THOUSANDS of sick benefit claimants are dying within six weeks of being wrongly assessed as “fit to work”, a North-East MP claimed yesterday.

Ian Mearns, the Gateshead MP, blamed the Government for the misdiagnosis at least 10,600 sick and disabled people in just ten months, who then quickly died.

It is the fiercest criticism yet of the controversial tests being carried out on incapacity benefits by French firm Atos, for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

During a Commons debate, the Labour MP said: “Four people a day are dying within six weeks of being declared fit for work under the work capability assessments. It is scandalous.

“I'm told there was a story doing the rounds, that when the bones of Richard III were discovered in Leicester, that Atos carried out an assessment and judged him fit for work.

“It would be funny if it wasn't so sad. It's a sad truth faced by 12,000 plus families, who every year have to face their own personal tragedy of this nature.”

Mr Mearns said the figure of 10,600 deaths, after unsuccessful claims for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), covered the period January to November 2011.

And he added: “This Government has repeatedly refused to release updated 2013 figures for deaths within six weeks of an end of an ESA claim.”

The comments came during a debate in which calls were made for an independent assessment of the impact of the Coalition's controversial welfare changes.

A petition started by comedian Francesca Martinez, who has cerebral palsy, attracted 104,741 signatures, sufficient to trigger a Commons discussion.

It was co-sponsored by Grahame Morris, the Easington MP, who accused David Cameron of breaking his pledge to make cuts “fairly”.