The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has refused to explain why it appears to have launched more than 50 secret reviews into the deaths of benefit claimants in just the first six months of this year.
This would be a huge increase on recent years, which have previously seen an average of less than 30 completed reviews a year.
Figures released by the department in response to a parliamentary question showed it had started 97 internal process reviews (IPRs) into the deaths of claimants in the two years since July 2019.
But figures previously released to Disability News Service (DNS) by DWP have shown that it completed 40 IPRs in the 2019 calendar year and another 20 in 2020, as well as just 17 in 2016, 29 in 2017 and 18 in 2018.
Although these new figures do not allow for exact calculations, they do suggest that DWP probably started about 20 IPRs in the second half of 2019, 20 across the whole of 2020 and may have begun more than 50 so far in 2021.
But when asked why the number of IPRs appeared to have rocketed in the first six months of 2021, a DWP spokesperson refused to offer any explanation.
He also declined to comment on whether the increase could have been due to a change of policy on IPRs, an increase in the number of deaths of claimants linked to DWP’s actions, or DWP taking new steps to find out about more suicides and other deaths of claimants so that it could investigate them through IPRs.
The new figures were released by Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, to Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Reynolds.
Reynolds told DNS: “The sharp increase in internal process reviews is deeply troubling. Behind every number is a family who deserve answers.
“The government’s cruel assessment processes are having devastating consequences and questions need to be answered.
“How many reviews does it take before lessons are learnt and disabled people are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve?”
Last December, DNS reported how new analysis suggested that DWP was failing to investigate the suicides of hundreds of benefit claimants every year, despite the vital lessons it could learn from such inquiries.
Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, who has led parliamentary efforts to hold DWP to account on deaths linked to its actions, told work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey this week that she believed “we are really only scratching the surface of understanding both the scale and the causes” of such deaths.
She called on Coffey again to explain why she was refusing to set up an independent inquiry into deaths linked to DWP’s actions.
Coffey told the Commons work and pensions committee this week (watch from 10.47am onwards) that inquests provided an independent process to investigate such deaths.
And when pushed again by Abrahams over the need for an inquiry, she said: I don’t feel the need to undertake that.”
Asked if she thought “everything is fine in terms of the process”, Coffey said: “We are motivated as a department to help improve the quality of life.
“It’s a key feature of our departmental plan.”
But when Coffey said DWP was continuing to make improvements, for example to the benefit assessment process, Abrahams highlighted the DWP barrister who told last month’s high court hearing into the call for a second inquest into the death of Jodey Whiting that her suicide had not been part of a “systemic” DWP problem.
Abrahams said: “Your lawyer said in the high court two weeks ago: ‘There are no issues.’ Do you not see the absolute contradiction?”
Coffey replied: “No, I don’t. I suggest that we want to continue to make continuous improvements, like any process.”
Her response comes despite DWP saying on its own website that it has set up a serious case panel, which first met in September 2019, to make recommendations “to address systemic issues identified from serious cases to prevent similar cases occurring in the future”.
Only last week, DNS reported how a young disabled man took his own life in June 2019, just weeks after DWP slashed his benefits, despite being warned he was severely depressed, malnourished, could not face leaving his flat, and had made several suicide attempts.
Coffey’s claim of “continuous improvements” comes despite nearly a decade of high-profile tragedies, legal cases, campaigns, research, protests, television exposés, parliamentary debates, and reports by MPs and other organisations into deaths linked to the department’s “fitness for work” regime.
Despite not commenting on the new IPR figures, DWP did state this week that it had taken steps to improve how it learned from serious cases, including increasing the size of its investigation team, improving what it described as the “visibility” of IPRs, and setting up the serious case panel.
It said that IPRs were intended to examine whether processes were followed correctly and how it could learn from the deaths of claimants.
*The following organisations are among those that could be able to offer support if you have been affected by the issues raised in this article: Samaritans, Papyrus, Mind, SOS Silence of Suicide and Rethink
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