The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been failing to track recommendations made by its own secret reviews into benefit-related deaths, it has told the spending watchdog, three years after claiming it had corrected the same failings.
The “appalling” revelation that DWP appears to have misled both the National Audit Office (NAO) and – three years ago – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will add to mounting evidence of the need for an independent inquiry into deaths caused by the department over the last decade.
NAO is now examining a letter provided by Disability News Service (DNS) and has asked for permission to share it with parliament and government departments.
Meanwhile, DWP has refused to provide assurances that its failure to track progress on implementing recommendations from its secret internal reviews has not caused any further deaths.
It is just the latest evidence to emerge of DWP refusing to act to close loopholes in its safeguarding systems that have caused the deaths of numerous benefit claimants, including flaws linked closely to the work capability assessment (WCA) process.
The evidence emerged in a briefing document published by NAO, which revealed that DWP has carried out secret internal process reviews (IPRs) into 69 suicides of benefit claimants since April 2014.
And in the seven-and-half months between 1 April 2019 and 13 November 2019, it carried out 21 IPRs into suicides linked to the benefit system, compared with 13 in the whole of 2018-19.
DWP told NAO that it had “recently begun to more actively monitor intelligence about deaths by suicide from the media”.
But the NAO report said it was “highly unlikely that the 69 cases the Department has investigated represents the number of cases it could have investigated in the past six years”.
Previous research by DNS and others suggests DWP carried out about 15 internal reviews a year into suicides of benefit claimants from 2012 to 2014.
DWP also admitted to NAO that not all its staff were aware of guidance telling them when they need to carry out an IPR, while its own internal guidance on IPRs was inaccurate.
IPRs should be completed when DWP becomes aware of any suicide of a benefit claimant, “regardless of whether there are allegations of Department activity contributing to the claimant’s suicide”, the department told NAO.
But its guidance says an IPR is mandatory only where there are allegations that DWP activity may have contributed to the suicide of a claimant.
DWP told NAO that the recommendations made in its IPR reports were “the main mechanism through which the Department would share any lessons from individual cases and seek to make improvement”.
But it admitted that there was “no tracking or monitoring of the status of these recommendations” and so it “does not know whether the suggested improvements are implemented”.
This confession came nearly three years after DWP admitted to the information commissioner that from February 2012 to September 2015 it kept no records of what happened to recommendations made by its internal reviews into the deaths of claimants.
It told the information commissioner in 2017 that the review process lacked “robust governance” during this period but claimed that it had “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”.
The information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, told DNS in 2017 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”.
Now – nearly three years on – DWP has made almost the same confession to the National Audit Office, telling the watchdog that “there is no tracking or monitoring of the status of these recommendations” and, as a result, “the Department does not know whether the suggested improvements are implemented”.
NAO this week said it had not been aware of the existence of the ICO letter – which was sent to DNS during an investigation into DWP’s failure to provide information on whether it had implemented improvements made by its reviews – and had been “interested” to see it when it was forwarded to the watchdog by DNS.
The team that put together this week’s briefing is now examining the letter, while NAO has secured DNS’s permission to share it with parliament and government departments.
Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s former shadow work and pensions secretary and a member of the work and pensions select committee, who has led parliamentary calls for an inquiry and has also seen the ICO letter, told DNS: “Every time I’ve asked for an inquiry I’ve been told by a government minister that they have carried out their own internal investigations and improved their service.
“The NAO report blows that assertion out of the water and even goes on to say the department does not even know whether any of its suggested improvements have been implemented and accepts not all its staff are aware of their own internal process guidance.
“Given the department admitted via [a freedom of information] request that it failed to keep a track of what actions it took after internal reviews and has done nothing to fix this in the three years since that admission is appalling.
“Once again, I demand that the government activates a full, independent inquiry into the deaths of social security claimants linked to the actions, and decisions, of the DWP.
“No more excuses and prevarication; people are dying, enough is enough.”
NAO produced the briefing document after being asked by former MP Frank Field during the last parliament to inspect DWP’s apparent failure to collect data on how many benefit claimants were taking their own lives.
The scandal of DWP’s failure to learn from the deaths of benefit claimants dates back to shortly before the May 2010 general election, which brought the Conservative-led coalition to power, when a coroner told the department that it needed to make urgent improvements to the WCA system, or other claimants would die.
It failed to make those changes, and claimants continued to take their own lives as a result of the flawed WCA throughout the next decade.
A DWP spokesperson refused this week to answer any questions from DNS about the ICO letter and its responsibility for the deaths of benefit claimants.
She refused to explain why DWP misled both the information commissioner and NAO; refused to say which senior civil servants and ministers would be taking responsibility for the department’s actions, and if anyone would be resigning; and refused to say if the department could be sure that the failure to implement and track recommendations from its IPRs had not caused any further deaths.
She also refused to say if it was now time for an independent inquiry into links between DWP and the deaths of claimant; and if there should be a criminal investigation into alleged misconduct in public office by ministers and senior civil servants, as demanded by grassroots groups of disabled people and relatives of claimants who have died.
But she said in a statement: “Suicide is a devastating and complex issue. We take these matters and the NAO’s findings extremely seriously.
“We are urgently working to drive forward improvements and learn the lessons from these tragic cases.
“We will now carefully consider the NAO’s findings as part of our ongoing work.”
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