Ten Years of the Work Capability Assessment — [Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:53 pm on 24th April 2019.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 2:53 pm, 24th April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I reiterate the congratulations to my hon. Friend Laura Pidcock on an excellent speech, outlining some of the range of problems that we have with this work capability assessment process.

This feels like déjà vu: we are here, yet again, to argue that the current system of work capability assessment is not fit for purpose. We can use the latest available data that tells us that nearly three out of every four claimants who appeal their assessment decision telling them that they are fit for work will have the decision overturned. We can reference the five reviews of work capability assessment over the past 10 years, which have repeatedly raised problems with the assessment process, ranging from medical reports being mislaid to blatant lies in assessment reports. We can look at the Work and Pensions Committee’s report from last year on ESA and PIP assessments, which saw an unprecedented 3,500 individuals share their experience and what they had been through, as my hon. Friend described.

We can discuss the death rates for people on ESA and, before that, on incapacity benefit. In 2013 that death rate was 4.3 times that of the general population, increasing from 3.6 times in 2003. That shows the level of sickness and ill health of people in this group. As has already been said, this is a poorly group of people who deserve to be listened to and respected. We can talk about the peer-reviewed research that estimated that between 2010 and 2013, work capability assessment was independently associated with an additional 590 suicides, 280,000 cases of self-reported ill health and 725,000 additional anti- depressant scripts.

However, anyone watching this debate will be thinking, “What on earth is the point?”, because to date the Government have taken not a jot of notice. Little has changed. We know how this is affecting people, as we have already heard: people living in fear and dread of the envelope dropping on their doormat, inviting them for their work capability assessment.

The Government have said they want to amalgamate the work capability assessment and PIP assessments by 2021. They say they want a more personalised approach and will involve disabled people in this process. I ask the Minister which disabled people’s organisations have been involved in the decisions. I appreciate that charities may have been involved, and it is important that they be involved, but what DPOs and disabled people have been involved? Were they involved in the decision to put the contracts for this new assessment process out to tender? That has already happened; we had one week, and then the contract for this new process went out to tender.

What are the Government going to do in the meantime, while this Government-orchestrated harm—it is a Government policy—continues? I am really concerned, and I hope the Minister can respond, because to date there has been little but warm words and platitudes.

As we have heard, on Monday we learned that Stephen Smith, the Liverpool man whose emaciated body was reminiscent of someone found in a concentration camp, not in 21st-century Britain, had died as a result of multiple organ failure after being found fit for work. We know he is not the first. My hon. Friend mentioned Jeff Hayward, who died in 2018 of a heart attack, seven months before a tribunal overturned a decision that he was fit for work.

Also in 2018, Jimmy Ballentine committed suicide after being found fit for work, as did Amy Nice, Kevin Dooley and Brian Bailey. Jodey Whiting, my hon. Friend’s constituent, Elaine Morrall, Daniella Obeng and Brian Sycamore all committed suicide in 2017 as a result of being found fit for work. In July 2017, Mark Scholfield, a terminal cancer patient, received no universal credit before he died, in spite of his illness. Chris Gold, in 2017, was found fit for work following a stroke. He was facing foreclosure when he died as he could not work. Lawrence Bond died in 2017, collapsing and dying on the street after being found fit for work.

Julia Kelly committed suicide in 2015, as did Ben McDonald. Chris Smith, who had terminal cancer, was found fit for work right up until his death. David Clapson died in 2014, as did Michael Connolly. “George, from Chesterfield” died that year as the result of a heart attack, again after being found fit for work. Robert Barlow, another terminal claimant, died after losing his ESA. David Barr, Trevor Drakard, Shaun Pilkington and Terry McGarvey also died in 2014. Lee Robinson, Robert Christian, Jacqueline Harris, Nicholas Peter Barker and David Groves died in 2013.

That is not an exhaustive list, but those names are an indictment on this Government and their policy, and so is the lack of change that has happened as a result of those deaths. There needs to be an independent inquiry, as Jodey Whiting’s mother says, into the deaths of claimants found fit for work. Until then, there should be a moratorium on all reassessments; for new assessments, as has been said, medical evidence should be the primary data used, not the blatantly flawed assessment processes.

Sir Henry, I am sure you agree that any Government’s first duty is to protect their citizens, but our disabled citizens have been spectacularly failed by this Government. Like millions of people across the country, I condemn the attacks in Sri Lanka, and I share concerns about the emergency that is climate change, but the deaths of disabled people as a result of Government policy is nothing less than a scandal. I challenge each and every one of us, in this room and outside, to rise and say to the Government, “Enough is enough!”