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Seriously ill man dies after the DWP wrote to his GP telling them not to issue sick notes

“A form of conservatism that makes clear we have problems in this country, it’s not just about individualism, we have to help those who feel they’re being failed by the system.” - Damien Green, MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Reports in Scottish newspaper The Daily Record and tabloid newspaper the Daily Mirror make for both tragic and, sadly, all-too-familiar reading today.

Declared fit for work under the DWP’s hated Work Capability Assessment scheme, James Harrison repeatedly asked his GP to issue a ‘fit note’ declaring him unfit to work. Despite repeated appointments (and as many refusals), his GP consistently declined to issue one.

He suffered from a serious lung condition, depression, anxiety and a hernia.

Harrison became steadily more convinced that the DWP had been in contact with his GP to stop ‘fit notes’ being issued to him, a claim that even his daughter Abbie didn’t at first believe. 

Until she saw the letter from the DWP office in Bootle stating exactly that.

Despite having been in regular contact with his GP, Harrison didn’t know why his GP wouldn’t issue a note.

The DWP had declared him fit for work and wrote to his GP telling him to stop issuing fit notes, and the GP duly complied.

Neither informed James Harrison of this. The patient. The chronically-sick man who endured both numerous, seemingly pointless visits to his GP to ask for something his GP wasn’t going to provide. That his GP knew they weren’t going to provide. That the DWP had expressly asked that doctor not to provide, despite the patient having serious medical conditions. Conditions that resulted in his death ten months later, at the age of 55.

This raises some serious questions. On what grounds did the DWP assume the prerogative to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship? Why did the GP not exercise their clinical judgement and professional experience over the DWP’s desire for Harrison not to have a fit note?  

And why, above all, did Harrison have to suffer repeated visits to a doctor to ask for something he wasn’t going to get? 

It wasted the doctor’s time. It wasted taxpayer’s money. It wasted Harrison’s time and, far more likely than not, added to his general ill-health through the combined stress of repeated visits while also attending the Jobcentre under constant threat of the DWP’s discredited sanction regime. 

Harrison’s daughter, Abbie, said:

It’s a disgrace that managers at the Jobcentre, who know nothing about medicine, should interfere in any way in the relationship between a doctor and a patient.


They have no place at all telling a doctor what they should or shouldn’t give a patient. It has nothing to do with them.


When the Jobcentre starts to get involved in telling doctors about the health of their patients, that’s a really slippery slope.

She added that:

He’d worked all his life. He wasn’t the kind of guy who knew anything about benefits.


But as his health deteriorated, there wasn’t any chance he could do a job. He applied for employment and support allowance.

Asked about Harrison’s case, the DWP’s response was evasive. It made no mention of Harrison being kept in the dark by the DWP and his own doctor, stating simply; 

The GP would have been notified so they know the outcome of the assessment. And as the letter says, there’s no longer any requirement to provide a fit note unless the claimant appeals the decision, or their medical condition worsens or they have a new medical condition. 

No mention was made of the increasing difficulty in claimants actually accessing the appeals procedure, of their having to ask the DWP for a mandatory reconsideration of their claim before doing so and waiting indefinitely for a response. Until the mandatory reconsideration has been done, a claimant can’t start an appeal. These changes weren’t introduced under Damien Green, but by Iain Duncan Smith. Green, however, hasn’t reversed them. 

A few other salient facts also rear their heads. A Daily Mirror report dated 26/12/2016 (only 3 days ago at the time of writing) shows that since the launch of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) in 2013, providers ATOS and Capita have raked in a combined £507 million. This despite figures showing that, to September 2016, 90,000 appeals have been made against PIP decisions of which 61% have been successful. 

According to a DWP spokesperson; 

Payments to our providers reflect the amount of work they do for us. We introduced PIP to replace the out-dated DLA system, and as we invite more people to claim PIP, claims have been steadily rising quarter on quarter since Summer 2015.

They may be paid based on the volume of their work, but seemingly not on the quality thereof. Nor are DLA claimants exactly invited to claim PIP. If a claimant doesn’t apply for PIP then their DLA claim stops and they cease to get either. Since a great many DLA claimants depend as much on it for their survival as any other benefit they might be receiving, the effect of being ‘invited’ to apply for PIP is rather like inviting people to apply at the point of a loaded gun. 

As the front page of the PIP application form so subtly states; 

If you don’t return the form by (insert date here) we may end your PIP claim. If you currently get Disability Living Allowance this will stop.

Another report dated 14/12/2016 comes from the DWP itself covering the period between April 2013 and October 2016. This, having been very quietly released in the pre-Christmas period to attract minimal attention, cites around 110,000 DLA claimants being refused PIP when ‘invited’ to apply by the DWP. That’s 21% of the total. Another 121,000 (23% of the total) were only granted reduced awards.   

Returning to the tragic case of James Harrison and the concealed DWP intervention in his case, it seems that the Birkenhead office aren’t the only one to have forgotten to mention important things to interested parties. A December 22, 2016 report from the Disability News Service, an entity that has endured no small DWP interference itself, suggests that; 

Government ministers failed to show secret reports into the deaths of benefit claimants to the independent experts they commissioned to review their much-criticised ‘fitness for work’ assessment.

Whether by accident or by design, they neglected to mention these reports to Professor Harrington when he was conducting his review. The DWP and James Harrison’s GP didn’t mention the document wanting his GP to stop issuing him with fit notes, either. 

The season of goodwill is obviously a good time to bury bad news. There isn’t usually, however, a good time to bury one’s nearest and dearest. 

Just ask Abbie Harrison, and thousands of others.

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