Scores of deaths of claimants in the last three years have been linked to persistent, systemic flaws in the way benefits are managed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), an official document has shown.
The DWP document, released to Disability News Service (DNS) following a freedom of information request, shows numerous deaths have been linked by the department’s own civil servants to flaws in the universal credit, complaints, personal independence payment (PIP) and work capability assessment systems.
The document lists some of the recommendations for improvements made by secret DWP internal process reviews (IPRs) that were completed between 1 September 2020 and 14 November 2022 following the deaths of 46 claimants of PIP, universal credit and other benefits.
DWP is still refusing to release scores of other recommendations made by IPRs completed between April 2019 and November 2022, because it claims that releasing them would interfere with the formation or development of government policy.
But the recommendations that have been released suggest close links between numerous deaths and key parts of the benefits system, despite more than a decade of such tragedies.
They include repeated recommendations about DWP’s complaints system, including at least two that suggest deaths have been linked to a failure to correct “factual inaccuracies” in responses to concerns raised by claimants; another suggesting a link to a failure to provide a “comprehensive and factually accurate” response to a complaint; and a third relating to the handling of a PIP complaint.
Another IPR, examined by DWP’s IPR group in January 2021, suggests there were still flaws in the system for visiting claimants in their own homes, despite such failings being closely linked to the deaths of claimants such as Errol Graham, who starved to death in 2018 after DWP wrongly stopped his out-of-work benefits.
A reference in one recommendation to “the correct gathering of information prior to claim closure” suggests serious continuing problems with the work capability assessment system, which has been linked to countless deaths over the last 13 years, while another recommendation suggests a failure to accurately record changes to a claimant’s account on the employment and support allowance system.
There are about 20 recommendations relating to universal credit (UC) – all of them linked to deaths of UC claimants – including a reference to messages on a claimant’s online journal not being replied to “in a timeous manner”; another to a failure to respond correctly to a claimant’s journal message; and a reference to “the importance of checking system notes prior to sending journal messages”.
These are all issues that have been raised with Disability News Service by disabled people receiving universal credit, which again suggests systemic flaws in the system.
There is also a concern raised about the inappropriate use of “No Reply Needed” markings made by DWP staff in response to online journal messages from UC claimants.
The document shows numerous recommendations made in IPRs relating to the PIP system.
One IPR recommendation calls for the need to improve “correspondence accuracy”, and for changes reported by claimants to be “accurately and adequately recorded on the system notes”.
This recommendation was examined by DWP’s IPR group in July 2021, several months after a coroner had highlighted how 28 separate “problems” with the PIP system helped cause the death of 27-year-old Philippa Day, and so might have been made in DWP’s final IPR report into her death.
One of the most concerning recommendations – made in an IPR examined in January 2022 – is a call for DWP’s PIP department to assure the team overseeing IPRs that “they will explore opportunities for improving compassionate call handling techniques for telephony agents”.
The inquest into Philippa Day’s death heard a DWP “telephony agent” had listened to Philippa sobbing as she described how she was “literally starving and cold”, “genuinely can’t survive like this for much longer”, was “in so much debt”, “literally cannot leave the house”, and needed “a reason to live”.
But the agent offered no reassurance or acknowledgement of Philippa’s distress, and made no attempt – during the call in the summer of 2019 – to “escalate” any concerns to senior colleagues.
This reference to a lack of compassion again suggests systemic problems.
Another PIP recommendation – examined by the IPR group in March 2022 – raises a concern about the “importance of recording accurate notes of information received from customers or their representatives during telephone calls”, another issue raised during Philippa Day’s inquest, which again suggests systemic problems.
A DWP spokesperson declined this week to say why the department believed the many recommendations did not demonstrate systemic flaws, and declined to explain how DWP could be seen as fit for purpose when claimants were still dying due to such serious flaws in the social security system.
But the spokesperson said in a statement: “We support millions of people every year and our priority is they get the benefits they are entitled to as soon as possible and they receive a supportive and compassionate service.
“In the minority of instances where this does not happen, we have established procedures to investigate and learn lessons through, for instance, the serious case panel and internal process reviews.”
*The Deaths by Welfare project yesterday (Wednesday) released a new podcast which features Imogen Day, Philippa’s sister, and John Pring, editor of DNS, discussing the IPR system and the fight for an independent inquiry into benefit-related deaths
Picture: Errol Graham and Philippa Day
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