A third of disabled benefits claimants have considered suicide as a result of dealing with the DWP, a documentary reveals. By Etan Smallman
[Click on image below to view full-size page]
In her home in County Durham, Joy Dove reads out a Mother’s Day card from her daughter, Jodey Whiting: “To the best mam in the world ever.”
“She showed her affection and this is what I miss,” Joy tells i. “My room is full of photos of her. It’s never going to bring her back.”
Jodey took her own life in 2017 after her benefit payments were cut off because she had missed a capability assessment while suffering from pneumonia.
She took 23 tablets a day and had a range of physical and mental health issues including curvature of the spine and a cyst on the brain.
The 42-year-old was lying in the mortuary when her mother opened a letter saying her daughter was fit for work.
“They never even saw her face, she never got to a medical,” says Joy. “This is disgusting.”
Jodey’s story is just one that features in a new Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, The Truth About Disability Benefits.
The programme, filmed and presented by disabled filmmaker Richard Butchins, investigates a series of unexpected deaths, including suicide, by disabled benefit claimants, examining how failings by theDepartment for Work and Pensions (DWP) may have contributed.
Butchins could not find any data on suicide and benefits, so he collected his own, designing a survey in conjunction with the Centre for Welfare Reform, which was sent to 80,000 claimants. The figures are shared exclusively with i.
Of the the 3,500 who responded, 13 per cent said they had attempted suicide as a result of interacting with the DWP. A third said it had caused them to plan suicide, while 61 per cent said the way the system is implemented led them to have suicidal thoughts.
“What it tells us is that there are a lot more people out there killing themselves and attempting to kill themselves by the way this system is implemented than is officially acknowledged,” says Butchins.
“These figures point to an underlying disregard for people’s lives, which I find really disturbing.”
Butchins has been aware of “a sort of continual background rumble of serious harms” since 2008, when Employment and Support Allowance and its eligibility test – the Work Capability Assessment – were introduced for people with disabilities or long-term health conditions making new claims. The DWP started reassessing all claimants in 2011.
He says he would equate the current system “in a way to the Windrush hostile environment”.
“They have set it up so they’re looking for reasons not to give you the money that you’re entitled to. It feels like you have to humiliate yourself to get this money from the Government.”
But despite 82 deaths linked to benefits being reported in the media between 2008 and 2020, Butchins says he is not surprised the story has not had its “Windrush moment”.
“There should have been a national scandal on several occasions, frankly. But there hasn’t because society sees disability as an individual tragedy. Racism is seen as a societal issue, but it barely even registers on people’s brains that there could be such a thing as ableism.”
He also thinks people are reluctant to engage with the issue “because it frightens them, it makes them aware of their own frailty”.
The film includes interviews with the family members of four deceased claimants. Errol Graham, 57, who had a history of mental health problems, starved to death in his Nottingham flat after his benefits were stopped. He weighed four-and-a-half stone when bailiffs found his body.
The inquest into the death of 27-year-old Philippa Day – who had been diagnosed with unstable personality disorder – found 28 errors in the management of her benefit claim by both the DWP and private contractor Capita.
Her family was told that if she did not attend her assessment, when she was in a coma, her application would be cancelled. The coroner found the failures were the “predominant factor” in her overdose.
And Roy Curtis, 27, who was autistic, took his own life six days after being told to attend a “fitness for work” assessment, despite the DWP being repeatedly warned its actions had made him suicidal. His body lay undiscovered in his flat for nine months.
Between 2012 and 2021, the DWP conducted 268 secret reviews about claimants who have come to serious harm. They were not routinely published and bereaved families were not routinely informed when they began. Last year, the DWP admitted it had shredded 50 reviews into suicides linked to benefits being stopped.
A whistleblower inside the DWP told Dispatches “the customers are viewed with contempt” and “mental health was certainly an area that staff used to joke about”.
“The cracks are really wide,” says Butchins, who has a paralysed left arm and is on the autistic spectrum.
“People are still falling through them at a rate that I think is really unacceptable.”
Although he says his own application for Personal Independence Payment was “reasonably straightforward”, he still needed someone to help him fill in the 30-page form. And he says he is “overwhelmed by anxiety” at the prospect of having to be reassessed again in two years. “It feels to me like the DWP is using process as punishment and that should stop.”
Butchins also wants to see an end to the regular reassessment of claimants with a lifelong condition, the removal of private contractors and their profit motive from the system, a shortening of the lengthy forms and a scrapping of most assessments in favour of gathering evidence from an individual’s doctor.
“What I would like to see is people not being terrified of applying for a benefit.”
But he fears little will shift without the outrage of the wider public. “Until non-disabled people take up the torch, it’s not going to change.”
A spokesperson for the DWP told Dispatches: “Our sincere condolences remain with the families of Philippa, Errol, Jodey and Roy. We support millions of people every year. Our priority is they get the benefits to which they are entitled as soon as possible, and to ensure they receive a supportive and compassionate service. This happens in the vast majority of cases but when sadly this does not, we take it very seriously and identify any lessons learned.”
Joy, who has called for officials to be prosecuted over their failings, is now going to the Court of Appeal to fight for Jodey to have a second inquest to consider the role of the DWP in her death.
She is sure “lessons have not been learned”. She has a Facebook group calling for justice for Jodey and says: “I keep getting stories from people, their son or daughter killed themselves since Jodey died. It’s still going on.”
- Dispatches: The Truth About Disability Benefits is on Channel 4 on Friday at 7.30pm
What the Dispatches survey found
- The DWP says it aims to “ensure financial security for disabled people so they view the benefits system and the department as an ally”
- But 89 per cent of Dispatches’ respondents said the DWP is not “an ally to disabled people”
- 96 per cent found the preparation for their assessment distressing
- 93 per cent said the process of claiming benefits had made their mental health worse
- 89 per cent said it had aggravated their pre-existing conditions
- 79 per cent said it had made their physical health worse
- 61 per cent said it had caused them new health problems