Two years into the coalition government’s austerity programme in 2012, routine figures released by the department of work and pensions revealed a shocking phenomenon – in just one year (2011) more than 10,000 people with disabilities were found to have died six weeks after their benefits claims had ended.
But just as the true cost of the Tory-led government’s assault on the disabled and chronically ill had started to come to light, the DWP, instead of investigating the figures, decided to stop publishing them.
Campaigners across the nation were not going to take the government’s silence lying down, and now, thanks to them, it has been forced to once again to make public the number of deaths of those who’ve claimed disability benefit.
In May, the information commissioner’s office ruled that the DWP must publish its figures, after the department delayed in responding to journalist and carer Mike Sivier’s freedom of information request.
The government has since persisted in appealing the information watchdog’s ruling to publish the figures promptly, with employment minister Priti Patel saying on Tuesday (July 21) that they’ll make them public “sometime in the autumn”, cynically dragging their feet until well after May’s general election.
Activists campaigning for the publication of the figures say that they may reveal the direct connection between the government’s draconian “fit to work” regime and subsequent deaths. Previously, figures only counted people on disability benefit who’ve died within six weeks of their claim ending.
Now, the government is being called on to publish how many people died while in the employment support allowance (ESA) assessment phase; after being found fit for work; after being placed in the ESA work-related activity group; after being placed in the support group; and with an appeal pending.
UNITElive has previously spoken to those whose loved ones have perished in the midst of an austerity regime that has seen disabled and chronically ill people being found “fit to work”.
Mavis Bond, sister of Stephen Lynham, recounted how her brother, who suffered from chronic anxiety and depression as well as persistently high blood pressure, was found fit to work after a work capability assessment – his disability benefit was subsequently suspended.
Stephen challenged the decision. While waiting, he was told to sign on to jobseekers allowance. But he was too ill to look for work and so didn’t think he would meet JSA’s strict conditionality. Stephen so was forced to live on food banks and two small loans from a local discretionary fund.
Hardly eating and facing eviction, Stephen’s depression worsened. He died shortly after receiving news that he would be able to appeal the DWP’s decision to stop his benefit.
Mavis Bond was shocked by how the government had treated her brother.
“I find it hard to believe in this day and age that the state would leave a man penniless – but this is 21st-century Britain where a sick man can be hounded to death and denied a safety net,” she said.
Unite has been a long-time campaigner against work capability assessments (WCA), which were ramped up under the previous government with ever more stringent requirements specifically designed to get as many people off benefits as possible, no matter the status of their disability or health condition.
The assessments were previously carried out by contractor Atos, which infamously pulled out of its contract last year amidst a barrage of public criticism that it was botching its assessments. Now, Maximus, a private US healthcare company, runs the contract.
One of the founding members of Disabled People Against Cuts, Sam Brackenbury, has argued that WCAs are part of an inherently broken system, one which will continue to fail no matter which firm takes on the contract.
“These WCAs are based on an American insurance company’s criteria,” he said. “They are designed specifically to take away what disabled people are entitled to. The vast majority of disabled people have worked; we’ve paid into the system. They’re taking away what’s rightfully ours.”
Unite national officer for equalities Siobhan Endean agreed.
“At the heart of these assessments is the Tory government’s drive to take people off benefits with a brutal and humiliating tick-box regime,” she said.
A petition to pressure the government into publishing disability claimant deaths numbers now has already received nearly a quarter of a million signatures. Tell the DWP to stop stalling by adding your name to it here.