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Benefits system should be overhauled in light of suicide

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A Mental Welfare Commission report into a woman who killed herself following her disability benefit assessment exposes the pressing need for reform of a flawed system, says Citizens Advice Scotland.

It’s very clear there are very serious flaws in the whole system, and this is still affecting a large and growing number of people.

Disability benefit assessments should be overhauled following the death of a woman with mental health problems who killed herself after being told she was fit for work, a leading Scottish charity has said.

Citizen's Advice Scotland said the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland's investigation into the death of a woman – referred to as Ms DE – who took her life in 2011 revealed serious problems with the way she was assessed for Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland made 12 recommendations to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and particularly highlighted Ms DE was not recognised as being vulnerable and was treated with a lack of sensitivity.

It said the work capability assessement carried out on behalf of the DWP by Atos, which resulted in the decision to transfer Ms DE from Incapacity Benefit to Jobseekers Allowance, contained insufficient information about her mental health.

Ms DE, who was in her 50s, was about to get married. She had a teenage son and had worked for most of her life. She had been experiencing mental and physical health issues, so was signed off work and fully intended to return to work when she was able.

CAS policy manager Keith Dryburgh said Ms DE's case is not unique and emphasises the need for complete reform of the controversial system.

Scottish Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) have seen a 106% increase in ESA enquiries and achieves a 60% success rate when it assists with appeals.

Dryburgh said: “The Mental Welfare Commission today highlights one particularly distressing case, but it would be wrong to imagine that such cases are unusual.

“ESA cases are the single biggest issue that we see in the Scottish CAB service.

The government needs to overhaul the system and tackle these flaws before anyone else has to suffer unnecessarily.

“These cases include people with both mental and physical health problems who have been judged fit for work when they are very clearly not, which causes them great distress and pushes many of them into poverty."

Dryburgh said the high level of successful appeals reveals problems in the initial assessment process.

“It’s very clear that there are very serious flaws in the whole system, and that this is still affecting a large and growing number of people," he added.

“The government needs to overhaul the system and tackle these flaws before anyone else has to suffer unnecessarily.”

George Kappler, chief social work officer for the the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland, chaired the investigation. He agreed the assessment process was flawed, adding it needed to be changed in order to be fair to individuals with mental health problems.

“We feel that these issues would apply to whichever service provider is doing the assessments so the DWP needs to be aware of this when the contract with Atos ends,” he added.

“We have been involved in useful discussions with the DWP about the recommendations we have made in the report and these are continuing.”

Among its response to the investigation, the DWP said its vulnerable claimants’ guidance was officially revised in December 2013, which the commission has welcomed.