Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants persuaded a coroner not to write a report that would have called for urgent action to prevent the deaths of benefit claimants, after providing her with misleading information about a safeguarding review.
Evidence obtained by Disability News Service (DNS) through the Freedom of Information Act shows that two senior DWP civil servants presented misleading information to last June’s inquest into the death of Errol Graham.
Graham starved to death two years ago after DWP wrongly stopped his out-of-work disability benefits, leaving him without any income.
He weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him.
But Dr Elizabeth Didcock, the coroner who heard the inquest into his death last summer, was persuaded by DWP’s evidence that she did not need to write a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report.
Such a report would have demanded urgent improvements to the department’s safeguarding procedures.
She said she did not need to write the report because she had been told that DWP was already carrying out a review of its safeguarding policy, which she was told would be completed in the autumn.
DNS has now listened to oral and written evidence given by two senior DWP civil servants, including David Carew, the department’s chief psychologist, who told the inquest he was leading the safeguarding review.
Both he and his colleague make clear that the review was set to be completed in the autumn, while Carew also told the coroner that there would be a report on its findings (“We are looking to report by the autumn on this.”).
He had earlier said, in a written statement made on 3 June 2019: “The timescale for completion of the review is Autumn 2019.”
When asked by the coroner which external organisations DWP might be talking to for the review, Carew said that “representative organisations, who act on behalf and for individuals, are really, really important, including advocacy organisations, welfare rights organisations… including also GPs and others”.
In the written statement, he said the review had “engaged a significant range of internal and external stakeholders”.
Carew also told the coroner: “I leave this building today very clear in my own mind that the work we are involved in in the current time has a degree of urgency about it.”
But DNS submitted questions about the safeguarding review to DWP last month, and its answers show that the evidence provided by Carew and his colleague was significantly misleading.
Each of the freedom of information (FoI) answers throws serious doubt on the evidence provided by DWP to the inquest.
Asked when the review was due to end, DWP says in the FoI response: “We do not hold this information. This work is ongoing and will continue as a key part of continuous improvement and learning.”
Asked if the review would be published, DWP says: “We do not hold this information. There is no formal commission to publish a review.”
And asked which organisations and individuals the review team met with as part of the review, DWP says: “There is no formal review team.
“DWP Officials conduct regular case research, consider coroners reports and engage through local networks in DWP operations.”
Asked for any documents relating to the review, including the final report, DWP says: “As set out… above we do not hold this information. There is not a final report.”
Dr Didcock has previously told DNS that she could “request an update on the DWP Safeguarding Policy Review if this has not been completed, and I shall do so”.
She told DNS this morning that she had “nothing additional to add to her previous reply”.
But Alison Turner, the disabled partner of Errol Graham’s son, who has led the fight to secure justice, said she believed DWP deliberately tried to mislead the coroner about the safeguarding review so she would not write a PFD report.
She said: “Inquests are about how you learn lessons. DWP showed they were not there with any intention to learn lessons.
“I don’t know how long they think they are going to keep getting away with it.
“They think they can keep sweeping it under the carpet.
“I think the carpet is getting a bit full of crap now and it is starting to fall outside.”
Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, a member of the Commons work and pensions select committee, who has led parliamentary calls for an inquiry into deaths linked to DWP, said: “It beggars belief that the government thinks it is acceptable to promise a safeguarding review to the coroner investigating the death of Errol Graham and then simply change tack without warning.
“We simply cannot trust this government to carry out any meaningful ‘continuous improvement and learning’ following the recent National Audit Office report which revealed DWP doesn’t even know whether any of its suggested improvements have been implemented and accepts not all its staff are aware of their own guidance following the internal process reviews.
“The government must commission a full, independent inquiry into the deaths of social security claimants and the associated actions and decisions of the DWP.
“No more excuses; people are dying, enough is enough.”
DWP refused to answer questions about the misleading evidence given to the inquest.
But a DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “This is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family.
“We take this very seriously and the key issues raised in this case have been referred to the Serious Case Panel.”
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