The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has refused to consider an inquiry into its repeated failure to prevent the deaths of benefit claimants, despite the release of damning new information from nine secret reviews.
Key information from reviews into the deaths of nine benefit claimants had been requested by Disability News Service (DNS) in April – following the release of 49 earlier reviews – but DWP has only released it now after pressure from the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Although most of the information from the reviews – previously known as peer reviews but now called internal process reviews – was redacted, DWP did release the authors’ recommendations for how procedures should be improved locally and nationally.
Those recommendations show that DWP staff repeatedly failed to follow strict guidelines on how to support benefit claimants who have expressed thoughts of self-harm or threatened to take their own lives, which were introduced in 2009.
That guidance – known as the six-point plan – “sets out the framework for managing suicide and self harm declarations from customers”.
The plan tells staff to “take the statement seriously”, “summon a colleague”, “gather information”, “provide referral advice – if the situation is non-urgent”, “summon emergency help”, and “review” the incident afterwards with their line manager.
DWP managers are supposed to use this framework to create their own local six point plans.
But the information released to DNS shows that with two of the nine deaths, which were all reviewed between August 2014 and January 2016, the author called for DWP to “remind staff about the Six Point Plan” and pointed out the need to “embed” the plan in DWP procedures because the failure to follow the guidance was “a recurring theme”.
Of the nine reviews, seven of them involved people who had taken their own lives, and five included recommendations for local or national improvements.
Other concerns raised by the reviews include the apparent use of out-of-date information to decide an employment and support allowance (ESA) claim, and benefits staff apparently failing to visit a claimant marked in their files as “vulnerable” who had failed to attend an assessment before their claim was rejected.
As in all nine cases, the claimant lost their life, although no other information is known about the circumstances of their deaths.
Disabled activists who have seen the information from the nine latest reviews say that it underlines the need for an independent inquiry into DWP’s failure to keep benefit claimants – particularly those with mental health conditions – safe from harm.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, backed calls for an inquiry.
He said: “We remain deeply sceptical of any DWP pretence that it is ensuring that the system will be safe. The facts of these deaths show that our suspicion is justified.
The release of the information came as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) blocked Westminster Bridge yesterday (Wednesday), directly outside the Houses of Parliament and during prime minister’s questions, in protest at disabled people who have lost their lives as a result of benefit cuts.
The protest (pictured) was part of DPAC’s Rights Not Games week of action, which has been planned to coincide with the start of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Linda Burnip, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, also backed calls for an inquiry, and said: “It is incredible that after seven years DWP have still not managed to implement the six point plan which they should be using to ensure the safety of disabled people at risk of harming themselves.
“We can only assume this means they do not really care at all about the wellbeing of those people.”
Both Black Triangle and DPAC have also called for former DWP ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling to face a criminal investigation for the Scottish offence of wilful neglect of duty by a public official over their failure to address safety concerns with the work capability assessment (WCA) process, following a coroner’s written warning in 2010 that its flaws risked causing further deaths.
McArdle said: “Only a criminal investigation will have the teeth to change culture and practice in DWP.”
He suggested that a criminal investigation could now have to be extended beyond Duncan Smith and Grayling to include DWP staff who have been “wilfully negligent in implementing the six point plan”.
He said: “These are not minor bureaucratic breaches of duty and code of conduct.
“These breaches have led to the tragic deaths of disabled people and continue to do so.”
He stressed that the peer reviews were just “the tip of an enormous iceberg” of “countless disabled people” who have lost their lives because of the government’s social security policies and benefit cuts.
He added: “The ultimate responsibility for this must rest on ministers but the criminal standard of proof under the crime we are pursuing them for must apply equally to all who neglect their public duty, in the words of Scots law ‘whether or not any member of the public has been harmed’.”
Police Scotland is currently considering a dossier of information submitted by Black Triangle, before deciding whether to launch a criminal investigation.
Although the information released by DWP to DNS does not show how many of the nine deaths involved the WCA process, McArdle said that several of them were likely to have done so.
He said: “The WCA is killing people. It needs to be scrapped at the earliest possible time.”
A DWP spokeswoman refused to say why the department was still having to remind staff about the existence of the six-point plan six years after it was introduced; whether it would apologise for failing to take the necessary action to make the benefits system safe for “vulnerable” claimants; and if it would order an independent inquiry.
She also refused to say how long the gap was between the two deaths which led to the review authors telling the department to remind staff about the six-point plan.
But she said in a statement: “Peer reviews help staff to continually improve how they deal with some of the most complex and challenging cases, and represent a very small percentage of the benefit claims DWP handles.
“We provide guidance to staff on how best to support vulnerable claimants and it is right that this is highlighted to staff.”
In its response to the freedom of information request, DWP’s freedom of information operations team had said: “DWP provides substantial and specific instructions to staff on how to support vulnerable people throughout their benefit journey.
“When dealing with vulnerable people, both providers and DWP have procedures in place to take appropriate supportive action, which are regularly reviewed.
“We have also established a nationally available ‘vulnerability hub’. This provides help and advice for staff in dealing with these individuals and signposts to a range of resources that provide advice about specific conditions or circumstances.”
Pictured by PHP Photography 2016