Social Security Health Assessments System has Contributed to the Deaths of Claimants

The cross party Work and Pensions Select Committee responsible for scrutinising the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) policies, has published a damning report on the Government’s health assessments system which is used to screen whether sick and disabled people should have access to vital social security payments.

These payments provide financial support to a working age person who is unable to work because of their health condition or disability; the assessment for this is the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and is for either Employment Support Allowance or Universal Credit Limited Capability to Work. In addition there is also the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment process to access support to cover the extra costs disabled people face because of their disability which are estimated at over £580 a month on average; this is for the Personal Independence Payment.

The report exposed the detrimental impact of the assessment process itself on the health and well being of claimants.

Giving evidence to the Committee, Professor Ben Barr, from the University of Liverpool, was asked about research he carried out in 2015 which looked at the impacts of the WCA as claimants were reassessed to move onto Employment Support Allowance. His analysis estimated that across England, the WCA had caused an additional 600 suicides, 300,000 additional cases of mental health problems and a large rise in the prescribing of antidepressants over a nine-year period.

“We looked at whether it could be explained by other factors or other economic trends, but there was quite a unique pattern in the increase in mental health problems, and the most likely explanation was that it was due to the reassessment process”, he told the committee. He said it is difficult to assess improvements since this study as “there are no systems in place” to monitor the impact of the health assessments and the potential adverse outcomes.

A survey by the University of Kent last year found half of claimants who have been through the WCA process said it made their mental health worse. Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger, who led the research, told the committee: “It is not sufficient to say that this is a historical problem and that everything is fine now. If there was more transparency, it would be easier to know a bit more about it, but the evidence suggests that there are still major problems with the WCA that could lead to an increased risk of poor mental health.”

Debbie Abrahams the Member of Parliament for Oldham East and Saddleworth and a Member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee said:

“The evidence is clear – the current system is not fit for purpose. The DWP’s own figures show that 274 people a month die 6 months after being found fit for work and 60 people a month die 3 months after having PIP refused. These are poorly people not the shirkers and scroungers that some Conservatives refer to when discussing social security claimants.

“We heard evidence during the inquiry that when people were being reassessed between 2010 and 2013, there were 600 additional suicides. In 2020, National Audit Office has said that the claimant deaths that the DWP had investigated were the tip of the iceberg. The current approach is contributing, directly and indirectly, to the physical and mental health harm of claimants.

“Last year the Equality Watchdog, The Equality and Human Rights Commission, issued a Section 23 order against the Department of Work and Pensions over their discriminatory treatment of disabled claimants.

“The Government itself has effectively acknowledged a different approach is needed when they announced that they would abolition the Work Capability Assessments, something I have been calling for years, but the detail of the future process is too opaque and doesn’t provide reassurance. Given it will take place several years to replace, what happens until then?

“I remain deeply concerned about these health assessments but also about the punitive nature of the sanctions regime, introduced in 2012 and, once again, on the rise.

“I believe it is these social security policies, as well as the inadequacy of the social security support especially for working age people, and the dehumanising culture that claimants too often experience that collectively contribute to the adverse health effects is the It is so detrimental to vulnerable people especially, but to all people as well.

“Given the failure of the Government to make many of the changes recommended in our predecessor Committee in 2018, I hold little hope in them taking on board the improvements set out in the report.”

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