Ministers accused of using work assessments to ‘hound’ disabled people on benefits
By Richard Wachman | 4 October 2012
The survey found that one GP in five has at least one disabled patient who had thought about suicide because of the test, which is aimed at assessing whether people claiming incapacity benefit are fit to work.
More than one in 17 GPs polled had at least one disabled patient who had attempted – or committed – suicide out of fear of losing benefits and being unable to withstand the rigour of work.
One Labour MP called on the government to stop “hounding” vulnerable people.
The charity, Rethink Mental Illness, commissioned ICM, the research organisation, to carry out the survey of 1,000 GPs across the UK.
Paul Jenkins, the charity’s chief executive, said: “These shocking statistics show that the work-capability assessment is pushing some of the most unwell and vulnerable people in our society to the edge.
“Many people who have a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder say that their condition has been exacerbated as a result of the stress caused by the test.”
Ministers are expected to trumpet their attempts to cut the UK’s ‘welfare state’ at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham next week. Iain Duncan-Smith, work and pensions secretary, is leading the government’s welfare reforms, which are centred on attempting to move people from benefits to jobs.
After the Conservative-led coalition government took office in 2010, George Osborne, chancellor, set out plans for £18 billion in welfare cuts by 2014-15.
In his budget in March, Osborne said that an extra £10 billion of welfare savings would be needed by 2017.
Ministers argue that the welfare bill can be cut because many people claiming incapacity benefit are well enough to work.
The previous Labour government introduced the test for incapacity benefit – but for new claimants only – in 2008.
The coalition government ordered in 2011 that everyone on the benefit, some two million people, should be assessed.
But the survey of GPs reveals disturbing evidence of the psychological damage that can be inflicted on those targeted.
Six per cent of doctors said that they had patients who had attempted – or committed – suicide “as a result of undergoing, or fear of undergoing” the test.
Of the GPs polled, 14 per cent had patients who self-harmed as a result of the test.
And one in five doctors claimed that patients who had been forced to undergo the assessment had thought about suicide.
Tom Greatrex, a frontbench Labour MP who campaigns in Parliament on mental-health issues, told Exaro: “There is clearly a problem when an assessment that is designed to help people back into work ends up having the opposite effect.
“Ministers need to reform the test urgently so that those who can work are supported to do so, but those not healthy enough to work are helped, not hounded.”
The survey also found eight out of ten GPs have patients who have developed mental-health problems since the tests were rolled out to everyone claiming incapacity benefit.
They included people who were already suffering from depression, but whose condition was made worse by the prospect of tests, and those with a physical handicap but no history of mental illness.
Claimants feared that their benefits would be cut, and that they would not be well enough to withstand employment.
If they found themselves out of work, they would still be eligible for the job seekers allowance. But this is worth less than employment and support allowance (ESA), which is replacing incapacity benefit.
For new claimants, ESA was introduced in 2008 and will eventually replace incapacity benefit following the re-assessment programme.
The survey cites the case of Ursula Sinclair, 42, from Gloucester. She suffers from depression. Just days after going through the assessment, she attempted to take her own life.
Sinclair said: “I was devastated when I was initially told that I did not qualify for ESA because I know that I am not fit for work at all. I became extremely distressed.”
The Department for Work and Pensions said that it constantly reviewed the scheme to seek improvements.