The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has completely dismissed a coroner’s call for action to prevent flaws in its benefits systems leading to further deaths, following the suicide of a disabled man who became overwhelmed by the application process.
Kirsty Gomersal sent a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report to work and pensions secretary Mel Stride in November, following an inquest she held into the death of Kevin Gale, from Penrith, Cumbria.
But in its response, DWP has now told the coroner that it disagrees with each of the three key concerns she raised about the way its systems are working, particularly for universal credit claimants.
The inquest had heard how DWP’s actions were having a significant “debilitating” impact on service-users, particularly those trying to claim universal credit.
One witness said that mental health service-users at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust were often “living on pennies” and “can’t afford to feed themselves properly” because their benefit claims had been rejected, while their mental health was “often made worse by the DWP’s inefficiency”.
Another witness from the trust said the “debilitating” impact of DWP’s actions on people with mental distress was a “national issue”.
Gomersal subsequently told Stride in her PFD report: “The evidence revealed matters giving rise to concern.
“In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.”
She pointed to the “number of and length” of the forms that have to be completed, which “can be overwhelming for someone with a mental health illness”, and which are “perpetuated if the applicant cannot get help to complete the paperwork”, while she also highlighted the “long telephone queues to speak to a DWP advisor”.
She added: “Having to travel long distances for appointments can be detrimental for those with a mental health illness.”
She had been told by a trust psychiatrist that one service-user with a “major mental disorder” had been forced to travel across the Pennines to Darlington to be assessed for their benefits.
DWP did not give evidence at the inquest, because the concerns were not raised until the hearing, so the coroner was unable to make a “causal link” between Gale’s death and his anxiety about his universal credit application.
But in its response to the PFD report, DWP has now dismissed all the coroner’s concerns.
The department said the universal credit IT system only prompts claimants to provide “necessary information”, with its system “far more streamlined” than “traditional paper-based forms”.
It said help was available by phone, in the jobcentre or through home visits, or from other “partner” organisations, including the government-funded Help to Claim support provided by Citizen’s Advice, as well as local public bodies and community organisations.
Gale was unable to apply for universal credit online, but DWP said its “telephone claim script for gathering information is designed so claimants are asked only questions relevant to their circumstances” although it accepted that his self-employed status “would have made it more complicated than for someone with no work at all”.
It added: “Mr Gale expressed confusion over how his payment amounts had been calculated on several occasions.
“On each occasion either his Work Coach, Case Manager or a UC Telephony Agent were supportive in explaining how his benefit had been calculated.”
DWP said it “continually seeks to improve the content” of its written communications.
It also claimed that universal credit enquiry lines “have rarely had any problems with high call waiting times” and most such calls “are answered within minutes”, although “unplanned events such as technical issues or labour market instabilities can increase demand with a knock-on effect on wait times”.
The response appeared to dispute evidence given in the inquest, with DWP claiming that the average time taken to answer a call in the week of Gale’s death was two minutes and 26 seconds.
DWP also told the coroner in its response that most universal credit claimants communicate with work coaches via the online journal, and so “only need visit their Jobcentre for a limited range of reasons such as identity verification interviews”.
And it said Gale had “informed the department that he suffered with mental health problems” but “did not declare any health condition that affected his ability to work and declared that he was self-employed” and so “was not asked to attend a Work Capability Assessment”.
It concluded: “Upon reviewing the full circumstances of this case, we are satisfied that appropriate support is already available to allow claimants with complex needs to access benefits.
“I trust that my response helps assure you of the measures DWP has in place, and on which it is committed to building, to meet your concerns.”
Although the coroner’s PFD report was addressed to the secretary of state, the response was written by a member of the department’s customer experience directorate.
It also did not appear to take into account that the coroner’s concerns were not based solely on Gale’s experience but on the evidence from witnesses from the mental health trust who raised concerns about many other service-users.
In her PFD report, the coroner had told Stride: “During their evidence, the Associate Specialist Psychiatrist expressed concerns about the experience of mental health service users with DWP. These concerns were not just specific to Mr Gale.
“Evidence was also given by the Trust’s Group Nurse Director (a Registered Mental Health Nurse) who considered that the issues identified by the Psychiatrist were national.”
Gale, a self-employed window-cleaner – who was well-liked and supported by family and friends – had repeatedly told mental health professionals from the trust of the anxiety being caused by his universal credit claim, in the weeks before his suicide on 4 March 2022.
Although other factors – such as a recent diabetes diagnosis and other physical health problems – were also heightening his anxiety, the inquest heard that universal credit was his key concern.
He had received a text from DWP the day before he died, asking him to contact the department, which “appeared to have escalated his anxiety”, according to a trust witness.
A mental health duty worker who spoke to Gale on the phone the day before he died said his key concern had been universal credit “and his worry that he was being fraudulent in trying to claim benefits”.
Dr Judith Whiteley, a psychiatrist from the trust, told the inquest that she had waited with Gale “in a very long queue” in an attempt to get through to DWP, but eventually had to abandon the phone call when his appointment ended.
She told the coroner: “The amount of paperwork they subject our patients to, and you can imagine if you’re severely depressed, if you can’t concentrate, if your memory is poor, being asked to complete a 20-page document is essentially impossible.”
She said DWP’s inefficiency “perpetuates their illnesses, their depressions continue, their anxieties continue, and they don’t respond to medication as well as they should, the ability to function from day-to-day”.
*The following organisations are among those that could be able to offer support if you have been affected by the issues raised in this article: Samaritans, Papyrus, Mind, SOS Silence of Suicide and Rethink
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