A Labour MP has said she is “shocked” that a senior civil servant will not be examining whether there is evidence that the government was to blame over any of 49 benefit-related deaths.
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams spoke out after Disability News Service (DNS) told her that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) does not intend to produce the information for her.
Last week, Abrahams asked Chris Hayes, DWP’s labour market strategy director, whether any of 49 peer reviews of benefit-related deaths had found the department’s actions to have been “inappropriate or incorrect”.
He told her – during an evidence session held by the Commons work and pensions select committee – that he would “have to look at the peer reviews in detail” in order to answer her question.
But a DWP press officer subsequently told DNS that Hayes was not intending to produce that information and did not “commit to looking at the detail for Abrahams”.
When told of the DWP response, Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, said: “I was shocked to hear that Chris Hayes, the labour market strategy director at the DWP, will not be looking at the peer reviews in detail, despite indicating that he would in his evidence.
“The least claimants and their families can expect is transparency and openness from government ministers and I will be pursuing this with the DWP.”
She added: “There was a very disappointing response at the select committee to all my questions on the department’s peer reviews of claimant deaths and any association with sanctions, both by the minister and her official.”
Abrahams, a member of the work and pensions committee, which is conducting an inquiry into benefit sanctions, told employment minister Esther McVey last week that there was “an increasing… and a worrying number of deaths that are being associated with sanctions”.
Her questions came in the wake of a series of Freedom of Information Act requests by DNS, which have revealed that DWP has carried out 60 – a figure later corrected by civil servants to 49 – internal “peer” reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.
DWP’s refusal to answer Abrahams’ question is just the latest in a series of attempts by ministers and officials to avoid releasing key information about the peer reviews.
Bob Ellard, from Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “The more the DWP act like they have something to hide, the more urgent it becomes that the work and pensions committee discover the truth about claimant deaths.
“Otherwise more lives will be lost if the DWP is allowed to continue to intentionally punish, harass and impoverish innocent people in the way that they’ve been allowed to do for too long.”
Ian Jones, co-founder of the WOWcampaign, said he believed Hayes had been “slapped down” by ministers “for giving the impression that this government was concerned by the allegations that ConDem welfare reforms have had a causal effect on the deaths of disabled people”.
He said: “Many believe that these excess deaths were a foreseeable outcome of the savage cuts to social security made by [work and pensions secretary] Iain Duncan Smith, in part to offset the tax avoided as a result of [the actions of] Lord Green’s HSBC.”
Jones also said he was concerned that no member of Labour’s frontbench team, nor Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, had commented on the issue.
Among the information DWP has refused to produce is the name of the minister or official who ordered the department to start carrying out the peer reviews in February 2012, and why, and how many of the 49 reviews concerned suicides or attempted suicides.
It has so far refused to release any of the reviews, even with personal details redacted, and will not even publish their conclusions or recommendations.
This week, DWP told DNS that it needed yet more time to answer the request for the summaries, conclusions and recommendations.
In December, DWP claimed that it needed more time to consider the request – which was submitted in November – under section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act.
Section 36 is designed to protect information when its disclosure would be likely to prejudice “the maintenance of the convention of the collective responsibility” of ministers; inhibit the “free and frank provision of advice”, or the exchange of views, for the purposes of deliberation; or would be likely to prejudice the “effective conduct of public affairs”.
DWP said the extra time was needed to “make a determination as to the public interest” of releasing the information. It now hopes to produce a response by 11 March.
12 February 2015