Pushing people to the brink of suicide: the reality of benefit assessments | Frances Ryan

Frances Ryan
The test for PIP is quietly putting cancer patients, paraplegics and people with severe depression through hell. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

‘Can you tell me why you haven’t killed yourself yet?” As she speaks to me from her home, Alice Kirby is not recounting abuse shouted at her in the street but the question put to her in a disability benefit assessment.

Kirby has a chronic illness and a neurological disorder, as well as mental health problems, and for the past two years has received the highest rate of PIP – personal independence payment. But after stating in a routine Department for Work and Pensions questionnaire that her health was deteriorating, last November she was told she had to be tested again.

It was then that the 25-year-old found herself repeatedly asked invasive questions about suicide: whether she’s ever felt like killing herself; if so, what method would she use; and why she hasn’t done so yet. In her words, it was “utterly soul-destroying”.

“When someone asks you to defend your reasons for staying alive, it puts thoughts in your head which shouldn’t be there,” she says. “You wonder if others also question why you haven’t killed yourself. You think about whether there is a duty to die.”

Kirby subsequently had her PIP cut: both the part of the benefit that pays for her care, like a support worker to help her at home, and for her extra mobility needs. It means she’s lost more than £250 a month and can no longer afford a regular carer. The whole process has taken its toll. “In my reassessment I was asked how often I thought about killing myself, and my answer was every fortnight,” she says. “But now I’m plagued by suicidal thoughts every day.”

This is the reality of Britain’s benefits assessment system: where people struggling with mental health problems and sickness are pushed to the brink, all in the name of saving the state cash. Several readers have contacted me to describe the way private assessors, outsourced from the DWP, are asking questions about suicide – and the damage such a test has done to them.

As one woman with fibromyalgia who’s been questioned about suicide at every assessment she’s had for both PIP and Employment and Support Allowance, put it to me: “It’s almost like they block every way forward and plant the thought in your head that suicide is an option, so when things turn really bad, it pops up as your only way out.”

‘Unless someone’s recorded the assessment – which I’ve never seen – there seems to be no redress'

PIP appeals tribunal member

Disability News Service, a specialist news agency, is running an investigation into whether the DWP is aware outsourced companies are asking such questions. This comes at the same time as claims from disabled people of fabricated and inaccurate assessment reports used to push them off benefits.

Carol Harrison, a wheelchair user, is a “disability-qualified” member of the PIP appeals tribunal (one of the three panellists who review benefit rejection decisions). Her name is a pseudonym – she’s afraid she’ll be dismissed for “bringing the judiciary into disrepute” – but wants to speak out about what she’s seeing.

Harrison regularly comes across assessment reports she describes as of “appalling quality”, full of spelling mistakes and incomplete sentences, paragraphs “copied and pasted” from previous assessments, with the same phrases occurring over and over. Of assessors even getting the gender of the person being tested wrong. “They’ll write, ‘He was well kempt’ when the assessment is of a woman.”

Disabled people often write in their appeal letters that the assessment report isn’t a true description of what happened, Harrison says. But the DWP “simply don’t acknowledge” the mistakes, or return the person’s benefits. “The most [the DWP] do is refer the claimant to the company employing the assessor, saying they can make a complaint,” she explains. “But unless someone’s recorded the assessment – which I’ve never seen – there seems to be no redress. I’ve seen a couple of replies from one of the companies which basically say, ‘Sorry if you feel it is inaccurate but there’s nothing we can do’.”

Last week, the Scottish government announced it will ban private firms from conducting benefit assessments, and is speaking to experts to create an alternative system. The rest of Britain surely cannot go on as it is. As the government lines the pockets of companies, public money is for all intents and purposes being spent on hurting disabled people.

Just as the work capability assessment is shown to damage people’s mental health, the test for PIP is quietly putting cancer patients, paraplegics and people with severe depression through hell: assessing them brutally and often incorrectly taking their benefits. That it came out this week that the introduction of PIP has failed to produce the £4 billion savings the government promised adds insult to injury.

Alice Kirby has just been told she can have her benefit reinstated. But because of further errors she now has to go through a full appeal, and her depression is the worst it’s ever been. What’s happening to her and others like her is nothing short of “institutional abuse”.

“It may be carried out by an institution rather than an individual, but it’s still abuse,” she says. “It’s almost faceless because it’s being perpetrated by a department of government. But the impact on us is still the same.”

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