The Blog

Benefits Deaths - Calling for a Public Inquiry Should Be Top Priority for the Next Labour Leader

Last week the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was forced to release figures on the number of people who died shortly after being told they were fit for work and therefore having their benefits cut or removed. These figures were released following some persistent Freedom of Information campaigning and a petition1 that gained a great deal of media coverage and signatures. The DWP did everything possible to avoid publishing the figures.

The numbers were shocking. Several statistics concerning deaths have come out of analysis. Perhaps the most reported of these figures was the 2,380 people who died after being declared Fit for work and having their Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) cut. Statistics are always open to differing interpretations. The DWP issued a rebuttal claiming there was no causal link between people flowing off benefits and these deaths. These counter arguments surely necessitate further publicly conducted investigation.

What happened then? No-one knows exactly, and each case will be different. But they all have one thing in common. They were told they were fit for work and had their benefits removed. Then they died. It is quite likely then if someone dies within a couple of weeks of being told they were fit for work that they were not fit for work.

This is symptomatic of a wide variety of errors that have been made by the DWP - there have been countless examples of people being treated appallingly over benefits. To highlight just a few, there was the man with Multiple Sclerosis who cannot walk or talk, the soldier with diabetes who was sanctioned after missing one meeting, the deaf man who was sanctioned for arriving 10 minutes late to a meeting after he misheard the time of it, or even the disabled former soldiers who had their incapacity benefit cut and said they were humiliated at an assessment. These are just a handful, the list of examples in the media is long.

The scale of mistakes being made was further proved last week when it emerged that law students in Bristol had taken up cases on behalf of people who had received benefit sanctions and won a staggering 95% of cases. By that logic, only one in 20 benefit sanctions is correct. These mistakes are considerably more magnified when vulnerable and disabled people's lives are at stake.

How were so many people assessed so wrongly? If one person had died as a result of this it could be a tragic error, but it is likely that far more have passed away as a direct result of benefit sanctions. Families and friends of those people who died deserve an explanation. Loss of life on this scale deserves a public inquiry.

This is certainly not an issue that can be answered simply by claiming that money needs to be saved across the public sector, as the DWP are implementing their own guidelines. This begs the question, at what cost does the exchequer make cuts? If it means people are potentially dying as a result then those cuts are going too far, and the government is failing to lead a civilised country that looks after those who need it most. As a disabled person who is, thankfully still able to work, this government indifference leaves me deeply concerned for the future.

It is not surprising that the negative publicity of running fitness for work tests caused the company responsible for many of them, Atos, to back out of their delivery contract. A documentary revealed that the DWP knew some time back that the tests were failing people. Recently, it was also revealed that staff in Job Centre Plus were issued with guidance on how to deal with suicidal people. An acknowledgement surely that policy passed down was likely and known to cause such a reaction.

So far, this story has been ignored by Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions - but if 2,380 people were to die under any other circumstances there would be questions to answer. Last week Andy Burnham called the DWP 'dehumanised' and Jeremy Corbyn called for the Secretary of State to resign. Whoever is elected should go further, top of the 'to-do list' when the next Labour leader is named on Saturday should be to call for a public inquiry into this treatment of disabled people and benefit claimants, all of the other party leaders should be making the same noises. Whether you agree with this government's programme of cuts and austerity or not, if it causes some people to die the current system is failing. ask yourself, do you want to live in a country that cuts benefits to those who need them most, whether or not they fit the criteria? Is that a blueprint for a civilised nation? The answer to these questions should be obvious. I wonder if those in charge at the Department Work and Pensions realise that? Let's have a full inquiry and see if they do.