The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted making no effort to collect – or learn the lessons from – reports of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to the withdrawal or non-payment of disability benefits.
The admission came in a response to a Freedom of Information Act (FoI) request from Disability News Service (DNS).
DNS had asked DWP what records it keeps of deaths that have been found to be “connected to, or linked to, or partially caused by, the withdrawal or non-payment of disability benefits … from the person who has died”.
The request highlighted benefits such as employment and support allowance (ESA), incapacity benefit (IB), disability living allowance and personal independence payment.
It also asked DWP to say how it collects reports of such deaths, and how many there have been for each of the years from 2004 to 2013.
But in its response to the FoI request, DWP’s “freedom of information team” said: “The specific information requested is not held by the Department.”
DWP says it does plan to publish statistics on the number of benefit recipients who have died “in due course”, but these will not give any indication of the cause of death or whether those deaths might have been caused or partly caused by the withdrawal of benefits or a decision not to award benefits to a disabled person.
Statistics on the number of benefit recipients who have died have been the source of intense controversy in recent years.
If and when they are published, they should show whether the number of ESA claimants dying every year has risen or fallen at a time when ministers claim they have been improving the much-criticised work capability assessment, which tests ESA eligibility.
But these figures would not show whether benefit claimants had died because of the harshness of the WCA, or as a result of being found fit for work or placed in the ESA work-related activity group.
There have been numerous reports of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to the ESA process, or the refusal of benefits.
The Scottish-based grassroots campaigning organisation Black Triangle was founded in memory of the writer Paul Reekie, after he killed himself in 2010.
Although Reekie did not leave a suicide note, he laid out two letters on a table near his body, one telling him his housing benefit had been stopped, and the other that his IB had been stopped.
In the following months and years, a string of similar deaths have been reported, including those of Nick Barker, Jacqueline Harris, Ms DE, and Brian McArdle.
One disabled activist suggested that DWP’s failure to make any attempt to keep track of such deaths could amount to criminal negligence.
Rick Burgess, co-founder of the new campaigning organisation New Approach, which is dedicated to scrapping the WCA and developing a replacement, said he was “extremely sceptical” about DWP claims that it does not collect such information.
He said: “If however they have ceased to collect that data, it is wilful negligence and perhaps criminal.”
Ian Jones, one of the founders of the WOWcampaign, said he and colleagues were concerned that the coalition’s welfare reforms were “having a significant and negative effect on the mental health and well-being of people this [government] has a duty of care to protect”.
He said: “Whilst our government insists that it is unable to update and clarify statistics [on deaths] already released in 2012, the information commissioner concluded earlier in 2014 that the requested information was held and that it could be located and released without exceeding the relatively modest resource limits of an FoI request.
“In view of numerous coroners’ reports and newspaper articles where the effects of the ConDems’ ideological welfare reforms are identified as a causal factor in some premature deaths, WOWcampaign believes any compassionate government would seek to address the suspicions held by many and properly investigate and report back on its findings.
“The fact this government refuses to do so, in our opinion, speaks volumes.”
So far, DWP has refused to comment on its FoI response.
25 September 2014