The civil servant who leads the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has misled MPs about its failure to implement a plan drawn up to prevent suicides and learn lessons from the deaths of benefit claimants.
Peter Schofield, DWP’s permanent secretary, was asked by a cross-party committee yesterday (Wednesday) what had happened to the so-called DWP Excellence Plan, which secured more than £100 million Treasury funding in September 2019.
Disability News Service (DNS) showed last year that the plan had been watered down in at least six ways in the two years that Therese Coffey was secretary of state for work and pensions.
But three times yesterday (watch from 11.18 onwards), Schofield (pictured) suggested to Sir Stephen Timms, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, that the plan had been implemented in full.
When Sir Stephen asked if it had been implemented, Schofield replied: “Yeah,” before highlighting how just one of the many elements of the plan had been carried out, as well as two others he had mentioned moments earlier.
Schofield was later asked if all the measures listed in a diagram in the Excellence Plan had been completed.
He again replied that they had, although he went on to discuss how the pandemic had changed the way that some DWP roles had been carried out.
At no point did he admit that key parts of the plan had been dropped or watered down.
Sir Stephen then said: “Perhaps if you’d drop us a line, because the term DWP Excellence Plan had I think sort of disappeared, but by the sound of it the funding that was promised has all been delivered and you’re using it for the things that were envisaged?”
Again, Schofield said: “Yes,” although this time he added: “I’m not sure I can necessarily trace every pound just because so soon afterwards we were in the pandemic.”
Among the ways DWP failed to implement the plan was by abandoning the intention 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 also abandoned plans to measure whether it was reducing the number of “serious cases”, including claimant suicides.
And it scrapped plans to set up a new “Safeguarding Improvement Team”, which would “proactively introduce processes, procedures and policies to protect vulnerable customers and improve the effectiveness of DWP interventions”.
The department also watered-down plans to introduce a Serious Case Panel “with independent membership”.
Under Coffey’s leadership, the new panel was filled instead with senior DWP executives.
One-third of the Treasury funding for the DWP Excellence Plan – £36 million – had been allocated to improving safety, support for “customers with complex needs” and decision-making, and to learning from its mistakes.
An internal DWP document drawn up several months later showed how the department intended to deliver the plan, but responses to freedom of information requests have shown how it was later watered down.
The plan was supposed to cut the number of claimant deaths, improve support for “the most vulnerable” and provide a “more compassionate” culture within the department.
Throughout Coffey’s period in charge of DWP, from September 2019 to September 2022, disabled people continued to die due to her department’s decisions, policies and procedures.
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 DNS has reported how a disabled woman left traumatised by the daily demands of universal credit took her own life last year, just four days after being told she would need to attend a face-to-face meeting with a work coach.
DWP has also been forced to admit 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 he registered in February 2020.
DWP declined to comment on Schofield misleading the committee.
But a spokesperson said in a statement: “We support millions of people every year and our priority is they get the benefits to which they are entitled as soon as possible, and to ensure they receive a supportive and compassionate service.
“In the minority of instances where this doesn’t happen, we have established procedures to investigate and learn lessons through, for instance, the serious case panel and internal process reviews.”
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…