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Sickness benefit tests 'should be reviewed due to disturbing deaths data'

Published 28/08/2015

The DWP was ordered to release the death statistics by the Information Commissioner.
The DWP was ordered to release the death statistics by the Information Commissioner.

Campaigners have called for a review of controversial sickness benefit assessments after the release of "disturbing" statistics showing the numbers who died after being told they were "fit to work".

Figures published by welfare chiefs under freedom of information laws showed that 2,380 people who had been told they would no longer qualify for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) died between December 2011 and February 2014.

The Department for Work and Pensions , which was ordered by a watchdog to publish the numbers, said no "causal link" could be drawn from the data between an individual's benefit status and their likelihood of dying.

Overall, death rates for unemployed claimants had remained in line with trends in the wider population for a decade, it said.

But charities and unions, who claim the work capability assessment system is unfair and causes undue stress for vulnerable people, said the mortality rate appeared surprisingly high for people of working age who had been declared fit.

Of 50,580 ESA claimants who died over the period, 2,380 had been told they were "fit to work" and would be switched to standard unemployment benefits - meaning a drop of up to £30 per week - pending any appeals.

There were 1,340 whose appeals had been completed though it was unclear what proportion of these had been successful.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady called for an urgent inquiry into the back-to-work regime.

"The fact that more than 80 people are dying each month shortly after being declared 'fit for work' should concern us all. We need a welfare system that supports people to find decent jobs not one that causes stress and ill health," she said.

Disability Benefits Consortium co-chairman Rob Holland - from learning disability charity Mencap - said: "These tragic figures are concerning and warrant further investigation.

"We know the fit for work test is failing disabled people, with devastating consequences. Wrong decisions can mean people are left with little or no support at all, in some cases struggling to pay for their homes and basic essentials like food and heating.

"The Government must act now to reform the work capability assessment so it is fair for disabled people and those with health and medical conditions. Indeed there is real concern that the process itself is stressful and can in fact worsen people's conditions."

Shadow work and pensions minister Kate Green said: "These figures should be a wake-up call for the Government.

"Ministers need to focus on sorting out the assessment process so that everyone can have confidence in it, and providing support for disabled people who can work in order to help them do so."

Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham said they were " shocking figures that for the first time show the human cost of this Government's punishing benefits regime".

"We now need an urgent national debate about these figures, and if elected leader I would call a full-day debate in Parliament at the first available opportunity."

A DWP spokesman said: "We don't hold information on reason of death, so no causal effect between a fit for work decision and death should be assumed.

"The mortality rate of those who are claiming Jobseeker's Allowance - which includes some of those found fit for work - is still lower than for the general population.

"Furthermore, the overall trend shows the mortality rate for people who have died while claiming an out-of-work benefit, has fallen over a 10-year period."

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