Michael O’Sullivan was declared unable to work by his GP, due to severe long-term mental illness, including recurrent depression, anxiety and agoraphobia. However, when he underwent work capability assessments (WCAs) in 2012 and 2013, they ruled him fit to work. Two years ago, after six months living on jobseeker’s allowance, he committed suicide. This week, the coroner’s report on his death concluded that it was a direct result of the WCA result.
While the report is the first to make a causal link between a WCA and a claimant’s death, the connection is not new to disability campaigners. The Department of Work and Pensions, who oversee the WCAs carried out by private companies, released figures in August that revealed an average of 90 people every month die within six weeks of being ruled fit to work. The news was released with enormous reluctance and despite a claim from Iain Duncan-Smith that they did not exist. While no causal link can be drawn from them, it does throw doubt on the notorious assessment process, which has faced widespread condemnation by unions and activists, the British Psychological Society, and even an internal government review.
The DWP has responded to every condemnation with the assurance that the system has improved, but the frequent failures of the current system form only part of a wider problem. People are facing a double culture of doubt, against their claim to disability and their claim to benefits. Political motivations, the cuts to the welfare budget and the anti-benefits attitude of the government, are undeniable. The WCA prioritises the political and financial, where health and wellbeing should take precedence, and the deficit is no excuse.
The bureaucratic approach to handling disability has been seen before, with the hugely unpopular “Bedroom Tax”, which, among others, penalises disabled people for needing separate and bespoke bedrooms. Its overly simplistic definition of a ‘spare bedroom’ is clumsy and insensitive, and the WCA has a similar problem. The assessment splits individuals into binary categories, should and should not be working, which will always fail to account for the complexities of someone’s life. However, if those complexities are to be acknowledged, a representative from a company dealing with 100,000 claims every month is not going to have the time or resources to do so. That their conclusion has more weight than a GP, who has both real familiarity and a medical understanding of someone’s condition, seems nonsensical.
‘Disabled’ covers far more than someone permanently wheelchair-bound, but the WCA’s single instance of assessment assumes every case is consistent. In reality, conditions are often fluctuate in severity, and one day’s capabilities are not representative of every day. This is particularly seen in people with mental illness, a particular point of concern. The simplistic ruling gives no consideration to people who need flexibility and ongoing support.
Finally, the fact remains that a vast number of jobs are inaccessible to disabled people for varying reasons, a related problem that needs to be tackled in tandem. Disabled people are 30% more likely to be unemployed, and while 40% of working-age disabled people are employed, a further 25% are left seeking work.
The coroner’s ruling this week is a new conclusion to a familiar story. In 2012 and 2013, at least 60 suicides were linked to fit-to-work rulings and subsequent benefit withdrawal; this, at the very least, show the process does not account sufficiently for mentally ill claimants. There have been multiple attempts to highlight the trend, and the DWP’s tweaks have repeatedly been inadequate. An overhaul is needed. Michael O’Sullivan’s death should be the last straw.