Author: Simon Duffy
Channel 4 recently produced a powerful and moving documentary about the failings of the DWP’s disability benefit system and the multiple harms caused to disabled people in the UK. The documentary, produced by Richard Butchins, was fair and measured and explained how the DWP’s systems, particularly since 2008, have led to increased poverty, malnutrition, unnecessary deaths and many suicides.
You can watch the documentary here:
Before beginning I want to say to anyone reading this article who is thinking about suicide - don’t do it. Talk to someone, to the Samaritans, to your friends, family, advocacy organisations or mental health services. If you are having problems with your benefits then this is something hundreds of thousands of people have also experienced; but there are some solutions and there is help out there. The benefit system is not fair; but there are good people out there who are willing to help. Reach out. Your life is precious. Please don’t let your bad experience of a bureaucratic system cause you to lose hope.
At the heart of the documentary were four heart-breaking stories, describing how the DWP had played a lead role in someone’s death.
Phillipa Day took her own life after losing her benefits, falling into debt and being punished for being unable to attend a DWP assessment (run by the private business, Capita). The DWP lost important information, but cut her benefits anyway. She was even threatened with sanctions as she lay dying in a coma.
The coroner wrote a damning report which stated:
“…problems in the handling of her benefits claim was, in my finding, the predominant factor and the only acute factor, which led to her decision to take an overdose.”
Similarly Jody Whiting took her own life after her benefits were incorrectly stopped. Errol Graham starved to death in his own flat when his benefits were cut off. Roy Curtis, a young man with autism, took his own life after his benefits were cut off. He had attempted suicide after previous dealings with the DWP, but this didn’t stop the DWP from continuing to send him threatening letters, and it was these that triggered his final suicide. He lay dead in his apartment for nine months before his death was discovered.
The benefit system causes direct harm by not giving people enough money to live on. But it also causes harm because of the way it treats people. If you need disability benefits the system you face is complex, unfair, incompetent and often absurd:
Even when some of these injustices are exposed by coroners, the media or Parliamentary committees the injustice continues. Promises of change are made, but there is no accountability and no transparency. The DWP is a profoundly harmful institution. And as a whistle-blower from within the DWP explained, these problems start from the politicians and civil servants at the very top of the system.
To support the programme the Centre for Welfare Reform (now called Citizen Network Research) provided technical assistance with the development of the questionnaire. Once the survey was completed we also helped provide an analysis of this new data on the disability benefit system. 3,500 people, a large number, completed the online survey, which found:
It is impossible from this data to make an accurate calculation of the total number of extra suicides caused by the DWP and their systems. Obviously people who have taken their lives do not fill out questionnaires. Also the number of people completing the survey (3,500) is less than one thousandth of the total number of people who have received disability benefits during the ‘welfare reform’ period (from 2008 onward). We cannot simply multiply these figures by 1,000; we do not know enough about the people and the relevant timescales.
However we can be confident that the total figure of suicides and attempted suicides is very high indeed and we know that our data closely corresponds with the findings of other research in this field:
'First, do no harm', independent academic research, found that between 2010 and 2013 the WCA disability reassessment process had caused 590 suicides (Barr et al. 2015).
Assessing the Assessors (n = 884) found that 95% of people experienced the assessment process as damaging to their health, 29% severely so (Burgess et al. 2014).
Fulfilling Potential? (n=445) found that for 61% of people the work programme had worsened their health or impairment (Hale, 2014)
Counting the Cuts found that disabled people in poverty had been targeted with cuts to income and support four times greater than the average person (Duffy, 2014).
It is also useful to examine this important analysis by Dr Jessica Saffer, who spent time trying to understand the details of people’s experience of the disability benefit system (Saffer, 2017). She summarises her findings here:
“The research to date suggests that disabled people on benefits experience significantly worse health than the general population. It is reported that changes in benefits have reduced household finances, which has affected the ability to buy food, fuel and clothes. Efforts involved in ‘getting by’ on benefits were often time consuming and emotionally draining. For many, the precarious nature of benefits contributed to a sense of insecurity. Claimants reported that they found the benefits system difficult to navigate, with long forms and lack of transparency and poor communication about processes. This has been found to cause considerable stress, fear and anxiety. In particular, the WCA has been found to be humiliating, degrading and inaccurate. The associated emotional and financial stress has been found to have a negative impact on both physical health and mental health.
