After 21 months of smokescreens excuses, obstruction and secrecy, work and pensions ministers have finally been forced to publish some of the conclusions reached by their own civil servants about the mistakes that led to 49 benefit claimants losing their lives.
Predictably, when the department finally posted 49 heavily-redacted documents online – and also emailed them to Disability News Service (DNS) – much of the most damning information was missing.
But ignore the acres of white space and the irritating redactions, and there is much within the previously secret reports that throws light on a very dark period in the inglorious history of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The documents are “peer reviews”, internal reports written by civil servants after investigations into suicides and other deaths that have been linked to benefit claims.
DNS has been trying to persuade DWP to publish the reviews since submitting a freedom of information request in August 2014. The department initially denied holding any such information but eventually admitted that “where it is appropriate we undertake reviews into individual cases”.
So followed appeals to the department itself, to the information commissioner, and, finally, to the information rights tribunal.
Last month, the tribunal ordered DWP to hand over all of the information from the 49 peer reviews that was not directly related to the people who died, thanks to the efforts of barrister Elizabeth Kelsey, from Monckton Chambers, who acted pro bono for DNS and pretty much destroyed DWP’s legal arguments at a tribunal hearing in March.
And what do those documents tell us?
As expected, most of the un-redacted information relates to the recommendations for improvements – both at local and national level – made by the reviews’ authors, while information about the individual claimants, summaries, conclusions and background information and dates has almost all been redacted.
I believe the most important conclusion from all these recommendations is this: that it is clear that ministers were repeatedly warned by their own civil servants that their policies to assess people for out-of-work disability benefits were putting the lives of “vulnerable” claimants at risk.
This is because many of the peer reviews – in fact, nearly all of those where it is possible to tell which benefits were involved – were commissioned following deaths linked to the work capability assessment (WCA), which tests eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA).
And many of those related to the WCA process were also linked to the huge reassessment programme of hundreds of thousands of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB).
This, remember, was a reassessment programme launched ahead of schedule by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and employment minister Chris Grayling in 2011, even though they had been warned by their own independent advisor the previous year that it was too soon to roll it out because of flaws within the WCA system.
So what do the peer reviews say?
On at least four occasions, the author calls for DWP to review the way vulnerability is dealt with by the department.
In one of these reports, the author concludes that the IB reassessment process is too far along for the government to review its “ongoing responsibility” to identify and support those IB claimants who are being reassessed and who “may be vulnerable”.
In another, the author says: “The risk associated with disregarding the possibility that some of these claimants need more support or a different form of engagement is that we fail to recognise more cases like [REDACTED], with consequent potential impact on the claimant.
“There is clearly a resource implication in treating more claimants with [REDACTED] as potentially vulnerable.
“However, that should be balanced against the resource implications of repeated appeals.”
In all, I counted at least 13 peer reviews in which the author explicitly raises concerns in her recommendations about the way that vulnerable claimants – this is likely to be mostly people with mental health conditions or learning difficulties – are treated.
“Consideration is given to a re-launch to staff of the importance of identifying vulnerable claimants and taking their needs into account…” says one.
“Processes in both have been revised to ensure it does not happen again, to make sure we provide adequate support for vulnerable customers,” says another.
A third author recommends: “In such cases DMs [decision-makers] are encouraged to retrieve all historical case files before making a decision so that the medical history and all supporting evidence can be perused to minimise the risk of withdrawing the benefit inappropriately and placing a vulnerable claimant at risk.”
Another says: “Vulnerable customer guidance to clearly highlight the actions required to mark a claim as vulnerable.”
And another warns: “Vulnerable customers, in particular customers experiencing mental ill health, may not understand the need to contact different parts of DWP for different benefits.”
And here’s another: “… special care should be taken when handling claimants who have received IB/IS [income support]due to incapacity for a long time and have been identified as vulnerable.”
And another: “That the guidance for handling vulnerable customers is reviewed and that staff are reminded of the correct process.”
It cannot be a coincidence that so many of these peer reviews call for improvements in how vulnerable claimants are treated.
These peer reviews show that ministers, through their senior civil servants, were warned repeatedly that these processes were risking the lives of benefit claimants, and that action needed to be taken. That review after review makes similar recommendations suggests one thing: that ministers failed to act because it would cost too much money to make the system safe.
Remember, these are not just reports on missing benefits payments, or delays in being assessed; every one of these reports is about a benefit claimant who has lost their life.
The next stage of DNS’s investigation is to find out if ministers made the changes recommended by the peer reviews, or if they simply ignored the lessons from these 49 tragic deaths because of the “resource implication”.