The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has secretly abandoned work on a £106 million plan that was supposed to prevent suicides and other deaths of benefit claimants, learn from its mistakes, and deliver reform “for the most vulnerable in society”.
Former work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd secured the funding for the “DWP Excellence Plan” from the Treasury just days before she was replaced by Therese Coffey in September 2019.
One-third of the money – £36 million – was allocated to improving safety, support for “customers with complex needs” and decision-making, and to learning from its mistakes.
In all, £66 million was allocated to “support vulnerable people”.
Disability News Service (DNS) has previously reported how Coffey’s DWP watered down key parts of the plan that were focused on preventing suicides and learning lessons from claimant deaths.
But a response to a new freedom of information (FoI) request from DNS shows the department has abandoned all work on the DWP Excellence Plan, blaming the pandemic for the decision.
It confirms that, in the nearly three years since February 2020, DWP has not produced a single report on progress made in delivering the plan.
It has also failed to adopt any “critical success factors” (CSFs) that would have been used to measure progress, and it has failed to report to the Treasury on how the £66 million on supporting “vulnerable people” was spent in a way that maximised value for money, a “specific caveat” that was applied to the use of the funding.
Asked in the FoI request to provide this information and copies of these reports, DWP said: “We confirm that we do not hold the information you have requested.”
It added: “It is worth highlighting, the reason we do not hold the information you are requesting, is because the Department’s activities and processes during this period were heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
DNS previously reported how an internal DWP document, dated February 2020 – obtained by a campaigner under the Freedom of Information Act – appeared to show how the department’s service delivery group had intended to deliver the plan.
One of the aims was to measure DWP’s success in reducing the number of “serious cases”, including suicides of benefit claimants.
It also laid out a series of potential CSFs, which would have determined whether the department had achieved its goal to make its services less harmful and less likely to lead to claimant suicides and other deaths.
The latest FoI response confirms that none of that has taken place in the last three years.
Throughout Coffey’s period in charge of DWP, from September 2019 to September 2022, disabled people continued to die due to her department’s decisions, policies and procedures.
Among them was Sophia Yuferev, a talented artist who lived with significant mental distress and had been living on a sandwich a day for the last few months of her life, after both her employment and support allowance and her personal independence payment had been stopped by Coffey’s department. She is believed to have died in October 2021.
Another was Philip Pakree, who died on Boxing Day 2020, and whose partner had warned that he was too ill to undergo an upcoming benefit assessment that had left him “distraught” and “devastated”.
DWP has also recently been forced to admit repeatedly breaching the Equality Act after a disabled man was left needing hospital treatment three times for suicidal thoughts caused by months of failures by DWP advisers and jobcentres, following a new claim for universal credit claim he registered in February 2020.
And last month, DNS reported how a disabled woman left traumatised by the daily demands of universal credit took her own life earlier this year, just four days after being told she would need to attend a face-to-face meeting with a work coach.
A DWP spokesperson refused to comment on the FoI response this week or to say if the Excellence Plan had been abandoned and how the department justified that decision, other than referring to a statement given seven weeks ago for the report of Coffey watering down the plan.
In October, a DWP spokesperson had said: “We support millions of people each year and we are constantly reviewing our processes to deliver a supportive and compassionate service.
“COVID-19 impacted how we intended to implement the DWP Excellence Plan as we had to address the immediate needs of customers impacted by the pandemic.
“Since February 2020 we have delivered improvements to our service, including broadening the range of circumstances where an [internal process review] is carried out and expanding the IPR team.
“We also continue to learn from serious cases, working to ensure our most vulnerable customers are receiving the best possible service.”
The department also highlighted the £3 million a year it was spending to grow its team of advanced customer support senior leaders, who build relationships with organisations that support claimants in the most vulnerable situations; its introduction of a mental health training package for all customer-facing staff; and its work to improve relevant guidance and training for staff on dealing with claimants who declare their intention to self-harm.
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