“Furthermore, disabled people on benefits felt that their lives have been placed under increased scrutiny due to the political rhetoric and media coverage of poverty. They reported feelings of stigma and shame when relying on benefits. Many reported feeling angry about these perceptions and attempted to distance themselves by ‘othering’ those deemed less deserving, concealing their claimant identity or attempting to validate their illness. However, it was reported that many also internalised self-loathing. The stigma appeared to affect welfare recipients negatively in ways that are largely absent from public discourse, and there seemed to be a mismatch between the government rhetoric of benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’ and individual’s actual experiences.”
In a recent report published by Citizen Network Research on peer support in mental health, Growing Peer Support, the severe impact of the DWP on mental health is obvious. In one town, Doncaster, in just one year, many people had been pushed over the edge by their experience of the benefit system (Duffy, 2021). This pattern is being repeated up and down the country, year after year. This is an ongoing and deadly assault on people’s wellbeing and human rights.
Although there seems to be some delay in publishing the latest data on suicides we know from the Office for National Statistics that the total number of suicides per year is roughly 6,000. Which mean the total number of suicides since the beginning of the welfare reform period (2008-2022) is going to be roughly around 85,000. It is very likely that the DWP has contributed to a significant number of these suicides. In addition the DWP’s inadequate and brutal benefit system has contributed to many other unnecessary deaths from illness, malnutrition, cold and social isolation.
Even if, by some amazing improbability, the data we gathered reflected all the people who have had a bad experience of the DWP then this data would still bad enough. We live in a society that has purposefully created a benefit system that causes pain, mental distress, unnecessary death and suicide.
Proper academic research (the kind the government should fund itself if it were interested in the impact of its policies) requires sophisticated systems of sampling and detailed modelling. The NHS and the public health system should also be monitoring the impact of the benefit system on our health and tracking the relationship between benefits and the mental health crises. Alternatively the DWP could simply use its own systems to keep track of outcomes and correlations. But none of this is happening; and this fact tells its own story.
The problems described in the Channel 4 documentary are well known to a minority of people. But there is very rarely any wider coverage of these issue. Instead the mainstream media tends to promote lies and distortions about disabled people, often telling lurid stories drawn from the very low number of people who have claimed benefits falsely, completely distorting the true situation.
Given this, it was a great achievement for this documentary to be made and broadcast. As Richard Butchins, the producer and presenter said:
“I hoped this film would garner a mainstream audience for an issue that is often ignored. It did that and we achieved a good audience in a difficult pre-Xmas slot. The reaction has been very positive.”
There was also good coverage of the film in the Scottish newspaper, The Daily Record:
And also in The i Newspaper:
There is also ongoing coverage, and many additional details, in the Disability News Service, run by John Pring (who was also an associate producer of the television programme):
But given the severity of this problem it may seem surprising that coverage of these shocking facts has so far been limited to only two newspapers. However this is typical of the way in which the mainstream media has behaved during the welfare reform era. Even when several different United Nations investigate committees have issued damning reports on the UK Government’s failure to respect human rights, media interest has been minimal or non-existent (Benstead, 2019).
The UK has become a country that has stuck its fingers in its ears when it comes to human rights - refusing to listen to researchers or advocates and even criticising its critics for daring to speak the truth.
There is a long and painful story behind these bleak statistics and the stories of bureaucratic cruelty and heartlessness. It has taken many decades of decline in moral and political standards for the UK Government to be so regularly in breach of human rights principles and so obviously cruel in its attitude towards disabled people. However the most immediate causes are reasonably clear.
Leading politicians now hold false and dangerous beliefs about disabled people and the political leadership within the DWP has created a culture which encourages a negative view of disabled people, encourages bad and dangerous policy-making and hides from any accountability for the harm it is has caused.
Many politicians (not just in the Conservative party) have found that there is an eager audience for scapegoating disabled people as somehow unworthy of support. Society holds many false beliefs about disabled people and these are amplified by most mainstream media outlets.
A policy of privatisation and outsourcing has allowed profit-making companies to replace public servants and medical experts in the assessment and administration of benefits. There is now no guarantee that the assessors have the relevant expertise to make a correct assessment. The purpose of these organisation is to make a profit and the contractual arrangements developed by the DWP are designed to reduce benefit expenditure. In fact some private organisations have been invited into the policy-making process to help undermine the welfare state and to create profit for themselves (Stewart, 2018).
There are also many specific policies that have each introduced harmful changes to the system:
Given all these changes the experiences of Phillipa Day, Jody Whiting, Errol Graham and Roy Curtis are entirely predictable; and until there is a radical change in our approach there will be stories of unnecessary cruelty. There will also be thousands more who will experience the harm caused by the DWP, but whose stories will never be told. No connection will be made between the person’s death and the systems that caused their death.
