Nearly 90 people a month are dying after being declared fit for work, according to new data that has prompted campaigners and Labour leadership contenders to call for an overhaul of the government’s welfare regime.
Statistics released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed that during the period December 2011 and February 2014 2,380 people died after their claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) ended because a work capability assessment (WCA) found they were found fit for work.
Ministers insisted that the data could not be used to link claimant deaths to its welfare reforms, but the figures focused attention on the government’s fit-for-work assessment process, which has been dogged by controversy in recent years.
Anita Bellows, researcher with campaign group Disabled People Against the Cuts, said it would take time to fully analyse the figures, but added the group was “very worried by the number of people who died within two weeks of being found fit for work” [see footnote].
Shameful toll of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare regime
Letters: If I can’t decide which biscuits to buy, would you want me making decisions about how much morphine to give your mother?
The mortality data was compiled in response to freedom of information requests, and was released by the department only following a ruling by the Information Commissioner’s Office in April.
The WCA, currently administered by private outsourcing firm Maximus, having for most of the last government been run by Atos, has been widely criticised as error-prone and mechanistic, often causing harm to the sick and disabled claimants who are obliged to undergo it. It has been dogged by administrative delays, which have often left claimants stressed and penniless, and there have been hundreds of thousands of appeals against fit-for-work decisions in recent years, about four in 10 of which have succeeded.
The DWP defended the accuracy of the WCA and said the statistics proved no causal effect between benefits and mortality. It said: “These isolated figures provide limited scope for analysis, and nothing can be gained from this publication that would allow the reader to form any judgment as to the effects or impacts of the WCA.”
The Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham described the WCA, which was introduced by the last Labour government, as a “punishing” regime and said the party would stand “for a humane approach to benefits”. Jeremy Corbyn said he had voted against the introduction of the WCA eight years ago and called for it to be scrapped, saying it had caused “immense distress and suffering for thousands of disabled claimants”.
The figures relate to people on or applying for employment and support allowance (ESA), a benefit paid to people unable to work. Claimants found to be “fit for work” either move on to jobseeker’s allowance, which is paid at a lower rate, or off benefits altogether.
Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate - sent direct to you
The figures revealed that between December 2011 and February 2014, 50,580 recipients of ESA had died. Of this number, 2,380 – or 4.7% – had received a decision that they were fit for work. Many of these would have appealed the decision, a process that can take many months. Another 7,200 claimants had died after being awarded ESA and being placed in the separate work-related activity group – a category which identifies claimants who are unfit to work but may be able to return to work in the future.
There was widespread acceptance among campaigners that the data presented should be treated with caution. Tom Pollard, policy and campaigns manager at mental health charity Mind, said it was hard to comment on the statistics as they only revealed the number of people who have died while on ESA, not the circumstances or details of the deaths. He added: “Nevertheless, we do have serious concerns about the benefit system, particularly for those with mental health problems currently being supported by ESA.
“We desperately need to see an overhaul of the system, with more tailored specialised support for people with mental health problems and less focus on pressuring people into work and stopping their benefits.”
The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “We urgently need an inquiry into the government’s back-to-work regime. These disturbing findings cannot be swept under the carpet. We need a welfare system that supports people to find decent jobs, not one that causes stress and ill health.”
• This article was amended on 28 August 2015. An earlier version said incorrectly that “2,380 people died between December 2011 and February 2014 within 14 days of being taken off employment and support allowance (ESA) because a work capability assessment (WCA) had concluded they were able to work”. The quote from Anita Bellows that remains in the article is based on, and refers to, the same misunderstanding of the DWP figures. Also, the article gave a figure of 4% where 4.7% was meant.
Iain Duncan Smith