The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) watered down key parts of a plan drawn up to prevent suicides and learn lessons from claimant deaths, while under the leadership of deputy prime minister Therese Coffey, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.
During Coffey’s three-year regime at the head of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), a series of decisions were taken to weaken the plan, which was supposed to cut the number of claimant deaths, improve support for “the most vulnerable” and provide a “more compassionate” culture within the department.
The plan aimed to help create an environment where DWP’s services were “safe” and assist in “avoiding harm” to benefit claimants “as they interact with our services”.
But DNS has so far confirmed at least six ways in which the DWP Excellence Plan was watered down under Coffey’s leadership, after the department had already secured funding for the plan from the Treasury through her predecessor, Amber Rudd.
Throughout Coffey’s period in charge of DWP, from September 2019 to September 2022, disabled people continued to die due to her department’s failings.
Among them was Sophia Yuferev, a talented artist who lived with significant mental distress and had been living on a sandwich a day for the last few months of her life, after both her employment and support allowance and her personal independence payment had been stopped by Coffey’s department. She is believed to have died in October 2021.
Another was Philip Pakree, who died on Boxing Day 2020, and whose partner had warned that he was too ill to undergo an upcoming benefit assessment that had left him “distraught” and “devastated”.
And today, DNS reveals how DWP has admitted repeatedly breaching the Equality Act, after a disabled man was left needing hospital treatment three times for suicidal thoughts caused by months of failures by DWP advisers and jobcentres, following a new claim for universal credit claim he registered in February 2020 (see separate story).
DWP’s own figures show the department started 133 secret internal process reviews (IPRs) into links between its actions and deaths and serious harm caused to benefit claimants, between July 2020 and June 2022.
Coffey (pictured) took over as work and pensions secretary on 8 September 2019, just four days after her predecessor, Amber Rudd, had secured £106 million for the new DWP Excellence Plan.
One-third of that money – £36 million – was allocated to improving safety, support for “customers with complex needs” and decision-making, and learning from its mistakes.
An internal DWP document drawn up several months later – obtained by a campaigner under the Freedom of Information Act – appears to show how Rudd had intended to deliver the plan.
But subsequent information secured by DNS through freedom of information requests shows how that plan was watered down during the three years that Coffey was in charge at DWP, before she was promoted last month to be health and social care secretary and deputy prime minister under prime minister Liz Truss.
Among the decisions taken under Coffey’s leadership of DWP was to abandon plans to pilot a scheme – SignpostingPlus – that would have tested ways of supporting claimants who were “beginning to struggle to cope, before they become harder to help through entrenched disadvantage”.
DWP has told DNS that it holds no information about SignpostingPlus, blaming the pandemic for the decision to abandon the project.
The DWP Excellence Plan also intended to “reduce the impact of serious cases (including customer suicide)” and measure how successful the department was in reducing the number of serious cases.
But the department told DNS that it does not hold information about how successful it was in reducing serious cases because a “measure was not chosen”.
The plan also described how a new “Safeguarding Improvement Team” would “proactively introduce processes, procedures and policies to protect vulnerable customers and improve the effectiveness of DWP interventions”.
But the department told DNS, three years on: “No information is held about a Team named the Safeguarding Improvement Team.”
Another key part of the DWP Excellence Plan was to introduce a Serious Case Panel, “with independent membership”.
But DWP, under Coffey’s leadership, decided to water down that proposal, ensuring that the panel was filled instead with senior DWP executives, a move which has previously been reported on.
The plan also laid out a series of potential critical success factors (CSFs), which would determine whether the department had achieved its goal to make its services less harmful and less likely to lead to claimant suicides and other deaths.
One part of the plan was to provide extra time for staff to respond to signs of “customer vulnerability”, refer them to specialist support, and prevent “an escalation of vulnerability and risk to customer welfare”.
One of the “benefits” of this would be “increased effective suicide/harm prevention”, according to the plan.
A potential CSF would have measured how many such conversations were carried out, and how many claimants were referred for “complex needs” support.
But DWP told DNS, in a freedom of information response: “No information is held for these two questions on complex needs conversations.”
Under another part of the plan, the department introduced “decision assurance calls”, which are supposed to enable staff making decisions on benefit claims to seek out and clarify further information about a claim and “provide support to customers to transition to other benefits”.
One potential CSF would have shown how many customers received a decision assurance call, but DWP has told DNS that it would be too expensive to find out how many such calls had been made because “the requested data is not held centrally”.
Sir Stephen Timms, the Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, said the information obtained by DNS was a “significant finding”.
He said: “I am concerned that earlier safeguarding proposals appear to have been weakened.”
He added: “The previous secretary of state assured us she was committed to ensuring the safety of the often vulnerable people her department is there to support.
“DWP needs to be open about steps it is taking to improve safeguarding in the benefits system, through the Excellence Plan or by other means.
“The committee will ask the new secretary of state about progress when she comes to us later this year.”
A Disabled People Against Cuts spokesperson said the original plan had appeared to be “a serious attempt to put right some of the worst parts of DWP processes” which “would have saved lives, misery and hardship for millions of disabled people”.
But he added: “It’s a desperate crying shame that Coffey took a hammer to it.
“Will these people ever get some humanity and compassion?”
John McArdle, co-founder of the grassroots group Black Triangle, said he was “quite shocked, in a good way” that Rudd had sourced the funding for the plan.
He said: “It shows that she had been listening.”
But he said that Coffey had “caused a catastrophe for sick and disabled people at the DWP and now she has moved to the Department of Health and Social Care, which is going to be equally catastrophic, if not more so”.
Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, who has played a key role in drawing attention to deaths linked to DWP in parliament and is a member of the work and pensions committee, said Coffey was “frequently questioned” by the committee on the deaths of social security claimants and the causes of these deaths.
She said: “Any failings in the current social security system which let down the most vulnerable claimants need investigating.”
Coffey had not responded to a request to comment by noon today (Thursday).
In its response, DWP did not dispute any of the six ways in which the plan had been watered down under Coffey’s leadership.
But a DWP spokesperson said: “We support millions of people each year and we are constantly reviewing our processes to deliver a supportive and compassionate service.
“COVID-19 impacted how we intended to implement the DWP Excellence Plan as we had to address the immediate needs of customers impacted by the pandemic.
“Since February 2020 we have delivered improvements to our service, including broadening the range of circumstances where an IPR is carried out and expanding the IPR team.
“We also continue to learn from serious cases, working to ensure our most vulnerable customers are receiving the best possible service.”
The department has also highlighted the £3 million a year it is spending to grow its team of advanced customer support senior leaders, who build relationships with organisations that support claimants in the most vulnerable situations; its introduction of a mental health training package for all customer-facing staff; and its work to improve relevant guidance and training for staff on dealing with claimants who declare their intention to self-harm.
It said it had no duty under the Freedom of Information Act to provide background or context to the information it provided in response to freedom of information requests.
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