The government lied when it said that a new panel set up to examine deaths linked to the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would be “independent”, it has been forced to admit.
The proposal was first announced quietly during last September’s spending round, with a pledge that the “new independent Serious Case Panel” would improve DWP safeguarding.
And last week, after Disability News Service (DNS) exposed the horrific circumstances that led to the death of Errol Graham (see separate stories), DWP said it took his death “very seriously” and had referred it to its “serious case panel, which includes independent members to help scrutinise and establish any lessons”.
But questions about the new panel that were put to DWP by journalist Steve Topple, from The Canary website, produced a different response this week.
He was told instead that the panel “will be chaired by a director and members will be senior civil servants from across the department”.
A DWP spokesperson confirmed yesterday (Wednesday) that all the panel members would be DWP civil servants.
He said: “We are committed to improving our services, especially to the most vulnerable which is why we have set up a serious case panel.
“This is a new process and is currently being established and terms of reference are being formalised.
“The panel will be chaired by a director and members will be senior civil servants from across the department.”
But he refused to explain the discrepancy between this admission that the panel would not be independent, and last week’s statement and the government’s announcement in the spending round document.
He also refused to clarify what he meant by “a director”.
Alison Turner, the partner of Errol Graham’s son, said DWP had been “dishonest” in the way it originally described the new panel.
She said: “It’s certainly not independent. There’s nothing independent about it.
“They are proving to the country that they cannot be open and honest with the public.
“There is not one panel member who doesn’t work for DWP. They are working to scrutinise their own policy. It doesn’t make any sense. You’re just going round and round in a circle.”
She said DWP needed to ensure there were medically-trained panel members and at least one disabled person on the panel with experience of the benefits system and how it can impact claimants.
Paula Peters, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Campaigners have been calling for an independent inquiry into benefit deaths for a long time.
“Now we learn that the DWP panel looking into benefit deaths will be made up of DWP civil servants. This is an outrage. This will amount to a complete whitewash.
“Meanwhile, the DWP still subjects claimants to the horrors of the work capability assessment (WCA). It has not learned lessons and has not put safeguards in place.
“This latest move by the DWP is an insult to every family who mourn their loved ones.
“We will continue the fight for justice, for an independent inquiry into benefit deaths linked to the DWP, and to hold those responsible to account and bring them to justice.”
Graham died after DWP wrongly stopped his out-of-work benefits, leaving him without any income (see separate stories).
Deprived of all financial support, experiencing significant mental distress and unable or unwilling to seek help, he slowly starved to death. He was 57.
He weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found on 20 June 2018 by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him. The only food he had left in his flat were two out-of-date tins of fish.
His benefits had been halted after DWP made two unsuccessful “safeguarding” visits to his home to ask why he had not attended a face-to-face work WCA.
An inquest heard last summer that it was standard DWP procedure to go ahead with stopping the benefits of a claimant marked on the system as vulnerable after two failed safeguarding visits.
DWP civil servants had failed to seek further medical evidence from his GP, just as in many other tragic cases that have sparked repeated calls for an independent inquiry into links between the deaths of claimants and the actions and failings of DWP.
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