Ministers have refused to say if they implemented 10 measures – recommended by their own civil servants – that would have made it less likely that “vulnerable” benefit claimants would lose their lives.
The 10 recommendations were taken from some of the 49 heavily-redacted, secret “peer reviews” that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) finally published this week after losing a 21-month legal battle with Disability News Service (DNS).
Although key parts of the peer reviews are missing DNS has found 10 key recommendations for national action to improve the way the department treats vulnerable benefit claimants, many of whom will have mental health conditions or learning difficulties.
Many of the 49 reviews relate to the process of applying for the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA)*, through the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) process.
And many of the reviews – 40 of which refer to suicides – relate to the ongoing process to reassess long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB) through the WCA.
The question of whether the recommendations were acted on could provide crucial evidence for calls – led by the Scottish-based grassroots group Black Triangle, and backed by many other disabled activists – for former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to face a criminal investigation for misconduct in public office following his refusal to address a coroner’s concerns about the safety of the WCA.
They want to hold Duncan Smith and his former employment minister Chris Grayling to account for their failure to improve the safety of the WCA, even though they were warned that it risked causing further deaths.
Last November, government-funded research concluded that the programme to reassess people claiming IB using the WCA could have caused 590 suicides in just three years.
Any evidence that ministers ignored peer review recommendations for national action to improve the safety of vulnerable claimants will add weight to the calls for a criminal investigation.
One of the 10 “vulnerability” recommendations in the peer reviews is for DWP to carry out a review of “the ESA process to aid identification of Vulnerable Customers”.
Another calls for a review of “DWP’s ongoing Duty of Care in relation to the identification and support of claimants required to participate in the [incapacity benefit reassessment process], who as a result of a [REDACTED} may be vulnerable and have different support needs”.
It also calls for this duty of care to be “brought to the attention of all colleagues including those from Atos who are involved in the [incapacity benefit reassessment process], and that their responsibilities for the identification and support of claimants with a [REDACTED] are written into role descriptors and included as specific process steps.”
A third peer review calls for DWP to carry out “a re-launch to staff of the importance of identifying vulnerable claimants and taking their needs in to account throughout the whole process via updated bulletins, Comms discussions and any other practical means”.
Another peer review recommends that “the guidance for handling vulnerable customers is reviewed and that staff are reminded of the correct process”.
Each of the peer reviews that led to these recommendations had investigated the circumstances that led to the death of a benefit claimant.
The peer reviews stretch from February 2012 to August 2014, and many of them appear to show that ministers, through their senior civil servants, were warned repeatedly that their policies and procedures were risking the lives of benefit claimants, and that action needed to be taken.
But when approached this week about the recommendations, the DWP press office first tried to claim – wrongly – that the recommendations made in the 49 peer reviews related only to calls for action to improve procedures in the local area where the death occurred.
When the press officer was challenged on this claim, she admitted that many of the recommendations included in the peer reviews – including the 10 highlighted by DNS – had been for national improvements.
But she claimed that it was impossible to say whether the 10 recommendations were implemented, or ignored, by ministers.
She said the department provided “extensive guidance to all staff to help them best support vulnerable claimants, and this has since been reviewed”.
She added: “National recommendations were fed into the relevant ‘Customer Journey’.
“These are considered by colleagues across the department along with other suggestions for change.
“I’m sure you can appreciate, our ways of working have changed over the years as a result of our learnings from many sources – including peer reviews and independent reviews etc – and therefore it is not possible to link these changes to specific Peer Review recommendations.”
*Freedom of information responses secured by journalist and campaigner Natalie Leal have revealed that, at the time of death, 22 of the 49 claimants were receiving ESA, as well as 18 of the 40 claimants who took their own lives, although DWP has not been able to say in many of the other cases which benefits the person was claiming.