A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) response to a question from Labour’s Laura Pidcock just revealed the ‘Kill Yourself‘ scandal has by no means been resolved. In fact, the DWP minister didn’t even answer Pidcock’s question.
The DWP ‘Kill Yourself’ scandal
As The Canary‘s John Shafthauer first reported, the DWP ‘Kill Yourself’ scandal centred around the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Assessors from private contractors Independent Assessment Services (known as Atos) and Maximus had been asking claimants questions about taking their own life, including why they hadn’t killed themselves yet. These were generally during assessments for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claims.
As Shafthauer noted, one claimant told The Canary:
I was asked by a woman at the Atos PIP interview: ‘Why haven’t you killed yourself yet?’ I remember it very clearly. I left the room in tears and had my PIP cut. I was too afraid to complain in case they took all the money off me.
He also wrote that:
It should also be made clear that, while they [assessors] meet the qualifications and experience requirements specified by the DWP and have some training, the assessors are not themselves mental health professionals.
Atos PIP health professionals have the qualifications and experience specified by the DWP. Atos undertakes ‘thorough training, particularly on assessing those with mental health conditions’. It also has experienced mental health professionals available to teams to offer additional guidance and support when needed.
But now, Pidcock has weighed into the scandal.
On 9 November she asked the then-work and pensions secretary Esther McVey:
what steps she has taken to ensure that (a) work capability assessment providers do not ask claimants with mental health problems why they had not carried out their suicidal ideas and (b) the conduct of assessments does not increase the risk of suicide and self harm among claimants with mental health problems.
Now, the DWP has responded. Minister of state at the DWP Sarah Newton said:
All healthcare professionals (HCPs) carrying out WCA assessments were given face to face training on exploring self-harm and suicidal ideation in May 2018. The training which was quality assured by the Royal College of Psychiatrists was designed to enhance the skills of HCPs in sensitively exploring self-harm and suicidal ideation.
But Newton’s response has not impressed Pidcock. A spokesperson for her office told The Canary:
Whilst it is welcome news that training has been provided to assessors on sensitive questioning of people with mental health problems, the minister has not answered the specific question. MPs on the Work and Pensions Select Committee put it to Newton in December 2017 that this was a standard question on the assessment. Although some discussion of suicidal thoughts may be appropriate in order to safeguard vulnerable people, she has not answered whether this particularly direct question has been removed.
Constituents have told us that they are concerned that some assessors are not specialist qualified mental health professionals. They tell us that they feel they are being judged as ‘not genuine’ – i.e. if you really were suicidal you would have killed yourself by now. This has caused great distress.
A Royal College says…
Meanwhile, Newton claimed that HCP training had been “quality assured by the Royal College of Psychiatrists”. But speaking to The Canary, the organisation itself seemed to play down its role. Dr Jed Boardman, lead for social inclusion at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:
The College’s role has been limited to assessing the written training material sent to them by the Centre for Health and Disability Assessment to ensure that it is factually correct.
This is not exactly “quality assured” as Newton claimed. Also, the Royal College was previously highly critical of the whole assessment process.
In November 2017 it gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry into PIP and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessments. The college said:
To become a consultant psychiatrist, you need to have at least thirteen years’ experience studying and working in mental health. Disability assessors for PIP and ESA, on the other hand, may have had no previous experience in mental health. They can come from a variety of medical roles including nurses, paramedics, occupational therapists and physiotherapists.
We are also concerned that the training of assessors does not provide them with the knowledge skills to undertake reliable assessments of people with mental health conditions.
Not good enough
All this begs the question: have the private companies and the DWP actually learned anything from the scandal? It appears not. Sending staff on mandatory training appears to be a step in the right direction. But this doesn’t address the underlying issue: how is it even possible that assessors ask claimants these staggeringly dangerous questions in the first place? From the DWP’s point of view – probably because it holds claimants in such low regard in the first place.
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