The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to the suicide of a disabled woman with a long history of mental distress, an independent investigation has found.
The Independent Case Examiner (ICE) concluded that DWP was guilty of “multiple” and “significant” failings in handling the case of mother-of-nine Jodey Whiting (pictured), who had her out-of-work disability benefits stopped for missing a work capability assessment (WCA), and took her own life just 15 days later.
The report is the latest evidence of the institutional failure of DWP to guarantee the safety of disabled people – and particularly those with a history of mental distress – within the “fitness for work” system.
DWP has accepted the report’s findings.
Whiting’s mother, Joy Dove, has now called for DWP and those staff responsible to face a criminal investigation for the failures that led to the death of her much-loved daughter, who she described as a “lovely, caring, thoughtful” person who adored her children and grandchildren.
She said her daughter had died a “martyr” and that campaigners were right to say that the Tory government had created a “hostile environment for disabled people”.
The 42-year-old had been taking 23 tablets a day at the time she died, for conditions including scoliosis and bipolar disorder, and had been taking morphine twice daily.
She had been a long-time claimant of incapacity benefit, and then employment and support allowance (ESA), and DWP and its assessors had previously noted the severity of her mental health condition, and the risk that would be posed if she was found fit for work.
When she was approached again for another assessment in the autumn of 2016, she told DWP about her suicidal thoughts and requested a home assessment as she said she rarely left the house.
But even though a “flag” was placed on DWP’s ESA system to alert staff that she was a “vulnerable” claimant because of her mental health condition, DWP failed to refer her request for a home visit to Maximus, the company that carries out WCAs on its behalf.
Maximus also failed to act on her request, even though it had been included in the ESA50 form she had filled out.
But this was just the first of five serious failings by DWP in the weeks leading up to her death, the ICE report has concluded.
Whiting, from Stockton, Teesside, failed to open a letter asking her to attend a face-to-face assessment on 16 January 2017, and so missed the WCA.
She had been ill with pneumonia and receiving hospital treatment for a cyst on the brain and had been taking painkillers which affected her ability to cope with correspondence.
DWP’s safeguarding procedures say the department should contact vulnerable claimants by telephone if they miss their assessment, but the ICE investigation found no evidence that this had been done.
It should also consider a safeguarding visit to the claimant’s home, but again there was no evidence this was done, the ICE report says.
After receiving a letter asking her to explain her failure to attend the WCA, Whiting told DWP that she had not received the letter about the assessment and explained about her pneumonia and hospital treatment.
She said her GP wanted the department to write to the surgery so the doctor could provide detailed information about her health.
But DWP failed to write to the GP, its fourth failure to protect Jodey Whiting from serious harm.
On 6 February, a DWP decision-maker wrote to Whiting to say that she had provided no proof of the pneumonia and failing to receive the letter about the assessment and so her ESA would be stopped.
But the decision-maker appears to have failed to consider her mental health history in making that decision, says ICE.
This was DWP’s fifth separate failure to follow its own safeguarding guidance.
Whiting phoned DWP to protest the decision to stop her ESA and then an adviser from Citizen’s Advice wrote to DWP on her behalf on 15 February to explain the situation and request another assessment, and explained that she had been given a foodbank voucher.
DWP claims it never received this letter.
Six days later, on 21 February 2017 – two years ago today – Jodey Whiting took her own life. Her body was discovered by her mother.
The report by the Independent Case Examiner, Joanna Wallace, says: “In total there have been five opportunities for DWP processes to prompt particular consideration of Jodey’s mental health status and give careful consideration to her case because of it – none of those were taken.”
She concludes that there were “multiple failings in the handling of Jodey’s case prior to her suicide”.
Wallace’s report, addressed to Jodey Whiting’s mother, adds: “I find it extremely disappointing that in investigating the complaints you have raised, we have seen that DWP have either failed to investigate, or failed to acknowledge, the extent of events in Jodey’s case.
“As such the facts of the case have not been made clear to you and no appropriate apology has been made.”
DWP has agreed to the ICE recommendation that it should pay £10,000 to the family as a “consolatory” payment for its “repeated failures to follow their safeguarding procedures” and other failings that took place after her death (see separate story).
Joy Dove, who has campaigned for justice – including through her Justice for Jodey petition – said her daughter had “died a martyr”.
She said: “I hope she has not died in vain.”
She said the way DWP had treated her daughter showed that campaigners have been right to accuse the Tory government of creating a “hostile environment for disabled people”.
She said she cried when she read the ICE report because she believes it vindicates her belief that DWP was responsible for her daughter’s death.
Now she wants to see DWP itself and the staff responsible for her daughter’s death face a criminal investigation.
She said: “What they have done is criminal. They had all the information in front of them. Five times they failed.
“I would like to see them charged, all of them who had anything to do with Jodey’s case.
“I’m not frightened of them. They can do what they want.”
She said she was grateful to ICE for its report exposing DWP’s serious failings, and now wants to see changes by DWP to prevent another death like her daughter’s.
She said her own health had suffered because of what happened to her daughter – she herself is an ESA claimant – and the struggle to secure justice for her, and that she had fallen into debt because of her efforts to provide a fitting funeral for her daughter in 2017.
Despite those financial struggles, part of her sees the £10,000 as “blood money” and wants it to go to charity.
Jodey’s nine children are now aged between 18 and 27. She had six grandchildren at the time she died. Another four have been born since she died.
She said: “They have been denied their grandmother. She loved her grandchildren and she never met four of them.”
She thanked Citizen’s Advice in Stockton, whose staff have worked on the case for two years.
She also thanked all those who have supported the family over the last two years, including strangers who have contacted her through social media and shared their own experiences of other cases in which DWP’s policies and procedures have led to the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.
A DWP spokesperson refused to say if the department accepted that its own safeguarding failings had helped cause Jodey Whiting’s death.
And she refused to say if the five separate failings in just one case showed it was time for DWP to accept that it had a serious institutional problem around the safeguarding of vulnerable benefit claimants.
But she said in a statement: “We apologise to Ms Whiting’s family for the failings in how we handled her case and the distress this caused them.
“Our thoughts are with them at this difficult time and we are providing compensation.
“We fully accept the Independent Case Examiner’s findings and are reviewing our procedures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
A Maximus spokesperson said: “We offer our sincere sympathies to the family of Ms Whiting at this difficult time.
“[Maximus] will examine the ICE report in detail to understand what lessons can be learnt.
“We always review the capability for work questionnaire and any accompanying medical evidence to establish if a face-to-face assessment is required.
“This includes consideration of whether an individual is able to attend an assessment centre by public transport or taxi.”