MPs are probing what may prove to be a major government scandal. In July, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee opened an investigation into how the DWP supports vulnerable benefit claimants and whether its approach to safeguarding needs to change.
Several groups of people were invited to give evidence. Coroners, claimants’ lawyers and families of claimants who have died were encouraged to talk to the committee. The call for evidence closed on 13 October.
‘Countless’ deaths of disabled benefit claimants over more than a decade are alleged to be linked to failings at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). But the department has no statutory duty of safeguarding the vulnerable people making claims and insists there is no link between these deaths and the social security system. Nonetheless, they are blocking release of information that may provide evidence to the contrary.
Reports of the deaths of benefits claimants first came to light in 2010, during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Concerns about DWP safeguarding have been rising ever since.
Government ministers have repeatedly rebuffed campaigners’ request for an independent inquiry, despite extensive information from coroners’ reports, freedom of information requests and even the DWP’s own internal reviews that supports the possibility that DWP actions have led to “hundreds, if not thousands of claimants dying.”
In July 2022, the then work and pensions secretary, Therese Coffey, refused to order such an inquiry. But earlier this year, sustained pressure from Labour MP Debbie Abrahams and her Conservative colleague Nigel Mills finally paid off and, in July, the inquiry was opened.
The DWP continues to maintain that there is no link between the deaths of benefit claimants and the social security system but a wealth of information from different sources casts a long shadow of doubt upon that claim.
Coroners are known to have used the Prevention of Future Deaths (PFD) process to send PFD reports to the DWP but received no response from the department or a response indicating that no action would be taken. (After an inquest, coroners are legally obliged to issue a PFD report to any person or organisation where, in the opinion of that coroner, action should be taken to prevent future deaths.)
Freedom of information requests made by disability campaigners revealed that even the DWP’s own internal reviews made hundreds of recommendations for improvement, referring to multiple errors and policy failings across universal credit, employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payments (PIP).
These internal process reviews (IPRs) have more than doubled in number over the past few years, causing the chair of the committee, Sir Stephen Timms, to remark that “the steep rise in the number of reviews [..] raises serious questions as to whether the DWP is doing enough to protect the wellbeing of people it is there to support.”
The DWP maintains that the increase in the number of reviews is a result of the department widening its scope. However, the review process may not necessarily be as useful as it might be.
Research published last year by Mills and Pring from the Deaths By Welfare project describes the way that IPRs “systematically, and by design, rule out governmental accountability from the start” even though IPRs are one of the main tools that the DWP uses to investigate the deaths of claimants.
In their paper, Mills and Pring say that the evidence gathered by Disability News Service and other campaigners reveals systemic negligence by the DWP, a culture of cover up and denial and a refusal to accept that the department has a duty of care to those disabled people claiming support through the social security system.
They also note that since the IPRs come from within the DWP itself, they may never be enough for full accountability or justice.
Despite being known to be in possession of relevant information, the DWP declines to release it. Freedom of information requests are refused on the basis that allowing the public access to such material might inhibit ministers from speaking frankly.
For example, the department is refusing to release a paper discussed at a meeting of the serious case panel in October 2022. Two key areas detailed in the paper concerned the failure of DWP staff “to call customers back” and the impact of “delays or errors” when claimants change address.
Other documents withheld by the department include one report that looks at the impact of its plans to scrap the work capability assessment on disabled people and another that analyses the effectiveness of its support for vulnerable claimants of universal credit.
It was only after an intervention by the information commissioner that it published a report showing that benefit sanctions actually slow people’s progress into work.
Meanwhile, the DWP continues in its insistence that the deaths of benefits claimants are not part of a widespread and systemic problem.
A step forward
The work and pensions committee are looking only at the safeguarding duties of the DWP. They are not investigating the deaths of individual claimants. Nevertheless, it is a big step forward.
As Debbie Abrahams said in Parliament, “Our social security system is […] there for all of us in our time of need. It is based on the principles of inclusion, support and security for all, and it should assure all of us of our dignity at all times.”
Let us hope this inquiry takes us closer to that ideal.