The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted destroying its own secret reports into suicides and other deaths of benefit claimants.
The admission has added to growing calls for an independent inquiry into links between DWP policies and procedures and the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of disabled people.
DWP has now admitted that it destroyed vital evidence of those links, with some of the reports that have been trashed apparently less than five years old when they were destroyed.
The admission came in its response to a freedom of information (FoI) request.
The existence of secret DWP reviews into suicides and other deaths was first revealed by Disability News Service (DNS) in October 2014.
They were known at the time as peer reviews, but in 2015 were renamed internal process reviews (IPRs).
For six years DWP has fought to prevent the release of any evidence linking its actions with the deaths of benefit claimants.
But the latest FoI reply, made in response to a request from the Stop UK Lies and Corruption campaign, includes an admission that DWP has been destroying reviews that pre-date April 2015.
DWP had been asked for the dates of all peer reviews dating back to 2010.
But the response says: “Peer Reviews were renamed Internal Process Reviews in 2015.
“Records prior to 2015-16 have been destroyed or are incomplete in line with GDPR/data retention policies.”
It attempts to justify destroying these reports by arguing that the Data Protection Act 2018 states that “personal data kept for any purpose should not be kept for any longer than necessary”.
The DWP response then lists the dates in which all the reviews were commissioned, but only from June 2015 onwards.
It shows 131 IPRs have been commissioned in the four-and-a-half years since June 2015.
Most, although not all, of these reviews will have involved the deaths of claimants, as well as some serious incidents that did not lead to the death of a claimant.
Labour’s Debbie Abrahams (pictured), a member of the Commons work and pensions select committee, who has led parliamentary calls for an inquiry into deaths linked to DWP, told DNS this morning (Thursday): “It is deeply concerning that the government’s Department for Work and Pensions have been destroying peer reviews into the deaths of social security claimants.
“Given that the information commissioner has said that there is no need to destroy these records it brings into question why this has happened.
“The law does not specify the time records should be kept for and I believe it’s imperative that this kind of information should be held for longer, particularly given the National Audit Office’s recent report which criticises the government for a failure to ‘identify larger trends or themes’ from their own peer reviews.
“At the very least this is incompetence, at the very worst it’s a cover up to hide the government’s systemic failures to protect the most vulnerable claimants.”
Yesterday, Linda Cooksey, sister of Tim Salter, whose suicide in 2013 was linked by a coroner to the decision to find him “fit for work”, told Radio Four’s Today programme that DWP had previously refused the family permission to see the peer review it carried out in February 2014.
She said that hearing how DWP had been destroying pre-2015 peer reviews – possibly including her brother’s – did not surprise her, and she said she believed the department was engaged in a cover-up.
She said: “We should be allowed to find out what’s happened. And why would they want to destroy them? What are they hiding?”
Labour’s Stephen Timms, the new chair of the work and pensions committee, told Today that families “should be entitled to see these reports”.
He said he was “sympathetic” to suggestions that DWP was engaged in a cover-up, and that what had emerged “raises troubling questions for the department”.
He said: “For a long time, they were very reluctant to accept that what they were doing had contributed to these deaths at all.
“I think they are now being forced to own up to the fact that that is happening but they are doing it very reluctantly and very slowly and trying to keep the thing as hush-hush as possible, and it is not good enough.”
Earlier this month, DNS revealed that DWP had been failing to track recommendations made by its IPRs, three years after claiming it had corrected the same failings.
It appeared to show that the department had misled both the National Audit Office and the Information Commissioner’s Office.
It was just the latest evidence to emerge of DWP refusing to act to close loopholes in its safeguarding system that have caused the deaths of numerous disabled benefit claimants, including flaws linked closely to the work capability assessment process.
DWP refused to explain how it justified destroying secret reports into the deaths of its claimants.
But a DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “We take these reviews extremely seriously and ensure cases are investigated, concluded and any lessons learned.”
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