‘Woman killed herself after benefits assessment’

A woman with a long history of depression committed suicide after having her benefits allowance cut. Picture: Gary Hutchison

A woman with a long history of depression committed suicide after having her benefits allowance cut. Picture: Gary Hutchison

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A METNAL health watchdog has criticised the benefits assessment process after a woman whose allowance was cut committed suicide.

The woman, referred to as Ms DE, had a 20-year history of depression and was on incapacity benefit but scored zero points in an assessment which found her to be capable of work.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decided she would not be eligible for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which replaced incapacity benefit, and would have to move to Jobseeker’s Allowance.

It sent her a letter informing her of the decision on December 9, 2011.

On December 31 that year she was found dead at her house following an overdose.

A Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland report into the case found the decision to cut her benefits was made on the basis of an assessment that contained “insufficient information” about her mental health.

It was also “disappointed” at the way the DWP communicated with her and said she was not treated as a vulnerable claimant.

George Kappler, a chief social work officer who chaired the investigation, said: “Our investigation raised numerous concerning issues about the DWP and Atos (the assessors) process.

“Ms DE should have been supported as a vulnerable claimant. We found a lack of sensitivity to individual circumstances.

“We thought the assessment process was flawed and needs to change in order to be fair to individuals with mental health problems.”

Ms DE, who was aged in her early 50s and had a teenage son, was diagnosed with recurrent depressive disorder with some features of anxiety in 1992.

She had three periods on incapacity benefit between July 2007 and her death, and was unemployed for the last 21 months of her life, but had a mortgage.

The mother, who was engaged and planning to get married in 2012, was sent a letter by the DWP in July 2011 informing her that her benefits were being reassessed.

Her income would have dropped from £94.25 a week on incapacity benefit to £67.50 per week on Jobseeker’s Allowance.

However she told a welfare rights officer that she had not received a self-assessment questionnaire and no further medical evidence was requested from either her GP or hospital consultant.

Atos carried out a face-to-face Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for the DWP on October 26 and the DWP decided she did not meet the criteria to receive the ESA.

The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland has made a raft of recommendations, including that the DWP routinely obtains medical reports for individuals with a mental illness, learning disability or related condition who are entering the assessment process.

It said the DWP and Atos should also review the WCA mental state examination to remedy the “significant defects” they identified.

A DWP spokesman said: “This was a tragic case and our thoughts go out to the family. We conducted an internal investigation which found our procedures of the time were correctly followed and the relevant safeguards implemented.

“This report is narrowly focused using a single case from 2011 to make conclusions about the WCA process without taking into account the significant improvements we have made - and continue to make - for people with mental health conditions.

“We worked with the Mental Welfare Commission throughout their review and formally responded to their recommendations with a commitment to further improve our processes where required.”

An Atos Healthcare spokesperson said: “We understand that applying for benefit can be a difficult and emotional time which is why we work very hard to try to make the part of the process we are responsible for as comfortable as possible.

“The Work Capability Assessment was designed by the Government as a way of assessing how an individual’s disability or illness impacts on their day-to-day life. It is not designed to diagnose or treat a medical condition.

“In line with guidance from DWP we will request further medical evidence only where this is likely to mean that a person will be eligible for benefit without the need for a face-to-face assessment. We do this in about a third of all cases.

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One-third of Scots re-assessed for incapacity benefit told ‘fit to work’

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