MPs have called on the government to set up a new independent body – modelled on the police complaints watchdog – to investigate the deaths of benefit claimants.
The recommendation for a new organisation similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission came in a report on the government’s benefits sanctions regime by the Commons work and pensions select committee.
The committee said that such a body should conduct reviews “at the request of relatives, or automatically where no living relative remains, in all instances where an individual on an out-of-work working age benefit dies whilst in receipt of that benefit”.
Such an organisation would operate under the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, and should ensure “that the role of all publicly-funded agencies involved in the provision of services or benefits to the individual is scrutinised”, and that recommendations for improvements are produced.
The committee’s call follows a series of Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) requests by Disability News Service (DNS) that eventually revealed how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has carried out 49 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.
The report also calls on DWP to reveal how many of these reviews concerned benefit recipients who were subject to a sanction – stopping payment of a benefit for a period because a claimant has not met a particular condition – at the time of their death.
Of the 49 “peer reviews”, 33 contained recommendations for improvements in procedures at either national or local level within DWP.
And 40 of the 49 internal reviews were carried out following the suicide or apparent suicide of a benefit claimant, information that came from a response to another DNS FoIA request.
But despite a string of FoIA requests from DNS, and others, DWP has refused to publish the reviews, or their summaries, recommendations or conclusions, even with personal details removed.
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the committee, said: “We have asked DWP to confirm the number of internal peer reviews in which the claimant was subject to a benefit sanction at the time of death, and the result of these reviews in terms of changes to DWP policy.
“It is important that all agencies involved in the provision of public services are scrutinised, to ensure that lessons are learned after members of the public are let down by the system, particularly where the failures of a public body may have contributed to a death.
“We believe that a new independent body should be established to fulfil this role.”
The committee also called for an independent inquiry, in the next parliament, to investigate whether benefit sanctions were being applied “appropriately, fairly and proportionately” by Jobcentre Plus offices.
Dame Anne said: “Benefit sanctions are controversial because they withhold subsistence-level benefits from people who may have little or no other income.”
She said the committee believed that policy on conditions for claiming benefits must be “based on clear evidence of what works in terms of encouraging people to take up the support which is available to help them get back into work”, and must then be applied “fairly and proportionately”.
She said: “The system must also be capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities. And it should avoid causing severe financial hardship.
“The system as currently applied does not always achieve this.”
The committee said there was a need for changes to the system of discretionary hardship payments, to ensure that it was “more effective” in reducing the risk of sanctions causing “severe financial hardship”.
It also called on DWP to develop its guidance that helps Jobcentre Plus staff with identifying “vulnerable claimants” and “tailoring the conditions applied to them accordingly”.
And it called on DWP to review the use of sanctioning of claimants of the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA) within the Work Programme, and to “continue to develop alternative approaches to employment support” for ESA claimants.
Meanwhile, a survey by the Benefits and Work website found that nearly 90 per cent of those who responded (88.1 per cent) believe the benefits system is “inhuman” in the way it treats claimants, while a similar number (88.7 per cent) said their health had suffered because of difficulties with the benefits system.
An even larger proportion (97.3 per cent) said they believed that the deaths of some claimants had been mainly due to benefits sanctions, benefits cuts, or unfair decision-making.
The site received more than 1,000 responses to its survey in just two days, after a link to the questions was included in a Benefits and Work newsletter.