When Tim Salter killed himself in 2013 after being found fit for work by the government's hated work capability assessment (WCA), he risked becoming part of a mass of statistical information which took away any idea of the human who suffered and died.
His sister had other ideas. Linda Cooksey knew Tim should never have been passed fit; his mental health problems led to him becoming a recluse, but these weren't picked up by the WCA even after he revealed a previous suicide attempt which left him partially-sighted.
He was put on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and then had it taken away when he couldn't meet its conditions.
Linda pursued the case with the DWP, but was met with rejections, first as one of the peer reviewed cases that linked suicides with benefit cuts, then by the independent case examiner. Both claimed the assessment was conducted as it should have been.
It took the intervention of Linda's MP, Gavin Wiliamson, and the health watchdog to overturn this travesty. The watchdog found that it was reasonable to take ESA away because Tim was not under the care of a doctor who could have provided proof of his issues, but that when he identified his suicide attempt they failed in not investigating it.
It said: “Even if further medical evidence was not available or did not change the ESA decision, knowing it was requested because Mr Salter mentioned suicide may have given Mrs Cooksey more confidence in the ESA assessment and decision and more confidence that DWP had considered Mr Salter’s condition as best it could.”
In other words, when a person receiving a WCA describes an attempted suicide the assessor should try to obtain further information, not just reject it in the rush to find as many people fit for work as possible.
The DWP will be forced to “apologise to Mrs Cooksey for the error in administering Mr Salter’s claim and not identifying the error”, while the independent case examiner who failed to identify the problem must “apologise to Mrs Cooksey for not recognising that DWP’s review was insufficiently thorough to identify the error on Mr Salter’s claim”.
The case shows how important it is to treat vulnerable people with care, something the WCA does not appear to do in all cases. But DWP, despite claiming to have improved the process, still appears to value pushing more people into work over sensitivity to individual needs, and observers should not expect any significant changes as a result of this humiliation.
True to form it responded by emphasising the parts of the complaint that were rejected and minimising the parts that were upheld.
A DWP spokesman said: “Suicide is a tragic and complex issue which we take very seriously and our sympathies are with Mr Salter’s family.
“The parliamentary and health service ombudsman found that Mr Salter’s claim was handled correctly except on one occasion when further evidence should have been asked for and we are apologising to Mrs Cooksey for that. The PHSO concluded that that omission would not have changed the outcome of this tragic case.”
This demonstrates again how the department does not operate as it should, and does not take its duty of care to vulnerable people seriously enough. The race to push people - whether vulnerable or not, capable or not - into work inevitably creates casualties, and the lack of consideration of whether the policies that cause this situation should be reconsidered is shameful.
Nothing will change as a result of this finding, or as a result of other claimant deaths.