The government failed for more than three years to keep a record of what actions it took – if any – after carrying out secret reviews into the suicides of benefit claimants, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted to the information commissioner that from February 2012 until September 2015 it kept no records of what happened to recommendations made by internal reviews into cases in which the department’s own actions may have contributed to suicides and other deaths of claimants.
The department failed to record how it responded to the recommendations, even though it started managing the internal “peer reviews” centrally from February 2012.
DWP has now told the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that it accepts that the peer review process lacked “robust governance” during this period.
It means there is no way to confirm if Tory ministers took any action to prevent further deaths connected with the work capability assessment (WCA) – which has been linked by public health experts from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford to hundreds of suicides between 2010 and 2013 – or ignored the recommendations of their own civil servants.
The admission came as a result of a DNS appeal to ICO into DWP’s failure to say whether it implemented 10 recommendations on improving the safety of “vulnerable” disabled people, following a freedom of information request.
DWP claimed last year that it held no information about the actions taken in response to each recommendation.
Each of those 10 recommendations followed the death of a benefit claimant in which there were concerns that DWP failings may have contributed to that death.
And all 10 of the recommendations concerned the deaths of disabled people who had applied for the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance through the WCA process.
A letter from ICO to DNS has now revealed that DWP realised that the peer review process lacked “robust governance” following a series of freedom of information requests submitted by DNS and other campaigners from the autumn of 2014.
The existence of the peer review process had been uncovered by DNS in October 2014, after a DWP spokesman finally admitted that it did carry out secret internal inquiries into the deaths of some benefit claimants.
The 10 recommendations for improvements in national policies and procedures were just some of the suggestions made by civil servants who carried out 49 internal peer reviews into the deaths of claimants between February 2012 and August 2014.
Last May, following a 21-month battle to keep them secret, DWP was forced to publish the 49 heavily-redacted peer reviews.
As a result of the freedom of information requests made by DNS and other campaigners, DWP quietly launched a review of the peer review process in April 2015.
The ICO letter says: “[DWP] explained that it identified changes to improve accountability and responsibility and ensure that recommendations were identified, logged centrally and followed up so that outcomes were tracked, audited and understood.”
As a result, peer reviews were renamed “internal process reviews”, all of which are now tracked centrally with their outcomes recorded.
The information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, told DNS that she “found it unusual that a Central Government Department would dedicate resources to a process of case reviews and recommendations but not require the relevant departments to report back or record the actions taken in response to those recommendations”.
She concluded that, “on the balance of probabilities”, DWP did not hold the information requested by DNS, following a detailed search of the “electronic and manual records” of DWP’s “ESA customer journey team”.
A DWP spokeswoman said that because the inquiry had not yet been completed “it would not be appropriate to comment until it has.
“The department takes the safety and wellbeing of claimants very seriously, and regularly reviews processes and procedures to ensure claimants are supported.”