Journalist who uncovered suicide of man deemed ‘fit to work’ blacklisted by DWP

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith © Toby Melville
Editor of Disability News Service (DNS) John Pring, who uncovered a direct link between a mentally ill man’s suicide and the government’s controversial fitness for work tests, has been blacklisted by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Pring, a disabled journalist who published a story linking the suicide of a disabled man to the government’s austerity cuts, says the DWP is no longer responding to his questions.

Set up in April 2009, DNS examines sensitive issues that impact disabled people’s lives, such as discrimination, independent living, benefits, poverty and human rights.

Pring had spent months gathering evidence to prove a coroner had blamed British man Michael O’Sullivan’s suicide on the government’s work capability assessments.

O’Sullivan, who suffered from chronic anxiety and depression, took his own life in 2013 after being judged “fit for work” by the DWP.

At the time of his death, he had been taking anti-depressants, was engaging in talk therapy and was also allegedly liaising with an employment support officer.

Coronor Mary Hassell, who presided over the case, wrote in a report submitted to the DWP that the “trigger” for his death was the assessment that he was fit to work.

“The anxiety and depression were long-term problems, but the intense anxiety that triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment by the DWP as being fit for work, and his view of the likely consequences of that,” her verdict stated.

The DWP later responded to the coroner’s concerns in a document marked “OFFICIAL – SENSITIVE,” conceding O’Sullivan’s case should have been dealt with differently.

Pring has reported widely on problems with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit scheme. He also uncovered a secret DWP investigation of more than 60 deaths of benefit claimants since 2012. The full findings of this investigation, including 30 recommendations for reforms, are yet to be made public.

The DWP’s press office is now refusing to with communicate with DNS, saying it will not respond to it as a legitimate news organization.

Its refusal to communicate with the outlet was triggered by articles published by DNS that omitted government comments.

While Pring maintains the comments were left out because press officers missed deadlines, the DWP argues that DNS should publish corrections retrospectively.

“The DWP Press Office always sought to provide full answers to all enquiries from the Disability News Service (DNS) within a timely fashion,” a spokesperson for the DWP told RT.

“Unfortunately, earlier this year there were a number of instances when, having asked the department for information, DNS has refused to reflect in its articles the answers provided.”

“In light of this, the editor of DNS has been advised that, if his organisation wishes to be treated as a bona fide news organisation by the DWP, then there is an expectation upon it that it acts in the manner of one.”

Disability rights group Black Triangle said multiple disability groups rely on DNS, and by severing communication with Pring, the DWP is severing communication with millions of disabled people across the country. The group maintains the government’s re-classification of sick and disabled individuals as “fit for work” is a vicious attack on their human rights.

Speaking to The National, John McArdle of Black Triangle said John Pring has done more to hold the DWP to account than any other journalist.

“The actions of the DWP are counter to transparent government and freedom of the press, upon which a functioning democracy rely. We consider the actions of the DWP to be highly offensive and discriminatory,” he said.

Disability rights campaigners have repeatedly warned welfare reforms implemented since 2010 have impacted severely on society's most vulnerable. In June, 30 disability rights protesters were escorted from Westminster Palace by police after they attempted to storm the House of Commons. The demonstrators, who were protesting against changes to Britain’s Independent Living Fund (ILF), made their way across the lobby in wheelchairs and mobility scooters.

The £320 million (US$504 million) ILF provided 18,000 disabled people with essential financial support, so they could remain in their communities. However, it was scrapped by the government at the end of June, with responsibility for the funding devolved to local authorities.

Disability rights activists say the policy change has brought serious hardship upon disabled people, forcing many out of their homes and into residential care.