The DWP secretary did not have the decency to even mention the deaths that have occurred on his watch
Listening to Iain Duncan Smith’s speech to conference yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking that he doesn’t understand his brief.
As Work and Pensions secretary IDS is supposed to be responsible for welfare. His is a role for someone who sees people rather than numbers, and who is able to understand the circumstances of individuals rather than making rigid rules and leaving those who don’t fit them to fall by the wayside.
‘Conservative philosophy is rooted in human nature,’ IDS said, before going on to ignore all of the points that a humane man in his position would have addressed yesterday.
Some extremely worrying things have happened on IDS’s watch, things that transcend political differences and which have made many vulnerable people feel afraid of the state in a way that nobody in a democracy should ever have to. So why didn’t he mention them? Why didn’t he mention that:
Reports in August showing that between December 2011 and February 2014, the equivalent of about 90 people a month died after being deemed ‘fit for work’ by IDS’s Work Capability assessment?
A coroner’s September ruling that 60-year-old Michael O’Sullivan killed himself as a direct result of being assess ‘fit for work’ while suffering from severe depression?
At least 49 people who have died in connection with having their benefits sanctioned, many taking their own lives?
IDS boasted yesterday that his ‘record is clear’.
This is not true by anyone’s standards. For one thing, a full independent inquiry into the sanction deaths has yet to take place.
Mary Hassell, the coroner in the Michael O’Sullivan case, said that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claimed that its policy on how to respond to such cases ‘regrettably was not followed in this case’.
The DWP did not request any evidence from Mr O’Sullivan’s GP (who had assessed him as not being well enough to work), his psychiatrist (who had diagnosed him with recurrent depression and panic disorder with agoraphobia), or his clinical psychologist (who had assessed him as ‘very anxious and showing signs of clinical depression’).
After six months of claiming the mainstream Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), with all its associated bureaucracy and pressures, Mr O’ Sullivan committed suicide.
How must his family have felt watching IDS say that ‘Conservative philosophy is rooted in human nature?’ Or listening to him boast that more disabled people are in work thanks to his assessments? Or when he spoke about how the Conservatives are committed to families, and to ‘helping families on benefits to stay together’?
The problem with IDS’s understanding of his role is that he cannot see beyond one group of people – those who are disabled or sick but would like to do some kind of work, people he says were treated by Labour as ‘passive victims’.
Undoubtedly, people who want to work should be given the opportunity to do so. Labour have never disagreed with IDS on that, for all he claims this as his own idea.
But IDS’s exclusive focus on this group does not seem to be about giving people agency and independence. Rather it is about refusing to believe that anyone could genuinely be too sick to work. This is why he thought his own assessor knew better than a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist.
Yesterday’s speech, with its message that ‘you will work your way out of poverty’, made no mention of those others for whom work would be so detrimental to their physical or emotional health that suicide seems a better option. IDS considers these people so insignificant that he cannot even be bothered to apologise or admit an error when they kill themselves over his decisions.
Iain Duncan Smith is the person with the most responsibility for the welfare of sick and disabled people in the whole of the UK. If David Cameron intends to keep him, he should provide some basic education about disabilities and mental illness, and why they can’t be cured by work.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot ForwardLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.