But while understanding the immediate causes of this injustice is quite easy the deeper reasons for this long-term decline in standards of decency are more difficult to understand and any explanation is likely to be contested. However, it is my views that a number of darker forces are at work.
Economic and social change is creating increased instability and insecurity for millions. In uncertain times like these times, as thinkers like Hannah Arendt have explained, ordinary people can easily be swayed by evil rhetoric, simplistic ideology and the desire to find a scapegoat upon whom they can pin their troubles. In the UK a certain kind of meritocratic liberalism is now the dominant ideology and it has encouraged people to believe that success is measured by earnings and that those who cannot earn are worthless. We need to change our thinking and remember that every single person is valuable and that life is not about maximising our income, but living a life of meaning.
In addition, in the UK, we’ve discovered that our current constitution is incapable of resisting these injustices. The law, Parliament, civil society, charities and the media have largely chosen not to challenge the government, either from weakness or the desire for government patronage or personal preferment. Politically the UK is now a country where extreme right-wing policies, that would have been shunned by an earlier generation of politicians, are now normalised. Even the official opposition seems complicit, rarely challenging cuts to benefits or policies that scapegoat refugees, disabled people or people in poverty.
Alongside this we’ve allowed our own communities to wither. The stories of Phillipa, Jody, Errol and Roy are not just stories of bureaucratic harm; they are also stories of social isolation and loneliness. We need to look out for each other, for our neighbours and for our communities. Roy Curtis lay dead in his flat for nine months. This was not just a failure of the state, it was also a failure of the community.
There is no simple solution for these interwoven problems. It is for this reason that Citizen Network is supporting different communities, working on different fronts, to bring about the social change we need.
The UBI Lab Network works to promote radical reform of the benefits system - Universal Basic Income (UBI). Everyone should be guaranteed enough to live on, without relying on the whims of the bureaucracy. Also many disabled people need some extra income, but this can be provided without all the current complexity and fear. UBI would also help reduce the underlying anxieties which have driven the UK’s drift to the extreme right.
The Neighbourhood Democracy Movement is connecting neighbourhoods who want to create thriving communities where nobody’s life goes unnoticed and where nobody is left to die alone. Our Its Our Community programme is exploring how social care can be reorganised on a radically different basis - rooted in communities - and how peer support, rather than professional support, can be our starting point.
The campaign to End Westminster Rule is encouraging people to identify the radical changes we need to remake to the constitution of the UK, to protect human rights, to shift power into the hands of citizens and communities and to create a truly democratic society.
And Citizen Network Research will continue to support independent research on disability benefits, welfare reform and austerity. There are hundreds of papers, articles and reports in our library and we will continue to support further contributions.
I would like to end this essay with some acknowledgements.
Thanks to Richard Butchins for getting this important film made.
Thanks to John Pring for his indefatigable work in holding the DWP to account.
Thanks to Dr Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl, Dr Christian Ståhl and Dr Anna Ruddock for their helpful technical assistance with the survey questionnaire and analysis of the findings.
And thanks to the many Fellows of the Centre for Welfare Reform and other independent researchers who have shared their work with us over the past 12 years.
Barr B, et al. (2015) ’First, do no harm’: are disability assessments associated with adverse trends in mental health? A longitudinal ecological study. Epidemiol Community Health 2015;0:1–7. doi:10.1136/jech-2015-206209
Benstead S (2019) Second Class Citizens: The treatment of disabled people in austerity Britain. Sheffield: Centre for Welfare Reform.
Burgess R, Duffy S, Dilworth N, Bence J, Blackburn W & Thomas M (2014) Assessing the Assessors. Sheffield: Citizen Network Research.
Duffy S (2014) Counting the Cuts: what the Government doesn’t want the public to know. Sheffield: Citizen Network Research.
Duffy S (2021) Growing Peer Support: peer-led support in mental health services. Sheffield: Citizen Network Research.
Hale C (2014) Fulfilling Potential? London: Mind
Saffer J (2017) Responses of People with Physical Health Conditions to Changes in Disability Benefits: A Grounded Theory Study. Thesis. University of Hertfordshire.
Stewart M (2018) Preventable Harm and the Work Capability Assessment. Sheffield: Centre for Welfare Reform.
Contact information for Richard Butchins and Hardcash Productions is here: https://www.hardcashproductions.com/2021/12/21/the-truth-about-disability-benefits/
If you are struggling with the benefit system a good source of advice is Benefits and Work:
The publisher is Citizen Network Research. Disability Benefits and Suicide © Simon Duffy 2022