A high court judge has asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) why it did not take the “common sense” step of phoning a disabled woman with a long history of mental distress – who later took her own life – before it removed her benefits.
Mrs Justice Farbey, one of three high court judges who will decide whether there will be a second inquest into the death of Jodey Whiting in February 2017, suggested that the court might be able to “infer” from the evidence it had received that there was a “systemic” failure by DWP.
Whiting (pictured), a mother-of-nine and grandmother from Stockton-on-Tees, took her own life in February 2017, 15 days after she had her employment and support allowance (ESA) mistakenly stopped for missing a face-to-face 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.
In December 2016, Whiting was sent a letter asking her to attend a face-to-face work capability assessment the following month.
But she failed to open the letter 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.
According to DWP’s safeguarding procedures, the department should have contacted “vulnerable” claimants like Whiting by telephone if they missed their assessment, but a report by the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) later found no evidence that this had been done.
DWP should also have considered a safeguarding visit to her home, but again there was no evidence that this was done.
The following month, on 6 February, DWP wrote to Whiting to tell her it was terminating her benefits, and she also received letters from the council telling her that her council tax benefit and housing benefit would be stopped.
She took her own life 15 days later.
The decision to remove her ESA was overturned the following month, after her mother had asked DWP to reconsider its decision.
Mrs Justice Farbey told DWP’s barrister David Griffiths this week that Whiting had been on out-of-work disability benefits since 2006, and had been in the ESA support group since 2012, after she was transferred across from the old incapacity benefit system.
She asked Griffiths: “Why on earth in these circumstances didn’t someone pick up the phone?”
She said it was “surely common sense” for DWP to call Whiting about her missed assessment if she had been claiming benefits for so long, and she asked him: “Why shouldn’t this court infer that this is a systems failure?”
The Independent Case Examiner concluded in 2019 that DWP was guilty of “multiple” and “significant” failings in handling Whiting’s case, and that it had failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading to her suicide.
Griffiths said the judge’s criticisms were “well founded” and that ICE identified “a lot of failures” around the “sad time of Miss Whiting’s death”.
But he told the court: “One has to put it in the context of the scale and scope of what DWP does.”
He added: “The system has failed but it does not fail a great many times.”
Griffiths said DWP accepted that individuals had failed to 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.”
Lord Justice Warby 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”.
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