Woman with ‘a lot to live for’ took her own life after ‘flawed’ Atos work capability assessment slashed her benefits by a third, watchdog says

Woman with history of depression had ‘a lot to look forward to’ before benefits were cut

A woman with a history of depression took her own life because her benefits were cut following an Atos capability assessment, a mental health watchdog has said.

The woman, in her fifties, had been experiencing both mental and physical health issues and was on strong medication, yet received zero points in an hour-long Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

The case of the woman, identified only as Ms DE, was brought to the attention of the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland (MWC), and after an extensive investigation the watchdog said it had raised “numerous concerning issues” about the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Atos process.

It said Ms DE did not receive a self-assessment questionnaire, no evidence was sought from her psychiatrist or GP and “she was not treated as a vulnerable claimant”.

After an hour with Ms DE, the doctor conducting the assessment for Atos, on behalf of the DWP, concluded that she showed “no evidence that she has a significant disability of mental health function”.

She was notified on 9 December 2011 that she had scored zero points on the assessment, and that her incapacity benefit of £94.25 a week would be cut to a Jobseeker’s Allowance of £67.50.

She took an overdose on New Year’s Eve that year.

“This lady had a lot to look forward to,” the chief executive of the MWC, Dr Donald Lyons, told the BBC.

“She was getting married. She was being treated. She was undertaking voluntary work. She had a good social network.

“There wasn't anything else which we could identify that would lead us to believe that there was any other factor in her life that resulted in her decision to end her life.”

George Kappler, the MWC’s chief social work officer and chair of the investigation, said: “Ms DE should have been supported as a vulnerable claimant.  We found a lack of sensitivity to individual circumstances.

“We thought the assessment process was flawed and needs to change 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 need to be aware of this when the contract with Atos ends.”

The DWP responded to the watchdog’s concerns, saying that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) was developed “in consultation with medical and other experts, including representative groups”.

The department said a series of reports had found “that overall the WCA works as intended and is a valid assessment relative to independent experts’ opinion about individuals’ fitness for work that can support decisions about who should be paid ESA (Employment and Support Allowance)”.

A spokesperson for Atos told BBC News: “We understand that applying for benefit can be a difficult and emotional time, which is why we work very hard to try to make the part of the process we are responsible for as comfortable as possible.

“The Work Capability Assessment was designed by the government as a way of assessing how an individual's disability or illness impacts on their day-to-day life. It is not designed to diagnose or treat a medical condition.

“In line with guidance from DW, so as not to overload the GP community, we will request further medical evidence only where this is likely to mean that a person will be eligible for benefit without the need for a face-to-face assessment. We do this in about a third of all cases.”

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