The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is refusing to publish nine secret reviews into the deaths of benefit claimants, despite finally admitting that seven of them relate to people who took their own lives.
DWP only released the information after Disability News Service (DNS) lodged a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
DWP has also admitted that five of the nine reviews – which all relate to deaths that took place in the 16 months from August 2014 to January 2016 – contain recommendations for improvements in the department’s policies or procedures.
Ministers are refusing to publish the nine reviews, even though civil servants prepared them for release on 23 May – more than three months ago – under freedom of information laws.
The information commissioner is now investigating DWP’s refusal to release the nine documents.
When they are eventually released, they will be heavily redacted and similar in format to 49 reviews that covered the period from February 2012 to August 2014 and were released by DWP in May, following a 21-month battle with DNS to keep them secret.
The request to see the latest nine peer reviews was submitted by DNS on 15 April.
In an email last month, DWP claimed it did not understand the DNS freedom of information request, even though one of its civil servants had admitted two months previously that the peer reviews had been prepared for release.
Many of the 49 reviews released in May concerned the deaths of disabled people who had applied for employment and support allowance (ESA), through the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) process.
And many of the reviews – 40 of which refer to benefit claimants who took their own lives – involved long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB) who had been reassessed for ESA.
Although crucial parts of the peer reviews were missing because they were heavily redacted, DNS found 10 key recommendations for DWP to take national action to improve the way it treated benefit claimants who were seen as “vulnerable”.
DNS has also submitted a complaint to ICO about DWP’s refusal to say if those 10 recommendations were ever carried out.
John McArdle, co-founder of the Scottish-based grassroots group Black Triangle, said: “We anticipate that many of these deaths will have been as a result of the WCA and we await the release of the full details.”
Last November, government-funded research concluded that the programme to reassess people claiming IB using the WCA could have caused 590 suicides in just three years.
The nine peer reviews – now renamed internal process reviews – are likely to be scrutinised closely by disabled activists for further evidence of failings in how DWP has dealt with benefit claimants labelled as “vulnerable”, many of whom are likely to be mental health service-users or have learning difficulties.
They could provide crucial evidence for calls – led by Black Triangle, and backed by many other disabled activists – for former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to face a criminal investigation, following his refusal to address a coroner’s concerns about the safety of the WCA in 2010.
They want to hold Duncan Smith and his former employment minister Chris Grayling to account for their failure to improve the safety of the WCA, despite being warned that it risked causing further deaths.
Black Triangle has provided a dossier of evidence to Police Scotland, which McArdle believes shows that Duncan Smith and Grayling should be investigated for the Scottish criminal offence of wilful neglect of duty by a public official.
Last month, the parents of David Barr, from Glenrothes, Fife, backed these calls for Duncan Smith and Grayling to be prosecuted over these failings, which they believe led to the death of their son, who took his own life in August 2013.
Documents examined by DNS show that the circumstances of David Barr’s death mirrored those of Stephen Carré in January 2010.
Duncan Smith and Grayling failed to take steps to improve the WCA after May 2010 despite being warned by coroner Tom Osborne – in what is known as a prevention of future deaths report – that the test’s flaws risked causing further deaths of people with mental health conditions.
McArdle said the latest delays in releasing the secret reviews showed DWP were “serial law breakers and enemies of the truth”.
He pointed to: the department’s failure to respond to Osborne’s prevention of future deaths report; DWP having to be taken to tribunal to release the 49 peer reviews; and its continuing refusal to fulfil its promise to the courts to carry out a pilot project to test new ways to make the WCA safer for people with mental health conditions.
He said the failings identified by the court had “led to the tragic deaths of so many disabled people and devastated the lives of tens of thousands more who are chronically ill”.
McArdle said: “They are now dragging their feet on releasing these further peer reviews.”
He said DWP was also still refusing to reveal whether any of the recommendations made at national and local level in the 49 reviews had been implemented.
He said: “All we know is that outrages and tragedies are continuing to occur, unabated.
“Taken all together, these instances of illegal behaviour and wilful concealment of wrongdoing by the department over these past six years exhibit utter contempt for the rule of law and the fundamental human rights of disabled people – up to and including the very right to life itself.
“It can, and must be remedied urgently before further lives are lost. It is a matter of life and death and the longer our case against them is drawn out the more lives will be lost and the more complicit British society as a whole becomes.”
A DWP spokeswoman said in a statement to DNS: “The department is aware of your request.
“However, as you currently have a complaint with the information commissioner we are unable to comment further.”