From the Independent on Sunday, 20 September 2015. Cahal Milmo reports.
A coroner has concluded for the first time that a man with severe mental illness killed himself as a direct result of being found “fit to work” by the Government’s outsourced disability assessors.
Michael O’Sullivan, a 60-year-old father from north London, hanged himself after his disability benefits were removed despite the opinion of three doctors that he was suffering from recurrent depression and certified as unable to work by his GP.
Figures released last month by the Department for Work and Pensions showed that nearly 90 people died every month between 2011 and 2014 after they had been declared fit for employment after undergoing a work capability assessment (WCA).
Ministers insisted that the statistics provided no basis for a link to the Government’s welfare reforms. But it has now emerged that a coroner ruled in the case of Mr O’Sullivan that the WCA and anxiety caused to him by its findings were the direct cause of his death.
Mary Hassell, the senior coroner for inner north London, wrote to the DWP warning that she believed there was a risk of similar deaths in future and demanding preventative action.
t is believed to be the first time a coroner has explicitly blamed a suicide on the welfare reforms. Mr O’Sullivan, who had a long history of debilitating mental illness, including fear of being outdoors, died in 2013 but the case has only now come to light after it was revealed by the Disability News Service.
In a formal finding following Mr O’Sullivan’s inquest in January last year, Ms Hassell said: “[His] anxiety and depression were long-term problems but the intense anxiety that triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment by the [DWP] as being fit for work, and his view of the likely consequences of that.”
The coroner further outlined her concerns in a separate document, known as a Prevention of Future Deaths report.
She wrote: “I found that the trigger for Mr O’Sullivan’s suicide was his recent assessment by a DWP doctor as being fit for work… In my opinion, there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.”
Mr O’Sullivan, who lived in Highgate, north London, had been receiving income support for more than a decade when he underwent two WCAs in 2012 and 2013 that resulted in benefits related to his disability being stopped. He had been on standard Job Seeker’s Allowance benefit for six months when he hanged himself in September 2013.
The inquest heard that the DWP assessing doctor, a former orthopaedic surgeon, did not take into account the views of any of the doctors treating the 60-year-old when he declared Mr O’Sullivan fit for work.
Ms Hassell pointed out that Mr O’Sullivan was also never asked about suicidal thoughts, despite putting such thoughts in writing in a DWP questionnaire seeking the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – the benefit for those unable to work due to long-term illness or disability.
In its 16-page response to the coroner marked “Official – Sensitive”, the DWP admitted its own “clear policy” that further evidence should be sought when claimants mentioned suicide was “regrettably not followed in this case”.
Pointing out that it was conducting 100,000 ESA assessments a month, it added: “With such large numbers of people involved there will inevitably be instances where processes are not conducted in line with stated policy.”
The WCA is now administered by Maximus, another private company.
John McArdle, co-founder of disability rights group Black Triangle, told The Independent: “This is the first irrefutable finding from the judiciary that the WCA regime is taking people’s lives.”
The DWP claimed improvements had been made to the system. A spokesman said: “Following reforms to the WCA… people are getting more tailored support to return to work.”