The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has told a court that the death of a disabled woman who took her own life after her benefits were removed was not part of a widespread “systemic” problem, despite years of evidence to the contrary.
A DWP lawyer made the argument in the high court this week, despite nearly a decade of high-profile tragedies, legal cases, campaigns, research, protests, television exposés, parliamentary debates, and reports by MPs and other organisations into deaths linked to the department’s “fitness for work” regime.
The court was being asked to order a second inquest into the death of Jodey Whiting in February 2017.
DWP was told of the court case before Christmas last year, and it was told then of the substantial evidence of the “systemic issue”, but the court heard that it had made no effort to dispute that evidence until this week.
Whiting, a mother-of-nine and grandmother from Stockton-on-Tees, took her own life in February 2017, 15 days after her employment and support allowance (ESA) was mistakenly stopped by DWP for missing a work capability assessment.
But the original inquest into her death lasted just 37 minutes and did not investigate DWP’s role in her death.
This week, the high court has been considering a request by Whiting’s mother, Joy Dove, who attended this week’s hearing in London, for a second inquest into her daughter’s death.
David Griffiths, DWP’s barrister, argued this week that Whiting’s death was the result of errors by individuals within DWP, but was not caused by flaws in the benefits system itself.
He said her death should be placed in the “context” of the “scale and scope” of the millions of claimants who DWP deals with.
But Mrs Justice Farbey, one of three high court judges hearing the case, replied: “There are a large number of claimants. It ought to be basic stuff.
“This is largely stuff that the DWP does every day and it should have systems that work to surveil.”
Griffiths said it was clear that, “on this occasion”, the systems that look out for the “well-being of the recipient” were “not adhered to”.
He said: “People make mistakes. I can understand in this arena and with the tragic events that happened that those failures are highlighted, and rightly so.
“The system has failed but it does not fail a great many times.”
He claimed that if there was a systemic problem then “given the quantity the numbers of people who are dealt with one would see far greater problems within the DWP than apparently is the case”.
Another of the judges, Lord Justice Warby, said DWP had provided no evidence about other such cases in which claimants had died.
Griffiths said that if there was a “systemic problem”, it would be “known and public to a great extent” and he assured the judges that DWP would have told the court if there was any indication that this was a systemic problem.
But Jesse Nicholls, representing Joy Dove, said there was a “very substantial amount of material available in the public domain” that indicated there was a “very serious problem” with the way DWP makes its decisions on benefits.
He said deaths had been raised in parliament, some even at prime minister’s questions, while the Commons work and pensions committee had reported on the concerns, and last year the National Audit Office had investigated the information DWP held on the suicides of claimants.
Nicholls said DWP had had six months to provide the evidence to the court “to rebut the suggestion that there is a systemic issue”.
But, he said, “they didn’t”.
Lord Justice Warby added: “They had plenty of opportunity… to put in evidence and they haven’t done it or suggested that they have evidence to put in.”
Nicholls said: “The only inference… that can be drawn is that there is a systemic problem here. It cannot possibly be suggested that that is not the case.”
Griffiths said DWP accepted that it did fail when the individuals concerned did not comply with their duties appropriately.
He said: “It had tragic consequences. That is not to say there are not systems and procedures in place which if followed would have prevented this error.”
But Lord Justice Warby told him: “An inference may be drawn that despite the appearance of working systems, there is a non-working system in the problem of culture and training and arguably so.”
He said the court would reserve its decision to a future date, but he said that he and his two fellow judges knew that it was “an important case” and were “very conscious of the importance of the legal issues, but also the personal issues”.
Picture: The Royal Courts of Justice in London, where the hearing took place
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