The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted that 10 of the 49 benefit claimants whose deaths were subject to secret reviews had had their payments sanctioned.
DWP told Bellows that 10 of the claimants covered by the 49 “peer reviewed cases” had had their benefits sanctioned at some stage.
The figures have caused alarm, as they suggest that claimants who have been sanctioned are far more likely to suffer a death linked to their benefit claim than those who have not been sanctioned.
This week, a press release put out by the new employment minister, Priti Patel, stated that sanctions were only used “as a last resort in a small percentage of cases”, with less than six per cent of JSA claimants and one per cent of employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants being sanctioned.
But this compares with more than 20 per cent of benefit-related deaths reviewed internally by DWP that involve someone who had been sanctioned.
DWP has so far been unable to say how many times each claimant who died had been sanctioned because – it claimed – the information was “not available in the peer review reports”.
Its response also does not reveal whether the claimants were subject to a sanction – stopping an out-of-work benefit for a period of time because a claimant has not met a particular condition imposed by DWP – at the time they died.
The freedom of information response is the latest to have come from the department following a series of requests by Disability News Service (DNS) that eventually revealed how DWP has carried out at least 49 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.
In March, the Commons work and pensions select committee called on DWP, in its report on benefit sanctions, to reveal how many of the 49 reviews concerned benefit recipients who had been subject to a sanction at the time of their death.
Of the 49 peer reviews, it is now known that 33 contained recommendations for improvements in procedures at either national or local level within DWP, and that 40 of the 49 were carried out following the suicide or apparent suicide of a benefit claimant.
But despite requests from DNS, and others, DWP has refused to publish the reviews, or their summaries, recommendations or conclusions, even with personal details removed.
The information commissioner is currently investigating this refusal.
Dame Anne Begg, the Labour MP who lost her seat at last week’s general election, but chaired the work and pensions committee throughout the last parliament, said she was concerned by the proportion of reviews that involved someone who had been sanctioned.
She said: “That is a high proportion. There may not be a direct correlation [between sanctions and deaths] but there must be some correlation there that [shows that for someone] who has been sanctioned either in the past or at the time of death [it] has had a negative impact on their lives in some way.
“I think we need to know more about it. People that vulnerable should not be getting sanctioned. People who are ill shouldn’t be getting sanctioned. There is something not getting picked up.”
Bellows said: “Because DWP is refusing to publish these peer reviews, the only thing we can [assume] from their response is that one in five [of the] benefit claimants who committed suicide had sanctions recorded at some point in their claim.
“Although suicides cannot be attributed to a single cause or factor, it is right to question the role played by sanctions in these suicides, as they are under direct control of the secretary of state, who has the power to stop them immediately if they are proved to be a significant factor in claimants’ deaths.
“It is also right to want to know whether sanctions have contributed to the deaths of other benefit claimants who did not commit suicide, as was the case with David Clapson [who died in 2013, two weeks after his benefits were sanctioned], and to pursue relentlessly this line of questioning with DWP to get to the truth.”
DWP was approached for a comment but its press office is currently not responding to questions from DNS.
The freedom of information response came as new DWP figures showed that the number of decisions to sanction claimants of employment and support allowance – the out-of-work disability benefit – rose by nearly a quarter in just a month.
The number of ESA sanctions increased from 2,626 in November 2014 to 3,274 in December 2014.
The figure is also an increase of 28 per cent on December 2013 (2,562) and a rise of more than 200 per cent since December 2012 (1,091 sanctions).
But the number of jobseeker’s allowance sanctions fell from November 2014 (37,219) to December 2014 (34,958), a drop of more than 20,000 on December 2013 (55,732).
Other DWP figures released this week showed that the total number of claimants of ESA and old-style incapacity benefit (IB) rose again in November 2014, to 2.52 million, and is now less than 100,000 fewer than when the coalition took power after the last election in 2010 (2.61 million).
And early estimates of the figures for March 2015 suggest that the numbers claiming ESA and IB has continued to climb, to 2.535 million.