Ministers have admitted releasing yet more inaccurate information about their secret inquiries into the deaths of benefit claimants.
Last year, the Department for Work and Pensions stated, in a Freedom of Information Act (FoI) response, that it did not hold any records on deaths linked to, or partially caused by, the withdrawal or non-payment of disability benefits.
Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, later told Disability News Service (DNS) that he did not “accept the premise” that DWP should collect and analyse reports of such deaths.
But the Liberal Democrat DWP minister Steve Webb appeared to contradict Harper when he said the following week that when the department becomes aware of worrying cases “they do get looked at”.
A DWP spokesman finally told DNS last October that it does carry out reviews into individual cases, where it is “appropriate”.
It then admitted, in another FoI response, that it had in fact carried out 60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.
But in a response last week to a question from the veteran Labour MP Michael Meacher, Esther McVey, the Conservative employment minister, said the department had in fact carried out 49 “peer reviews relating to the death of a claimant”.
She refused to say how many of these reviews involved the sanctioning of claimants, and in how many cases DWP’s actions were found to be “inappropriate or incorrect”.
When the figure of 49 reviews was questioned by DNS, a DWP spokesman said: “The response to Mr Meacher was correct.
“The figure of 60 refers to the total number of peer reviews carried out – but only 49 of these related to cases where the claimant had died.
“We would like to take this opportunity to apologise for this mistake in the FoI response.”
The spokesman said McVey had refused to answer Meacher’s other questions because the inquiries were “internal reviews”.
He said: “There are no plans to publish the peer reviews or further details about them – the department considers that it would be highly inappropriate to publish what are private documents containing extremely personal information.”
Only two weeks ago, DWP was forced to clarify another McVey response to a question from a Labour MP.
She had caused alarm and confusion after she told her Labour shadow Stephen Timms that it was not government policy to warn health or social services when vulnerable service-users were sanctioned.
But such procedures do exist, and are known as “core visit” procedures, and a DWP spokesman was forced to explain that McVey had “interpreted” Timms’ question to mean whether the government took any measures after a sanction was imposed, rather than before.
Coalition ministers have consistently denied any connection between their social security reforms and cuts, and the deaths of benefit claimants.
But there have been numerous reports of disabled people whose deaths have been linked by relatives and friends to the employment and support allowance (ESA) claim process, the refusal or removal of ESA and other benefits, and the DWP’s use of sanctions to temporarily remove benefits from a claimant.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said the government’s refusal to publish details of the reviews should be challenged on public interest grounds.
He said: “This is the opposite of open government and the DWP’s response is worthy of a tin-pot dictatorship.
“Were the findings of these investigations to reach the light of day the whole stinking edifice of Iain Duncan Smith’s so-called ‘welfare reforms’ would be brought crashing down as the deadly, tragic consequences of his policies would be laid bare in plain sight.
“The defence of confidentiality is preposterous. These cases could be anonymised in the same way that the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland’s report on the death of Ms DE was.
“We are consulting with our lawyers to see whether this can be challenged and we will be writing to the chair of the Commons work and pensions committee demanding a full inquiry into this secrecy.
“We demand disclosure – the British people have a right to know what is being done in their name and we will not stop fighting until we get to the truth.”
Ian Jones, of the WOWcampaign, said: “Again the DWP publishes figures relating to the deaths of benefit claimants which it then seeks to undermine and re-interpret so as to minimise the outrage generated.”
He added: “I believe the excess deaths of disabled and non-disabled people in this age of austerity is a highly controversial issue which is inextricably linked to the alleged current UN investigation into grave and systemic abuses of the human rights of disabled people in the UK.
“I suggest that in order to respect the real human beings behind these statistics and uncover the complete truth, a Royal Commission should be set up to investigate the issue of all excess deaths in the age of Tory austerity.”
DNS has also spoken this week to the MP whose campaigning led to the core visit procedures being introduced by the government in the early 2000s.
Mike Wood, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire, had taken up the case of his constituent Timothy Finn, who had a mental health condition and starved to death in 2000.
His benefits had been stopped automatically after he failed to respond to letters that had been posted to him by the Benefits Agency, asking him to comply with certain conditions.
Finn died in his sleeping-bag with just 9p in his pocket, and a scribbled note nearby suggesting that he believed the authorities had killed him. A coroner in the inquest found that neglect by what was then the Benefits Agency had contributed to his death.
Wood visited the then Labour minister for disabled people, Maria Eagle, and persuaded her to introduce the new rules, which DWP civil servants are now supposed to follow when a “vulnerable” person is about to have their benefits sanctioned, particularly if they have learning difficulties, mental health conditions, or “health conditions which affect cognition”.
Wood said: “It couldn’t have been more tragic. At the time, we felt we had made some improvements to the system on the back of that tragedy.
“The Timothy Finn case showed the absolute necessity for the authorities to identify people with specific issues and to make appropriate allowance for that.
“If that is not happening, then of course we all ought to be concerned.”
He added: “If you are left at a day or two days’ notice with no money and often no indication when your money might restart, how on earth would you cope with that?
“These are largely not people with enormous support networks. That’s why we started a food bank in Batley 18 months ago.
“A fair percentage of people presenting themselves come with a referral chit from the same [government]official that has just sanctioned them… It’s obscene.”
He added: “It looks as if the lesson needs to be relearned, certainly since we have this new regime with vast numbers of people being sanctioned.
“The lesson is even more urgent and pertinent than I think it was 15 years ago.”
DNS reported last November that the use of sanctions to punish disabled ESA claimants had risen by 370 per cent in just 18 months, from 1,091 in December 2012 to 5,132 in June 2014.
About nine in 10 sanctions were for a failure to participate in work-related activity, with the others imposed for a failure to attend a mandatory interview.
30 January 2015