The actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are having a significant “debilitating” impact on service-users, particularly those trying to claim universal credit, senior mental health figures have told an inquest.
One witness said service-users at a mental health trust are often “living on pennies” and “can’t afford to feed themselves properly” because their benefit claims have been rejected, while their mental health is “often made worse by the DWP’s inefficiency”.
Another witness from the trust told the inquest into the death of Kevin Gale – who took his own life on 4 March 2022 – that the “debilitating” impact of DWP’s actions on people with mental distress was a “national issue”.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported last month that coroner Kirsty Gomersal had sent a prevention of future deaths (PFD) letter to work and pensions secretary Mel Stride, warning him that he needed to act to prevent flaws in the universal credit system leading to further deaths.
She had been told how Gale, a self-employed window-cleaner who was only able to work sporadically in the months before his death, took his own life after becoming overwhelmed by the universal credit application process.
But DNS has now secured a recording of the inquest from the coroner’s office, and it details the depth of concerns within Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust about the failing service provided by DWP.
It is just the latest evidence of serious safeguarding flaws at the heart of the department, particularly around universal credit and the department’s over-stretched workforce.
This week, DNS is also reporting how a “devastating” dossier of evidence compiled by the PCS union – based on evidence from its DWP members – shows how the department is a failing organisation in a “state of crisis” which faces a “near collapse” of its benefits systems.
Only last month, DNS reported how conditions at the Oxford jobcentre became so stressful that 15 members of a team of 23 work coaches quit within a year, with at least eight experiencing a significant collapse in their mental health due to a sudden, huge increase in workload in late 2021.
Also last month, DNS reported on a “deeply troubling” government report that ministers kept hidden for four years and which revealed significant flaws at the heart of the universal credit system, and how its design was “inadequate for vulnerable groups”.
The coroner who heard the inquest into Gale’s death decided to send a PFD to Stride after hearing evidence from several witnesses from Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.
They each described how Gale’s long-term anxiety had been repeatedly triggered by the problems he faced applying for universal credit.
The inquest heard that he had a history of anxiety and depression stretching back several decades, as well as obsessive compulsive disorder, and had been sectioned for six weeks in November 2021.
The inquest heard how Gale – who was well-liked and was supported by family and friends – had repeatedly told mental health professionals from the trust about the anxiety being caused by his universal credit claim, in the weeks leading up to his suicide.
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.
One witness from the trust said, in a written statement: “Kevin’s anxiety had been unfortunately exacerbated by the process of having to apply for universal credit. He couldn’t cope with the paperwork.”
She said 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”.
A mental health duty worker who spoke to Gale on the phone the day before he died said his main concern had been universal credit “and his worry that he was being fraudulent in trying to claim benefits”.
Dr Judith Whiteley, an associate specialist psychiatrist with the trust, said Gale had told her during a face-to-face appointment on 2 March – two days before his death – that he had been due to receive a call from DWP the following day so he could “at last secure some social welfare benefits”.
She said he had been advised several times to contact Citizen’s Advice or The Lighthouse community mental health hub, while she had waited with him “in a very long queue”, trying to get through to DWP on the phone, but eventually had to abandon the attempt because his appointment had ended.
The coroner was only able to hear from the trust about Gale’s universal credit claim – and not DWP – because the concerns were raised for the first time during the inquest and so no-one from the department had been asked to attend the hearing.
As Dr Whiteley ended her evidence, the coroner asked her if there was anything she would like to add.
She told her: “The DWP. The hurdles that our service-users have to go through to get any financial support.
“Kevin struggled with this for several weeks, they bombarded him with forms to complete.
“They weren’t accessible on the telephone that day… It’s a recurring theme within our service with our patients.”
She added: “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.
“Most of my service-users fortunately have the support of a family member to get that completed, so there’s the paperwork, there’s the endless queues on the telephone to get through, to speak to somebody.”
She said one of her service-users with a “major mental disorder” had been forced to drive across the Pennines to Darlington to be assessed, while she was “regularly hearing about service-users that have been declined benefits”.
Dr Whiteley said service-users’ mental health was “often made worse by the DWP’s inefficiency”.
She said: “It 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.
“Often, they’re living on pennies. They can’t afford to feed themselves properly.”
Her colleague, Anna Williams, the trust’s group nurse director for north Cumbria, told the inquest that the concerns raised by Dr Whiteley were “increasingly” a “common factor” and were “a national issue”.
She said the trust’s crisis teams had been forced to start their own foodbanks three years ago.
And she said she had asked for a DWP representative to join meetings of the director of public health’s north Cumbria suicide prevention group.
Asked by the coroner if a PFD report sent to DWP would be useful in helping prevent suicides, she said: “I think it’s really important that we address this issue. It’s just so debilitating for people.”
DWP continues to claim that it provides a supportive and compassionate service, and a strong financial safety net, while funding support for universal credit applications through its Help to Claim service, provided by Citizens Advice and funded by DWP.
It says it has appointed more than 30 advanced customer support senior leaders (ACSSLs) across Britain since 2020, and that their role is to develop relationships with other organisations that provide support to claimants in local communities.
And it says that the ACSSL who covers Cumbria has established links with the Cumbria and Lancashire suicide prevention groups.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Our condolences are with Mr Gale’s family.
“We will review the coroner’s report and respond in due course.”
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