The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been criticised in parliament for its “serious” failure to provide crucial information to a statutory safeguarding review about a disabled man who starved to death after his benefits were wrongly removed.
Nottingham City Safeguarding Adults Board confirmed last month that DWP failed to share key documents from 2014 with the independent consultant who carried out the review into the 2018 death of Errol Graham.
His benefits had been stopped in October 2017 after he failed to attend a face-to-face work capability assessment.
Tuesday’s adjournment debate was secured by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams after Disability News Service (DNS) drew her attention to DWP’s actions.
Abrahams said the information in the 2014 assessment report “expressed in the clearest language that he would not be fit to work indefinitely”.
And she pointed out that the 2014 documents were also not shared with the inquest into Errol’s death.
Abrahams told MPs that Errol’s daughter-in-law, Alison Burton, had said that DWP’s behaviour raised “serious questions” about its honesty and transparency.
The MP also highlighted another DNS investigation which has previously revealed how key documents linking DWP to the deaths of multiple disabled claimants were not shared with the department’s own independent reviewers of the work capability assessment, Professor Malcolm Harrington and Dr Paul Litchfield.
She said: “Errol’s story is an example of the department’s failure to safeguard claimants, and subsequently to avoid any form of scrutiny or accountability.
“Any government who were confident in their policies would be open to scrutiny, but there is a pattern of avoidance by the department, including the refusal to provide various reports and data to the work and pensions committee, on which I sit.”
She added: “The seven Nolan principles of public life apply to us all – ministers and MPs.
“Two of them are openness and transparency, but unfortunately, those principles are absent from the minister’s department.”
Abrahams asked again for ministers to order an inquiry into “the scale and causes of the deaths of social security claimants”.
Nottingham South MP Lilian Greenwood, who was Errol Graham’s MP, criticised DWP for failing to share the information about his “shocking and disturbing” death.
She told MPs: “The purpose of a safeguarding adults review is not to hold an individual or organisation to account, but it is about agencies learning lessons to improve future practice.
“If tragedies such as Errol’s death are to be prevented in future, which I am sure is what we all want, surely all agencies must share the relevant information with the board.”
She read out a letter Errol had written before his death – but never sent – in which he explained to the person who was going to assess his fitness for work the depth of his mental distress and the poverty he was enduring.
Tom Pursglove, the minister for disabled people, claimed DWP had “co-operated fully and openly” with the safeguarding board on “this very sad case” and said that he was “incredibly moved and concerned” by what had happened to Errol Graham.
He claimed it was “simply not true” that “officials hid information from the board”, but he offered no explanation for why DWP shared information from earlier assessments with the safeguarding review but not documents from Errol’s most recent work capability assessment in 2014, just three years before DWP removed his benefits.
The 2014 documents showed he was experiencing significant mental distress, including active suicidal thoughts.
Those documents would have shown that Errol had explained that he could not cope with “unexpected changes” which left him feeling “under threat and upset”, and that he felt “anxiety and panic in new situations”, while a doctor who assessed him on behalf of DWP described his “active suicidal thoughts”, “very low mood” and how he was “hearing voices all the time”.
Pursglove told MPs that DWP had “no reason” to hide this information from the safeguarding review because it had shared other – earlier – documents, and that “the board had the information that it requested”.
DNS has previously shown how the information DWP shared with the safeguarding review failed to show the level of distress Errol was experiencing, which would have been clear from the 2014 reports.
Pursglove attempted to blame the safeguarding review for not being clearer in its request for information.
He also said it was “not our intention to set up an independent inquiry, but there are steps we have taken as a department to improve matters in relation to safeguarding”.
He highlighted the appointment of more than 30 advanced customer support senior leaders “to support colleagues when dealing with customers who may be vulnerable or at risk”; setting up a DWP “serious case panel”; adding an extra safeguarding stage when “vulnerable” claimants like Errol Graham fail to engage with DWP; and improving mental health training for staff.
Pursglove also confirmed that DWP had accepted the safeguarding review’s recommendation that it should work with the national network of safeguarding adults boards to produce a “protocol” that would ensure they alert each other to relevant cases.
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