The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has repeatedly dismissed concerns raised by coroners who have investigated the deaths of benefit claimants, in a pattern of behaviour that stretches back 14 years, analysis by Disability News Service (DNS) has revealed.
DNS carried out the analysis after the latest response to a coroner by DWP was published by the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, this time following an inquest into the suicide of self-employed window cleaner Kevin Gale.
The coroner had called on work and pensions secretary Mel Stride to act to prevent flaws in the benefits system leading to further suicides, through a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report (see separate story)
But in its response, published this month, DWP told the coroner it disagreed with each of the three key concerns she raised about the way its systems were working, particularly for universal credit claimants.
PFD reports are written by coroners who believe – at the end of an inquest – that individuals or organisations should take action to prevent similar deaths happening in the future.
DWP has now been sent at least seven PFDs since the start of 2010, and in each report the coroner has called for significant action from the department to prevent further deaths.
But the DNS analysis has shown that only twice has the department promised to take anything more than superficial action in response to those PFDs.
And in four of the cases – including that of Kevin Gale – the department refused to accept that it had made any errors in the lead-up to the death of the claimant.
The first report followed the suicide of Stephen Carré in January 2010, which led to a coroner raising concerns about the work capability assessment (WCA), and DWP’s failure to seek medical evidence from a GP or psychiatrist “if someone applying for out-of-work disability benefits had a mental health condition”.
The coroner had concluded that Carré’s decision to take his own life had been triggered by the rejection of his appeal against being found fit for work through the WCA process.
According to a draft response that apparently lay in DWP files for six years before eventually being sent to the coroner, the department said it remained “unclear to us how further medical evidence would have changed the outcome” and insisted that it had “acted responsibly and appropriately”.
Three years later, the suicide of Michael O’Sullivan led to almost identical concerns about the WCA being raised by another coroner.
This time, although DWP accepted that its policy on further medical policy had “regrettably” not been followed, it promised only to “issue a reminder to staff about the relevant guidance”.
The following year, Faiza Ahmed took her own life, after telling her work coach during a jobcentre meeting that she intended to take her own life.
In DWP’s PFD response, the department dismissed both the coroner’s plea to take action and the findings of an inquest jury which had concluded that the jobcentre’s failings had contributed to her death.
DWP even claimed that its processes “were followed both diligently and correctly”.
The only action it promised to take was to issue a reminder to all DWP staff about its existing guidance on claimants with suicidal ideation.
DNS research would reveal years later that at least six secret DWP reviews between 2014 and 2019 into the deaths of claimants would recommend that its staff should be reminded of this guidance.
In 2019, DWP did take action in response to a PFD report, following the death of Alexander Boamah, who had died on 26 January.
A coroner had told the department to take urgent steps to prevent further deaths after Boamah, who had a history of drug misuse, died two months after receiving a huge back-payment in disability benefits.
A senior DWP civil servant told the coroner in response to his PFD report that the department’s policy to pay benefits “as soon as reasonably practicable… may not be the most appropriate form of action in some circumstances”, and promised that the needs of claimants such as Boamah would be “reflected in updated policy and guidance to ensure necessary safeguards are in place”.
The death of Philippa Day, on 16 October 2019, led to the only time in the last 14 years in which DWP has accepted a coroner’s verdict, expressed remorse for its failings, and carried out extensive changes to policy and practice after a PFD report.
The high-profile inquest had led to coroner Gordon Clow highlighting 28 separate “problems” with the administration of the personal independence payment (PIP) system that helped cause the 27-year-old’s death.
He subsequently issued PFD reports to both DWP and Capita, one of the department’s two PIP assessment contractors.
DWP was forced in its response to announce significant reforms across call handler training, how calls to the PIP helpline were recorded, and how civil servants dealt with assessment appointments.
In a rare expression of regret, a DWP director-general told the coroner that the department was “determined to learn from this deeply tragic case and takes the Coroner’s concerns very seriously”.
But the department’s response to the PFD report into the death of Terence Talbot, who died on 9 April 2020, saw DWP again failing to admit any blame, disputing a coroner’s findings and refusing to change its policies, just as it did this month in response to the Kevin Gale PFD report.
It refused to “make any changes”, despite admitting that Talbot had been told by DWP contractor Serco a couple of months before he died that he had to leave hospital to visit a jobcentre, even though he was severely ill with the condition that later killed him.
Health professionals had told the inquest into his death that they had never heard of such a “severely ill inpatient” being told to leave hospital to make a benefit claim in person.
DWP said in its PFD response that it had not been aware of the “severity of Mr Talbot’s illness” at the time of his universal credit application and had not “held any evidence” to suggest that he had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
It said it did not plan to make any changes to its policies or practices in response to the concerns raised by the coroner.
*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
Picture: (From left to right) Stephen Carré, Faiza Ahmed and Philippa Day
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