A poet who left his notice of benefit withdrawal as a “suicide note” after taking his own life has been held up as a warning of the potential impact of controversial UK welfare reforms.
Holyrood’s Welfare Reform Committee heard that around 500,000 UK residents currently receiving disability living allowance (DLA) may not be eligible for the replacement personal independence payment (PIP).
Edinburgh GP Dr Stephen Carty said: “Paul Reekie was a local author and poet from Leith who took his own life following a work capability assessment.
“He didn’t leave a suicide note. He left on his desk two letters side by side. One was a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) informing him that his incapacity benefit had stopped and the other was from the council informing him that his housing benefit had stopped.”
Dr Carty said the DWP’s own figures estimate “that there will be half a million who were formerly claiming under DLA who will no longer be eligible for PIP”.
He added: “I have been staggered by some of the decisions that have been reached by the DWP, where patients that are clearly severely ill have been found fit for work.”
He said his own patients “include people whose IQ is significantly below 70, who can’t read or write and have got other complex health problems”.
“Some of them have been through a work capability assessment and on the basis of the information they have provided, bearing in mind they can’t read or write, they were found fit for work.
“These individuals have found themselves without benefit for upwards of nine months because the tribunal appeals system is absolutely log-jammed, with 330,000 people awaiting appeal.”
In a written submission to MSPs before his appearance, Dr Carty said the UK “may be on the brink of a health and social care crisis the like of which has not been seen for a generation”.
He argued that doctors are being made complicit in a process “which has been shown to be harmful”, saying that the reforms threaten to “stain our good reputation with blood” and calling on the Scottish Government to fight back against “this barbarism”.
Dr David Bell, secretary of the British Medical Association’s (BMA) Grampian local medical committee, said he has “very major concerns about people’s actual physical welfare in just surviving on this”.
He added: “What we’re concerned about is assessments of people’s capability being done by people who are unable to make those decisions, people without training, particularly around complex physical needs, chronic illness and, exceptionally importantly, around mental health, because I think these assessments are done in a very poor way.”
Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon reiterated the Scottish Government’s opposition to the reforms but said it may offer an opportunity to review and rationalise the current “ad hoc” system of passported benefits around Scotland such as access to free travel and leisure facilities.
She said: “The passported benefits that exist just now don’t always have any rhyme or reason in terms of how they grew up.
“They might be absolutely right and we might want to keep the range that we have just now, or we might want to look at doing it differently, and that’s an opportunity we should take.
“Obviously the second thing we need to do is look at what triggers eligibility.
“I know the concerns that have been expressed, and it’s concerns that I share, about people who, as a result of the UK-led welfare changes, lose entitlement to benefit then risk losing the knock-on entitlement to passported benefit.
“We will want to look to see whether there is anything we can do to minimise that impact.”
A DWP spokeswoman insisted Mr Reekie’s case did not related to DLA or PIP but “was to do with another benefit altogether”, adding: “They are two completely different issues. Reassessments under DLA don’t even start until next year. DLA claimants will undergo a totally different assessment to those on incapacity benefit/employment support allowance.”
She added: “The move to PIP from DLA is a totally different issue to reassessing benefit claimant on whether or not they are fit to work.”