The Government’s failure to act on warnings about its disability benefits systems has been linked to hundreds – maybe even thousands – of suicides and other deaths of disabled people.
A detailed 160-page study published today exposes how the Department for Work and Pensions was alerted more than 40 times to life-threatening systemic flaws, by academics, coroners and its own researchers over the past 30 years.
The Mirror has been given exclusive access to the Deaths by Welfare Timeline, which brings together for the first time the three decades of investigations linking DWP and its social security reforms with the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.
It documents the DWP’s “cumulative harm” and “slow bureaucratic violence” that has led to countless suicides and other deaths, particularly in the post-2010 austerity era.
One piece of research connects just one area of the 2010 coalition government’s welfare reforms with an extra 590 suicides between 2010 and 2013.
Disabled activist Ellen Clifford, author of The War on Disabled People, who provided key input into the Timeline, said it was “an enormously important piece of work”.
She said: “Welfare reform has destroyed lives and caused avoidable harm on such a scale that the United Nations made a  finding of grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights. At the most extreme end this has meant the loss of life. We will probably never know the true number.
“The culture of dehumanisation and hostility fostered within the DWP to justify the government’s conscious cruelty has meant a complete lack of accountability or remorse. The Timeline represents an important step in the continuing battle for justice for the victims of welfare reform.”
Work and pensions ministers have repeatedly been warned of the harm caused by the assessment system, mostly to claimants of out-of-work disability benefits such as incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance but also the personal independence payment, which was introduced in 2013.
As far back as 1995, Professor Nick Wikeley, who would later become an Upper Tribunal judge, was warning new social security legislation would “leave marginal groups with inadequate protection” against the risk of long-term illness.
In 2006, Professor Alison Ravetz warned that if the then Labour government was wrong about its proposed incapacity benefit reforms “the cost, in stress, to those people and their families will be incalculable”.
Those reforms were rolled out, first under Labour and then – with even harsher restrictions – under Tory-led governments. In March 2010 came the first indication from a coroner the reforms – the work capability assessment (WCA) and the employment and support allowance (ESA) – were having the impact of which Ravetz had warned.
Stephen Carré, 41, had taken his life two months earlier after his appeal against being found fit for work was rejected. Coroner Tom Osborne said this “trigger” led to his suicide, and urged changes to the WCA.
In April 2012, Colin Traynor, 29, died following a seizure, after months of growing anxiety about his finances and being wrongly found fit for work.
Five months later, Labour’s Michael Meacher became one of the first MPs to speak in parliament about the controversial medical assessments.
“Sadly, Colin was not an isolated case,” he said at the time.
Dad Michael O’Sullivan, 60, of North London, took his life in September 2013, again after being found fit for work and ineligible for ESA. He had been claiming incapacity benefit since 2000, due to depression, social anxiety and agoraphobia.
In January 2014, coroner Mary Hassell linked his death to the WCA, warning of “a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken”.
The needless deaths continued…
Jodey Whiting, 42, took her life in February 2017, after being told by the DWP she had been found fit for work.
DWP’s assessors had noted the severity of her mental health condition, and the risk posed if she was found fit for work.
Two years after her death, the DWP’s Independent Case Examiner found the department had failed five times to follow its safeguarding rules.
Errol Graham’s body was discovered by bailiffs who had been sent to evict him in June 2018. He had starved to death, months after DWP wrongly stopped his ESA, and weighed 4st 7lb.
In January 2020, Jodey and Errol, 57, were mentioned in the House of Commons with a demand by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams for an independent inquiry.
Errol’s daughter-in-law Alison Burton said: “It makes us angry and frustrated. You can’t put into words the devastation that department has caused. It just doesn’t seem to care.”
Debbie Abrahams, a former Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “I don’t want any more families like Jodey Whiting’s, Errol Graham’s and hundreds, possibly thousands, more to go through the pain that they have.
“I have been calling for a public inquiry into the scale and causes of the deaths of social security claimants from 2008 to date. Despite all of this, the Government has refused to listen.”
Claimants continue to lose their lives because of DWP failings.
A disabled woman, who her family claims was traumatised by the daily demands of the universal credit system, took her life two months ago.
The DWP insists it is committed to being “compassionate and responsive”. It said: “These are tragic, complex cases and our sincere condolences remain with the families. We continually improve our services and have new teams to focus on our most vulnerable customers.”
The timeline, which is being published today in draft form before being launched officially later this year, is part of the Deaths by Welfare project headed by Dr China Mills and supported by Healing Justice Ldn (CORR), which works with marginalised and oppressed communities.
Dr Mills has led the work on the timeline alongside John Pring, editor of Disability News Service, with key input from disabled activist Rick Burgess, disabled activist and author Ellen Clifford, welfare rights expert and researcher Nick Dilworth, and disabled artist-activist Dolly Sen.
Dr Mills, Senior Lecturer in Public Health, said: “We may never know the names of all of those who have died – the lives lived and lost. But we’re seeking people’s feedback, to remember those who have died and to reimagine welfare justice.”