The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) waited 18 months before it took action to ensure the safety of a benefit claimant it had assessed as “vulnerable” because of significant mental health problems.
Mike Owen told DWP that he was a survivor of child sexual exploitation and was experiencing significant mental distress because of that trauma.
He was coping with both the personal independence payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA) systems throughout those 18 months.
But despite being told in May 2017 by DWP’s ministerial correspondence team that he would now be treated as “vulnerable” by both the ESA and PIP departments, that failed to happen.
Owen did not benefit from support from one of DWP’s vulnerable claimant champions (VCCs) for the next 18 months.
During that time, he struggled badly with both the ESA and PIP systems because of DWP’s failure to provide the reasonable adjustments he needed, which caused both his mental and physical health to deteriorate.
Disability News Service (DNS) has seen separate letters to Owen from DWP which show that he should have been treated as “vulnerable” from May 2017, and that “the first recorded instance of your case being referred to [the VCC] was 4 December 2018”.
He was only provided with VCC support in late 2018 after he happened to speak to a couple of senior DWP officers who were both VCCs themselves and told him his PIP claim had been severely mishandled.
Each of them told him he should have been receiving VCC support as early as February 2017, when he first submitted his PIP claim.
Owen is now considering seeking a judicial review of DWP’s safeguarding policies, and he is also hoping that at least four local authorities – in Hull, Leeds, Cardiff and Bootle, each representing areas where a benefit centre dealing with his claims was based – will conduct inquiries into the department’s safeguarding failures.
The Independent Case Examiner is also investigating his complaints about the way DWP has dealt with his PIP and ESA claims.
Owen said he could easily have taken his own life in the 18 months it took DWP to start treating him as a “vulnerable” claimant.
He said: “I now self-harm by punching walls to calm myself down because of everything they have done to me.
“They have institutionally penalised me for their own mistakes. It’s not fair on me, nor is it fair on everybody who has gone through PIP.”
He said the delays he endured showed DWP had failed to learn from the deaths of Jodey Whiting and Stephen Smith, both of whom died following serious safeguarding failures by the department.
Owen said: “They haven’t learned from these deaths. They are putting us all at risk.”
He said this showed the importance of the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition*, which calls on DWP to take urgent action to ensure the safety of all benefit claimants, and which says the department should be seen as “not fit for purpose”.
He said he was also speaking out because of his own professional background as a former safeguarding professional.
He said: “I can’t sit on it with my professional background. I can’t not do anything about it.
“For me to find out I was deemed as vulnerable in May 2017 and for there to be an 18-month delay before they actioned anything, it put my life at risk.”
A DWP spokesperson refused to confirm that Owen was left without specialist support for 18 months, and he refused to explain why that happened.
But he said that Owen “received specialist support during the PIP process and reasonable adjustments have been made to his ongoing ESA claim”, and that he was still receiving ESA, with staff “in regular contact with him”.
He added: “We are committed to safeguarding vulnerable claimants and we keep our guidance under constant review to ensure we provide the highest standard of protection.”
Owen said in response: “The evidence is very clear about what happened. They really need to start being honest.
“They know this is serious and they need to work out exactly how this happened and why it happened.”
Owen pointed to repeated tragedies and research which have highlighted DWP’s safeguarding failures.
Earlier this year, his research showed DWP and its private sector contractors had been failing for years to alert local authorities to concerns about benefit claimants whose safety was at risk.
He found that only 25 of 80 council social services departments across England, Scotland and Wales said they had received a single safeguarding alert from DWP over the last three years.
In January, DNS revealed how ministers had failed to include DWP in a new cross-government plan aimed at reducing suicides, despite years of evidence linking such deaths with the disability benefits system and social security reforms.
The following month, Owen told DNS how he had been informed by a senior Maximus executive that the company did not have a safeguarding policy, nearly four years after taking on the WCA contract.
The same month, the Independent Case Examiner found that DWP had failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to the suicide of Jodey Whiting, a disabled woman with a long history of mental distress who had had her out-of-work disability benefits stopped for missing a WCA, and who took her own life just 15 days later.
In April came the death of Stephen Smith, months after he was found fit for work by DWP despite being in hospital with such severe health problems that his weight had fallen to six stone. DWP had ignored two separate doctors’ letters about Smith’s serious health problems.
And in June, the information commissioner ruled that DWP had broken the law by destroying a damaging internal report about its failure to ensure the safety of benefit claimants in jobcentres.
*Sign the Jodey Whiting petition here. If you sign the petition, please note you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee
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