Work and pensions ministers are refusing to release key details of the panel they set up last year to examine deaths linked to the actions of their own department.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was forced to admit in January that it had lied when it said last year that its new serious case panel would be “independent”.
In fact, all the panel members are linked closely to the department.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been trying since January to discover the purpose and scope of the panel, through a freedom of information request.
Now DWP has finally responded to the request, while also responding to questions put to the department by the Commons work and pensions select committee.
But instead of releasing the panel’s terms of reference, DWP has relied on an exemption under section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act, which “protects the private space within which Ministers and their policy advisers can develop policies without the risk of premature disclosure”.
DNS has appealed that decision.
The DWP response did reveal that the serious case panel first met in September 2019 and by January had examined five deaths of benefit claimants.
The work and pensions committee has also published new correspondence with work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey.
It follows last week’s report by DNS which revealed that the committee’s chair, Labour MP Stephen Timms, had failed repeatedly to promise to put questions to DWP about four new concerns that have emerged in recent months over the department’s links with the deaths of claimants.
The correspondence reveals that Timms raised questions about two of the four concerns in a letter to Coffey, but even those questions failed to probe Coffey about proof that the department had repeatedly misled public bodies and coroners over its actions.
Timms also failed to ask Coffey why DWP was refusing to release two reports written by coroners – one in 2015 and one in 2016 – that called on the department to take measures to prevent further deaths of benefit claimants.
Without seeing those two reports, it is impossible to know whether DWP took measures to prevent further deaths.
In her letter to Timms, Coffey also responds to his request for her to release the panel’s terms of reference and the recommendations it makes on each death it examines.
Coffey refused to do so, telling him: “Recommendations that are made at the Panel may relate closely to development of government policy, and as the Panel is relatively new I would like to ensure the operation of the Panel is embedded in the Department before deciding on what may be published.”
In the letter, Coffey also refuses to publish an internal review of how DWP responds to serious cases, including the secret examinations (known as internal process reviews) it carries out into suicides and other serious deaths linked to its actions, because she says this is “internal improvement work”.
“It cannot be its own judge and jury and able to police itself.”
He added: “DR UK strongly condemns the DWP’s refusal not only to publish its review of the suicide of benefit claimants but the makeup and terms of refence of its serious case panel.
“Not only should full DWP documentation be published relating to benefit deaths, but disabled people should be consulted on the make-up and remit of its serious case panel.
“This should be a precursor to an independent inquiry into the social security system that discriminates against disabled people and leads some to their deaths.”
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…