By John Pring Disability News Service 16th February 2017
A disabled woman who lost her disability benefits because of a controversial reassessment process took her own life just two days after being told her appeal had failed.
The body of Susan Margaret Roberts was discovered by a care worker at her warden-assisted flat near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, surrounded by letters telling her that she would not be entitled to the government’s new personal independence payment (PIP).
The long-term claimant of disability living allowance (DLA) had also placed a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) note by her side.
There have been many cases involving deaths connected with claims for out-of-work disability benefits and the work capability assessment (WCA) system, but this appears to be the first time a death has been closely linked to someone losing their support in the move from DLA to PIP.
An inquest into the 68-year-old’s death did not record a verdict of suicide, and no-one from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) or its assessment contractor Atos gave evidence at the hearing last September.
But her daughter, Hayley Storrow-Servranckx, is convinced that she would still be alive today if it was not for the flawed PIP assessment system.
She told Disability News Service (DNS): “If it wasn’t for PIP, my mum would still be here.”
DNS has collected more than 100 cases of PIP claimants who have raised serious concerns about their assessments, following a two-month investigation that suggested an institutional problem that spreads across DWP and the two private sector contractors – Atos and Capita – that assess PIP eligibility on its behalf.
Susan Margaret Roberts died on 19 May last year, just two days after receiving a letter from a benefits tribunal telling her she had lost her appeal against the PIP decision.
She had had to return her Motability vehicle several weeks earlier, as a result of the DWP decision to refuse her PIP claim.
Storrow-Servranckx is determined to secure answers from DWP and Atos, the company that carried out her mother’s face-to-face PIP assessment.
She said: “I want their apologies, and I want to know that they are going to try their hardest to change things, so it doesn’t happen to other people.
“There needs to be a change. They are killing people. It can’t happen to other people.
“It has just left so much destruction. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”
She added: “I don’t want them to get away with it. I want them to know that my mum existed.
“I feel like they killed her. That’s how I feel.”
Her mother had a number of long-term health conditions, including significant mental distress and “very severe” fibromyalgia – which meant she often slept all day and night, except for a few hours every evening – had had four major heart attacks, and had a serious bowel disorder that meant she needed daily colonic irrigation.
She had previously received an indefinite award of DLA, at the higher rate of mobility and the lower rate of care.
But after her PIP assessment last year, she was awarded just six points for the descriptors that are used to decide eligibility, which meant she was told she was ineligible for PIP, even though her impairments meant that she had to be visited by care workers every day.
Storrow-Servranckx, who is herself disabled and receives PIP, said: “When they found her, she was surrounded by her PIP letters and her DNR letter.
“Her PIP letters were never out. She always kept them filed away.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle Campaign, said the case was “utterly heart-rending”.
He said: “The catalyst for the establishment of Black Triangle Campaign was the suicide of our friend Paul Reekie of Leith, Edinburgh, following a WCA carried out by Atos.
“These circumstances are remarkably similar to what happened to Paul, only this time the suicide occurred following a PIP assessment carried out by the same firm.
“Like the WCA, the PIP assessment is underpinned by the so-called ‘biopsychosocial model’ of disability created by the corrupt and predatory US medical insurance industry.
“It was designed with the express purpose of denying disability claims so as to maximise profits: it is as far away from evidenced-based medicine as it is possible to get. It is also lethal.
“If we truly lived in a civilised society operating under the principles of justice and the rule of law there would be an immediate police investigation into all the circumstances surrounding Susan’s death – leading to the prosecution of all concerned, including crown servants and ministers working out of the DWP.”
He added: “We cannot even begin to imagine the suffering that this tragedy has inflicted upon Hayley.
“There can be few things in this life more painful than losing a mum before their time, owing to the despicable actions of this government and it’s henchmen and women who operate this disability assessment regime.
“What have we as a country become? We demand justice for Susan and for all victims of this barbaric and hateful system.”
Storrow-Servranckx believes there are important questions over the way her mother’s PIP claim was dealt with.
Among them are an apparent refusal to accept further evidence that she wanted to submit about her claim.
On an envelope containing a letter her mother said she was not allowed to submit to DWP was written a scribbled note in her hand-writing, which said: “This is my evidence that the DWP would not send to them in response to their first letter of refusal of my claim.
“It contains information that is crucial to my claim. Reconsideration ie the mandatory notice was made without this.
“I would be very grateful if you could consider the contents yourselves.”
Her family have not yet seen the assessment report that was completed by an Atos assessor and led to her being given only six “descriptor” points and therefore ineligible for PIP.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “Suicide is a tragic and complex issue. Our thoughts are with Mrs Roberts’ family but there is no evidence to suggest any link between her death and her benefit claim.“
She said neither DWP nor Atos believed they had made any mistakes in this case, and pointed out that the independent tribunal had “upheld the original decision”.
Asked if DWP believed that the report written by the Atos assessor was fit for purpose, accurate and an honest representation of the impact of the claimant’s impairment, she said: “Decisions for PIP are made following consideration of all the information provided by the claimant, including supporting evidence from their GP or medical specialist.
“The independent tribunal upheld the original decision.”
She said the department did not accept that Roberts was refused permission to submit further medical evidence.
She said: “Claimants are always welcome to supply further medical evidence, but it is not guaranteed that it will change a PIP decision.
“Mrs Roberts was informed of this during [a] phone call on 24 February.
“We want to use the widest range of evidence when we assess PIP claims, so we encourage claimants to provide us with any relevant evidence or information they already have that explains how their condition affects them.”
A spokeswoman for Motability said: “We were unaware of Miss Roberts’ death before your email and would like to offer our condolences to her family.
“Although Motability works closely with the DWP on issues related to the Motability scheme, Motability has never had any role in determining who should receive DLA or PIP; that is solely the responsibility of the DWP.
“As such, we are unable to comment on the assessment process.”