Evidence from a senior DWP civil servant has helped to expose multiple flaws at the heart of the personal independence payment (PIP) benefit system that appear to have played a key role in the suicide of a young disabled mother.
She was giving evidence at the inquest into the death of 27-year-old Philippa Day, from Nottingham.
The inquest ended this week, with the coroner’s judgement due to be announced on Wednesday (27 January).
It heard last week how Philippa left an apparent suicide note blaming the way the government had dealt with her benefits, and had previously told her sister that she believed DWP was trying to kill her.
Her unconscious body was found by her sister and father on 8 August 2019, just days after she had been told she would need to attend an assessment centre – run by outsourcing giant Capita – for a face-to-face appointment relating to her new PIP claim.
Philippa experienced months of distress due to DWP’s decisions to remove her disability benefits in January 2019 when it appears to have lost her claim form, and then to confirm that decision, as well as the length of time it took to reinstate her benefits, and deal with a new claim.
The inquest heard how multiple errors were made by those working in the PIP system, suggesting that serious flaws in DWP’s PIP processes played a part in Philippa’s death.
Both DWP and Capita had been repeatedly told of her history of significant mental distress, self-harming and mental health inpatient admissions, that she was agoraphobic and had emotionally unstable personality disorder, and that she would be unable to cope with attending the assessment centre.
Alice Hopkins, DWP’s head of regional PIP service centres, was told on Friday (15 January) by Gordon Clow, assistant coroner for Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, that the risk of Philippa Day taking her own life seemed to have “increased markedly” due to flaws in the PIP system.
He pointed to “nine different mistakes” made by the department in dealing with her case “where the system might have let down Philippa in her claim”, and which were highlighted in a secret DWP report – known as an internal process review (IPR) – into her death (see separate story).
But Hopkins told him: “They are not all errors as such but areas we want to improve on.”
The coroner told Hopkins that the errors in the system “caused somebody fully entitled to benefits to lose it” when “she should have been receiving them all the way along”, leading to “significant distress… problems in the family relationship, her sense of self, her role as a mother”.
He told Hopkins: “The only thing that got in the way of her receiving the benefits she was entitled to was the processing of her claim.”
The coroner also told Hopkins that there had appeared to be a “mindset or culture of scepticism” within DWP when PIP claimants told the department it had lost their forms, after a decision-maker “seemed to come to the conclusion that Philippa’s form had not been sent in” when she claimed it had been lost by DWP after she posted it in January 2019.
Hopkins said: “I have not seen scepticism, certainly from the people that work in my department.”
Hopkins admitted that DWP was not aware that Philippa had been taken to hospital on 8 August 2019, despite Capita having been informed that she was in a coma, and DWP making a new decision on her PIP claim while she was still in that coma.
She said: “There is no part of the agreement [between DWP and Capita] that requires Capita to tell DWP that the customer has a hospitalisation.”
Philippa died on 16 October 2019, after more than two months in a coma, and more than a month after DWP had decided to allow her PIP claim, and awarded her enhanced awards for both the daily living and mobility components.
DWP’s own timeline of the case, released by the coroner to Disability News Service alongside the IPR, shows DWP sent a letter to Philippa as late as 11 March 2020, despite income support payments being returned by her bank with a note saying “account holder deceased” on 13 January 2020.
The department did not finally update its systems with her date of death until 9 June 2020.
Barrister Sam Jacobs, from Doughty Street chambers, representing the Day family, asked Hopkins why DWP procedures in place at the time meant it was left to the community psychiatric nurse (CPN) supporting Philippa at the time – Tessa Rand – to have to “forage” through 98 pages of DWP guidance to find out how to challenge DWP’s decision to remove her benefits after her initial claim form was lost.
Jacobs asked Hopkins to accept that she would not expect a CPN to “have the time to find their way through the guidance that is available”.
Hopkins said: “I accept that… it isn’t their job to do that but certainly it’s our experience that they have been very helpful.”
The coroner had earlier told Hopkins that Rand had made and received 11 calls to and from DWP in a short period of time to try to persuade DWP to reinstate Philippa’s PIP.
He said that the time of CPNs was “precious” and that it was “not realistic” to expect a CPN to know that level of detail about the PIP system or have the time to acquire it.
But Hopkins said: “If somebody is saying they are going to help them through the process we assume they are going to help them through this process.”
The coroner added: “I am not sure you would expect every CPN to be in a position to be as dedicated and persistent and to find the time to follow up with that level of assertiveness and time.”
Hopkins admitted there had been “bits we could have done better” and that changes made since by DWP would have ensured that Philippa and those supporting her were kept better informed.
Jacobs also asked about the evidence given by a former DWP telephone agent, who had taken a call on 11 June 2019 from Philippa, who described how she was “literally starving and cold”, “genuinely can’t survive like this for much longer”, was “in so much debt”, “literally cannot leave the house”, and needed “a reason to live”.
The inquest had heard earlier that the call handler had offered no reassurance or acknowledgement of her distress, and had made no attempt to “escalate” any concerns about her wellbeing to senior colleagues.
Hopkins told the inquest: “The view of our IPR and ourselves is we should have done more at that time to escalate that call and be more understanding of the comments being expressed by Philippa on that day.”
Jacobs asked Hopkins whether she was satisfied with the training offered to DWP’s telephone agents, when the only response to Philippa revealing that she had been without her disability benefits for six months and was starving and cold was: “Are you ringing on your own behalf? What’s your number?”
Hopkins said that six hours of mental health training that was being rolled out to every “operational” member of DWP staff would help address this.
She said: “The mental health training is going to improve that; I hope certainly around the manner in terms of how people respond to people coming through.
“One of the aspects is using positive language and empathy.”
Hopkins was also asked by the coroner to explain why a recording of a key conversation between a DWP telephone agent and a CPN calling on behalf of Philippa Day had been deleted.
She told the inquest that data protection rules meant DWP had to delete recordings that were “no longer relevant” after 14 months.
She said DWP had not been aware of the inquest until July 2020 – nine months after Philippa died – and by then the call had been deleted.
Hopkins told the inquest that DWP was “striving to be a learning organisation” and to develop “holistic decision making” and to “do more to gather data and information” and to understand “vulnerabilities”, and she claimed that “improvements are constantly coming through”.
She said 31 senior safeguarding leads had been appointed by DWP and that staff were now “empowered to be more curious and inquisitive”.
She said guidance had been changed so that somebody in Philippa’s situation would now have a marker placed on their file much earlier to say they needed “additional support” with their claim, even if they had somebody to support them.
Now the failure to receive the completed PIP claim form would not result in her payments being halted without further checks, she said.
And she said DWP staff had now received training “to understand their role more clearly” in when to ensure claimants receive additional support with their claim.
Hopkins said the number of claimants with an additional support marker on their file had risen from around nine per cent of PIP claimants at the time to about one third now.
*The following organisations are among those that could be able to offer support if you have been affected by the issues raised in this article: Samaritans, Papyrus, Mind, SOS Silence of Suicide and Rethink
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