duncan Smith and those who share his approach. For them, poverty is not about systemic economic injustice - it is largely about individuals and their choices. Addiction, a problem which they can see as rooted in the individual, is one of the ‘pathways to poverty’, so deaths from an addiction fit into that ideological framework. But their approach has also been firmly based upon a belief that a ‘dependency culture’ has corroded the will and aspiration of benefit claimants, so the tools used to try to end that culture – work capability assessments, benefit sanctions etc, simply cannot be allowed to be seen as negative or harmful.   

In what seems a terrible irony, in 2006 Iain Duncan Smith argued persuasively in Parliament for "a Bill to make provision about liability for suicide". He argued that where a person had suffered abuse and then committed suicide, their abuser should be held liable for that suicide, saying “I would add that in fact, that is common sense. Surely there is hardly anybody in this Chamber or among the general public who has not long believed that there are often connections between suicide and things that have gone on before.”

Indeed. I would ask Mr Duncan Smith and all who defend welfare reform policies to consider whether it is not common sense to believe that, just like a gambling addiction which can leave people penniless, living in destitution or fear of destitution because of government policies would in some cases prove fatal.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty visits the UK, a cross-party committee of MPs says benefit sanctions are in many cases "pointlessly cruel", and Universal Credit is increasingly recognised as poverty-producing, is the truth about welfare reform finallly becoming clear? Will we in years to come look back and wonder how we ever allowed these cruel policies to continue for so long, and finally recognise the cost, in lives blighted and in some cases lost? 

* If you are in distress and would like to talk to somebody, phone the Samaritans FREE from any phone at any time on 116 123, or use the contact details here

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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

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