The number of secret reviews carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) into deaths linked to benefit claims appears to have doubled in the last two years, according to figures the information watchdog has forced the government to release.
The figures relate to the number of internal process reviews (IPRs), investigations conducted by the department into deaths and other serious and complex cases that have been linked to DWP activity.
They show that, from April 2016 to June 2018, DWP panels carried out 50 IPRs, including 33 involving the death of a benefit claimant, or roughly 1.27 death-related IPRs a month.
DWP figures previously obtained by Disability News Service (DNS) show that, between October 2014 and January 2016, there were nine IPRs involving a death, or about 0.6 a month.
These figures are only approximate, because the information about IPRs (previously known as peer reviews) provided by DWP through freedom of information responses does not provide precise dates for when each of them took place.
But they do appear to show a clear and significant increase since early 2016 in the number of IPRs carried out following deaths linked by DWP to its own activity.
They also appear to show a return to the kind of frequency of reviews related to deaths of claimants that were seen between February 2012 and October 2014, when there were 49 such reviews at a rate of about 1.5 a month, at a time when research and repeated personal testimonies showed the coalition’s social security cuts and reforms were causing severe harm and distress to claimants.
The new figures also show that 19 of the deaths in the last two years involved a claimant viewed as “vulnerable”, while six of the IPRs (and four deaths) related to a claimant of the government’s new and much-criticised universal credit (see separate story).
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said ministers “always get up at the despatch box and say they are continually improving the system. This proves that to be false.
“Universal credit should be scrapped, sanctions should be scrapped and the government should call off the dogs, because it is leading to people’s deaths.”
McArdle said that if there was a tragedy involving the deaths of 33 people in a train crash there would be an independent inquiry into what went wrong.
But because these deaths were happening in the social security system, he said, no such public inquiry would take place.
He added: “It just shows a callous disregard for the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.”
A DWP spokeswoman declined to say whether the figures showed that DWP’s treatment of vulnerable and other benefit claimants had not improved significantly since 2012 and had worsened in the last two years.
She also declined to say if DWP was concerned that there had already been four IPRs following the death of a universal credit claimant, even though only a small number of people are currently claiming UC.
But she said in a statement: “The government is committed to supporting the vulnerable and DWP staff are trained to identify and support people in hardship.
“They can apply special easements to people’s claims and signpost to appropriate local support services.
“IPRs do not seek to identify or apportion blame. They are used as a performance improvement tool that help the department to continually improve how it deals with some of the most complex and challenging cases.”
DWP only released the figures to DNS this week after the Information Commissioner’s Office had reminded the department of its duties under the Freedom of Information Act.
The information was requested on 21 June and should have been provided within 20 working days.
But it was only emailed this week, after ICO wrote to DWP following a complaint lodged by DNS about the department’s failure to respond to the request.
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